Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Year's Best

David Brooks' annual Sidney Awards for outstanding journalism, and Sidney Awards, part II
Annual List of Banished Words from Lake Superior State University
The Kindle is the most "gifted" item ever on Amazon.com. On Christmas Day, there were more Kindle downloads than print book purchases. I was one of the downloaders, choosing Malcolm Gladwell's The Outliers at $9.99.
Roger Ebert's Best Films of 2009
The New Yorker's David Denby: Best Films of 2009
Paste Magazine: 50 Best Films of the Decade
(in the order I saw them)
1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2. Slumdog Millionaire
3. Secrets and Lies
4. Revolutionary Road
5. The Reader
6. Frozen River
7. Milk
8. Frost/Nixon
9. Doubt
10. Julie and Julia

Honorable Mention
11. The Informant!
12. Gran Torino

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pilgrims - Expected in March

Pilgrims by Ken Autrey

Published by: Main Street Rag Publishing Company

ISBN: 978-1-59948-230-9, 40 pages, $10 (cover price)

Ken Autrey’s collection of poems, Pilgrims, is scheduled for release in March 2010 and is available for discount advance order now. The cover price will be $10, but advance orders from the publisher's website are $7 plus shipping ($1 for one book).

The book can be ordered from the COMING SOON page of the MSR Online Bookstore:


For those who would rather not order online, Pilgrims may be ordered by check or credit card directly from the publisher at a lesser discount ($9/book, postage included).

Send checks to:

Main Street Rag, PO BOX 690100, Charlotte, NC 28227-7001.

For credit card orders, call 704-573-2516 (M-F 9am-5pm EST).

Best Books of the Year

Publisher's Weekly Top 10 and Top 100

The New York Times Top 10

Amazon.com - Best So Far

Guardian.uk.com - Best Books of 2009 Chosen by Writers, Journalists, etc.
My List of the Ten Best Books of Fiction/Nonfiction Read (not necesssarily published) in 2009--in no particular order

1. Dalton Conley, Honky
2. Joseph O-Neill, Netherland
3. Fareed Zacharia, The Post-American World
4. Dexter Filkins, The Forever War
5. Toni Morrison, A Mercy
6. Susan Cheever, American Bloomsbury
7. Ethan Canin, America, America
8. Valerie Martin, The Confessions of Edward Day
9. Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic
10. David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames

Sunday, September 06, 2009

One Book I'll Never Forget

Captain William Bligh
This semester I'm teaching two sections of Advanced Writing, a course required for Elementary Education and Middle School Education majors. Because most of the forty students taking the class will before long be teaching reading and writing to young people, I had each of them write a paragraph beginning, "One book I will never forget is ____."

Here's my own paragraph:
One book I'll never forget is MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. This novel, based on true events, tells the story of an actual mutiny against Captain Bligh, on a British ship. It was one of the first long books I read on my own when I was young, the first book that captivated me so much that I didn't want to put it down. Nor did I want it to end. I was elated to discover that the authors, Nordhoff and Hall, had written two additional books that continued the story, so I immediately checked those out of the library and read them with equal enthusiasm.
Their choices, not surprisingly, range from children's books to adolescent novels to popular novels, mostly recent ones. The only work of nonfiction on the list is The Water is Wide. We'll be reading that memoir as a text this semester; the student who chose it sat right down and read it after purchasing it and "couldn't put it down." That bodes well for our use of the book as a text. Most of the students in these classes are women; perhaps that's evident from this sampling of their selections:

The Island of the Blue Dolphin, Scott O'Dell
The Land, Mildred Taylor
The Twilight Series, Stephanie Meyer
The Kissing Hand, Audrey Penn
The Great Santini, Pat Conroy
Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Patterson
Searching for David's Heart, Cherie Bennett
Deception Point
, Dan Brown
The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Ntozake Shange
Flyy Girl, Omar Tyree
The Water is Wide, Pat Conroy
Act Like a Lady; Think Like a Man, Steve Harvey
The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss
Gone with the Wind, Margart Mitchell
Bastard out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison
Someone Like You, Sarah Dessen
My Sister's Keep
er, Jodi Picoult
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
The Wedding, Nicholas Sparks
Nineteen Minutes, Jodi Picoult
Forged by Fire, Sharon Draper
If I Was Your Girl, Toi McKnight
Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls
Pleasure, Eric Jerome Dickey
Blood and Chocolate, Annette Curtis Klause

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Matthew Crawford and Soulcraft

I've been reading Matthew B. Crawford's recently published book, Shop Craft as Soulcraft. Crawford holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and currently is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He also owns and runs Shockoe Moto, a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond. His academic work (and sometimes mindless "white collar" jobs) coupled with his background as an electrician and mechanic have lead him to write this fascinating commentary on the nature of work, craft, and value in our society. Essentially, he argues that we've gone wrong in devaluing skilled manual work in favor of a "knowledge culture" in which young people are encouraged to educate themselves for jobs that will not require them to fix things or dirty their hands. Early in the book, Crawford lays out his intention:
In this book I would like to speak up for an idea that is timeless but finds little accommodation today: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hardheaded: the hardheaded economist will point out the "opportunity costs" of spending one's time making what can be bought, and the hardheaded educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades....
Crawford deplores the fact that cars we drive, the machines that sustain us, and the stuff we use is increasingly impervious to the understanding of a curious, mechanically competent ordinary person. Instead, they surpass our basic understanding and when broken must be repaired only by experts who have expensive equipment--or worse, must simply be replaced. Furthermore, as shop classes become rarer in schools, fewer and fewer people cultivate basic skills that would enable them to fix things. Crawford (like Mike Rose in The Mind at Work), argues that far from being mindless or merely mechanical, jobs requiring manual labor often require considerable intelligence, creativity, and ingenuity. There's a moral dimension to this too, which brings to mind Robert Pirsig's classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

