A critique of “Under a White Sky,” by Elizabeth Kolbert

Subtitled “The Nature of the Future, “Under a White Sky, by Elizabeth Kolbert, is the most important book I have read in the last twelve months. Yes, at times I got stuck in the details and the constant use of shorthand for organizations tasked with solving problems: CPRA for Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, for example. But both these issues are of minor concern.

This is a book about man-made disasters: alien fish eating up the domestic in the Illinois River, land loss in New Orleans, the degeneration of the Great Barrier Reef and, yes, the whitening of the sky by CO₂ emissions.

Kolbert dominates a specialized field as a communicator; she’s a journalist, not an expert. With the publication of The Sixth Extinction, about the on-going mass extinction of species due to human activity, she won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2015.

As in that book, in Under A White Sky, Kolbert displays the felicitous skill of practicing a mix of creative nonfiction techniques with baldly disturbing facts.

In Part 1″Down the River,” the first of three sections, she reaches back to an ancient philosopher to strengthen her point that continued flooding and wetland loss will make New Orleans look more and more like an island.

“Drive out Nature though you will with a pitchfork,” wrote Horace in 20 BC, “yet she will always hurry back and before you know it will break through your perverse disdain in triumph.”

In Kolbert’s own words, her new book is “about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” It is not “techno-optimistic, but rather “techno-fatalistic.”

And her cultural sources are often contemporary, the fixes technological. She quotes a female replicant hiding her identity as a cabaret dancer in the movie Blade Runner. “You think I’d be working in a place like this, if I could afford a real snake?”

Part 2 “Into the Wild” takes us to the edge of Death Valley, the pupfish of Devils Hole and to the cavern of a vast aquifer dating from the Pleistocene era. We move from pupfish restoration to that of coral. She travels the world over, visiting the work stations of committed geoscientists like Ruth Gates and Madeleine van Oppen.

At the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) in Australia she meets Paul Hardesty, a Canadian, who is both gloomy and gung-ho. The recovery projects Hardesty envisions require millions of dollars and the use of robots. The high cost of these fixes is always accounted for in dollars and cents.

Part 3 “Up In The Air,” is seemingly the most far-fetched of the sections. Climeworks, for example, would scrub subscriber’s carbon emission from the air and then inject the CO₂ a half mile underground into rock. (Let us remember the presence of CO₂ emissions in our atmosphere began eight to 9,000 years ago with the advent of farming. Of the 40 billion tons produced a year today, 30 percent is created by 4 percent of the earth’s population, the United States.)

Here, Kolbert spends a lot of time with “big Idea” folks, including Klaus Lackner of Arizona State University in Tempe, who says that we should look at carbon dioxide in the same way we look at sewage. We are not going to get rid of it; we need to transform it and use it.

This book gave me a lot to think about.

I live in a city where no city should be. We bought our home in Phoenix in 2013. In the last eight years, summer have gotten hotter and hotter. Water scarcer and scarcer. This June was the hottest in Phoenix recorded history. The average recorded temperature for the month was 95.3.

I got out at 6 a.m. this morning for a 1 1/2 mile walk. Around the corner from my house, I saw a stream of water leaking down the gutter track along the street. I traced it back to its source. It wasn’t the case of someone overwatering a lawn, but seemed to be springing from a spot between houses.

A man walking his dog, crossed the road and joined me to look at it.

“It’s not the homeowner’s; it’s the city’s,” I said.

“They say we don’t need to pay for it when it’s like that,” he agreed. I didn’t say anything, but I thought, “Of course, we do — one way or another.”

Posted in Arizona, Book Reviews, Commentary, environmentalism | 4 Comments

Tell Me How It Ends

I’ve been flipping to the last page of a book a lot recently. I remember how scandalized I was when my friend Ann said she always did that to decide if she wanted to read a book or not.

Well, so much for that.

This new, nervous habit of mine must have something to do with getting older. Come to think of it, I blame a lot of things at recently having celebrated my 80th birthday.

Anyway, I just turned to the last chapter of Bill Bryson’s 383-page book The Body. The last chapter is entitled — understandably — ”The End.”

Bryson introduces the chapter with an anonymous citation: “Exercise regularly. Eat sensibly. Die anyway.”

I think I’ll read it. I like to be prepared.

Posted in Commentary, fun stuff, health and wellness | 7 Comments

A critique of “Please Read This Leaflet Carefully,” by Karen Havelin

As readers we are partnered with Karen Havelin in Please Read this Leaflet Carefully, her semi-autobiographical memoir of a young Norwegian woman plagued since childhood by chronic pain: The book’s subtitle, also on its cover, instructs you to: “Keep this leaflet. You may need to read it again.”

Sound like fun? No.

Well written and ingeniously organized? Yes.

Told in Eight Parts, the book opens with Laura at the gynecologist, her feet in a pair of metal stirrups. She is living in New York, the mother of two-year-old Ella, but divorced from Nick, Ella’s American father. Though she has a graduate degree and she considers herself a writer, Laura works in an administrative job at Scandia House.

She loves New York and ruefully contrasts life in Norway with its vitality: “Taking up space and not giving a shit what anyone else thinks is a given here.”

By contrast, in Bergen where she grew up, everything is bleak and dark. Norway even “rationed American stuff on TV like candy so it didn’t crowd out nutrition.”

The one thing she regrets she left behind is Kjetil, a man she truly loved.

With Laura, we move backward through time, starting in 2016 (she is 35) and ending in 1995 (she is 14). She was a teenage ice skater and the sections within the book’s parts are subdivided by descriptions of skating terms and routines — spins, rotations, axels, pivots, lifts.

In fact the peace and contentment she experiences on the ice are the few points at which the book settles: “The small space I occupy, my firm, thirty-six kilos (79 lbs) of muscles and sinew work flawlessly. For every single movement, my strong thighs move me forward, spectacularly fast and far.”

One way of looking at Please Read This Leaflet Carefully is seeing it as the narrator’s attempt to recover the ease and control she felt as a fourteen-year-old alone on the ice.

However, this is a book about chronic pain — pain which comes and goes, settles here and there, pain that can involve allergies from ingestion and touch. For Laura, the pain defines itself most invasively in her midsection as endometriosis. She undergoes a series of surgeries and hospital stays. We are privy to the treatment of skin irritations, the sinister mixes of nausea and unsuccessful elimination. If anyone has written more powerfully about pain than Havelin, let me know.

This book is filled with tears — lots of tears — and angry recriminations. It’s a first-world story, frequently self-centered and shallow, but it deals honestly with the shame of serious chronic illness. And the problem it creates for families and loved ones.

Growing up female has never looked harder.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, health and wellness, literary fiction | 2 Comments

Del Webb: Leaving an Imprint

The name Del Webb first rose to my consciousness when I attended a book club meeting in the penthouse of the Phoenix Towers where one of our members has a condominium. At Cypress and Central, overlooking the Heard Museum, the 13-story cooperative was designed by Chicago architect Ralph C Harris. It is the first high-rise building in mid-town Phoenix. Del Webb’s name is on this building his construction company erected in 1957.

What warranted the nameplate of the builder at the entrance to Phoenix Towers? Look around, my friend told us, we could see Webb’s imprint all over Arizona: the Hunt Memorial near the Zoo, the Hughes Missile Plant (now Raytheon) in Tucson, the master planned community of Anthem.

August 3, 1962.

“It’s not just Sun City,” she said.

Sun City?

For more details, I called Bill Pearson, a general factotum of the Sun Cities Museum, a site that prior to the pandemic could count on upwards of 40 visitors a day. Pearson, a retired union president from St. Paul. Minnesota, has lived in Sun City since 2003.

What I found in my visit to Sun City and my research since is that, as a builder developer, Webb probably had more impact on Arizona than any politician in the state’s history. Nationally, two Arizonans — Barry Goldwater and John McCain — are the only figures who can be credited with greater name familiarity across the country.

Webb’s personal story is an interesting one, well recorded and promoted in Wikipedia and at the Sun Cities Museum (10801 W Oakmont Dr. Sun City, AZ 85351.)

Although Arizona can claim Delbert Eugene Webb as its own, He was born in 1899 in Fresno, CA. Webb left high school as a teenager, worked as a carpenter’s apprentice and ship fitter. When he contracted typhoid fever at 28, he and his wife moved to Arizona.

Webb was tall: at 13 he was already 6′ 2″. An avid baseball player, he managed to play baseball in the evenings while working for others. His love of the game never left him; he was part owner of the New York Yankees from 1945 to 1964.

As lore would have it, one of Webb’s first jobs in Phoenix was hanging doors for the Westward Ho Hotel. When the building contractor told him that if Webb had a dark suit, he could attend the building’s opening. He did. This and other events launched him on his convivial, glad-handing rise to prominence as a mover and shaker, first in Arizona, then nationally.

Nothing, in anything I have been able to unearth about Webb’s construction enterprises, has indicated any problems with the quality of the work. By 1940 he headed the largest construction company in the state. A 1946 contract with Bugsy Siegal to build the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas hinted at mob connections, but these were never proven.

Webb’s life is well documented as a tycoon. He was friends with Barry Goldwater, was on a first-name basis with Walt Disney and Jack Benny. He ran with a fast crowd. His rise to business prominence was financed by New Deal contracts, the construction of air fields and Japanese internment camps near Parker and Gila River, both of which were constructed on Indian Reservations. For the camp at Poston, Webb hired 5,000 workers to build housing, schools, shopping facilities, streets and utilities for 17,000. When completed in 1942, it was the third largest town in Arizona. The Gila River War Relocation site housed 13,000.

Webb was already a millionaire when he built on land he had assembled through the 1950s west of Phoenix. The land was cheek by jowl with Youngtown, a community created by Elmore Johns and Ben Schleifer with 100 homes and a store on 300 acres. Youngtown was the nation’s first age-restricted retirement community. It was incorporated as a municipality in 1960.

Webb knew about building towns. He could erect them quickly. In 1953, Webb had already built San Manuel, a company town for Magnum Copper, 48 miles north of Tucson. The mine, smelter and mill were closed in 1999. The area is now a leisure destination for hunting, sightseeing, and off-roads transport.

With Sun City, Webb had something more in mind than the San Manuel enterprise. He wanted to build a real “community” with all the amenities, self-run without mayor or city council — one that contracted out public safety services. It would come with social and activity centers and an unpaid council of residents managing it. This would be age-restricted living where at least one of the persons buying property needed to be 50-plus in age.

In 1960, when it opened with a showing of five model homes, Sun City was successfully marketing lifestyle — active adult living for retirees of modest means.

Webb with his signature “No Smoking” sign.

For good or ill, Sun City and later Sun City West and the master planned community of Anthem became Webb’s lasting contribution to residential development in Arizona and nationwide. By 2001, Pulte Homes, a national home builder, acquired the Del Webb brand. According to Pearson there are 1000 such communities in the United States, 60 to 70 of which bear the Sun City name.

Webb was a hail-fellow-well-met workaholic with his finger on the pulse of society. Over time, the older age market that he recognized in 1960 has become a staple for development in Arizona. Read an upcoming post for more on the changing face of retirement living that Sun City pioneered in the 20th century.

Del Webb died on July 4, 1974 at 75 at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, following an operation for lung cancer. It was an ironic death for an adamant nonsmoker. He left no children, but Hazel, his first wife, lived in Sun City, until family took her to California where she died. Toni, his second wife, died in Beverly Hills. The bulk of his inheritance established a foundation for medical research.

Posted in Arizona, history, Phoenix, Phoenix for Beginners | 5 Comments

Road trip: Pinetop to Greer and Fort Apache

I suppose smart people stay home when forest fires are raging around Arizona and daily temperatures in Phoenix are soaring into 115 degrees. Not us. We had gotten stir crazy. No one wants to head off on a bike ride when it’s 90 degrees at 5:30 a.m. (Or a hike, for that matter.) We decided to take our chances on a three-day car trip to the White Mountains, where we knew it would be cooler, and to return to Phoenix via Fort Apache and the glorious vistas in and out of the Salt River Valley and through Globe.

We weren’t sorry we left town.

It was just our luck that the winds, the fires and the rains favored our plans. We left North Central Phoenix at 8 a.m. and picked up the Beeline (SR 87) in Fountain Hills. We intended to get gas in Payson. And, gloriosky, when we arrived 90 minutes later, it was already 15 degrees cooler. There was no smell of smoke.

It boded well.

We took AZ 260 E via the Mogollon Rim. This is high country, the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. We had been here six months earlier, when we turned south onto FR 512 to Young. Somehow we missed the turn and took an extra two dozen or so miles through the gorgeous ponderosa forest lining a stretch of AZ 60 into the Fort Apache Indian Reservation before discovering our error just short of Carrizo. I was hungry and annoyed. A handful of nuts helped.

Then it was back to Show Low, where we found and had lunch at the Show Low Cafe. A sign was posted on the door and the pleasant, apologetic staff explained what we learned to be the case everywhere we went. The pandemic and short supply of workers has made serving the public a really heroic endeavor. And slow.

Pinetop was not what I expected. The name suggests an idyllic sylvan getaway for big city refugees, not a busy commercial strip lined by Wal Marts, Dollar Stores and Circle K’s. My husband’s condemnation the next morning? “It’s Lake Tahoe without the lake.”

The upscale residential districts, which we later discovered when we were out walking, lay to the south of the main drag. There the occasional kid on a bike could ride in peace.

We stayed at the GreenTree Inn, next to a Circle K (natch) where we spent a lot of time waiting behind slow lines of laborers, native people and all manner of folk searching their pockets for cash — in one case going to the car for extra coins in order to buy a case of beer. The easy-going attendant offered us the rest of his bag of spicy pork rinds to finish them off. “What do I know about these things?” he asked. “I’m just a white guy from the Midwest.”

The motel’s location was good. It was just a quarter mile down Turkey Track Rd. to the beautiful, forested Woodland Lake Park complex of hiking trails. I hiked several of these well-marked trails from our side of the system, occasionally running into other residents.

Bruce and I went over to the Nature Center on Woodland Rd., the other side of hiking trail system where we talked to one of the volunteers who was preparing to received teens for a training class. There, birds were swooping in and out of the cienega (marsh) beyond the wooden bridge. The walk in from that side includes bollards and benches.

The next day we drove over to Greer and the epicenter of the most devastating forest fire in Arizona history. Arizona Highways June, 2021 issue commemorated the Wallow fire’s tenth anniversary this week, with a recap of the 538,000-acre burn and its aftermath: “After the Firestorm.” According to author Kelly Vaughn, nearly 90 percent of wildland fires are caused by people — “failing to properly extinguish campfires, tossing cigarettes into dry grass, allowing chains to drag and other mechanisms of human laziness.”

We bought a tee shirt here in Greer.

We walked along the creek that borders the town and had lunch at The Rendezvous Diner and saw the Molly Butler Lodge. Seated on the porch, we watch the gathering rain bounce off the road alongside. We hoped the relief it brought had spread to other parts of Arizona that were besieged by fire. We ran into a couple of backpackers making their way through town. They had camped on Mt. Baldy.

On the bridge

Instead of heading back to Pinetop by the same road we came into Greer on, we turned left onto FR 87, climbing our way out of Greer, which is at an elevation of 8,500. This took us onto a grasslands, where we decided to get out and walk. We made our way to a pedestrian bridge which must have been part of the hike to Mt. Baldy, which I had intended to make with a friend, who was unable to come over from Phoenix. Walking this open terrain and across its unexpected bridge lodges in my memory as the most picturesque experience of the trip.

Back in Pinetop for an afternoon snooze, we next embarked on the search for a restaurant that was both open and appetizing. There weren’t many, though a number of signs between Show Low, Lakeside and Pinetop indicated there would be more to come.

We settled on a confusing grouping of buildings in Lakeside with outdoor tables and a noisy bar of basketball enthusiasts. Somehow Bruce and I got separated. A skinny regular with a grizzled beard and well-worn red tee shirt put it to right.

“Your husband is looking for you,” he yelled at me.

We settled on a dinner of pork ribs and French fries, sitting side by side looking out at a piney woods and marveling at our good fortune. Our waitress told us we could find a companion “Long Wongs 2 Hippies” restaurant in Phoenix. (I wonder if the big city version also has a cutout for getting your picture taken as hippies.)

On the whole we were tickled by how good-natured people were up here — locals and visitors. “Do you follow Jesus this close?” one license plate read.

We left the next day after 7 a.m. breakfast at the GreenTree Inn, determined to return to Phoenix by a route that would take us through Fort Apache. Heading east from Pinetop toward McNary, we turned south further into the Fort Apache Indian Reservation on FR 73 toward Whiteriver and the Reservation’s lumber mill. We had seen a log truck the day before in McNary that was probably bound for there.

We were looking forward to walking around the Fort. We had both read a lot about General George Crook and his Apache campaigns. I had come across references to his work in the Arizona territory during the 1880s on the trail hikes I had done from Prescott to Payson and on the Rim.

The backdoor was open in General Crook’s Cabin as if repairs were underway.

The Fort is a compound of buildings and services, with a museum and school and dormitory for boarding students, although it is likely most grammar and high school students are enrolled in Whiteriver. The small museum has an adequate assortment of displays. It was attended the day we were there by a couple of attractive teenagers, one of whom, when asked about the whereabouts of the Kinishba Ruins, gestured vaguely over her right shoulder.

After an hour of looking at the officer housing and seeing a line of ten or so middle schoolers shepherded across a playing field to their classroom, we got back in the car and drove out toward Apache Junction where directions to the Kinishba Ruins took us to a “do not enter without authorization” warning. It stopped us from touring the masonry pueblo of thirteenth century pre-Columbian Mogollon culture.

It was time to head for home. We completed the loop west on FR 73 through Cedar Creek to Carrizo and south onto FR 60 through the Salt River Canyon and on to Globe, where we suffered a blistering walk from the car to an air-conditioned Mexican restaurant for lunch.

It was 3:30 pm Thursday, June 24 and 108 degrees when we pulled up at our house in North Central Phoenix.

Posted in Arizona, fun stuff, Hiking, history, Nature, Road trip, travel | 7 Comments

A critique of “The Women in Black,” by Madeleine St. John

Can reading a book be as satisfying as eating a chocolate sundae? Only if it has a cherry on top. The Women in Black, by Madeleine St John meets both criteria. And the cherry is the presence of one of the women in question: Magda, a Continental with a last name no one can pronounce.

But let me back up. Here’s the story:

The Women in Black is about the five women who work in the high end department of women’s frocks of F. G. Goode’s during the 1959 Christmas and New Year’s shopping season in Sydney, Australia. They put on black rayon dresses that smell of dry cleaning, calcium powder and perspiration to work each day in Cocktail Frocks and Model Gowns.

They are Patty Williams, a drab 30-year-old married to Frank, “a bastard of the standard issue variety, neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate.” Fay, a former cigarette girl and cocktail waitress, is a little the worse for wear from playing the dating game. Then, there’s Miss Jacobs (first name unknown), who is stout, elderly and handles alterations. Finally, we have Magda, who is “luscious, svelte and full-bosomed, beautifully tailored, manicured and coiffed.”

Magda is a postwar displaced person from Slovenia. She is married to Stefan, also a reffo, whom she met at an immigration camp. Magda and Stefan speak an English studded with the language of Dickens and a wonderful appreciation of the idioms. “A pig in the poke” is apt to be followed by peals of laughter. Magda and Stefan have a perfect understanding of themselves and each other. After all, they’re Continentals.

Into their presence is thrust Lesley Miles, a temporary sales assistant, who changes her first name to Lisa when she applies for the job. Lisa is a more appropriate first name for a would-be poet (or actress) who recently presented her Leaving exam. Her scores could qualify her for a scholarship and university study, that is, if her dad permits her to go.

Lisa quotes poet William Blake’s “Tygre, tygre burning bright” under her breath to maintain her perspective on things. She is clearly the author’s alter ego.

“These people here know nothing,” says Magda, who takes the clever girl in hand, outfitting Lisa with pink lipstick, a leather belt, a new hairdo and laying aside a gorgeous Model Gown for which Lisa pines.

The Women in Black has been called a perfect pitch comedy of manners, where the Department Store itself is the main character, the supreme being around which customers and sales ladies swirl. Having spent my teenage years perusing the aisles of Meier & Franks in downtown Portland, Oregon in the 50s, I can relate. (What I wouldn’t have given for a Pendleton reversible skirt!)

Born in Australia, St. John was educated at Sydney University, and Cambridge in London. She later said she had the “somewhat laughable idea that university was a place where nothing happened but a devotion to the truth and an attempt to understand it.”

The Woman in Black is her first novel, written in six months in 1993. A later work, The Essence of the Thing, put St. John on the short list for Booker Prize. A lifelong smoker, the author died at 52 in 2006.

What factors led to the book’s reissue in 2020? My paperback copy came with the endorsement of Hilary Mantel as a book she gives to people to cheer them up. A comic TV series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” about an upper class, Jewish American housewife deals with the same time period and political issues. It has sustained three years of popularity and Amazon Prime has a fourth season ready to screen.

