Sunday, June 21, 2015

Moby-Dick Days

My love affair with Moby-Dick began in kindergarten. That sounds like the start of an awkward joke, but it’s true.
        My mother was a fan of “accelerated learning.” She felt that kids should start reading much earlier than the school system recommended in the 1960s, and I was her guinea pig. When I was three, she stuck flashcards all over the house, labeling every object—sofa, lamp, wall—and drilled me on them constantly. The next year, she hired a local woman to tutor me in reading the usual first books, Dick and Jane–type stuff. (I vaguely remember one called Nose Is Toes.) So by the time I started kindergarten, I could read pretty well. That put me way ahead of the other kids, since at our school they didn’t teach reading until the first grade.

The trophy book
Frankly, having an academic jump on everybody else made me into a little monster. I lorded my reading abilities over the other kindergartners, reading signs out loud and haughtily carrying books around. At recess, I’d sit reading whatever I could get my hands on—ham radio magazines, dinosaur books, lists of the kings of England; didn’t matter. In the school library, I walked past all the kids’ books and went right for the grown-up novels, checking out whatever was big and intimidating-looking. And the biggest, fattest book, weighing in at more than 500 pages, was Moby-Dick. All through kindergarten that book was my constant companion. I checked it out over and over, just to have the satisfaction of walking around with it under my arm.
        Trouble was, I never read it. I couldn’t read it, even with my accelerated-learning super powers, because that book was hard. I kept looking at the first page and could never make heads or tails of it. “Call me Ishmael”? Like, he won’t even tell us his real name? And what was up with the long sentences and turned-around, foreign-sounding language? It wasn’t like any other book I’d seen. I skimmed forward a few chapters, and they didn’t even go to sea for, like, 100 pages.

Call me bored
Fast-forward—gulp—almost 50 years, to a couple of months ago. I was sitting in a theater one night during a dress rehearsal. This is part of my job; I have to go to a lot of these rehearsals, and this one was taking forever, with very long intermissions and pauses to fix things. I’d brought my Kindle, loaded with literary journals and a few classic novels for just such emergencies. During an especially long wait, I turned it on and saw I had Moby-Dick on there. I had to laugh—I’d forgotten that I’d downloaded it months earlier as a joke with myself. I thought, what the hell, I’ve got all this time on my hands. Let’s see if I can get past that first page. Here we go again: “Call me Ishmael...”
        And you know, not only was I able to get past that first page, but I loved that book. I went home and read some more, and stayed up reading it every single night at bedtime for the next 50 nights.*
        I will say now, having finished that big book, that I’m glad I didn’t try to read it at a younger age. Even more glad that I wasn’t forced to slog through it for some class, though I often wished I had a fellow reader to talk things over with. Years ago, I think I would have been impatient with all the poetic language and the crazy-quilt mix of tones and styles. But now I was loving it so much that I started tweeting a line from it every day (@writersisland), a fun project that made me comb through it looking for snippets under 140 characters (a real challenge with Melville, who did go on).
        More than anything, I was surprised at how readable and entertaining it is. Like…well…a whale, it’s this big living, breathing creature, turning and glinting and diving for hours and breaching up, marvelous, where you least expect it. I can genuinely say I’ve never read anything else like it.
        Here are other things that surprised me:

Illustration for 1902 edition:
"Moby-Dick swam swiftly round
and round the wrecked crew." 
It’s a ripping yarn.
As in, a page-turner, a potboiler, an action-adventure that actually left me gasping sometimes. Okay, not every page—it starts off slow—but once you’re on the ship and the hunt begins, it unfolds and unfolds with the dangerously obsessed captain and the very nice first mate who tries to talk some sense into him, and an extremely motley crew caught between them. Plus, sharks and squids and cruelty and peg legs and near drowning and actual drowning and wrecked boats.

It’s an encyclopedic tour of the whaling industry, circa 1850.
Seriously, if you want to know how whales have been portrayed in classical literature, how blubber is boiled and what it’s used for afterward—even how the boilers themselves are made—or what the inside of a whale’s mouth looks like, what’s lurking in its gut, or how the sinews of its tail are constructed, it’s all in this book. In vivid, sometimes stomach-churning detail, told by an extremely entertaining tour guide.