My own ideal day consists of a balance between what I think of as "head work" and "hand work." Having spent much of the morning reading, writing, and puttering at my computer, I look forward to this afternoon when I'll start a new woodworking project, building an easel. Particularly given my amateurish approach to such projects, it will challenge me with problems that I'll have to think hard about solving. I'll cut some pieces badly and drill holes in the wrong places and miscalculate some of my measurements. Still, I look forward to the challenge. For a while, I'll gladly immerse myself in the labor and the uncertainty that comes with it, knowing I'd never be able to make my living doing such work. I'll always be an amateur (from the Latin amator for "lover") in the original sense of one who loves the work even if he's in no way an expert.
New York Times review of Shop Class as Soulcraft
An Appreciation of Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book
On Zora Neale Hurston

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Like a Complete Unknown

Gates and Dylan
In a recent incident that swept across U.S. newspapers, media outlets, and T.V. screens, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his own home when a Cambridge neighbor called 911 and reported that he appeared to be breaking in. The subsequent confrontation, handcuffing, and the fallout with powerful racial overtones wound up involving President Obama, who invited Gates and Officer James Crowley to have a beer at the White House in order to smooth things out.

In a far less contentious but equally baffling incident, Bob Dylan was stopped by a police officer a couple days ago while the singer was wandering in a New Jersey neighborhood prior to a concert with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp. Admittedly, Dylan can look pretty scruffy, but the 22-yr-old cop didn't recognize the rock icon even when he showed her his i.d., so she insisted that he return with her to his hotel, where others readily vouched for him. To his credit, Dylan seemed to take this all pretty calmly. This gives a new ironic meaning to the phrase, "like a complete unknown," from the song that many (including me) consider the greatest rock song ever written:

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Alicia Sully, Filmmaker

Alicia Sully in Ghana
As editor of the quarterly newsletter for Friends of Ghana, The Talking Drum, I regularly interview and then write about former Peace Corps volunteers who have served in Ghana, telling about their background, volunteer experiences, and current whereabouts. I've been doing this for over ten years, and the interactions I've had with these Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, few of whom I've met personally, have invariably been interesting.

Several years ago I interviewed Stephanie Arnold, whose small eastern Ghana town was so pleased with the three-year latrine contruction project she organized that they built a statue to her and had Jerry Rawlings, then Ghana's President, visit to unveil it. I've met and talked with several members of Ghana I, the first Peace Corps group ever, including Bob Klein, whom some refer to as "the original Peace Corps Volunteer" because he was the senior member of that initial group and stays in touch with most of them, helping to organize regular group reunions. Bob has been the moving force behind the Peace Corps Archival Project, housed at the JFK Library in Boston. He has traveled the country conducting and taping interviews with many volunteers, whose recollections have been stored there for posterity.

Normally, I talk with these profile subjects by phone, and our conversations typically stretch on for over an hour, as was the case when I spoke last April with photographer Peter DiCampo, whose profile appeared in the summer issue. My most recent write-up is on Alicia Sully, whom I was unable to talk to by phone because of her travel schedule in Africa. Instead, we communicated in several extensive e-mails. She got a university degree in filmmaking and then went to Ghana as part of a Peace Corps water/sanitation group. Before long, she began making short films about health issues, including Guinea worm infestation and HIV/AIDS. Some of her Peace Corps experiences are documented in her blog.

One of her films, available on YouTube, was produced in close cooperation with citizens of the small northern Ghana town where she was posted. This two-part film in Dagbani, subtitled in English, concerns "kayayo"--young women from poverty-stricken northern Ghana who travel to cities to work and earn money to send home. In some cases, these women become prostitutes and experience the multiple health problems associated with that lifestyle. Peter DiCampo, who has himself done photography and research on this issue, will soon be working alongside Sully, doing a series of presentations in northern Ghanaian towns.

Sully Film, Part I
Sully Film, Part II

Since May, Sully has been working with What Took You So Long (WTYSL), a small multinational group of volunteers committed to publicizing the work of successful Non-Governmental Organizations in Africa. She learned of this group through Sebastian Lindstrom, one of its leaders, because of Lindstrom’s affiliation with a project in Kumasi, Ghana.

The group is now in the middle of an ambitiously long journey using local transportation which started in Morocco and will proceed down the western coast of Africa to South Africa. Thus far, the team has traveled through Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Togo and is headed south for stops in Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sully’s responsibility along the way has been to shoot and edit video spots on the various NGOs visited. These are available on the WTYSL website.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Jane Jacobs

In the summer of 1965, the summer after my sophomore year in college, I worked as a community organizer and youth activity director at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn. I was one of about 15 students living at Hope House (just behind the church) and doing similar work. This was my first extended experience of life in the city. During that summer, I discovered Jane Jacobs' book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, an argument--at the time radical--for maintaining the integrity of city neighborhoods with mixed uses: housing, restaurants, stores, businesses, etc. She argued that the enemy of vital neighborhoods was specialization and pointed to certain areas, such as her own Hudson Street neighborhood in Greenwich Village, that had maintained their vitality and interest and safety.