Has the time passed for The Women in Black? I would say “no.” Not when the language is so expressive. Chapters frequently end with colloquialisms, which are then picked up again. “Stone the crows,” Patty Williams says when she gets a look at how gorgeously Magda is garbed. “Gawd strewth!” she mutters when Magda steals Lisa for work in Model Gowns.

And take a second look at the stream of Magda-ism that begins the Continentals’ New Year’s Eve party (Chapter 39): “Lisa! — You know Rudi, of course, over by the window” and ends it three pages later with “Happy New Year! My God! I thought they would never go.”

Magda truly is the cherry on the chocolate sundae.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, fun stuff, good thoughts, literary fiction | 3 Comments

A critique of “The Vanishing Half,” by Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half has so many things going for it and is so well written, why doesn’t it work? Was this superlative writer trying to do too much?

Let’s take a look: Stella and Desiree are black, but could pass for white. So could everyone in their small southern town of Mallard. At age fourteen, the twins run away to New Orleans. Less than a half dozen years later, Desiree returns with a blue-black daughter, Jude. Stella had gone off on her own. Even her twin doesn’t know where.

Bennett tells Stella’s and Desiree’s stories, and the stories of their daughters, Jude and Kennedy, in segments with alternating perspectives and time frames. Thankfully, these are clearly labeled. For example: Part I, titled The Lost Twin (1968), is about Desiree’s return to Mallard and what she is fleeing; Part II, titled Maps (1978), follows Desiree’s daughter Jude’s miserable childhood in Mallard, the only “black” in a coffee with cream town, her success as an athlete, and her search for love and a career in California.

But Part III Heartlines (1968) picks up how Stella passes and marries “white,” obliterating her past and secreting herself from her daughter Kennedy and loving husband, Blake. In the beginning, she had divided herself in half: she is Stella and she is Blake’s secretary Miss Vignes. As Bennett writes: “(Stella) could become whichever woman she decided, whichever side of her face she tilted to the light.”

This is a book so filled with the lies we tell ourselves and we tell others, reading it made my head spin. Amazingly Bennett is able to achieve a measure of empathy for most of the characters. Yet she is unable to move their individual stories to completely satisfactory conclusions. As readers we ached for reconciliation between the two sisters, between Stella and her husband Blake and a sense of legitimacy for their daughter Kennedy. Only Jude and her partner Reese, a trans-gender photographer, end up truly happy in whom they’ve become.

One thing is certain, Bennett is best in the small takes, the humorous asides and clever dialogue. Scenes shine even if the bigger picture is opaque. Perhaps, Bennett is saying the color of our skin shouldn’t matter any more than any of our other characteristics. Whatever the case, The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett is a good discussion starter.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, edgy, race and class | 1 Comment

Hiking Escapes: The Little Horse Trail at Munds Park

We expected to see a number of other hikers when we arrived at The Little Horse Trail off Highway 240 in Munds Park. Mare Czinar’s piece in the Arizona Republic’s June 12, 2021, “Explore” section had been well-placed. The upcoming week in Phoenix promised temperatures in historically high triple digits.

To our surprise, we had the trail to ourselves except for a trio coming toward us about one mile in. Later, we were overtaken by a couple of ATV’s behind us, each with an adult ferrying a couple of helmeted children who loved tooting the horns. They played in a pond at a clearing at the end of the canyon at the trail’s end and then returned to Munds Park via FR 240.

Cactus blooms

We were expecting a gentle five to six-mile hike out and back. That’s what we got. The surface was easy to negotiate, dusty with embedded rocks here and there. The trail took us up going in, down coming back, with only about 400 feet elevation gain.

Signage was good. Although we never actual read one that told us we’d arrived at 700 F, we surmised it was at the end of a clearing for horses that abutting FR 240. Later, we learned it was across the canyon on a rise on the other side.

On our return to the large parking lot, we took a second look at the sign for the area and realized that a hike we had done the previous summer was just across FR 240. On our previous hike we had ended this Crystal Springs hike at Crystal Point, turning it into a short out and back from Golden Lake (“Hiking the Crystal Point Trail,” https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/?p=2315). Next time we may take it all the way and make it a longer hike.

Across FR 240

We were concerned to see that more than a mile of the Little Horse Trail was lined with pines marked for chopping (or treating). This trail needs all the shade it can get. I called the Coconino Forest Service for the area, but on June 18, the agency was closed for the next day’s Juneteenth holiday. When I get an answer as to why so many trees bore orange paint slashes at root and midway up the bark, I’ll include it in a rewrite.

This hike was a good getaway from the June 2021 heat wave.

Getting there: From Phoenix, take I-17, exit 322. Stay on Pinewood Blvd. for two miles (become FR 240) Parking lot is on the left.

Elevation: 6,590 feet

Posted in Arizona, fun stuff, health and wellness, Hiking, Nature | 2 Comments

A critique of “The Namesake,” by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake is about how a name takes hold of the first-born child of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, both of them Bengali emigres from India. Many names attempt to adhere to their son, whose birth in Massachusetts opens the book.

A letter from his maternal great grandmother, for example, contains the name that would have been his. It never arrives from India. The name “Nikhil” eventually gets put on his birth certificate. But Gogol was the pet name his parent call him before he enters school. When his teacher calls him Nikhil, he doesn’t know who she is talking to. Gogol becomes his recognized name, until he enter Yale as an architectural student when he changes it to Nikhil.

Gogol hates his name and all but plugs his ears when his father describes the train accident that nearly took his life. Ashoke survived because the crumpled scrap of a short story by Nikolai Gogol in his hand catches a rescuer’s eye. It takes 310 pages for his son to appreciate this heritage.

The Namesake traces how Gogol comes to inhabit his identity as an American of immigrant parents. For the reader it is quite a journey. We go though Gogol’s boyhood and youth, his education and a series of love affairs. There’s Ruth, Maxine and Moushumi. Holidays come and go; gatherings celebrate cultural milestones. Indian and American customs blend into each other. Here, Lahiri is at her best.

She is a master at descriptive prose. Sometimes the descriptions are so painful and Gogol is so pathetically observant and inactive that one wants to scream: “Enough already. I get it. He hasn’t taken charge of his life yet.” Lahiri can use a mundane activity — such as the addressing of Christmas cards — to lead us into a heart-stopping event.

I thought I had already read The Namesake when my book club here in Phoenix decided to read it. Or, at least, I believed I had seen the 2006 movie of that name.

The assignment lead me to pick up Lahiri’s first published work. Interpreter of Maladies (1999), a book of short stories and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. You can read what I wrote about that volume in an earlier post (https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2021/05/05/a-critique-of-interpreter-of-maladies-by-jhumpa-lahiri/).

Now that I’ve read them both, I think Lahiri is a better short story writer than a novelist. But this is not to downgrade what a trailblazer work The Namesake is. It has been more than twenty years since she wrote it. No one since has done a better job at capturing how hard it is to leave your home and make a new one in a foreign land.

I can’t imagine how people who have never ventured from their community or their inherited culture would make their way through this book. It would be just as perplexing as dealing with the crises so underlined by media today with its facile coverage of border crossings.

Can superlative literature save us? Can reading it make us more empathetic about cultural differences? Sitting down to read Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” was a good place for Gogol Ganguli to start as this wonderful work by Jhumpa Lahiri ends.


Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, India, literary fiction, religion and culture | 2 Comments

Hiking Escapes: Willow Trail #347

It looked promising on paper. The description by the Bradshaw Ranger District at the Prescott National Forest (http://www.fs.fed.usda.gov/prescott/) indicated it was a moderate hike close to the Granite Basin Recreation Area. It assumed hikers would bring adequate water and trail snacks and be prepare for a variety of surfaces. (I didn’t and I wasn’t.)

Temperatures in Phoenix were predicted to reach the early 100s. Wanting to get out of town, we decided not to go all the way to Flagstaff or Payson for fear of the wildfires we might encounter. So, my hiking buddy Lynn and I opted for a piece of the Prescott Circle Trail, until now unexplored territory.

I had chickened out of boulder dodging at Watson Lake a few weeks earlier and decided that elevation might have been part of the problem. But why not try again? Maybe the rolling terrain at Granite Mountain’s east face would provide easier hiking.

In looking back, I can’t believe I was so unprepared for the nutrition I would need for this hike. A banana is not enough sustenance for a 5.6-mile out and back walk. Not in June. Ditto, only a pint of water. My camelback had mysteriously emptied itself where we parked at the start, a dead end in a residential district. I did refill it, but it was not enough. Before the hike’s end, Lynn rescued me on both counts with water and a Clif bar.

We had gotten an early start (6:30 a.m.) driving up from North Central Phoenix. The best way to get to south entrance of Willow Trail #347 requires you trace a broad circle around the town of Prescott, a one-hour, 36-minute drive. The Bradshaw Ranger District provides good directions, particularly if you have a sidekick (Lynn) who reads you the series of street names at the hike’s start — Iron Springs Road, Burnt Ranch Road, Hozoni, Katahn and Yeibitchi. If we do this trail again, we’ll start at the other end of the route, the Williamson Valley Trailhead.

The surface of the trail itself alternates from rocky to smooth, narrow to wide. Signs along the road alerted us to the problem of fast-moving cyclists. There was even some indication the route might be closed to bike riders in the future. We were lucky on the Thursday we hiked in June. We only encountered three cyclists, all of them benign. And only one walker passed us on our four-hour hike.

Vistas were more picturesque on the walk out than the hike back to the start. We returned using the alternate loop, #341, a gradual descent with frequent rocky patches that lengthened the walk back. I wouldn’t do it again.

As I watched Lynn skate over the difficult transitions ahead of me, I realized I was still suffering from a cycling fall eight months earlier. My balance is not what it should be. I am battling double vision. The hiking stick I brought certainly helped. I vowed to make it a part of all future hikes.

I wouldn’t describe this hike as a bust, but it will not go down as one of my favorites. If Lynn hadn’t been there to outstretch her hand over trail transitions and to share her water and energy bar, I would have been in serious trouble. My lower leg muscles really took a beating with all the ups and downs of the trail. They screamed for mercy much of the next day.

We’ll continue looking for a piece of the Prescott Circle Trail that satisfies us as much of those out Lake Mary Road southeast of Flagstaff. If you have one to recommend, drop me a line. Kudos to the Forest Service who put together the paper map we used for this hike and the signage on the trail. Everything was well marked.

Posted in Arizona, Hiking, Prescott, Road trip, Southwest and the desert, travel | 6 Comments

At the checkout

I like to shop at our little Fry’s Food and Drug on Hatcher in Sunnyslope. Customers are a real cross section of this North Central part of Phoenix where I live. I particularly like to check out my purchases at the self-service section.

An elegant woman wearing the nametag Gloria is there to wrestle with an unruly machine when it pipes up: “Help is on the way.” My neighbor Sandi says Gloria is Navajo.

I don’t mind that checking your purchases out yourself is often slow. I like being in charge.

I’m careful driving out of the parking lot. That’s where accidents occur — people getting in and out of cars, lifting infants into and out of car seats, returning shopping carts. A few weeks ago, an elderly man pulled out of the lot without noticing I was stopped on Hatcher ready to turn in. I had time to scream, but not to honk my horn.

Today, two teenage boys were scuffling on their rocky front yard as I drove past on my way home. One of them raised his hand and waved.

What’s the matter with these people? What makes them so pleasant? Don’t they realize it’s 2 pm in Phoenix and 102 degrees?

Posted in Arizona, fun stuff, good thoughts, Phoenix | 4 Comments

A critique of “When We Were Orphans,” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is up to his old tricks in When We Were Orphans.

When is when and what is now? Though the author clearly labels the times and place of the events he is writing about, the reader is stuck in the morass of the narrator’s memory, a region without time zones.

Chapter One opens in 1923 in Cambridge when Christopher Banks, a university dropout, has a chance encounter with James Osborne, a contemporary he knew at school. Banks was born in Shanghai, but was shipped off to London at the age of eight when, first his father, then his mother, disappears. Osborne, his former schoolmate, invites him to a social gathering, declaring that Banks was always an “odd bird” at St. Dunstan’s and that he remembers that Banks frequently quizzed him on how to get “well connected.”

As it turns out, being well-connected is what this book is all about. As the story progresses, Banks becomes a first-class detective whose fame spreads far and wide. We wander with him from social gathering to social gathering, from investigation to investigation. Trophies of crime solutions line his walls, though his research seems to boil down to the heavy use of a magnifying glass and innuendo.

Banks eventually returns to Shanghai, a place we have revisited in his memory many times prior to his physical move. While in London, Banks had developed a fascination with another orphan, Sarah Hemmings, whose bird of prey demeanor cought his attention when he first spied her. She, too, seemed to be on the hunt for how to connect well. Now married, she turns up in Shanghai, too. Their attraction continues to sizzle.

But Banks is hard to lure from his course. He is after big game. He may be examining hedges and discovering the dismembered bodies of innocents, but he has actually pitted himself against Evil in the world. All crime seems to lead to Shanghai, where he and his Japanese playmate Akira used to track down bad guys and his mother railed against the opium trade. In 1937, when Banks finally returns to the Far East, the world is on the brink of the Sino Japanese War. Shanghai offers a prime spot for seeing all the wrongs that have come out of the British empire.

For the eight-year-old boy that Banks still is — there is no denying his childlike understanding orf how things work — these issues are all connected. If he can just FIND his mother and father, all will be well. The winning cards may be in the hands of someone referred to as the Yellow Snake. Mystery will be solved; laurels laid at his feet.

Are we dealing with the most unreliable of narrators Ishiguru has come up with yet? Is Banks a crazy man, a brilliant sleuth or a kid who just never grew up? Is When We were Orphans a tragedy, a comedy, or is the author just pulling our leg? I’ve got to hand it to Ishiguru. His manipulation of the narrative voice kept me guessing.

Let’s pretend it’s a mystery.

Yet, for my part, where the opium trade is concerned, I much prefer the work of Amitov Gosh. His Ibis trilogy: Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire — tells you all you need to know about the ear marks colonialism has left on the Far East.

No magnifying glass required.

Posted in Asia, Book Reviews, China, Commentary, history, Japan, literary fiction | 12 Comments

A critique of “Infinite Country,” by Patricia Engel

It was her idea to tie up the nun.

So begins the saga of a 15-year-old girl on the run. Talia has a plane to catch. Her mother in the United States has wired the fare to her in Colombia, where Talia has been living with her dad, Mauro, and her grandmother, Perla.

She organizes an escape from the reformatory where she was sent for dumping hot oil on a kitchen worker who had similarly doused a stray cat. Within a few pages, the reader is allied to a heroine with a kind heart and “subterranean” reflexes when moral issues are at stake.

And Talia needs to get “home.”

Infinite Country, by Patricia Engel is all about home and what that word can entail for the thousands of immigrants who make their way to the United States, legally and illegally. It’s about separation, accommodation and reunion.

In the process, the book introduces and establishes the identities and stories of Talia’s parents, Mauro, whose overstayed visa takes him back to Colombia and Elena, her hard-working mother, and siblings, Karina and Nando, all of whom live in the States. We learn the backstories of grandparents and — through Mauro — a primer on native Colombian folklore. Engel includes just enough of the country’s political history and culture that justify both the motivation to leave and the desire to stay.

I found this book troublesome to read. What is it really: an adventure story, a family saga, a treatise on immigration? Though scenes are adequately set, Infinite Country is not about place, it is about state of mind. The writing is poetic — “Talia was as impatient as thunder” — yet sketchy. Sometimes it feels as if the author is working out her own identity in the process of telling a story. At other times, it feels like a documentary.

After all, there are no happy endings to the immigration story, only accommodation. What the immigrant hopes for is a coming-together of family. That’s his or her true “home.”

I would bet that Patricia Engel will keep on telling this story. Until she gets it right.

Posted in Book Reviews, Hispanidad, history, literary fiction | 4 Comments

A critique of “Journeys North,” by Barney Scout Mann

I can’t help but think of the thrasher outside our window as it tries to access the suet cake swinging from a branch of the live oak. It’s a treat that’s filled with goodies. In the same way, how do you catch and digest Journeys North, by Barney Scout Mann, a book so replete with a variety of information?

Is it a guide or the retelling of an experience? The story of a community in formation or maybe a promotional piece for the Pacific Crest Trail Association?

Probably all of the above.

Mann is himself a thru-hiker who wears the triple crown of Pacific Crest, Appalachian and Continental Divide Trails. He has served on the boards of all three associations. He and his wife Sandy (trail name: Frodo) have hosted thousands of would-be, long-haul hikers in their San Diego home. Mann is a promoter par excellence of these national “monuments.”

This book is an amalgam of all his experiences and commitments. At the same time, it introduces readers to a handful of hikers to whom he grew close on a five-month exodus he made in 2007 from Campo on the border between California and Mexico to Manning Park on the border of Washington and Canada.

Here are a few of the difficulties the neophyte hiker and map reader may face in reading Journeys North:

  1. The author makes it hard to know who he’s writing about by sometimes using a hiker’s trail name (Blazer), and other times using his or her given name (Amanda).
  2. The map included in the book is not helpful to anyone trying to figure the trail route in relation to highways through California, Oregon and Washington, the three states which the PCT traverses South to North;
  3. The narration hip-hops between the personal stories of the hikers. It’s confusing. To his credit, Mann weaves together the accounts, the high and low points of the key players’ experiences, using their own words. Several of the participants kept logs, but creating the book required an incredible amount of research on the author’s part.
  4. The trail through Oregon is over in a flash. Yes, there’s Crater Lake, Mt. Hood and Timberline Lodge, the Bridge of the Gods, but, on the whole nothing exciting really happened to the participants and the scenery is mostly trees and more trees.
  5. In Washington the story is all about the weather. The hikers experience forty-eight hours of rain, four hundred and twenty-six blowdowns of trees. And snow — lots of snow. This section also provides the setting for the book’s best writing and its most thoughtful discussion of pain: i.e. the difference between pain that can be tolerated and pain that must be dealt with. As Mann writes: “Pain was as much a part of this hike as the pines, the Douglas firs, and the thick-bark cedars.”

Of Washington, Mann also writes: “Around Blazer and Dalton, the change in leaf colors marked the changing seasons. The yellows of the larches and aspens screamed, ‘Hurry!’ The reds of the vine maples and huckleberry bushes warned, ‘You’ll have to stop soon.’ Daylight was pinched at both ends, the weather was deteriorating, and everyone’s body was finally signaling, This abuses must end. It was like being squeezed in a vise.”

I thought I knew about thru hiking, having walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. But in Spain we were hiking through towns and sleeping on mats in church social halls. Our lives didn’t depend on the loss of a glove or the breakdown of shoes. There was always help around the corner.

Today I am six weeks away from a seven-day road trip from Phoenix to Portland. A friend is flying down from Seattle to accompany me and help with the driving. We plan to head through California on the east side of the Sierras. Many of the sky islands scaled by the PCT thru-hikers I met in Barney Scout Mann’s Journeys North will be visible from the roads we take.

I ended up with a great deal of compassion and admiration for all that thru hikers put themselves through. The book was all about setting goals and being kind to yourself as you move forward on your path.

I’m taking the book along for the drive.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, environmentalism, Hiking, Nature, travel | 5 Comments

A critique of “Interpreter of Maladies,” by Jhumpa Lahiri

When my local book club here in Phoenix voted to read The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri for an upcoming meeting, I decided to take a look at the volume that won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. I had already read The Namesake and another of her novels, The Lowland, and liked them both. Why not consider her short stories?

Interpreter of Maladies would certainly provide an entry to a discussion of a literary form I’ve never really understood or appreciated. Especially at a point in Lahiri’s career when she herself is reevaluated language and how to use it.

Lahiri is the daughter of Bengali immigrants. She was born in England, but has done all her schooling in English in the United States. More than a decade ago, she moved her family to Italy. She devoted herself exclusively to that language: speaking, reading and writing in this foreign tongue. Now back in the States, she has produced two works in Italian, a memoir (In Other Words, 2016), translated into English by Ann Goldstein, and a novel (Whereabouts), due out in English this month, translated by Lahiri herself.

The nine stories that comprise Interpreter of Maladies are interesting to consider in the context of this author’s continued exploration of her storytelling capacity. The stories have many things in common. In all cases, the narrators or the protagonists are dealing with being uprooted.

The settings are consistent to Lahiri’s experience — India, London or New England. They focus on the kind of things that destabilize a person’s understanding of him or herself:  an arranged marriage, a longing for home, the clash of cultural expectations. The subjects are frequently men pursuing academics degrees. The women are often dragged into a reality not of their own making. Surprisingly, the protagonist or narrator is often a child: a voyeur of events he can only understand by describing them in the most mundane of terms. As the adult recalling the experience he knows which details to include.

In Mrs. Sens, Eliot is an eleven-year-old whose single mom hires a young Indian woman to care for him while she’s at work. They are inhabiting an unappealing beach cottage in a New England community. Mrs. Sens and her husband live in rented student housing at the university where Mr. Sens studies and teaches. Mrs. Sens doesn’t drive. At “home” she had a driver.

She would care for Eliot in her apartment.

Mrs. Sens is exotic. Thirty-years-old, she has beautiful eyes and “thick, flaring brows.” At the interview, she is wearing a white sari. Her demeanor and her immaculate apartment suddenly give Eliot a reason to see his mother as not fitting in, at looking odd “in her cuffed beige shorts and rope-soled shoes.”

