Hiking Escapes: Granite Mountain, January, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon — Walmart of the Middle Class?

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

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

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

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

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

He’s the wealthiest man in the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The big fish eat the little fish?

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

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

And yet. . .and yet.

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

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

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

Posted in Arizona, Commentary, COVID-19, Democracy, news and journalism, Phoenix, The Economy | 4 Comments

Hiking Escapes: New Year’s Day, 2021

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

Let me back up.

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

It was a date.

At Potato Lake in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aspen Forest on the Arizona Trail near Snowbowl

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

Thank you, Arizona.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Favorite Books for 2020

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

Amnesty, by Aravid Adiga

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

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

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

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

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

A Children’s Bible, by Lydia Millet

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


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

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

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

Umami, by Laia Jufresa

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

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

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

A critique of “Homeland Elegies,” by Ayad Akhtar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final question becomes can an immigrant have two homes?

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

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

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

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

Work plan, Dec. 21, 2020

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

Here was my mental chore this morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A critique of “A Burning,” by Megha Majumbar

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

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

Yet I find A Burning hard to recommend.

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

Anyway, here’s the story.

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

Jivan is arrested by the police as a suspected terrorist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not by a long shot.

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

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

Mostly, she observes. Sometimes, she intervenes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See where it ends up.

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

Sightseeing in the Pickup: #1

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

Me with mask at the ready

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Gila Bend food stop with motel

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

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

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

Get out of the car at picturesque Rainbow Wash. .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And her book is a very good read.

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

Una crítica de “Umami” de Laia Jufresa

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

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

Es una propriedad en pleno duelo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I never made it.

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

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

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

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

That’s where my memory comes to a stop,

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

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

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

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

Operator error? Probably.

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

That’s the least of my troubles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A critique of “Little Eyes” by Samanta Schweblin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A critique of “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” by Jessica Bruder

Curiosity. That’s a reporter’s motivating instinct. And Jessica Bruder, author of Nomadland, has it in spades. Why else would someone dedicate three years of her life and 15,000 miles tracking itinerants — mostly people in the sixties and seventies — around the United States– as they move from one temporary job to another, living in trailers, vans and RVs?

Bruder makes an interesting story of her immersive experience and brings to life the dilemmas and fortitude of a people who have refused to succumb to job loss, mounting debts and a lack of alternatives. She takes to the road, first following Linda May, a sixty-four year old grandmother, and her dog Coco in their 1974 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, the Squeeze In, to Hanna Flat near Big Bear Lake in California. Linda is beginning a five-month stint as a campground host. Linda will be making $9.35 an hour as janitor, groundskeeper, security guard and welcoming committee. Among other duties, she’ll be shoveling ash and broken bottles out of campfires, disinfecting outhouses and baby-sitting drunks.

Starting with Linda, Bruder meets countless others in Amazon warehouses, beet harvests, carnivals — anywhere there is temporary hiring for itinerants who can provide their own living accommodations.

And she talks to their bosses, examines their grievances. It’s not a pretty picture. The U. S. is the developed nation with the most unequal society as measured by the World Bank, the CIA and the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The U.S.’s inequality is on a par with the lesser developed countries of Russia, China, Argentina and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But Nomadland is not a sad book. It is a story of resilience: people who take charge of their lives and form new communities. I was particularly taken with the description of Rubber Tramp Rendevous, a gathering of vandwellers in Quartzsite, Arizona, a vast RV encampment, where classes and meals bring people together. Guru for the gathering is Bob Wells, who had been booted out of an executive position by mergers in the supermarket industry. Bruder includes several pages on Bob’s advice on creating safety zones — primarily, places where vandwellers can park their “homes.” There was advice on camouflage and stealth parking. (I was partiularly taken with the thought of attaching an “Ask Me About Jesus” sticker as a decoy.)

Every person Bruder meets has a story to tell. In Linda’s case, living with her daughter with three children was not an alternative. There was no mother-in-law apartment on the family terrain, only a cot in the kitchen.

Bruder begins and ends her story with Linda May, who manage to bring her dream of buying desert property near the Mexican border in eastern Arizona and building there an Earthship, where she could invites other vandwellers to visit. I’ve spent some time in Douglas, the closest community to her five-acre desert site. It was the seat of an important smelter during the copper heyday in Arizona. I can vouch for the historic reporting Bruder does on that Phelps Dodge era. It encouraged me that the level of reporting for the entire book was first rate.

I look forward to the movie made from Nomadland which is due to be released in December. Directed by Chloe Zhao and starring Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, the movie won awards at the Venice and Toronto film festivals earlier this year.

Posted in Arizona, Book Reviews, edgy, history, news and journalism, Southwest and the desert | 7 Comments

A critique of “A Children’s Bible,” by Lydia Millet

Oh my goodness! This book is a doozy and it’s short.

So pay attention to the first few pages of Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible. In case you are in any doubt, this is a cunning expose of what happens to the Garden of Eden once God’s crowning achievement, Humankind, is put in charge.

Millet lays it all out in the first few words: “Once we lived in a summer country. In the woods there were treehouses, and on the lake there were boats.” By Page 3, we learn the hierarchy: man over beast, wild and domesticated. One of the pets gets makeup applied to its white face before being dressed up. The makeup is then replaced to one of the parent’s Fendi bags. Great fun seeing it later applied to the mother’s face.

So, yes. Right. It’s children over parents. Or ‘rents, as they are called. The kids are in charge. The parents are off the grid: they drink and smoke pot. They dance; they swap partners. Hey folks, these families are well-fixed professionals — academics, entrepreneurs, artists. They’d been friends in college. This was their summer reunion. They’ve rented a great estate. Let the teenagers manage themselves and watch over the four younger ones that require some caretaking.

Off we go on a “what will the world look like as it all winds down” dystopian adventure narrated by Evie, a 16-year-old and interpreted by her little brother Jack, who is making his way through the picture book edition of A Children’s Bible. It appears to be his first foray into the make-believe land of religion.

And then the rains come. And the flood. It requires a great escape, accompanied by animals, of course, thanks to Jack’s reading of Noah and the Ark. (Brace yourselves for Jack’s later interpretation of the Trinity.)

This is an interestingly plotted tale with little gems of surprises along the way, but it is not easy going. Evie has her moral compass and her eye on Jack’s safety forever engaged.

What is most exciting about Millet’s story-telling is the consistent voice of the narrator. Evie is alarmingly clear about the worthlessness of the adults, but her humorous observations about her own cohort as well as the parents keeps things rolling along. As the storm creates a lake surrounding the house, she contemplates three of the stoned fathers lying on their backs before the fireplace attempting to make smoke rings.

“They crossed their legs and expressed some thoughts about a workers’ paradise. It would have saved us, said one. If anything could, said another. Capitalism had been the nail in the coffin, said a third.”

How creative Lydia Millet is to make the Bible a framework for a treatise against greed and the plunder of the environment! No matter how short the book, A Children’s Bible is hard to read in 2020. During a pandemic. During a time of finger-pointing. I wasn’t surprised to read in Millet’s acknowledgements a thank-you to her reader, Jenny Offill. Offill is author of a completely different approach to the same subject, just as creative, just as cerebral, just as funny. Read A Children’s Bible and Weather as companion pieces. Both of them are brilliant.

Posted in Book Reviews, edgy, environmentalism, literary fiction | 3 Comments

A critique of “Ask the Dust,” by John Fante

Ask the Dust is set in Los Angeles. The hero of the story is Arturo Bandini, a young author who arrives from Colorado carrying a suitcase filled with his first published story, The Little Dog Laughed. The year is 1938. He has come, like many intrigued by the sun, poverty-striken but full of hope. His storytelling is filled with raw emotion, at once painful and humorous. In his dreams he would have been a great baseball player. Now he plans to write the great American novel.

Bandini is battle scarred by prejudiced against Italian Americans but thanks God that at least he is an “American.” He is alternately repulsed and fascinated by a Mexican waitress, Camilla Lopez, with whom he becomes involved. He refers to her as a Mayan princess, but calls her a “greaser” to her face, berating her for wearing huaraches.

His drunken, meat-addicted neighbor Hellfrick in the Bunker Hill hotel where Bandini lives, hits him up for loans of nickels, dimes and quarter, and leads him into a couple of escapades. A pathetic Jewess named Vera Rivken appears at his door one night — also drunk — lures him out on a toot and later to her room in Long Beach, and her Murphy bed with a view of the Pike and its rollercoaster. Rivken has a disfiguring wound, but Bandini gulps and calls her beautiful. As damaged goods, she provides him with the fodder for his first novel which he begins to type in a fury.

The news carry stories of war in Europe, a speech by Hitler, trouble in Poland. “What piffle!” Bandini says. “To hell with that Hitler. Here’s the news: my book! The story of Vera Rivken. A slice out of life.”

All of this is a bit surreal. Since we are into the mind of a 20-year-old and his unabated self-talk, we are privy to the seesaw of his self-agrandizement and self-loathing. He pictures himself winner of the Nobel Prize and interviewed by worshipful reporters. The next thing you know it, he is groveling before the Virgen Mary and asking the advice of cigar-smoking priest in bedroom slippers.

This is a comedy, folks. Sort of.

“Oh, beloved Mother Darling,” he writes to his mom back in Colorado,”I am making a novena these days and each afternoon at five I am to be found prostrate before the figure of Our Blessed Savior as I offer prayers for His sweet Mercy.” He enclosing five dollars from the sale of a story in the letter he sends her. We know that his father had no respect for him, beat him mercilessly when he was a teenager.

Bandini remembers how he was spurned back in Colorado by kids with names like Smith and Parker. His name, he laments, ends in a “soft vowel.” He ought to make amends for demeaning Camilla:”When I say Greaser to you it is not my heart that speaks, but the quivering of an old wound, and I’m ashamed of the terrible thing I have done.”

A friend recommended I read Ask the Dust because of its honesty but also as an understanding of the desert. Dust creeps into everywhere Bandini strays. “The world is dust and dust it would become,” he decries. “The desert was always there — a patient white animal waiting for men to die, for civilizations to flicker and pass into the darkness.”

Published in the same year as The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck and The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler, John Fante’s Ask the Dust (1939) did not get the attention it deserved in its own day. Through an unfortuate series of circumstances, it lacked the broad circulation of Steinbeck’s and Chandler’s work. Happily, it received a second life throught the efforts of two individuals.

Robert Towne, who wrote the screenplay for the movie Chinatown (1974), used the settings and mood created by Ask the Dust as inspiration for that movie. The book cast enought of a spell on Towne that he wrote and directed a movie adaptation of it starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek in 2006.

Writer Charles Bukowski, twenty years Fante’s junior, was instrumental in getting the book republished in 1979. He discovered it as a starving (and drinking) young writer who did all his reading at the Los Angeles Public Library. He has said it “made him feel like a man who found gold in the city dump.”

Along with The Time of Your Life, by William Saroyan, Ask the Dust, by John Fante continues to be included in college course readings on life in California during the Depression.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, edgy, history, literary fiction, religion and culture, Southwest and the desert | 4 Comments

Summer Escapes: General Crook Trail #130

A few weeks ago, when Lynn and I hiked to Potato Lake near the Mogollon Rim, we stopped for lunch at a pullout off FR 300. We found we were parked at an entry point to the 200-mile cavalry route created by General George Crook in the early 1870s to connect Fort Whipple, Fort Verde and Fort Apache. This post Civil War general is plentifully commemorated throughout this part of state for his campaigns against the Apaches. But Crook had held frontier posts from the Columbia River to the Rio Grande as a hero of the Indian Wars when Ullysses S. Grant put him in charge of the Arizona Territory.

The sign describing the trail intrigued us. We decided to come back and sample a piece of this historic thoroughfare, 1.2 miles up FR 300’s curving gravel road off AZ 87 west of Payson.

The Forest Service provides a good map of a complete 25-mile length of this Rim-hugging portion of the trail, having named it General Crook Trail #130. We consulted other sources and the comments of hikers who had entered at other points along the way before we decided to test our Rim hiking feet here on more familiar ground.

I’m glad we did.

The trail follows one of the most remarkable geologic features in Arizona. The Mogollon Rim is a 2,000 foot escarpment that forms the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. One is always astonished by its first distant sighting, driving toward Payson from Phoenix on AZ 87, as we did for this hike. The Rim is named for Don Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollón, a Spanish colonial governor of New Mexico in the 18th century. East to west, the Rim begins in New Mexico and runs diagonally across Arizona for 400 miles.

We left Phoenix at 6 a.m. and drove east through Scottsdale and Fountain Hills, taking the Beeline (AZ 87) to Payson. We later learned that the route north on I-17 would have been quicker. Repairs reduced traffic going north to one lane for 12 miles and once in Payson, we missed a sign that directed us to AZ 87/ 260 west to Cottonwood. Signage made no mention of Pine and Strawberry, the two town we would pass through getting to FR 300. Whatever the delays, we still arrived at the lefthand roadside clearing by 8:30 a.m. Additionally, we had the good fortune of meeting up with a couple camping nearby, who could tells us a bit about the history of the area. Now in their sixties, they had been coming to the area since their children were small.

“When you take the trail,” the man told us, “try to imagine 200 cavalry troops on horseback coming through on their way to the Battle of Big Dry Wash (July 17, 1882).”

A little research on Wikipedia gave us some background on that skirmish. It took place several miles further east of where we were standing, Now a historic park, the site commemorates a battle between members of White Mountain Apache tribe under the leadership of a warrior known as Na tio tish and members of the 3rd and 6th Cavalry Regiments directed by Captain Adna R Chafee.

According to firsthand accounts, a number of warriors had ambushed and killed four San Carlos policemen, including the police chief in early July. Settlers iin the area asked for U.S. cavalry help. The Apaches left the San Carlos area and had traveled northwest through the Tonto Basin. At a fork of East Clear Creek where it cut a gorge into the Mogollon Rim, the tribal members, who numbered 60 warriors, met up with 350 cavalry soldiers. Though the battle is known as “Big Dry Creek,” the medals recognizing the troops who subdued the Apaches refer to the location as Big Dry Fork.

Trail markers look like this.

We saved exploration of that area for another day and decided to head west rather than east on our hike, following the trail in the direction from which we had driven. It was nearly all downhill. As our friend at the campsite had alerted us, the trail would cross FR 300 several times and the trail markers were not alway easy to follow. As is usually the case, the going is easier than the returning, even when you are retracing your steps.

The trail itself was perhaps the most cushioned and beautiful of any we have followed in our 2020 summer escapes from Phoenix’s heat. Rarely rocky, sufficiently wide and covered in pine needles, it put us deep in the woods. It was a warm day and we were glad to be undercover.We were occasionally aware of RVs passing on the Rim Road nearby.

At one point we had to circled left to bypass an open field and a small herd of cattle. Once past, we return to the marked trail until it eventually disappeared. We had hiked a little more than two miles by the time we turned around. Once we got back to the car, we decided to proceed a little father east in order to get our six miles in. Strangely, we came upon a cow in that direction, too. It stood like a kind of mirage in an open clearing. By then the tree markings had begun disappearing and we were ready for lunch.

We plan to go back and hike other trails that follow the Rim Road, knowing that the beauty views lie further east. We will return again to this region knowing that many miles of dusty gravel roads are the price you have to pay in order to find the serenity of the woods and the postcard vistas of the Rim.

Getting to the trail: From Phoenix, 1-17 take AZ 260 east at Camp Verde until it intersects with AZ 87. Turn left to milepost 181. Turn right into FR 300, the Rim Road. At 1.2 miles, pull off and park at a clearing on the left.

Elevation: 7,200 -7,500 feet.

Getting home: For your return trip, take an alternate route back to Phoenix, the less travelled section of AZ 87 through Strawberry and Pine to Payson and then south to Fountain Hills.

Posted in Arizona, Hiking, history, Road trip, Southwest and the desert, travel | 2 Comments

A critique of “Simon the Fiddler,” by Paulette Jiles

Southwest novelist Paulette Jiles, the award-winning author of News of the World, has returned to a period and place she knows well: east Texas in the first few years following the Civil War. It is a time of great transition: a “great otherwordly hand had swept across the South”; and her unlikely hero’s sense of purpose and persistence contrast boldly with the chaos of the times.

