Keeping your Distance/ Walking Around

Sometimes, in these early days of the viral pandemic, it feels as if we are getting mixed messages. On the one hand, we need to get out and get some fresh air. On the other, we need to keep six feet between ourselves and others.

Both are true and both are easy to do here in Phoenix.

I’ve gotten out each day in the last two weeks, sometimes along the curvy sidewalks of my Sunnyslope community of cul-de-sacs and circle eights. (I don’t have a pedometer, but I have a pretty good idea of what a half-mile and a mile feel like.)

On Sunday, my hiking partner Lynn and I walked onto the nearby Phoenix Preserve and clocked 3.3 miles over the mostly rocky ground of the Christiansen Trail (Trail 100).

On that foray, a group of five mountain-bikers in their 40s rode up behind us, dismounted about 200 feet ahead, trying to decide which fork in the path to take. Of course they weren’t six feet apart from each other.

When they motioned us to thread the narrow path between them as they spoke, everything in us said: No thank you. (They were clearly part of the invincible brigade who just as easily could have infected us as ushered us oldsters on.)

One of the most terrific parts of living in central Phoenix, however, is the opportunity to get out and walk or ride the canals, more than 80 miles of whose banks have been upgraded from the 500 miles of waterways left by the Hohokam who cultivated the Valley between 300 to 1450.

I walked and then bicycled part of the Grand Canal recently. The Grand Canalscape, stretching from 7th St. to 9th Ave., is the newest one-mile portion of paved multi-use trails that join neighborhoods with bridges and pedestrian signals at traffic crossings through a historic section of central Phoenix. Mayor Kate Gallego spoke at the Feb. 15 opening of the completion of the 12-mile continuous trail along this oldest pioneer canal on the north sides of the Salt River. A packed-dirt trail skirts the south side of the canal.

Do as I did on foot, walk the two-mile out and back between 7th St. and 9th Ave. You won’t run into many cyclists or pedestrians. I crossed the canal to walk from one side to the other for vistas of Phoenix’s many mid-town neighborhoods, both affluent and humble.

Or bicycle the trail as a longer stretch between Indian School to the east and Indian School to the west. Cross streets are well-marked and you’ll find several entry points from the neighborhoods on the north between 7th St. going east and 7th Ave. going west.

The further west you travel toward I-17, however, you’ll more likely run into folks who spend their daylight hours along the canal. As I rode west of 15th Ave., I passed a young girl crouching beside the path. She was sorting through her belongings. Wearing a halter top, torn jeans and a smear of lipstick, she couldn’t have been more than sixteen.

On the way back, I passed her again, as she shouted to someone on the other side of the canal:

“I’m not going to walk over there.”

“Go to the crosswalk,” he said.

“You come here,” she objected. “You’ve got the bike.”

Posted in Arizona, Cycling, Phoenix, Phoenix for Beginners, walking around | 2 Comments

Road trip: Searching for Wildflowers and Petroglyphs

Not to be different, we — like half of Phoenix — went out last weekend to traipse the great outdoors. We — like half of Phoenix — were sure this was a legitimate interpretation of “sheltering-in-place,” a term that joins our new daily vocabulary along with COVID-19, flattening the curve, supply chain, and self-quarantine.

In our defense, we neither tarried in groups of 10 or more nor tailed other hikers closer than six feet. Yet it was with some chagrin, we opened our Monday morning newspaper to the Arizona Republic‘s lead story and photo shot of a crowd at the Hole in the Rock in Papago Park.

Our original intent was to look for wildflowers and find the nest of a Great Horned Owl I had seen two years ago on a trail north of Phoenix: a trail I remembered as less rocky and steep than the one we had taken the day before up Shaw Butte.

I thought it was the Dixie Mountain Loop Trail.

Maybe it was, but typical to the adventures I “plan,” once we had GPSed our way out via 7th St. to the North Valley Parkway and West Malvern Trail, we had to get directions from locals on how to find the Desert Vista parking lot.

At 10 am, there was a line-up at the large lot. Note to self: next time start earlier.

No worries. We activated Plan B. Why not head further north on 1-17 and try to find that trail out to the petroglyphs we’d read about on an earlier road trip we’d taken a few weeks earlier?

What was the turn-off called? Did we have a map in the truck? Nope. Plan B I begin to call “SaturStray” in honor of my Thursday cycle buddy Jamie who has instituted a small group bike ride called “ThurStray” that invents itself as you ride along.

Let’s just drive and see what looks familiar, we tell ourselves. We knew it was somewhere between Sunset Point and Cordes Junction.

“That’s it!” I say. “Badger Springs.” At Exit 256, we turn east and continue on a gravel road about a half-mile to a substantially full parking lot.

At the restrooms, we find a description of what we would find ahead: a .8 miles trail of sandy, watery and rock-hopping to the Agua Fria River. The payoff would be 86 symbols tapped into the rock face of cliffs by early native peoples: petroglyphs left by prehistoric travelers on a trade route that dated from 1250 to 1450.

On the visit we had made to Crown King, we had added an earlier visit to the Agua Fria Monument. At Cordes Junction, we had crossed 1-17 to Pueblo La Plata, an archeological site excavated and maintained by the Museum of Northern Arizona and Arizona State University. That trip was a longish drive east from I-17 over gravel roads and a longish walk back west to a rubble of remains with signage touting a prehistoric village of 80 to 100 rooms. The mound that now stands refers to a farming people of the Perry Mesa Tradition. Abandoned in 1450, probably due to drought, it sits at a picturesque overlook of the Silver Creek Canyon. Starkly beautiful and windswept, the site attracted only two other visitors in the hour we were there.

The Badger Springs trail was a whole other story. We met or were passed by families with dogs and children, heard teenager’s voices echoing along the stream as we crossings from one bank of the water to the other. The abundance of rain this winter made charting a path an adventure.

“That’s the longest .8 miles (actually, it was 1.5 miles) I’ve ever walked,” I said to my husband. “And the slowest,” Bruce said.

The shady, grassy bank of the Agua Fria was worth the walk, a lovely spot to stop and rest. The river was a rush of rapids and eddies with rock faces on either bank, both of them potential canvasses for rock paintings. I asked a women who had continued on ahead, rock-hopping the boulders further on.

“Did you see the petroglyphs? There should be some rock etchings on the walls — 86 of them,” I told her. She looked puzzled. “No.”

Sigh. We’d had enough. We’ll save the rock painting . . . and the Great Horned Owl and the wildflowers for another day. Or days. Going back, we passed by a family group who had brought their own picnic and portable table. At the parking lot, another group had put a grate over a fire pit and were roasting hot dogs.

They probably had an RV parked nearby. Definitely sheltering-in-place.

Posted in Arizona, fun stuff, Hiking, Road trip, travel | 1 Comment

A critique of “Amnesty,” by Aravind Adiga

Amnesty, by Aravind Adiga burrows inside the psyche of an undocumented immigrant in Australia. No piece of literature that I have come across until now — and there have been lots — better captures the paranoia and moral complexity of living on the fringes of a society that is not your own.

Danny is a Sri Lankan house cleaner in Sydney. For the previous four years, he has lived in the storeroom above a convenience store owned by a Greek named Tommo, to whom he is little better than an indentured slave. Tommo charges Danny rent, uses him as a stock boy, and takes fifty percent of his earnings as a cleaner.

Danny is in love with Sonja Tran, a Vietnamese nurse whom he met through an on-line dating service for vegetarians. (Actually, she’s vegan; he’s not even a vegetarian.) He has bought her a cactus, which he carefully protects as he moves around Sydney.

Amnesty chronicles a day in Danny’s life, almost minute-by-minute as he pivots from one location to another. He is dogged by an almost unsolvable dilemma. Only Danny has the piece of evidence that could convict the man he is certain killed Radha Thomas, a former cleaning client. Calling the police with the information puts Danny’s own precarious status at risk.

A moral imperative drives his path around the city, a sight-seeing tour of how brown people have and have not fit into a white dominant society. In the process he is solving the mystery behind the killing and what the killer may do next. Danny himself is also a mystery. His memories and musings during the day are keys to why he is who he is.

Can a thriller be stultifying and ironic? This one is.

I haven’t read any of Adiga’s previous works. He is a winner of the 2008 Booker Prize for his debut novel The White Tiger. A second novel, Selection Day, has been made into a Netflix series.

Reading Amnesty was an ordeal but I cried when it ended. It holds up a mirror to what life must be like for an asylum seekers in our own country.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, race and class | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

“Eggs like Patty”

I made scrambled eggs this morning. With bacon in them. I can’t pour the eggs into the pan without thinking about my friends Patty and Dale Walhood and their daughter Megan. It makes me smile.

The story I always think about is this: When Megan was a little girl, watching her grandmother getting ready to make scrambled eggs, she told Georgie that she wanted: “Eggs like Patty.”

Did she preferred runny or dry? I don’t know.

Now Megan Walhood is a chef. Her food cart, Viking Soul Foods in Portland, Oregon, has received national attention for its lefse wraps, filled with locally sourced fillings. (This is a family of Norwegians, as you might imagine.) Patty and her husband Dale died in 2016 within hours of each other having suffered from different forms of cancer.

This is a happy memory, though, of how objects and experiences can resurrect visions of friends absent and events past.

In the same way, every time I pour maple syrup from the little blue Arabia pitcher that friends Ann and George Smith used as a creamer the years we lived together in Northeast Portland, I feel the warmth of their presence here in Phoenix, Arizona.

Even when it’s raining outside, as it is today.

Posted in Eating Well, good thoughts, Portland | Leave a comment

A critique of “Abigail,” by Magda Szabo

Abigail, the most popular of Magda Szabo’s works in her native Hungary, was only recently published in English. Written in 1970, it was made into a series for Hungarian television in 1978 and a musical for the stage in 2008. After having read two other novels by Szabo, The Door — her most admired work worldwide — and Katalin Street — my favorite — it was a pleasure to read Len Rix’s fine translation.

I had worried that I was going to have to take up the study of Hungarian to continue reading more by this prolific, deeply reflective and amusing caricaturist of humankind. No worries. Now I had Abigail in my hands, a young adult novel of adventure that traces the fate of 14-year-old Georgina Vitay, during a scant six months (1943-44) prior to Germany’s occupation of Hungary.

Gina is an only child, with no memories of her mother and raised in the loving care of her father, the General, and a French nursemaid, Marcelle. Her father has sent Marcelle home to France because, as he explained, their countries were on “other sides of the war.” Now, wIthout receiving an explanation and without being able to let any of her school friends or her aunt Mimo know, Gina is uprooted from the protected and pampered life of an upperclass young lady, and thrust into the alien world of the Matula, a strict Calvinist girl’s school, far from Budapest. Here, she and her fellow hostages work like galley slaves improving their minds, exercising their bodies, are dressed and are coiffed like carbon copies of each other.

I was interested to learn that Szabo, labeled an enemy to the Communist Party during the Stalinist era (1949 to 1956), lost her job in the Ministry of Education and taught in a girls’ school until 1959, a school probably very like the Matula.

Originally impassive to her fate, Gina takes her “medicine without flinching. There was no need for either persuasion or bribery.” This, of course, doesn’t last. Gina is high-spirited, culturally hauty and intelligent. Once she is sent through a tiny door into the girls’ wing — the school was a former monastery — she enters an Alice in Wonderland-like nightmare, much of which is of her own making. She learns what it is to move from being the center of the world to becoming an outcast.

Early in the text, Gina is presented to Abigail, a stone statue that stands in an alcove near the high wall that encloses the school’s garden. Abigail personifies a smiling young woman carrying a classical-style pitcher. Classmates Mari Kis and Torma call Abigail a miracle-worker, and they can cite examples of how petitions left in the statue’s pitcher are answered by this fairy godmother.

Who and what Abigail really is becomes one of the central mysteries of the story for Gina. She plays a role in protecting the Matula, its students and more specifically Gina.

Abigail is a book of interlocking mysteries as experienced by a young girl as her understanding of the world broadens. Reader beware, however: this is young adult fiction, sentimental in its narrative exposition and heavy-handed in its unraveling of mysteries.

It has been a long time since I read The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, so I have nothing to compare Abigail to. I don’t know if those old favorites would open the tear ducts and unlock the peels of pleasure as Abigail did for me today now that I am in my dotage.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books in Translation, history, World War II | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A critique of “Weather,” by Jenny Offills

Jenny Offill’s new novel Weather is a small book about a big subject. The format is miniaturized (7 1/2” x 4 3/4”); the pages are few (201). With a scant six chapters, each a series of seemingly unrelated paragraphs — thoughts, incidents, statistics — it’s over almost before you start it.

But don’t read Weather too fast. Allow it to gnaw at you the way the world’s current global crises gnaw at Lizzie, the novel’s protagonist.

Lizzie is a young mother, with a son, Eli, and husband, Ben, eking out a living in New York. She continues to “waste her potential,” as her former thesis advisor Sylvia observes, working as a librarian at the college where she was a graduate student. Sylvia got Lizzie the job and additionally employs her to answer letters to followers of Sylvia’s blog on environmental issues. Some of these questions and answers speckle the text.

Lizzie’s relationship with Sylvia is perhaps the most topically relevant to the book’s core. Lizzie discusses the letters with Sylvia:

“Environmentalists are so dreary,” she tells her. “I know, I know,” Sylvia says.

Humor and irony are what power the first hundred pages of Weather. Early on I thought about creating a series of Facebook entries — clever observations from the book. Like this one: “Once sadness was considered one of the deadly sins; it was later changed to sloth.“ Or this one: “Insomnia is a badge of honor; it means you are paying attention.”

But then I got to page 111: Chapter 3. Lizzie and Ben stay up all night watching the 2016 election returns. The winner’s name is not mentioned. No one is excoriated. But irony all but disappears. No more chortles, dear reader. America has “fallen” into history. Rampant paranoia reigns.

Offill’s skill here is her mastery at linking the domestic with the civic, at linking micro with macro morality. Lizzie is an ear, a weather vane. Her husband Ben accuses her of being a shrink, allowing everyone to lay their troubles at her doorstep. Margot, her meditation guru says she is “enmeshed” with her brother Henry, who suffers with on-again-off again mental health and addiction problems.

Life, for Lizzie, involves weaving a path between the needy she encounters on the street, in the news, in the vast library of her mind. She seems to be losing her boundaries. Can you ever take on the burdens of others without sinking under the weight?

Like Dept. of Speculation, the first book I read by Offills, Weather affected me in a deeply personal way. I was praying for something less abrupt than the book’s ending. What I got was an invitation to make my own.

There are signposts how to do that. Check it out.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary | 2 Comments

Road Trip: The Ghost Town of Vulture City, Arizona

As it turns out, you don’t have to venture very far from Phoenix to come upon the relics of the Arizona territory’s mining past. Ghost towns of the gold, silver and copper mining encampments dot the landscape at a half-day’s drive west and northwest of the city’s urban sprawl. (There are even traces of mercury mining within the Phoenix city limits, near the Dreamy Draw, along one of our regular bicycling routes.)

What actually qualifies as a “ghost town”? Is it an abandoned miners’ camp that dates from the mid 18th century where no one currently lives? Or is it the coexistence of the state’s mining past with resident accommodations to current lifestyles.

More about that later.

In my husband Bruce’s and my never-ending interest in uncovering Arizona mining history, we headed off to Vulture City, a half-day’s drive from Phoenix. It is likely Arizona’s best restored ghost town.

One way to get to the Vulture Mine and Vulture City is via the cowboy town of Wickenburg, named for German immigrant Henry Wickenburg, who first laid claim to the Vulture Mine in 1863. We chose what turned out to be a more rural route, out west on I-10 to Exit 103 north, where we picked up 339th Ave and connected to the Wickenburg-Hassayampa Rd that led into Vulture Mine Rd, 29 miles and 35 minutes from the Interstate.