It’s like a zig-zagging conversation with your crazy uncle.
You know, the one who served in France in the army and tells you minutiae about the experience every time you see him. But every little thought leads him off on some digression—like, he’s telling you about this chef he met in Lyons, which gets him talking about escargot, which takes him to how snails are raised, which leads to the Fibonacci sequence, found in natural objects ranging from nautilus shells to pine cones to pineapples, but the nautilus part is disputed, which leads him to that trip he took to Vanuatu in 1964, where he went snorkeling and met that woman he left his wife for. And what was he talking about? Oh, France. That uncle.

Style-wise, Melville threw in everything but the kitchen sink.
I sometimes found myself sitting there, reading this thing and thinking, “Did he even have an editor? Who would have agreed to all this?” We’ve got a chapter told entirely in internal monologue from the point of view of one of the mates, then another, and then we never hear from them again. And one chapter is all Ahab muttering to himself. Then your chatty tour guide is back for 20 chapters or so. This thing would get boiled alive in a college creative writing workshop.

We never get to know Ishmael.
I love this device. Ishmael, who tells this story, is a fly on the wall the whole way. Somehow he’s privy to conversations he shouldn’t hear and other people’s thoughts that he couldn’t possibly know. We never figure out how much he’s making up, or where exactly on the ship he is, or what exactly his job is. It reminded me of another wonderful mysterious narrator, the one in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In Midnight, the narrator is the author, John Berendt, telling this crazy true story of his friends and neighbors in Savannah. But he moves so deftly through the events that we barely see him. He’s there, but the book is not about him. Ishmael, similarly, always seems to be listening at the door. By the end you’ve heard this great tale, and then you’re like, Wait, come back—who are you?

It made me laugh out loud.
Actual, explosive guffaws. Many of them. Melville would have made a great dinner guest; he’s wry and arch at the most unexpected times. He manages to lampoon the wealthy, the ignorant, and the gasbags that seem to come with every profession, all while making you slightly seasick with all the details about sails and cargo and blood and boilers. That is a fine line, and he walks it.

It reads like freakin’ music.
Time and again, I had to stop and reread a sentence because it was so beautiful. I read entire chapters out loud, acting out all the parts as if I were making an audio book. The language is so theatrical that you can’t help rolling it around in your mouth. Again, this probably works better now that I’m older, since my head is now filled with a lot of Shakespeare, whose influence on Melville is unmistakable. But Melville infused the language with his own idiosyncrasies, which ended up sounding alternately like the Bard without line breaks and then like the Bible through some sort of warped looking glass. Dude could write.

"Boats Attacking Whales," 1839
It’s sad in unintended ways.
For all this book’s beauty, you can’t read it from a 21st-century perspective and not feel queasy. Melville was a product of his time, and his descriptions of people of color are not kind—they’re savages, they’re ridiculous, they’re inscrutable. Even the harpooner Queequeg and Pip, the cabin boy—both crucial to the story—are childlike characters who never really develop into three-dimensional people. And to those who say Melville was some sort of early environmentalist, I don’t think so; he touches lyrically on the havoc man was wreaking on the natural world, but in the next turn he brushes it off. Even in his most soul-crushing scenes of man’s cruelty to whales, to dolphins, to anything that moved or might be regarded as food or fuel—there is endless stabbing and cutting and bleeding in this book—the men doing it are often painted in a heroic light. At one point Melville says there were too many whales to ever fish them out; they had places to hide (under the ice sheets, he said), and there would always be plenty of them. And true, the harpoon-and-rope whaling of Melville’s time, deadly as it was, had its limitations; he probably couldn’t have foreseen the destruction brought by 20th-century mechanized whaling, which nearly wiped out whales everywhere. I kept thinking that Melville’s bravado-tinged-with-melancholy felt like just the kind of thinking that’s hurtling us toward the end of the world. Whales had products that we wanted for convenience and industry; they were big business, so we killed them for it. Much like how wolves got in our way, so we killed them for it. Above the storytelling, above the feverish genius of Melville’s writing, there hangs this grand tragedy that humans were bringing down on themselves and everything around them—and which continues today.