At age 24, and looking much younger, Simon Boudlin is ready to settle down — to find a piece of property away from the hustle of towns and a wife with as great an appreciation of music as he has. Music is what keeps this story going and Simon making a living. As Jiles writes: to Simon, “every song had a secret inside. . . He didn’t play music so much as walk into it.” He liked his quiet and his solitude. He liked — he sought — order.

Boudlin is a slight, redheaded musician, born in Paducah, Kentucky, who has managed to stay ahead of Confederate conscription making music from town to town, from saloon to bawdy house, until March of 1865. Careful at keeping his head, protective of his violin (and his fur hat), Simon knows his way around drunks and brawlers. But in the town of Victoria, near the Gulf of Mexico, he gets caught up in a fight with a drunk who insists on playing Simon’s fiddle. It’s a very fine fiddle, a Markneukirche. Simon breaks a chair over the miscreant’s head and the conscriptors get him.

Finding and woeing the woman he would wed and the property he would buy propel the main strand of this story. Doris Dillon is an Irish immigrant indentured to General Webb of the 62nd U.S. Colored Troops. She is governess to his 14-year-old daughter and works hard at staying free of her master’s straying hand. Simon sees her at a concert he and a ragtag band of military musicians perform at the Confederate surrender following the Battle of Los Palmitos at Brazos de Santiago.

The property he would buy is held by a senile landowner whose daughter’s wedding is to take place in a lawless territory called Banquete. Simon feels the same way about the property that he does about his bride. “This was a meant thing.”

Though Jiles’ story-telling style is filled with the energy of Simon’s adventures, the richness of the novel lies in the authenticity of its musical and physical landscape. It is a world filled with palmettos, sabal palms, seagrape and buckthorn, with Irish and Scottish ballads, jigs and laments that take the reader to another time and place. We are planted like live oaks and tuned to the strains of “Little Liza Jane” and “Lorena.”

Each of Simon’s little band of musicians has a story to tell: Damon a quoter of Edgar Allan Poe, on the Irish tin whistle, Patrick, a 13-year-old drummer boy, on a bodhran, Doroteo, a superlative cook from Colonel Benavides Tejano regiment, on the guitar. We develop feelings for them all.

I was struck with the surprising, if not unorthodox, timing of details about Simon’s and the other characters’ pasts. These appear unexpectedly, like little puncture holes in the story’s forward motion. I felt the same way about Jiles’ occasional departure from scenes centered on Simon to those of Doris. On the other hand, I don’t know how else she could have built the case on how dreadful the girl’s employment was. And I found the climax — is Simon headed for disaster or success — a little too pat.

No matter. All in all, it’s a satisfying read. And how delightful it is to meet up once again with Captain Kidd as he embarks on his mission to bring Texas townfolk “news of the world!”

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, history, Southwest and the desert | 3 Comments

Summer Escapes: A Walk in the Woods

Sometimes you are not in the mood for a full-fledged hike. What you most want is a walk — a pleasant unhurried amble that promises discoveries along the way. That’s just how Lynn and I felt recently when we took the 1.6 mile Lamar Haines loop near Flagstaff.

The trail begins behind this sign.

Of course, we are never happy to follow directions exactly as recommended. We managed to turn it into 2.4 miles, and later added three-plus miles out and back on Arizona Trail’s Passage 34 at Aspen Corner.

Fork left at the Lamar Haines plaque to visit historic remains.

Listed in most guidebooks and hiking blogs as Veit Springs this 160-acres Memorial Wildlife Preserve is beautiful year rounds. We visited it in August but I have seen pictures of what the area looks like in fall, when the aspen are quaking with golden leaves and barren in winter surrounded by snowfall.

The trail itself is well marked, taking walkers through shaded forests of old growth connifers, aspen and wet meadows. Elk and mule deer are plentiful in the early mornings here, and squirrels and birds active midday. The avid birder may even spy the Mexican spotted owl and the northern goshawk on a walk through this preserve.

Consult the map at the entrance to the park; you will find the trail forms a big loop. You will enjoy it most taking the loop counter clockwise, going right at every fork until arriving at the Lamar Haines memorial plaque, at which point a left turn will get you to the other sights of interest.

The area was purchased by Ludwig Veit in 1892 through the Homestead Act. He used it as a place to keep sheep. It is likely that Veit was responsible for the two stone structures that still stand on the property: one built into the basalt rock face, the other a spring house, whose hatch reveals the spring water below.

The remains of the one-room Veit cabin is nearby. His name is carved into a large boulder near by. We did not walk along the basalt escarpment in search of the pictographs left by native peoples who had taken advantage of the ponds and warm springs of the area centuries ago.

Randolph and Julia Jenks, owners of Deerwater Ranch, bought the property in 1928. A clearing is all that remains of the Jenks’ cabin. In 1948, they sold the land to the Arizona Game and Fish Department for one dollar, whereupon it was turned it into a preserve to provide water and habitat for wildlife on Agassiz Peak. It is sustained by private donations and was named for Lamar Haines, a popular Flagstaff teacher and conservationist, who died in 1986.

We encountered a number of visitors along the route, both going and coming. When we arrived at the makeshift parking area at 8:30 a.m. we found three cars ahead of us. When we left an hour and a half later, there were twice as many, some of which were parked on either side of the road to Snowbowl. We never felt rushed or crowded. No one disturbed the quiet of this lovely place.

Getting There: From Phoenix, take I-17 north to US180 west, 7.5 miles. At milepost 223 turn right onto Snowbowl Road and drive 4.2 miles to the Lamar Haines Memorial Wildlife Area trailhead on the right. Parking is limited.

Elevation: 8,600 ft.

Site administered by: Arizona Game & Fish Department http://www.azgfd.gov/outdoor_recreation/wildlife_area_lamar_haines.shtml

Posted in Arizona, environmentalism, Flagstaff, Hiking, travel, walking around | 2 Comments

American Exceptionalism and WMDs

I was 4 1/2 years old on August 6, 1945, the day the United States dropped an Atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. It was my sister’s second birthday.

We lived in Portland Oregon. I don’t remember how we celebrated that birthday or even if my father was there. He was probably in Hawaii where the U.S. Army had assigned him to guard Japanese prisoners of war. When he came home, he told me stories of how he tried to communicate with those young men. They taught him the word for “hello” in Japanese. It sounded something like “oh-hi-oh,” with “hi” a note or two lower than the other two syllables.

I know he missed one of our early Christmases. He sent hula skirts made of straw for my sister and me and a green scarf for my mother. She cried when she opened the package.

Up until today, August 6 has always and only been my sister’s birthday. She lives in Oakland. I live in Phoenix. I sent her a birthday card.

This year, though, the date has turned me to other thoughts. I keep returning to the idea of American exceptionalism. Unfortunately, one of the things that makes the United States unique is that 75 years ago my country detonated the first and only weapons of mass destruction on a foreign people: in Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945 and in Nagasaki, August 9?

We leveled two cities and caused the death of an estimated 200,000 civilians. We were told unleashing the bombs was in our national interest.

This also reminds me of Joyce, a playmate I had when I was eight or 10. We lived in a new house on Omaha Street, not the apartment where we lived when Daddy returned from Hawaii. I entered the second grade from that house, one he had built with our grandfather Emil, a ship’s caulker.

Joyce was the granddaughter of the elderly Japanese couple who lived in the corner house on our street. They had the oldest house on the block. It was white, with a big porch, a gigantic walnut tree in the yard and a garden where they grew vegetables. Large shrubs circled the house. I can remember crouching behind one of them, leaning against the house and giggling with Joyce during a game of hide-and-seek.

Where is Joyce now? What were her memories of that time? Had she and her parents, like her grandparents, spent time in an internment camp? My dad told me that Joyce’s grandparents used to be the owners of the grocery store near our house. When the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor, they had had to let the store go, but neighbors kept up their house for them until they returned. Now Mary and Jerry, a Greek couple, owned the store.

I asked my father about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“A Truman decision,” he said. I don’t know if he spoke in anger, sadness or patriotic shame. Maybe he was just glad, he didn’t have to make the call.

For whatever the reason, we were Republicans. We liked Ike.

Over the years, stories have slithered out about events leading up to those detonations 75 years ago. It had been a secretive, scientific experiment: a military breakthrough. Later information released from our National Archives clouded what had been a story of strategic brilliance. A United States Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946 concluded: “Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped; even if Russia had not entered the war [against Japan] and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” (as quoted by John Pilger, Consortium News, Volume 26, Number 219 – Thursday, August 6, 2020).

The Archives also contain records of peace overtures made by the Japanese as early as 1943. Yet they contain no records of discussions of such options. They revealed that Nagasaki, a last minute decision, had not even been on the list of top three targets.

The decision to drop the A bombs was justified — this was the story told to the American people — in order to save lives and end the war.

Wilfred Burchett’s eye-witness account

General MacArthur had prohibited the press from visiting either Hiroshima or Nagasaki immediately following the events. In two cases, reporters did submit eye-witness dispatches a month later. One was by Wilfred Burchett whose story of Sept. 5, was printed in London Daily Express. An Australian, Burchett had travelled 30 hours by night train from Tokyo to Hiroshima to observe the after effects of the bombing.

This is what he wrote:

“In Hiroshima, 30 days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly – people who were uninjured by the cataclysm – from an unknown something which I can only describe as atomic plague. Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller had passed over it and squashed it out of existence.”

Military censors killed a 25,000 word story about the bombing of Nagasaki submitted by Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent George Weller of the Chicago Daily News. It corroborated Burchett’s observations that radioactive damage to the human population was widespread and deadly. Weller’s son Anthony found carbon copies of his father’s dispatches and they were published in full to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the bombing in 2006.

William L. Lawrence, lead science writer for the New York Times, produced a series of ten articles about the testing and execution of the bombing, dismissing Burchett’s account as Japanese propaganda. Lawrence received the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting. He never visited either site, but he was part of a group of 30 observers of detonations in New Mexico on July 16. According to Amy Goodman and David Goodman (published in Common Dreams, August 10, 2004), Lawrence had been crusading for an American nuclear program in articles as far back as 1929. He flew in the squadron of planes that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

Lawrence was serving two masters. He had been on the goverment payroll since March, 1945, while working for the Times, producing press releases for the Manhattan Project, under the direction of Major General Leslie Grove. He also wrote statements delivered by President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson.

The media was buttoned up by the military. Its purpose was to provide public relations backup for anything provided by the government.

I am waiting to see how the media covers the anniversary this year. The PBS News Hour has already announced a package of stories over the next few days, having started off Wednesday, Aug. 5 with an interview with former Secretary of Defense William Perry, co-author of “The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump.” Tonight’s episode illustrated how a younger generation of students in Hiroshima are taken through a program that simulates what their ancestors experienced being bombed. (Perhaps this is a lesson that would be better learned by a future generation of the country that dropped the bomb.)

The New Yorker‘s digital “Sunday Archive” this week contains a package of stories published over the years. It leads off with the then 32-year-old John Hersey’s August 31, 1946 magazine length story, “Hiroshima,” that focused on six survivors, and includes the follow up published July, 15, 1985.

In recent decades, countries the world over have been challenged to confront their moral breaches. I think specifically of Nunca Mas (Never Again): A Report by Argentina’s National Commission on Disappeared People. The United States itself has recently been brought face to face with a history of institutional racism.

I may just be an unreconstructed peacenik, but perhaps it’s time we take responsibility for what we started. Hiroshima for Global Peace reports that there are more than 13,000 nuclear weapons on the planet today. Disarmament has not happened. Let us hang our heads.

Maybe it is time to read President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation, delivered in a television broadcast, January 17, 1961. In it, he says: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Read the whole speech. It’s available on Wikipedia. It provides a roadmap to American “exceptionalism.”


Posted in Atomic Bomb, Commentary, Hiroshima, news and journalism, World War II | 7 Comments

Hiking Escapes: Walnut Canyon

How do you like to end a hike? I prefer to end it worn out, grubby and with a sense of accomplishment — nothing that a shower and snooze can’t sooth. Certanly not the way I ended our last hike: confused, cranky and unfulfilled.

More about that later.

For now, those who have been reading this blog will recall that my hiking partner Lynn and I have been driving from Phoenix to higher altitudes once a week in order to beat the heat and avoid the crowds. A week ago Wednesday (07/29/2020) we did part of the 17.9 mile portion of the Arizona Trail (AZT), an 800-plus mile trail that begins at Arizona’s border with Mexico and ends at the state’s border with Utah. We did a portion of AZT’s Passage 31, starting at Marshall Lake on Anderson Mesa. (https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2020/07/27/hiking-escapes-marshall-lake-to-fisher-point/).

The main entry point to AZT at 3.5 miles from Country Club Drive

This time we decided to start from a different point of Passage 31, walking south back in the direction of the previous week’s hike in order to get the rim views that we had missed. In neither case would we be hiking all the way to Fisher Point, the ultimate destination of each of the two hikes. Both were longer than we had been willing to venture.

Arizona is a state of many canyons, the most well-known, of course, being the Grand Canyon. We would be hiking a trail with overlooks to Walnut Canyon, declared a U. S. National Monument in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson. Named for the presence of Arizona black walnut trees, the canyon is of historic significance due to the presence of 25 cliff dwellings left by the Sinagua, pre-Columbian native people that lived here from 1100 to 1250. Sinagua is Spanish for “without water,” referring to the lengths the cliff-dweller needed to trek in order to get water.

The elevation of the canyon at the rim is 6,690 ft; the canyon floor is 350 ft. lower. Because of Covid-19, the Walnut Canyon Visitor Center building and walkway to view cliff dwellings (a one-mile long Island Trail with 240 concrete steps) were closed when we made our hike. However, a rim trail and restrooms at the Center were open.

It is illegal to enter the canyon.

You can get good descriptions of Walnut Canyon rim beauties — which we missed — in Arizona Highway’s “Walnut Canyon Trail,” by Robert Stieves and Mare Czinar’s “Walnut Canyon Rim,” (https://arizonahiking.blogspot.com/).

Where did last week’s adventure go wrong?

Right from the start. We did end up walking a few feet short of six miles. Unfortunately, a lot of it was backtracking along the Campbell Mesa Loop, trying to figure out why one of our sources instructed us to take it, instead of going towards Fisher Point at its juncture off the main entry point of AZT.

What we saw of the trail we liked: groves of fragrant Ponderosa pines, wildflower strewn meadows and an easy-to-follow path that becomes rocky as it descends into a canyon adjacent to Walnut Canyon. We had out mid-hike snack about one-quarter of a mile into this canyon. It was beautiful, but the path is narrow and includes some steep negotiating between foot steps. Don’t do it if you have balance issues and if sidling past dropoffs is unnerving. (Hiking with poles might be the answer.)

Notes to self: Consult more than one source before entering unfamiliar territory. Take your capabilities seriously and the recommendations of strangers you meet on the road with a grain of salt.

Follow the trail to Fisher Point

Looking for a hike that would provide views of Walnut Canyon by entering by way of Old Walnut Canyon Road takes you into a network of trails adjacent to a number of neighboring communities. Once you get to the signage to Fisher Point, you leave kids on mountain bikes and strolling couples behind. It’s all to the good. Unfortunately, it took us more than two miles to get on the right road.

And it was HOT.

Getting to the trail: From Phoenix, 1-17 take Interstate 40 E for 5.5 miles to Country Club Drive (Exit 201). Turn right onto Country Club Drive and continue 0.8 miles to Old Walnut Canyon Road (Forest Road 303) for a total of 3.5 miles where a well-marked parking area on the rights open you to the Arizona Trail’s initially broad, flat path. Forest Road 303 is a rough, unimproved, wide road that can be shorten to avoid a patch that requires high clearance.

If you are driving a vehicle without high clearance, stop at about 2.8 miles, find some shade and pull over. There is an unmarked path on the right — part of the Campbell Mesa loop which continues across the road to the left — that will cross the AZT in 0.5 miles. Turn right at the intersection of the two paths and follow the directionals to Fisher Point.

Getting to the Visitor Center: Take exit 340A to merge onto I-40 E toward Albuquerque. Take exit 204 toward Walnut Canyon National Monument, Forest Road 622 for 3.3 miles to the Center.