The two, Eliot and Mrs. Sens, have many talks over the season of her care for him. Eliot listens; Mrs. Sens talks. He watches her apply a scarlet powdered drop to her forehead.

“I must wear the powder every day I am married,” she tells Eliot.

“Like a wedding ring?” he asks.

“Yes, exactly like a wedding ring,” Mrs. Sens answers. “Only with no fear of losing it in the dishwasher.”

He never sees Mr. and Mrs. Sens touch each other or stand close to each other. When Mrs. Sens receives a letter from home, she calls her husband and reads it to him in words Eliot can’t understand. Mrs. Sens’ cousin has had a baby. Mrs. Sens laments all that she is missing. She rips out all the beautiful saris she has stored in her bedroom drawers and closet. She flings them angrily on her bed.

“Has something happened? ” his mother asks Eliot the afternoon the babysitter doesn’t offer her refreshments when she picks him up after work.

“No,” he tells her.

At home one night, Eliot’s mom has an overnight male guest. Eliot never sees him again.

The story revolves around the fact that Mrs. Sens doesn’t drive, though her husband, a mathematics professor at the university, is trying to teach her. Finding a way to get fresh fish from the beach fishmonger when she can’t call her husband becomes the force behind the story’s action.

In “The Third and Final Continent” the narrator tells his own story. At 36, he is a penniless Bengali bachelor living in London. He wins a library post at MIT in America and at the same time his brother arranges for him to wed a woman in Calcutta before going to Boston.

The best way to read this story is as an adventure. Its hero negotiates moves from continent to continent from culture to culture. What he takes with him is a family history and the years he ministered to his grieving mother, who lost her husband at an early age.

In Boston, the narrator depends on a guidebook to find his way culturally. He eats a lot of bananas, milk and cornflakes moving from the YMCA to a rental room in the home of an elderly woman. She instructs him on the rules of her household seated on a piano bench in front of the stairs leading to the second story. She is wearing a full black skirt and a white shirt, her gnarled hands folded at her waist. She is old. Just how old, the narrator learns when he takes his new wife to meet her. Before Mala comes and he moves the two of them into a rented house of their own, he had spent many hours sitting beside the old lady on the piano bench and remembering to shout the word “Splendid” — the appropriate response to the old lady’s declarations.

Taking his bride to meet his former landlord makes clear all Mala and they have in store for them as they adjust to each other and their new “continent.”

This is a love story, perfectly written. It is based on the lives of Lahiri’s own parents. As with all the stories in this book, Lahiri doesn’t indulge in fancy writing. She writes from the outside in, like a sculptor with a block of wood or marble. She cuts away to the story’s essence. We are left with the truth at its heart: the compassion, the loneliness, the treachery of the lesson the work teaches. Along the way, real people and real events incarnate the story.

In Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri opened my eyes to the breadth and depth this short literary form can illuminate.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, India, literary fiction, religion and culture | 4 Comments

Road Trip: the Young Highway

If my husband were writing this entry, it would be entitled HiHo SilverTaco — Awayyy! This road trip would be his first opportunity to test the 2004 Toyota Tacoma in its reconditioned state. He had been broadsided by a driver that had turned into the front driver’s wheel six weeks earlier. He would be taking it on unknown roads, some of which might be hazardous due to the state of the pavement or lack of guardrails.

But I’m writing this post. I would be looking forward to exploring the forests and grasslands of a part of Arizona with which I was unfamiliar. It was my first opportunity to visit the Young Highway from the Mogollon Rim to Theodore Roosevelt Lake as a tourist. The road is a National Scenic byway. We did it Phoenix to Phoenix clockwise: Tall Pines to Desert. (Consult Arizona Highways Scenic Drives 40 of Arizona’s Best Back Roads, edited by Robert Stieve and Kelly Vaughn Kramer, 2014 for a thorough description of the route we took.)

How did the Taco perform? With flying colors, including the learning curve of dis-inflating the tires and re-inflating them to prepare for unpaved stretches of the Young Highway.

What did we think about the country we passed through? We were fascinated by it. We’ll go again, taking more time than the eight hours we had allotted for the 300-mile trip. The Young Highway is another instance of how quickly you can pass through one geographic panorama to another in Arizona.

We left Phoenix on a overcast weekday, taking a change of clothes in case we decided to sleep over somewhere on the way home. We didn’t know how well the truck would perform or how tiring the drive would be. We didn’t have a clear notion of road or weather conditions. Would there be a lot of traffic given we were in the middle of a pandemic in late April?

This was an adventure.

We left our home in North Central Phoenix by a familiar route to Fountain Hills; getting onto Shea Blvd and stayed on it all the way to SR 87, known as the Beeline Highway — a 45-minute drive. Eight months earlier, my hiking buddy Lynn and I had made the same drive to Payson, when we picked up the General Crook Trail to go hiking. (https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2020/08/21/summer-escapes-general-crook-trail-130/). The drive to Payson always astonishes once vistas of the Mogollon Rim come into view. This escarpment forms the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. It begins in New Mexico and runs diagonally across Arizona for 200 miles.

In Payson, we headed east on SR 260 direction to Show Low. The car thermometer read 45 degrees as we edged a portion of Sitgreaves National Forest. We passed grazing horses and patches of snow. At about 32 miles from Payson we turned right and picked up Forest Road 512. It took us south on SR 288 a well-paved byway through the Coconino National Forest, home to the largest stand of ponderosa pine trees in the world.

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These national park forests are filled with hiking and camping opportunities. We saw tents here and there as well as hiking routes. However, camping must be kept 300 feet from the roadway; warning sign cautioned hikers and campers of wild elk.

The National Forest Service monitors the health of the public forests in Coconino.

It was 26 miles into Young on wide, well graded roads. We encountered less than a dozen cars coming toward SR 260.

We were in no hurry.

Bruce pulled over to a spot to dis-inflate the tires. I was glad we had a high clearance vehicle, not knowing what lay ahead. We walked around for a few minutes and had a snack. No cars passed us on the road which alternated between paved and unpaved stretches. The roadway was wide as we descended into the grasslands of Pleasant Valley and the hamlet of Young, the most populated area in this part of Gila County.

Young today gives every evidence of being a town with its 600 to 700 inhabitants, with its churches and cemetery, Cherry Creek Cabins, Bruzzi Vineyards and spots to eat. Though it became a Census Designated Place (CDP) in 1890 and was named for its first postmaster, Olla Beth Young, it didn’t get electric power until 1965.

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An abandoned house in Young at Turner Hill Rd.

The Perkins Store, the location of a famous gun battle in 1887, is still standing. It is now a museum where — by appointment — tourists can immerse themselves in the history of the Pleasant Valley War, which started as a feud between two families, the Grahams and the Tewksburys and lasted for a decade before it left from 35 and 50 dead. Much has been made of this range war, including television series, movies and books including one by Zane Grey: To the Last Man. We’ll pick up this story when we have a chance to make an extended visit to Young on another occasion.

On this trip, we didn’t stop. We headed out and up to a viewpoint of the valley where we could stop for the lunch we brought from home. The most interesting viewing lay ahead.

With Globe ahead at mile 58, we pass Buzzard Roost Ranch, Malicious Gap, and McFadden Peak (7,135 ft. ) It wss drizzly and cold. Twice we pass abandoned grading equipment. We were on a very curvy road and glad no vehicles were coming toward us. We stopped at a rise we named “ocotillo point.” Desert vegetation was taking over. Never had we seen such a concentration of these desert cacti. Shortly thereafter we catch views of Roosevelt Lake through the fog.

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Before being completely obliterated by fog, Theodore Roosevelt Lake is visible as we descend south from Young.

Once we hit the flatter terrain on SR 188, Bruce stopped at a turnout and re-inflated the tires, but not before he got soaked by a rain that started up in earnest. It was time to turn up the heat in the car and switch drivers. I turn us west near Claypool onto I-60 through Superior and finally to I-10 west through Phoenix and north on SR 51 to home.

As it turned out we had already seen and driven worse roads in the Taco than we did anywhere of this trip. (https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2021/03/05/road-trip-madera-canyon-to-patagonia/). Then again the 17-mile stretch along Box Canyon on our way home from Patagonia several months earlier was not meant for the kind of traffic SR 288 could get down to Roosevelt Lake from Young on a busy day in inclement weather.

We’ll go again, now that we’ve gotten our bearings. Next time we’ll stay overnight in Young. There’s a lot to see.

Posted in Arizona, Road trip, Southwest and the desert, Toyota Tacoma, travel | 5 Comments

A critique of “Do Not Say We Have Nothing,” by Madeleine Thien

I was encourage to read Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing by a friend who found that, once read, it was difficult to get out of her mind.

I had the same reaction.

Published in 2016 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the novel focuses on three generations of families whose lives were caught up in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. We follow the fates of three young people in particular, all of them musical prodigies: Sparrow, a composer of classical music, Jiang Kai, a pianist, and Zhuli, a violinist. They have their lives and their art turned inside out by the political mayhem that accompanied the rise of Mao Zedong, whose stated goal was to preserve Chinese communism by purging it of capitalism and the culture’s traditional elements.

The Little Red Book, a collection of quotations of Chairman Mao, was put together by the People’s Liberation Army in 1964. It became the bible for the movement that persecuted, tortured, and purged universities and conservatories of artists and intellectuals, among them the parents and young people upon whom this book centers. Chinese students and their marginally affluent parents were made to become factory workers and farmers. Not just for a while. For years.

(We in the West also bought copies of the book — more that 800 million were sold — just to see what it was all about. I still have my copy on a bookshelf in Portland, Oregon.)

The trio of young musicians upon whom Thein’s book centers were seen as defenders of a musical heritage that was not their own. The works of Bach, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Beethoven were not to be honored. Jiang Kai’s, Sparrow’s and Zhuli’s stories are told and re-told, lived and re-lived. We also follow the fate of a Book of Records that Big Mother Knife, Sparrow’s mother, maintains. It becomes a novel within the novel, fictionalizing and personalizing the fate of emblematic characters.

Madeleine Thien, the author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing is herself a Chinese Canadian. She fashions a frame around these historic characters through a mother, Ma, the wife of Kai, their daughter, Marie (Li ling) who are living in Vancouver, Canada and Sparrow’s daughter, Ai-Ming, who, like her dad, is caught up in the uprisings that ended in a massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Ai-Ming survives, is able to flee China to Canada and meet Ma and Marie.

If you haven’t figured out by now, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a difficult book to penetrate. Its characters, generations and stories are hard to follow. English is interspersed with Chinese characters. Chapters are not handled in a linear fashion. The language is often poetic. Sometimes, it’s terse. Mood shifts are frequent, moving from lugubrious to romantic to adventurous.

As China gears up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of its Communist Party July 1, what better way can we Westerners commemorate this milestone than to recognize what it took to get there. Reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien is one way to do that. The book’s title, by the way, is from the Internationale:

Arise, slaves, arise! Do not say that we have nothing. We shall be the masters of the world!

Maybe so.

Posted in Book Reviews, China, Commentary, Communism | 2 Comments

Una crítica de «Voyager» de Nona Fernández

Voyager es una mezcla de eventos verídicos con elementos de fantasía. Toma su inspiración en la yuctapoisición de las sondas exploratorias de Las Voyager que lanzó NASA en 1977 y la impermanencia de la vida humana que revela una exposición de la política chilena desde ese entonces. Es un libro que se trata de las estrellas y de la memoria.

La narradora de la trama trabaja en la astronomía. Su madre de casi ochenta años sufre un desmayo y la perdida de la memoria. Este evento provoca un reviso de los sistemas para medir la realidad y el espacio. La protagonista considera la historia personal de su familia que se capta a través de fotos, sueños y memorias. Consulta otros sistemas: los signos zodiacales, el horóscopo y hechos históricos en su análisis.

Cuando era niña, se recuerda que su madre explicaba las estrellas como gente chiquitita que quería comunicarse con los seres humanos usando espejos. Cuando viene un propósito de popular otra constelación que la Unión Astronómica ha descubierto, la narradora se pone en contacto con Amnestía Internacional para nombrar algunas de las estrellas nuevas que la compondría con los nombres de veintiséis chilenos matados en el norte de Chile por la Caravana de la Muerte durante la época de Pinochet. Se reconocen como los Desaparecidos de Calama. Mucha de la acción del libro se lleva acabo en el Desierto Atacama, un lugar alto, seco y frio. En ese sentido tiene una afinidad con el espacio astronómico.

La facilidad descriptiva de Nona Fernández promueve la lectura de esta novela. Voyager un libro muy imaginativo que es escrito en lenguaje poético, pero para mí sus contemplaciones filosóficas son cansadoras. Basta, ya. Me encantó el apogeo narrativo cuando el hijo de la narradora hace una presentación a una asemblea estudiantil que celebra el aniversario de la restauración de la democracia en Chile. Entre otras cosas cuestiona el nombramiento de alguos calles y lugares a varios proponentes del gobierno de Pinochet.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, en español, Hispanidad, history, literary fiction | 1 Comment

Road Trip: Boyce Thompson Arboretum

When friends visit Arizona, where do you take them?

Boyce Thompson Arboretum, a few miles west of Superior and an hour’s drive from Phoenix, was a good choice for us when our friend Ann came for four days last week.

We had already planned to meet other Northeast Portland friends Alphie and Jay Smith there. Ann was glad to tag along. We knew Boyce Thompson would be shady with its groves of eucalyptus, palms and boojums. What we hadn’t counted on was the cacophony of birds and the quiet presence of birders who had come to photograph them.

For the Smiths, who live in Quail Creek, southeast of Tucson, this would be their first foray out in public since the start of the pandemic. Their trip to Boyce involved a two-hour drive each way. Jay had intended to tack on a side visit to nearby Superior, hoping to catch sight of nearby Oak Flat, recently so much in the news. (More about that later.)

We left our place in North Central Phoenix at 8:30 a.m. with packed lunches and plenty of water, planning to meet Alphie and Jay at 10 am. We took SR 51 to I-10 where we picked up US 60 east to Globe.

The series of very walkable paths throughout Boyce Thompson brings you close to more than 3000 desert plants.

April is a colorful month to travel in the desert. Ann marveled at the brilliance of yellow foliage on the palo verdes and acacias and the reds and pinks of the bougainvillea along the highways las we left the metro area. The saguaro cactus seemed to be giving us the middle finger salute once out on the open desert, Ann said.

We had no time to stop at the Superstition Mountain Range and get a closeup of Weavers Needle or search for Apache Junction’s Vacuum and Bike, a shop that appeared on Bruce’s call list years ago when he worked for West Coast Cyclery in California.

But just the name “apache junction” promises sightseeing opportunities. We’d have to save for another day a hike in the Lost Dutchman State Park and a tour of the Goldfield Ghost Town and Mine. In fact, it was a friend who lives in Apache Junction, a supporter of the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, who had sent us the entrance tickets to the garden.

What a haven the Arboretum promised on a sunny day! After miles of saguaro studded desert, a right turn down into 392 acres of palm and eucalyptus groves set against the Picketpost Mountain took us to an oasis.

The setting was established in 1924 as a winter retreat for the founder and namesake, William Boyce Thompson, owner of the Magma Mine in Superior. What remains of his adjacent residence, the Picket Post Mansion, built from 1923 to 1929 was bought by Arizona State Parks in 2008. Known as the “Castle on the Rock,” it is occasionally open for tours.

Boyce Thompson is the largest and oldest botanical garden west of the Mississippi. It contains 3,900 plant species, three miles of paths, several greenhouses, historic buildings and a desert plant research facility, the demonstration Wallace Desert Garden, benches for sitting along the path. The arboretum attracts 270 bird species. The three-room Clevenger House, occupied by a truck farmer and his five-member family in the early 1900s, is now used for herb drying and display. Mr. Big, a red gum eucalyptus, is awesome in height and girth.

Palm “hide” up close

We communicated with Alphie and Jay soon after arriving, walking and talking with them for a while, and then resolving to reassemble at the picnic area for lunch. All the while, it was getting hotter. We had a good short visit at lunch, interrupted occasionally by the discovery of a nearby bird. Alphie outlined the migration patterns of birds that pass through Arizona, going north in the Spring, south in the Fall.

I discovered there was a lot to learn.

Jay had recently read Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land, by Lauren Redniss. He hoped to get a look at the controversial site near Superior that the Biden administration has resisted opening for copper mining. It is a site sacred to Native Americans from the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation and other Native American tribes. Hundreds of organizations have lined up against this deep mining operation. The property is owned by Australian companies Rio Tinto and BhBilliton, the two biggest metal mining operations in the world.

“The Australians have done so well with their own native people,” Bruce commented ironically. “Let’s give them an opportunity to go after ours.” These companies have a history of disregarding the sites sacred to their own indigenous population at home.

The mining legacy of Arizona persists. There are traces of it everywhere. We saw signs of resistance by ranchers to reopening mines near Patagonia on a trip earlier this year. I haven’t talked to Jay since our get together at Boyce Thompson but I ordered the book he suggested from the Phoenix Public Library.

Posted in Arizona, Commentary, environmentalism, Nature, Road trip, Southwest and the desert, travel | 6 Comments

A critique of “Klara and the Sun,” by Kazuo Ishiguru

Like all his works, Kazuo Ishiguru’s Klara and the Sun manages to defy category. Is it a horror story like Never Let Me Go? An examination of the relationship between servant and master like The Remains of the Day? By the end of Part One, I thought I had figured it out.

Klara and the Sun is a love story.

I had tears in my eyes. “I know how this ends,” I told myself. Of course, I didn’t.

Here are the words that seemed to promise a happy ending:

‘Josie came hurrying to me. She put her arms around me and held me. When I gazed over the child’s head, I saw Manager smiling happily, and the Mother, her face drawn and serious, looking down to search in her shoulder bag.’

Klara and the Sun is a work that had me read it word by word, page by page, and section by section to see where it was going. The narrator is a personal robot, an attractive female of medium height, who some perceive to be French- looking. We meet Klara while she is still in the store and friends with Rosa, another robot companion for sale. They are being groomed to be Artificial Friends (AFs) for children and are under the tutelage of the Manager. They are powered by the Sun, who is a “he,” by the way, and capitalized as if god-like.

Being in the store’s window is particularly glorious because the AFs are in full view of the street, and all its goings on — Beggar Man and his dog; Coffee Cup Lady and Raincoat Man, who discover each other from across the motorway; the Cootings machine which seems to be polluting the air. Taxis come and go, depositing shoppers and workers.

Klara is observant. She files everything away. She is in the store’s window, when she attracts the attention of Josie, a thin child of thirteen, who eventually buys her and promises her a bedroom filled with the Sun. The Mother’s approval of the purchase is studied, halting.

The story, then, told in retrospect from Klara’s point of view, is all about the adventures and the people who inhabit Josie’s world and how Klara accommodates to them. Her goal is to see that no harm comes to her owner, whose health is in jeopardy. We learn that an older sister did not survive.

Klara meets Rick, Josie’s neighbor and childhood friend, who has not been “uplifted” and had the educational advantages that Josie has had. We meet Rick’s troubled, intellectual mother, Miss Helen; Josie’s father, Paul, a political dissident; Melanie Housekeeper, who keeps things running while the Mother dresses “upscale” and goes off to work long hours in the city. And then, there’s Mr. Capaldi, an inventor who is creating a “likeness” of Josie.

If I were to categorize this work, I would call it a dystopian mystery, but one that is not without hope. I can promise anyone who takes this book on, he or she will be fascinated with the narrator’s voice, perspective and the energy she vests in affecting outcome.

I spoke with a friend recently about Klara and the Sun. She mentioned she had twice read When We Were Orphans, written by Kazuo Ishiguru in 2000. Though I don’t generally read a book more than once, I get it. You read it first to see how he did it. And then, you read it again and marvel how he did it.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, edgy, literary fiction, mystery | 2 Comments

The Sock Drawer

The pandemic hits us all in different ways. For me, its limitations have combined with the concussion I suffered bicycling six months ago. It makes me angry and confused.

Bruce and I discussed the whole thing over coffee one morning recently. He told me about “the sock drawer.”

Apparently, you never have too many plastic refrigerator storage containers.

When he was a kid and his father did something that enraged his younger brother, he’d find Barry rearranging things in his sock drawer.

“You need a sock drawer,” Bruce told me.

It turns out I have one. Whenever I’m at a loss, I wander around and rearrange things.

Recently, he came home and found all the plastic tupperware containers on the kitchen counter. Before that, it was the clothes from my clothes closet on my bed. Before that it was a pile of extra dress hangers. Before that: my tee shirts, my partly-finished knitting projects.

For some people a nap works to stave off anxiety, anger and confusion. For others, pulling weeds. But the weather is hitting 100 this week and it’s only April.

Bruce just walked in from shopping at Home Depot, Artie’s and WinCo. He found me dividing my summer knitwear from my winter knitwear.

“A case of the sock drawer?” he asked.

Posted in Arizona, Commentary, edgy, fun stuff, good thoughts, health and wellness | 1 Comment

A critique of “The Hidden Life of Trees,” by Peter Wohlleben

I had the added benefit of reading an illustrated edition of this part fact, part fanciful work about the life, death and communication strategies of trees. The author is Peter Wohlleben, a German forest rangers with years of experience in the observation of sylvan communities.