Sperm whale. (Photo: Tim Cole, NOAA)

* I know this because the Kindle keeps track of what percentage of the book you’ve read, not page numbers, and I found that 2% was about all I could handle in one night. That’s only about 10 pages of the printed version, but if you’ve read it, well, you know—it’s dense. Like dog years.

Friday, February 27, 2015

R.I.P., Leonard Nimoy (1931–2015)

Feeling very sad about Leonard Nimoy’s passing. I became a Star Trek fan in the 1970s when my boyfriend and I used to make out in the basement while we were pretending to watch TV. Eventually we began to actually watch TV, and a lot of it was Star Trek. During those years, I felt that I was becoming a person, and Star Trek, with its philosophy of infinite diversity, was an key part of that process. And Leonard Nimoy’s Spock—the outsider whose compassion was only logical—was the soul of that show.

The Church of Star Trek

On Sunday at 3, you will know
the way: blue beacon
down a star-burned path,
pearlescent planet
hanging in the dark.
You will land, you will kneel—
every world is its own,
yet so like yours.

Death is just a story;
we’ll all return
in the next hour’s by and by.
Take comfort here—
the captain in his gold braid
praises your wandering heart.
The doctor has a bed for you.
And late at night
the man of science
will hush the universe
to order,
his long harp hands
pausing over the dials
of your eyes.

—Amy Miller

Monday, February 16, 2015

Book Review: American Neolithic

American Neolithic
by Terence Hawkins
200 pages
C&R Press, 2014

I love a literary mashup, whether it’s Ben Winters’ end-of-days murder mysteries or Kirsten Bakis’ feverish mix of Frankenstein science and pop culture. So when I received a review copy* of Terence Hawkins’ new sci-fi legal thriller, American Neolithic, I tore into it with relish.
        Hawkins, a longtime attorney, puts a fresh spin on a classic genre, the hardboiled crime novel, by framing it in an alternate reality: In a United States governed by a fanatic religious regime, a small community of Neanderthals lives hidden in the shadowy margins of New York City. Aside from the Neanderthals—who, in our reality, died out 30,000 years ago—the idea isn’t that far-fetched. In Hawkins’ dystopian America, Homeland Security oversees law enforcement with brutal efficiency, government propaganda constantly stirs public panic and xenophobia, and—most germane to this story—the religious political machine has officially “debunked” evolution, dismantled scientific facilities, and made it illegal to espouse any theory but creationism. This sets up a complication larger than a few genetic misfits trying to quietly survive in the back alleys of humanity. In this world, living Neanderthals present a scientific conundrum that doesn’t fit the theological story the government is trying to tell, and this government has ways of erasing what it doesn’t like.
        Woven into this backdrop is a quirky crime story about a soft-spoken Neanderthal who becomes a sort of mascot to a hip-hop group, then gets entangled in a murder. There are legal machinations, A Guantanamo-style detention center, court dates and behind-the-scene wrangling among lawyers and judges, with rapid-fire dialog and just enough details for authenticity. The book’s pacing is brisk, and the cynical narration of the main protagonist, a hard-bitten defense attorney, alternates with chapters narrated by the more poetic Neanderthal, who traces the secret history of his people with a wry tenderness. The contrasting voices keep the tone lively, but each has its pitfalls—the lawyer is so disillusioned that his salty narration sometimes overpowers the story, and the Neanderthal’s passages turn syrupy at times.
        The lawyer’s bleak world view presents another thorny issue: In his eyes, the few women in the story are described mostly in terms of their bodies, and the African-American characters all seem to be drug-addled music moguls or bouncers. This character flaw in the main narrator could have made for some welcome nuance if it had been further developed; as it stands, the reader is left wondering what to make of these misogynistic and bigoted remarks tossed off without apology. But, that said, Terence Hawkins can write—he keeps a headlong high-wire act going all through the book, with pacing that never flags and a nightmarish world that’s frighteningly believable. And his inside knowledge of the legal system brings the lawyers’ behind-the-scenes wrangling and one-upmanship vividly to life. I look forward to seeing more books from Hawkins.