Vanilla or butterscotch? Whatever you do, don’t forget to smell the bark of an old Ponderosa pine


Posted in Arizona, Flagstaff, fun stuff, Hiking, Road trip, Southwest and the desert, travel | 6 Comments

A critique of “How Much of These Hills is Gold,” by C Pam Zhang

The first question for any reader of this inventive first novel by C Pam Zhang is whether or not it is a “western”? The setting and time frame for How Much of These Hills is Gold certainly fit. The protagonist doesn’t.

Chapter One “Gold” takes us to a dim shack in which two young siblings, Lucy, 12, and Sam, 11, contemplate the dead body of their father. Ba is wrapped in a sheet, the only clean thing in an interior caked with coal dust. We’re in the California hills a decade after the gold rush. These kids are the children of a Chinese gold prospector turned coal miner who died penniless. They need to find two silver dollars to place over his eyes and a place to bury him.

Ma is gone, presumed dead, burial place unknown. Where to find a place to bury Ba and how to get the coins is the opening quest of this adventure story for Lucy, the protagonist, and Sam, her enigmatic sibling. They need a horse. They need provisions. And they need to vamoose.

They have a gun.

I fell in love with this novel from page one. For starters, the writing captivated me. Every sentence was pure “gold.” Zhang’s phrasing is straightforward, her verbs active and electric, her metaphors visually striking and understandable.

As they search for a burial ground, the difference between the children’s natures becomes apparent.

” ‘You left,’ Sam spits out between a string of cusses, and Lucy understands. She broke the unspoken contract of their lives. Lucy speaks, gently, as she would to a spooked horse. Of salt and pork, venison and squirrel, while Sam refuses. Yells louder.”

Additionally, although the story takes us deep within how the West came to be — the search for riches, the grab for land, the building of the railroad — it is told from the perspective of an underdog. We watch as Chinese cross the sea to seek their fortunes only to collide with eastcoasters who have move west with the same idea.

With the father, a victim of gambling and alcohol, the mother, an ambitious, beautiful absentee, Lucy and Sam are left to their own devices. They must establish a foothold in the only territory they recognize as home. There are plenty of roadblocks that stand in their way: a schoolteacher, a mountain man, a spoiled teenager, the town of Sweetwater with its false allure.

How Much of These Hills is Gold is not a perfectly told tale. Zhang doesn’t successfully bridge a gap of five years that separates the first and third parts. But she sprinkles surprises throughout her story, starting early with the ambiguity of Sam’s sexual identity.

Zhang has set the story in the past and in the future: the four parts of the book are entitled XX62, XX59, XX42/XX62 and XX67. I would guess the XXs standing for 20s, as in 2062, etc. Each chapter carries an elemental title: Gold, Plum, Salt, Skull, Wind, Mud, Meat, Water, Blood. Always in a different order; always making sense in how the titles capture the story’s forward momentum. Zhang seems to be reaching for something timeless — issues that goes beyond yesterday and today. They reach into tomorrow.

Part Two XX59, told in the first person as a letter to Lucy from her now deceased father, explains the false and tragic circumstances that brought her parents to marry. Without this section, the siblings search for home and identity would have been much thinner. The book is among 20 candidates on the long list for The Booker Prize.

Can we classify How Much of These Hills is Gold as a novel in the tradition of the Western? Though that genre has changed over the last 150 years, one thing has always stayed constant. From the dime novels of the early twentieth century through Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) to The Searchers, by Alan Le May (1954), The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey (1968) and No Country for Old Men, by Cormack McCarthy (2005), the hero has always been a man setting out to right a wrong. A mysterious loner.

How Much of These Hills is Gold breaks with this tradition in that the protagonist is a woman, an alien trying to establish home and kinship in an unreceptive world. But like all true western heroes, Lucy is an outsider who is looking for home and family. But she (and Sam) will be outsiders wherever they go, whether in the West of the nineteenth century or in the China of their foreparents.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, literary fiction, race and class, religion and culture | Leave a comment

Hiking Escapes: Marshall Lake to Fisher Point

Full disclosure. We didn’t make it to Fisher Point. We didn’t find the ridgeline of Walnut Canyon where both a Forest Service description and Robert Stieve’s Hiking Guide promised spectacular views of the San Francisco Peaks and red rocks as beautiful as you’d see in Sedona. What we did find was a gorgeous section of the Arizona Trail that took us through a breezy forest of Ponderosa Pines and ended up giving us 9.8 miles of hiking.

It was worth every minute.

These weekly excursions my hiking companion Lynn and I are making from Phoenix to the higher elevations of Prescott, Flagstaff and the Mogollan Rim are all about finding things out for ourselves. Where are the best places to enjoy the out-of-doors and get out of the heat? Where can we experience places where “silence roars?”

“What am I hearing?” I asked Lynn, stopping and cocking an ear. We had made our way beyond an RV camping area, near the lake and passed through the entry gate to Passage 31 of the Arizona Trail (AZT). A field sprinkled with aged Ponderosa Pines entered us into a forest of fragrance and more of these towering trees. Their bark looked like butterscotch drizzled with hot chocolate.

“It’s the wind,” she said. “Have you noticed? No birdcalls even.”

Did we see other hikers? Yes, a mile into our walk a briskly paced walker, balanced by a leashed dog on one side, a pole on the other, came toward us. About mile four, counting from the car we had parked near Marshall, we came upon two others. They had stopped to take a telephone call.

We took the opportunity to ask them about the fabled viewpoints the hike offered. Not on the stretch we were walking, apparently. Before turning back, we continued on for another half-mile in order to give them a head start. They were doing a point to point, having parked one car at the Sandys Canyon parking lot, the other at the lake.

“I don’t think the mileage posted for this stretch is accurate,” the woman said.

Why do this hike? For one thing, the condition of the trail, the ease of its walking. There is a shaded parking circle at the AZT start, where we ate our lunch on the return. The first quarter-mile is gravelled, turning into a narrow, somewhat rocky trench and quickly broadening to a comfortable dirt trail. Although there are a few rock-strewn sections as the trail eventually turns into a series of up and down curved switchbacks, it was easy dust-free transport for our feet.

Additionally, the setting is fascinating. The forest is filled with snags, windfall branches and dead trees, providing all kinds of interesting shapes at eye level. We crossed two forest service access roads on our way toward Fisher Point and understand there was still another before arriving at Sandys Canyon. Dying trees on our route were clearly marked for cutting.

We were lucky to make our return under cloud cover. No serious monsoon rainfall had yet cooled the area when we made this hike mid-July. And there were a number of open stretches that might have been unpleasant before arriving back at the car. We kept our eyes open at the gathering clouds.

“I wonder how many animals have seen us during this hike?” Lynn asked. “Because they sure have been good at keeping us from seeing them.” She did spy a horny toad. And less than two miles from our return, a bird of prey swooped overhead. I guessed a vulture.

Once back in Phoenix, I did some more research on the area. I looked at Mare Czinar’s post on Walnut Canyon Rim (https://arizonahiking.blogspot.com). If we really want to catch those famous viewpoints, it might be worth our while to start from the other end, either at Sandys Canyon parking or entering via Country Club Rd. There would be more serious descending and climbing.

We accessed the trail via Lake Mary Rd. (I-17, exit 339 east), turning left at FR 128 (9.2 miles) and followed well-signed directions. Altitude at Marshall Lake, 7134; at Sandys Canyon, 6,608.

By the way, Marshall Lake is really a marsh, as is the case with most of these Anderson Mesa “lakes” mid summer. They’re for the birds.

Posted in Arizona, Flagstaff, Hiking, Southwest and the desert, travel, walking around | 5 Comments

A critique of “The Book of the Unknown Americans,” by Cristina Henríquez

In The Book of the Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez intertwines two stories, both of which are filled with warmth, humor and the idiomatic idiosyncracies of Latin American culture.

The first, and easiest to grab ahold of, follows the love between two teenagers misfits. Maribel Rivera is a beautiful, but brain-damaged Mexican girl; Mayor Toro is the “lesser” son in a Panamanian family where Papá rules. Their story is told by Mayor and Alma, Maribel’s mother.

The second story, equally as interesting to me — having lived in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Perú — follows a number of secondary characters who identities are revealed in brief first-person chapters. They come from different countries: Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guatemala, all of them with different personal histories on how they came to inhabit the same apartment building in Wilmington, Delaware. In it, they create their own little Latin America.

Henriquez spools out the drama of Maribel’s and Mayor’s growing attachment to each other. Their drama involves a bad boy on a skateboard, a stolen car and the discovery of snow. In the process, Mayor heals Maribel and grows a pair of cojones. Their story also reveals how desperate parents can be when in comes to protecting their children and blaming themselves for things that go wrong.

Every story requires a villain or two and this one is no exception: Garrett (the skateboarder), his drunken dad, and Quisqueya Solís, a Venezuelan whose own secret backstory turns her into a distrustful snitch.

Micho Álvarez, a Mexican-born photographer who works for an immigration reform nonprofit has this to say about the status occupied by Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States:

“I swear to God, I’m so tired of being called a spic, a nethead, a cholo, all that stuff. . . We‘re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told to be scared of us.”

As another character points out: They are both conspicuous and anonymous.

I’m a fan of this book because of its simple writing style, well crafted structure and the cultural and historical distinctions it makes between different Latin American countries. Henríquez, whose father was born in Panama, did her homework.

It is unlikely that all of the characters would have found themselves in the same building, which sounds more like a rundown Motel 6 than an apartment building, but here I suspended disbelief. I loved following a story that does not sugarcoat a happy ending or give an easy answer to what is “home.”

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, good thoughts, Hispanidad, race and class, religion and culture | Leave a comment

Hiking Escape: The Arizona Trail, Passage #34

My hiking partner Lynn and I had seen signs for the Arizona Trail on two other recent hikes this summer, both on Anderson Mesa southeast of Flagstaff. Several years ago, Lynn had actually hiked part of Passage #34 of the AZT the year that segment was completed. It’s on the flank of Snowbowl, a popular area, where her kids learned to ski. She suggested a return visit. And so, we were off.

Hiking Passage #34 on the western flank of Mt. Humphreys (12,633 feet elevation) may be a case of eating your dessert first.

Can there be any more glorious section of the AZT? Our hike whetted my appetite for picking off more portions of this wonderful 800-mile trail which stretches from Arizona’s border with Mexico to the Utah state line.

I can’t imagine a hike much better: for foliage, vistas, and trail conditions. A mostly flat trail, it is suitable for mountain biking, runners and hikers. It skirts Hart Prairie, passes through woodland pine forests filled with wildflowers, and groves of aspens that quake (yes, quake) in the wind.

We did an out and back, only covering three miles of the Trail having started at Aspen Corner (6.6 miles total). We saved the longer out and back to Bismarck Lake for another day.

As Lao Tzu said: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

We left Phoenix at 6 am. Though I now prefer a road atlas and area maps to using GPS, the latter got us to the trailhead. We took I-17 to Flagstaff, turned northwest on U.S Route 180 for 7 miles to Snowbowl Road (FR 516). At 5.1 miles, we stopped at Aspen Corner, a small parking area on the left, alongside a split rail fence.

At 8:15 am, there were only two other cars: a group of three mountain bikers. Other than this party, we only crossed paths with two other hikers, and two cyclists — all very polite. We felt as if we had the trail to ourselves.

The start of the hike is a little confusing. It you bear right on the trail at 2/10 of a mile, then go left downhill you’ll walk for a short rocky piece. Soon you will come to a crossing of the Arizona Trail (AZT). Go right and you are on your way. If you go straight you’ll be wrong.

We saw no cows on our way down to Alfa Fia tank

Lynn tells a story about an exchange her daughter Jill had with Robert Stieves, the editor of Arizona Highways, when she and Jill hiked this trail several years ago.

“Should we be seeing cows?” Jill texted Stieves. “No cows,” he answered.

On our way back to the car, Lynn and I found where we think they initially went wrong: a lovely meadow leading down to a volcanic basin. There were indications of a cow pasture here — the remains of a barbed wire fence now torn down. Coming back, we did head down to take a closer look at Alfa Fia tank and met up with a gang of mountain bikers and their several large, exuberant dogs.

Mt. Kendrick front and center
“I’d like to lie down and live here,” I told Lynn.

There are visual treats at every stretch of this portion of AZT, most particularly across Hart Prairie with its vistas of Mt. Kendrick and distantly, Mt. Bill.

A mountain biker treated us to a description of the sights across of Hart Prairie, including the location of the Nature Conservatory in an old cabin on Hart Prairie Rd. (FR 151). His daughter had dropped him off at FR 418. He was planning to continue southeast to Schultz Pass Tank and then via city roads and mountain bike paths to his home on the other side of the Lowell Observatory, a 30-mile ride he had done many times.

We were lucky with the weather. It was warm, but not too warm, except in the sunlighted spots on our return. With visions of Arizona Trail adventures in our future, we were unprepared for a traffic slowdown at Exit 306 of I-17 going south and being forces to return north 30 miles to pick up 89A to Sedona — we and everyone else, that is. It was slow going through Oak Creek Canyon, but it is probably the most beautiful stretch in all of red rock country.

This is the tradeoff you can expect during the summer months if you plan to drive miles to a get to a cool start, particularly when the monsoon rains are late and the fall rains have been heavy. We left Flagstaff at 1:30 pm. We arrived in Phoenix at 6:35. Traffic on I-17 didn’t resume until after 8 pm.

We’d do it all again.

Posted in Arizona, Commentary, Hiking, travel | 4 Comments

A critique of “Blue Desert,” by Charles Bowden

Charles Bowden, who died at 69 in 2014, wrote dozens of books, hundreds of magazine articles, and left eight manuscripts scheduled to be published over the next few years. Why has this titan of nonfiction been so overlooked by the writing establishment in the United States? Is it because his work has been difficult to characterize? Even Bowden admitted that bookstores never seemed to know where to put his books. Here in Phoenix, the Burton Barr central library consigns most of his books to the Arizona Room where they are not available for check out.

I was introduced to Bowden in a curious way. Cal Lash, a retired Phoenix police officer who had read my blog, emailed me about a book he was reading: America’s Most Alarming WriterEssays on the Life and Work of Charles Bowden. He described it as being about his friend “Chuck.”

The book he was reading is filled with essays by Bowden’s collaborators, sources, and other writers — among them Jim Harrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Luis Alberto Urrea. All spoke of Bowden’s unique window into the problems besetting the Southwest.

Lash knew I was on a mission to put together a reading list about the Southwest and Arizona. He offered to help, suggested that I start with Killing the Hidden Waters (1977) Bowden’s first book. A slim volume, it predates by nine years Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, which is widely considered the bible on water woes in the West.

Bowden’s approach in Killing the Hidden Waters is different than Reisner’s. (See https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2020/05/30/) He writes as an historical anthropologist, with copious references, notes and a bleak humor that belies the seriousness of the region’s disappearing water table. Bowden makes an irrefutable case for living in balance with our depleting natural resources, the most important of which is water. Where goes the groundwater, he argues, there goes the planet.

I was hooked by Bowden’s simplicity, honesty and charm; I began to think of water as “fossil fuel.” When it’s gone, we’re gone.

It made some sense for me then — a would-be historian myself — to proceed to Bowden’s second book about the West, Blue Desert (1986). In the interim between the publication of the two books, he had worked as a reporter for the now defunct Tucson Citizen, a daily newspaper. Some of the material that appears in Blue Desert, appeared in the Citizen in another form.

The copy of Blue Desert I read (2018) appears with a foreward by Francisco Cantú, whose border patrol memoir, The Line Becomes a River, was the winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award in 2018 and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award that same year.

In his introduction Cantú contrasts the way the book had appeared to him the first time he read it as a young man in his 20s to his second reading now. Certain references, such as calling the region the Sunbelt — an 1980s marketing lure of residential developers — and those we now call “illegals” as wetbacks, are now outdated. Also jarring is the occasional all-boys’ club winking by Bowden when he goes beyond simply recording women’s breasts as “spilling out of halter tops” to savoring bodies that “squirm with pleasure against the cloth.” The women in his accounts are mostly matriarchs with wills of iron, abused children or sex objects. But Blue Desert is also filled with Bowden’s self-condemnation of secret hungers. He recognizes his animal appreciation of all the senses and his own accountability in equal measures.