What made the trip both memorable — and strange — was the appearance of a sparsely-spaced flow of runners coming toward us that morning. None of them seemed to be moving very fast. This was understandable when we we learned we were travelling in the opposite direction as participants in the Ragnar Relay Del Sol, a long-distance team race that had started in Wickenburg at 5 am. The destination of the 12 and six-member teams was Mesa, AZ, 200 miles and 36 hours away.

The 900 acres that comprise Vulture City and Vulture Mine are subdivided and separated by fencing — a requirement by federal law. Mining is still taking place on the 600-acre mining site. Vulture City, whose restoration began in 2017, is now owned by Rod Pratt, a Canadian investment banker, and his partner Robin Moriarity.

Brett Bishop, our host at Vulture City, described how he and a co-worker were uncovering history at another mining site near Aguila, when Pratt and his general contractor approached them with plans for the Vulture City. They made him an enticing enough offer that a year later Bishop and his small team took over to provide ongoing upkeep and guidance for visitors around the site’s several restored structures.

The 300-acres site that we toured is clearly intended as a tourist attraction, with possibilities of annual events — a performance stage with seats — that promise storytelling and live-action activities. Among the restored structures are an assayer’s office that includes living quarters, a schoolhouse, now the visitor’s center, a brothel and doctor’s office, a cookhouse and mess hall, a saloon, gas station and post office. Some of these buildings are as they were originally entended, others not. All the furniture, clothing and mining paraphenalia were recovered on the site.

As an encampment, Vulture City grew and wained with the fortunes of mining in the area. A census in the 1880s counted city inhabitants at 5,000, with five boarding houses, a newspaper, a general store, a post office, a school and three to six saloons. Sixty students attended the school at mining’s height.

For a year and a half — until the fall of 1864 — Wickenburg worked the mine alone or with a few helpers. He soon learned that getting others to do the hard labor was better business. He encouraged miners to join him, paying them $15 per ton to transport the gold embedded quartz 14 miles to mills along the Hassayampa River for extraction.

Records show that between 1867 and 1871, the value of the gold bullion taken out of Vulture was $1,230,000, about $25,000,000 today. At one point it was reported to be America’s greatest gold mine.

Although Henry Wickenburg continued to work a mill with early partner P.W. Smith, he never recovered $50,000 or the $75,000 he had contracted to be paid by Benjamin Phelps, when Phelps bought the Vulture Mining Company in 1866.

Apparently, Wickenburg never lived at Vulture City, although signage and guides may say otherwise. He built what was called a “tunnel house” on a hill one-half mile outside town, raising his own food and grazing livestock. He ran for judge, served on the mines, claims, roads and ferries committees of the Seventh Territorial Legislature in Tucson, and was widely respected politically. In 1979, Rutherford B. Hayes granted him a 160-acre swath of land in Wickenburg proper south to the river. Henry Wickenburg committed suicide in 1905 at age 85.

You can learn all of this and a lot of lore on a self-appointed or guided tour when you visit Vulture City, which is open seven days a week, 10 am to 4 pm, with admission priced at $15/adults; $12/seniors, children under six, free. (Dogs are welcome.)

Bruce and I had already taken a couple of trips to some of Arizona’s early mining communities when we headed over to the Vulture. We had gone to Ajo, close to one of Arizona’s border entries to Mexico (Lukeville on AZ-85), where the area’s first hard rock copper mining dates from 1854; and to Bisbee, where we toured the Copper Queen, in contiuous production for 100 years when it closed in 1975. Neither of these mining communities is off the beaten track. You can read about these road trips in earlier posts: https://skayoliver.wordpress.com (Bisbee, AZ: Where Copper was King (and Hippies once Reigned and Overnight in Ajo).

Now with a four-wheel venicle, we can venture further afield. Though not necessary for our day in Vulture City, we can travel the bumpy roads to places like Crown King, Cordes, and Cleator and even over to Morenci, near Stafford.

In answer to the question: what is a “ghost town,” all of these places qualify. All of them bear reference to the historic mining industry so important to the creation of Arizona as a state. Some of them, like Bisbee and Crown King have evolved as places where twenty-first century residents have made their homes. In others, like Cleator, which has a general store and a number of new homes in the nearby hills, the current occupants shares space with the historic. Others still, like Cordes have attracted winter visitors travelling by RV.

All are included in Arizona’s Best Ghost Towns: A Practical Guide by Philip Varney (Northland Press, Flagstaff, Arizona, 1980). We picked up an early edition of this book at Back of Beyond Books in Moab, Utah in one of our trips back and forth to Phoenix from Portland. We also have a copy of Arizona Highway’s 10th printing (2008) of the book. An updated version comes out this spring.

Specific to the Vulture Mine and Vulture City, I recommend Lynn Downey’s Arizona’s Vulture Mine and Vulture City (Arcadia Publishing, 2019), a workmanlike sifting of fact from fiction.

But go and see for yourself.

Posted in Arizona, history, Road trip, travel | 2 Comments

A critique of “The Silent Patient,” by Alex Michaelides

There is no secret behind why The Silent Patient, by Alex Michaelides has been on the Best Seller list for 35 weeks. It is a painlessly fast-to-read mystery in which a plot-driven narrative captures the reader’s attention and then cleverly turns a major assumption inside out in a couple of ways a few pages from the story’s end.

Theo Farber is a psychotherapist who gets himself hired at the Grove, an avant garde asylum, in order to treat a patient who has killed her husband. Alicia and Gabriel Berenson, married seven years, were both accomplished artists: she, a painter; he, a fashion photographer. All evidence points to Alicia as Gabriel’s killer: she was found alone with his body, only her fingerprints were on the gun. She has slashed her wrists.

Alicia refused to speak in her own defense. After recuperating and under house arrest, she did leave one statement. She painted a self-portrait of herself naked before a blank canvas. The word Alcestis appears in the left-hand corner. The reference is to a Greek myth about a woman who sacrifices herself for her husband.

The Silent Patient is a slow burner. It is easy to become bored during the set-up, since the writing itself is pedestrian and the characters are lifeless. However, the author does a good job of making the reader suspicious of the narrator. Theo has his own lamentable personal history. One wonders if he’s the crazy here. His interest in the patient, Alicia, is obsessive. (By the way, does he only have one patient? Does he have limitless time to track down her history?) In addition, Theo’s attachment to his own wife, Kathy, is presented in such glowing, adoring terms, it defies credibility.

Michaelides moves the story along briskly in bite-size chapters, each with a three or four-word caveat that urges you to keep reading. It is very discussable; a good book club choice with a debateable conclusion that I didn’t see coming. The plot development takes you down a number of blind alleys, sometimes heavy-handed and illogical, but what are we looking for in a mystery, anyway?

Posted in Book Reviews, fun stuff | 2 Comments

A critique of “American Dirt,” by Jeanine Cummins

Damn! I never thought I would be using phrases like “ripped from the headlines” and “pitch-perfect thriller” (crime writer Don Winslow’s words). Sorry folks. Like Oprah Winfrey, who admitted she was hooked from Page One, American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins did that for me. I read it quickly, from start to finish. I put away my high- minded critical faculties about improbable characterizations and clunky metaphors. I read it like an adventure story with heroes and villains. I cried and I cheered.

Here’s the story line: Lydia, a college-educated bookstore owner in Acapulco, must flee with her eight-year-old son Luca, when her investigative journalist husband publishes a profile of the local cartel kingpin. Mother and son are the only survivors of a mass murder of family members at the celebration of a quinceañera. Their journey through Mexico to el norte is filled with a cast of characters as varied as any Fellini movie or Lord of the Rings pursuit. They walk, they ride la Bestia, they are sheltered in casas de migrantes, sleep on park benches, are roughed up and worse by federales, vigilantes, and la migra. They encounter as much good as bad, always with a look over their shoulder.

Has Javier, the drug lord, commissioned someone to follow Lydia and Luca? Incidentially, she had made friends with Javier, a bookstore patron, over a mutual love of literature, not knowing who he was. (And if you can get past the improbability of this “friendship” and her naivete about her family’s vulnerability, you are ripe for getting caught up in the journey north.)

If you sleep under a rock, you may have missed the bruhaha over the book, its author and the fact that Oprah choose American Dirt as her book-club choice for January. There has been an uprising of critics and other authors over the visibility given this piece of fiction at a time when the United States struggles with immigration issues. A letter to Oprah signed by more than 100 writers requests that Oprah remove it as her choice. The letter condemns the book as “exploitative, oversimplified and ill-informed.” Though the letter says it is not calling for “silencing” or “censoring,” it actually is. The letter predicts a “harmful” outcome to it being widely read.

I doubt it, but I suggest you read the book for yourself. (Had all the signers of the letter to Oprah read the book?) I challenge any reader not to feel compassion for the people heading north toward freedom. They have faces. They have stories.

In her New York Times book review, Parul Seghal writes: “The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach.” I would disagree. I believe the book’s reading will raise many questions in the minds of comfortable white, middle class estadounidenses as to how they/we conspire in the humanitarian horror story that is the mass migration on our continent.

Posted in Arizona, Book Reviews, Commentary, edgy, Hispanidad | 3 Comments

A critique of “The Topeka School,” by Ben Lerner

It wasn’t until page 94 of Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School that I realized how much I had been looking for a good, old-fashioned psychological novel. Maybe I had found it.

Summaries and reviews of this prize-winning poet’s third novel — he has previously written Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 — would lead you to believe it has a straightforward storyline.

It doesn’t, but I’ll lay it out here. Adam grows up in Topeka, Kansas, the son of two psychologists. His mother, Jane, is an eminence, having published a book of popular psychology about family dynamics; his father, John, practices psychotherapy at the Foundation. His patients? The “lost boys of privilege.”

Adam is a nerd, a high school debate champion, who struggles with “the ugly fragility of masculinity,” as the author describes it. We also follow a second male character, Darren, a classmate of Adam’s since preschool. Darren’s entries appear in italics. Unbeknownst to Adam, he is one of John’s patients: a “lost boy.”

That’s about it. Oh, one more thing: The Topeka School is written from a 2019 point in time. Adam, now married with two daughters, is living in Brooklyn.

What makes the book interesting and, in the end, troubling is its structure. Told in a variety of tempos and styles, its chapters work like the movements of a musical work. A thread binds them together, layering in a psychological motif that the American male is a “man-child,” a perennial adolescent.

According to Lerner, we see this writ large in our current president. Lerner doesn’t shy away from politics, but that’s not his focus. His interest is the construction of self. Thus, we have the inclusion of Darren the man-child in caricature. Darren’s exclusion from and inclusion into Adam’s social circle exposes the danger of self-centeredness.

To my mind, some of the book’s best psychological insights and writing are contained in the chapters narrated in the first person: Jane’s, Jonathan’s and the last chapter as told by the now-adult Adam. These chapters elicit a real sense of person and place. They evoke empathy with the characters.

I have mixed feelings about the book’s self-consciousness. For example, Jane’s first chapter, “The Men,” is written as a letter to Adam. She writes as if solicited to co-collaborate on the book we are reading. (There is at least one other instance of this kind of “memoirish” doubletake when Adam/Lerner says/writes: “Why does it feel dangerous to fictionalize my daughters’ names?)

Humor in The Topeka School? Trying to find it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. At least, that it what I thought while reading it. Now that the book has settled, I must admit, Chapter One:”The Spread,” is a parody of Adam’s/Lerner’s whole dilemma. And it is very funny.

Piloting his girlfriend Amber’s motorboat while drunkenly monologuing about their relationship and their launch into adulthood, seventeen-year-old Adam doesn’t notice he is alone. Amber has slipped over the side of the boat and swum to shore.

The Topeka School is linguistically smart, a kind of smart I prize. But in the end, I, like Amber, just wanted to slip away. I fell victim to the “spread.” Lerner, ever the debater — and the poet — just swamped me with content and technique

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary | 1 Comment

A critique of “A Place for Us,” by Fatima Farheen Mizra

A Place for Us tells the story of a family struggling to raise their first-generation children as observant Muslims in the United States, pre and post the 911 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Its author, Fatima Farheen Mizra, is a debut novelist. She provides a uniquely insider’s perspective on Islam and the effect its practices and beliefs has on three children as they grown up.

The book feels only step away from a memoir. Hadia, the author’s alter ego, is the eldest daughter, bound for success in whatever she undetakes; Huda, another girl, is a balanced and steady counterweight to Amar, the dreamy, athletic youngest child — a son.

Their father, Rafiq, is stern and hardworking. His expectations for the children are traditional: suitable marriages and respectable, well-paid careers. Layla, their mother, provides extra support and affection to Amar, whose inconsistent academic performance and slipshod personal habits enrage and mystify Rafiq.

Hadia’s wedding opens and closes the book’s action. She has invited the now estranged Amar to participate. Mizra is skillful in drawing on past events to show how they contribute to the breach between Amar and the family: the death of a friend, a star-crossed love story, a missing watch, an expensive pair of athletic shoes.

A Place for Us is a claustrophobic read. We are inside one family’s community; the scrutiny of its mores is exhausting. Late in the text, we learn that it is not just Islam that connects them, but Hyderabad, Urdu and Shia. For them, the perpetrators of 911 are not Muslim terrorists, but “bad guys.” Terms like hala (what is permissible), and haram (not lawful) are not subjects of scripture, but issues of practice.

It is a sad story told in a kind and forgiving voice. I learned a lot reading A Place for Us, but it wore me out.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, religion and culture | Leave a comment

Una crítica de “El taller de libros prohibidos,” de Olalla García

El taller de libros prohibido es el quinto libro de Olalla García, quien estudió historia en la Universidad de Alcalá, donde los eventos de este misterio tiene lugar. La trama se lleva a cabo durante el reino de Felipe II en el año 1572, una época de represión y superstición.

La protagonista es una joven librera Inés Ramírez, viuda de un esposo maltratador que le ha dejado unos negocios con figuras siniestres. Descubre que tiene en su posesión naipes prohibidos por la iglesia católica. Además, un encargo de procurar una edición de De Viris Illustribus de san Jerónimo le hace entrar en una búsqueda de un tratado filosófico prohibido por la Inquisición.

Inés cruza camino con Pierre Arbus, un joven tirador francés y recien empleado en la imprenta del cuñado de ella, quien ayuda en los descubrimientos que advanzan la trama narrativa y la relación amoroso entre los dos.

El taller de libros prohibido satisface al lector a múltiples niveles: en la creación de una época, de un escenario y de una industria incipiente. Los personajes son bien realizados: los principales — tantos héroes como villanos.

Un beneficio extra son los múltiples diálogos entre los tipos de la clase popular. La inocencia de Matilde, la sirviente de Inés, y la lealtad de Albertillo, el aprendiz en el taller Lozano, están fortificados por expresiones idiomáticos y modismos. Se hace acordar del placer de leer Don Quijote and escuchar a Sancho Panza cada vez que abre su boca.

Acuerda también que El taller de libros prohibido es un misterio y un romance. El lector mantiene su interés hasta el último página. Es divertido.

l

Posted in Book Reviews, en español, Hispanidad, religion and culture | Leave a comment

Bisbee, AZ: Where Copper was King (and Hippies once reigned)

When I recently told a friend I’d be staying in Bisbee for a few days, he reminded me that he used to have a bumper sticker on his car: “Bisbee, AZ — It’s Like Mayberry on Acid.”

It may take someone of a certain age to get the reference: a Baby Boomer who remembers The Andy Griffith Show on TV and Timothy Leary’s LSD experiments.

Bruce and I fit the bill. Neither of us was part of the sit-in that resulted in People’s Park in Berkeley or attended the 1969 Woodstock music festival in New York. But we lived through that era: I being more sympathetic than he to those who “tuned in, turned on and dropped out.”