Here's a review of two recent books on Jacobs that pit her theories against those of Robert Moses, who transformed parts of New York with his large-scale, impersonal developments--huge housing projects and highways that often destroyed the character of local neighborhoods. Jane Jacobs, who died in 2006, remains one of my urban heroes, and thanks to what I recall of her influential writing, wherever I travel (San Francisco, Rome, Berlin) I look for the sort of mixed-use city areas she lauded and celebrated. They are seldom the most glamorous neighborhoods but are the places you want to hang out in and explore, imagining yourself to be a local.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Reading and Rapture

From David Ulin, "The Lost Art of Reading," in The Los Angeles Times:
We live in time; we understand ourselves in relation to it, but in our culture, time collapses into an ever-present now. How do we pause when we must know everything instantly? How do we ruminate when we are constantly expected to respond? How do we immerse in something (an idea, an emotion, a decision) when we are no longer willing to give ourselves the space to reflect?

This is where real reading comes in -- because it demands that space, because by drawing us back from the present, it restores time to us in a fundamental way. There is the present-tense experience of reading, but also the chronology of the narrative, as well as of the characters and author, all of whom bear their own relationships to time. There is the fixity of the text, which doesn't change whether written yesterday or a thousand years ago. St. Augustine composed his "Confessions" in AD 397, but when he details his spiritual upheaval, his attempts to find meaning in the face of transient existence, the immediacy of his longing obliterates the temporal divide. "I cannot seem to feel alive unless I am alert," Charles Bowden writes in his recent book, "Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 244 pp., $24), "and I cannot feel alert unless I push past the point where I have control." That is what reading has to offer: a way to eclipse the boundaries, which is a form of giving up control.
Ulin evokes Winifred Gallagher's recent book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, an argument that we are what we focus on and that today's world is constantly pulling us in so many directions that we are in danger of losing the value of rapt attention and the depth of thought and involvement that can come of that.

While in the Adirondacks recently, I devoted my rapt attention to Susan Cheever's American Bloomsbury, a study of the interacting lives of Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. I had not realized that so much of America's literary heritage originated from a specific neighborhood in Concord. Among the other writers who lived there or were somehow associated with the group are Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, H.W. Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe. As Cheever notes, "From their collaborations with each other and the Concord landscape came almost every nineteenth-century American masterpiece--Walden, The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, and Little Women, to name a few--as well as the ideas about men and women, nature, education, marriage, and writing that shape our world today."

I had previously read Susan Cheever's memoirs, Home Before Dark and Treetops, because of my interest in her brilliant and troubled father, John Cheever. Her fascinating study of this community of Concord writers and their interactions would be a great supplement to a course on early American literature.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Once More to the Lake

Curtis Camp from Lakefront and Backwoods

French Camp and Eagle Crag Lake from the Curtis dock

Last Tuesday J and I returned from our annual sojourn on Eagle Crag Lake, ten miles from the town of Tupper Lake in New York's Adirondack Mountains. We stay at a two-cabin compound that has been in her family for three (going on four) generations. The original "camp" (which is how folks up there refer to these places) was built in 1922-23 by Joseph Oster, stepfather of Lillian French, who with her husband Walter were the original owners of the property. At the time this was the second structure on the mile-long lake.

There was no road access, so all building materials were carried in from the raiload tracks a couple hundred yards away. One write-up on the camp's history states, "The well house behind the camp contains a 15' deep cement encasement for a wire cage to hold food for cooling. The year the hole for the cement was dug it was left incomplete until spring, and when work resumed in may, a dead bear cub was found at the bottom of the hole."

Around 1983, the family bought the adjacent camp (built in 1932) from its original owner, Steve Curtis. This expansion allowed J's parents to stay there through the summer, with the French Camp available for the succession of more temporary family vacationers.

Our annual visit provides respite from the South Carolina heat and an opportunity to reconnect with J's brothers and sister, along with their families, who come and go while we're there. When we're lucky, one or both of our daughters are able to visit with their kids--as T did their year with our two granddaughters. We've also developed friends around the lake whom we look forward to seeing each year.

E.B. White's essay, "Once More to the Lake," originally published in 1941, tells how when he was young his family spent each August at a lake in Maine. When he had a son of his own, he decided to recapture the experience, taking him to the same lake. White's recollection is filled with hardwon nostalgia. He writes, "We had a good week at the camp. The bass were biting well and the sun shone endlessly, day after day. We would be tired at night and lie down in the accumulated heat of the little bedrooms after the long hot day and the breeze would stir almost imperceptibly outside and the smell of the swampt drift in through the rusty screens."