Organizationally, Bowden structured Blue Desert to hit all the issues facing Arizona in the 1980s — and today — down to eleven essays. Not a small feat, given the hundreds of people and stories he reported over the years he worked for the Citizen. Additionally, he couples the entries with italicized anecdotes that give readers a spooky foretaste of books that would follow. Books such as Juárez: the Laboratory of Our Future (1998); and Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family (2002).

Blue Desert is divided into three parts: Beasts, Players, and Deserts. Bowden is at his most viceral in his descriptions in Part I. In “Bats,” he writes:

“My mouth chews the darkness like a thick paste. We stand in feces, hills of feces, and the grey powder slops over our running shoes and buries our ankles. . .The rock walls feel like cloth to the touch; a wilderness of fungus thrives in the warm room. We climb. The hills of feces roll like trackless dunes. .The dunes toss like waves and in between the dark mounds writhe masses of beetle larvae.”

We are stuck in a cave near two eastern Arizona mining towns, Clifton and Morenci with Bowden and Ronnie Sidner, a scientist with a special love and knowledge of bats. Here, as elsewhere, Bowden first focuses tight, then more broadly to story of bats and man, starting with the heyday of bat guano marketing in the early 1900s through the devastation caused by their swarming in the 1960s — 98 pounds of insects in a single night — to their own depletion through the application of DDT.

He spends time with E. Lendell Cockrum, a professor in the University of Arizona’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, to learn that of the 850 species of bats in the world, 24 of them live in Arizona. He/we learn that bats can fly as high as 9200 feet and at eighty miles an hour. Cockrum banded and tracked the movements of more than 88,000 bats from Arizona to Sonora to Sinaloa and back. He learned why they were dying off by examining their dead and tracking the sale of DDT in Arizona. Just like humans, the bats are mammals. They suckle their young and the chemicals are passed on through their milk.

The first section includes equally informative essays entitled Antelope, Tortoise, and Fish. Each adds a piece of the region’s history and its current prospects.

In Part II, Players, we spend time with a man named Frank Escalante in search of the burying place of a sibling who died as an infant. Escalante’s story of his family’s land-holding in Tucson and its “nibbling” loss provides a sobering look at the story behind that urban center’s hispanic forebears.

We travels with Mike Rios to visit the Agua Caliente of Palm Springs tribe to see if they could tell him any success stories from the deal they made with a developer. Everywhere he encounters abuse, exploitation and human cruelty that reveal the darker side of development in contrast to the myths of the Winning of the West. Rios is a Papago. He is convinced, as Bowden tells it, that the “Bureau of Indian Affairs in particular and whites in general have crushed Indian families with their care and meddling.”

Bowden communes with Dave Foreman of Earth First! at the twentieth anniversary of the death of Glen Canyon. And amidst the merry-making, he traces the history of the environmental movement and disses the happy bedfellows of business developer and government in the persons of Del Webb and Secretary of the Interior James Watts.

A Company Man drives Bowden around Ajo in the midst of a prolonged copper strike between the Phelps Dodge copper company and the Union. This was not new territory for me since I had read Barbara Kingsolver’s Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983. (See https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2020/04/15/) But Bowden’s quick historical thumbnail of Arizona’s mining history and the realness in his portrait of Ajo is beautiful in its simplicity.

Proceed with caution when you read Part III: Desert. In Bone, we learn how one last grisly story leads Bowden to leave his job at the newspaper and head for a desert “uncluttered by rest areas, trail signs, water fountains and short cuts.” In Black and Blue he records two long hikes with naturalist and marathoner Bill Broyles, who co-edited America’s Most Alarming Writer. In each Bowden narrates border crossings made by immigrants to the north, recreating how painful a life it would have to be to make such a journey.

Having already read The Devil’s Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea (2004), I had relived an accurate description of the real thing: a tragic crossing made by 14 Central Americans that ended in disaster. (See https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2019/05/01/.)
Bowden’s essays are something else. Although they included details of the physical deprivations of such journeys, they focus primarily on the author’s own relationship with the desert and inner monologues about his personal struggles.

I found a few objections about the final piece, Blue. It is dominated by Bowden’s distress over the collapse of his marriage and self-recriminations about the part he played in its demise. Let me enumerate: 1. He chooses to describe his wife’s body coldly, objectively: “She has large breasts hanging from a thin body.” Her female attributes are soon to be mutilated by surgery for cancer; 2. He decides to absent himself for a story assignment the day of the surgery instead of being by her side — a morally reprehensible decision; 3. Again he provides an objective description of what he imagines the surgery will entail: “They will cut off her breast and will search her tissue to see — to see if more needs to be hacked off her body.”

He explains he will include nothing about his marriage or his wife’s surgery in the story he produces for the newspaper. (“There will be nothing about the cancer, the scalpel incising the soft white flesh topped by the faint pink nipple.”) Well, bully for you, Chuck. Enough already. Permit me here, dear reader, to cry TMI: too much information. This was an invasion of someone else’s privacy.

Bowden admits that he has no simple handle on the desert. “I haven’t got much theory on why I go to dry, empty places.” As I see it, Bowden uses the desert as a retreat from the enemy within. It’s a healthier one than climbing inside a bottle of red wine.

The problem with the desert is that no matter how vast and empty a panorama it presents, everywhere you go, there you are.


Posted in Arizona, Commentary, Hispanidad, Southwest and the desert | Leave a comment

Hiking Escapes: Gooseberry Springs

Here’s a questions to start you off. What do you think of when you hear the word “spring”? Not the season; the phenomenon in Nature as in “gooseberry springs.”

I see a babbling outburst of water, an outcropping from the side of mountain. Not a pipe sticking out of a concrete block. Yet that is what we found in the hike we just took into what had been described as the ‘fertile forests around Mormon Lake.”

Gooseberry Springs cachement

“Where’s the spring?” I asked Lynn, having followed her across a crusty, cracked meadow amid clouds of little pollinators in search of wildflowers. (There weren’t any.)

“This is it,” she said. “I think there’s some water in here,” She was peering into the concrete cachement behind the pipe. “There might have been a spring here, once upon a time.”

Maybe so.

A bone dry trough near the spring

And there might have been an access road and path across the so-called meadow untraversed by trucks. Yet all we had walked on were truck tracked roads, and from what we could see at our destination’s end was a forest road that ranchers had used to transport feed for small grazing herds, none of which were present the mid-week day we finally reached Gooseberry Springs, a 5.8-mile hike out and back off Lake Mary Road 32 miles southeast of Flagstaff.

For the two of us, escapees from the summer heat of Phoenix, Gooseberry Springs was a long drive for minimal payoff either in its hiking or its destination. From a historic standpoint the area holds interest. It is filled with the travel corridors of native peoples, loggers and homesteading ranchers that date back to the nineteenth century. Gooseberry Springs sits at the base of Hutch Mountain, a 8,532-foot peak. We had decided not to take the shorter, alternate hike to Hutch, which includes a look at the fire watch-tower and a drive up a road requiring a high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle and a steep 600 foot return to the car. (see https://arizonahiking.blogspot.com). Instead, we took I-17 north from Phoenix, setting out at 6 am knowing we had a better than two-hour drive ahead of us.

We were looking for the cooling temperatures at altitude, expecting to be hiking at between 7,500 and 7,900 feet. In this we were not disappointed. Temperatures stayed in the high 70s, aided by an occasional cooling breeze.

Look closely and you’ll see 92 in yellow paint.

As when we walked our memorable hike to Deep Lake a couple of weeks previous, we took exit 339 (Lake Mary Road) and headed southeast for 32 miles. FR 92 is about a quarter mile past milepost 313. With 20/20 hindsight, I see now that by using my Arizona road atlas, instead of GPS, we could have turned east at the Oak Creek exit of I-17 and taken Hwy 213 east past Stoneman Lake for a faster drive to Lake Mary Road (FH 3).

Once there, we would have turned north for less than five miles to find FR 92 where a short drive takes you to a small parking lot and kiosk with information about the area and Passage 30 of the Arizona Trail. Keep an eye out for FR 92. It is on the right of FH 3 heading back to Flagstaff.

There were three other cars in the parking lot when we arrived, but we later learned, since there were no other hikers on the trail to Gooseberry Springs, they were probably walking part of the 790-mile Arizona Trail, which bisects 92.

We continued on FR 92, which always stayed a road, never the wooded trail we had hoped for. We walked past an open meadow and occasional off-road camping vehicles. The route, which at first was rocky, ascended between groves of pines, a smattering of wild flowers and the ever-present gooseberry bushes. (Alas, no gooseberries.) For the most part, the road continued in a gradual climb, which made for a swifter paced return.

At about 1.6 miles of hiking, the road dips into a bowl-like depression. You already will have passed FR 92A leading down into the Seven Anchor Springs area. You will also pass what appears to be a camping area on the right, before coming up FR 135C a road to the right. Though the sign claims the road is free from motorized traffic, it is a well beaten forest road. Tire tracks belie its use is restricted to foot traffic.

Watch for this once the road dips into a bowl
The road — as good as it gets.

After about .4 miles we found ourselves skirting a large expanse of open ground on the left. It took eagle eyes and a lot of imagination to pick out the road closed sign post that would lead us across the meadow to the ancient feeding trought and spring on the slope across the meadow. There was no path leading to these relics.

We had read about this hike in the “Things to Do” section of the Saturday Arizona Republic. Conclusion: oversold and poorly marked.

We hot-footed it back to the kiosk, sat in the shade, ate our lunches and wondered if we should have walked a portion of the Arizona Trail instead of out to Gooseberry Springs.

We resolved to enhance our adventure by driving back to Phoenix via Lake Mary Road south until it T-boned into 87 toward Payson. No hurry. We knew that Phoenix, the hottest city in America, would be experiencing temperatures upwards of 111 degrees when we returned. Better to retrace the beautiful Highway 260 to Camp Verde, a route we had enjoyed the week before when we hiked to Potato Lake.

So what if Gooseberry Springs was an underwhelming walk and destination? Wasn’t there a book a few years back entitled No Bad Dogs? Like a couple of convicts who had broken out of jail for the day, I and my hiking partner Lynn decided we could write one called No Bad Hikes. Gooseberry Springs fit the bill.

Posted in Arizona, fun stuff, good thoughts, Hiking, Road trip, Southwest and the desert, travel | Leave a comment

Frida Kahlo’s Dog

For starters, I am not a dog person. I have never stopped and petted a dog on a trail. I’m mighty disturbed by owners who let their dogs slobber my legs and paw my chest with the explanation that the dog is “friendly.” This was particularly annoying when I walked the trails in Washington Park in Portland, Oregon. Those paws were muddy.

Since moving to Arizona, I steer clear of the many dogs — usually pint-sized and yappy — and their handlers when I’m out for a walk. Here in Sunnyslope, dog walkers are everywhere. In contrast to Portland, the dogs are always on lease. It may be because of the prickly nature of vegetation here. Just the same, at sunrise or at sunset in Pointe Tapatio where I live, I stick to the other side of the street and it’s not just because we are in lock-down with the Covid-19 stats soaring.

But, hey folks, it’s Frida Kahlo’s 113th birthday (July 6, 1907.) I’ve of a mind to honor Mexico’s most intriguing and heroic painter by celebrating her favorite dog, the Xoloitzcuintle (sho-low-eats-queen-tlee), better known stateside as the Mexican hairless.

I know, it’s a strange-looking breed — an acquired taste. And what’s with the name? That’s not even Spanish. Actually, it’s Nahuatl, a combination of Xolotl (god) and itzcuintli (dog). Let’s call them xolos for short or Señor Xolo, as Kahlo called her favorite pet. He even appears in one of the artist’s most famous works: The Love Embrace of the Universe Earth Myself Diego and Señor Xolo.

My first glimpse of xolos came several years ago, when I visited the Dolores Olmeida Museum in Mexico City. Twenty-five Kahlo paintings were among this wide-ranging series of exhibits. I had seen many of her works before. I’ve seen many since. I have always been mesmerized by Kahlo’s connection to the world of the ancients and the dreamlike juxtaposition of Nature and Humankind.What was most memorable about the museum visit, though, was walking among the five buildings that comprise the collection. What a beautifully cultivated place patrolled by Indian peafowl, geese, ducks and — Behold! Six Xoloitzcuintles.

And now, marvel of marvel, the xolo lives here in Phoenix, Arizona. I was out on a morning walk at daybreak a few days ago. I had climbed the patch of preserve within our community to check out the Phoenix skyline to the south and the human ants crawling up North Mountain to the west. I looked down over the hill to spy a dogwalker leashed to a dog on either side: two miniature xoloitzcuintles. I was too far away to catch her eye, and I don’t know how much a dog-lover would appreciate being pelted with questions about their pets. (Probably similar to warmth with which I appreciated being pawed by a “friendly” laborador.)

I have since discovered another resident with a xolo who loves his miniature. He says it is a perfect warm-weather dog, with its no nonsense, non-allergenic coat. He applies a layer of sunscreen now and then to keep the hide from drying out. And xolos don’t bark.

The breed captivates me. There is something prehistoric about their coloration and demeanor. With upright ears and a sleek coat in slate, liver or charcoal, the xolo has an elegant posture that sets it apart. The standard sized xolo is almost patrician in its physical stance. Not beautiful, no. Otherworldly.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that bones of xolos have been found among 3,500-year-old Toltec and Maya burial sites. The indigenous peoples of Mexico believed that the dogs safeguarded homes from evil spirits. Their meat was considered a delicacy and consumed on feast days. Xolos were sacrificed and buried with their masters in order to guide their souls through the journey to the underworld. The Xoloitzcuintle developed by natural selection over thousands of years. The breed neared extinction in the 1950s, but it has undergone a renaissance among people who are allergic to dog fur and who can take the time to train and bond with these intuitive, exotic creatures.

The Xoloitzcuintle is not going away anytime soon. It has made it into popular culture. Children were delighted by the Dante, a xolo hero in the Disney/Pixar animated film “Coco”. The Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente, a Tijuana soccer club has the xolo as mascot.

Xolos are known to be sensitive to the moods of their owners’ mental and physical well-being. Their attentiveness to humans, their links to the spirit world can be seen throughout the art and the lives of both Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Happy Birthday, Frida. I am not going out to buy a dog, but I might watch “Coco” in appreciation of your art and vision.

Posted in Arizona, Commentary, fun stuff, good thoughts, Hispanidad, Phoenix, religion and culture | 4 Comments

Hiking Escapes: Potato Lake

For starters, a couple of questions. How is it that no one seems to have heard of Potato Lake, even folks who live within 50 miles of it? And again: Which Potato Lake are we talking about here? There seem to be two.

We found out about the Potato Lake(s) conundrum the day we hiked to Deep Lake, near Flagstaff. We met a trio of fellow hikers coming back from one of the Potato Lake(s) at a crossroads on that route. They set us straight.

“Don’t bother with this Potato Lake,” they advised. “Go to the Potato Lake near Payson.”

So we did.

In addition to the three “no’s” listed on the sign: there is no other road currently open to the lake and no people, either.

It’s about a two-hour drive from North Central Phoenix. We left at 6 am. The Bush Fire in the Tonto National Forest in June kept us from taking the Phoenix to Payson route to Potato Lake via the Beeline (87), so instead took I-17 north to Camp Verde and cut east via Highway 260. This is a gentle, breathtaking 35-mile ridge with views of valleys and canyons on either side. We ran into little traffic and the well-spaced pullouts made it easy to pass slower vehicles as we rose to the Mogollon Rim.

At the T with 87 we headed left for a short distance to milepost 281 and a right-hand turn onto FR 300, the Rim Road.

Why do 1.7 miles on a gravel road seem like twice as far? Advice to those who lose heart or who don’t have a good mileage gauge (we didn’t): Once you pass a camping area for General Crook Trail, you are almost there.