Bisbee, Arizona writer Jim Burnett catalogues his hometown’s unique character in High Lonesome, a series of short pieces that orginally appeared in the Bisbee Observer.

“In the seventies,” he writes, “we had a strong influx of young people. Hippies, we called them. They bought up the old houses and buildings and started the reclaiming and restoration of the old part of town.”

George Warren registered
the first mining claim in 1877.

What followed was Bisbee being named an official Historic District with zoning restrictions, design review and the like. The result, Burnett writes, is an “authentic early 20th century mining town strung up Tombstone Canyon and perched on the surrounding hillside,” whose one concession to ‘progress,’ was a Circle K service station and store.

No McDonalds, no Starbucks, but filled with places to get breakfast, street corner musicians, and secondhand stores and art galleries to browse.

The gawkers and visitors came. Old Town Bisbee became an amalgam of the historic mining culture of Arizona in the 1880s and the laid-back ethos of the 1970s.

Over the years, the town fathers have developed a real understanding of what goes into marketing that mix. Bisbee is like no other place in Arizona. Perhaps it was the work of a second wave of nostalgia in the 1990s, as one volunteer at the Visitors’ Center noted. With its year-round sunshine and moderate day-time temperatures, its pedestrian friendly streets and Copper Queen mine tour and hotel, the original old town has plenty to offer the 80,000 tourists it attracts each year. (Census statistics, which include the suburban community of Warren, peg the year-round population at 5,209.)

Heck, there is even a Bicycle Brothel, with its own museum of vintage bikes and ephemera, where proprietor Ken Wallace, a transplant from North Carolina, will entertain cyclists with stories of the greats and near greats and even repair your bicycle if need be. And we found good eats at the High Desert Restaurant and Market, the Bisbee Coffee Co., and Santiago’s upscale Mexican restaurant on the town square. We found three good bookstores; the Meridian has a diverse collection of secondhand and out-of-print books.

For the past thirty years, the Bisbee 1000, known as the Great Stair Climb, has attracted runners and walkers the third weekend of October. A craft beer festival brings many more each year to watch the 4.5-mile race through Old Town. The course takes 1500 participants up and down nine staircases that were built by the WPA in the 1930s. They follow the mule paths that were etched into the hillside during the late 1800s.

Best small library in the United State, 2019.

Last year, the town’s 137-year-old library, located on the second floor of the Post Office, won the best small library of the year award from the Library Journal for its innovative expansion of services, which include a seed library for gardeners. Speaing of the Post Office, there is no door to door mail delivery here in old town Bisbee. Everyone has his or her own PO box on the building’s first floor.

Jim Burnett, who died at 94 in 2013, once told a Bloomberg reporter, he hoped to erect a statue to the Unknown Hippie who discovered Bisbee in the 1970s. Known as Bisbee’s Barnyard Philosopher, Burnett didn’t have such high praise for the succeeding waves of transplants that followed.

He did say that Californians “haven’t hurt us any.” He added: “I’m hoping they will mellow out.”

Mellow is not the word many old-timers would use to describe the recent folk who have established a foothold in Old Town. The current town council faces some of the same problems as larger places. Real estate prices have escalated. Second-home owners sublet their properties as Airbnbs, vacationing there only part of the year. Many do not live near enough to monitor use and upkeep.

At a recent town meeting, the mayor catalogued more than 200 properties that were being used as vacation rentals. Competing with hotel business and bringing no monies to the town coffers, they not always well managed. He estimated there are even more.

The Airbnb we rented for the three nights we were in Bisbee is owned by a local primary school teacher, whose son and partner live on the premises.

The place was spotless, up-to-date and well-equipped. Our queen bed gave us a bird’s-eye view of the morning sunrise. Like ninety percent of the houses in Bisbee, the front door was a walk-up from street-level parking: twenty-five concrete stairs, through a gate and then a short path to a concrete pad and patio. This is a pedestrian scale town. Leave your car parked and meander its streets and staircases.

First settled as a prospectors’ camp in 1877, the town was named for Judge Dewitt Bisbee, who never was a resident. A native of San Francisco, Bisbee was part owner of the Phelps Dodge mining company, which began operation of the Copper Queen mine in 1885, and didn’t shut down its open-pit operation until 1985.

In the early 1900s, the Copper Queen was the most productive copper mine in Arizona. In its heyday with nearly 10,000 residents, Bisbee was said to be the largest city between Houston, Texas and Los Angeles, California.

Then, in July 1917 a strike broke out at Bisbee’s three area mines.

Walter Douglas, president of Phelps Dodge’s mining operations and son of James Douglas, the company’s founding engineer, is credited with being the architect of resistence against organized labor in Bisbee and earlier in Jerome, where his brother Rawhide Jimmy was manager.

Mining conditions were hard and dangerous. With the U.S. participation in World War I and younger men fighting overseas in Europe, many of the miners were immigrants from Mexico, and refugees from Europe. Xenophobia was widespread.

Douglas and others managers were particularly fearful about the involvement of outside agitators, primarily the IWW or Wobblies. What followed days of strikes at the Bisbee mines was the Deportation, a carefully planned and executed operation that took place July 12, 1917.

With Douglas behind the scenes, James Greenway, the general manager of the Calumet and Arizona Mine, Bisbee’s second largest operation. was the only one of the three mining company executives present at the planning meeting the day before. According to an Arizona State library record, Greenway supervised the creation, deputizing and arming of a private militia. He is credited with rounding up the strike leaders, assembling the miners in the town square and begging them to go back to work.

Seated on horseback, a rifle across his saddle, he oversaw the loading of more than 1200 miners and their supporters into 23 train cars, hired by Douglas. The strikers were transported 200 miles across the Arizona state line into New Mexico where they were deposited and told not to return.

“Bisbee ’17,” a documentary directed by Robert Greene in 2018, commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the Bisbee Deportation. The film restages the day of the event and interviews actors personifying the leaders and many towns folk whose families were involved.

The only reference we saw to the Bisbee Deportation during our visit was a film strip at the Visitors’ Center and a couple of replica front pages in a bookstore window. The volunteer at the Visitors’ Center bookstore said he had been in the film.

“We all were,” he said. He complained that interviewer questions were superficial and did not capture historical depth of the town.

Bisbee ’17, widely shown on PBS, recapitulates a 1979 novel by Robert Houston, whose “true Western” is based on interviews with town people, who could tell him tales of the days when copper was king.

Of the book, Houston writes in the preamble: “If it is history at all, it is as Homer chose to write it — a storyteller’s history.” Bisbee feels like that today: full of stories, a piece of living history which continues to evolve.

A merchant’s support for an immigrant aid worker near Ajo
whose charges were dropped
Posted in Arizona, Road trip, travel | 4 Comments

A Critique of “The Dutch House,” by Ann Patchett

In The Dutch House, novelist Ann Patchett skates the same fine line between creative nonfiction and fiction as she did in Bel Canto. In that earlier novel she took an event in Peruvian history, the occupation of the Japanese embassy by Shining Path, the Maoist communist party, and made a magically human story.

In The Dutch House, she turns a dwelling into a totem. Is there a doubt in any reader’s mind that this piece of early 20th century architecture is a fiction? Surely, this edifice built by a fortune amassed from cigarettes sale during the first World War exists somewhere in the world. It is realer than real.

The VanHoebeeks House resides in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Its three stories, its paintings, dishware, hidey holes and third floor ballroom are what tear apart a family and temporarily reconstitute themselves around another with the intrusion of a second wife, Andrea, and her two young daughters, Norma and Bright.

On a large scale it is how people react to poverty and wealth.

Danny, 8, and sister, Maeve, 15, meet their soon-to-be stepmother in the drawing room of the Dutch House where she gazes at portraits of the founders. What unites Andrea with their father Cyril is appreciation of the estate, the house he bought for their mother.

Danny narrates the story from the perspective of a middle-aged adult looking back on the wrenching events of his childhood: the abandonment of his mother, Elna, the descent into grief and diabetes of his older sister, who takes on his mothering, and the stability provided by two housekeeper/cooks, Jocelyn and Sandy.

When Cyril Conroy dies of a heart attack four years after taking a second wife, Danny and Maeve are driven from the Dutch House. Their stepmother takes all, only leaving monies for Danny’s education.

The book traces three generations of this Irish Catholic family, whose stories swirl around the purchase and loss of property.

Much about the stepmother Andrea remains in the dark. She seems to have just stuck around like a “virus,” Danny remembers. As young adults and even later, when he and Maeve would park across the street from the house, smoking, they wondered how their father even met her.

“I always thought he (Andrea’s first husband) put her out on the curb with the kids, and Dad must have driven by at just the wrong moment and offered them a ride,” Maeve said.

One of Patchett’s great gifts as a storyteller is the way she interrupts a tense or tragic moment with humor. Like here. When Andrea delivers her two little daughters to the care of Maeve on a Saturday night, she waves all questions aside: ” ‘Do you have books? Norma, ask Maeve to get you a book.’ ”

“Maeve had a stack of Henry James novels on her bedside table,” Danny narrates. “The Turn of the Screw? Is that what they wanted?”

As a narrator, Danny leaves many details to be filled in. “I was asleep in the world,” he admits, having to be told that Sandy and Jocelyn, his long-time caregivers, were sisters.

Maeve demonstrates herself as the hard-headed realist; Danny is unobservant with a kind heart.

It’s Maeve that insists that Danny undertake a career as a doctor, hoping to impoverish Andrea and the girls. When he says he feels sorry for Norma and Bright “over there by themselves,” Maeve says: “May they rot in hell. All three of them.”

Through the course of the book, we go through three generations, starting with Cyril’s and Elna’s, ending with Danny’s children. If possible, The Dutch House may be too sprawling, too filled with truths and little stories.

Strangely, even though The Dutch House didn’t stay with me, I can pick up any page and want to get right back into it. It was a near impossible book to put down.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary | 4 Comments

Road Trip: A visit to the John Slaughter Ranch

The fourteen-mile road between the town of Douglas, Arizona and the John Slaughter Ranch is mostly along a dirt-packed track. Posted every mile or two is a spanking clean sign urging truckers to practice safety.

In January 2020, we were driving along this road used mainly for the transport of steel and other building equipment. To the right of the track heading east, we could make out the border wall and where it stretched to its terminus at a labor site.

Entrance to the ranch

Work would be going round the clock into two 12-hour daily shifts the following week, the visitors’ guide told us when we signed in at San Bernardino Ranch. This is the border where rancher John Horton Slaughter crossed his herds between Mexico and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was monitored then and continues to be monitored today — not for diseased or rustled cattle, but for undocumented immigrants and drugs.

Main ranch house

If you are looking for a step back in time, to the birth of cattle ranching in southern Arizona and northern Mexico, this is the place to come.

John Slaughter bought the San Bernardino Ranch in 1884, purchasing a 99-year lease of 65,000 acres of the original lease owned by Ignacio Perez, a lieutenant in the Mexican army during that country’s war of independence from Spain. Over time, Slaughter came to control 100,000 acres of American and Mexican land by leasing public land and purchasing private homesteads. According to U.S government records, Slaughter not only raised and ran cattle, the ranch cultivated 500 acres of fruit and vegetables and employed some 150 laborers.

An aerial view of the ranch

The San Bernardino Ranch was named as a National Historic Landmark in 1964. It became a museum in 1982 when it was purchased by the Floyd Johnson Foundation. The museum site includes the four-bedroom ranch house, an ice house, a granary, wash house, kitchen, water tank, car shed and corrals. All the buildings are outfitted with memorabilia of the era, some of which belonged to the Slaughters, including family pictures.

The ranch is now divided between museum properties, ponds and the ruins of a U.S. Army camp built in 1911 and lands purchased as a preserve by the Nature Conservancy (The San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge.)

The site itself is beautiful and lovingly preserved. Bring a lunch, climb the trail to the overlook with its bird’s eye view of the lengthening border wall today. Try to imagine it as a U.S. Army post lookout for the Border War during the Mexican Revolution between the years of 1910-1919.

Any siting of Pancho Villa?

Speaking of Pancho Villa. He and John Slaughter were on a first-name basis. Local lore has it that Villa referred to Slaughter as that “wicked little gringo.” This is perhaps because Slaughter got tired of Villa and his hungry band of 1,500 soldiers marauding his holdings on the Mexican side of the border and rode out to get Villa to pay up. Slaughter came back with a saddle bag full of of twenty dollar gold pieces.

The “wicked little gringo” — who spoke Spanish, having learned to drive cattle from vaqueros in Texas as a young man — was in his 70s when he met up with Pancho Villa.

The story of San Bernardino Ranch is as much a story of John Slaughter as it is a story of cattle ranching. Slaughter was a lawman, a cowboy and a professional poker player.

Born in Louisiana in 1841, but spending his youth and early years in Texas, he was widely known as Texas John Slaughter: a Confederate soldier during the Civil War, a Texas Ranger.

In Arizona, he worked as a scout for General George R. Crook during the Indian Wars. He was credited with bringing law and order to Cochise County as its sheriff from 1887 to 1890, five years after the famed gun fight at the OK Corral. He was a U.S. Marshall and an Arizona State Representative.

Slaughter was knows to be a good shot and a man unhesitant at using his white handled six-shooter, Henry rifle or repeating shotgun. He was never brought up on charges for shooting (and killing) cattle rustler Bittercreek Barney Gallagher. In one version it was over a poker game; in another it was over cattle. While sheriff of Cochise County, Slaughter was credited with telling suspected cattle rustlers to “get out or get shot.”

With such a long and storied life, there was no reason to fictionalize Slaughter’s life, but Disney took a crack at it. “Texas John Slaughter” was a seventeen-episode TV series that ran from 1958 to 1961. Casting crisp, clean-shaven 6’4″ Tom Tryon as the always bearded 5’6″ Slaughter, the only thing the series got right was Texas John’s white-handled six shooter and his cross draw.

John Slaughter died in 1922. He and his second wife, Cora Viola Howell married in New Mexico in 1878. They had met on a cattle drive. Viola’s father, Amazon, was said to approve of John, but marrying Slaughter tooks some convincing of Mrs. Howell. (She screamed when Viola told her she loved John.) Viola was 18 and John was 37, a widower with two children. Viola helped raise them and many foster children on the San Bernardino ranch, including the adoption of a baby left behind by a group of fleeing Apaches Slaughter had followed into Mexico. Apache May’s accidental death in a campfire was said to have plunged him into depression.

When John Slaughter took ill at the age of 80, he and Viola moved to an apartment in Douglas, where he died. Viola died in 1941, also age 80.

Feeling as if we were living history, we left the Southeast corner of Arizona to head back to Phoenix. Picking up I-10 at Benson we passed a truck bearing steel beams bound for Douglas and heading to the wall. More and more of them are rumbling through that border town, according to a recent Facebook post.

I spoke later with a friend now living in the Northwest who grew up in Douglas. She remembers when residents on both sides of the border easily crossed back and forth. Some living in Agua Prieta even attended high school in Douglas.

Posted in Arizona, Commentary, history, Road trip, travel | 3 Comments

Food Stop: Tucson, AZ

Some folks like to carry a ham and cheese sandwich and a cold drink when they embark on a car trip; others, like my husband, are perfectly happy making do with a grab and go from a Pilot Truck Stop. I forced a third alternative on him recently as we drove from Phoenix to Bisbee, where we would spend the next three days exploring a bit of Southeastern Arizona.

We enjoyed a gourmet lunch at Villa Peru (1745 E River Rd.) in Tucson.

I had eyeing Villa Peru three years ago when Bruce cycled the Tour de Tucson. The night before the race we had eaten dinner at Vivace, an Italian restaurant with gorgeous sunset views from the Catalina foothills. The day following the race we ate lunch at the unpretentious Seis, with its menu of street food from the six regions of Mexico. (Seis =6 Comprende?)