He concludes with a memorable paragraph that I think of each time I make my initial entry into the frigid Eagle Crag Lake water, cold enough to take my breath away:
When the others went swimming my son said he was going in too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower, and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.
The back of cover of One Man's Meat, where the essay was collected, pictures E.B. White walking along balancing on a rail line. It looks much like the now unused line that runs near the family camps, a reminder of a time when it was the only access to that remote location.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Dexter Filkins, Afghanistan, and Iraq

Dexter Filkins
I've just finished reading The Forever War, Dexter Filkins' superb account of his work as a journalist in Afghanistan and Iraq. He worked for the Los Angeles Times and then The New York Times. All told, he spent at least three years each of the two countries--plenty of time to get to know people and plumb the depths of each conflict. Most of the book concerns Iraq, taking us up through 2007, when matters still seemed pretty dismal. Since then the situation has by most accounts improved. American troops have now supposedly moved out of the cities. Yet there's been a recent surge in suicide bomb attacks on city streets. The length of time Filkins was "on the ground," as they say, means that he's able to provide a genuine feel for Iraqi culture, introducing us to a number of Iraqis of all stripes. His descriptions of the action--mostly in cities--is often harrowing because of his proximity. It's astonishing that he avoids getting injured or killed.

This book has at times been compared to Michael Herr's Vietnam reportage, Dispatches. Filkins is less flamboyant and ironic than Herr and relies less on the sort of dark humor that was so typical of Herr. The uncertainty and guesswork involved in fighting Iraqi insurgents is in many ways comparable to the sort of conflict Herr reports in Vietnam, though that conflict was less city-based. Herr's writing catches the tone of the futile war in Southeast Asia. But his limited time in-country (in contrast to Filkins' long visits) leads him to focus more exclusively on American soldiers than the broader tableau of individuals found in Filkins' book.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Destruction and Creativity

I've just discovered The Best American Poetry web site, which includes a blog featuring a different writer each week. The June 28 - July 4 blogger is fiction writer Tess Callahan. I especially like her entries on "The Perfect Day" and "The Creative Process: Painting, Writing, and the Case for Ruthlessness." The second one mentions Kali, the Hindu god of creativity and destruction. Also, Callahan evokes the film, The Mystery of Picasso:
Picasso starts with broad geometric shapes that immediately take possession of the entire page. Then come shading, color and depth. The most striking thing about the film is Picasso’s spontaneity, the dexterity with which he changes course. In one breath he has drawn an intricate fish. Just when you think it is perfect, he dives back in and transfigures it into a rooster. His changes are ruthless. He has no hesitation about obliterating what he has just done in order to transform it into something else. Just when you want to scream out, “Stop! You are destroying a Picasso!” he leaps in again to vaporize the rooster into a demon’s head. As an artist, it’s hard to watch this film without gasping. Many of us know the anguish of realizing we have to cut the very line we thought was brilliant. With Picasso, there is no anguish. His mercilessness is stunning. He may have been an arrogant SOB in life, but in art he was without egoic attachment. The film illustrates his total surrender to form. By prior agreement, when Clouzot finished shooting The Mystery of Picasso, all of the paintings were destroyed
Writers and artists, then, must be masters of destruction as well as creation.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

James Salter

I’ve been an admirer of James Salter’s writing since discovering A Sport and a Pastime several years ago. I’ve had his memoir, Burning the Days, around for a while and even dipped into it after reading the short erotically-charged novel about a torrid affair in France. But the memoir didn’t grab me, and I moved on to something else. The other day, I picked it up again. This time I was hardly able to put it down. Why is it that we are receptive to certain books at one time but not another?

In this case, my rapt attention to Salter’s impeccable prose has not so much to do with the admittedly gripping story of his life as a fighter pilot, writer and confidante of countless famous individuals, not to mention his string of affairs with beautiful women (one of which is fictionalized in A Sport and a Pastime). Instead, my interest relates to the balance it strikes between vividly evoked memories and the unavoidable reality that even the sharpest writing cannot capture what is essential about the past. Richness and loss and a groping for what we may have missed. Here is part of an excerpt Salter once read in an interview with Charlie Rose soon after the book came out. It comes at the end of the book’s first 200 pages, which relate to Salter’s life as a pilot:

Once at a dinner party I was asked by a woman what on earth I had ever seen in military life. I couldn’t answer her, of course. I couldn’t summon it all, the distant places, the comradeship, the idealism, the youth. I couldn’t tell about flying over the islands long ago, seeing them rise in the blue distance wreathed in legend, the ring of white surf around them. Or the cities, Shanghai and Tokyo, Amsterdam and Venice, gunnery camps in North Africa and forgotten colonies of Rome along the shore.

Salter goes on to list other sensations and memories he could not capture and concludes, “Money meant nothing and in a way neither did fame. I couldn’t tell any of that or of the roads along the sea in Honolulu, the dances, the last drinks at the bar, or who Harry Thyng was, or Kasler, or the captain’s wife.”

Pondering Mom’s death two weeks ago, I keep trying to hang onto the good memories, of which there are many. But unavoidably, I think of what has been lost, incidents and stories that suddenly fade into two-dimensionality just because Mom is not available to give them life. Granted, it’s been a while since she was able to hold forth glibly about the past, as she so readily and eagerly did for many years. But her death removes any chance of reclaiming that past. Salter’s book is subtitled “Recollection.” And that is what we all struggle to do (to “re-collect”) as time takes its toll on us and our memories. The days burn out, giving way to other days, just as lives fade and give way to successive lives.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Remembering Mom

Vera Harrison Autrey (May 4, 1918 - June 7, 2009)

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Point Reyes

Before the recent trip to California and points northward, I had never heard of Point Reyes. Or, maybe I had heard of it but didn't know how to pronounce it or whether it was in Maine or Swaziland. I'm still not sure how to pronounce it (Ray's?), but I know exactly where it is. On the map it seems near San Francisco, so it fit with our plan to stay just north of the city so as to have time to make our plane the next day without rushing. We did some research en route, and the Point looked worthwhile.