Trail 9362T is what you want. Either turn left and make your own pull out close to FR 300 or descend a rutted left track into a small campsite parking area. (There were three RVs parked here when we entered.) Though we wandered throughout the virtually empty campground until we found the start of the trail into Potato Lake, you don’t have to. Walk to the end of the steeper right track down alongside the campsite parking lot, you’ll find the “road closed” sign that marks the start of your 5.5 hike into Potato Lake and back.

Entrance to the trail to Potato Lake

The trail is suitable for mountain bikes and horse traffic, but it seems little used even by foot traffic. You will be hiking a descent to the lake, 650 feet of elevation loss that is barely perceptible on the way in, a consistent climb on the way out. Other than blockages by fallen trees and brush, the walking conditions are good. We discovered a number of routes around such impediments on the left-hand downward side of the trail out. These are easier to distinguish (on the right side) on the way back.

You can bushwack around these windfalls

As observed by Mare Czina in a post on her blog, arizonahiking.blogspot.com, which we used as our guide, this is a lovely woodlands path throught Gambel oaks, aspens, New Mexican locusts and conifers. What was most remarkable to us, however, was the understory of ferns — a veritable forest of them, in some cases shoulder height.

Czina is good at giving mile markers for the transitions, but our gps was apparently out-of-sync with hers. There are two you need to be on the lookout for. At 1.5 miles (or so) you will come upon two metal markers that alert you to a Y ahead. Bear left — the road less traveled. On the way back, remember this because the main road — the one you don’t want — swerves left. Ignore it.

At 1.8 miles (according to Czina’s calculations) or .3 miles further you’ll find a a marker for Forest Road 147B. Here you will soon enter an ecosystem that takes you alongside a fenced meadow for cattle. It is a truly beautiful, pristine byway. As my hiking partner Lynn remarked: “Cattle really have it good; I wouldn’t mind living in a place like this.”

We bordered the fenced meadow. There were no cattle in sight, and the only sounds were bird calls, the rush of the wind and the crunch of our feet. We were alone.

The fence finally cut off our path. There was a cattle gate on the left that we passed through, relocked, and then walked the final .2 miles down to the lake. Except we didn’t see it. I was busily looking left trying to find out how to get beyond the fence and access the gravel road rising beyond. Lynn was descending a lumpy grade to the right.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“To read this sign.”

“What does it say?”

“Potato Lake,” she said.

Cue right. We both looked up. There it was — filled with brown water. We found a log, sat down and ate our snacks. We basked in the solitude.

Stephanie Oliver (l) Lynn Ford Personius (r)

But here’s the Million Dollar Question: Potato Lake: How’d you get your name? Is it because you are shaped like a potato? You are brown like a potato? People found potatoes here? They grew potatoes here?

“We don’t know, but Potato Lake, you were sure worth the walk,” said Lynn.

Posted in Arizona, fun stuff, Hiking, travel | 8 Comments

A critique of “The Glass Hotel,” by Emily St. John Mandel

With The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel has written a fictional commentary on the state of mankind in the 21st century. Sound cerebral? It is. Mandel houses her stories in a supernatural world where ghosts move among the living, where alternate lives bedevil the book’s many characters. This is a pre or post-religious world where mainstream faith traditions are afforded no purchase and yet moral behavior is required.

I must categorize this imaginative enterprise as admirable, but not particularly likeable. It follows Mandel’s wonderful first novel, Station Eleven, a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award. In that book, a troupe of actors roam around North America after a virus has wiped out ninety percent of the world’s population. In its prescience, the story skates the line between the supernatural and science fiction.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First: the story line and structure of The Glass House.

“Vincent in the Ocean,” the first and last chapters of book are told in the first person. They introduce us to the protagonist as she drowns. Vincent was named in honor of Edna St. Vincent Millay by her hippy mother, who also died by drowning when Vincent was thirteen.

In a nutshell, the interlocking narratives that propel the novel forward sketch the lives of a variety of characters who benefit, are shaken, shattered and reassembled by a Bernie Madoff knockoff perpetrated by a financier named Jonathan Alkaitis. But it isn’t until half way through the book that we become eye witnesses to his Ponzi scheme. The year is 2008.

Vincent and Jonathan meet at Hotel Caiette, the five-star hotel that Alkaitis owns in a remote waterway of British Columbia. She is the bartender, beautiful, conversant and young. Suzanne, Jonathan’s wife of many years, had died a few years prior to his meeting Vincent. Curiously and coincidencially their timelines put them in sych for a coupling.

The Hotel Caiette is the glass hotel of the book’s title and is the true protagonist of the story: inaccessible by car or to cellphone coverage, constructed of exposed cedar beams and paneled in enormous sheets of glass, it reflects the forest and water that surrounds it.

As the manager says of the hotel’s guests: “Very few people who go to the wilderness actually want to experience the wilderness. Almost no one. They don’t want to be in the wilderness,” he says. “They just want to look at it, ideally through the window of a luxury hotel. They want to be wilderness-adjacent.”

For Vincent, who moves with Jonathan to his home in Connecticut, his pied a terre in Manhattan, who poses as his wife and travels with him to Italy and Dubai, her new world is as exotic and removed as the glass hotel. She has entered the “kingdom of money” but she is only adjacent to it as are the hotel guests to the wilderness in Caiette. She’s a player who knows her role and embodies her part. But everything around her is deceptive, filled with theft and different forms of addictive behavior that anesthetizes them to responsible decision-making..

It used to be so easy when we were given a code of conduct, wasn’t it?

At some point, like Shakespearean apparitions, guilt crops up in the persons of the dead, the agrieved, the mourned. The chapters entitled “The Counterlife” take us to a hallucinatory world of Alkaitis in prison where he is serving his 170-year sentence. Jonathan is never alone; his sins dog him in the persons of those who preceded him in death.

Jonathan is not the only one beset by ghosts. Paul, Vincent’s brother, kicked off his avant guard musical career by coupling sound with perloined videos recorded by Vincent when she was a teenager. In the chapters entitled “The Chorus” we are entertained by slippery antics of Alkaitis’s cohort as they wiggle under inspection.

Moral compass anyone?

Interestingly, Mandel includes among her many characters two which appear in Station Eleven, Leon Prevant, who owns the freight company that is responsible for spreading the virus overseas in the first novel, and Miranda, his assistant, who takes over his job, in The Glass House. It’s as if they woke up in different timelines, literary critic Katy Waldman notes in her review in The New Yorker.

I started out this piece by saying The Glass Hotel was admirable, but not likeable. In the end, it fudges the question of responsibility. Vincent, as much as anyone in the story, is complicit in the fraudulent world in which she lives. She is the quintessential observer, an inveterate video recorder, not of people, but of nature. She is an Andy Warhol-like artist in one sense. In another, a chameleon.

She might as well be an occupant of The Hotel Caiette.

As Jonathan said of her: “She sees what a given situation requires, and she adapts herself accordingly.” He says that she is motivated by a “kind of pragmatism, driven by willpower. She decided to be a certain kind of person, and she achieved it.”

That’s not enough for me to like or even understand a character. Even if you raise up the ghosts.

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

Hiking Escapes: Deep Lake in Anderson Mesa

For starters, my photos don’t do it justice. You really had to be there.

Nevertheless, picture this, two old ladies out for a walk leave Phoenix, Arizona at 6 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, when temperatures promise to soar to 104 degrees by 2 p.m. One drives, the other sits in the back seat. Both are wearing masks as per pandemic recommendations.

We are on our way to Deep Lake, one of the many natural lakes on Anderson Mesa, near Flagstaff. We are expecting a windy, mostly solitary walk along a forest road with temperatures in the 70s and 80s. I’d say a six-mile roundtrip outing with views of the San Francisco Peaks and Mormon Mountain is worth the two-plus hour drive from Phoenix.

Beyond the open wind-swept vistas of mountains will be a saunter through a juniper-scented woodlands and the treat of entering the Deep Lake Refuge.

It’s then a half-mile down between Ponderosa pines, Gambel oaks, volcanic rock and dead tree snags to the broad natural basin that surrounds Deep Lake, protecting it from grazing livestock by an exclosure that permits hundreds of bird species to feed from its naturally stored waters.

I knew nothing of Anderson Mesa before the trip. It was exciting to discover this sloped tableland in the Coconino National Forest 20 miles outside Flagstaff. A high-country plain, it is is five miles long, 410 square miles at 6,200 and 7,200 feet in elevation. Since 1959, the mesa has been home to the Lowell Observatory, a dark sky observation site, 12 miles southeast of Lowell’s mail campus on Mars Hill in Flagstaff.

The plateau is filled with natural basins formed millions of years ago. These hollows fill with snowmelt that is stored as ponds, swales and wetlands. Most visited among these plateau lakes are Ashurst, Kinnikinick and Mormon Lake. Deep Lake, and two other lakes we passed — Post Lake and Als Lake — are among the smallest and least visited.

We used arizonahiking.blogspot.com, a good site created by Mare Czinar, for directionals to the hike and for navigating the trail out and back. The instructions are clear and accurate. Taking Exit 339 north, Lake Mary Rd east for 17 miles, we turned left on Forest Road 82E across from the turn off for Pinegrove campground. After 1.7 miles on this washboard gravel ground, we took another left on FR 9117F and parked. We found one other car that had pulled off the two-track that leads you to the hike.

There is nothing particularly gratifying about the trail itself. It’s a forest road, occasionally rutty, occasionally rocky. Not your bouncy forest pathway. But the vistas are beautifully open and extraordinary; and the clumps of grasses blowing in the cool wind invited us onward. Within a half-mile, FR 9117F became FR 82D, which passes by several exclosures that protect the marshland of Post Lake. We next passed by Als Lake, where on our return we saw circling turkey vultures. Had we been a few weeks earlier, wildflowers would probably been more prevalent.

Within the juniper woodlands beyond Als Lake, at 2.3 miles into the walk, we met three other hikers at a crossroads with FR 9484D. They had been to Potato Lake, but didn’t recommend it. They did urge us to go to (the other) Potato Lake near Payson and to Picture Canyon near Route 66.

For me, the payoff for the hike was to move beyond the forest roads and into the refuge. Once you enter the gate — as I had done here — you leave civilization behind. The walk down through the protected forest and onto the grasslands of the bowl is magical. Coming back up before re-entering the juniper forest, you can find a restful shaded spot to grab a bite and breath it in.

We were surprised to find exclosure down at the lakesite itself, with a fence going down through the middle of the lake hollow — a sure sign of the desire to preserve the area for migrating fowl in the fall and nesting birds during the spring and summer. Other than the turkey vultures we saw no birds. Perhaps if we had camped at the many campgrounds near by and entered at dawn or dusk we would have had a different experience. Just the same, it was a gorgeous walk. The return was even more picturesque than the walk in. We saw two other hikers approaching as we neared our car.

I’d do it again.

Als Lake: a blue pencil near the horizon
Posted in Arizona, Hiking, Southwest and the desert, travel | 4 Comments

A critique of “Where the Crawdads Sing,” by Delia Owens

It wasn’t until my local book club here in Phoenix, Arizona decided to read this runaway best seller that I succumbed to reading Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. Call it perversity, I was suspicious. The longer it was on the best-seller list, the more suspicious I became. Written in 2018, it just wouldn’t go away.

How? Why? Now I know. The book is beautifully crafted, with lyrical, often haunting prose.

Where the Crawdads Sing is a success story: a seven-year-old girl named Kya, living in a shack in a marsh in North Carolina, is abandoned — first by her mother, then by her older brother, then by her boozy father — but she goes on to become a noted naturalist of the region she has made her home.

It is a mystery story. Who killed Chase Andrews, a high school athlete and womanizer? The discovery of his body in 1969 as the book opens keeps the reader moving backwards and forwards to discover how Chase’s and Kya’s stories come together.

It is a love story. A boyhood playmate, Tate, teaches Kya to read, then leaves her for college, increasing her sense of abandonment.

Finally, and this is the book’s greatest strength, readers come to appreciate the wonders of the natural world of which we are only one among many species. Owens’ argument, if she has one, is that science demands we follow the dictates of our heads, not our hearts, when self-preservation is the issue.

All of that being said, I am not wild about the book. It has a number of demerits. It is overly long; 367 pages seemed like 500-plus. It is sentimental; I frequently expected to hear Owens cue up the violins. It also veered on turning into a romance novel with a few well calculated bodice-ripping sequences.

In conclusion, the resolution of the mystery behind Chase’s death left a bad taste in my mouth. As a scientist, I guess I must applaud; as a humanist, I object. It was way too clever and tidy.

Owens is a a wildlife scientist. She has a BS in Zoology from the University of Georgia and a PhD in Animal Behavior from UC Davis. With several nonfiction works to her credit, Where the Crawdads Sing is her only book of fiction. She doesn’t need to write another.

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

Confederate Arizona

You are going to have to help me out. I am trying to understand how Arizona could have accumulated six Confederate monuments. The Arizona Territory, a southern swath with headquarters in Mesilla, was only under confederate jurisdiction for one year (1861-62) and the single battle that took place here, the Battle of Picacho Pass, involved ten soldiers on Confederate side, thirteen on the Union. It ended with both parties in retreat. Under Union jurisdiction in 1863, the two territories were separated with a border running between them, North to South.

Perhaps it is time for a look at history. How are these memorials emblematic of Arizona and its Civil War past? It can only be because inmigration from southern states after the Civil War has provided a cultural imprint.

Recently, I listened to a podcast by Sam Harris (Making Sense, June 12, “Can We Pull Back From the Brink?”) Harris’s podcast is a long listen, more than an hour and a half, but it’s worth every minute. His arguments are sound. His delivery is thoughtful. Boiled down, he asks — in the mass hysteria that surrounds us, where the media turns repeated violent images into visual pornography, where people can get fired for what they write on Twitter — are we open to consider evidence and engage in civil dialogue?

As Joan Rivers famously asked: “Can we talk?” Conversation is all we have to help us, Harris argues. So, let’s enter into it here. And let’s not be afraid of disagreeing or expressing feelings or opinions that might not jibe with each other.


On Monday, June 8 Arizona’s Secretary of State Katie Hobbs sent a letter to Andy Tobin, Director of Administration requesting that the state move a stone monument off Wesley Bolin Plaza and into the Arizona Capitol Museum. The monument is dedicated to Arizona Confederate troops, 1861-1865. It was a gift of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and bears a legend: A Nation That Forgets Its Past Has No Future. The memorial was erected in 1961, one hundred years after the start of the Civil War and fifty years after Arizona became a state. It is one of countless memorials the UDC erected around the United States during a time of Civil Rights unrest.

Now, with the United States, and even the the world, turned upside down by a viral pandemic, a breakdown in the criminal justice system seems imminent as every day reveals another example of white on black violence.

I had seen pictures of the monument to the Confederate troops, but I wanted to see it in person. It had been more than two years since I had walked the capitol area, having worked registering voters at the April 26, 2018 Red for Ed teachers’ demonstration. I knew the grounds had been the focal point for demonstrations supporting Black Lives Matter this past month, but things had simmered down, particularly since Gov. Doug Ducey had imposed a week-long statewide curfew of 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. The curfew now had been lifted.

I proposed that a fellow cyclist and I ride down to the Capitol and take a look at the Confederate troops monument and its placement amid the other memorials and statuary in Wesley Bolin Plaza. We left North Central Phoenix at 6:30 am on Sunday, June 14, knowing we only had about three hours before it became uncomfortable hot. The temperature was in the mid-seventies. There was a cool breeze blowing.

The Capitol mall was quiet when we arrived. It was empty of graffiti and trash. A worker was removing barbed wire from the fence surrounding the capitol building — the only indication that the grounds had been the scene of enormous demonstrations. We crossed paths and greeted one couple on foot. Two other cyclists pedaled past us during the time we walked around the park.

The plaza was created in 1978. It contains 30 monuments and memorials honoring specific figures, wars and events. It is an odd array honoring a variety of groups and causes — Armenian martyrs, Jewish War Veterans, the Granite Mt. Hot Shots. Mostly it is dedicated to war-time heroes and peackeepers: the World War II 158th infantry regiment and a law enforcement memorial, for example.