Villa Peru, located next door to Seis’s Joesler Village location (1765 E. River Rd.) presents itself with a more formal elan — and well it should. This is a giant step away from the homey food abuela serves at the kitchen table: the kind of food you find at El Chullo in Phoenix (2605 N 7th St.). I can return to El Chullo time and again for its Chupe de Camarones.

Normally, I would have saved Villa Peru for a special occasion. But the trip between Phoenix and Bisbee is only 200 miles. So, why not? Get off the beaten track and start out special with a white napkin kind of place, a lunch-break of calm from the rush of I-10 traffic.

Neither of us was sorry. My husband ordered Carapulcra: a pork, chicken and beef stew with peanut and Aji Panca pepper, cinnamon cloves over white rice. I had Piqueo criollo, which gave me Anticuchos de Corazon, Papa Rellena, Tequeños, Papa a la Huancaína, Chicharron de Pollo and Yuquitas Doradas. I only objected to the Papas a la Huancaína, which seemed a little bland. The Papa Rellena, with its crispy exterior and meat filling with raisins and black olives was delicious and big enough for a second meal.

With a little planning, you can do this with any trip. You can mix in the high end with the down home. Talk with the locals, check with friends before you depart and help navigate. Oh, and remember to take along a couple of energy bars, if you get lost before you find where you are going.

Posted in Arizona, Commentary, Eating Well, Road trip, travel | Leave a comment

A critique of “Trust Exercise,” by Susan Choi

Some books stay with you — and you wish they didn’t. That is how Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi affected me.

Yes, I got it.

The book is an exercise in how a work of fiction is a “trust exercise,” a compact between a writer and a reader. One (the reader) puts herself in the hands of the other (the writer) trusting that if she (the reader) should fall back, the other (the writer) will catch her from falling.

But Choi didn’t earn my trust. I fell back, but she didn’t catch me.

The book is divided in three parts, each of which is labeled “trust exercise.” Part One, the longest, traces the unhappy love affair between two fifteen-year-old students, Sarah and David, enrolled in a competitive performing arts high school in an unnamed, sun-baked city in the South, presumably Houston, Texas, where Choi attended a competitive performing arts high school in the ’80s.

Man, are students cruel to each other! Boy, are their teachers manipulative! Parents fit practically nowhere in the equation. What you drive and how you dress are your signatures. Choi has this down to a science.

Part Two sets Part One on its ear. It gives us a new person to trust. But wait! Who is Karen? Why should we trust this first-person narrator, who was only peripheral to Part One? And yet, fifteen years have passed and Karen moves us along purposefully in a new now. A mystery is taking shape. If we could just figure out the true identity of the villain; is it Mr. Kingsley, the drama teacher, or Martin, the visiting playwright? Whose story is it, anyway?

Part Three should wind this all up. Suddenly, we have Claire, a character who figures nowhere in either of the preceeding two parts. Of course, time has moved forward. It is twenty-five years since Sarah and David and Karen were students. Claire visits the school in an attempt to put this three-part puzzle together for herself and for us.

Trust Exercise put me in mind of two other works of fiction: Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday and Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare. Asymmetry, also a work in three parts, is more effective in establishing a dissimilarity in moods between the parts and a sense of purpose for the whole. Romeo and Juliet sets a high bar on how the fate of the young is determined by the old.

Oh, my! It is all so troubling and unpleasant.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary | 2 Comments

A Critique of “Nothing to See Here,” by Kevin Wilson

This charming book by Kevin Wilson is somewhere between a verbal cartoon and a visual nursery rhyme. “I met a crooked man who walked a crooked mile. . .” “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe…”

“Nothing to see here” is spoken by Lillian, the story’s protagonist as she rushes her two 10-year-old charges, Bessie and Roland, out of the town library with books stuffed under their shirts and into their pants. None of them has a library card, you see.

Can you see it? Can you hear it?

They live in the “guest house” — read: former slave quarters — on a large estate owned by their father, Jaspar Roberts, a senator from Tennessee in line for the U.S. Secretary of State. Their stepmother, Madison Billings, was a roommate of Lillian’s at Iron Mountain Girls Preparatory School way back when they were teenagers and Lillian took the rap for Madison’s drugs found in their room.

The beautiful Madison has called on Lillian again to take her out of a jam. Her two stepchildren are a bit of a problem. They’ve been living with their grandparents since their mother died, but are now on their way to the estate.

And, by the way, they spontaneously combust when agitated.

Too much information? And we are only on Page 30. There is a lot more to come. Lillian, at 27, smart but from the wrong side of the tracks, is working two cashier’s job, living in her single-mother’s attic.

This is Lillian’s story — it’s a book about parenting and growing into who you are. If you can get past the heavy use of four-letter words by the heroine (and the narrator), you will fall in love with the clever way Wilson demonstrates how miss-fit pieces can join to create a whole new puzzle.

Posted in Book Reviews, fun stuff, good thoughts | 2 Comments

A Critique of “All This Could Be Yours,” by Jami Attenberg

Novelist Jami Attenberg has undertaking a seemingly insurmountable task: put an opaque prime mover at the center of a story, surround him with a series of unlikeable characters and produce a good read.

She does this in All This Could Be Yours.

Victor is a real-estate developer, whose sleazy business practices and hedonistic personal habits catch up with him in this day-in-the-life of a family you are glad is not yours.

All we really know about Victor is he’s “bad.” Angry, ugly, and imposing, he has a heart attack which all but checks him out by Page Six.

His wife Barbra is vain and vacuous, addicted to Vicor’s abuse and the nice things his money can buy.

Why are they even together? asks Alex, their ambitious first-born, a lawyer prone to taking on unwinnable cases. Son Gary, a theater director, is in Los Angeles looking for work. His wife Twyla is standing in for him at Victor’s death bed in New Orleans. We also meet Sadie and Avery, Alex’s and Gary’s young daughters, who have become friends through texting.

The story progresses, hopscotching between principal characters, with flashbacks that provide a perspective on their history as a family. All are damaged, all are embittered.

Though the novel is categorized as “humorous fiction.” It is black humor indeed. (I must admit to great guffaws over the “scrupulous” blow job Barbra gave Victor to thank for his support the night her mother died.) Although Attenberg treats her flawed female characters with tenderness, are all men either weak, brutes or sex addicts?

They are here.

Attenberg is full of writer’s tics. Chapters begin with short, staccato visuals: “Alex, in bed but not sleeping. Feet flexed.” They end by dipping into the mind of an extraneous character: A ferry conductor who was initially rude, makes amends to Twyla with a pleasant good night. “Why hate when there is so much love in the world?” he ponders.

She seems intent on sticking to a premise and structure from which there is no escape: Victor is a “bad hombre.” Only his death can bring resolution. Let’s grind him underfoot first, though.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary | Leave a comment

A critique of “Reasons to be Cheerful,” by Nina Stibbe

I first met Lizzie Vogel, the eighteen-year-old heroine of Reasons to be Cheerful, when she was seven. She and her older sister Tina saddled themselves with the task of finding a mate for their mother in Man at the Helm, to keep themselves and their brother Little Jack out of care. (Their divorced mother, either in temperament or skill base, was in no position to provide for them, and their dad’s factory was on the skids.)

In Reasons to be Cheerful, author Nina Stibbe is at it again, providing readers with a protagonist who is ambitious, clever and charming. Lizzie is at a crossroads. Her sister Tina is off pursuing a career in nursing, Little Jack is growing into a good student and will soon make his way to college. Lizzie should probably find a way to take care of herself, since looking after a mother — who was no longer battling drink and prescription drugs — aught to be set aside.

Fascination with mother, however, continues to be the touchstone of Lizzie’s life. “It was as though all the women in the world had decided to go along with everything and to behave with decorum and stoicism,” she narrates, ” whereas my mother had taken it upon herself to wave things away and call them nonsense.”

What to do?

Of course, Lizzie will marquerade as a potential dental nurse, having read up on her duties and memorized the suitable language for the tools of the trade. She forms a bond with the outgoing nurse, Tammy, who is more concerned with Lizzie’s care of her cactus collection than her qualifications. She must learn to tolerate the obnoxious, xenophobic dentist. (Part of her duties is holding a cigarette to JP’s lips on when he’s on break. Patients have complained about the smell of nicotine on his hands.)

Sadly, Lizzie must leave the village and her mother’s house. The job at Wintergreen Dental Surgery in Leicester comes with a flat over the surgery.

This book is not a romp. Lizzie is a believeable eighteen-year-old with hopes and dreams. She educates herself through the piles of magazines stacked in the utility room — Woman’s Own, Woman, Tidbits. She begins to see herself as a potential advice columnist, edits her mother’s manuscript bound for submission to Faber & Faber, takes driving lessons from the local vicar’s wife, forms a romantic attachment to Andy Nicollelo of Mercury Dental Lab.

Her mother gives her a piece of advice: “Lizzie, never admit to being lonely.”

But she is; we all are. Luckily, writers like Stibbe can capture our aloneness as well as the brightness of our existence through a book like Reasons to be Cheerful.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, good thoughts | 2 Comments

“Modern Love ” (Part II) Adaptation

“Modern Love,” the eight-part series currently being streamed on Amazon Prime, began its life fifteen years ago as a regular feature of The New York Times Sunday Styles section. The widely-read column follows the ups and downs of personal relationships through real-life essays submitted by readers.

“Modern Love” (Part I) Origins looked at the feature from the standpoint of journalistic ethics. The development of these personal essays into commercially sponsored Podcasts and then to 30-minute films has been a boundary-busting role for a newspaper.

How do the stories fare artistically? What does it take to make a lived story on paper carry the same heft as film art on celluloid?

Writer-filmmaker John Carney adapted eight of these columns to the small screen as an anthology of unconnected episodes, all of them with a back-drop of New York City. In a conversation with Hollywood Reporter writer Kirsten Chuba, he said he was hoping to create “groovy, little love letters to living now.”

In this post, “Modern Love (Part II) Adaptation, we look at three of the stories to see if his intent bears out in the final product. I would posit that the truth of the filmed stories stays closer to what newspaper column editor Daniel Jones was looking to achieve: a balance of dark and light, shot through with revelations of vulnerability and resilience. No matter how light the touch Carney and his other three directors were hoping to bring, an undercurrent of the unfinished story remains. They aren’t “groovy. Though the final episode, “The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap,” ends with a montage tying the stories together, and filling in some missing pieces, the heart-strings it attempts to pluck is ineffectual. Putting a layer of icing over the denseness of this many-layered “love cake” is a clever ploy but underestimates the intelligence of the viewer.

What The Times and Amazon Prime series is trying for here is ground-breaking. It is not just the transformation of one medium to another — we will look at that now — but the tolerance of a viewing public to leave stories emotionally unresolved.

Take for example, the first four words of Terri Cheney’s piece, “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am” (Episode 3). Cheney’s written essay starts right out: “As a bipolar woman. . .” Forthwith we get a description of her navigation through the hazards of a normal life: a high school valedictorian, honors student at Vassar, law school graduate and into a career as an entertainment lawyer. People thought she was just eccentric: witty and charging on all pistons sometimes, then checked out — a real disappearing act for periods at time. She kept her mental illness under wraps hrough a series of romantic relationships.

In the filmed version, Lexi (Anne Hathaway) starts out seated at an iPad composing an online dating description. She’s stumped by the first question: “Who Are You?”

From there, writer-director Carney breaks the story into a madcap rendition of Lexi’s manic self, shopping in a grocery store, picking up a date, dancing through the streets to a soundtrack and antics reminiscent of a “La La Land.”

Of course, we then get to watch her fall. Hard.

The film starts at the end: Lexi’s decision to take a chance at owning up to her mental illness in the hopes of finding love. It then loops us through what got her to truth-telling to a boss — a fictitious character — who pledges to stand by her. It’s a near-perfect transcription that Cheney’s essay makes clear: the protagonist’s life is a never-ending struggle to accept/love herself. The filmed story is full-throttle black comedy, right down to Lexi’s shaky application of mascara before a fateful date.

The adaptation of a second essay,”Hers Was A World of One,” (Episode 7) is short on joy, long on pain. It is based on the deeply somber story of a male couple’s adoption of a child. “DJ’s Homeless Mom,” published in 2005, was written by Seattle author and advice columnist Dan Savage, who voices the Podcast himself. His reading is perhaps the best medium for the story, though I admire writer-director John Carney’s decision to unveil how traumatic open adoption can be in its early stages. The filmed version emphasizes the difference in the lives and sensibilities of the birth mom and the adopting couple. Savage’s essay takes the story forward as the growing child asks questions like “Why does mommy smell bad?” and pines for her infrequent calls particularly on birthdays.

How close does “Hers Was A World of One,” stay to the original story? Not very. Does it successfully capture the heartache of giving up a child and the mixed blessing of raising one who must learn the hard lesson of nonconventional parentage? No. Does it matter? Maybe not. Is it good filmmaking? It is an adventurous and thought-provoking short — a good opener for a conference on open adoption. It just leaves too many questions for a film-viewing public.

“The Race Grows Sweeter As It Nears Its Final Lap” (Episode 8) may be the most straightforward of all the stories and therefore the most satisfying as one set for the small screen. It is practically a one-woman show starring Jane Alexander as Margot, an East Coast patrician who is attracted to an Asian gentleman in her running club. She’s a better runner than he is. No matter. “Old love is different,” Margot says.

Credit: Photo by ChristopherSaunders/Amazon/Kobal/Shutterstock

Written by John Carney and directed by Tom Hall, the script makes good use of Eve Pell’s original words, incorporating them into the eulogy Margot delivers at the memorial service for the mate she marries late in life. Opening and closing with running sequences, this little gem capitalizes on the forward motion of life and the value of keeping moving. Even in your 70’s. Running is a metaphor that works on film — even better at the end when Margot does it in the rain.

The original newspaper essayists were not involved in the Amazon Prime series, though they were paid for the use of their stories and shown the final episodes before they were published. Each episode carries the disclaimer that it was inspired by a “Modern Love” column in The New York Times and that some elements are fictionalized.

What kind of viewership has this series attracted? Enough for its creators to decide on a second season.

Posted in Commentary, film, good thoughts | 5 Comments

“Modern Love”(Part I) Origins

“I like to go to bed with stars in my eyes,” I told a couple of friends over coffee the other day. This was my defense for deciding to watch “Modern Love,” a series of thirty-minute short films that Amazon Prime Video had just posted for streaming. Watch one each night; go to sleep with a smile on my lips. That was my plan.

It didn’t work out that way. Although I am as susceptible as anyone to the benefits of a good love story, watching “Modern Love,” didn’t ease me into sleep. It woke me to all kinds of questions about connections between commerce and culture. It gave me a lot to think about as a journalist and an art critic.

Let’s back up. “Modern Love” didn’t start as a film series. It began as a column in The New York Times Styles section. Fifteen years ago three editors, Trip Gabriel, Daniel Jones and Cathi Hanauer, came up with an idea: solicit personal essays from readers on the general topic of love.

As Jones writes in the introduction to Modern Love: True Stores of Love, Loss and Redemption (2019), which contains the best of the columns thus far, the editors were interpreting “love” in the broadest sense. “We hoped,” Jones writes, “the stories would explore the darkness as much as the light, plumb both the joys and the pain that spring from our lifelong efforts to be intimate with other human beings.”

The weekly column has done this and more. It has moved a human experience into a dialogue between creators and their publics. It has transformed life through a series of art forms — written, spoken, enacted — without losing sight of the original story and its author. It starts as a first person essay, often told in deep retrospect — the single speck of an experience that no amount of tears could wash away. In them, the authors open themselves up to the possibilities of loss and connection. As Jones writes, “vulnerability is the animating quality” to the best of these essays.