* The hardcopy of the book got lost in the mail so I ended up reading it on Kindle, which is fine—I like Kindle books. And then—funny story—a day or two after I wrote this review, the hardcopy arrived, the packaging mangled but the book unharmed. I only mention this because I then got to compare the physical copy with the Kindle one, and they are very different animals. The hardcopy is beautifully designed, printed on good-quality paper and elegantly formatted for effortless reading. But the Kindle version has a lot of formatting errors: no white space signaling section changes within a chapter, ambiguous chapter heads that make it hard to tell where one chapter ends and another begins, and lengthy newspaper excerpts in shoutycaps. To make matters worse, when I tried it on an iPad (via the Kindle app), the whole book was in boldface. (Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature for this book has the same problem.) I’m going to take the book’s publisher to task a little bit here because bad e-book formatting is so prevalent and has become such a pet peeve. I’ve converted books to e-book and Kindle, and I can tell you that the only difference between a sloppy one and a tidy one is a few hours of (admittedly tedious) work. The real time-sucker is testing it out on all the different devices (part of the proofing process when you enroll your book in the Kindle program) because each device uses a different fonts, spacing, chapter head styles, etc. It takes a lot of trial and error to figure out a format that looks good (or at least not bad) on all of them. There are lots of good resources online to learn how to do this, and you don’t need any special skills; it’s just work. I wish more publishers would put in the time to do it. Of course in a few years this technology will have changed again, and this will be one those quaint little topics that nobody talks about anymore.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

House Hunters vs. Home-Buying Reality

The other day I woke up thinking about my mortgage, drowsily dreaming up ways to pay it off early (freelance jobs, MacArthur Genius Grant, selling my organs). Suddenly I had a woozy, out-of-body feeling: Whoa, I thought, I own a house. It’s been more than three years since I got the keys to my cozy little townhome, but some days it still hits me like that. I’ve never gotten used to the fact that I actually marched out into the world and bought a house.
        But the truth is, I didn’t just march out and do it. It took me years to screw up the courage—years and a lot of homework, including watching many, many episodes of House Hunters, the HGTV show where they track a homebuyer through the process of buying a house. Before I even started looking at houses, I watched that show every night for months, studying every phrase and nuance in each homebuyer’s quest. And even though some savvier part of my brain understood that it was just a TV show, for chrissake, I still felt that it would give me a better understanding of how things would go when I was out looking at houses for real.
        Of course it didn’t turn out that way. House Hunters did provide me with some inspiration and confidence, but most of the big, iconic scenes you see all the time on that show—those watershed moments of house-hunting mythology—never happened when I was shopping for a house.

1) The “tell me your dream” chat with your agent
On House Hunters: Before your house-hunt begins, you’ll sit down with your real estate agent over a cup of coffee and talk about everything you want in a house—stainless steel appliances, the extra bedroom, the man cave, the commute. Your agent will take notes on his laptop. You will both be well dressed.
In real life: Not only did I never have this conversation with my real estate agent, I never even met him in person until the day we started touring houses. Our first encounter was over the phone, a hurried and hushed conversation that we were both cramming into our busy days. (I had to sneak into a conference room at work to call him; he was on his cell phone in a noisy car.) He just asked what my budget was and what towns I wanted to look at, and within an hour he’d e-mailed me every listing in my range. It was up to me to pick the ones I wanted to tour. This was much more self-serve than I’d pictured, but he turned out to be one of the kindest, most easygoing people I’ve ever known—which was lucky since, little did we know, we would end up spending more than a year looking at houses together.