Among the individuals honored are Padre Eusebio Kino (1645 – 1711), missionary to indigenous peoples when Arizona was still a part of New Spain, and Martin Luther King, Jr. whose marker, placed in 1984, contains part of the “I Have a Dream,” speech. One statue, a pioneer woman with a baby in arms — the only monument in which a woman figures — mentions the arrival of pioneer families to settle the region. Underwritten by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, its mention of 1874 is a clear reference to Mormon migrations from the north.

I was most taken by two other installations: a bronze statue honoring the Navajo code talkers, placed in 2008; and a large plaza with four separate elements constructed in 1985 by the Vietnam Veterans of Arizona, added to in 2001 and 2016. The memorial includes 10 black granite panels and the 613 names of Arizona’s veterans who died in the Vietnam War.

In Kaitlyn Burnham’s carefully researched Masters of Arts thesis (Arizona State University, April, 2019), she writes that as a whole the monuments suffer from an “erasure of racial conflicts, and pluralism in religion and ethnicity” (A History of the Monuments and Memorials in Wesley Bolin Plaza).

Are monuments an attempt to control public discourse? Burnham asks. Should they be? If we look at what monuments honor, shouldn’t we also look at who placed them and when they were placed?

For example, the Battle of Picacho Pass is significant only in that it was the westernmost squirmish in the Civil War. At Picacho, the plaque commemorating the battle refers to the Civil War as the “War between the States,” a description now seen as benign disregard that the Confederacy had seceded from the Union and declared war against it.

The status of confederate monuments on public property, the one on the capitol mall and two others, has come up several times since Doug Ducey was elected Governor. He has sidestepped addressing the matter. In 2015, Rep. Reginald Bolding (D- Laveen) called for the plaza monument’s removal and the renaming and removal of a marker at the “so-called” Jefferson Davis Highway at Peralta Rd. in Gold Canyon. At that time, Gov. Ducey stated that the placement of memorials was overseen by a legislative commission which governed such matters. The issue had been brought up in the aftermath of a murder of nine Black parishioners by a white supemacist in Charleston, South Carolina.

In 2017, a white supremacist at a Unite the Right march in Charlotteville, VA drove a car into a crowd of protestors, killing one. Vandals in Arizona covered the Confederate monument in Wesley Bolin Plaza with white paint. Vandals also tarred and feathered the Jefferson Davis Highway marker. At that time, a contingent of Black pastors asked for Ducey to take action in removing such memorials from public venues and renewed the request more recently, as the Black Lives Matter movement marched against excessive force used by police in Arizona. Gov. Ducey told them it was “not his mission to tear down monuments.”

Now, in response to questions from the press about Hobbs’ letter, Ducey said he was “not a fan of removing monuments or memorials.” Directly referencing Hobbs, he added, “certainly not after a letter was written.”

“I think there should be a public process if someone wants to go the alternative route,” he said.

How does one enter into conversation with someone who seems to understand governance as avoidance of pulling differing parties together? Whose answer to wearing a mask to help prevent spread of the coronavirus is to take a mask wrapped in plastic out of his pocket at a press conference and then to return it when he leaves the room.

One doesn’t. One goes around that person and engages with others who may see things differently than you do but are willing to look at evidence and engage in argument. Clearly, there is a broad constituency in Arizona that sees confederate imagery as a perpetuation of white supremacist attitudes. There are other who see such memorials as recognizing bravery by those who were called upon to serve.

Where is the leader for this discussion?

Posted in Arizona, Commentary, history, race and class | 8 Comments

Hiking Escapes: Wolf Creek Loop Trail #384

I swear I saw a bear.

My first thought — maybe a car. No. It was brown, bulky and ambling across our trail about 200 feet ahead. Lynn didn’t see it. So I have no witnesses but, as a friend later mentioned to me, the pandemic has brought wild boars into Barcelona, coyotes onto Fifth Avenue, and dolphins into Venice’s canals. Why not bears within a few miles of Prescott, Arizona?

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

Hiking in the woods at higher elevations in Arizona you are bound to have adventures, particularly if there is no one around. We’d been out this way a few weeks earlier to hike Goldwater Lakes so driving the two hours from Phoenix to find the Wolf Creek Loop Trail #384 south from Prescott was easy.

We had consulted a USDA forest service map, Mare Czinar’s great blog,(https://arizonahiking.blogspot.com) and loaded our gps driving instructions. As usual the directions didn’t seem to agree. We knew the trail wasn’t all that remote, but a notation that #384 was suitable for mountain bikes and that horse and ATVs trails were nearby had given us pause. But the ranger Lynn consulted at the Bradshaw Ranger Station told her that the nearby summer camps and campgrounds were closed. With the pandemic still curtailing activity, we decided to take a chance. We’d probably be mostly on our own.

Easy decision here. We weren’t going to Crown King.

At mile 6 of Highway 52 and a sign for Horse Camp, the car passed a group of five or six hikers entering a trail with poles. They told us they were taking Trail #383. Mare Czinar’s directions for best access to Wolf Creek Falls has hikers starting here . Parking for #383 and Groom Creek Trail #307 was across the road. We went to the parking lot to look at a good area map posted there. The Groom Creek Trail and its 8.7-mile loop, we saved for another, cooler day.

So we continued by car out to just beyond mile marker 7 and the end of the paved road. A sign directed us to the right, Wolf Creek Rd. (C101), and the two Wolf Creek campgrounds. Before getting to the upper campground we’d find Trail #384 as it crossed this unpaved road. There was parking of sorts: an already parked white Jeep left room for our car and perhaps one more.

We decided to hike the 5.4 loop clockwise and crossed the road to a rocky, ominous-looking drop into the trail. Is this how it is going to be? Should we have brought our poles?

The answer is “no.” On Wolf Creek Loop #384, there are rocky spots, steep-ish descents, scrambling climbs with granular grit over rock, soupy, beach-sand stretches, but these sections are short-lived. That’s what makes the trail a MODERATE, not an “easy” trail (as the forest service description had described it.)

It was an interesting, topographically varied route, with a mix of woodland and desert vegetation: pine trees, manzanita, a scatter of succulents and strewn with granite boulders, the lighting mostly dappled with sun and shade. Once we got to higher ground — 6,500 feet or so — we had some nice ridge vistas across the tree lines.

The starting temperature was in the low-70s. We were not sorry to be away from Phoenix which had already hit 82 degrees when we started at 6 a.m. and was scheduled to reach 109.

Not a quarter-mile into the hike we were met by a woman and her two German Shepherds. She wasn’t dressed for hiking. She’d taken the two dogs down to the creek for a swim before she went golfing.

Okay. So we knew there was a creek because we heard water gurgling somewhere as we continued down. But as Lynn said later, it could have been a recording. We never saw the creek or any sign that would take us to it. Later, as we approached Hassayampa Creek, we saw another hiker who said that stream was near by.

“It’s dry,” he told us.

A Manzanita whose branches looked as if they were polished just for us.
We got some nice ridge vistas across the tree line.

Although we had some problems with the inconsistencies between the forest service map and signage on the trail, we were pleasantly surprised at how well the sign posts got us to where we were going, even when they overlapped with other trails.

#384 was well marked, even when it share the trail with another route.

All in all it was an exhilarating hike: the kind of hike that when you first get out on the trail and you smell the smells, listen to the sounds and the feel of the mountain air on your skin you don’t want to be anywhere else. It stays with you.

We even crossed paths with that group of five or six hikers we’d seen earlier at Horse Camp.

I wonder if they ever got down to the creek.

Posted in Arizona, good thoughts, Hiking, Southwest and the desert, travel | 2 Comments

Summer Escapes: Hiking the Crystal Point Trail

My hiking partner Lynn and I have been fleeing Phoenix once a week lately. We scour USDA forest service maps for trails at higher elevations. We ask friends for recommendations. We peruse hiking books. We’re looking for anywhere a couple of hours drive from home where we can find cooler temperatures, an absence of people and holy quiet. We know it’s only a temporary fix for cabin fever. The pandemic and the dread of the next four months of heat are a winning combination that would make anyone stir crazy. Even the dogwalkers are already putting protective booties on their pets’ paws here in the Valley of the Sun.

You might call our forays out of town: Two Old Ladies Go for a Walk. We are both in our 70s. Both addicted to being outdoors. We both know that walking in the desert can heal all that ails you — body and soul. Edward Abbey probably says it best in Desert Solitaire (https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2020/05/07/reading-arizona-desert-solitaire). It is not a lesson I learned from my parents. For me, it started with trailwalking in the company of like-minded friends in Portland, where I was born. Whenever I return to the Northwest, I get out on the spongy paths of Washington, Forest or Tryon parks. It’s a moist and verdant compliment to the arid starkness of Arizona.

Lynn and I like to think we are getting better at reading maps, following trail markers, and finding our way back to the car. Sometimes we grouse about getting lost. Surely, it’s the map’s problem. The markers don’t make sense. At one point we were glad there wasn’t a ranger around. Boy, would we have given him or her) a piece of our minds.

The Crystal Point Trail we walked this last week was by far the easiest of the four walks we have done in the last few weeks, in large part due to how carefully the Munds Park Trail Stewards (MUTS) have maintained and marked the trails.

Is it worth a two-hour drive north just for a chance to walk in the woods? You be the judge. We take one car, driver in the front seat, passenger in the back. Conversation is minimal; we wear our masks. It’s a good chance to be alone together.

Phoenix friends who used to have a home in Munds Park told us about the Crystal Point Trail, an occasionally rocky path with up and down grades in both directions. This is a moderate walk at elevation with gains and losses between 6,480 – 7,190 feet — at just enough altitude to make a couple of well-aged valley gals feel they are exercising. It can be walked as a six-mile out and back or base to summit and back starting from either end.

Our friends recommended starting at the end of a road called Golden Lake Trail. In this case, hikers from out-of-area like us need to park on Raintree Road and walk up to the Golden Lake Trail Road, a lane with four to five houses at the end of which is the gate to the hiking path. Alternately, you can start at the entrance off Pinewood Boulevard, two miles up Forest Road 240 from Exit 322 of 1-17. This entrance has a parking lot on the left with the trail across the road.

A couple of sources were helpful, but, in combination, they left me a bit confused: Mare Czinar’s marvelous arizonahiking.blogspot.com and the website for the trail stewards (www.mundsparktrailstewards.com.) As usual, I quizzed a couple of local residents and fellow hikers for additional information.

Starting from the Pinewood entrance, the trail to the top is shorter. Apparently the beauty shots toward Sedona are on this segment. We did an out and back from the Golden Lake entrance to the picnic table at the top and then added a walk along Odell Lake when we got back down to the gate. It was cool-ish and breezy. We ended up doing a 5.5 mile hike.

We left Phoenix at 6 am and were on the trail by 8:20. (It took us awhile to decide where to park.) We encountered few hikers — maybe eight — a mother and daughter with their dog at the top: later, a mother, two daughters, granddad and dog, also at the picnic table. A single woman hiker crossed paths with us going up; another coming down.

This is a gorgeous trail, an easy climb along a ridgeline through pine-oak forests past lichen encrusted boulders, wildflowers and the occasional cactus. The lighting went from dappled sun and shade. It would be a great hike to do in the fall.

The community of Munds Park is attractive, with a golf course and attending clubhouse and restaurants. There are a convenience store, gas station and other amenities near the 1-17 highway exchange. The Munds, for whom the community is named, were ranchers, originally from Douglas County, Oregon. The present day Schnebly Hill Road follows the old Munds trail used to move cattle between winter and summer grazing. Summer grazing was in Munds Park, winter in Sedona.  The community of Munds Park has a population of less than 1000. It is surrounded by the Coconino National Forest.

The Arizona Trail, an 800-mile trail from the Coronado National Memorial at the U.S. Mexico border to its termination at the Arizona- Utah border, passes through the Coconino Plateau nearby.

When Lynn and I got back to Phoenix, I let a friend know I had been hiking in the area. He told me he regularly used to run from Munds Park to Mormon Lake with his first wife and friends. Her ashes are buried on a mountain nearby.

Posted in Arizona, fun stuff, Hiking, Southwest and the desert, walking around | 4 Comments

June 2, 2020: The Nonviolent Majority

What do you write when all of your go-to sources can’t provide you with direction?

The world seems fueled by anger. I’m angry, too. On May 30, when I read on that a peaceful demonstration had turned violent in downtown Portland, I was fit to be tied.

Hey Portand! That’s my hometown.

staff photo/oregonlive

Why? I wrote on Facebook, reposting the OregonLive coverage. I live in Phoenix now. We called our Portland friends on the wire through Zoom. They tried to explain: the antifas, the alt-right, the benign restrain of the Portland police.

And then it was here. Peaceful protest over two quiet days in Phoenix turned uglier and uglier. And not just downtown at the state Capitol. In Scottsdale at Fashion Square, Arizona’s most exclusive retail mall, there was destruction and looting. Millionaire YouTube blogger Jake Paul of LA showed up to “document” it. (How did he find out? He doesn’t even live here.)

Phoenix is my home town now. The last mass gathering I attended was at the Arizona State Capitol. I went in support of a prolonged public teachers’ strike and to sign up new voters. That’s what I’ve always done. I show up for social justice. I register voters.

It started in the ’60s when I lived in New York. We marched on Washington for civil rights and fair housing. In 1970, when I was living in Lima, Peru I picketed the American embassy because of the U.S. bombing in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

At least I used to. Unfortunately, I’ve aged out. The recommendation for us seventy-year-olds is to stay at home. It’s the coronavirus, of course. I’m keeping my distance and staying away from crowds. That’s what has been bothering me. How can I show up.

One of the ideas I had for starting this blog was to contrast life in Portland and Phoenix. The name Flaneuse was to play on the idea of walking around. Some of that “walking around” has involved reading. I’ve been reading a lot.

This is what I’ve learned. I am a member of the Nonviolent Majority, but I’m scared.

Minority rights don’t get the same kind of public support that white and middle class rights do here in Phoenix. When “constitutional” activists showed up at the Capitol May 3, their treatment was polite. They were demanding an end to the “stay at home” order. A few of the 500 who gathered carried firearms. Their demonstrations and plans to “recall” Governor Ducey helped accelerated the reopening of public venues, earlier than what was advisable.

Reginald Watson/ Phoenix Pastor
Michael Chow/The Republic

But contrast the lack of public grief over George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin. Only faith leaders of African American churches spoke out.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s 157-word statement released after a week of national unrest and two days of local demonstrations did not mention either Floyd or the recent shooting of Dion Johnson, a local black man who was caught sleeping in his car.

As covered in The Arizona Republic, Ducey did not condemn police brutality. He said only: “In the state of Arizona, we always respect the First Amendment rights of citizens to peacefully assemble and make their voices heard”. . .ending with “Here we will enforce the rule of law.”

When Ducey instituted a statewide curfew Sunday May 31 until Monday, June 8, 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. he said he consulted local leaders in making his decision, though neither Kate Gallego, mayor of Phoenix, or Regina Romero, mayor of Tucson, spoke with him. (Gallego said she hadn’t spoken with Ducey in months.) The order raised many questions about its enforcement, particularly in smaller cities and towns throughout the state.

It wasn’t until Sunday that Ducey also publicly recognized the reason for the protests. He called Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman “tragic and abhorrent.”

“It should be condemed by leaders at all levels,” Ducey said.

We are a nation interrupted, and a community divided. This is not new information. As I write support for the rights of minorities and social justice for what we used to call the “have nots” is reverberating around the world. Let’s hope for more.

A commentator I have looked to over the years made a searing judgement recently. Chris Hedges, (https://www.truthdig.com/articles/the-coming-collapse) argued that both political parties, Democrat and Republican, are products of what he terms “inverted totalitarianism.” They are equally indebted to business interests: equally responsible for endorsement of private interests.

“We will wrest back political control by dismantling the corporate state, ” he writes, “and this means massive and sustained civil disobedience. . .”If we do not stand up we will enter a new dark age.”

Let’s push for that.

In the meantime, I prefer the words of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms as she worked to put an end to violence in Atlanta this week. She demonstrated what Phil Boas, editor of The Arizona Republic’s editorial page, called a mixture of “compassion and steel.” In his Tuesday, June 2 opinion page column, Boas quoted Bottoms as a mother of four black children, one of them an 18-year-old son.

Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms with husband Derek and family

“You’re not going to out-concern me and out-care about where we are in America,” she said. Bottoms was angry. But it was a righteous anger that reached back over centuries of racism.

“This is not a protest, “she said. “This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is chaos.” Her word to the defacers and the looters in Atlanta were this: Go home. Vote.

I’ll be calling registered voters to remind them to vote in Phoenix from now until November. Covid-19 or not. I can do this from home.

Posted in Arizona, Commentary, COVID-19, Portland, race and class | 6 Comments

A critique of “Killing the Hidden Waters,” by Charles Bowden

“I’ll tell you where I went wrong,” Charles Bowden writes in his 2003 introduction to Killing the Hidden Waters,” a slim volume he wrote in 1977. “The faucet in the kitchen always becomes the reality we believe”. . .”We believe in the immediate moment and decide the future can and will magically take care of itself.”

In Killing the Hidden Waters Bowden lays out how wrong-headed such thinking has been for us. Yes, rain falls from the sky. It’s seasonal. The ancients knew this; they lived within nature’s perameters. Periods of drought meant doing without or moving on. In southern Arizona, scarcity bound the people. They lived in balance with the resources available to them.

But groundwater — the hidden waters of Bowden’s primer — is a finite resource, a fossil fuel. It is heavy. It is expensive to bring to the surface and to transport from one spot to another. Yet humans have always found a way. Gradually, through technology, from shovel, tractor and pump, dams and piping, we found ways to temporarily utilize this hidden resource to meet our ever increasing appetites. We built water-rich societies in arid places, the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona, and we exploited an underground lake, the Ogallala aquifer of the High Plains of west Texas, to establish an oil producing powerhouse.

The clock keeps ticking.

Bowden starts his story with the Covered Well stick, a five to six-foot piece of saguaro cactus, cross hatched by slashes and nicks: a calendar stick –the history book of the Papago natives of the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona. The Covered Well stick missed the Mexican War and the Gold Rush, but it recorded the drilling of the well in Santa Rosa village in 1912.

The book proceeds with three unequal chapters: Part One, the history of groundwater exploitation in Arizona; Part Two, the pumping of the Ogallala aquifer of the High Plains of west Texas; and Part Three, A conclusion. Bowden is at his best here, exercising his aptitude for bleak humor.

“No one really doubts the implication of the numbers,” he writes. “That is why so many humans have been swiftly stricken with the idea of space colonies: by leaving the planet they hope to leave the arithmetic behind.”

The book is as copiously annotated as an academic thesis. Perhaps, it was once meant to be one. The bibliography is extensive; the index complete. The 173 page book also includes the reproductions of some Smithsonian photographs which reproduced badly in my paperback edition.

I admire this book for two reasons. First, the author’s approach is original. He writes like an historical anthropologist. Along the way, we learn about desert vegetation, avian and animal life, native customs and values. Second, his writing style is elegant and personable; his arguments are eloquent. No one has made a better case since.

For example, he writes here:

“The Papagos, ignorant of hydrology, bereft before the white man of so much as a wheel, know in their hearts and lived a lesson just becoming apparent to Americans. Water is energy, and in arid lands it rearranges humans and human ways and human appetites around its flow. . . Humans build their societies around consumption of fossil water long buried in the earth and these societies being based on a temporary resource, face the problem of being temporary themselves.”

Water wars, water speculation and water treaties dominate the newspages of today’s press, as do the policy discussions of the water shareholders of the Southwest: Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico.

Do you know any recent graduates to whom you owe gifts? Give them Killing the Hidden Waters, by Charles Bowden. It’s a lesson in history, anthropology and moral philosophy. It will work like a pebble in their shoes as they step forward into the future.

Posted in Arizona, Book Reviews, environmentalism, history, Southwest and the desert | 6 Comments

Literature of the Pandemic

I read my first piece of pandemic literature under the bedcovers with a flashlight. I was 13. I read it for the sex.

Forever Amber, by Katherine Windsor was one of several books my parents had in their bookcase when I was growing up. I found it right alongside A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, The Egg and I, by Betty MacDonald and my mother’s copy of Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, by Margaret Sidney, which I inherited.

Amber St. Clare was a beautiful, pregnant sixteen-year-old abandoned on the streets of London during the reign of Charles II (1630-1685). Ambitious and naive, she makes her way through the Great Fire of London and the bubonic plague, social climbing her way from bed to bed ending in the king’s boudoir.

I recently came across the title in a list of U.S. bestsellers by year. Despite being banned in 14 states as pornographic, Forever Amber sold 100,000 copies its first week of printing in 1944. I read it in the ’50s. Although it was the sex that drove me to the novel , it was the horror of the plague that I remember reading about: the boils, the postules, the agonizing deaths. Now, in the midst of COVID-19, recalling that coming of age experience got me thinking. How many other novels have used a pandemic as scene setting?

I just finished The Mirror and the Light, by Hillary Mantel, the final episode of the trilogy that describes the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII in the 16th century. In it, the King postpones the crowning of his third wife Jane Seymour due to rumors of the ‘sweating sickness.’ “It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces,” the narrator explains.

In Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink, one of her two main female characters, a rabbi’s scribe in 17th century London, must deal with the plunder and looting of hooligans who blamed Jews for the pandemic during the bubonic plague.

Outsiders are frequently blamed for such scourges. In the case of a cholera epidemic in 1831 Russia, riots broke out in St. Petersburg. Doctors were blamed for mixing cholera victims into the population of patients who were suffering from other ailments. In Liverpool later that spring doctors were again accused, this time for poisoning the victims. Often, there is some basis for scapegoating. Europeans did bring smallpox to the Americas in 16th century. The presence of U.N. peacekeeping troops from Nepal introduced cholera to Haiti in 2010. Wuhan, China was an epicenter of a strain of COVID-19 that made its way to the west coast of the United States in January 2020.

Looking back in history, we can find public health epidemics since the beginning of recorded time. A statistical overview published in Visual Capitalist “History of Pandemics by Death Tolls,” (https://www.visualcapitalist.com/history-of-pandemics-deadliest/) measures their impact since the Antonine Plague of 165-180. Are they becoming more frequent? There have been five in the past twenty years: Sars, Swine Flu, Mers, Ebola and now COVID-19. Pandemics are here to stay and seem to be multiplying.

From a scientific point of view, each epidemic is unique. Hence the comment of Adam Kucharski, author of The Rules of Contagion: “If you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen. . .one pandemic.” Each blight leaves its own imprint.

What doesn’t change is human behavior. Looking back at the literature of pandemics can tell you alot. For starters, there is nothing original in how we handle such crises. Pointing fingers is just a starting point. Add to that fear, disbelief and bravado.

In 14th century Florence, wrote Giovanni Boccaccio in the Decameron,”Some hid in their homes. Others refused to accept the threat.” They coped by getting drunk, carousing, and denial. The 100 tales that fill the Decameron are told by a band of seven women and three men who have taken to the countryside to protect themselves from the rabble. They choose to living in a continuous present by entertaining themselves with stories that make mockery of their contemporaries and the current world order.

We cope by turning on Netflix or rerunning an old film favorite.

In the Diary of Samuel Pepys, which the author kept from 1660 to 1669, the first entry that mentions the plague is on April 30, 1665. Pepys wrote: “Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City. . .God preserve us all.” As time went on he wrote of corpses in the street, acquaintance dying — including his own physician. Pedestrians he encountered on the mostly deserted street, were “walking like people that had taken leave of the world.”

Pepys’ accountant, Daniel Defoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year, as a memoir by his uncle, H.F. ( Henry Foe), a cobbler who had kept a record. “The face of London was now indeed strangely altered,” he writes.

Their words are echoed by Michiko Kakutani in “Pandemic Notebook (The New York Times Book Review, May 17, 2020), who walked and photographed the abandoned borough of Manhattan last week. “Loss stalks the nearly empty streets,” Kakutani writes. Grand Central looks like a “beautiful, deserted movie set.”

Kakutani does a stunning recap of the pandemic literature that’s out there: a kind of self-help guide for reassuring ourselves that this is all very normal. I highly recommend it to those of us who find reading a comfort to our aloneness.

In her section on The Plague, by Albert Camus (1947) Kakutani highlights that fable’s celebration of human resilience, its recognition of that ordinary people are capable of performing extraordinary acts. How familiar are the words that doing one’s job is “simply a matter of common decency?” They recall the responses of nurses, EMTs and others on the front lines whom the nightly news labels as heroes.

“There must be no bowing down” to the plague — no compromise with evil, no resignation to fate, says Dr. Rieux, one of the key characters in The Plague. The “essential thing is to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying,” he says.

I walked up to the knoll here in the midst of Pointe Tapatio by North Mountain this morning at dawn. The pollution that hovers over downtown Phoenix has all but disappeared. I could even make out the communication towers on the ridge of South Mountain. At the dentist office two days ago, the hygenist told me that, without gondola traffic and tourism, the waters in the canals in Venice have come clean, the dolphins have returned.

Watch and wonder at what life has in store for us. Serve where we can. These may be the best responses for those of us not in positions of leadership. And to be happy not to be required (just yet) to change places with them.

Posted in Commentary, COVID-19, history | 11 Comments

A Critique of “Actress,” by Anne Enright

Why does every review of a book by an Irish author start with the author’s “irishness”? Anne Enright’s Actress is a love story, but not specifically an Irish love story. And it’s not about the kind of love you’d expect. The love is between a daughter and a mother and the story is about the daughter’s search for her mother’s identity, and her own.

Actress opens with the question that was often put to the daughter: “What was she like?” It was a question that stopped Norah in her tracks. Did they want to know what Katherine O’Dell was like at the breakfast table eating toast and marmalade? What was she like as a “star” of stage and film? Or more likely: what was she like before she went crazy and shot a film producer in the foot?

Enter Holly Devane, a graduate student who is writing her doctoral thesis about Katherine O’Dell. First, she’d like an interview with the daughter. She’d write an article based on that interview. Then would come the thesis. After that, maybe a book.

No. The book was Norah’s to write. Already a novelist with a shelf-full of books to her credit — works that always were publicized as written by the daughter of Katherine O’Dell — she sets off to write the book she has always needed to write. Who was her mother?

In the first decade of her life, Norah writes: “my mother discarded her past and mislaid any number of possible futures”. . .”She never lost me. I was right there.” What was missing was a father. So as Norah grew, so did the stories of who her father was. They were embellished by Norah, yet always hidden by Katherine.

This is a story in which a narrator reconstructs her mother in order to construct herself. It is a story told with great humor — always ironic, often arch — and with an empathy that is not without prickles. The vignettes are peopled with a handful of interesting characters: a priest, Father Des, handy at baptizing the “awkwardly conceive child,” a fellow actor, Boyd O’Neill, whom her mother had known since she was fourteen and later shot, Niall Duggan, a lecturer, critic, and a terrific lush. Others came and went. Her mother had many suitors. (And many admirers, many of which were homosexual.)

The mystery of Norah’s conception propels the story forward. Who was her father? Why the secrecy? “This is what you get for chasing Daddy,” she says in self-accusation, looking back on a misconceived liaison that she fears precipitated her mother’s madness.

Of course, Actress never escapes from being Irish, but it’s a modern take on the culture: a wry look at the tribe’s maudlin ethnicity in poetry and song, the sorry mix of catholicism, alcoholism and sexuality. I would argue that the novel’s “irishness” are its trappings not its core.

Katherine O’Dell’s beliefs seem to be all about performance. Her catholicism is performance: she was forever sprinkling things with holy water (including Norah). Her politics were performance: six months after Bloody Sunday, she is photographed on a protest march in Derry, the first anniversary of internment without a trial. What she actually thought or believed is hard to penetrate. She lays out the newspaper with a picture of herself at the march for Norah to see.

I was pulled in by the authenticity of this book, its characters, its cleverly constructed memories, and its depth of feeling. Actress engaged me. It challenged me to question the relationship I had with my own mother. The one caveat that prevents me from giving an unqualified rave to Actress is this: the juxtaposition of time frames is clumsy. They impede the book’s forward flow. I read Actress fast– over a handful of days — but even that wasn’t sufficient to sort it all out.

And I was left with an unanswered question. If art is performance, isn’t life itself simply a matter of performance?

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, literary fiction | 3 Comments

Reading Arizona: Desert Solitaire

Yesterday I found a place where Silence Roars: Horton Creek.

My friend Lynn and I drove the Beeline up to Payson and then east for 17 miles to a mostly-gentle, 4-mile uptick to the spring waters of Horton Creek. There were a few other hikers, but mostly it was just the sounds of the creek and the birds. And, man, did it smell good.

I had just finished reading Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey, the first book in my campaign to understand this part of the United States better.

Abbey advocates walking and this memoir of the two summers he spent as a forest ranger at Arches National Park (1956, ’57) finds him walking, walking, walking. No need to hurry, he says. Just look around.

The book is actually taken from the notes and observations of those first two summers and adds chapters that tell of adventures with others and solo, namely the five weeks he lived like a “native” (“Havasu”) while still a university student, and a much later trip (“Down the River”) on a raft down the Colorado toward the Glen Canyon Dam (1965) while it was still under construction. Desert Solitaire was published in 1968.

Environmentally and politically, Abbey never makes any secret of where he stands. He opens the chapter on the raft trip with Ralph Newcomb like this: “The beavers had to go and build another goddamned dam on the Colorado.” And who does the project benefit? he asks. The stagnate water will not irrigate a single acre of land or provide drinking water to a single village, but only enrich “real estate speculators, cottongrowers and sugarbeet magnates in Arizona, Utah and Colorado.” What does the project destroy? Habitat.

The glimmerings of Abbey’s anarchist/terrorist leanings are also present. Leaving Moab, he bucksaws the town’s gateway billboard: Moab — Uranium Capital of the World. Look up his biography in Wikipedia, you’ll find he was a speaker at many of the early meetings of Earth First. His novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, which follows a group of ecologically minded misfits, inspired the organization’s formation. His Master’s thesis considered the relationship between anarchy and violence.

Also notable are Abbey’s intellect and his powers of philosphical reflection. In Desert Solitaire, he reveals the breadth of that education with word like “syllogism” and quotes from Wittgenstein. He held undergraduate and graduate degrees in English and Philosphy (University of New Mexico, ’51, ’56.) He studied in Scotland on a Fulbright and at Stanford University as part of the Wallace Stegner creative writing program (’57).

Among his diatribes against religion, he cites the burnings of Bishops Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer in 16th century England. These insertions, like references to classical music — Beethoven’s Eroica and Ode to Joy — are never any more intrusive than his aptly humorous observations. (“The Navajos’ acquisitive instinct is poorly developed.”)

In fact, Abbey’s good humor finds its way onto every page and into every experience the book records. He rafts the Colorado without a map. He searches for the fabled moon-eyed horse and runs out of water. These are a young man’s adventures told with an older man’s self-acceptance. When he and friend Bob Waterman finally make it out of The Maze ahead of the snow and rain, they stop to record their observations on the BLM record book. Abbey writes: “For God’s sake leave this country alone — Abbey.” Waterman writes: “For Abbey’s sake leave this country alone — God.

In the end it is the lyrical, descriptive writing about the desert that’s most arresting about Desert Solitaire. You can’t read it without getting a lesson in botany and animal biology. In one long section Abbey contrasts the lure of the desert to that of the sea and of the mountains. He admits to being a “desert rat,” an admirer of what he calls the “manifest indifference of the desert landscape to human presence.” This is what quiets his core.

Reading Desert Solitaire encourages such contemplation. It slows you down. It encourages taking solace in the solitude the desert landscape provides. It’s a book, you can turn to again and again. As far as a nature narrative is concerned, Desert Solitaire is almost as good as being there.

Posted in Arizona, Book Reviews, environmentalism, Southwest and the desert | 5 Comments

The Death of Valentina Blackhorse

I got up at 5 a.m. the other morning. Now that temperatures in Phoenix are soaring into the 100s I like to get out early. I decided to take a walk around my community here in Sunnyslope. The air was fresh, the breeze slight, and the birds were initiating their morning racket. I only saw a few dog-walkers on the street at that hour.

I stopped at one of the live oaks on Sahuaro Drive hoping to catch sight of a bird whose song gave me delight. I know that finding birds among the foliage gets easier with practice, but why do they always quiet or take flight once you stop nearby?