The Hidden Life of Trees is a beautifully written book that starts with looking at how trees communicate with each other, primarily through their roots but also through their relationships with the other inhabitants of their kingdom.

Time — we are talking decades and centuries here — and decay are also under consideration.

Wohlleben uses human logic, arguing by analogy, to make his case. To my mind his initial premise, anthropomorphizing Nature, is suspect.

Read this book for the pleasure of the subject matter.

I also found The Hidden Life of Trees perplexing, since forests are not plentiful in the part of the world where I live: Arizona. But the end result was to make me want to seek out the forests we have here.

As Wohlleben observes, just being under the canopies of trees is life sustaining for humans. We need to look beyond forests as lumber factories and warehouses of raw material but rather as complex habitats for thousands of species.

For Wohlleben, observation is all. I intend to look harder and to sharpen my sense of smell.

Posted in Book Reviews, environmentalism, health and wellness, Nature | 5 Comments

Road Trip: Patagonia, AZ (again)

We vowed to come back. So, three weeks later — we are — once again — on our way to Santa Cruz County. This time we are in Bruce’s 2004 Toyota Tacoma 4×4 so we can explore the dirt roads that connect old silver mining sites to Patagonia. (Read about our earlier trip: https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2021/03/05/road-trip-madera-canyon-to-patagonia/).

We take I-10 from Phoenix to Exit 260, Hwy 19 to Nogales, and go straight to this border town with Mexico.

We had heard about La Ley from our host at Rancho Santa Cruz in Tumacácori on our earlier trip. A good friend in Phoenix had also told us about this working class restaurant on a short dirt road lined with car and truck repair shops off Grand Ave. (226 W 3rd St.)

Cal had eaten there frequently when he lived in the area. He told us that the husband and wife who owned the place always took the orders orally, shouting the information to the kitchen. Sure enough, our whole transaction was voice-activated. The woman who cleared the table also seemed to figured the bill in her head. She recommended we try the flan on the next visit. I will. I have never eaten a better fish/shrimp soup than what I ate at La Ley. My taste buds are still salivating.

Kino is everywhere in Southern Arizona

The enthusiastic caretakers of the town’s Chamber of Commerce (123 W Kino Park Place) had directed us to La Ley. The Chamber, which was probably not getting a lot of business these days, is on a hilltop fronted by a beautifully landscaped plaza guarded by Eusebio Francisco Kino.

Statues of this Jesuit priest (1645-1711) are are all over Southern Arizona. Kino is to Arizona what Junipero is to California. The founder of 24 missions, Kino was an explorer and cartographer. He crossed the Colorado by raft, made two journeys to California. He preceded Serra’s arrival by nearly a century. Isn’t he due equal recognition by the Church? Or maybe not. Serra was canonized in 2015; protestors were toppling his statues in California in 2020.

Neither of us was sorry to leave Nogales behind. It’s big (population, 20,000) and noisy with international transport. We couldn’t find a tourist pin commemorating the border we had hoped to bring back to a friend in Phoenix. We had thought about walking across the border, but we decided against it on this trip. Our car was filled with travel gear.

So we were on to Patagonia, a short 19 miles from Nogales on AZ 82. We spied a turnoff to Patagonia Lake State Park on the way there and decided to take a look. What a beautiful drive down to the lake! At 3,750 feet in elevation, it’s actually a reservoir of Sonoita Creek. The few estates scattered along the hilly four miles on the way there have glorious views, but where do they go for a loaf of bread? Once again, we saved a visit to the park for another day, maybe a day when we were pulling a recreational vehicle or had intentions to camp.

No sirree! We were on to Patagonia (population 772), planning to stay in an AirBnB for two nights.

An impromptu memorial

Patagonia is the town I dream about when I go to sleep at night. In an alternate life I imagine living here, rubbing shoulders with the ghost of Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall) or actually running into Philip Caputo (https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2018/09/15/a-critique-of-some-rise-by-sin-by-philip-caputo/). Caputo wrote a recent piece in the Patagonia Regional Times, a local monthly, in recognition of JPS Brown, a writer, cowboy and fighter who recently died. Caputo lives part of the year in town.

The main street through Patagonia is probably one-mile long with a rectangular park, train station, town hall, library, and other public buildings in the middle. The park is straddled by two, two-way streets on either side. The Wagon Wheel Saloon, Velvet Elvis pizzeria and the town grocery store are easy to spot on the west side; a concentration of galleries, coffee shops and a hotel are on the east side.

Patagonia is a walkable town. That’s what people do here.

Casa de Amistad was filled with collectibles

Our overnights were spent at the Casa de Amistad (www.casadeamistadaz.com), which may have been a bunkhouse in an earlier iteration. It is now beautifully remodeled by host Cecilia San Miguel, whose own apartment separates the two rentals. A separate kitchen and laundry facility is out the back door, a few steps from either rental.

We loved the location, a half-mile walk down a gravel creek bed to a Nature Conservancy bird-watching area. (https://www.nature.org/content/dam/tnc/nature/en/documents/pscp-bird-checklist-rev061110-fkee.pdf) We walked it and found a number of birders with spyglasses. One asked me if I’d seen the wood warbler. I hadn’t.

The town’s iconic saloon

We came back to the rental via Pennsylvania past a series of mobile homes that hadn’t been mobile in decades. We saw a lot being cleared to accommodate sewer hookup for more. Patagonia is not a place where Forerunners pulling RVs will find somewhere to park. It is a place where people walk everywhere, including down to the Wagon Wheel Saloon where we had dinner and listened to two old codgers — certainly no older than us — talk about the Robert Spencer mysteries they had read and the latest Vigo Mortensen movie they had seen.

One had fed the jukebox while he was there. The other, bearded and wearing clothes he may have slept in, took off in the pristine, late-model Jeep we had seen outside. The third one who had been sitting alone, said: “Love you” to the woman attending the bar when he left.

“We’ll probably find them here tomorrow night if we come back,” Bruce said.

We started in Patagonia going south (FR 49), circled counter clockwise (799) to Sonoita on 83.

The next day we had a chance to test the Tacoma on a series of dirt roads connecting the old silver mines of the region. It performed well, though it was difficult to take notes on the bumpy roads which wind past former silver mining sites, one of which — the Hermosa — seems to have reopened. Early on we also saw a gathering of a half-dozen town folk and a cemetery. The frequent warning signs– Smuggling Activity Common in This Area — and the presence of three unmanned Border Control vehicles within 200 feet of each other convinced us to keep moving. Signs on fences on the property of many cattle ranchers in the area opposed the resumption of mining.

“I wonder if people come up here to camp when it gets hot in town,” Bruce said, noticing the remains of old campfires along the way. He had consulted a couple of sources before making the trip, which I looked at upon our return. (Arizona Ghost Towns: 50 of the States Best Places to get a Glimpse of the Old West, by Noah Austin and Arizona Ghost Towns and Mining Camps: A Travel Guide to History, by Philip Varney.)

We stopped at The Café in Sonoita (3280 AZ 82) for a late lunch. It’s open 11 am to 8 pm. daily. Good food.

We left Patagonia early the next morning after losing a fight with the bedcovers. We ate a minimal breakfast, checked the refrigerator for leftovers, cleared out our belongings and hit the road, planning to take a look at Madera Canyon on our return. We traversed the same seventeen-mile dirt road stretch of Box Canyon that I had driven in the Toyota Rav 4 a few weeks earlier. (It was better in the Tacoma.)

At 9 a.m. Madera was already teeming with tourists. Thank you, no. We were through with people. After a drive through, we headed back to Phoenix, stopping at a Waffle House near Tucson for a real breakfast. The Waffle House is deserving of its own frantic blog post, but not even a slow up on I-10 could tarnish our glow from this three-day getaway. I was left with the thought I saw on a sign while driving around Santa Cruz County.

Find joy in the journey.

Posted in Arizona, Commentary, history, Road trip, Southwest and the desert, Toyota Tacoma, travel | 6 Comments

A critique of “Such a Fun Age”, by Kiley Reid

For a book that superficially purports to be about race relations in the digital age, Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid sure spends a lot of time focusing on the eating, outfitting and entertainment habits of well-educated earners in their twenties and thirties.

The ‘fun” age we’re talking about is 2015. It is clearly pre-pandemic and, although there is mention of the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Green Party and one reference to Black Lives Matter, this is not a political book in any sense of the word. Instead, it seems to be about the working out of adolescence — or not — of Alex (now Alix Chamberlain), a white mother of two, who has made a career of letter-writing and petitioning products for free and then publicizing them on the Internet.

The babysitter she hires is Emira Tucker, an African American graduate of Temple University. Emira is a rapid typist but rudderless career-wise. She falls in love with Briar, the Chamberlain’s two — going-on-three–year-old. Temperamentally, Emira is the mother Briar deserves.

Alix and Emira each has her own support posse of girlfriends who are introduced and reintroduced almost like “paint by numbers.”

An unfortunate encounter with a security guard in a prosperous food market thrusts Emira into a controversy and a relationship with a charming white guy who also figures in Alix’s past. It all comes together at a Thanksgiving dinner and then again as the Internet feed recreating Emira’s encounter with the security guard.

If this book is about anything, it is about privacy versus the public domain. What it has going for it is a good re-creation of the spoken dialects of the parties in question. If you are not digitally sophisticated or familiar with “dope” lingo, you are in for an education that would best take place if you had time to kill. (For example: on a long-distance flight or a getaway at a Bed and Breakfast on a rainy or snowy day.) The sex is unappealing, the mysteries and their solutions are clunky.

Avoid this book if you are looking for depth.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, edgy, fun stuff, mystery, race and class | 5 Comments

A critique of “Zorrie,” by Laird Hunt

No author better captures the mystery of sensation than Laird Hunt in Zorrie. Consider this: A character named Noah extends a tattered copy of a book by Montaigne to the book’s protagonist. The book belonged to Noah’s father, Virgil, who has just died.

Zorrie could see Noah had been crying, She tries to refuse the book. Noah should keep it, she says. Noah says “no,” offering it to her with both his hands.

“What was ours fell over into his green mark,” he says of Virgil’s death.

“Hurrying away from the house with the green roof down the green lane toward the green woods and home, with nothing but unanswerable mysteries alongside her, Zorrie decided it would have been strange” if Noah had kept the book.

All the characters that people this book fit into their “green marks.” They appear and disappear like sights and sounds. Time passes. Then, all of a sudden, it’s years later. We know this because, for example, Oats, Zorrie’s dog, has dropped from the list of cast members and someone named Lester suggests Zorrie get a dog.

In the same way the decision to go to Hollard arrives because of a conversation Zorrie has at the State Fair about tulips. Suddenly she has bought a ticket to Holland, a first plane ride for a woman in her70s. She’ll stand on the beach looking out over the water where Harold’s plane went down in World War II.

Zorrie is a woman filled with energy and intelligence. She loses both her parents to diphtheria and is raised by an elderly aunt who has “drunk too deeply from the cup of bitterness.” When the aunt dies Zorrie is left penniless during the Depression. Homeless and hungry, she moves from small town to small town, Indiana to Illinois, where — in the company of Marie and Janie — she becomes a “ghost girl” painting numbers on wall clocks and infecting herself with radium. But then it is back to Indiana, “it was the dirt she had bloomed out of, it was who she was, how she felt, how she thought, what she knew.”

We have here a unique portrait of what survival look like, in its continuity and its prosperity. Zorrie is different from “the other old carapaces at church'” — a word whose meaning she knows. You must have patience to open yourself to the marvels of this book. Through it — through Zorrie — you are filled with nearly a century of rural America.

Laird Hunt is a seasoned writer, the author of eight novels, a book of short stories and two book-length translations from French. He is a member of the Literary Arts department of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. This is the first book I have read by him. It won’t be the last.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, literary fiction | 1 Comment

Road trip: Madera Canyon to Patagonia

This was the plan: We’d make a getaway from Phoenix with a trip to southern Arizona to celebrate my birthday, Valentine’s Day and our Anniversary all rolled into one. We’d visit an area that was new to us. Bruce had seen a write-up in Arizona Highways (February 2021) about Rancho Santa Cruz, a B&B in Tumacácori. Then we came upon another in the Arizona Republic (“Trip to Tubac,” Monday, Jan. 30.) And finally, there was a reference to Patagonia. No — not the outdoor clothing company or that region between Argentina and Chile — the Arizona town near the Mexican border.

We’d seen a lot of reference to this area over the last few years: on a visit to Sierra Vista ((https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2018/04/26/visit-to-a-sky-island/)/and to Bisbee. (https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2020/01/20/bisbee-az-where-copper-was-king-and-hippies-once-reigned/ ). Both times the name Patagonia floated out there.

This time, we were determined to discover what the region was all about. We’d do it as tourists, knowing we would be coming back.

From our place in North Central Phoenix, we took the obligatory two-hour drive on I-10 to Tucson Exit 260, I-19 South to Nogales. We knew a famous mission was somewhere in the area. Why not check it out, too?

San Xavier del Bac, founded by the Jesuit explorer Father Eusebio Kino in the 1700’s, has been operated by the Franciscans since 1797. One of the characters In Willa Cather’s 1927 Death Comes to the Archbishop (1927), called it “the most beautiful church on the continent.”

I think it still is.

Mission San Xavier del Bac 10 miles south of Tucson

Franciscan nuns operate the adjacent school for students of the Tohono O’odham and Yaqui tribes on whose reservation this National Historic Monument sits. Every year, the Friday after Easter, the students conduct a candlelit parade to the church. My friend Alexis, who went to high school in Tucson, told me her track team used train by running to the cathedral.

Continuing south to Rancho Santa Cruz, the B & B where we would be staying two nights (1709 E Frontage Rd at Exit 29 of I-19).We soon got off the main thoroughfare to Nogales and took the calmer Frontage Rd, passing turnoffs to Tubac and the Tumacácori mission, both of which we would explore later.

Designer touches by Susan Berryman

Susan and Peter Berryman, both artists, bought Rancho Santa Cruz in 2016. They enlisted the help of their sons Tony and Josh and Josh’s wife Cristina to bring the former dude ranch back to the glory days it enjoyed from the ’30s to the ’50s. The Hacienda is their family home, with five of the “dude ranch” rooms turned into B&B guest rooms. They have three long term guests suites and there is space for RV visitor hookups.

Metal sculpture by Peter Berryman

Rancho Santa Cruz is a compound beautifully restored inside and out. Visit the Rancho Santa Cruz website for details about the place’s colorful past, which included visits by Stewart Granger and John Wayne. Three banks of rooms surround the grassy central courtyard. A tree near our bedroom window was filled with birds calls at dawn and dusk. It gave us a preview of why Santa Cruz and Cochise counties deserve their reputations as havens for songbirds.

We loved staying here and enjoyed the breakfasts prepared by Josh and Cristina, served in a separate building with a view of the pool and a row of cottonwood trees that border the Santa Cruz River and the Juan Bautista de Anza trail. During breakfasts, our hosts filled us in with history of the area.

Here’s what still lay ahead:

Tubac: Now a major shopping site for furniture, art and ceramics, it is home to many snowbirds and winter visitors. More importantly, it is the oldest Spanish Presidio in Arizona, established in 1752 with an extensive museum, early printing press and schoolhouse. We spent more than an hour here and want to go back.

Tumacácori National Historic Park: a 360-acre site with mission ruins, orchards, and paths down to the Santa Cruz River where a 4.5 mile portion of the Juan Bautista de Anza trail heads over to Tubac. We walked a swath of the trail which also borders Rancho Santa Cruz and ran into two pole-hiking snowbirds from Colorado who had walked over from Tubac.

Nogales: Welcome to ambos (both) Nogales says the Main St. sign. We ate dinner our first night of the trip at Tacos y Tarros (mugs), across the Walmart parking lot here. Filled with working-class Spanish speakers, it seemed to be the only restaurant open after 4 p.m. on a Tuesday night. It inspired me to rent “Fools Rush In,” (1997) a romantic comedy with Salma Hayek and Matthew Perry. (My physical therapist in Phoenix remembers a line from the movie that puts Arizona on the map: “I’m in Nogales,” Hayeh tells Perry.

Patagonia: Now a tourist destination, retirement community and arts and craft center, Patagonia, on Highway 82 east of Nogales, was originally a trading and supply center for ranches and mines in the late nineteenth century. Driving our SUV — our truck was in the shop — we decided against exploring the ghost towns of Mowre, Washington Camp or Duquesne. We later learned that if we had gone up Harshaw Rd. we might have come upon a spot where silver mining has resumed. We liked the feel of the town and tried not to be put off by seniors practicing Tai Chi in the central park and signs promoting aerobics. We should have gone into the Wagon Wheel Saloon. It has history. Among others, Legends of the Fall writer Jim Harrison drank here.

Opera House in Patagonia
Toward mining camps in Patagonia

Needless to say, we missed a lot. Where we didn’t stop and I’m sorry we didn’t:

Patagonia Lake State Park: Considered a bird haven by aficionados.

Madera Canyon: No, we never got there. We saw a sign to Madera Canyon on our way out of Sonoita after leaving Patagonia, but ended up on a 17-mile dirt road along Box Canyon. When we got to the paved road nearing Continental, we decided it was time to head back to Rancho Santa Cruz if we wanted to stop at Tubac. We will catch those grassland bajadas and oak and juniper forests on our next trip to the area.

Vivid memories?

Two young cyclists on road bikes heading away from a paved road toward Box Canyon. Did they know where they were going? The road ahead was lonely and potentially hazardous.

Walking portions along the Santa Cruz River on the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail which actually cuts through Rancho Santa Cruz. The trail commemorates the trip Bautista made in 1775-76 to establish a Spanish colony in San Francisco.

Being surrounded by Spanish speakers at my birthday dinner at Tacos y Tarros, in Nogales.

We’ll be back. Next time I’ll find out where Cristina grocery shops and I’ll stock the little ice box in our room with snacks and Happy Hour fixings. Why drive 5 miles to the General Store in Tubac for sandwiches or a bag of ice. We can do that in Phoenix.

Posted in Arizona, history, Road trip, Southwest and the desert, travel | 5 Comments

A critique of “The Island of Sea Women,” by Lisa See

The Island of Sea Women, by Lisa See focuses its lens on Jeju, a small island off the south coast of Korea and the culture of the haenyeo, the women deep sea divers who made the island famous. The story centers around the April 3 Incident when, in 1948 and under the anti-communist tutelage of the United States, south Korean police and military battled the insurgents on Jeju who fought to unite north and south Korea. This incident itself and the years of privation that followed were unknown to me.

I am glad to have read the book and I admire the study by the author that went into bringing it to print. I feel culpable — as should all U.S. citizens — for our country’s involvement in places and cultures we know little about. Right now, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen comes to mind and the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for dominance in that part of the Middle East.

First and foremost, however, The Island of Sea Women is a novel whose time frame and focus moves between 2008 and Young-sook, a woman in her eighties, and 1938 and Young-sook, the teenage baby-diver learning her mother’s trade. The island of Jeju and Korea have been Japanese colonies for 28 years when Young-sook and Mi-ja, her best friend, begin their apprenticeships.

The book centers on the comradeship and competition between the two girls. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator and beautiful. She is in the care of an aunt and uncle who do not treat her well. Young-sook’s mother is the head of their diving collective. In the haenyeo culture women earn their family’s keep; husbands guard the households and children. The island is under the political dominance of their foreign occupiers.

Their culture, however, remains intact: the practice of deep sea diving, the banter between the divers, the rituals surrounding marriage and funerals — all of that has been retained. The uniqueness of the island culture — the practices of Shamanism, goddess worship, even its diet and reliance on pigs — make reading the book an adventure. Keep Google Search handy if you are curious about the following places and articles: olle, oreum, bulteok are a few of the many terms that go untranslated in this text.

If you do an electronic search on Jeju and the diving culture of the island, you will learn a lot about a beautiful and remarkable place and people. You may want, as I did, to return to reading The Island of Sea Women again just for an appreciation of the education that Young-sook went through as an elder when she learns what her dear friend went through to protect their children and their friendship over the years.

In many ways, this book is a fitting companion to Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee, the critique of which is frequently requested on this blog. That book traces the immigration of Koreans to Japan (https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/a-critique-of-pachinko-by-min-jin-lee/) and the prejudice they suffered as foreigners.

Read both books.

Posted in Atomic Bomb, Book Reviews, Commentary, Hiroshima, history, Korea, literary fiction, Nagasaki, World War II | 3 Comments

una crítica de “El monarca de las sombras,” de Javier Cercas

Tengo que admitir que no leí todas las palabras de este libro. No es que la obra no me gustó. Todo lo contrario. La encontré una de las más cautivadoras que he leído en los últimos años. Pero muchas páginas del libro están llenas de descripciónes de batallas de la guerra civil de España. Lo que me interesan cuando leo un libro son los personajes. Y El monarca de las sombras, de Javier Cercas, tiene personajes por montones. Y aún más importante, tiene dos personajes prinicipales y la trama de la acción se circula alrededor de sus historias. El grano del enigma de la obra es la manera en que sus historias se interrelacionan. Además la belleza del proceso literario es como el autor integrar lo histórico con lo conmemorado con lo fantaseado.