2) The three finalists
On House Hunters: After looking at a handful of houses, you will narrow the field down to three. You’ll weigh their strengths and weaknesses and eliminate your least favorite. Then you’ll use some emotional, alchemical formula (“it just feels like home” or “I love the pool and didn’t even know I wanted a pool”) to decide between the remaining two.
In real life: This one’s obviously cooked up for TV drama*. For me, there was no “narrowing down”; I had no timetable, no crazy gotta-move deadline, so I just looked at house after house after house for months on end, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. I learned a ton about houses as I wandered through dozens of them, going “Nope,” “Not quite,” or “Eww**.” But saying no to so many houses—more than 40 of them—made me wonder, after a while, whether I was actually ready to be a homeowner. But just when I had that thought, I saw a house that was the right size, had a good yard, and had a price that didn’t scare me. The market was slow and no one else seemed interested in it, so I took my time and mulled it over (probably maddening for my agent). After a few days the idea still didn’t creep me out, so I put in an offer. So rather than “It just feels like home,” my alchemical formula seemed to be “It doesn’t make me puke with fear.”

3) The back-and-forth, the dickering, the stress
On House Hunters: You and the seller will battle through some fierce negotiations. You’ll ask them to cover the closing costs; they’ll be insulted by your offer. You’ll find dry rot; they’ll leave a dirty hibachi on the balcony. You’ll end up paying more than you wanted to, but the thrill of buying your dream house will make up for the stroke you almost had.
In real life: I paid list price because it was reasonable. I asked the seller to fix the dryer vent, and he did. The bank found our deal so boring that they let us close a week early.

4) The happy dance
On House Hunters: When the seller accepts your offer, the realtor will meet you at a restaurant, where he will give you the big news over a tall glass of iced tea. You’ll jump up and give him a high-five and say, “I bought a house!” Later, at the title company, you’ll sit at a shiny table and sign approximately 1,600 trillion papers. Then a well-dressed person will hand you the keys and you’ll blush with pride. You did it!
In real life: This was the part that really didn’t go as seen on TV. And I also had this vision in my mind, which didn’t happen either: I thought I’d sign all those papers, get the keys, and think, “I am now a homeowner! I can buy paint and a nail gun and do anything I want to that place!” I figured it would put me on a higher plane, that, somehow, it would make me a different person—bold, in control, grown up.
        But the reality went like this: During our many months of searching, my real estate agent and I had done so much business via e-mail that he’d lost my phone number. So when the seller accepted my offer, my agent e-mailed me with the good news (and an apology for not calling with it). I happened to be home from work that day, sitting alone at my computer. And I’ve got to say, when I saw that e-mail—that moment in House Hunters where they say, “The house was hers!”—I didn’t feel excited. Or anxious. Or anything, really. My brain could not process the information; I literally didn’t know what to think. And then, moments later, I got sucked into the riptide of all the tasks that had to be done—inspection, insurance, title company (which did have a shiny table, and where I did sign 1,600 trillion papers), flooring company, plumbers. It was a jam-packed three weeks of escrow, with little time for me to stop and think about whether I felt changed. By the end, I was exhausted, physically and emotionally. Completely drained. All I wanted to do was take a nap.
        The business with the keys proved to be one of the silliest moments of the adventure, and one of my favorites. I went to my real estate agent’s office for that ritual—the keys! The moment when the place is really mine! He and I sat down at his desk, and he pulled out a small manila envelope that the selling agent had dropped off for me. He opened the flap, upended the envelope, and a single key dropped out—dink—onto the desk. Surprised, he puffed the envelope open and shook it to see if there was anything else inside. There wasn’t. We burst out laughing. He shrugged and handed me the single, modest key, and we were done.
        That bold, in-control, grown-up feeling never came either. Instead, on those surreal mornings when I wake up and realize I bought a house, the feeling I have is more a sense of stewardship, of having a responsibility and privilege to take care of a house and piece of ground that require careful tending. There’s also a feeling that I made a sound financial decision, that I’m no longer bleeding out rent money to pay someone else’s mortgage. The thought of retirement still frightens me (that, folks, is another topic) but the housing situation now makes pretty good sense. And I guess I’m just the sort of person for whom “pretty good sense” is as close to the happy dance as I’m likely to get. And with any luck, it will last longer.

* Oh, the exposés of this show! According to some reports floating around the internet, House Hunters is “somewhat real” but back-engineered: The producers find a person who’s just made an offer on a home, and then recreate the house-hunting process using, if possible, some of the houses the buyer actually looked at. (That part is tricky, since the owners of the rejected houses don’t always want their bad remodels and plumbing problems aired in public.) And there’s talk that some of the episodes are less “real” than others.