I didn’t walk far. I was looking forward to that first cup of coffee — we had set the coffeemaker to start at 6 — and I liked the idea of sitting out on the patio with The Arizona Republic spread out on the round table in front of me before the sunrise sent me back in.

“Woman had hopes of being leader,” was the headline. Valentina Blackhorse was dead at 28, leaving behind a one-year-old daughter. I didn’t know Valentina Blackhorse, but the news of her death has stuck with me.

The full-page story ran with a picture of Valentina in native Navajo dress. She was beautiful — a winner of many Miss Navajo pageants, on the administration of the Navajo Nation’s Dennehoto Chapter and with aspirations of one day being elected president of the Navajo Nation.

Now she was dead, one statistic among the 348 deaths attributed to the coronavirus in Arizona.

Local news has been covering how hard COVID-19 has hit the Navajo Nation, whose lands spread over three states, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. As of last week, more than 1000 cases of the virus have been reported, an infection rate that is nearly 10 times that of Arizona’s.

Only 175,000 members inhabit the Nation’s nearly 25,000 square miles, most of which is in Arizona. The territory is vast, yet many of its citizens lack the amenities most of us living in the U.S. take for granted: paved roads, electricity and running water. (How do you wash your hands for 20 seconds without a source of running water?)

About one-quarter of Arizona’s territory is occupied by its native reservations. Most prominently among them are the Tohono O’odham, the San Carlos Apache, the White Mountain Apache, and the Hopi. Three refrigerated trucks loaded with fresh produce left Tucson a couple of days ago, bound for the largest of these reservations. These tribal territories are food deserts, miles from medical services and fire departments, with multiple generations living within the same household.

I think one of the main reasons I can’t let go of the death of Valentina Blackhorse is that she isn’t a statistic. She’s a person. As I scan the newspaper each morning for the numbers — the cases reported and the numbers of the dead — I ask “Is the curve flattening?” Stastistics shouldn’t be uppermost in my mind.

Governor Doug Ducey has extended Arizona’s stay-at-home order until May 15 and members of his own Republican party are calling his approach “unconstitutional.” If a business decides to reopen, state Rep. Kelly Townsend says: “That’s their God-given right.”

A recall effort has been mounted.

When the governor was criticized for not informing the public of which nursing homes had outbreaks, he said: “You see them as places. I see them as people.”

The COVID-19 story is not about data; it’s about people.


Posted in Arizona, Commentary, COVID-19, Phoenix | 7 Comments

A critique of “Writers & Lovers,” by Lily King

Writers & Lovers, by Lily King is a book to savor, but one that’s hard to digest. What is it really about? Casey Peabody, whose last and real first name are only revealed in the final pages, seems to be a 31-year-old woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She is emotionally disabled by the recent and unexpected death of her mother, the accumulation of debt and the damage left by a couple of unhappy love affairs.

And that’s not all.

Casey barely can make ends meet by working the lunch and dinner slots as a waitress in Cambridge, Massachusetts, commuting back and forth by bicycle from the minimal and smelly shed she sublets from a friend of her brother. The mornings she is leaving free to work of the novel she has labored over for six years.

Every man she meets seems to want to take her to bed, so she must have something going for her. Now, two of them keep attracting her. Although every time she looks in the mirror all she sees is a disaster: a drawn face, limp hair, an unsmiling expression.

What a sad sack!

Casey’s competence, warmth, and charm come out when she is with children and when she’s on the job. She’s efficient, professional, and good with the clients, but manages to get on the wrong side of management. Workplace scenes pick up the pace of the novel. Either King worked years as a waiter or she has thoroughly researched the lingo (Kitchen Slang 101: How to talk like a real-life line cook). Here, a shrimp app is an appetizer, not an application.

King is clever at playing out how damage from her childhood contributes to her dilemmas as both a lover and a writer. Yet the breadcrumbs are so widely strewn the path is hard to follow. Muriel and Harry, the two loyal friends who stick by her, tell us more about Casey’s value than anything she says. She has such low self-esteem, I occasionally wanted to shout: “Get over it!”

There is a lot of writer to writer shop talk in this book. For example, this quote from Kay Boyle: “A good story is both an allegory and a slice of life.” That’s a keeper. So is this paraphrase of Randall Jarrell: “A novel is a long story that has something wrong with it.”

Discussing the progress she is making on her novel, Casey tells Silas that Muriel is encouraging her.

“It’s still a mess,” she says.

“Maybe a more manageable mess now with her notes in the margins helping me through. I always think of that Eliot poem,” she tells him.

“Between the idea and the reality/Between the motion and the act/Falls the Shadow,” Silas reminds her.

A book well-written and well-read dwells in that shadowland. It is a lived experience, an immersion. Herein lies the beauty of Writers & Lovers. I read it from one day to the next — unusual for me.

Clearly, writing it took King a good deal longer. I didn’t completely “get”
what she meant by it. But I felt it.

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

A critique of “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos,” by Dominic Smith

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith is a superbly plotted mystery story that alternates three time frames, three locations, and follows the paths of three characters. The subject of the mystery is the discovery of an oil painting by a seventeenth-century Dutch artist and tracking down its location.

Marty de Groot, a patent attorney in New York in 1957, discovers that a landscape painting that has been in his family for generations has gone missing. A forgery has taken its place. Ellie Shipley, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University in Art History who restores the paintings of Dutch masters, is the forger. Sara de Vos, notably a seventeenth-century painter of interiors, particularly of still-lifes and tulips, is the artist.

The present tense of the original mystery is 1957 when Marty discovers the loss and hires a detective that leads him to Ellie. Theirs is a game of cat and mouse with clever verbal banter. The complexities of their encounters pulls us into both of their personal psyches and baggage. Particularly Ellie’s. She is from Australia, a real original and unsophisticated in contrast to the monied Marty, who lives in a three-story penthouse on Park Avenue.

The setting in Golden Age Holland and the penniless life of Sara de Vos and her husband Barent rings of historic authenticity. As the first female member of the Guild of St. Luke, Sara faces restrictions on production, signing and dating work and approved sales of her paintings. The novel skillfully flashes back to Sara’s personal story and pursuit of her art.

The novel also flashes forward to Sydney Australia and the year 2000 where Ellie, now in her 60s, teaches art history and works as an art curator. More mysteries are revealed, creating complications, uncovering personal histories and presenting opportunities for future adventures.

I have a few caveat that mar my initial intention to give this historical novel my full-on approval. The descriptive language seems overly ornamental. And in his dotage, Marty de Groot seemed too enfeebled for an eighty-year-old. (I’m 79, so I know whereof I speak.)

As a lover of history and a good mystery, however, I found The Last Painting of Sara de Vos supremely satisfying. The mysteries keep unfolding through the book’s final pages. (Perhaps too neatly, at the end.) Smith establishes from the outset that there was no Sara de Vos but she is emblematic of the unacknowledged female artists of Holland’s Golden Age. As an afterword, he credits his resources for seventeenth-century women artists, art restoration, conservation and forgery.

I thank him for that.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, history | Leave a comment

Reading Arizona

A recent column in the Arizona Republic sent me to my husband’s side of the bookcase. I pulled out a copy of Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey from among the other books about the Southwest Bruce has amassed.

EJ Montini’s column, titled “Distancing tips from Edward Abbey” (April 5, 2020), argues that we should have listened to this oracle of the desert. Abbey can tell us how to take advantage of the space the current pandemic affords us. At the same time, we may learn both how to prize and to preserve all that is best about the Southwest.

Edward Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire in 1968 after spending three summers as a park ranger in southeastern Utah, in Arches National Monument. He writes of the desert’s stark beauty and the benefits of solitude in nature and in its contemplation.

“What draw us to the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote,” Abbey writes.

In his column, Montini goes to some length quoting Abbey, a man who valued space over time.

Stretch time, Abbey says. Walk.

“Life is too short to waste on speed,” he writes. “Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting.”

Many of us are troubled by how the pandemic has shortened our horizons. It has only shortened our “time” horizons. It hasn’t crimped our mental space.

Yes, here in Phoenix we live within a metropolitan area of 4.5 million people. But, folks, we can still walk our communities, get onto the Preserve. The skies in Arizona are still vast. The birds still sing at sunrise and sunset. They build their nests, peck for seeds and crumbs.

But you can read Montini for yourself. Better yet, read Abbey. I wasn’t the only one in whom the column inspired thoughts. Cal Lash, a friend I’ve made through this blog, sent copies of it to other writers in the Southwest. He even emailed Montini.

“I love the Great Sonoran Desert,” he wrote the columnist. — “What’s Left of It.”

Lash has watched metropolitan Phoenix vacuum up the desert since the ‘50s. Seventeen years ago, he moved from a 3,000 sq. ft. house on South Mountain to a 320 sq. ft. motor home in Apache Junction. Now, he contemplates moving even farther from the sprawl. Maybe to Ajo or near Tombstone.

“It’s hard to find places where the Silence Roars,” he says.

Interestingly Lash’s first communique to me was in response to a book review I had written. At the time he was making his way through a book to which he had contributed an essay: America’s Most Alarming Writer: Essays on the Life and Work of Charles Bowden.

I figured maybe I should read Charles Bowden as well as Abbey. I ordered Killing the Hidden Waters (1977), one of the earliest studies about disappearing ground water in the Southwest. When it arrived it came with an Edward Abbey imprimatur on the back cover.

Here’s what Edward Abbey wrote:

“Charles Bowden’s Killing the Hidden Waters is the best all-around summary I’ve read yet, anywhere, of how our greed-driven, ever-expanding urban-industrial empire is consuming, wasting, poisoning and destroying not only the resource basis of its own existence, but also the vital, sustaining basis of life everywhere.”

I’m a latecomer to Arizona. Bruce and I first came as “winter visitors,” seeking sun to extend our cycling season. We are now permanent residents. I have a lot to learn about my new home. (Bruce is far out in front. He already has quite a library on water issues.)

I guess Montini and the pandemic have inspired me to embark on a program I’ll call “Reading Arizona.” Anyone who reads this blog can help; let’s fatten up my reading list.

I’ve already made a start with Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, by Barbara Kingsolver; A Brief History of Phoenix, by Jon Talton; and The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, by Luis Alberto Urrea.

Next up: Desert Solitaire followed by Killing the Hidden Waters.

Posted in Arizona, Commentary, good thoughts, Phoenix | 8 Comments

A Critique of “Holding the Line,” by Barbara Kingsolver

I’m not sure why someone would read Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mining Strike of 1983 today unless he or she was a student of Arizona mining history or was trying to understand how novelist Barbara Kingsolver got to where she is today.

Published in 1989, Holding the Line is the story of how miners’ wives in two small Arizona towns took up the mantle of their laborer husbands — a bit like the soldaderas of the Mexican Revolution — and held an 18-month picket line for a union contract that never materialized. It is Kingsolver’s first full-length book — although her novel The Bean Trees came out first. It neatly demonstrates her transition from journalist to novelist.

Kingsolver follows the 18-month timeline of the strike as a storyteller, always through the eye-witness accounts of the women who lived it. This is verbatim recall: energetic, colorful, often unlettered and angry. Boiled down from hundreds of tape recordings, the lengthy quotes are sometimes monotonous, sometimes repetitive. Yet in Kingsolver’s obedience to the women’s voices, the reader can see the author’s development as a champion of the under-served and under-recognized. There is power in moral outrage.

Kingsolver was a 28-year-old part-time science writer for the University of Arizona who was supplementing her income as a freelance journalist when she got an assignment to cover the copper mining strikes against the New York-based Phelps Dodge Corporation. Union contracts at the mines in Ajo and Morenci, Silver City, NM and the smelter in Douglas were up for negotiation.

What started as a newspaper assignment for Kingsolver developed into a book. She returned again and again to record the women’s first-person accounts of the strike as it progressed. Ostensibly, the organization of the book is chronological, but as the subject matter is seen through the women’s eyes and it is their concerns that dominate the storytelling.

Negotiations over a contract broke down in June 1983 and miners went out on strike. Phelps Dodge began hiring strike breakers almost immediately. In August of the first summer the company got an injunction banning strikers from assembling at the plants’ gates. Their wives then took over the picket lines. Their participation brought in thousands of supporters.

It was their Miners Women’s Auxiliary that set up a free clinic, food pantry and rallied national and international union support. Their publicity brought in Cesar Chavez, head of the United Farm Workers Union and Ed Asner, head of the Screen Actors Guild to town and a $10,000 contribution from a November 1983 Bruce Springsteen concert in Phoenix to help fund the strikers’ free clinic. The women leaders went on nationwide speaking tours promoting the union and the strike.

Before the strike was over — eighteen months after it started — the conflict had cost the state of Arizona $1.5 million in Department of Public Safety (DPS) charges, not counting the state’s purchase of an airplane dedicated to maintaining order at strike sites . It is amazing what those in power will do to keep it. Phelps Dodge reported losing $20 million for the second quarter of 1984. The company shut down part of the Ajo mine, laying off 450 workers.

In Kingsolver’s account, the power brokers — the state, the legitimate press, even the national union overseers — either lined up behind the company or had turned a deaf ear to the 13 local unions who supported the strike. Her extensive bibliography at the end of the book shows a wide variety of sources that went into her background for the book. Not a lot of it gets into Holding the Line in a palatable way.

What does come across is that this is basically the story of brown people: The women who are quoted have mostly Spanish surnames. A mother who was always in the home, goes off to hold the line, but not before instructing her husband on how to put their daughter’s hair in a ponytail. When another is yelled at by a “scab” to go back to Mexico, she tells him: “We were always here.”

I had a special interest to uncovering this piece of Arizona history, having visited a few of the former mining and ghost towns that dot the southern part of the state. For awhile, my husband was on strike as coal miner when he lived in Utah. Together, since moving here, we have visited Ajo, Bisbee and Vulture City. Even living here in Phoenix, we see signs of the city’s mining history, on our own North Mountain, and along Dreamy Draw, which got its name for the route mercury miners took back and forth from mine to boarding house.

I have never been much of a Barbara Kingsolver fan. The Poisonwood Bible, which I read, and a NPR interview I heard, in which she touted “living on the land,” seemed morally self-righteous.

Perhaps I have sold Kingsolver short. I should give her another try. In addition to her writing and very conscious (and well reported) lifestyle choices, she funds the biannual Bellwether Prize ($25,000) to honor unpublished works that support “positive social change.” This is not a bad thing.

Though I saw confusion in how she chose to organize Holding the Line. I appreciate the author’s creativity in wedding art to morality. In the meantime, I have put Jonathan D. Rosenblum’s Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miners’ Strike of 1983 Recast Labor-Management Relations in America on my reading list. It promises to be a more satisfying piece of historical journalism.

Posted in Arizona, Book Reviews, Commentary | 6 Comments

Here in Phoenix: April 12, 2020

It’s Easter Morning. Everyone is celebrating in his or her own self-isolating way.

For us it means walking part-way up the new asphalt roadway to the towers at North Mountain. We don’t get as far as we planned. One of Bruce’s knees starts complaining. My shins are saying “ouch.”

Fine. Tomorrow is another day.

All is good here in Point Tapatio, our community on the flank of the Phoenix Preserve. The birds are singing. The ocotillos are in bloom. They are greened out and their bright orange blossoms are like little flags at the end of each branch. My backyard Prickly Pear looks good after the shower I gave it yesterday.

We are the lucky ones. We have a roof over our heads and food on the table.

I’ll cull the last lemons off our tree and take some to my friend Sandi, down the street. She tells me she is serving ham for dinner with her husband John. Bruce and I are having steak, salad and some of the good loaf of bread I had in the freezer. We may share a box of junior mints for dessert.

I’ll video call my Portland family and wish them Happy Easter.

If we stream a movie tonight it will be something light, heartwarming or funny. Last night it was a 1941 John Wayne movie, “The Shepherd of the Hills,” with Harry Carey. Maybe we’ll watch one of the Fred Rogers’ movies or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

What we need now — all of us — is comfort food for the soul.

How are you celebrating just being alive?

Posted in Arizona, good thoughts, Phoenix | 9 Comments