To get out to Point Reyes, you drive through a series of ranches, all them dating from the mid 1800's and identified by letters: Ranch A, B, C and on to M. Lots of beef and dairy cows on rolling, heath-like hills with very few trees. The animal life on the point includes seals, sea lions, falcons, and numerous water birds such as murres, which nest on the rocks just off the coast. Earlier in the year, people flock to the area to see whales migrating. The geological formations are contorted and interesting, and the May wild flowers are profuse. The lighthouse, which has been there about a century and a half, is down almost at the base of the outermost point--low so as to be visible below the frequent fog. You climb down about 300 feet to get there. The fog horn blows constantly at regular intervals.

To drive from there to the airport, south of the city, it took a couple hours, longer than anticipated. It's a slow trip. For some thirty miles, the route winds along steep cliffs with the surging ocean far below--gorgeous but time-consuming. Fortunately, we allowed some leeway, so we had plenty to time to make our flight home.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Mount St. Helens

The northernmost destination in our West Coast trip was Mount St. Helens. We happened to visit on the 29th anniversary of the eruption. Entry fees were waived for the occasion. Along the winding highway leading from I-5 into the park, there are several visitor centers, as well as numerous vista points offering views of the ravaged mountain from afar. The main observation point, Johnson Visitor's Center (named after David Johnson, who died in the eruption) offers an impressive unimpeded view of the volcano's cratered northern side, as well as the lava dome that is gradually building in the opening, constantly emitting a plume of smoke. Even the view of the incredible vista of destruction (still largely a gray wasteland) does not make it any easier to grasp the dimensions of the eruption, the accompanying avalanche of lava and debris, and the blast that was the equivalent of 21,000 atom bombs. It killed 57 people, destroying 15 miles of road and 230 square miles of forest. Much of the land will still not support plant life because of layers of infertile ash, and where trees have come back or been replanted, they look strangely uniform in size. It is an unforgettable monument to nature's power.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


The Upper Falls

Half Dome

El Capitan

One of the highlights of our California sojourn was a day spent at Yosemite National Park. Given the sparse crowds at Sequoia and Kings Canyon early in the season, we were unprepared for the mob scene we found at Yosemite. The place was swarming with tourists. Once we caught our first glimpse of the gorgeous setting with its backdrop of falls and stark rock outcroppings (especially El Capitan and Half Dome) and then followed the steep winding road down into the valley, we could see what drew the crowd: the unmatched vistas along with the ready accessibility of the park's delights and the fact that the park is geared to acommodate large numbers.

After our pleasantly remote hikes elsewhere, we felt a bit overwhelmed, but the numbers of other visitors didn't dampen our spirits nearly as much as our t-shirts were dampened by the refreshing spray from the lower falls, which you can walk to on a paved trail. We climbed above it all on a steep trail with 60 switchbacks that took us to Columbia Rock and an overview of the whole scene.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Big Sur and Sequoia


Big Sur

As we drove south from San Francisco, our travels took us through Carmel (where Clint Eastwood served as mayor 1986-88) and along Big Sur. According to Wikipedia, the name "Big Sur" comes from the Spanish "el sur grande," meaning "the big south." We made stops at Andrew Molera and Julia Pfieffer Burns State Parks, camping at San Simeon, just north of Cambria, the next day cutting east to Sequoia National Park.

At Sequoia National Park, we made the obligatory visit to the unfortunately named "General Sherman," billed as the largest tree in the world in volume if not in girth or height. Most of the sequoias show evidence of past lightning or fire, not surprising for trees that have been around over 3000 years. Despite the scars, their thick bark and durable constitution makes them impervious to fire damage. John Muir, who named many of these trees, wrote the following in his journal in 1875:
The sequoias are the most venerable-looking of all the Sierra giants, standing erect and true, in poise so perfect they seem to make no effort--their strength so perfect it is invisible. Trees weighing one thousand tons are yet to all appearance imponderable as clouds, as the light which clothes them, so fine is their beauty.... They are antediluvian monuments, through which we gaze in contemplation as through windows into the deeps of primeval time.
Muir was given to hyperbolic statements about natural phenomena, but the sequoias deserve all the hyperbole they get.

For additional trip photos see my Flickr page.

Monday, May 25, 2009

San Francisco and Ferlinghetti

San Francisco was the first stop on our recent two-week trip to the West Coast, most of which was spent in various National Parks and Monuments. J and I stayed a couple nights in the modest but neat and centrally located Mosser Hotel, just off Market St. a few blocks south of Union Square. One memorable, bright morning we walked along the bay from Fort Mason and the Marina over to the Golden Gate Bridge. Then we hiked onto the bridge out to the first tower for a stunning view of the Bay, Alcatraz, and the city's skyline.