** While looking at houses, I constantly thought of that Star Trek episode “Return to Tomorrow,” where Kirk and Spock and Diana Muldaur let aliens inhabit their bodies so they can build android bodies for the formless aliens to live in. Spock (as the alien Henoch) shows Diana Muldaur (as the alien Thalassa) the female body he’s building for her—this unclothed, clammy-looking dummy that probably smells like rubber, that she will be stuck inside for eternity.*** She’s horrified; she visibly shudders. That’s exactly how I felt, looking at all those damp ’80s carpets and crooked doors and kids’ bedrooms with a thin coat of paint that didn’t quite cover up the polka dots underneath. Diana Muldaur’s voice kept coming back to me: “I cannot live in that…thing!”

*** At which point he utters one of the creepiest Star Trek lines ever: “Once it’s occupied, I'll add female features and some texturing.”

Saturday, November 22, 2014

One Book, Two Takes: This Blue

In this installment of “One Book, Two Takes,” poet Pepper Trail and I both review Maureen McLane’s This Blue, a finalist for this year’s National Book Award for Poetry. Pepper and I had no idea what the other reviewer would write, or whether the other even liked the book—a “blind judging” method that, I hope, helps explore very different aspects of the same book. 

This Blue
by Maureen McLane
128 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

Reviewed by Pepper Trail

Picking up This Blue from Amy Miller’s dining room table, I was fortunate to open it to “Glacial Erratic,” a fine poem that mixes formal declaration with shreds of overheard conversation to produce a vivid snapshot of our anxious American moment. I was hooked, and was happy to accept Amy’s suggestion that we write independent reviews—even though I’ve never reviewed a book of poetry.
  McLane’s National Book Award nomination for This Blue meant that the book was sold out everywhere when I tried to order one, and it was a couple of weeks before I got my own copy. When I did, I was rather bewildered by the diversity of voices in the collection—a quality that Frank Bidart in his back-cover quote describes (not very helpfully) as “luminous fragments—the shattered mirror that everywhere reflects a light-filled ungraspable whole.”
  The poems in this collection are difficult to classify—lacking, say, the plainspoken humanity of Ted Kooser, the gravitas of Robert Pinsky, or the prickly wit of Tony Hoagland. McLane’s strength lies not in a cohesive style, but rather in her restless intelligence and observant, glittering eye. Almost all her lines are short (“Terran Life” is the only exception, and it provides pleasures that make the reader wish she allowed her muse to slip the leash more often). But McLane’s themes—and, I think she would argue, our cultural moment—call for fragmentation. Certainly Emily Dickinson showed us the jolting epiphanies that can be created by fractured diction, and McLane is capable of Dickinsonian moments: “I shared a skin / with my skin. / I was in / my life not of. / I hovered above.” (from “Incarnation”).
  This Blue is comprised of five sections, and after several readings a thematic structure emerges, a search for meaning that begins with rather adolescent demands for answers in Section I and evolves by Section V into something like wisdom (though I’m sure McLane would wince at that word). The middle section, III, begins with references to Dante and his search for meaning in The Divine Comedy, a search he began “midway in my life’s journey.” Making herself perfectly clear, McLane follows this with her poem “Mezzo,” meaning middle. Poems in this section reference not only Dante, but Pound, Yeats, and others, as McLane looks for her guide, her Virgil: “No guide led me here / but Virgil and everyone / I ever met, in woods / books dreams in suburbs / the city the farm.” (“Today’s Comedy”).
  At the beginning, Section I, McLane was not nearly so humble. In “What I’m Looking For” she lays it out: “What I’m looking for / is an unmarked door / we’ll walk through / and there: whatever / we’d wished for / beyond the door.” The predominant form here is the lyric, but a lyric often deliberately marred (a pigeon’s “common gullet,” a Persian boy’s “succulent anus,” the Fairie Queen as “glam tranny,” etc.). The poem’s questions are often directed to nature, but with the frustrated sense that nature cannot provide the answers, as exemplified by the idiot pigeons of “Aviary” and the inscrutable ferns of “OK Fern.”
  By Section II, McLane has moved on to search for answers in human relationships. Sex is a frequent intruder (as in “Morning with Adirondack Chair”) or the main event (as in “Tell Us What Happened After We Left”). This section contains some of the finest poems in the collection, including “Incantation,” “Even Those,” and “Glacial Erratic,” but ends with death: “Strange thing / to survive to discover / you will live / until one day it’s over / no more to discover” (“Road / Here Now”).
  The Dantean wanderings of Section III appear to produce mostly exhaustion, and Section IV attacks civilization and its discontents, especially environmental destruction and cultural hypocrisy. Bitterness is the tone: “The body? My amplified / brain’s going haywire / not to mention / my juiced-up tits / and pumped lips. An army / of amputees marches / on Dacron prosthetics / the military should do better by. / I was nostalgic / until I got over it.” (“Things of August”).
  And so it was a considerable relief to find a wealth of beautiful poems—melancholy and elegiac, yes, but beautiful—in the final section. In language, McLane finds the strength to go on: “In this our post-shame century / we will reclaim / the old nouns / unembarrassed.” (“Horoscope”). There is an indirect answer to the direct question of Section I’s “OK Fern” (“Tell me what to do / with my life”) in Section V’s “Local Habitation”: “Here’s wonder’s / best kept secret / Don’t leak / your want.” It is the asking that keeps us alive. The lovely final poem “Envoi” acknowledges the losses that are the stuff of our lives, but finds consolation in the beauty of the world: “I noticed today under a tree / nobody was singing to me / but oh there was singing / and there was that one tree.”
  I’m grateful to Maureen McLane for these songs, and glad that I took the time to discern the harmony beneath the surface crackles and hiss of This Blue.