Primero, el libro se concentra en la historia de Manuel Mena, un muchacho de diecinueve años quien murió en la batalla de Ebro en 1938. En ese entonces, Mena era el chico mejor destinado de salir de su pueblo pequeño e ir a la universidad. Pero en lugar de seguir estudiando fue a la guerra. Además es la historia de su sobrino nieto, Javier Cercas, quien decide escribir un libro sobre Mena su antepasado. Cercas es reconocido nacionalmente como celebre autor de auto ficción. Aquí tuvo la oportunidad de integrar lo personal con lo histórico.

Con su obra sobre la vida corta de Manuel Mena, un falangista, Cercas entra al movimiento literario de «memoria histórica.” (Giles Harvey escribió un buen tratamiento sobre Cercas y este movimiento cuando salió la traducción del libro al inglés: “Why the Champion of Reparative Justice Turned On The Cause,” New Yorker, el 13 de enero de 2020.

Para satisfacer el nivel histórico, el autor tuvo que pasar meses visitando sitios donde las batallas que se llevaron a cabo y hablar con mucha gente que recuerdaban los detalles de los sitios y los sentimientos de 1938.

Para apreciar el proyecto como lectora es otra cosa. Yo quería concentrarme en las escenas donde las dos historias, la de Mena y la de Cercas, convergen. Convergen en Ibahernando, el pequeño pueblo de Extremadura, donde tanto Mena como Cercas nacieron. Convergen en Blanca, la mamá de Cercas, la sobrina de Mena.

Blanquita era una niña de seis años cuando murió su tío Manuel, el adulto más querido de su vida. Decir que ella lloró cuando supo de su muerte. Decir que lloró a cántaros tampoco lo capta. Lloró horas a voz alta. Y después — de lo que sepa el autor — se secaron las lágrimas. Nunca lloró de nuevo. En su vida. Mena murió como alférez de la Falange, los vencedores de una guerra que duró un poco mas de tres años y contó con medio millón de muertos. Ser descendiente de falangistas, una banda que se incorporó al franquismo no es nada admirable hoy en día en España. Así que Cercas tiene que inventar como fantaseador un momento con su mamá donde mejor entiende lo que pierdió Ibahernando y lo que perdió ella.

En una de los últimos intercambios entre Blanca y su hijo, ella le dice: “No sabes cuánto me hubiera gustado que lo conocieras: era tan simpático, siempre estaba riéndose, siempre haciendo bromas. . .Era así. Y por eso se sintió obligado. Ni más más ni más menos.

Cerca establece la relación entre hijo y madre con el punto que se introduce al principio y al final del libro: todo tiene que ver con sus regresos a Ibahernando. Algunos trucos literarios que utiliza Cercas son la integración de cultura popular española — un concurso de tele realidad, Gran Hermano, por ejemplo que les gusta a los dos– y otras obras literarias, como la comparasión de la figura de Aquiles como se encuentra en la Ilíada y como se ve en la Odisea, antiguos libros que recuperó durante una visita al pueblo natal.

Para mi fue la figura de Blanca que resoná más trágica y realista del libro — ella quien hizo sus maletas al salir de Ibahernando como recién casada para residir el resto de su vida en territorio incógnito-Cataluña.

El libro termina como himno de Cercas a su madre.


Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, en español, history, literary fiction | Leave a comment

A critique of “The Waterworks,” by E.L. Doctorow

The tattered copy of E. L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks that I borrowed from the Phoenix Public Library arrived with a a back cover filled with positive reviews from the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Boston Sunday Herald, all of them written in 1994 when the book was published.

It’s an old book, written by a much published author. Why read it now? In my case, I picked it up because it was chosen for discussion by my book club.

I’m glad I did.

The Waterworks took me back to the first mystery novel I read, Woman in White, written in 1859 by Wilke Collins. It took me back to the descriptive writing of Charles Dickens, a friend and contemporary of Collins. It took me back to the hair-raising prose of Edgar Allen Poe, also their contemporary. In fact, this is exactly what Doctorow intended. (By the way, his first name, Edgar, is the same as Poe’s.)

The Waterworks comes complete with a disquieting narrator (a newspaper editor), his enterprising reporter, a bad father, a gruesome doctor (German, of course), a doggedly careful police detective, and a couple of lovely, loyal females.

The book reminds me of the weekly radio broadcasts I listened to as a kid, “The Shadow,” whose alter ego was Lamont Cranston. The installments always started with the words: “Who knows what Evil lurks in the hearts of men. . . The Shadow knows. . .” With The Waterworks, we are back in this land where Evil reigns and — in this case — it is only through the concerted efforts of a team that it can be brought to bay.

Evil is stage center. We are in New York City of the 1870s, when Boss Tweed’s Democratic machine of Tamany Hall rules. It’s a filthy place, filled with graft and ne’er-do-wells. The daily newspapers are sold for pennies by urchins on the street. McIlvane, city editor of the evening daily Telegram, is the narrator. He’s a lapsed Presbyterian in his 20s. when the events take place, although he is recalling them as an old man, probably in his 80s.

McIlvane’s freelance reporter, Martin Pemberton, has disappeared, after having seen his deceased father riding in a carriage filled with other elderly gentlemen. As it turns out, Martin is not the only one to have seen the “dead” man. As McIlvane burrows deeper. He learn that Martin and his best friend, an artist named Harry Wheelwright, have unearthed the elder Pemberton’s tomb in a nondescript cemetery and are shocked by what they find. Now, Martin is nowhere to be found.

The book is filled with a host of characters, each of them indelibly described. Take Doctorow’s description of Edmund Donne, a captain of the Municipal Police, whose help McIlvane enlists in looking for Martin.

He writes this of Donne: “He was neither Irish nor German nor uneducated. He lived in the tension characteristic of the submitted life. . .like someone who has taken holy orders or serves his government in an obscure foreign station.. . or perhaps a leper colony to which he’d given his life as a missionary.”

Or here, when he describes a girl of six or seven with a basket of wilted flowers. . .”Her face was smeared with dirt, she had the slack lower lip of the slow-witted, her lightish hair was lank, her smock torn and her overlarge shoes were clearly from the trash heap.”

Wade your way through the myriad characterizations at least until you get to Dr. Sartorius, the true villain of this tale. It is perhaps good to know that the origin of the word “sartorius,” is tailor — sastre in Spanish.) What is Dr. Sartorius stitching together and where does he get his raw material? Truly macabre.

I can’t imagine the amount of research that went into creating this New York City of the late nineteenth century. If for the waterways alone, the book is a descriptive masterwork. And Doctorow has adopted an interesting story-telling style, doubling back on accounts, so that I sometimes felt as if my head was being whiplashed. Clues are sprinkled throughout the text, for both sets of sleuths. For example, when McIlvane notes that police inspector Donne is unusually interested when he hears the name Pemberton. That’s a clue for the reader, not for McIlvane.

Waterworks is a book that would appeal to the history buff and the admirer of the supernatural, the ghostly, and the ghastly. And to someone who is not put off by Doctorow’s reliance on suspension dots (. . .) After all, Poe used dashes ( – – -) to the same effect.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, fun stuff, history, mystery | 5 Comments

You say “equity”; I say “equality.” Let’s just call the whole thing off

The Republican Party is going through travails, here in Phoenix and nationally. At least, that’s what mainstream media tells us. Accordingly, there is a rift between the party office holders and the membership. Must be Trump’s fault. That’s what the press would have us believe.

Let’s back us up a week to consider the matter. Last Saturday, Jan. 16 I was driving around doing errands and turned on National Public Radio as I went from place to place. Lulu García Navarro was interviewing Cristina Beltrán, an associate professor at New York University, who had written an Opinion column in the Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/01/15/understand-trumps-support-we-must-think-terms-multiracial-whiteness/)

Her subject was “multiracial whiteness.”

Significant among the things that Beltrán brought up was that 1) President Trump’s and the Republican Party’s share of the Latino vote has markedly increased since 2016 and that 2) prominent leaders and fringe supporters of Trump do not identify as “white.” For example, Ali Alexander, one of the organizers of the “Stop the Steal” movement, says he is Black and Arab. Enrique Tarrio, chairman of the neo-fascist Proud Boys, is a Latino raised in Miami’s Little Havana. He calls himself Afro-Cuban.

The interview got me to thinking. (It helped that I was reading a historical memoir about the popular support for the Falange during the Spanish Civil War.) I couldn’t get out of my mind the presence of tawny faces among those who entered the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Now we know the FBI is all over a search for organizers of the assembled at the Capitol. They are clearly looking for plotters — insurrectionists, as they have come to be designated. But what about all the others? There was something about Trump’s person and his arguments that rang true to their experience. What more can we learn about this hodge-podge of interlopers who left much of the place in shambles?

I think we need to look beyond identifiers of people by color, ethnicity or geographical location. (Or sexual preferences or gender denominators, for that matter.) Neither political party has gotten its arms around this dilemma.

A recent PBS News Hour interview with Susan Rice made it clear that the Democratic Party is as beleaguered in this regard as the Republican. Rice has been empowered by President Biden to focus on fairness in federal hiring practices. But it will take more than replacing the word “equality” with “equity” to solve the problem. It sounded to me that the Biden administration is doing a dress up of identity politics.

Judy Woodruff did a good interview of Rice about this reboot Jan. 25. Woodruff acknowledged conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan for the questions she put to Rice.(https://andrewsullivan.substack.com/p/bidens-culture-war-aggression-fc4) Sullivan writes that “the vast majority of Americans support laws that protect minorities from discrimination, so that every American can have equality of opportunity, without their own talents being held back by prejudice.” But Biden “junks equality of opportunity in favor of equality of outcomes.”

To do that, “equity” must comes first. Woodruff asks: Isn’t Biden enforcing the treatise that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination?” Couldn’t you achieve the needed result if you simply focused on relieving poverty in the relevant communities?

The list of underserved communities that have been denied such treatment is long: We are talking about individuals who are Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.” 

Wow! That’s a long list. Susan Rice and the staff she will have to enlist are going to have their hands full monitoring hiring policies. And to top it off, the American public, liberal or conservative, will never support it. Nor is it constitutional. If you are still with me, you’ll remember we started with the idea of multiracial whiteness, which may just be another name for Republican.

Posted in Arizona, Commentary, Democracy, news and journalism, Politics and the Economy, The Economy | 4 Comments

A critique of “what are you going through,” by sigrid nunez

Don’t read this book. In fact, don’t read my brief critique of this book. It will burrow under your skin like an sub Saharan mite you picked up walking barefoot around your tent, one that makes itself known when it crawls like a worm out your eye socket. (A friend told me about such an affliction. He had served as a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa.)

And yet. And yet. Go ahead. Read this review. Read this book. So what if we are in the middle of a pandemic? We may find some clues here on how to cope.

Sigrid Nunez can help us through it. Once again she throws her arms around a big topic. In The Friend the topic is grief. In her recent book What Are You Going Through? it’s the end of life.

The book starts simply: “I went to hear a man give a talk.” Our narrator is in the town to visit an old friend. As it turns out, the man, the talk and the coincidence that brought her to this college campus are all connected: the speaker — her ex-husband, we soon learn — is an internationally recognized expert on how the world is running down. Her friend is dying of cancer.

We see everything and hear everything from the perspective of this unnamed protagonist. She’s an observer, a listener. Nunez’s best writing is in her descriptions of people and things. The “glam academic” who introduces the speaker, for example, is someone “whose slimness means going much of each day hungry.” The best dialogue, however, comes from the many others to whom the protagonist listens. When she tells her friend about her ex’s treatise on the death of the Planet. Her friend remarks: “nice to see he’s still his old ball-of-fun self.”

The book is filled with little stories, most of them about women and the travails they experience as they age. There’s even a talking cat who hold forth on the topic. Among others, our narrator looks to writers and philosophers for direction on facing end times. It was Plato who advised: “Be kind. Everyone you meet is going through a struggle.”

The narrator faces a moral dilemma when her friend asks for help in dying.

Sound bleak? What Are You Going Through? is also very funny. It is earmarked by the same wit that runs through The Friend, winner of the 2018 National Book Award. In that one, a woman loses her dearest friend, mentor and ex-lover to suicide and inherits his dog. A sign on Philosophy Hall at the university where the woman teaches says it all: “the examined life aint worth it, either.” Of course, that’s not true for either book. Monumental death — just as monumental grief — demands monumental reexamination.

Change the story. Change the ending. Make the saddest story also the happiest story.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, COVID-19, environmentalism, literary fiction | 4 Comments

Hiking Escapes: Rainy Day Get Away

Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. Rain on the roof wakes us at 6 a.m. A trip out to the patio. Yes. There’s the Arizona Republic in its little plastic wrap getting soaked. What to do? Wait it out? It’s not monsoon season, after all.

Starting out on Latigo.

My hiking partner Lynn checks the zip code for Pima Dynamite, a new entry point for trails that connect Brown’s Ranch to Granite Mt. The entry is still under development. We count on the likelihood that few know about it and fewer still will want to face possible rain.

What have we got to lose? My husband Bruce urges us on: “Just go out there. At worst you have a nice drive and chance to chat with your friend.”

We’re in luck. Construction workers have surfaced the large parking lot. Slots are marked; porta potties are in place; the reception center is under construction, as are some ramadas.

Hawks Nest trail takes you all the way east beyond Granite.Mt
Desert in bloom

Few cars are parked in the lot. One woman and her dog enter the trail ahead of us. The only other recreationalists are a couple of mountain bikers who ask us if we are on Latigo.

We are.

All in all, we couldn’t have asked for a quieter day to explore these trails, better designed for mountain bikers than walkers. The surface is smooth and sandy; the trails — except for a few straight aways — a series of winding rollers.

Hawks Nest, which we took back to the entrance, is a trail I would categorize as “eventful” with varied vistas, tight turns, and short steepish hills. When I described the experience to my physical therapist at Foothills Sports Medicine, he said he’d taken Hawks Nest all the way to Granite Mt and beyond, just a couple of days earlier.

As far as the weather we hit, it felt cold and windy when we started, but by the time of our return to Phoenix the sun had come out. We snacked in the car and were home by noon. It was a half-hour drive each way from North Central Phoenix. We spent two hours on the trail, taking pictures, stopping here and there to admire views of Granite, Brown’s and Cone Mts. and what we thought was Tom’s Thumb. (It looked more like Tom’s big knuckles.) All in all, it was a good 3.7 mile walk.

For a rainy day in Arizona, we couldn’t have asked for anything better. And we knew there would be more rainy days to come.

Posted in Arizona, health and wellness, Hiking, Phoenix, Phoenix for Beginners, Southwest and the desert | 4 Comments

Saguaro/Sahuaro: A cactus by any other name

I would never agree to live on a street named Gardenia. It’s a flower that certainly looks silly on the wrist of a girl in an ill-fitted prom dress. (My wrist; my dress.) And it smells. A lot.

I have a friend who lives on Gardenia. Of course I would never tell her what the word bring to my mind.

Another street I’d never live on is Princess Drive. I can’t imagine any man in his right mind would live on that street, either. Or what about Gelding, for that matter? Yes, That’s the name of a street in Phoenix Arizona, where I live.

Street scene in Cacus Heights

What were the street namers thinking? In fact, I’m wondering who names these street, anyway. The developer? Some functionary in the city planning department?

There are some street names here that I really love. You’d never find them in Portland Oregon where I was born. The only street name people had trouble saying there was Yeon. Everyone pronounced it YEE-on. It’s actually pronounced YAWN, the name of a timber baron.

In central Phoenix, there’s a section off Sweetwater filled with historic French names. The area is called Chateau Thierry. You’ll find Joan d’Arc, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Voltaire. Joan d’ Arc winds and winds between 20th and 24th with views of Piestawa Peak to the south.

Then, there is the sad case of Captain Dreyfus. Did the street namers know who he was? I’ve often wanted to go door-to-door and ask people if the knew their street commemorated someone who was wongly convicted of treason by the French in World War I and was sent to Devil’s Island to die. Dreyfus was Jewish.

Naming streets and places can be complicated. I mentioned Piestawa Peak. Here the public got involved. When we moved to Phoenix from Portland in 2014, people were still calling it Squaw Peak, a name feminist and Native American activists had objected to for decades. It was renamed in 2008, commemorating Lori Piestawa’s service in the American military. A member of the Hopi tribe, Lori died in 2003, fighting in the Iraq War. She was the first Native American woman killed in combat.

On the street where I live

Where street names are concerned, we really hit the bonanza when we bought our home here on the flank of North Mountain. We live on Sahuaro Drive. (That saguaro with an h” in order to pronounce it correctly in English.) Saguaro has to be the most Arizonan of names. Just watch any horse opera. If it pictures cowboys riding through a desert dotted with saguaros, the movie had to have been shot in the Sonoran Desert and most likely in Arizona.

If Arizona had a “patron” cactus, it would be the saguaro.

Posted in Arizona, Commentary, fun stuff, Phoenix, Phoenix for Beginners, Portland, Southwest and the desert, walking around | 11 Comments

Hiking Escapes: Granite Mountain, January, 2021

I had forgotten how beautiful Granite Mountain is. And how many miles it takes to get there from where we live in North Central Phoenix. But my hiking buddy Lynn was game and willing to drop me for an occupational therapy session at Honor Health near Grayhawk first, which I had presumed was halfway to the trail north of 136th St. off Rio Verde.

Boulders are what make the Granite trail gorgeous.
New reception center at Granite Mountain

There have been improvements since I was last here with Bruce and a couple of friends. (She didn’t like it, he stayed in the parking lot and my husband caviled at the length of the up and down loop trail around Granite. Plus is was a gray day.)

There is still no potable water at the trailhead, but voila! Granite now has a beautiful reception center, with maps, restrooms, benches and markers that describe the terrain. I had forgotten the texture of the trail surface, so I took my hiking poles. As Lynn noted, the trail looked newly brushed — cleaner than her patio.

We took Bootlegger to GM2 and then decided to veer left onto the Granite Mtn. Loop Trail to GM9 where we picked up the trail to Balanced Rock. The trails were mostly smooth with a series of rollers out and back. The walk was up going out, flat and down coming back. I could have done it without the poles, since the few spots with embedded rocks were easily traversed.

The turnoff for Balanced Rock is far short of halfway around Granite. If you decide to walk around the mountain you can see that it is more a range of rubble than a peak. We weren’t as interested in its rocky circumference as we were in the vistas we would have of Four Peaks, Tom’s Thumb, Pinnacle Peak and others as we looked out over the saguaro studded terrain. It was a beautiful, clear day and the setting always elicits an agreement from me, when voiced by Lynn: “I love the openness of the desert.”

Balanced Rock itself is not particularly impressive. We saw a number of balanced boulders on Granite Mountain itself that we thought deserved the name. But, when we arrived at Balanced Rock, there was a cyclist who had made his way up to the arched, smooth-sided monolith and we could see why it deserved its name. He was miniscule in comparison.

Balanced Rock may be more impressive geologically than physically.
Girls going places on foot

We made a series of choices going back. For starters, we simply turned around and retraced the trail we took up until we got to GM2 and then headed south on the Black Hill Trail to BH2 and the Turpentine Trail. This took us under the Powerline Trail, a route I was anxious to miss because of the soupy sand of the surface. We faced a brigade of cyclists coming toward us on the Black Hill Trail — about a dozen of them — who alerted us to how many were still to come.

No problem.

On the Turpentine Trail, I was surprised by a pair of cyclists coming up behind me. I skittered off the trail with the help of my poles. I’m not sure why cyclists assume we older folks can hear them as they propel over the curved, smooth surfaces at our backs. As I thought about the incident, though, I realized I should have stood my ground. Walkers take precedence over cyclists on these trails.

Trail traffic was moderate, Friday at 9:40 am when we started.. The large parking lot was less than half-full. Many walkers had started early and had left when we returned after noon. We found that the walkers were evenly divided between that those who put masks in place when encountered on the trail and those who simply stepped or turned aside. It was a polite crowd.

When done, we’d completed a 5.5 mile hike.

If you pick up a City of Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve map at any Scottsdale area visitors’ center, you will see that trails embarked at Granite Mountain hook up with trails to Brown’s Ranch. At 30,500 acres the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is the largest natural area within a city’s limits in all of the United States, an honorific previously held by South Mountain.

In 2018, Proposition 420 amended Scottsdale’s City Charter to establish the size and boundaries of the Preserve.

Posted in Arizona, health and wellness, Hiking, Southwest and the desert, walking around | 1 Comment

Amazon — Walmart of the Middle Class?

I went into a Whole Foods Market recently. Although it’s not near where we live in North Central Phoenix, I knew if I went early enough I could find quiet, wide aisles and the sweet-smelling hand soap I wanted to put in a Christmas packet I was making up for a friend.

Jeff Bezos in 2018. (Seattle City Council, Flickr & Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

I had forgotten that Whole Foods was part of the Amazon Empire.