During our walk to Union Square, up Grant St., and onto Columbus Ave. toward Fisherman's Wharf, we stopped at City Lights Bookstore, one of my four favorites (the others being Gotham Books in New York, Prairie Light Books in Iowa City, and Powell's Books in Portland). Upstairs in the poetry section, I ran into Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the store's founder, the city's poet laureate, pal of the beats, and a relentless campaigner for the arts--and for the integrity of San Francisco itself. I bought his book, San Francisco Poems, and had him sign it. He sat at a table for a brief chat as sounds from a jazz combo in Kerouac Alley wafted through the window. He wore his trademark scruffy beard and a baseball cap.
Daily Routines web site: How creative people organize their days.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The Story of a Poem

Mexican poet Octavio Paz, once said the following:
In general, Americans have not looked for Mexico in Mexico; they have looked for their obsessions, enthusiasms, phobias, hopes, interests--and these are what they have found.
In 1998, just after Paz died, I wrote a poem called "Looking for Mexico," using that quote as my epigraph. My poem began,
To honor your life, Octavio Paz,
I will no longer look for myself
in your country.
And my poem ended,
In my domestic dreams I'll discover
the rattle of Pancho Villa's
bandoleros, the sleepy strumming
of a guitar behind an adobe wall,
the whisper of distant sands
in Cuernevaca, Morelia,
Oaxaca, Guadalahara.
I've always thought it was a pretty good poem, but over the ten years I've been sending it out, hoping for publication, 24 magazines have rejected it. Finally today I received notice that at last a nice little magazine has taken it. I was about to give up on it; poets must have tough skins, but 25 rejections is about my limit. I am delighted that the orphan has found a permanent home. Now it can rest in Paz. The poem has, after a lot of wandering, located its best reader, and that's all any poet, including Octavio Paz, can ask for.
A link between creativity and mental illness

Ihab Hassan -“Literary Theory in an Age of Globalization”

Malcolm Gladwell on the full-court press
This is the season of the commencement speech. An excerpt from Barbara Kingsolver's 2008 speech at Duke:
Wisdom is like frequent-flyer miles and scar tissue; if it does accumulate, that happens by accident while you’re trying to do something else. And wisdom is what people will start wanting from you, after your last exam. I know it’s true for writers -– when people love a book, whatever they say about it, what they really mean is: it was wise. It helped explain their pickle. My favorites are the canny old codgers: Neruda, Garcia Marquez, Doris Lessing. Honestly, it is harrowing for me to try to teach 20-year-old students, who earnestly want to improve their writing. The best I can think to tell them is: Quit smoking, and observe posted speed limits. This will improve your odds of getting old enough to be wise.
The late David Foster Wallace's 2008 commencement speech at Kenyon

Conan O’Brien’s 2000 Commencement Speech at Harvard

The top ten graduation speeches

Saturday, May 02, 2009

England's New Poet Laureate

Carol Ann Duffy has just been appointed the first woman Poet Laureate of England.
One of her poems:
Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.
Why Don't Students Like School? Daniel T. Willingham examines the issue in a new book, review in The Wall Street Journal.
Ten Literary One-Hit Wonders from The Times Online
Excerpt from a Paris Review interview with Annie Proulx:

This is a country where awards are invented every day because that’s how readers and publishers and others keep a list of what one should and shouldn’t read. People don’t choose books by covers, they choose them by the gold thing that says, winner of the Blue Shark Award, or whatever. So the awards did a great deal, especially the PEN/Faulkner, because I was the first woman to get a PEN/Faulkner. And then I guess the thrill of awards, like the thrill of traveling, sort of fell away. I’ve moved into a different category of people who have won awards but don’t necessarily have to win one now. Which is all right with me.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Week of Food

The Aboubakar family of Darfur province, Sudan

Our friend Joe sent an e-mail dispatch showing families from various cultures around the world along with the array of food that each family eats in one week. These photos, it turns out, are from the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, by photographer Peter Menzel and writer Faith D'Aluisio.
NPR's Michele Norris reported on the book. The NPR website provides that broadcast, along with photos of some of the families . Also, the site lists exactly what each eats in an average week. The contrasts are stunning. The four-person family that spends the most is German (375 Euros or $500), whereas the Aboubakar family pictured above in a refugee camp in Chad spends $1.23. The total local value of their food is about $24. Presumably much of it is provided by relief agencies.
Certainly, most German families don't spend $25,000 a year on food; nor does the average Chadian or Sudanese family survive on such a subsistence diet. Still, the point is made with the fascinating photo illustrations.
Yesterday I went out and bought a low-end ACER laptop computer so that we can check e-mail and access the internet during our summer travels. Though it is a reasonably-priced model, what I paid for it would provide food for the Aboubakars for five or six months.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Senegalese Poet Amadou Lamine Sall

Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, Paris

Amadou Lamine Sall

A recent Newsweek article asks, "Is poetry dying?" Perhaps not in Paris. Our final night in Paris, March 20, while four members of our travel group took a boat trip on the Seine, five of us attended a reading at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore by Senegalese poet Amadou Lamine Sall. His English translator Jim Haenlin was there to read the translation first, followed by Sall's subsequent reading in the original French. Given that this historic bookstore sells books only in English, the audience consisted largely of English speakers. The reading was held in a small, crowded upstairs room. I was seated next to a window which offered me a gorgeous view across the Seine of the illuminated Notre Dame Cathedral. After the reading there was a Q and A session, followed by wine, cheese, and crackers. I spoke to the writer briefly, telling him that his mentor, the Leopold Sedar Senghor (a former president of Senegal and its most famous poet, who died in 2001) was a great favorite of mine when I discovered West African poetry in the sixties. From the reading, we proceeded to our final French dinner together as a group. It was a fine way to conclude our nine days in France.