Pepper Trail’s poems have appeared in Windfall, Cirque, Comstock Review, Atlanta Review, Kyoto Journal, and other publications, including the anthology What the River Brings: Oregon River Poems. His essays appear regularly in High Country News and Jefferson Monthly, the magazine of Jefferson Public Radio. His poem “Syllabus for the Warming World” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Cascadia Review. He lives in Ashland, Oregon, where he works as a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Reviewed by Amy Miller

Poets are like Play-doh: When we come in contact with poetry that has a rich, distinctive voice, we tend to pick up its imprint and knead it into our own work. So, workshopmates, be warned: I’ll be sounding like Maureen McLane for a while.
  In a time when the pared-down line is a critical darling*, This Blue offers a master class in brevity. McLane does a wonderful thing here: She offers the reader just enough bread crumbs to navigate her tight forest of words while handing out a generous amount of wry humor at the same time. But her subject matter is anything but light. Zigging and zagging from tragedy to dark comedy, these poems twist and punch with a fierce and playful energy, yet are, at their heart, deadly serious—climate change, destruction of nature, human civilization swelling to its critical mass, the fragile landscapes of love, and the specks and forces of the universe itself. Where we find ourselves in all that detritus is central to her theme—more question than answer. What do we do with all this? What can we do?
  McLane’s gift is the way she delivers this often unsettling message: intricate, short lines stacked in columns; a lively, sometimes goofy musicality; and that rich vein of wit. Just when she’s lulled you into a gorgeous reverie, she hits you with an outrageous declaration: “Memory is boring.” Or in a painful account of a thorny relationship (“Late Hour”), she slips in a line that’s laugh-out-loud funny: 

  isn’t it time
  to say the garden
  is wasted

  on us? untended
  roses the japanese
  beetles gone


  I’ve got to say, it felt good to laugh while reading a National Book Award finalist. 
  Through all this bumpy landscape, McLane makes you feel as if she’s walking alongside you as a friend, or at least a great drinking companion. At times, she veers into technospeak, with ampersands and abbreviations—“the eye / requires a horizon / Thoreau somewhere sd”—as if she’s texting you from a darkened movie theater. Other poems would hold their own at a slam, with hard rhymes like “carry”/ “tarry,” or a string in which she ends lines with “dead,” “said,” “head,” and “fled”—a sequence that would be disastrous in the wrong hands, but that she gets away with. Some poems share first lines, last lines, entire phrases—techniques that might get shot down in the average writing workshop, but that work in McLane’s world. This is a “Don’t try this at home” book. Or rather, it’s a celebration of bent rules.
  But for all its playfulness, This Blue returns again and again to the landscape of loss. One section wanders the old cities of Europe with a sense of bemusement for the grand, vainglorious past, history brought down to an all-too-human scale. Elsewhere she reminds us that nature moves on without the human race—which brings a sort of solace, even if it’s a comforting indifference, a disinterest that nature takes in us. Always the underlying sadness:

  Love’s in Gloucester
  where the whalers once sailed
  and the cod’s collapsed

  but the sea the sea
  calls to whoever
  has ears for what’s leaving and left.


  McLane has ears for just that. And in her terse, tight phrasing and attention to sound and rhythm—a shorthand that, just a few pages into the book, begins to feel like an efficient new language—she tells us what she hears.

* For a more extreme example, see Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood, also a finalist for the National Book Award. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book review: The Last Policeman Trilogy

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ The Last Policeman (2013)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Countdown City (2013)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ World of Trouble (2014)

Ben H. Winters

The last time I read a trilogy was probably in the 1980s—Dune or Foundation or something. I don’t have the attention span for them anymore, and there are so many great novels waiting to be read that I rarely stick with any author for more than one book, let alone three.
      For this trilogy, I made an exception.
      Ben Winters has come up with a great combination here: a mash-up of two disparate genres, the murder mystery and the apocalypse novel. And he’s such a gifted writer that he moves easily through quick pacing and plot twists, making for a thrilling, thought-provoking read from the beginning to the end of the trilogy.
      In all three novels, cop Henry Palace is doing his gumshoe best to fight crime in his hometown of Concord, New Hampshire (another unlikely device—thrillers set in New Hampshire?) and, later, the Midwest. But there’s a greater threat lurking: A gigantic asteroid that’s about to plow into the Earth and wipe out life as we know it. In the first novel, the end of the world is a few months away, the asteroid a mere dot in a high-powered telescope. When the second and third books open, it’s down to weeks, then days. As the trilogy progresses, society falls apart as people all over the world prepare for the end of their lives. But there’s Henry, still plunking away at his job, trying to keep a little law and order in his corner of the chaos. Again and again, this brings up a question: Why would anyone care about an ordinary thing like their job when everything around them is about to go up in a fiery wreck?
      The meat of these novels is how differently people answer that very question. Some “go bucket”—chuck their responsibilities and binge on drugs, traveling, sex, whatever they wanted to do their whole lives but denied themselves or never had time for. Others stockpile ammunition and fearfully ride out the disaster in a dark bunker. Others, like Henry Palace, try to hold together the seams of human civilization for as long as possible. And it’s that quixotic dream that makes Henry such a likeable hero: To him, order still matters. People still matter. He’s the kind of companion—taciturn, practical, but ultimately kind—that you’d want by your side when the big one hits.
     I highly recommend starting with the first novel to get grounded in the background and to experience the gradual disintegration of human culture, but each novel stands well on its own as a distinct story.
      Winters, who called The Last Policeman “an existential detective novel,” has made a career of driving square pegs into round holes with a literary hammer and making it work spectacularly well. (His Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters was a bestseller in 2009.) I see on his website that he’ll do it again with his next novel, due in 2016: Underground Airlines, a crime drama set in an alternate present day where the Civil War never happened and slavery is still legal. According to Winters*, “[Underground Airlines] is about race and racism, it’s about grief, it’s about the horror of American slavery, and it’s about compromise. Well, I mean, I think that’s what this book is about. I’m not done.”
      I, for one, will have that baby on pre-order. I can’t wait to see what Winters does with it.

*Have a look at Edwin Battistella’s site, Literary Ashland, for a great interview with Winters from early this year.

Monday, October 6, 2014

A few favorite place names in that big wild stretch
between I-5 and the Oregon Coast

Onion Mountain

Rowdy Creek

Mountain Man RV Park

Bruce’s Bones Creek

Wonder Stump Road

Suicide Creek

Hard Cash Lane

Our Road