The column has been wildly successful. It generates some 8,000 submissions a year and has a regular readership 2.6 million. Readers respond by letter and text: What happened next? How is the narrator doing now?

Five years ago, the newspaper formed an alliance with WBUR Boston to create a monthly Podcast in which columns are read by notable personalities and the essayists update their lives. These Podcasts generate their own advertising for the series and those who read the essays. (Certainly, permissions and/or financial arrangement must be sought and signed with the stories’ originators.)

“Modern Love” is also a cultural phenomenon. A two-day retreat at Playa Summer Lake in Oregon in October aimed to turn writers of Modern Love submissions into a full-fledged career. It was led by Melanie Bishop, whose essay “I Would Have Driven Her Anywhere” was published in November of 2018.

And the column has aroused interest in unexpected corners.

In 2017 a number of graduate students in economics and computer sciences did a statistical analysis of all the “Modern Love” columns in the previous ten years to see what patterns emerged. An article published that year in Quartz (qz.com) found — among other things — that the contributors were disproportionately female (80 percent) and professional writers; that there was little mention of sex.

What interests me most about the “Modern Love” phenomenon is twofold. First, what can we make of the changing role of the newspaper in bartering the relationships between suppliers and consumers? Secondly, what happens to a piece of writing as it is adapted, first, to a professional reading, and, finally, to a film? These questions engage me both as a journalist and a critic. Both questions raise issue of crossing lines between an artistic property and its commercial distribution.

The business side of publishing has always been a thorny issue for print news departments. Hard news reporters look askance at cultural sections, even more so as they expand and engorge with advertising support and broadened readership. When I worked as editor at The Oregonian in Portland Oregon more than twenty years ago, the newspaper also published a series of sections whose editors took their content decisions from the advertising department. These were classified as “advertorial” — even lower on the pecking order than the cooking and gardening sections.

At The New York Times, the difference between advertising and news is no more glaringly flouted than in the “Sunday Styles” section. In one of its recent “Encounters” pieces (October 25), for example, writer Alexis Soloski accompanies Justin Hartley shopping for high-end watches. (Hartley is a star of the NBC night-time soap opera “This is Us.”) It is little more than a celebrity endorsement of haute horlogerie, something to which the newspaper occasionally devotes special advertising sections.

“Modern Love” fits a different kind of business/news involvement for a newspaper. More than a sponsorship, it includes the work assignment of newsroom personnel taking them belong selection of freelance pieces and line editing.

Here in Phoenix Arizona, where I now live, I belong to a book club that meets at the Changing Hands, a locally owned bookstore. The First Draft Book Club, whose meetings typically draws forty or more participants, is guided through discussions by a moderator Barbara Vandenburg, who writes about books and movies for The Arizona Republic. She selects the books, managing the book club’s Facebook website, researches and prepares for the monthly discussions, cross referencing the meetings with news interviews with authors.

“Modern Love” busts the category of a newsroom alliance, like The Arizona Republic‘s with the Changing Hands bookstore. Here, editors within the newsroom work as both midwives and wet nurses in the transformation of one art form into another. They track down writers who have long since written their pieces, gaining permission to republish them in another medium and soliciting continued participation in questions and answers and on-air and in-print reaction to the new product. Presumably contracts are signed and honored, money changes hands.

Daniel Jones, who thought his original assignment for the column would last a couple of years, recently spent many hours in October promoting its fifteenth anniversary and promoting the premiere of the eight-part film series on Amazon Prime. On CBS “This Morning,” he admitted he still reads and responds to contributors and readers, that submissions now come from all over the world and a two-year hiatus between submission and publication is normal. One out of 200 submissions gets printed. They must be previously unpublished. By far, the highest percentage of the 1500-word pieces are by professional writers or college level instructors and professors.

These are not your ordinary readers.

And now, as social mores have expanded to embrace all kinds of love, so have the subject matters of the essays. In “The Triangle’s Sharpest Point,” by Ingrid Maitland (2010), the author recounts the decision not to adopt the eight-year-old daughter of her lover who has died. In “When Mom is On the Scent, And Right,” Liza Monroy (2012) makes a unique pact with her mother, that has both of them looking for mates through on-line dating. Another writer, Abby Sher (sort of) finds a substitute for the dad who died when she was eleven in a workmate thirty years her senior in “So He Looked Like Dad. It Was Just Dinner, Right?” (2006).

These are not your conventional love stories.

Here, I must admit to being a traditionalist. As much as I find these essays good reading, I find the expansion of the editorial role by newsroom employees ethics-bending.

The whole undertaking, with the addition of writer interviews and follow-up queries, turns the process into a voyeuristic enterprise reminiscent of the ’50s NBC series “This Is Your Life,” in which moderator Ralph Edwards surprised celebrities, by running through their lives and careers on camera. (I had the misfortune of watching the episode that turned the tables on Francis Farmer, an actress who was allegedly subjected to rape and a lobotomy when involuntarily committed to the Western State Hospital at Steilacoom, WA. Even as a teenager, I knew it pushed the boundaries of taste and propriety.)

By way of comparison, the bringing together of Ingrid Mailtland and Emma, the little girl she hadn’t adopted thirty years prior (“The Triangle’s Sharpest Point”) is a very sad affair. Never mind the forgive-and-forget that makes its way into their interviews following the Nov. 8 Podcast in which Zawe Ashton reads the essay. The sharing of their intervening stories seems to invade the privacy that good journalism is intended to protect.

Stay tuned for “Modern Love ” (Part II) Adaptation

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, film, news and journalism | 4 Comments

Una crítica de “Sábado, domingo” de Ray Loriga

Sábado, domingo, una novela de escritor español Ray Loriga, se trata de dos días en la vida de un madrileño. En el primero, el protagonista Federico tiene 18; en el segundo, tiene 43. Un capítulo corto termina este libro de menos de 200 páginas.

La trama del libro se presenta como un misterio. Como narrador Federico intenta reconstruir los acontecimientos de una noche de mucho tomar en que el y su amigo Chino llevan a una camarera a la casa de Chino. Esta es el sábado del título. Al recontar los eventos de esa noche, es evidente que Federico tiene recuerdos incompletos. Además, profesa poco interés en reconsiderarlos.

Veintecinco años después (domingo), Federico asiste a una fiestas del Día de los Muertos en el colegio de su hija. Allí conoce a una mujer disfrazada de pantera que se presente como si fuera la camarera Fernanda que los dos chicos habían conocido años atrás. Casi como reconstruir la experiencia al revés, Federico se acuda al condominio de su prima Gini cuya fiesta veintecinco años atrás había precedido el encuentro con Fernanda.

Infelicemente los acontecimientos de domingo aclara lo que pasó en la casa de Chino – suficiente decir que incluye el tiro de un revolver y el desaparicido de Fernanda – sin disipar el laberinto psicológico de este narrador no confiáble. Ni aclara el sentido de culpa, de vergüenza, y de envidia que lleva en cuanto a su prima Gini.

Esta novela psicológica mantenía mi interés hasta cierto punto. Pero el diálogo interior de Federico es cansador y no lleva a ninguna conclusión. El autor requiere que el lector mantenga simpatía con un perdedor que se manifiesta sin pisca de autoestima ni ánimo de andar con dos pies plantados firme en la tierra. O es idiota Federico o soy yo por pasar tanto tiempo considerando sus enredos.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, en español | 1 Comment

A critique of “Gun Island,” by Amitav Ghosh

When I pick up a book and turn to the first page, I usually know immediately whether or not I am in good hands. This, I can assure you, is the case whenever you open a novel by Amitav Ghosh. You are in good hands.

Ghosh, whose magisterial chronicle, The Ibis Triology — Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, Flood of Fire — takes readers through a whirwind of trade history during the mid nineteenth century opium wars, now turns his focus on a still earlier period, the mid seventeenth century — 1630 to 1660 — linking the Sandarbans, an unstable marshy lands along the Bay of Bengal in India and Bangladesh, and Venice Italy, an equally watery place plagued by Nature’s challenges.

Gun Island takes us on an adventure which presents both physical and psychic challenges to its mild-mannered protagonist. Dr. Deen Datta is a dealer in antiquarian books in Brooklyn, who has returned to Kolkata for the wedding of a distant cousin.

And it buries us under superlative storytelling. Every character we meet comes with a tale that in its telling reveals much. Ghosh is less interested in personal descriptions. He communicates appearances in shorthand. We know one character by her masses of white hair, broad shoulders and flashing eyes. Another by his tats and lean frame.

As in the Ibis Trilogy, language — words, their roots and branching meanings — are paramount. In this work, the word is bundook, a Bengali (Bangla) word for gun or rifle. It presents itself to Deen in the folkloric personage of ‘Bunduki Sadagar,’ the Gun Merchant.

Against his better judgment, Deen is encouraged to visit the Sandarbans, where a shrine built by the Gun Merchant to Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes, was said to exist. He is attracted to Piya, an environmental biologist who arranges for his transport. Here he comes into contact with two young men. One is the keeper of the shrine, Rafi; the other is Tipu, a protege of Piya.

Rounding out the cast of characters is an internationally respected scholar of Venetian history, Professoressa Giacinta Schiavon. Deen had met Cinta when he was a graduate student and cataloguer at a mid western university library where she was doing research. Cinta acts as a kind of muse to Deen, as he journeys into the history behind the Gun Merchant folktale. She reappears by phone and in person, guiding him professionally and personally.

Gun Island is filled with acceleration. It is a kind of magic carpet through time and place: now we are at a conference at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where fires threaten the surrounding countryside. Next we are in Venice, where worms are devouring wooden piers. Now, we are on a rescue boat in the Mediterranean, tracking immigrants from a handful of countries.

The firmament is in flux.

This may all be too much for some readers. And yet, for me, Ghosh acts as a kind of Scheherezade, linking tale after tale, gleefully wearing me out with good stories and the knowledge that nothing is as permanent as change.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, history, religion and culture | 1 Comment

Una crítica de La trompetilla acústica, de Leonora Carrington

Leer La trompetilla acústica, de Leonora Carrington es entrar en una aventura surreal a un mundo gótico, lleno de brujería. Escrito en 1977 en francés, después traducido al español en 2017, se trata del traslado de Marion Leathersby, una anciana de noventa y nueve años, a un campamento de retiros donde se descubre un complot en contra de las interadas. En casi ese mismo momento Marion toma posesión de una trompetilla acústica que funcción como pasaporte a este mundo sonámbulo.

Todo es relatado en una voz risible y con un humor diabólico. El año 2017 se celebra el centenario del nacimiento de este artista/pintora quien trabaja através de varios medios pero se conoce mas bien por sus pinturas espeluznantes.

La trompetilla acústica mantiene un ambiente consistente con la pintura de Carringon. En cierta manera es un cuento de hadas al estilo Brothers Grimm, pero para adultos, en que muchos temas contemporarios figuran – la vejéz, la destrucción del medio ambiente, la liberación de la mujer. Es una aventura graciosa en que las locas toman la dirección del manicomio.

La Giganta (1950)

La propia trayectoria de su vida de Carrington se lee como aventura. Nacida en Inglaterra de padres de clase media industrial, se integró muy joven al movimiento surrealista continental. Se emigró a México durante la segunda Guerra Mundial con su amante, el pintor Max Ernst, un judío. Ella pasó el resto de su años allí metida en el mundo cultural y por lo tanto se reconoce como artista mexicana. Este libro comemorativo que celebra su vida viene con unas cuantas fotos de la pintura de Carrington.

Posted in Book Reviews, en español, fun stuff | Leave a comment

A critique of “Red at the Bone,” by Jacqueline Woodson

The miracle of this scant novel is that author Jacqueline Woodson is able to fully develop a half dozen characters in less than 200 pages.

Red at the Bone is effective in the way that fine poetry is effective. No extraneous ornamentation obstructs our understanding of the disruption that a teenage pregnancy can cause to a middle class household.

In this case, it’s a middle class black family in Brooklyn.

All the characters play against white stereotypes. Melody and Iris, daughter and mother, occupy the center stage of this family drama. Teenage mom (Iris) insists on having the baby, then goes off to a top flight college to continue her education. Dad, (Aubrey) is just as academically adept as Iris, but comes from a background of poverty. His own single parent, CathyMarie, was raised through the foster care system. Is it any wonder he chooses to nurture his daughter Melody?

Grandma (Sabe) lives out the heritage of her mother’s flight from the Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre of 1921, investing her wealth and hiding it in unexpected places. Grandpa (Po’Boy), attended Morehouse on a track scholarship, works at a African American law firm in New York City.

Woodson tells her tale through a series of out-of-sequence set pieces, some told in first person, some in third. Perspective and time shifts fan out their stories like a series of playing cards that the reader must reorder in her hand.

She is a master of the vernacular and the vignette. We sit with Melody at the black lunch table in her private high school. They play their music loud: Tupac, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg.

“We laugh loud. At everything. And give no damns that the white kids be looking at us like we don’t even belong at that school. How come you all sit together? without checking their own all-white tables. . . And when they ask shyly — because they always do — if we’re Prep for Prep or A Better Chance, we roll our eyes, smirk at each other in that way that brings color to their cheeks.

Nah, I say. I got the same thing you got — grandparents paying cash money for me to go here.

We say, They think we all getting educated on layaway.

Woodson writes from within her culture and for her culture. If you are white and middle class, prepare to have your eyes opened. Prepare to fill in the blanks. Work for it.

Posted in Book Reviews, race and class | 3 Comments

A critique of “The Lowland,” by Jhumpa Lahiri

This dense novel weaves a family story into the political saga of post colonial India. Jhumpa Lahiri, whose previous fictional work includes The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies, touches many of the same themes as in those earlier works: generational strife, the immigrant experience, the class of cultures. But here, two brothers — Subhash and Udayah– close in age and devoted to one another, take different paths as they move into manhood.

In The Lowland, a broader political picture moves front and center. As the young men enter college, a rebellion of sharecroppers in a district of Darjeeling, Naxalbari, gains the support of the younger, more radical fringe of Bengali communists. It is 1967 and the youth of the world, in the United States, in Europe and South America, are rebelling against authority.

As Subhash pursues graduate studies in the United States, Udayah becomes more radicalized, falls in love with Gauri, the sister of a fellow party member. Gauri and Bela, the daughter she has by Udayah, become the other key characters in a tale that takes the family into the twenty-first century.

This is a work with so many thematic points, it astounds the reader with Lahiri’s mastery. It is not just the sense of place she creates, be it Provincetown, where Subhash studies or Tollygunge, near Calcutta, where the boys were born. It is also the details of the subject matters they study: physics (Udayah) and marine biology (Subhash).

Gauri, the student of philosophy, is the wild card. She is remote like the theoretical texts she pores over, masters and eventually teaches. Her character and her thoughts give The Lowland depth and provide mystery. She focuses on the concept of time: “What caused certain moments to swell up like hours, certain years to dwindle to a number of days?”

Lahiri cleverly uses a clash between a policeman and the boys as children to demonstrate the differences in their characters and the problems they will face. The policeman as a symbol of the power that sustains the status quo continues through the story. It carries with it tragic consequences.

The Lowland is a book that warrants more than one reading, if you can stand it. It is deeply affecting.

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

Destination: Sellwood Bridge

Some mornings I feel like getting out early.

It’s a real annoyance to wait until it’s warm enough to ride or until rush hour is over. On those mornings the few steps between my front door and the Willamette River are the perfect invitation to head to the Sellwood Bridge on foot instead of by bike.

It’s only a three-mile roundtrip walk from my condo in John’s Landing.

There is always something to look at along the way: traffic on the river, walkers with their dogs, a gaggle of Canada geese. Once you leave behind Macadam Ave with its motor traffic to and from Lake Oswego (Hwy 43), you are at peace.