"Wild Veins," a sample of the poet's work, translated by Jim Haenlin
My colleague and fellow traveler Pamela showed me a recent article on the bookstore and its distinguished history.

Friday, April 10, 2009


Our group and Notre Dame

Sacre Coeur through the Musee d'Orsay Clock

Luxembourg Palace

At the Opera Garnier

The "overseas trip" mentioned in the previous entry occupied the better part of March. I accompanied a group of four students, three faculty members and one Board of Trustees member to France (Paris and Normandy) for nine days. Then on March 21 while the others flew home, I grabbed a flight to Berlin and spent the remainder of the month familiarizing myself with Germany, or as much of it as I could manage: Berlin, Dresden, Nuremberg, Rothenburg, Munich--even a brief foray across the Austrian border to Salzburg.

It was a pleasure to introduce the students to Paris in the off-season, when there were no crowds of tourists waiting to get into the major sites. We breezed right into Sainte-Chapelle, Notre Dame, the Musee d'Orsay, and the Louvre, where I remember long lines when my wife and I were there in May a few years back. We all spent one memorable evening at the gorgeous Paris Opera House at a chamber music concert while sitting in opera boxes surrounded by velvet and staring up at the 12-ton chandelier and the bold Chagall painting on the ceiling.

For more pictures, see My Flickr Photos.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

George Kennan

I've been maintaining this blog long enough (albeit erratically) that certain subjects and motifs have begun to repeat themselves. Yesterday was the second time I've offered up something about John Monro, and today I turn back to George Kennan, whom I wrote about back in 2007. Each time I plan an overseas trip I read from Kennan's incomparably honest and astute Sketches from a Life, a selection from the journals he accrued over his 50 years as a diplomat. In the "Preface," he explains,
The pieces were written, for the most part, only when traveling. For this there was good reason. At home, in the performance of daily professional and personal duties, there was normally no time for this sort of thing; beyond which, this sort of writing required, as mentioned aabove, the novelty and treshness of first impression. You would not write this way about things you saw or experienced every day. Familiarity deprived such scenes, as it did people, of their mystery and their magic. (xi)

Kennan's musings about people and places are worth reading in their own right; I also hope that his descriptions and insights, while far more lucid than mine could be, will prompt me to be a more observant and engaged traveler--not someone who scurries hurriedly from museum to cathedral to monument, brushing across the surface of it all without pausing to think about it. Here is a typical passage, written in 1978:

In Stockholm, throughout the evening, I was being made conscious of touches in the scene--in the light sky; in the ponderous Germanic apartment building that housed W.'s office downtown; in the milling-about of the crowds on the paths of the Tivoli, making the most of the brief northern summer; in the vegetation; in the coolness of the night breezes--touches that reminded me that I was separated only by a relatively small body of water of Riga and Reval and the scenes of my youth. And I was prodded from inside with jabs of nostalgia which no one else could ever understand--nostalgia for that bleak Baltic landscape, for its long dark winters and for the wonder of its brief fleeting summers, for the mystery of the white nights, the sense of proximity of something intensely beautiful and marvelous, the thirst for it, and the awareness that it was not to be.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

John U. Monro

Yesterday I had lunch with Toni-Lee, a friend from Boston who is working on a biography of John U. Monro, who died in 2002 at age 89 and was one of the most remarkable men I've ever known. John and I were colleagues for five years at Tougaloo College, 1978-83. Following his service as a WWII navel officer on the carrier "Enterprise," John held various high-level administrative positions at Harvard before leaving Boston to begin working in historically black colleges, Miles (in Birmingham) and then Tougaloo (in Jackson). His extensive New York Times obituary indicates his prominence and the unanimous respect accorded him by all who knew of his work. Last October, a portrait of Monro was unveiled at the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.
Toni-Lee has been working on the biography for several years and has traveled around the country interviewing his fellow naval officers, university colleagues, and friends. She has conducted research and interviews at Harvard, Tougaloo, and Miles and has spent days in California poring over papers and memorabilia with John's daughter, who coincidentally was a classmate of my wife at Mount Holyoke in the 1960's and has been a big help in the bio project. Toni-Lee brought along a batch of papers and photos to show me. Today she's scheduled to interview a former Tougaloo colleague and friend (now living in Columbia) who also worked closely with John. I wish Toni-Lee the best and am eager to see this project come to fruition.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

John Cheever

A review of a new collection of John Cheever stories and a new bio by Blake Bailey has sent me back to the troubled suburbanite, my favorite American short story writer. Some of his stories, such as "The Country Husband," I can read again and again. Likewise, his journals and letters fascinate me for their brutal honesty and craftsmanship. His novels have never interested me as much, though I liked Falconer pretty well.
Birthday calculator, providing extensive information on your date of birth

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Debra A. Daniel

Every other Thursday evening, when I can make it to Doc's Gumbo Grille down in Columbia's Vista across the street from the State Capitol, I take my guitar and harmonicas and join the miscellaneous group of musicians who gather for what is dubbed a "bluegrass jam," though the songs often range far afield from bluegrass. Some of the playing tests my musical limits; on occasion, I struggle to keep up. But I always have a good time, even if the jammers packed onto the cramped stage often outnumber the folks in the audience dining on Doc's delicious creole fare.