The experience got me to thinking about Walmart and when it began appearing in Oregon where I have lived most of my life. I remember driving over to Astoria from Portland and passing several towns dependent on logging and forest industries for income. I remember one of them had signs posted that objected to the arrival of Walmart. The market’s presence was destined to wipe out small businesses in that town. Or so the signs predicted.

And that’s how Amazon started. It began marketing books at prices lower that it cost to print them. It wiped out small bookstores — of which there were many — in Portland and elsewhere. For that reason alone I have a thing against Amazon. But when I heard that no one had benefitted more from the pandemic that Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, I got to thinking.

He’s the wealthiest man in the world.

According to Chuck Collins there are 657 billionaires in the United States. Bezos, however, is a centi-billionaire. Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. He came to public attention in 1985, when at 26 he gave away his $500,000 inheritance to several foundations and went to live in a commune. Collins is an expert on economic inequality in the US, and has pioneered efforts to bring together investors and business leaders to speak out publicly against corporate practices and economic policies that increase economic inequality. He operates a website, Inequality.org.

On a recent interview on National Public Radio, Collins had a lot to say about the billionaire class and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in particular.

The pandemic and its effect on buying habits has turned Amazon into the Walmart of the middle class. Its target? The omni shopper. Most notably during the holiday season but even before, Amazon’s reach into our pocketbooks has emptied the coffers of local merchants everywhere, whether it be flower shops, restaurants, grocery or toy stores, we order on line and Amazon Prime delivers.

Here in Phoenix, many of my friends even order their produce through Amazon Fresh, not necessarily exclusively, but frequently, rather than face crowds at Safeway or Fry’s.

It doesn’t take heavy research to uncover the controversial employment practices of this behemoth. I first read about them in Jessica Bruder’s excellent book, Nomadland–Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century which tracks itinerant Americans in their sixties and seventies as they move from temporary job to temporary job. The section on working conditions and pay in Amazon warehouses in particularly eye opening.

Christy Hoffman, general secretary of UNI Global Union, has looked at Amazon’s impact internationally. In her article, “Time to Rein In Amazon’s Empire,” published in Internatonal Politics and Society, Hoffman equates Amazon practices to those of the robber barons of the early twentieth century. She cites the online news site Vice which uncovered Amazon’s scheme to use private investigators to spy on workers, environmentalists and others who criticize the company. Hoffman lauds efforts by progressively lawmakers and civic organizations to rein in Amazon and other tech giants in the US, Europe and India.

Perhaps Amazon is just the latest example of where the entrepreneurial genius unleashed by a capitalist economy takes us before we institute corrections.

As recent as late November, 2020, John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, publically lauded the benefits of capitalism. Mackey has referred to socialism as “trickle up poverty.” But at Whole Foods and the rest of Amazon holdings, the profit motive privileges investors and upper management not the consumer or the worker. In 2020, Whole Food discontinued the extension of health coverage for part-time workers.

Where does this leave us — the middle class buyers, intent on saving our skins when contact with others in the marketplace could open us to contracting COVID19. Do we jusst bend with the wind and admit philosophically that when profit motive butts against common good, capital gain wins?

The big fish eat the little fish?

As we make our day to day decisions, maybe we need to take the long look. A friend of mine here in Phoenix had something to say about that. Her first job out of college in 1988 was with Sears Roebuck, the largest retailer in the world. She has been following the Sears’ story ever since.

“Amazon certainly put the nail in the coffin,” she told me recently, “but stores like Walmart, Home Depot and Costco started to take Sears market share — automotive repair, appliance and hardware well before Amazon.”

And yet. . .and yet.

It all comes back to Jeff Bezos. On October 27, 2020 his net worth was valued at $188.7 billion. Do you remember that he also owns the Washington Post? He bought it in 2013 through a company called Nash Holding.

As a writer and a reader, that’s where my motor revs up. The slogan on the Washington Post’s masthead is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

Let me just add: That’s not all that can kill Democracy.

Posted in Arizona, Commentary, COVID-19, Democracy, news and journalism, Phoenix, The Economy | 6 Comments

Hiking Escapes: New Year’s Day, 2021

What did you do January 1, 2021? My hiking partner Lynn and I, like many people, started the year with a hike. Not a New Year’s Resolution. No. It was part of a tradition.

Let me back up.

In the Spring of 2020 and in the midst of the pandemic, Lynn and I decided we would head out of Maricopa County and go for a hike somewhere else in the state. At that point, even getting in a car and traveling out of town on a Wednesday was part of the adventure.

It was a date.

At Potato Lake in 2020

With the driver in the front seat, and the passenger sitting catty-corner in the back, we weren’t taking any chances. We wore our masks on the freeway, took them off and open the windows on the country roads. (You can read about those adventures on this blog. Just type in Hiking Escapes or Summer Escapes.)

But that was then and this is now.  In September I had a concussion, bike riding in Portland, Oregon. Ever since I’ve been working my way back to walking on unstable soil. And to cycling, of course. I felt I had a tacit okay from Itamar, my fitness therapist at Foothills Sports Medicine, when he complimented me on my balance and strength. He even suggested to Bruce that he put me on a trainer in the shop. (Speaking of my hero, by the way, Bruce managed to break fingers on each of his hands in 2020, one in Phoenix, another in Portland.)

So, January 1, 2021, Lynn and I were off to Brown’s Ranch for my debut hike over sandy, sloping ground. We could have found a lot of trail hiking closer: Dreamy Draw and other spots in the Phoenix Preserve, even South Mt. or Papago Park in Scottsdale are quicker to get to. From my place in Point Tapatio, it’s 25 miles and 40 minutes driving time to Brown’s Ranch.

 “Why Brown’s Ranch?” you ask. “It’s a beauty thing,” I say. There is no prettier spot in the metropolitan area. You are in the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, 27 dedicated acres with views of two mountains — Cone, and Brown’s – vistas of the four peaks to the Southeast, the hamlet of Carefree and town of Cave Creek to the North, Tom’s Thumb and Pinnacle Peak to the South and miles and miles of hiking, biking and horse trails. It is part of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a nature area of 30,500 acres that is believed to be the largest urban park in the United States.

The Conservancy has several entry points. We drove to the Brown’s Ranch trailhead at 30301 N. Alma School Parkway off Dynamite Rd, where a large parking lot and wooden reception center with well-appointed restrooms, information kiosks, benches and bike racks await walkers, cyclists, and horseback riders. We could have just as easily entered via Fraesfield, further east on Dynamite, or at Granite Mountain, at N. 136th Way.

I didn’t use the poles. Too slippery for purchase.

Edwin Orpheus Brown established his homestead in 1904 as a cattle operator. Between 1917 and 1970, his and his son Brownie’s enterprise handled herds of 3,000-5,000 head of cattle. You can hike to the remains of Brown’s ranch house, stock tanks, bunkhouse and chicken coop off the Corral Trail.

We didn’t do that. We started with the half-mile loop trail named for Jane Rau, a trail rat if there ever was one. Rau was one of the original founders of the Conservancy. Her white-haired pony-tailed visage and her words are everywhere along this boulder bound gambol.

“This is a green desert,” Rau is proud to say about the two-yearly rains the area received. She cavils that the mountains within the Conservancy – Cone and Brown’s — aren’t themselves marked.

We went from the Rau’s loop over to the Upper Ranch Trail and then around Cone Mt. for a 5-plus mile walk. We came upon a few mid-sized groups of walker and the occasional cyclist. We even needed to skirt one mounted horseman who had stopped to talk to a mountain biker. We wished each other Happy New Year, maintained a wide berth, had masks in place or heads turned.

What did we talk about? What we always talk about, frequently with the same words and descriptions: our kids, and in Lynn’s case, her grandkids and how long it has been since she has been in their company (more than a year).

We revisited earlier hikes, remembering the seven-mile hike that turned into 11 endless miles at Goldwater Lakes near Prescott, and how The General Crook Trail confused us crisscrossing FR 300, the Mogollón Rim. And what about that herd of cows we had to walk around? It was a “remembrance of things past.”

Aspen Forest on the Arizona Trail near Snowbowl

Mostly, we looked around and thought how glad we were to be alive and on foot.

Thank you, Arizona.

Posted in Arizona, COVID-19, health and wellness, Hiking, Phoenix, Phoenix for Beginners, walking around | 2 Comments

A critique of “The Boy in the Field,” by Margot Livesey

For starters, I really liked this book. The Boy in the Field, by Margot Livesey, is a deceptively straightforward account of what happens to the five members of a family after the three teenage children discover a bloodied, unconscious boy on their way home from school. The story enlarges to include the detective who follows up the crime, the parents and older brother of Karel Lustig, the boy who survives the encounter, and assorted friends, teachers and townfolk with whom the three young people come into contact. And let us not forget a dog named Lily who comes very close to being able to talk.

The book’s chapters move between the teenagers’ stories. Duncan, 13, who is adopted, Zoe, 16 who is first to spy the body behind a hedge, and Matthew, 18, who envisions himself an amateur sleuth. Happily, the switches between them, though at time tiresome, do not end in cliffhangers. Each of the characters is interesting and deftly drawn. All are going through a transition to adulthood and a curiosity about their parents’ relationship.

At times, I wondered if the characters were real or actors on a philosophical stage. Observations that take the story to a higher plane are slipped in here and there. As when Matthew observed: “The real locked room was another person’s brain.” Or when Zoe remembered “her mother’s mysterious suggestion that feelings were optional.”

Ethics are not optional: not for the characters, not for the storyteller and probably not for Livesey.

Each of the teenagers provides a piece of the puzzle behind the crime. But, in fact, the crime recedes in importance as the chapters move between Duncan, Zoe and Matthew. Duncan, the artist, is motivated by a desire to meet the teenage Turkish mother who bore him and gave him away. Matthew is a budding engineer who employs unortodox methods for tracking down a suspicious car. Zoe is caught up in her own romantic pursuits. (Any sex in this book is off screen.) At the Salon of Second Chances, a New Year’s Eve party near the book’s conclusion, Zoe adopts Spinoza as her alter ego. She bears a heart pinned to her chest with the words: Desire is the essence of everyone.

I found the language of the narrative voice unique. Livesey is Scottish, but has lived comfortably in Canada and the United States for years and teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her choices of words and unembroidered visual clues seems to have more in common with small town or rural America. Her observations are not without humor, as when Matthew, boxing up reminders of a now defunct relationship, notes that it includes a “scarf she’d knitted prophetically already unraveling.” However, the civility of the characters one to another, inside and outside the family, feel overly careful to a big city ear used to today’s parlance.

Most of the events take place in England in a town close to London. The time is the year 2000 with portends of Y2K, not at all what one finds in literature produced in the West in the year 2020. I will want to read more by this author in part to see if the philosophical bedrock to this tale carries over into her other works. And to decide if the book s pasted-on Chapter 40 “The Degree Show” is a help or a hindrance to winding up the tale.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, good thoughts, literary fiction, mystery | 9 Comments

Five Favorite Books for 2020

Normally, at the end of the year I publish a list of the “best” books I read. But, not to anyone’s surprise, 2020 is different. What about a list of the five books that gave me the most pleasure? Ones I’d turn to again. Of the 35 books I read and reviewed in 2020, here are my favorites. Take a look:

Amnesty, by Aravid Adiga

This book burrows deep into the mind of an undocumented immigrant in Australia and takes us on his travels around Sydney as he tries to decide what to do with a piece of information he could provide police about a murder.

Read my review; read the book. https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2020/03/13/a-critique-of-amnesty-by-aravind-adiga/

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

Why not make a house the main character? The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett is about the purchase and loss of property in the lives of three generations. The characters are beautifully drawn, the dialogue is witty and evocative. I could open to any page and jump right back into this one.

Read my review; read the book. https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2020/01/19/a-critique-of-the-dutch-house-by-ann-patchett/

A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet

This is a cunning expose of what happens to the Garden of Eden once God’s crowning achievement, Humankind, is put in charge. It’s man over beast and children over parents on this dystopian critique of our environmental abuse and irresponsible parenting. Millet is an Arizonan living in Tucson. I must admit my disappointment that my own favorite family-owned bookstore here in Phoenix didn’t foresee that this work would get national acclaim and position it properly on its shelves.


Nomadland — Surviving America in the Twenty Frst Century, by Jessica Bruder

Jessica Bruder dedicated three years of her life and 15,000 miles tracking itinerants — mostly people in the sixties and seventies — around the United States– as they move from one temporary job to another, living in trailers, vans and RVs. Nomadland was made into a movie in time for the 2020 academy awards deadline. Someday, we maybe able to see it. In the meantime it’s a good read. Pay attention to how it feels to work in an Amazon warehouse.

Read my review; read the book.https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2020/10/27/a-critique-of-nomadland-surviving-america-in-the-twenty-first-century-by-jessica-bruder

Umami, by Laia Jufresa

I wrote this review in Spanish. Test your biligualism and read this story about a community of people who live in Mexico City and are united by grief. Two members of a group of people living on a cul de sac in Mexico City die within weeks of each other — a five-year-old girl who drowns, and a cancer cardiologist, the wife of the man who owns the properties. Ii’s a tender and poetic portrait told over five years time. You’ll love the language for its mexicanismos and spanglish.

Read my review; read the book. https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2020/11/23/una-critica-de-umami-de-laia-jufresa/

Posted in Arizona, Book Reviews, Commentary, COVID-19, environmentalism, fun stuff, good thoughts | 6 Comments

A critique of “Homeland Elegies,” by Ayad Akhtar

Although the critics have universally designated this work as among the best novels published in 2020, they are confounded as to how to talk about it. For starters, what makes Homeland Elegies a novel and not a memoir? Isn’t its narrator a lightly clothed facsimile of the book’s author? Aren’t its forays into political and economic discussions — social essays, really — based on pieces printed in newspapers about the searing toll debt has taken on the polity. In fact, Akhtar has written a play, Junk, The Golden Age of Debt (2017) on just such a topic. Disgraced, his first play about the alienation of an American born Muslim since 9/11, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013.

And what should we make of its narrator’s relationship with his Pakistan-born father? Politically, the author Akhtar centers the father-son story on the ascendance of the merchant class behind the rise of Donald Trump. Culturally, it centers on the events of 9/11 and what it means to be a Muslim in America.

Let me back up here and suggest another way into the work: fiction, fable, reality TV put on the printed page — whatever it is.

You all remember A Thousand and One Nights, don’t you? For Western readers, the stories first appeared in twelve volumes published in French by Antoine Galland between 1704 and 1717. These folk tales refer back to the Golden Age of Islam (between the 8th and 13th centuries) and became the bedrock of Europe’s understanding of the Islamic world. We owe our English version, The Arabian Nights to Sir Richard Burton, collected in the 1880s. Highly picaresque, the sexual practices included in the tales challenged Western mores.

Here’s the story: a sultan discovers that his first wife has been unfaithful to him. He has her killed and decides to marry a new virgin every day and have her beheaded the next morning. Running out of noble candidates, he decided to marry Scheherazade, the daughter of his vizier.

Scheherazade is witty, wise and well read. She has one request for the potentate: let her keep a promise to her sister and tell a story before the night is up. But it is a long story and dawn breaks before its conclusion. The king wants to hear the end. Hence, one story lead to another for a thousand nights. Whereupon, the king has fallen in love with Scheherazade and makes her his queen.

Cleverly, Ayad Akhtar uses a technique similar to Scheherazade’s but adapted to today’s reader. Though he opens the work with a timeline, don’t let that fool you. There will be lulls, there will be asides — many asides. Akhtar has created his own technique for keeping you on the story by chaining together little stories. And he ingeniously telegraphs his methodology with phrases like –” to tell you what happens next, let’s jump forward, so you can better understand it.” All play their part as commentary on American society in the era of Donald Trump. I would bet, that if you take on this work, you will be mesmerized and stick with it to its conclusion.

Akhtar uses the relationship of a father and son to dramatize the larger story. In the novel, Sikander is a medical doctor, born in Pakistan — as were Akhtar’s parents. Sikander’s research on Brugada, a cardiac syndrome, briefly enables him to treat Trump in the ’90s. Akhtar, the son, is a playwright born in the United States. Both father and son are successful, although the father’s rise and fall are the more dramatic and fretful, the son’s is filled with pecadillos, including a case of syphilis. Both are lured by the market, both love the United States and consider it home.

The narrator occasionally comes off as a twenty-first century Candide. But no matter how many times he weeps and expresses contrition, he seems to be writing to other males, at least to my mind.

He’s bad at lying, as when he tells a traffic cop that he was born in Milwaukee, not Staten Island. (Easy to check, for a cop.) When he is questioned by Zakeeya Watkins, an SEC agent, about a sell off of stocks from a debt management fund in which he has invested, he says: “So, um, is there a problem? Do I. . . .need a lawyer?” (His third-floor walkup in Harlem came in handy legitimizing his candor.)

When he considers the dilemma for all Muslim-born American citizens post 9/11, the narrator voice sobers:

“We lived in a Christian land, but we didn’t understand Christianity. . .We thought it a makeshift, misbegotten offspring of the Judaic creed, an aggradized misinterpretation founded on an ontological absurdity: that God would need a son, and that the son — supposedly divine — could perish in the flesh at human hands.”

This is a book filled with stories of malfeasance on grand and small scale. According to Mike, a Hollywood talent agent, the shift began in the ’80s. Money had always been central to an understanding of American vitality. He illustrates: “We discuss a movie’s weekend gross before its plotline, an outfielder’s signing bonus before his batting average.”

The father/son story begins and ends Homeland Elegies. It is riven with these concerns. and — unfortunately for me — the relationship between Sikander and Akhtar takes a back seat to the larger picture.

The final question becomes can an immigrant have two homes?

At the end of 1,000 stories, Scheherazade admitted she had no more tales to tell the king. During their nights together the king had fallen in love with her. He spared her life and made her his queen.

At the end of Homeland Elegies Akhtar has also run out of tales. He ends his story with “Free Speech: A Coda” and a question from a student: “I don’t get why you’re here, if it’s so darned hard.”

What’s the author’s answer? Read the book.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, history, Islam, Politics and the Economy | 9 Comments

Work plan, Dec. 21, 2020

I do my best work in the early morning. Usually, it’s from 2 to 3:30 a.m. I sleep comfortably from 9 p.m. to 2 am, go to the bathroom — whether I need to or not– have a drink of water, walk around the house. Then, it’s to work, for an hour and a half or so while I’m in bed, of course.

Here was my mental chore this morning.

I work on my breathing. Breathing is the most important thing I do. (Otherwise I’d be dead, right?) Big breath in through the nose, empty a gust out through the mouth. I practice it. Instructions to self: return to thinking about breathing during the day; think about it before you speak; think about it when you walk.

That’s what yoga is all about, isn’t it? I could use some instruction here, probably. But I don’t want to sit in front of a screen or listen to tapes about it. My friend Carol in Portland has told me that sometimes all she does when at yoga is breathe. And fall asleep.

Now while I’m breathing, I still have time to figure out the walks I’ll be making over the next week. Since my concussion, balance has been a real problem. So much so that my physical therapist has told me not to go on walks. He’s afraid I’ll fall. But I am following the advice I got a few years ago from Paul Kelley, my doctor at Honor Health: “Take advantage of all the sidewalks Phoenix has built in this part of town. Walk every day.”

I’ve found a route that gives me 2.02-miles of gentle slopes within my own neighborhood of Point Tapatio. It’s all on sidewalks. I’m concentration on footfalls — heel, ball, toe — even weight side to side, striding forward. I ‘ll work on balance and forward motion. I can sightsee later.

For now, I’ll just breathe. And go back to sleep.

Posted in Arizona, fun stuff, good thoughts, health and wellness, walking around | 15 Comments

A critique of “A Burning,” by Megha Majumbar

Is it always a good idea to reread the first chapter of a book if you reach the end wondering what actually happened? This is certainly the case with A Burning, by Megha Majumbar, a moral tale.

I found this book tantalizing: beautifully written with engaging characters — a real tour de force by a 33-year-old woman born in Kolkata, India and educated at Harvard University. A Burning is her debut novel. I can’t wait to see where she goes next.

Yet I find A Burning hard to recommend.

Perhaps I am just in pandemic mode and anything as cynically critical of what greed and self-interest can move people to do is too much for me to take right now. Or maybe it’s because a friend recently has opened me to look at sources which question the propagandizing effects of mainstream news coverage.

Anyway, here’s the story.

Jivan is the eighteen-year-old main character. She comes upon the after effects of a terrorist attack at a train station near her slum-dwelling in Kolabagan, India. She sees carriages burning with hundreds of people unable to escape. She writes about it on Facebook, entering into dialogue with strangers. She is posting this on the cellphone she just bought with money earned clerking at Pataloons where she hopes to move up into a better position. So exciting, so freeing to have a job and a way to make her voice heard in the world.

Jivan is arrested by the police as a suspected terrorist.

PT Sir is the physical education teacher at the private girl’s high school where Jivan attended on scholarship. He appreciated her prowess in sports and, noting her poverty, occasionally shared food with her. PT Sir is called upon as a character witness for her defense.

Lovely is also called as a witness for Jivan. Lovely is a hijra (the official third gender term for eunuch in the Indian subcontinent). Jivan had a bag of books at the train station she intended for Lovely whom she was teaching English.