On the river side, you pass the Willamette Sailing Club and Willamette Park with its picnic tables, dog run, tennis courts, boat and kayak launch. The pedestrian/cycling path then leaves the Greenway and wends its way along a block-long neighborhood of houses and the entrance to Macadam Bay Moorage. Finally, you hit a quarter mile of asphalt switchbacks that lead you to the bridge’s north and south sides.

It’s all new.

At least, that’s what it feels like to those of us who remember the original narrow, two-lane bridge with its skimpy sidewalks. Built in 1925, it was Portland’s first high bridge without trolley tracks or a moveable span. From the beginning, it was inadequate in terms of reinforcement and subject to the pressure of landslides from hills to the west.

The Sellwood Bridge today is a graceful uninterrupted span, 75 feet above the water: a steel deck arch bridge with a wide traffic lane in either direction and 12-foot wide sidewalks and bike lanes on each side. Its construction required the creation of a shoofly bridge so that traffic wasn’t interrupted during completion.

The new bridge opened in February 2016. A friend who lives in Eastmoreland and I joined other walkers and cyclists for the opening day February 27 when it was closed to car traffic. Then, as now, we could appreciate the simplicity of the bridge’s design.

Its beauty is best appreciated from a spot at the middle of either side where walkers and cyclists frequently stop to gaze south or north. This is my resting point before heading back home. Here, sign boards provide historical notes on river transport and points of interest.

Where we live now — Corbett/John’s Landing — was once the town of Fulton. The sign points out this and other spots, among them Oaks Amusement Park, opened in 1905 as part of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. This summer we watched the Fourth of July fireworks at Oaks from our balcony across the river.

Portlanders has a love/hate relationship with the town’s rivers and its bridges. It may be possible, I suppose, to live in the area without ever having to cross the Willamette or the Columbia, the two rivers that have created this mini metropolis. (The Columbia separates Oregon from Washington and its crossings are a whole other issue.)

One could live his or her life on either side of the Willamette and avoid the hassle and confusion of negotiating the 12 bridges that carry transport from its east and west sides. We have friends who’ve given up crossing the Willamette from one side to the other during rush hour, or even at all during the work week. The congestion gets them down.

Until July 2019, I had always lived on the eastside in North and Northeast Portland. As tweens, my sister and I made Saturday morning trips downtown on the St. Johns bus to window shop at Meier & Frank, Lipman-Wolfe and J.K. Gill and buy twenty-five cent bags of fudge at Van Duyn’s before going home. Working at newspapers, a magazine and in public relations as an adult, I crossed the Broadway Bridge daily — by bus, by car, by bicycle and, even once, on skis.

I never thought much about the river and the bridges. I know now they are at the heart of what makes Portland Portland.

Sharon Wood Wortman was prescient to the importance of Portland’s waterways and bridges thirty years ago. When I meet her in the ’80s, she was just a tour guide of Portland’s bridges. Since then she has become an expert. A book, The Portland Bridge Book (1989) was the first of many iterations she has written with her husband engineer Ed Wortman.

In April 2013, we bought a home in Phoenix so that we could ride our bikes year round. It has taken six years of living in the desert of Arizona with its own burnt, arid splendor to appreciate the beauty of a life river side and what bridges provide me as a walker and cyclist. Let me live a part of each year along the Willamette to walk and cycle its byways and I’ll return happily for the eight months I spend in the Valley of the Sun.

I’m intrigued to see how I’ll feel about the river when I visit in future months: in the winter and the spring.

Will the walk along the Greenway Trail feel like traveling through a wind tunnel? What will water traffic look like?

I’ll let you know.

Posted in Commentary, Cycling, fun stuff, Portland, portlandness, walking around | 1 Comment

A critique of “Someone,” by Alice McDermott

Death hovers over Someone, by Alice McDermott. It inserts itself between many of the novel’s few pages.

The heroine of this family saga — if you can call her that — is the “someone” who narrates the connecting episodes which take her from age seven and a tenement in Brooklyn to her sixties, a mother of four children and many grandchildren in suburban Long Island.

Marie is shy, stubborn and observant. She will be burdened by bad vision and sensitivity throughout her life. She is doted on by her father, resistant to her mother and adoring of her handsome older brother. But there is nothing really exemplar about her. Marie is ordinary.

The death of an older neighbor girl, Pegeen Chehab, whose immigrant father is Syrian and mother, Irish, catches her attention. Pegeen is unattractive, clumsy and self deprecating. Pegeen falls a lot. In fact, having spoken with Marie on the street coming home from work, she falls down her basement steps the next morning.

Her death brings the gospel story of the sparrows to Marie’s brother Gabe’s mind. “Even the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

“Amadan,” Marie says, a word she had just learned from Pegeen — “fool” in Old Irish. But who? Gabe, the would-be priest, or Pegeen, the poor sparrow.

Her dad affectionately calls Marie a pagan. Her mother washes her mouth out with soap.

It is to McDermott’s credit that she is able to use such an opaque lens as this narrator to reveal so much about Catholicism and immigrant Brooklyn in the ’30s and ’40s.

Someone held my attention throughout because of the arresting descriptions of life and the mores of the people and their surroundings in urban and suburban New York. I read it quickly, but tired of its monotony. (Who puts down a book with only eight pages to go?) And I was bothered by the author’s tic of using the same words and the same observations within one or more paragraphs of each other.

Unlike McDermott’s The Ninth Hour (2017), Someone promises few humorous breaks in its steady flow. Although I must admit that the scenes where Marie, now working as receptionist in a mortuary, evesdrops on nuns recounting family histories of the departed are full of gossipy mirth.

Taken as a set, Someone and The Ninth Hour provide all one would need to know about Depression era Brooklyn and post war Irish Catholicism.

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

An unmade bed

I surprised myself today. I didn’t make my bed — just never got around to it.

Hailey DeRoo Haugen

Interestingly enough, it looks pretty inviting — about as good unmade as made. It’s covered with a duvet, left over from when we sold our house in Northeast Portland and moved to a condo in Johns Landing.

My friend Jamie, who had worked in real estate and retailing, came from Phoenix to help me “stage” the house for sale. We made a breakneck trip to Home Goods, Ikea, and Goodwill, coming away with a mirror to make the living room look bigger, two snow white cotton duvets to neutralize the bedcovers in the two bedrooms and a couple of interesting throws to add color.

I always thought duvets were kind of silly. (I pronounce the “t”, by the way.) Learning how to wrestle a quilt into one of them presented me with a pretty high learning curve. But then, I found you don’t have to do it very often and it sure cuts down on the number of covers.

But back to the unmade bed. I’d never get away with not making my bed if my husband weren’t in Phoenix. But he is, and I’m on my own.

Am I at the top of a slippery slope? Is this the sign that I’ll stop brushing my teeth, cleaning my fingernails? Go around in my nightgown all day? (Wait! I just talked to someone on the phone who was still in her nightgown at 3 p.m. She’d been clearing out her desk.)

I find that I have been talking to friends a lot recently about their beds. A couple of days ago, a girl friend told me she went back to bed after breakfast to read a book. Another mentioned recently that he never schedules morning classes because he likes to take his time getting out of bed.

My friend Susie once described a man she was seeing as an “unmade bed.” He sounded rumpled, cuddly and wonderful.

I can remember my mother saying: “You’ve made your bed; now lie in it! Shouldn’t it be: “Your bed’s not made, so lie in it!

I think I will. I just picked up three books at the library and my bed is so inviting.

Posted in Commentary, fun stuff | 9 Comments

A critique of “Man at the Helm,” by Nina Stibbe

“Never let a pony look out of an upstairs window.” These and other truths are what make Man at the Helm, by Nina Stibbe such a deliciously funny and touching story about family life in rural England in the early 1960s.

Here they are: a divorced mother and her three children, two daughters, nine and eleven, a son, Little Jack, uprooted when their father has an affair with an employee at his factory.

This is nine-year-old Lizzy’s story.

The divorce requires them to move to a village where no one seems to like them. Why would they? They are posh and they have no man at the helm. (Their mother says “Jesus fucking wept” when she sees Flatstone, home of the Flatstone muntie.)

Mother writes plays, drinks like a fish and quickly becomes addicted to prescription drugs. She’s never worked a day in her life, except as a seamstress for two weeks in a play.

Little Jack develops a stutter and refuses to take his coat off in school. The girls take over laundry and kitchen duty with little success, their mother being “temperamentally unsuited” for housework. Clue here: nine and eleven-year- olds aren’t very good at it either.

Worrying about their mother’s loneliness and other things — specifically that they might become wards of the court, sent to Crescent Homes and doomed to eat spaghetti on toast, the girls put together The Man List. They include on it every potential candidate for marriage — attached or unattached — who live nearby.

Using Lizzy’s older sister’s peach blossom stationery, they write letters signed Elizabeth Vogel, inviting candidates for drinks or discussions of mutual interest. It leads the family into a variety of adventures.

Man at the Helm comes with a silver lining, though unexpectedly and not without many rainclouds along the way. It is a source of many truths, primarily among them that love is an unbreakable bond and that people are not all that they seem.

I see now, in writing this, it isn’t really a critique, but a plea that you read this book, if you are in the mood for merriment and want to have your belief in humanity restored. Stibbe’s latest book takes up Lizzy’s life as a young woman. It’s entitled Reasons to be Cheerful. I could use some of that.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, good thoughts | 2 Comments

A critique of “Transcription,” by Kate Atkinson

Sometimes a protagonist turns into an antagonist. This is certainly the case with Juliet Armstrong, the lead character in Kate Atkinson’s Transcription. Though the story is narrated in the third person, readers are never far from the perspective of Armstrong, as the plotline of this British World War II spy novel is presented in three interwoved time frames: 1981, 1940 and 1950.

In 1940, Armstrong is a typist hired to record covert meetings between an M15 agent, who is posing as a member of the Gestapo, and Nazi sympathizers in London. Unfortunately, what Armstrong sees, records, and includes is anything but reliable. Nothing and no one are as they seem. We have agents, double agents, and — in the end — even a mole.

We are meant to sympathize with this inexperienced daughter of a dressmaker who somehow catches the eye of a serie of older agents, all of them male. They give her more and more intriguing assignments, one of which has her scrambling down a Virginia creeper to escape a wealthy member of Britain’s fifth column. In another, she provides false identity for a corpse. In still another, she houses a Czech scientist fleeing Germany with a battered suitcase filled with documents.

She is never all that she pretends. She is so skilled at subterfuge, but blissfully ignorant of the sexual proclivities of her boss, to whom she is attracted. And, oops: What are these rented diamond earrings still doing in her pocket?

In 1950, when Armstrong is working as a producer of the BBC’s Schools Broadcasting, her spy work in 1940 ties her back into service. In 1981, we are left with a question mark. Did she ever get away?

Atkinson has done her homework and she writes with verve. Most of all, she has fun pulling the wool over the eyes of her readers and maintaining a light touch. It is somehow a welcome relief from most treatments of the period and subject matter.

However, given my druthers, I prefer Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, fun stuff | 2 Comments

A critique of “The Nickel Boys,” by Colson Whitehead

Surpassed only by the fanfare surrounding Margaret Atwood’s release of The Testaments, Colson Whitehead’s publication of The Nickel Boys this July has attracted such broad literary review and editorial commentary, one wonders if there is anything fresh and insightful to add to the dialogue.

To start with: the preliminaries. Whitehead is an African American writer whose nine works of fiction and nonfiction have focused on the toll that slavery and racisim have taken on the American experiment. He is the winner of the National Book Award in 2016 and the Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for The Underground Railroad, a work that expands the image of transport to create a magically realistic journey of passage.

In The Nickel Boys, he elides the characters of two teenage boys to provide an amalgam of what survival requires of a black man in the United States. Elwood Curtis, a good student on his way to a college career hitches a ride with a car thief and gets sent to a reform school near his hometown of Tallahasee, Florida. At the reformatory, Elwood meets Turner, another bright young man, as skeptical as Elwood is idealistic.

The Nickel Academy, as Whitehead makes clear in his acknowledgements, is modeled after a state-run institution, the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, that he learned about in 2014 through the reporting of Ben Montgomery published in the Tampa Bay Times. This led him to the work of Dr. Erin Kimmerle and the work of her archaeology students at the University of South Florida and their forensic research into grave sites near the school. Dozier was in operation from 1900 to 2011.

Whitehead writes with surpressed rage and a tragic sense of hope. His reportage of the dissimilarities between the facilities and food afforded colored and white inmates, the severity of the punishments administered to both is straightforward.

The Nickel Boys is a short book. (How could one bear many more pages?) Whitehead includes just enough in imagery and dialogue to sketch out his characters. The officer of the court who transported Elwood to Nickel is described as having a “meaty backwoods beard and a hungover wobble to his step,” whose face turns red when the clerk sanctions him for driving Elwood up and down the state in order to pick up two white boys.

“I just read what’s on the paper,” he says in defense.

“It’s alphabetical,” the clerk tells him.

Turner is characterized as being both a part of and apart from what was going on around him. Like a tree fallen in a stream — something that was always there, but was not meant to be there.

“You got to quit that eager-beaver shit, El,” Turner tells him when they meet.

It isn’t long into his stay that Elwood makes a night-time trip to the White House, the pain factory where punishment is administered via Black Beauty, a three-foot long leather strap studded with sheet metal. A new pair of blue jeans lay next to the hospital bed when he wakes up the next morning.

The two join in a partnership of sorts and as Turner begins to play a bigger part in Elwood’s storyline, we see that he is the caretaker of the flame set by Martin Luther King in Elwood’s psyche.

Though most of the action takes place in the ’60s when the boys are teenagers, the story is told in retrospect by a middle-aged Elwood Curtis, living in New York City. Through a juxtaposition of time frames and a subtle manipulation of voice, Whitehead is every bit the literary titan, evoking both pathos and hope as we consider our currect dilemma in the United States.

Both Colson Whitehead and Margaret Atwood are confronting the big questions we face if we are to live in community.

Attention must be paid.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, race and class | Tagged | 2 Comments

A critique of “Katalin Street,” by Magda Szabo

What do we who live in the West know about Hungary, its people and how it experienced life under Communism and under the shadow of Hitler and of the USSR?

If I am any example, I would say: “not much.”

Credit must be given to publishing companies that strive to provide English speaking readers with good translations of fine literature that provide bridges to our understand of other people, places and times. Such is the case with Magda Szabo’s “Katalin Street,” written in 1969, translated into English in 2017, publisher: New York Review Books.

Some time back I read and reviewed Szabo’s great classic, “The Door,” translated into English in 2015. This is what I wrote:

“The Door” is the portal to a Forbidden City behind which Emerence lives her private life when she is not endlessly working and taking care of the needs of people on her street and in her building. This book explores the relationship between Emerence and her employer, Magda, a respected writer. Enigmatic, intolerant of institutions and authorities, Emerence comes to personify the virtues of the Christianity that Magda professes. As a literary creation she represent a judgement against all that is false and cowardly. Written in 1987 in Communist Hungary and only recently translated into English, this book is filled with literary and cultural references that were beyond my scope, but the intensity of the prose and the relationship between the two women is equal to that of Elena Ferrante in “My Brilliant Friend.”

“Katalin Street” shares many of the same virtues as “The Door.” The characters are compelling, their relationships intense, the microcosm of their family lives play out the greater trauma of post World War II Hungary. The story is told in six historical moments/episodes: 1934, 1944, 1952, 1956, 1961, 1968. The primary characters are Iren, Blanka, Balint, Henriette, and their families, who live side by side in prosperous, middle class homes on the bank of the Danube in Budapest. Blanka’s and Iren’s father is a high school civics teacher; Balint’s, a military Major; Henriette’s, a dentist.