Two of the mainstays in the group are Jack McGregor and Debra Daniel, who are members of a band that plays regularly around town. I've know Debra at least since 1994, the year we were both on the South Carolina Readers Circuit--a group of 8 poets and fiction writers chosen by the Arts Commission to be available for readings around the state. Last year, we invited Debra to visit the University as a guest writer. Her work (both fiction and poetry) is terrific. She's recently had a chapbook (As Is) published by Main Street Rag. See sample poems and author bio here.

The collection is filled with references to young love, old love, parents, and the rural south in which the poet grew up. Good poets must skirt sentimentality without falling victim to it, and Debra does that well, aided by humor and razor-sharp irony, as seen in this excerpt from "Hymn of Invitation:"

When the lights dimmed for the sermon,
he pulled a pen from his pocket, leaned forward,
drew on the length and meat of his thumb,
a hula girl; and as his knuckles bent and swiveled,
she danced a crimson sway.

His gaze angled at me, brown eyes
so humid, I wanted to lift my hair, let air cool
the nape of my neck. He straightened, crossed
his arms so that his hands were hidden. We sat
not quite touching, the service edging to invitation.

And then his index dinger slow and sure as sin
found and grazed my sleeveless skin,
tracing a line down and up, down and up;
while the girl he had drawn lay folded
and curled tight against his palm.
Profile of Debra on Southern Artistry site, including excerpts from her writing
"Impressionists" (flash fiction from Smoke Long Quarterly) and an interview with Debra

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Preparing for Travel

On March 12, I leave for France with a group from the University--several faculty members, a board member, and four honors students. Over Spring Break week, we'll spend three days in Paris, three in Normandy, and then two more in Paris. While in the north, we'll visit The University of Normandy in Caen, where we have an exchange program. We'll also rent two cars and drive to Mont St. Michel, which I've wanted to see since my high school French teacher Mrs. Otis recommended it--and raved about the traditional omelets sold on the tiny island.

Besides brushing up on my French, I've been studying French food in the perhaps futile hope that I'll actually be able to read and interpret a menu. Although there are more words in English than in French, the French gastronomic vocabulary is vast. For bread alone, the French have more words than Eskimos have for snow: baguette, ficelle, flute, batard, pain boulot, pain polka, couronne, pain rond, fougasse, pain campagne, jockey pavot, pistolet, Napoleon, pave de campagne, miche blanche, pain lemaire, epi, souswek, and so on. I hope to sample as many of them as possible in a couple weeks.

On March 21, while the rest of the group returns to the U.S., I'll fly to Berlin to spend ten days in Germany: Berlin, Dresden, Nuremburg, Munich, perhaps Salzburg, Austria. Home on March 31.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Writer's Blog

A couple weeks ago, my colleague Ted told me that my blog was badly out of date. This surprised me; I hadn't realized anyone ever noticed. I told him I'd been suffering from writer's blog. Poet William Stafford said there's no such thing as writer's block. All you have to do is lower your standards. Good advice for any writer--or blogger.
I was in Iowa City last week for several days. The weather was warmer than it often is in February, with temps reaching a balmy 38 degrees one day. The most severe weather-related problem that university town faced over the past year came when the Iowa River flooded in June. A number of university buildings along the river were affected; some are still unusable. Apparently, the university has rented out buildings elsewhere in the area to accomodate art and music programs. The university's wonderful art collection was saved, but for insurance reasons, it will have to be housed elsewhere in the future. The art museum building (located right on the river) will be renovated and used for something else. The huge performing arts center is out of commission and may have to be replaced. My Iowa City friend Cile told me about an essay on the flood written by her friend Joe Blair and published in the New York Times.

The nights were busy in Iowa City. Wednesday I heard the Burlington Street Bluegrass Band play at The Mill Restaurant. The next night, I attended Stephen Lovely's reading from his novel, Irreplaceable, at Prairie Lights Bookstore. Friday evening in Wild Bill's used bookstore on the south side of town, I heard Dave Morice read from his quirky The Great American Fortune Cookie Novel, a book consisting only of Chinese fortunes from cookies. Finally, Saturday night took me to the restored Englert Theatre downtown to hear the national Hindi A Cappella Championship. Hindi groups from 6 universities around the country competed. The UC-Berkeley group won. Beautiful music start to finish. Most groups dressed in traditional Indian garb.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike

John Updike, 1932 - 2009

John Updike died of lung cancer on January 27. I remember reading about the young Updike in Time Magazine back in the 1960's. I was struck by his distinctive facial profile and the fact that he had studied art before turning to writing. I read my first Updike novel when I was in the Peace Corps. His novel Of the Farm was included in my Peace Corps book locker--a varied collection of about 40 fiction and nonfiction books given to each volunteer. There were two or three versions of the booklocker, so I sometimes swapped good books with other volunteers when we met. I was hooked on Updike and read him intermittently from then on, especially savoring each of the four Rabbit books when they came out, decade by decade. I always thought his poetry was underrated partly because it was eclipsed by his fiction (and criticism) but also because he mostly wrote light verse, though it was very good light verse. Some scenes and images from his work have stayed with me. Somewhere, he describes a flock of birds as "a drunken fingerprint in the sky" or something like that. I saw Updike at the University of South Carolina several years ago when USC's Don Greiner, a longtime Updike collector, honored the writer with a large display in the library Rare Books Room. I have the poster commemorating that occasion.

John Updike page at Poetry Foundation Site