In moving between these three characters, Majumdar’s writing excels. Not only does the author switch in person — Jivan and Lovely are first person, PT Sir, third person — but the temper varies from character to character. Jivan’s language is poetic; Lovely’s, inventive; PT Sir’s treatment is politically nuanced.

Will the two character witnesses stick by Jivan? Can her court-appointed lawyer win her case?

While she focuses on the intimate stories of all three characters, Majumdar opens out to a wider look at Indian society, its politics and ethnic divisions. But A Burning is an ethical treatise. The author examines the expectations of those who want to join the middle class and the dilemmas they face in decision-making. She eases the reader into the unrelenting path of putting personal interests before all others.

It’s a bleak tale, filled with pathos and sympathy. A Burning is superlative fiction. Read it if you have the strength.

Posted in Asia, Commentary, India, literary fiction | 4 Comments

A critique of “The Care of Strangers,” by Ellen Michaelson

I lived in New York City in the late ’60s. I visited throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Since then, I’ve stayed with the daughter of a friend in the Williamsburg, visited another in Park Slope. I thought I knew New York and Brooklyn.

Not by a long shot.

In The Care of Strangers, Ellen Michaelson, M.D., takes us to Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, a encampment of twenty-six red brick building in East Flatbush where she did her internship. What she gives the reader is not a memoir but a novel. It is novella only in its length. All the necessary ingredients for a longer work are there: superlative detail, step-by-step action, well-developed characters with backstories, humor and pathos.

We enter the life of Sima, a Jewish immigrant from Poland. Sima is an orderly with dreams of becoming a doctor. The only white orderly at the hospital complex, she ferries patients to and from appointments via connecting tunnels and elevators.

Mostly, she observes. Sometimes, she intervenes.

Sima works double shifts and attends Brooklyn College as a pre-med undergraduate. It’s been a four-year haul. She has supporters within the hospital hierarchy: Chief Resident Danielson, who lets her go on rounds, and Nurse Armstrong, who found Sima sleeping in the library with an anatomy book open on the table in front of her.

Sima’s Polish-speaking mother knows nothing of this. Encloistered in her fourth-floor walkup, she listens to music in yiddish and grips Sima’s arm when on the street. She’s done her duty. She got her six-year-old daughter to the U.S. when her husband died, selling his collection of blue glass and silver to buy their tickets. She just wants her daughter to get a “more better job.”

For Sima, it’s the patients with whom she identifies. They are the detritus of society — the throwaways — the poor, the addicted, the dirty, the incarcerated. There is JJ (Jose Iglesia Juarez, a Puerto Rican “training” to become a Jew; Alma May, an eighty-five pound asmatic; Mars Peabody, a former drug addict with a weak heart. Many have been in and out of Kings County with conditions that just won’t heal.

Central to the story is the relationship Sima develops with Mindy Kahn, a psych intern from Boston on a medical rotation at the hospital.

They first work together in the prison ward. In four page Michelson describes the setting and the action: the smrod (stench) of the male ward, the cacophony of prisoners’ voices, a fight over a tourniquet and a stethoscope, Mindy’s inexperience and Sima’s involvement. Sima places her hands on Mars Peabody’s shoulders. The laying on of hands, she has heard it’s vital to patient care.

Later, the two women bond over a conversation about hair.

“I’m writing a paper on ethnic hair,” Sima tells Mindy. “I’m told my curly hair is softer than an Amsterdam hippy,” she tells the intern. Whatever that is, Sima wonders. She paces behind Mindy. They are both Jewish. She really needs a friend. a mentor. She tells Mindy not to use a hair drier, to let her hair go during the summer. Curly is better than frizzy.

“You’ve got to get out of New York,” Mindy tells Sima.

The Care of Strangers really holds up as a window on a world. Having lived most of my life in Portland, I’ve known Ellen Michaelson over time. I was a part of her bike-riding cohort. She and I have discussed films and fiction. I read an early draft of the book. I had expected something less concrete, less touching than what she produced here. I was jolted by the mix of Polish and English, the sounds, the smells, and the stickiness of Kings County. I had planned — as a reviewer — to be extra critical of the work. I’m not.

For some, the story might seem overwhelmed by detail. Not for me. I was mesmerized by it. I can’t help but think of “You Are There,” a radio show my family regularly tuned into during the 1950s. From the first page to the last, The Care of Strangers took me to Kings County Hospital and into the heart and mind of Sima.

I was there.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, race and class, religion and culture | 4 Comments

A critque of “The Lying Life of Adults,” by Elena Ferrante

I read somewhere recently that beginnings and endings are what come first for the writer. They are easy. Once they are dispensed with the writer must faces the vast middle. This is certainly the case with Elena Ferrante’s amazing new novel The Lying Life of Adults, brilliantly translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

The reader, on the other hand, may easily forget the point of the story. Lying Lies is about the trials and tribulations of growing up. Nothing more; nothing less. Don’t look for a storybook ending, otherwise how it all comes together might seem anti-climactic.

Unfortunately, I really was so enthralled with the middle of the book that I forgot what the story was about.

In summary: Lying Lives lays out three years in the life of a serious, upper middle-class Neopolitan girl named Giovanna. As the story opens, she has two adoring parents who never scold her, fully support her educational pursuits. She is docile and accommodating.

And then everything changes. She overhears her father, whom she adores, tell her mother that she is “very ugly,” and, what is more, Giovanna has come to look like his declasse younger sister, Vittoria, who still lives in the slums where he grew up.

At this point Giovanna, becomes filled with self-doubt and with doubt about everything she has been told and has come to know. She descend from San Giacomo de Capri, the exclusive suburb in Naples where she lives with her parents, to meet Vittoria and her father’s other relatives in the trashy Industrial Zone.

She learns to lie, as much to herself as to others. Vittoria shows her a pictures of Enzo, who had died 17 years prior, leaving Vittoria devastated and blaming Giovanna’s father for his passing.

“He’s handsome,” Giovanna lies to Vittoria, who calls her Giannina. She lies to her good friends Angela and Ida, whose parents Mariano and Costanza are her parents’ best friends.

She spies the fat and balding Mariano playing footsie with her mom under the table at dinner one night and tells Vittoria.

“Do you think Papa gives a fuck,” Vittoria responds.

Giovanna fails in school. She starts wearing black. She leads on boys she doesn’t care about. She learns what it means to fall in love at first sight. She tries out religion. If she can’t be beautiful physically, maybe she can be beautiful spiritually.

It’s all here.

I can’t image a male reader getting much out of this book, since all men are pigs. They only look at your boobs, your butt and your legs. At least this is what a teenage girl in Naples learns. She’d be fine with a pillow over her face. (That comment warranted a sharped pencil lead embedded in a boy’s arm.)

This is a joyride of recall for any woman reader. A high school girlfriend of mine recommended I read Lying Lies. Her recommendation brought to mind the time she and I were going to the library. She was returning a book for her mom. The title: How to Understand Your Teenager.

“You should read this,” I told my mom. My mom’s response?

“I want the one titled How to Live With Your Teenager Once You Understand Her.

Ferrante is at her best at employing Neopolitan colloquialisms and descriptive phraseology. At one point, Vittoria tells Giovanna: “The nasty things you don’t say to anyone become dogs that eat your head at night when you’re sleeping.”

Ferrante writes that love is “opaque like the glass in the bathroom window.” And that a woman’s beautiful face seemed “drowned in a circle of rosy fat.” And that “in the puppet theater of her mind” Giovanna’s father was hers alone.

Behind all this is the author’s fascination with truth with a capital “T”. Is Art the best vehicle for presenting Truth or is Religion? In a brilliant debate about the Four Gospels, Giovanna calls them “a terrible story.” At 16, she holds her own with a young college professor she has come to admire. Roberto likens Gospel truth to what you find in poetry. When it’s good, he tells her, it gives you a jolt.

“God is that: a jolt in a dark room where you can no longer find the floor, the walls, the ceiling,” he says.

As a reviewer, I must conclude here. In contrast to the affection I felt for Lenú and Lina in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet — My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of The Lost Child — I never really cared for Giovanna. But I admired her diligence in confronting life on her own terms and I lived every minute of her anxiety-ridden ride to adulthood.

Whatever you do, if you take on this story, keep your eyes on the bracelet, the gift Vittoria claims she gave Giovanna when she was born. Watch as it is passes hand to hand.

See where it ends up.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, literary fiction, religion and culture | 2 Comments

Sightseeing in the Pickup: #1

What do you do when it’s Fall, the coronavirus is picking off victims, you are recovering from a concussion and can’t drive a car or ride a bicycle?

Me with mask at the ready

You ask your husband to take you sightseeing in his pickup.

It really was a morning we wanted to put behind us, anyway. Bruce didn’t want to work on bikes. I didn’t want to go for a walk. Still undecided, we drove up 7th St. to Thunderbird and stopped at Walgreens to buy a bottle of moisturizer for healing his still-bent little finger. Long story short: finger was recovering from impact with a door that wouldn’t oblige.

Have you ever tried to get in and out of Walgreens or any shop stocked with 20,000 plus 1 items in less that 20 minutes?

Getting out of Phoenix was the best plan, particularly with holidays on the horizon.

Since I don’t drive these days, I’m perfectly happy to be settled into the passenger seat of Bruce’s 2008 crew cab Toyota Tacoma. I feel a little like the pooch who has been granted copilot status. That’s me — looking out the window and just happy to be along.

Of course, you always have to have a destination when you set out. Bruce frequently picks a sizeable circle that can be accomplished in less than four hours — one that will get us on little-travelled arterials, including dirt roads that will test the truck’s stamina. No matter if we don’t reach the destination. It’s all about making the trip.

We were looking for routes with few people and cars. We decided to go to Gila Bend taking I-10 south through Maricopa and then back to Phoenix on Old Highway 80. Our out-of-date guidebook proposed a midroute destination: Fortified Hill, which would take us up Stout Road at Gila Bend, past a gravel pit, across the Gila River channel onto three miles of unimproved road.

Our copy of Explore Arizona!, by Rick Harris (Golden West Publishers) was printed in 2000. Perhaps that is one reason we never made it to the site that was “once loaded with arrowheads.” We did find a lot of dirt roads, and passed through a roadrunner heaven. They come in threes out here on dirt roads northwest of Stout Road. We spent a lot of time on Watermelon Rd. to see where it took us — eventually back to SR8 west of Gila Bend via Citrus Valley Rd.

Good Gila Bend food stop with motel

We had lunch at the Space Age Diner, a typical spot for travelers to and from San Diego and Ajo. The place is as pristine as if it had just opened for our pleasure. We asked about the theme. Our hostess, a local lady, said the owner had worked for NASA.

The food was good. We paid our compliments to the chef. Then it was out on Old Highway 80 for more sightseeing of what one of our fellow diners referred to as “a lot of nothing out there.”

But that’s where it gets interesting. Old Highway 80 is in tip top condition. We sped past cotton one side, solar panels on the other. The Solana Generating Station was built here by a Spanish company, Abengoa Solar in 2013. At one point Gila Bend considered itself the parabolic solar panel capitol of the world. The panel plantation goes on and on, occupying 1,920 acres.

Get out of the car at picturesque Rainbow Wash. .

Further along we came to the remains of the Gillespie Dam Bridge, a concrete gravity irrigation dam built in 1921 which was breached by heavy rains in 1993. You can stop and do a lookout before continuing on across the steel truss bridge built in 1927. I found a couple of YouTube videos of the Rainbow Wash showing how it stops traffic on SR 85 when the water is released.

We continued on to Arlington, passing fields of grazing cattle and dairy-cow feed stations. A Tractor U Pull It caught Bruce’s eye; two Baptist Churches caught mine. We saw American flags and one Trump banner before turning onto I-10 toward home.

Not a day later, we discovered our passports were up for renewal . So it was back to Walgreens — this time to get our pictures taken.

The pandemic will lift. We will keep traveling. For now, we are content to explore Arizona from the seats of a Toyota Tacoma pickup.

Posted in Arizona, Road trip, Southwest and the desert, Toyota Tacoma, travel | 8 Comments

A critique of “The Girl with Seven Names,” by Hyeonseo Lee with David John

Sometimes you just want to read a piece of escapist literature. Why not the story of an escape? Why not an escape from North Korea by a 17-year-old girl?

No, the author of this fantastic tale is not a dissident. She’s a clever and adventuresome girl who decides to goes out on holiday in 1998 without telling her family. At 18 she is expected to enter college and take her place in a society with strict behavioral norms. She crosses the river that separates Hyesan, her North Korean town, from mainland China.

Her younger brother has been crossing and playing with Chinese youths. Her mother, a real entrepreneur, trades with Chinese vendors — illicitly of course. One of those vendors can probably help our author connect with some distant Korean/Chinese relatives who live in a town across the river. Only that town, Shenyang, ends up being eight hours away by bus. Of course, she can’t take a bus. She has no papers. She doesn’t speak Mandarin. She’s illegal and, if sent back to North Korea, she would be send to a gulag and years of backbreaking labor and a loss of status for her whole family. This is the first of many hurdles that Hyeonseo Lee is called upon to vault. Twenty years and many thousands of miles later she makes it to Seoul, South Korea, where she now lives.

I highly recommend this book. The Girl with Seven Names, by Hyeonseo Lee is an amazing yarn that traces the political awakening of a young woman, as she comes to grips with the poverty and isolation of her homeland and the diversity of the Asian and Western cultures she encounters. She witnesses how North Korea — everywhere but Pyongyang — lived though the 1990’s famine that accompanied the transfer of power between Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. In a heartrending chapter entitled “By the time you read this, the five of us will no longer exist in this world,” she tells how her mother shows the children a letter one of her colleagues at the government office received. Her mother tells them to stop asking for things. As members of a favored class, they have food and shelter. Not everybody does. What follows are a series of encounters with families and acquaintences who are suffering.

The book is the story of a political awakening and its memorist takes the reader along for the journey from place to place and identity to identity. She never loses her love of North Korea, her large family still there and her friends. We follow her as she becomes proficient in Mandrin, avoids an unsuitable marriage, narrowly misses getting hired as a call girl.

As she travels, she reevaluates her upbringing. Her father was in the military, but was later accused of treason. Yet she remembers the day their house burned down and her father risked his life to retrieve the two pictures that grace every North Korean home. The pictures are of the nation’s Great Leaders, whose birthdays are celebrated every year like Christmas and Easter.

A make-believe fairy story? We know when we start the book that everything turns out okay because it opens with Hyeonseo Lee’s 2013 TED Talk. She of the seven names and seven identities is the first North Korean to appear before that audience. We also know that the storytelling will be propulsive. The book is co-written with someone named David John, who, given the sophistication of the language and narrative design, is more ghost-writer than coauthor.

Though it’s a memoir, The Girl with Seven Names reads like fiction. We don’t necessarily question its authenticity. We question the level of detail of recalled conversations, events and settings long past. (Obviously, the author didn’t keep a notebook and take pictures along the way.) The book is a lesson on how we learn and how we find our place in the world. Hyonseo Lee also provides a unique perspective on the opportunities and challenges North Korea presents to the free world. She has become a cultural leader in this battle to bring North Korea into a family of nations.

And her book is a very good read.

Posted in Asia, Book Reviews, history, Korea | 4 Comments

Una crítica de “Umami” de Laia Jufresa

Una advertencia: No se desanima si este tratado poético presenta dificultades estructural para el lector. Umami de Laia Jufresa se trata de cinco años, 2000 a 2004, en la vida de un conjunto de personas que viven en la misma urbanización en la ciudad de México. El enfoque pasa, capítulo tras capítulo, entre varios personajes que viven allí pero no los presentan en orden cronológico.

Lo que los unen es el lugar, los cinco sabores del paladar — sus casas tienen los nombres de los sabores: salado, ácido, amargo, dulce y umami– y la tristeza de haber perdido dos personas amadas en 2001: una nena de cinco años, quien se ahogó y Noelia Vargas Vargas, una cardióloga quien falleció de cancer, mujer del hombre dueño de la privada Campanario.

Es una propriedad en pleno duelo.

Cada voz traza su experiencia de vivir la pérdida de una persona importante en su vida y a la vez de reconstruir su vida con la pérdida. Empezamos con Ana que tenía diez años cuando se murió Luz, su hermana menor. Ana planea la creación de una milpa en el patio central de la privada. Sembrarlo allí en D.F quiere decir que ella no tendría que pasar el verano en Michigan donde Luz se ahogó.

Pasamos a Alfonso Semitiel, un antropólogo y el dueño de Campanario que es una reconstrucción de la mansión y el terreno que el heredó. Alf escribió un libro sobre la comida prehispánica, Umami. También tenemos a Pina, la amiga de Ana, cuya madre le abandonó, dejándola con su padre Beto y a Marina, una joven anorética que alquiló la casa Amargo después de los muertos. (Marina tiene sus propios problemas.)

La más dañada de la pérdida de Luz es su madre, Linda, quien — con su esposo Victor –toca en la orquesta sinfónica nacional de México. El retrato de ella se capta a través de las narraciones de otros.

Supongo uno puede optar por leer las narraciones sigiendo a una sola persona o a un solo año desde el principio hasta el final. Yo recomiendo leerlo como Jufresa lo organizó. En esa manera se capta los efectos del transcurso del tiempo, dejando al final la mezcla de culpa y lamentación que experimentan los mas dañados, Alfonso y Linda.

Otra aviso: este libro corto está repleto de humor — gracias a las narraciones de Alf — y de la mezcla del inglés y mexicanismos. (Por ejemplo, la esposa de Alfonso le acusa de hacer el amor como “riquillo” — little rich kid.) Y me encantaron las palabras inventadas: por ejemplo “griste” — tanto un color (grey) como un sentimiento (triste).

Es un libro muy humano. Gracias a Laia Jufresa. Leer Umami le da ganas a una releerlo.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books in Translation, Commentary, en español, Hispanidad, literary fiction | 3 Comments


On September 7 Labor Day, I headed off to meet a friend in Northeast Portland for a bike ride along the Columbia River.

I never made it.

Let me tell you what I know and what I remember. For starters, I was familiar with the route. I’d done most of it many times. I headed out of our John’s Landing condo taking the Willamette Greenway bike path north along the river through the South Waterfront and across the Tillicum Bridge onto the Vera Katz bikeway. There were a number of walkers here. I headed up the chicane at the Steel Bridge and continued east toward Martin Luther King Blvd/Grande Ave. I’d be meeting my friend at Peets on NE Broadway and 15th Ave, a former hangout of mine when Bruce and I lived in Irvington.

I knew I would be about five minutes late, but I also knew Walt would wait and/or text me to make sure I was coming.

I had to avoid a string of homeless people on the pedestrian bridge leading from the chicane, and sidewalk was also cluttered with a few. No problem there. They were minding their own business.

I remember entering the bike lane between the two lanes of east-bound traffic as I approached Martin Luther King Blvd. I looked over my shoulder to the right. The car lane was empty. At the intersection I would be cycling over to the sidewalk.

That’s where my memory comes to a stop,

My son Sam talked to the ambulance driver who picked me up at Martin Luther King Blvd. and took me to Legacy Emanuel Hospital. He tells me they found me next to my bike on the sidewalk and that I said I was okay. Upon examination, they decided otherwise.

A motorist had apparently called them. The ambulance driver had found my husband’s and Sam’s numbers in the emergency information packet I had in my jersey. Bruce’s phone hadn’t pick up their call.

I remember nothing about the three days I spent in the hospital except that Sam called me to let me know that only one person could visit me there. He then drove over to the condo to let Bruce know what had happened and where I was. Bruce says he visited me at the hospital. I don’t remember. I suppose I slept alot.

What caused the concussion? We’ll never know. Bruce examined my clothes, my helmet and the bicycle. He thinks I took a left-side header over the the handlebars.

Operator error? Probably.

So now I am living it out. It’s crazy-making. Concussion is all about a damage to brain cells. There are physical effects and psychological effects. Ten weeks after the fall, I walk with a shambling gait and wear a patch over one eye because I have double vision.

That’s the least of my troubles.

The big problem for me has been a strange conglomeration of memory losses — of events, people and places. Of words and of how to process thoughts and actions. My mind spins on its axis. I work at slowing it down.

Family and friends help. The accident has brought me closer to my sister. My sons text me every day. I have friends who write me eventful emails, send me funny posts, accept my shorter replies without complaint. (I haven’t gotten used to one-eyed typing.)

In Portland, they brought food. Now, once again in Phoenix, they go for walks with me, join me on our patio for coffee. I don’t drive or cycle. I try to stay away from the Internet — from the ever changing panorama of media coverage about politics and Covid. It riles me up.

My very best new friend here emails me encouraging me to write, to trust in the healing powers of Nature — of the birds, the bees, the sunrises and sunsets.

When I struggle for words. my older friends say they forget words, too. No folks, it’s not the fact I am 79. I know the difference between forgetting a word and having it vanish into thin air. To look at the shredder next to my desk and ask Bruce the name for it. I started out making a list of words I was searching for: flip flops, casino, condo, kayak. Sometimes I can describe what a thing does when I can’t think of it. Casino, for example: where people go to lose money. (Come to think of it, that explanation works for a lot of places.)