From its very beginning, “Katalin Street” is embued with the wisdom of old age. The last of Szabo’s novels, it is more magical than “The Door. It is embued with the presence of the past as a living, pulsating reality. And an awareness of the dead.

This is best stated by Iren, the narrator most frequently given voice. An educator like her father, Mr. Elekes, she sits with Balint, whom she has loved from childhood.

Iren reflects: “We sat there in silence, like a well brought up brother and sister. It was the first time in my life that I had an inkling that the dead are not dead but continue living in this world, in one form or another, indistructibly.”

This is a book in which the name Hitler is mentioned only once and the word Jew, not at all, but it and its characters are cleaved by a central event from which all episodes flow. And here is a hint: One of the narrators is a spirit that moves back and forth between times and space.

Ultimately, “Katalin Street” is about the pain and courage of coping.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books in Translarion, Commentary | Tagged | Leave a comment

A critique of “Disappearing Earth,” by Julia Phillips

Our story begins with two little girls, Alyona and Sophia, eleven and eight, playing on a beach in August. It is summer break and the girls must entertain themselves while their mother, a journalist, is at work in Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky, the largest town on the Kamchatka Peninsula of western Russia.

They play on unstable ground, as we learn from Alyona’s stories for Sophia during their walk home: stories about earthquakes and disappearing villages.

Chapter One of Disappearing Earth, a debut novel by American author Julia Phillips, ends with the frightening disappearance of these very girls, abducted by a stranger who offers them a ride home.

The novel proceeds month by month, character sketch by character sketch, weaving together the stories of a handful of people — mostly women — whose lives are touched by the disappearance of the girls.

Disappearing Earth is a mystery story, both panoramic and tightly focused. It introduces the reader to a very cold place. (In one instance the cold is describe as grabbing a woman’s lungs in two fists.)

And to a population whose demeanor is marked by dissatisfaction and sardonic pessimism. One woman, Phillips writes, “loathed herself so much her teeth hurt.” Another, whose first husband’s death was caused by a car accident, loses her second husband twenty-seven years later on the same day in a mountain rescue accident.

“Since Gleb’s accident, Revmira had hated cars,” the author writes. “Now she had to hate rocks, too. Rocks. Snow.” Her chapter ends: “But now she would live. She had to. It was what she did; live while others could not. There was no pleasure in it.”

Soviet socialism had lumped indigenous peoples together: Even, Koryak, Itelmen, Chukchi. Now, the grandchildren and children of herders who live in the tundra year-round are college students in the city, some of them determined to recover their ethnicity.

One girl, Ksyusha, whose academic excellence in high school had won her a funded spot in the university’s accounting program, was soon betrayed by accent and appearance. “They recognized her immediately, these city kids. They spoke to her like she was part herd animal herself.”

The disappearance of an indigenous high school girl a few years earlier is believed by some to be linked to the disappearance of the two white girls. However, the case of Lillia, the missing teenager, was poorly investigated. Authorities questioned her morals; they treated her as a runaway.

Phillips is an expert stylist and storyteller. She has fashions a series of short stories around a single uniting incident that allows the reader to enter a variety of women’s lives.

Stay with this beautifully wrought novel to its conclusion as the pace picks up and the mystery of the girls’ disappearance is solved. You may shed a few tears. I know I did.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, religion and culture | Tagged | Leave a comment

A critique of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” by Zora Neale Hurston

Sometimes it is good to read an old classic, even if you think you’ve read it before. In the case of Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, I soon discovered that I hadn’t.

How could I have forgotten such a lyrically told tale with its contemplative narrative, stretches of fast-paced adventure and playful dialogue? And what a pleasure it must have been for members of my book group who listened to the audio version read by Ruby Dee.

Consider just one such passage:

“Daisy is walking a drum tune. You can almost hear it by looking at the way she walks. She is black and she knows that white clothes look good on her, so she wears them for dress up. She’s got those big black eyes with plenty shiny white in them that makes them shine like brand new money and she knows what God gave women eyelashes for, too. Her hair is not what you might call straight. It’s negro hair, but it’s got a kind of white flavor. Like a piece of string out of a ham. It’s been around ham and got the flavor. It was spread down thick and heavy over her shoulders and looked just right under a big white hat.”

Written in 1937, purportedly during Hurston’s seven-week stint as an anthropologist in Haiti, the edition I read came with a 2000 foreward by Edwidge Danticat and a 1990 Afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Alice Walker is credited with the revival of interest in Hurston since the 1960s.

“There is no book more important to me that this one,” Walker has said.

There are good literary reasons for why this book continues to be read. It is wonderful storytelling.

It is written like a verbal memoir told by Janie Crawford to her best friend Phoebe. Married off by a protective grandmother at 17, she abandons one husband, buries another and runs off with Tea Cake, a younger man and her one true love. Their Eyes Were Watching God is both an adventure story and a love story — the search of one woman for herself.

Though Hurston’s dialogues are delightful and her framework masterful, she is at her descriptive best in passages like the one that takes the reader through a Florida hurricane:

“The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”

This is you-are-there writing. You can read it fast or slow. Savor it as you will.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, religion and culture | 5 Comments

A critique of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee

I’ve wondered for years why it took me so long to read “To Kill A Mockingbird.” In fact, I’ve been taken to task for not having read it.

“I’m surprised,” a friend said a couple of years ago, ‘You’re such a reader. How did you miss it? It changed my life.”

I mentioned this to Sally, who was re-reading it with her book club. The PBS series, The Great American Read had just concluded a contest that named “Mockingbird” America’s best-loved work of fiction. She handed me her paperback copy.

That was six months ago.

Three things decided me to get serious about “Mockingbird” this week. First, I found that unread copy of Sally’s among the possessions we were weeding through as we moved between houses. (“How come I haven’t read this thing?” “Why haven’t I returned it to Sally?” I pondered.)

Additionally, I had read “Go Tell A Watchman,” the book Harper Lee wrote anterior to ‘Mockingbird,” but published in 2015. I hadn’t much liked it, but was fascinated at the process by which the perspective was altered from one book to the other.

And then we had dinner with Bruce’s old cycling buddy Cliff and his wife Kim. They mentioned they had a daughter in her early 30s.

Her name is Scout.

Wow! I thought, that’s impact: to saddle a girl with a name like that. (It was just short of naming her after a spider because of the E. B. White classic.)

So, now I’ve read it, a book beloved by so many. And i think I know why. “To Kill A Mockingbird” is a very good story. From page one, it tells with compassion and wit what it was like to live as a young child in a small Southern town in the 1930s. It does so in a way that is both down-to-earth and sophisticated.

The book’s narrator is Jean Louise Finch (Scout), who now grown is looking at key events in her moral development between the ages of five and 9. (Although words like “moral development” are never used in this straight-talking work.)

Scout and her brother Jem, four years her senior, are the late-in-life children of Atticus Finch, whose much younger wife died of heart failure before Scout’s age of recall. The children’s daily activities are monitored by Calpernia, the family’s colored housekeeper. Their father, a respected lawyer and state representative, is reticent and upright, though not without warmth. Scout learns to read sitting in his lap with the evening newspaper spread before them.

Over the years there has been a reductionist dismissal of “To Kill A Mockingbird” as a polemic against the small-mindedness and racism associated with the South. And, in truth, much of the story’s drama centers around Finch’s unsuccessful defense of a black man tried for the rape of a young white woman. The trial, its aftermath and the controversy surrounding it occupy much of book.

But more than anything, the strength of tale lies in its shades of characterizations and wit. In its opening chapter, Lee introduces with great economy the outline for the events that will carry the reader forward: a broken arm, the Ewells, the addition of a new playmate (Dill), Boo Radley, a reclusive neighbor, and Andrew Jackson. And just as the reader tries to separate out all the strands, the plot settles into the lazy days of summer and the child’s world of play and story-making.

Setting is paramount and quickly dispatched. Is it hot? “Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”

Did things slow down in summer? “A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer.”

Lee is a master at establishing both voice and dialogue. Scout’s orneriness is well documented, as is her intelligence. Her battles with Calpernia are epic. ” She was always ordering me out of the kitchen, asking me why I couldn’t behave as well as Jem when she knew he was older, and calling me home when I wasn’t ready to come.”

Yes, the book is preachy. Dialogue about racial hierarchy and issues of justice go on and on. “To Kill A Mockingbird” became an ideal vehicle for the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Published in 1959, it won the Pulitzer Prize the next year and became required reading for many high school juniors throughout the 60s.

Which brings me to why I missed it. In 1959 I entered college as a freshman. Our pre-enrollment assignment was to read Albert Camus’ “The Stranger.” At college level we were considering issues of moral relativism.

Existentialism here we come.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, good thoughts, religion and culture | 3 Comments

A critique of “Bowlaway,” by Elizabeth McCracken

I’ve been searching for an adequate image to describe the process whereby Elizabeth McCracken constructed “Bowlaway.” Certainly, it is a chronological tale that starts with the discovery of a corpulent middle-aged woman in the Salford Cemetery by a young man and a colored physician.

We learn that the woman is Bertha Truitt, the discoverers, Joe Wear and Dr. Leviticus Sprague. Bertha says she is the inventor of candlepin bowling and presents a small ball and candlepin to proved it; Joe, who works as a pin setter, says no. He cites an alley in Worster. ” I have never been to Worster,” Bertha replies.

With this odd set of characters, McCracken adds several more: a quartet of female bowlers, a pin-setter named Jeptha Arrison, and as time goes by, an orphan nursemaid named Margaret Vanetten, an artistically precocious daughter named Minna, a hellfire and brimstone preacher claiming to be Bertha’s rightful heir, Nahum Truitt.

And the years roll by. And the decades.

McCracken’s strong suit is the lovingly constructed image developed and extended into a paragraph and finally, often, into a philosophical statement or social observation.

One can pick up Bowlaway” anywhere and find such gems. Here, for example:

“People began to dream of her. . .they dreamt of Bertha Truitt sneaking into their beds, lowering the mattress, raising the temperature, dissolving in the daylight. . .One man swore he saw her fly through the air on her back, naked as a piglet, using her impressive breasts as wings.

Really,

Well, maybe more like rudders, he allowed. Otherwise, I stand by it.”

But as far as the construction of the tale, McCracken hip hops from character to character, image to image propelling the years and the bloodlines forward, with little emotional attachment to anyone in particular.

Is she stringing beads on a necklace with occasional repeats of color or bead shape? We end our tale with at least one of the characters with whom we started.

The subject is bowling and the place where it takes place. Bowling is something to think about besides your regrets, McCracken writes.

On the other hand, so is bicycling.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary | Leave a comment

A critique of “Lost Children Archive,” by Valeria Luiselli

Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli may be the right book at the right time as far as the critics are concerned, but what of the reading public? It would be easy to cast it — as some of them have — as significantly about our country’s border crisis as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe was about slavery.

In many ways, however, the book is both much broader and much narrower than Stowe’s masterpiece of sentimentality. Stowe’s was an unabashed treatise against slavery, filled with the accepted negro stereotypes of its day.

Luiselli’s approach is more subtle and layered. She sidesteps sentimentality, moralism and typecasting by inviting us to inhabit a fantasyscape. Hers is the rewrite of a road trip in which we accompany a family of four: a husband and wife (known by the children as Pa and Ma), a boy, 10, and a girl, 5. Together they journey from New York City to Arizona’s southeastern border with Mexico and the last stronghold of the Apaches, a place where migrant children have lost their ways and died.

During their journey, they each acquire a new name. Pa becomes Papa Cochise. Ma is now Lucky Arrow. The boy is Swift Arrow. The girl becomes Memphis.

Each parent is driven by professional curiosity. She’s a journalist having worked as a court volunteer translating the accounts of unaccompanied minors illegally entering the United States. He’s an acoustemologist who plans to record the sounds of the Southwest, retrieving the auditory setting of Apacheria. Theirs is a joint venture, yet their paths are diverging.

Their personal dilemma is captured most eloquently in a section titled “Alone Together: “I suppose my husband and I simply hadn’t prepared for the second part of our togetherness,” she writes: “the part where we just lived the life we’d been making. I —had made the very common mistake of thinking that marriage was a mode of absolute commonality and a breaking down of all boundaries, instead of understanding it simply as a pact between two people willing to be the guardians of each other’s solitude.”

This is literary fiction of the highest order in which the narrative flow organizes itself around short subdivisions with titles like Pronouns, Procedures, Credible Fear; examination of boxes containing family member’s “work” equipment; storytelling through tapes and readings of other trips, explorations, migrations.

In fact, it is these very techniques that may blunt the work’s power to move many readers. In a works cited section at the end of the book Luiselli describes the impact of other texts on her work as “dialogue” with the many voices the book sustains with the past. Heady stuff.

What saves Lost Children Archive for me, is the echo a second narrative voice provides of the first. The ten-year-old boy takes over the work of both his parents, leading his sister by the hand. It’s a perilous journey. Together and separately the two narrators — Ma and the boy — reached me on the macro and personal levels of frontiers and borders, the coming together and wrenching apart of families and peoples throughout history.

Now, let’s see how the rest of the reading public sees this ambitious work.

Posted in Arizona, Book Reviews, Commentary, Road trip | Leave a comment

A critique of “The Great Believers,” by Rebecca Makkai

I was thinking the other day that it might be a good idea to read War and Peace. I was fifteen the first time I read it. Then I realized, I don’t have to reread Tolstoy. I read The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai.

Just like Tolstoy, Makkai really knows how to tell a big story small.

Short of running through the streets waving a copy of The Great Believers in my hand — a hard thing to do since I read the Phoenix Public Library’s large print edition at 733 pages — I’m not sure how to underscore the flawless way in which Makkai pulls it off. She tells the story of AIDS in America, not in a preachy, fact-laden way, but rather deeply from within, through two main characters, Yale Tishman and Fiona Marcus, and two settings mid-1980s Chicago and 2015 Paris.

The story opens with the memorial reception for which Fiona’s brother Nico’s friends, part of the greater gay community in Chicago, have gathered at the home of Richard Campo, a photographer. Yale is there with his partner Charlie, the publisher of Out Loud Chicago. Yale is head of donor relations for the Brigg Art Gallery at Northwestern University. He’s a preppy, quiet observer, recently hired from the Art Institute of Chicago, good at his work. As outcast from her parents as was her brother Nico, 21-year-old Fiona is drunk.

Somehow Yale’s losing track of Charlie and Charlie’s insecurity about Yale’s commitment and Fiona’s inebriation develop into the misunderstandings that carry the story forward.

We are in the middle of someone else’s story: Yale’s and Fiona’s. Being gay in a cosmopolis like Chicago in the mid-80s is a fearsome, reckless, exciting place to be. Being the younger sister of one who dies of AIDS turns Fiona into the little sister of 200 other big brothers, all of them potential victims of the disease. It overshadows her life for decades, infecting the relationship with her grown daughter Claire whom she chases across America and to Paris in 2015.

How soon we forget how terrified the general public was of AIDS and of homosexuality, how inadequate health care facilities were for dealing with it, how easy it was to turn Ryan White, a young boy infected with a tainted blood transfusion, into an acceptable poster boy for the illness.

The Great Believers brings the period all home.

Just as strong as the main story of relationships is Yale’s commitment to a 90-year-old donor, Nora Marcus Lerner — Fiona and Nico’s great aunt — who claims possession of a dozen original drawings from the 1920s when she studied art in Paris and knew Modigliani, Soutine, Pascin and Foujita. Yale and others from the gallery and university make trips to Wisconsin to gain access to the art and Nora’s story.

Alway with Makkai, humor is just a few sentences away. “Yale had wanted to ease into things slowly [with Nora], logically; he’d thought of several way to frame the conversation, none of which had to do with mint-bombing rodents,” she writes.

And she adds short bursts of lovely color: Charlie’s British accent ingratiates him to a hostess as Yale’s partner: “Charlie had already won her over, in two sentences. It helped that his accent contained a top hat and monocle.”