Novels and movies are filled with stories about people who have lost their memories. They are suspenseful thrillers to read or watch, but no fun to live.

Several weeks ago, I had to get Bruce to talk to a landscaper to whom I was trying to speak sensibly. “That’s all right, ” he told my husband privately. “My mother has dementia. I know what you’re going through.”

Nope. It’s not all right. Not for Bruce, whose mother died with alzheimer’s disease. Not for me.

Right now, Bruce is my salvation. I’ve got him in a death grip. He’s got me in a life grip. He’s taking me on a tandem ride around the neighborhood.

Posted in Cycling, edgy, good thoughts, health and wellness, Portland | 23 Comments

A critique of “Little Eyes” by Samanta Schweblin

When I ordered Little Eyes (“Kentukis”) for my kindle in Spanish, I had every intention of writing this piece in Spanish. I’m a fan of Argentine author Samanta Schweblin. I had read and reviewed her series of short stories, Pajaros en la boca some time ago in these pages (“A Mouthful of Birds”), marveling at her technique of mixing the real and the surreal to provoke laughter and terror.

Then the pandemic hit. I fell off my bike while vacationing in Portland, Oregon, suffered a concussion and spent three days in the hospital. I am now on a slow road to recovery. The brain cells aren’t charging as fully or as well as they did two months ago.

It is certainly not the optimum moment to give this wonderfully inventive work its due in Spanish. Thank heavens for Megan McDowell’s wonderful translation of Schweblin’s spare and elegant prose into English.

So here goes: a short take on what was the structurally most interesting book I read in 2020. Little Eyes is also a strong cultural critique of how social media and technology have come to substitute for real human engagement.

In the world this book creates, kentukis are battery-operated objects on wheels in the guise of toys or pets. They look like plush animals — moles, pandas, bunnies, dragons. Think of that popular robotic toy of the late ’90s: the Furby. In Schweblin’s technologically advanced world the kentuki have become a worldwide craze for adults as well. In Vancouver, two preschool sisters agree to share a kentuki if their single mom buys it for them, only to discover that — once operational — the kentuki only shrieks. (Somebody was not happy to see who the owners turned out to be.)

Kentukis represent an advance in technology. They have come to appear as apprentice news commentators, children’s custodians, home security guards. They are actually a cross between a communications device — like a cellphone — and a surveillance vehicle — like a “wire.” Kentuki themselves are intermediaries. They can only move around and squawk. They link two strangers: a keeper and a dweller. Keepers caretake kentukis, providing them with places to perch, recharging them, opening up their lives to them, establishing ground rules. The keeper is an exhibitionist. A dweller is a voyeur, accessing the keeper’s world through the kentuki from a ground-floor perspective.

A keeper can buy a kentuki like a piece of merchandise online or in a store. A dweller can purchase a card and/or tablet with an access code that will put him or her in a stranger’s house. Anywhere in the world. You can even access one secondhand, if data is provided about the previous owner. In fact, one of the protagonists of Schweblin’s handful of ongoing stories, runs such a business out of Zagreb, Croatia, marketing secondhand kentuki tablets and identity codes to would-be dwellers throughout the world.

The book is comprised of a dozen on-going stories linking stranger to stranger. Emilia, a 65 year-old widow in Lima, Peru receives a kentuki access code from her tech genius son in Hong Kong. She is transformed into a bunny and awakes in Eva’s disorderly apartment in Erfurt, Germany.

Instead of studying, Marvin installs a kentuki on his tablet using his deceased mother’s digital bank account. Lonely in his affluent home in Antigua, Guatemala with only his father and a housekeeper, he is transported to a vacuum cleaner shop window in Honningsvag, Norway. Bound and determined to get to snow, he’s off on a great adventure as Snow Dragon.

Perhaps the most disturbing story takes place in an artist colony near Oaxaca, Mexico. There, Alina from Argentina, and her Scandanavian artist boyfriend Sven make Colonel Sanders central to their mutually abusive relationship and inevitably to Sven’s art.

A couple members of my Spanish book club here in Phoenix, Arizona decided to read through each character’s story from start to finish, flipping back and forth. (This is easier to do in the English translation where chapter headings provide the geographical location of the protagonist.) I read the book as Schweblin laid it out intermixing the individual storylines. I think this is a better way to uncover Schweblin’s overall themes. Otherwise, it is just a collection of character sketches.

It’s no secret how technology has invaded and transformed our lives, empowering and infantilizing us. When was the last time you wanted to throw your cellphone or computer across the room? Schweblin plays with technology’s dehumanizing effects. Some found the book very funny. To me, it’s more scary than funny.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, edgy, literary fiction | 4 Comments

A critique of “Redhead by the Side of the Road,” by Anne Tyler

I’ve read many books by Anne Tyler, but for the life of me, I can’t remember any of them specifically, either for scenes, plots or characters. I do remember that one, The Accidental Tourist, I believe, focused on a man who ate meals from cans leaning over the sink to save the use of placemat, cutlery and dishware. In another, an elegant house seemed to be the star of the show. All of the books were likeable with characters you believed in and settings you trusted.

So it is with Redhead by the Side of the Road, which was long-listed for the 2020 Man Booker prize. In Redhead, Tyler introduces us to Micah Mortimer, a middle-aged IT guy who leaves his eyeglasses behind when he goes on his morning runs. He often mistakes objects for living things. When he spies a small “redhead” on his regular route, he remembers it’s a fire hydrant as he passes closer.

Micah lives in the basement of the building he manages: changing lightbulbs, installing rollbars, setting out the recycling. The windows in Mortimer’s apartment are small and so is his understanding of what confronts him. For this reason he misreads what is expected of him when he gets a call from his ladyfriend Cass, with the announcement she is being evicted, and, a day later, he is visited by a young man, who claims to be his son. Brink is the son of Lorna Bartell, a college girlfriend Micah hadn’t seen in twenty years. These two pieces of news and how Micah handles them is all you need to know for the plot.

Redhead by the Side of the Road is a simple character study that asks and answers — in as straightforward a manner as possible — can a human being learn and change his or her behavior.

Along the way Tyler treats us to Micah’s peculiarities and miscues as he services his computer clients. He’s written a little book about caring for computers and printers called First, Plug it In. He puts his sign Tech Hermit on top of his car when he is out making calls. He always drives under the speed limit. (” If 35 miles an hour meant thirty-eight, they ought to go ahead and say thirty-eight,” he tells himself) Traffic God, Micah’s “travel companion” approves.

Micah mutters to himself in his own brand of French when he is fixing dinner. And he has a schedule for all household activities “He’s finicky,” one of his four brothers-in-law describes him. “What day is today?” he asks Micah. It’s kitchen day: as in clean the counters and the appliances and one complete cabinet.

Tyler appropriately treats the reader to how Micah became who he is in his mid-foties. We meet his four older sisters and their husbands and children. The party welcoming Lily, a soon to be daughter-in-law of Micah’s oldest sister Ada is boisterous and out of control. (A bit over-extended for me. I got it.) There is also some gentle psychological reflection on incidents that created Micah’s emotional obtuseness.

Readers are with Micah and in him as he unravels. It’s funny until it isn’t. Tyler is good at asking questions and providing insights. One in particular struck me.

Lorna, Brink’s mom, was raised as a conservative Christian, “I wonder if our children are especially chosen for us,” she asks Micah. “I wonder if the good Lord matchs us up with an eye to their instructiveness.”

That question may stick with me, like the man eating dinner out of a can over the kitchen sink in The Accidental Tourist.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, literary fiction | 7 Comments

A critique of “Deacon King Kong,” by James McBride

Deacon King Kong, by James McBride is a book I recommend reading quickly and with energy and delight. If, by chance, you decide to put it down and lose track of the dozen or so characters and where they are headed, just go back to Chapter One. It’s all there, with the exception of four distant players: an Irishman who owns a bagel shop, an out-of-town gun-for-hire and two grisly drug bosses.

This book is an entertainment, which does not minimize the finesse of its author. McBride is a consummate orquestrator of setting, character development and storyline.

At the center of the story is Cuffy Lamkin, better known as Sportcoat, the 71-year-old deacon of Five Ends Baptist Church in Brooklyn. (What does a deacon do, anyway?) He’s a brown-skinned drunk, whose favorite brew is King Kong, something concocted by his friend Rufus. Sportcoat is a beloved gentle soul, a whiz with plants, whose claim to fame is he coached the tenement’s award-winning baseball team for 14 years.

The year is 1969. The Mets are playing very good baseball. It’s 10 am in the morning. Sportcoat walks up to the Brooklyn harbor flagpole where a crowd of coffee drinkers has gathered. He pulls out an antiquated pistol and shoots Deems Clemens, the teenager who had been Sportcoat’s star player back in the day. Deems is now the area’s most ruthless drug dealer.

Why did he shoot Deems? Only God knows. Certainly not Sportcoat. That’s the mystery that drives the story. But there are others. Who provides the cheese that people in the projects line up for once a year? Why is the saying “in the palm of God’s hand” written over the head of Jesus in the painting on the church’s back exterior wall?

I was about to put the book down after the first few chapters. Sportcoat was not someone I thought I’d want to spend 300 pages with: a drunk who talks to his dead wife Hettie, quizzing her for the wherabouts of the Christmas Club money she was responsible for guarding. He’s a man who professes complete ignorance of even having shot Deems.

“Keep going,” a friend urged me. “The story opens up,” she said.

Like an orchestral piece with Sportcoat playing the oboe, Deacon King Kong is conducted by McBride as a work that brings together the Blacks, the Irish and the Italians — the waves of immigrants who peopled the tenements near the docks in Brooklyn’s harbor and continue to be connected to it for commercial and personal reasons.

The book is filled with coarse language and sexual misbehavior, shootings and drownings. It cues up the violins for a couple of key cross-cultural love stories. (Unfortunately, it recaps central themes and relationship ad infinitum.)

But Deacon King Kong is funny in big and small ways. A random example: Bum Bum, a minor character, is puzzling out the identity of a truck driver with an Italian accent.

“I think he was a gangster,” she tells Miss Izi, another secondary character. “He had a lot of pockmarks on his face.”

“That’s nothing,” Miss Izi says. “That could be from trying to use a fork.”

Read Deacon King Kong if you are looking for a distraction from the troubles we seem to be facing in the U.S. these days.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, fun stuff, good thoughts | Leave a comment

A critique of “The Night Always Comes,” by Willy Vlautin

I recently reviewed Willy Vlautin’s, Don’t Skip Out on Me in these pages. It left me with a desire to throw the book across the room. A friend in Portland urged me to give Vlautin a second chance.

I’m glad I did.

The Night Always Comes, Vlautin’s most recent novel, again focuses on a loser, but in contrast to the would-be Mexican prize-fighter Hector Hidalgo in Don’t Skip Out on Me, his heroine here survives the tale. Lynette is giving it all she’s got to secure a home for herself, her mother, who works at Fred Meyer Jewelers, and Kenny, a developmentally disabled, 32 year-old brother.

I believe every word of this book — every word every character speaks. Every treacherous word. Every self-serving whine. Vlautin has made an art of turning loses into the heroes of his tales, even when they are hell-bent on self-destruction.

Read The Night Always Comes, even if only for the depiction of the weather. Winter in Portland, Oregon is cold; it rains constantly. And then, there’s the setting: in the two days and two nights of the story’s time frame, we go from 82nd and Johnson Creek to the closed-down Tulip Pastry Shop and a parked Mercedes underneath a street lamp in North Portland. And so many other places in between.

Vlautin has a number of superlatives going for him in this book: a fearless heroine who is both resourceful and imaginative. Lynette is always several steps ahead of the reader. (Maybe she’s even ahead of Vlautin.) She knows how to work her marks, whether with a Dairy Queen or with a promise to share her winnings. She is well-armed — she has a knife in one pocket, a wad of bills in another. She is clearly planning ahead. She has eighty thousand dollars, but she needs more: more money and her mother’s credit status in order to make a down payment on the house that she, her mother, and Kenny are renting.

And Vlautin has a canvas with a time frame: property prices are skyrocketing and areas are being urban-renewed out of existence.

Lynette is a person we can believe in. Near the book’s conclusion, Shirley, a co-worker at The Dutchman Bar, where they both work, tells her the following:

“See, the thing is, you never give up and you’ve got a good heart, a damaged heart, but a good heart and you want to do good. Most people don’t care about doing good. Most people just push you out of the way and grab what they want.”

I approve of a story where you are pulling for its heroine at the end. Shirley gives Lynette a 2003 four-door, Buick sedan. Unlike every other car Lynette has driven in The Night Always Comes, this one starts on the first try.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, Oregon, Portland, portlandness | 2 Comments

A Critique of “Interior Chinatown,” by Charles Yu

Charles Yu employs a light and certain hand in Interior Chinatown, his treatment of growing up as an Asian male in a Black and White society. In February of this year, he won the National Book Award, for what the judges called his “mind-bending satire — a sendup of Hollywood and Asian-American stereotypes.”

Set as a series of seven acts, the book introduced us to the story’s protagonist, Willis Wu (Generic Asian Man), who grows up dreaming of becoming “Kung Fu Guy.”

Other key players are Older Brother — not the Generic Asian Man’s real older brother, of course — and a White female cop and Black male cop who head the Impossible Crimes Unit (ICU). We also run into Wu’s real Mother and Father, who appear in the various background roles they’ve played to make a living throughout his life. A love interest, Karen and a daughter, Phoebe, also appear.

But pay attention here! With razor-sharp wit, the author is asking “Who gets to be an American?”

Now the lawyer for the defense of Wu, Older Brother states the problem:

“We’re trapped as guest stars in a small ghetto on a very special episode. Minor characters looking into a story that doesn’t quite know what to do with us. After two centuries here, why are we still not Americans? Why do we keep falling out of the story?”

The author bases his approach on a sociological framework provided by Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman has made a study of the construction of self through social performance. According to Goffman, humans are constantly engaged in the process of “impression management, wherein they try to present and behave in a way that will prevent the embarrassment of themselves or others.”

Charles Yu admits to following this line of reasoning, introducing some of the acts with quotations from Goffman. At the same time, he is providing a parody of his own work as a writer for commercial television entertainment. Thus, Interior Chinatown is a self-critique as well as an evaluation of how Asian males fit into current American society.

Yu is clever at working in the facts about how Asians have been treated constitutionally, how their labor has been used, their cultures homogenized. His particular focus is on the post Mao, Chinese Asians, born in Taiwan.

I admire this light-hearted treatment of a serious issue, but maintaining the balance between a show and a lecture is difficult. In the end I found the result tedious. Missing from the pageant is the current reality of the world, and the looming tower of Chinese economic prosperity and political autocracy. In this arena, the United States and all its subsets — Latinos, tribal nations, Asians, African Americans and Whites are background players.

Posted in Book Reviews, China, edgy, fun stuff, history, literary fiction | 2 Comments

A Critique of “Don’t Skip Out on Me,” by Willy Vlautin

The story concerns a family of sheep ranchers near Tonopah, Nevada. Mr. Reese, the patriarch, has a bad back. His wife, Mrs. Reese, has become so reclusive, she barely gets beyond the kitchen garden.  Presumably, it is their adopted son, Horace Hopper, who is the hero of the tale.

Horace is in the pursuit of a dream to overcome his Paiute and Irish parentage, the abandonment by both birth mother and father. He is out to refashion himself as a Mexican prize fighter, Hector Hidalgo. He has read a self-help book about building a boat and thinking like a champion.

He’s bought the costume; he works the hand exercises; he hires a trainer.

He goes off to Tucson in pursuit of his dream. It leads to fights in Mexico, El Paso and Las Vegas. He has some successes. He can tolerate punishment and pain. He’s resourceful and energetic, but he hates the city. And he can’t seem to learn Spanish or tolerate Mexican food. The scene where he tries to eat a bowl of ceviche would have been funny, if it weren’t so pathetic.

This is a book about loneliness. It’s about people consigned to work the cows and the sheep. They talk to their dogs. They talk to their horses. If they talk at all.

The author is deft at introducing back stories for Horace and Mr. Reese.  He occasionally pries into their inner thoughts. He occasionally uses a scene to position their status among the town folk in Tonopah.

Ordering parts at the A& C Auto Parts store, a conversation between Mr. Reese and the store owner Hank goes from bad to worse. Hank feels free to rag on about Horace — whom he calls “the Indian kid” — and how he dresses when he is in town. It ends with Hank requesting that Mr. Reese tell Horace to skip his street the next time he’s in town.

And with Mr. Reese deciding to get his auto parts somewhere else.

Don’t Skip Out on Me is riven with loneliness and ethnic hatred of a kind peculiar to this part of the country. It felt palpable to me, having driven through the barren stretches of Nevada that surround Tonopah on more than one occasion. Interestingly, Willy Vlautin doesn’t live in the Southwest. He lives outside of Portland, Oregon.

I haven’t read any of Vlautin’s previous books, although I saw and liked the movie made from Lean on Pete. Vlautin is also a musician. He has produced a soundtrack for the book available at WWW.HC.COM/DON’TSKIPOUTONME.

In conclusion, I don’t think I have ever run up against a writer so good at handling dialogue, character portrayal, and descriptions who insists on creating a story line that plods relentlessly toward a preordained conclusion.

For me, the book’s bleakness is owing to the absence of any kind of spiritual dimension. The Reeses’ love Horace and their willingness to turn themselves inside out to redeem him is not enough.

I didn’t throw Don’t Skip Out on Me across the room when I finished it, but I almost did.

Posted in Arizona, Book Reviews, Commentary, Hispanidad, Nevada, Southwest and the desert | 7 Comments

Day 7: That Will Be $170, please

Bend to Portland: 175 miles

We had until 11 am to get out of the Days Inn by Wyndham in south Bend. The road ahead was only 175 miles. What was the hurry? It was the last day of our seven-day drive from Phoenix to Portland. My travel buddy Ellen and I were feeling like professional travelers.

The day was cool enough that we walked our way back on 3rd St. to the Safeway where we found a Starbucks for coffee, adequate pastries and a place to sit down. Once we returned to the hotel, we packed up and set out to find a place to walk along the Deschutes River.

It was Saturday, July 17.

Farewell Bend Park in Bend

We made a 15-minute drive from the hotel to the Farewell Bend Park on Reed Market Rd. It’s a lovely spot.

There was plenty of parking at the early hour we arrived. The walking path connects the park to the Old Mill District to the northeast. But we were enticed by the less improved walkway across the river going south. Ellen told me later that she was so thoroughly enamored of that tree-lined setting, she could imagined renting a house that looked down on the river in there and exploring all of the trails in the area.

We had spend the afternoon of the day before at the Lava Lands Visitor’s Center, whose superlative exhibits told the story of the area’s geology, in particular the creation of Crater Lake, and the two smaller lakes — Paulina and Chief — as well as what else remains of Mt. Mazama, which erupted more than 7,000 years ago. The Visitor Center is the interpretive hub of Newberry National Volcanic Monument. We took the shuttle to the summit of Lava Butte and looked down to an ocean of lava beds.

But I digress.

The road north out of Bend took us to Madras where we stopped at the Love’s gas station and its be-all and end-all of roadside stores. As I struggled to coach gas from a pump, Ellen burst out of the store, named it a junk food palace, and urged me to come in.

Even the candy aisle was backlit. And the bathroom — which was spotless, I must add — had a button you could push to rate the “loo” for cleanliness: good, excellent, superlative. (It gave me a thought: why not do a report on what people manage to load up in junk food at these places. Plenty of money is spent, I’d bet.

Warm Springs Reservation
Warm Springs Reservation

At Madras we left US 97 and took US 26 to the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. The resort, Kah-Nee-Ta, which closed in 2018, laying off all its employees, is what most non native folks in Portland knew about Warm Springs, but the Reservation is much more.

For one thing, it is a breath-taking spot, with vistas of Mt. Hood and Mr. Jefferson.

Ellen lived in Warm Springs for two years as a third and fourth-grader. Her father worked as an assistant forester for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The agency town and reservation school and offices are still there. We traveled up and down the streets, as she relived memories of her years there.

Her house was gone. It was a two-bedroom that had to accommodate their family of five: Ellen, the oldest, John, two years younger, and Lois, a youngster. Also, her paternal grandmother joined them four months of the year, not an easy thing for her mom or for John, who remembers being monitored in his food intake by Granny. Ellen remembers the day she didn’t take the school bus the sixteen miles into Madras, but ended up playing on the Metolius River with friends. It caused a fright to her father when he found them there.

We motored on.

Mt. Hood

At Government Camp on Mt. Hood we took OR 35 to Hood River. It is always gorgeous to make your way through the Hood River Valley. That part of the route brought back memories of driving over from Portland to pick peaches and buy apples when in season. Hood River was a place of my mother’s happiest childhood memories. There we picked up US 84 the stretch that came closest to what we had tried to avoid during the whole trip: freeway driving.

But what the heck, I was on my way home.

Somehow, coming into Portland on Marine Drive, radar clocked me at exceeding the speed limit. Though the ticket went to Bruce in Phoenix –his name is on the car registration — I should be hearing from them soon.

Welcome to Portland: $170, please.

Posted in fun stuff, good thoughts, history, on native ground, Oregon, Portland, Road trip, travel | 2 Comments