Yale’s story is much the more interestingly and fully explored than Fiona’s, as well it should be. It is filled with philosophical riffs that leave one pondering. Yale thinks about time-travel as described by his benefactor Nora. Going back instead of forward: “the older you got, the more decades you had at your disposal to revisit with your eyes closed.”

But then, Makkai writes: “If you had to choose when in the timeline of the earth, you got to live, wouldn’t you choose the end?” Yale muses. “You haven’t missed anything then. You die in 1920, you miss rock and roll. You die in 1600, you miss Mozart. Right?”

Being from the West Coast with family and friends in the Bay Area, it was easy for me to think that both the larger and smaller AIDS story as one that begins and ends with the losses closer to home, among my own family and group of friends. I appreciated living both the small and larger story as it unfolds in Chicago, fictionally but with a ring of authenticity.

And, of course, the story continues. AIDS is not a horror story of the past. There are still one million people infected with HIV in the United States today. That’s one million small stories.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, religion and culture | 1 Comment

A critique of “The Alice Network,” by Kate Quinn

This deftly written page-turner juxtaposes two narratives, both of them set in historical time periods. In 1945, Charlotte (Charlie) St. Clair is a pregnant college student with an Appointment to get rid of her Little Problem at a clinic in Switzerland. Her story is told in first-person present.

In 1915, Evelyn Gardiner is a London file clerk with a stutter, whose knowledge of German and French gets her hired as a spy for the Allies in Lille, France. Her story is told in the first person as flashback.

The stories of the two women are intertwined when Charlie gives the slip to her mom in London and looks up Eve as a link for finding a missing French cousin. It is possible that Rose had been in the employ of a collaborating French restaurateur during World War II. Eve had spied on him in Lille during World War I. A search for what became — or becomes — of this villain, René Bordelon, is worth staying the course.

Kate Quinn makes switching from Charlie’s 1945 narrative and Eve’s 1915 memories an easy task for the reader. The language, landscape and window dressings in each seem appropriate to its time. The pace of the action, with cliffhangers between each shift made me want to get on with the story.

Quinn has done her research well, not only in period spy work, but culture — horticulture, interior design, art and poetry. For the most part, dialogue and turns of phrase not only ring true, but are often standouts.

“Alice,” the titular head of the spy network, is based on a real person. She urges Eve to take on a difficult assignment: “No one puts a crackd cup back on the table and trusts it to stay in one piece,” she tells her. A superior, Major Allenton, supports Eve’s work to her boss: “This girl’s keen as mustard,” he tells Captain Cameron.

But descriptions are often tired and repetitive. Long-fingered and mangled hands get full-frontal attention, as does Charlie’s budding belly. Metaphors don’t always work. (“We lingered inside our fragile bubble of happiness, the kind of happiness that sits on top of melancholy as easily as icing on a cake.” I kind of get that, but not really.)

Where “The Alice Network” really falls down is in Quinn’s attempt to get under the skin of the main characters. Frequently they seem to be cardboard cutouts. At times, the book comes off as nothing more than a glossy historic romance novel. The love scenes are bodice-rippers or, in one case, a pants-stripper.

All in all, I can see why “The Alice Network,” by Kate Quinn, is a best-seller. It is a fun read.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, fun stuff | 2 Comments

Like a kid in a candy store

Until a week ago, I thought Jorge Luis Borges got it right when he imagined Paradise as “a kind of library.” That was before I went to the Tucson Festival of Books.

In its eleventh year, the book fair is the third largest in the country. In 2018, attendance reached 140,000. This year, the fair hosted 350 authors and panels, held workshops, provided storytelling, culinary demonstrations, sold books by the carload. All of it took place at 36 different venues on the University of Arizona campus, March 2-3.This extravaganza is co-sponsored by the Arizona Daily newspaper.

And it’s free.

I heard about the Festival last year through Changing Hands bookstore in Phoenix, where I attend the First Draft book club the last Wednesday of each month. For a nominal fee, Changing Hands transports book lovers to and from their stores in Phoenix and Tempe the first day of the event.

What a luxury! Coffee and baked goods, a tote bag to carry books home and the good company of other readers and writers with whom you can discuss favorite authors and works.

Some of the events are ticketed, but attendees simply order these free tickets online when they become available. If you miss getting one for a favorite panel, line up early for general admission or catch it on a C-Span transmission at spots throughout the Student Union.

Panel: Democracy at its Foundation (l to r) Chair Jonathan Rothschild, Mayor of Tucson; Presenters Stephen Fried, Greg Grandin, H.W. Brands

The Festival website publishes the calendar of presentations, so I was able to map out my own schedule before arriving in Tucson. Once our bus had deposited us at the north end of the Student Union and I had picked up a Festival guide and map to venues, I decided to stop for a Starbuck’s iced latte before heading over my first event: a presentation by James and Deborah Fallows, whose most recent book, Out Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America, had serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. HBO is making a documentary based on the book.

Unfortunately, this non-ticketed event was already at capacity when I got there. No problem, I took a chance at a nearby presentation, “Sinister Sisters.” Two mystery-writing siblings, Rosemary Simpson and
Eileen Brady — one, a veterinarian, the other, a medieval historian — gave concrete information on how they researched, wrote and supported each other. Their advice about mentoring, critique groups and multi-book contracts was practical and realistic.

I attended three more events during the day, as well as grabbed lunch at the justly tauted Tucson Tamale and browsed book stalls where I picked up a paperback copy of Luis Urrea’s 2004 The Devils Highway, a nonfiction Pulitzer finalist. Urrea was at the festival promoting his latest book, The House of Broken Angels. He is much admired in Arizona as the summa in storytelling and would be signing books at the Tempe Changing Hands store Monday following the Tucson event.

I was happy not to miss meeting Jon Talton, the long-time Arizona Republic business columnist now with The Seattle Times. Talton appeared on a panel,
“Mid-Century murder,” with two other mystery/thriller writers. Talton is the author of a series of mysteries featuring David Mapstone, a historian who goes to work for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s department researching cold cases. His most recently published book, The Bomb Shelter, a fictionalization of the Don Bolles car bombing.

Talton wearing his panel card as a top hat

Talton was as entertaining and crusty in person as he is in the blog he regularly posts about Phoenix and Arizona (www.roguecolumnist.com). A fourth-generation Arizonan who has kept a condo here, Talton regularly rails against what he calls the Real Estate Industrial Complex that runs Phoenix and the Kookacracy that runs the state.

Talton was joined by Lou Berney, whose November Road features a criminal on the run and a single mom in the wake of the Kennedy assassination; and Martin Limon, the author of the Sergeant George Sueño series, which are based on the 10 years he spent in Korea in the U.S. Army. His new mystery in this 13-book series is The Line.

After spending time mostly in the company of female fiction lovers, it was refreshing to join a roomful of men with a predilection for politics, current affairs and history. “Democracy in its Foundation,” featured a magazine journalist, Stephen Fried (author of Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor who Became a Founding Father); historians Greg Grandin (author of The End of the Myth: From Frontier to Border Wall in the Mind of America); and H.W. Brands (author of Heirs of the Founders about Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun).

Consider me crazy, but I don’t know what I would do with two days of such excitement. Certainly not if I had to drive back and forth to Tucson from Phoenix by myself.

Michael and Marge

What did I learn? For one thing, I would become a supporter, at least at the level that one Tucson couple has done. Michael and Marge have access to advance ticketing to any event, an opportunity to pre-order lunch and an early breakfast on event days. For another, I learned I am not alone in buying

books and filling my bookcase with volumes I may never read. (We all have our extravagances.) I even found other addicts who go to their local library and pick up a book they’ve put on hold — in my case, The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai — and end up check out a second one they spy on the NPR shelf — Transcription, by Kate Atkinson.

Ah, well! What a lovely ride home with a sachel-full of new books!

Posted in Arizona, Book Reviews, Commentary, fun stuff, Road trip | 4 Comments

Road trip: Overnight in Ajo

Tourists rarely stop in Ajo. Traveling south from Tucson or Phoenix on your way to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument or on to Rocky Point (Puerto Peñasco), the Mexican resort on the Sea of Cortez, roadsigns advertising travelers’ insurance scream: Keep moving.

Immaculate Conception Catholic Church was declared a Centennial Landmark by Pope Francis in 2016.

The town’s spotty assortment of motels and restaurants, all of which seem to be closed, also encourage you on your way. Though it is hard to bypass the town’s Spanish Colonial plaza anchored by its historic railway station and two gleaming churches — one Protestant, one Catholic — only a stretch of the legs seems warranted.

We decided Ajo was worth more and decided to stay over.

Entry point to the 860,000 acre Cabeza Prieta Refuge contains video and museum displays as well as permits for access to camping and four-wheel-drive roads.

For one thing, a friend from Portland had stayed at the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center awhile back, when she visited the area on a Road Scholar tour. Her week’s stay took her to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, with nature walks and hikes led by a Northern Arizona University professor and U.S. Forest Service personnel. Her report titillated our appetite for the natural wonders of the surroundings.

For another, we have become fascinated with Arizona’s mining history. On other occasions, we’ve spent some time in Jerome, near Sedona; we’ve gaped at open pit mines passing through the Globe-Superior areas and taken a guided tour of the Copper Queen in Bisbee. After all, copper is one of the four “c’s” that distinguished Arizona historically to visitors and transplants alike (The others are climate, cotton and citrus.)

This was an opportunity to step up to the rim of the oldest open-pit mine in Arizona and stare down into the 1100-foot depth of the New Cornelia, which at one time was the largest producer of copper in Arizona. In 1959, it was the third larget open pit copper producer in the United States.

Food is good at Desert Rain, which is run by a cooperative. Dinner available on weekends.

But first things first: We stopped at the Chamber of Commerce, housed in the old railway station, and then walked around the corner to the Desert Rain Cafe, where we could get a better-than-decent hamburger and secure a place for breakfast the next morning.

Next up: Find a place to sleep. The 21 rooms at the Desert Inn and Conference Center were fully occupied by a visiting hiking group, but Emily Seigel, who together with her husband Stuart, manages the Inn, directed us to a nearly Airbnb (360 Degree Views).

Here, we met host L.T. Sparrow, who — like me — has Portland roots. It was quite a surprise to meet someone in Ajo, who not only was born in Portland and attended Roosevelt High School (I attended Jefferson), but who had spent many years in Bolivia and was conversant in Spanish. I lived in neighboring Peru and also have kept up my Spanish.

The Ajo Memory Project

Sparrow, as L.T. prefers to be called, is also a massage therapist, and well connected in this town that has attracted the same kind of free-spirited and artistic folk we’ve found in other Southwestern places like Jerome, Bisbee, and El Morro in New Mexico. Though the Agave Grill and Desert Rain were closed for dinner, Sparrow mentioned that soon-to-be-opened Arriba! was having a “soft” opening that evening.

Were we ever glad we went! Arriba! gave us a wonderful cross-sectional view of Ajo’s ethnic roots. Everyone seemed to know each other — Mexican, Native American, Anglo — all of them moving from table to table, greeting each other with handshakes. I think we were the only out-of- towners. As it turned out, people had learned of the opening by text-message from one of the employees.

The Ajo Memory Project

Our zesty server immediately alerted us to everything we couldn’t order — alcohol (no license yet), chicken, seafood, tamales. (We noticed that a handful of motorcyclists went out to the parking lot periodically while waiting for their meal, which may be how they handed the alcohol question.) Our food, which arrived an hour after we were seated, was standard “border” fare. Bruce cleaned his combination plate clean. I ate my rice and taco, leaving behind the refried beans for him to attack.

No matter. Our perch at a table near the entrance gave us a bird’s-eye view of the cosmopolitan nature of a town that has held onto its polyglot and multicultural past.

We learned more about this with a visit the following day to the Ajo Historical Museum and an exhibit in a park alongside the Ajo Copper News, the town’s 100-year-old newspaper.

I may be reading too much into the diversity of the Generation Z’s I saw exiting an open-bed truck at the lip of the New Cornelia
the next day. Among them were young people with Mexican, Native American, Anglo and African American roots. They all seemed to be local.

The volunteer guide who showed us around the Historical Society Museum paid his respects to the Tono O’odham members of the mine’s Indian Village, and those of Mexican town, who supplied the menial labor that kept the mine running until it closed in 1985. The mission-style building that houses museum is the former chapel and monastery of the clergy that ran the Indian school. (The Tono O’odham Reservation to the east of Ajo has 30,000 residents.)

It was John C. Greenway, the general manager of the New Cornelia Copper Company and the Cornelia & Gila Bend Railway, who left his stamp on Ajo’s architecture and industry. In his New Cornelia posting, he led the development of the Ajo town site and pioneered a system for providing water to its inhabitants by tapping into an ancient lava flow. It was his and his wife Isabella’s vision that resulted in the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture of the arcaded town square with it grassy, palm-tree lined plaza.

Greenway had been instrumental in the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, which removed 1300 striking miners and supporters from Bisbee by rail and deposited them in a lonely desert strip in New Mexico. (We will learn more about Greenway and the Deportation, once we have seen “Bisbee 17,” a film documentary showing in Chandler, March 6.)

***

The next day we headed toward Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, less than a half-hour from the Mexican border.

Passing through the curious town of Why, we were intrigued by the town’s roadside store and cafe. Not so much by the Border Patrol ‘s gargantuan facility nearby. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a 517 square mile UNESCO Biosphere Reserve commemorated in 1977. It is smack dab in the middle of a route traversed by migrant foot-traffic. It is well-patrolled.

This cafe and service station in Why is more tourist attractive than anything in Ajo.

I’d like to say we took full advantage of our stop at the Monument. We arrived at the same time as a tourist bus. We joined them for a good video dedicated to Bill Broyles who fought years for the creation of the Sonoran Desert Preserve. Unfortunately, we were unable to reserve seats on the van that guides visitors on a two-hour, 21-mile loop through a forest of Organ Pipe cacti. The rough road was too much for me recovering as I was from sciatica. Ditto one of the hiking trails. We’ll save this for a future trip, maybe one that took us to Mexico.

No, the fact of the matter is that Ajo is what stimulated most our imagination. On the way back to town, we drove along a slag hedge that borders the town to the northwest, a route promoted as a mountain bike loop. Many RV tourist sites are scattered along this rutted and poorly marked road. A couple miles from downtown Ajo, it still feels remote.

Like many places in Arizona, the environs of Ajo invite the adventurous, the eccentric, the intrepid. We ate dinner our second night in town at the Agave Grill — a real microcosm of townfolk and visitors.

We were resigned to wait for a table, but a couple about our age motioned us over to join them. Johnny and Nancy had been spending every winter at an RV park behind the Siesta Motel in their fifth wheel trailer for years. They were from up north. No, not Minnesota. They live in Farmington, New Mexico. It was their anniversary.

It is impossible to predict how Ajo will continue to evolve. Population here swells from about 2,300 to almost twice that during the winter months. Year-rounders are the first to admit summers are brutally hot.

A lot of public and private dollars have gone into refurbishing the town.
The Cornelia Hotel is a moldering relic on its way to being demolished as is the abandoned Phelps Dodge Hospital that served the mining community. But live/work units for artesans have transformed the Curley School into an artistic hub that a coalition of supporters brought into being with federal dollars and the participation of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance and the University of Arizona schools of Architecture and Engineering.

The Curley School (1919)

The ISDA is also responsible for the transformation of the old Curley gradeschool into the Sonoran Desert Conference Center and Inn and an apprenticeship program for the trades.

Yet the town is resistant to prettifying. That’s okay. Ajo may be on the way to a number of places. It is still off the grid.

Posted in Arizona, Commentary, fun stuff, Road trip, travel | 1 Comment