recent reading adventures

Posted December 12, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Rants and ruminations, Reviews and Responses

You’ll recall that I traveled to Seattle over the long Thanksgiving weekend to visit my son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter. (They have another on the way!) I find flying tedious and time consuming and hardly an adventure, but it is an effective way to get from right here to far there. And I look on it as a way to get a lot of good reading done. Generally I treat myself to a new book to carry on, one that I can conceivably finish en route.

I began with great ambitions. This was to be the trip when I would re-read Moby-Dick. (I would not have finished it en route.) I have a nice paperback copy of the Norton Critical Edition that would travel well, and the night before departure I pulled it from the shelf to flip through it. I was daunted. It seemed too dense for easy reading in unfavorable conditions — it deserves close and careful reading and time for reflection, none of which, I’ve found, is possible on an airplane. (Plus the print was really small.) And so, that night I found myself at Half Price Books, scouring the shelves for something to take on the flight with me.

I settled on The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin. I’d not read any of his writing before, and the story looked interesting enuf to keep me reading on a plane. (Plus the print was not really small.)

When we got to the airport that next morning, I found that — yes — I had left the book on my desk at home, dagnabit! This meant that I would either face a nearly four-hour flight with only my murky thoughts to occupy me or I would have to find something tolerable to read in the tiny, over-priced newsstand tucked into terminal B at the Kansas City airport. I approached the newsstand hopeful and doubtful. (Would that qualify as cognitive dissonance?) Best sellers mostly, with a horrifying selection of self help and business management tomes. I read the titles several times, trying to find something I thought I could stomach. The least offensive-seeming was a novel titled All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I had known of this book before, but because it had to do in large part with (historical) Nazis, I had never picked it up. Pickings were slim, however, and boarding was approaching, so I bought it. It was only then than I noticed the embossed emblem on the cover saying it had won the Pulitzer Prize. Well, that took me from doubtful to full-on hopeful.

I bought it under a sort of lending-library scheme. I could return the book when I was finished to any seller in dozens of airports around the world and get half my money back. Then it would go back on the shelf for the next reader. I doubted that the copy I would return would be in decent enuf shape to be returnable, with it going in and out of my carry on, getting stuffed in the seat back pouch in front of me, and all of the rough handling travel tends to cause. To verify my understanding, though, I asked the cashier if I could return it to the bookstore in the Sea-Tac airport when I got there, and she said yes but then scoffed that I could finish it in the time it took to fly there. Well, I saw that as a challenge. At 530 pages, it was beyond me, of course, but I began reading it as we waited to board, determined to give it a try nonetheless.

All the Light We Cannot See turned out to be an engrossing read, an ensemble of characters well drawn with an adventure before them just up to the edge of being implausible, but not quite. I wouldn’t call it a deep read, but it was very good storytelling. I did not finish it before reaching Seattle. I got half way though, and if I was diligent, I could at least return it to the same newsstand where I had bought it when I was back five days later.

I was more than diligent. Given that our trip to Seattle was governed by the whims, patience, and naps of a fussy two-year-old, we didn’t do much sightseeing and I had a lot of downtime at my son’s house. (Remember that I finished writing one story and wrote an entirely new story while there.) I finished the novel a couple of days before our return flight. Fortunately, one of the places my granddaughter allowed us to visit was an outdoor shopping mall that included an Amazon brick-and-mortar bookstore, which was a sort-of sight to see of its own. I wandered the fiction shelves there (while she frolicked on the covered playground) and bought myself a slim novel (186 pages) called A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. He is another writer I had never read before, and the novel seemed readable on the coming, shorter flight back home. (Tail winds and the conceit that it was “downhill” meant shorter travel time.)

Realizing that I would easily finish the Isherwood novel on the flight, I visited the Sea-Tac bookstore at departure to find something else to use up the remainder of my air time. And once again, the choices that would interest me were slim. I settled on The Painter by Peter Heller. I didn’t know this writer at all, but the blurb on the back cover sounded interesting, being either a penetrating view into the souls of several complicated characters or a tough-guy shoot-em-up. I couldn’t tell, but it was a book in hand that would fill the tedious hours.

When we boarded the plane I opened A Single Man and began reading. The style was interesting, and since I haven’t read much gay literature, I was looking forward to the tale. But then I decided I was going to close my eyes for just ten minutes. The next thing I heard was that we were beginning our descent into Kansas City. Dagnabit, again!

I finished the Isherwood novel several days after returning home (it was a good read) and then picked up The Night Listener, which had been waiting patiently for me. I was engrossed and managed to finish it quickly. One sign that I enjoyed a book is when I find myself interested in reading another by that author, and I intend to explore more of Maupin in the future. I’m also interested in watching the film made of it. The ending is ambiguous in the extreme, and I’m eager to see what they do with it in the film. (There is also a film version of A Single Man that I want to see now.)

Shortly after this I finished Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (so you don’t have to). I had been poking away at this autobiography for several weeks and left it at home during my travels. This book was disappointing, though I suppose to fans it would be interesting. The book is packed with anecdote and admissions, boisterousness and betrayals, but throughout I found myself wanting to hear the other side of the many story he told. He seemed to be trying too hard to make himself seem like a flawed but decent man. At 500+ pages, I still found little in the way of actual substance in the book.

I am now reading The Painter. I fear it’s going to be the shoot-em-up, but I’m giving it a chance.

As for All the Light We Cannot See, when we got back to Kansas City I did not return it to the newsstand there for half of my money. It was packed in my stowed luggage, and by the time we had collected that, it was time to find the shuttle to where we’d left our car so we could dash off to the “camp” where we’d boarded our dogs. So the novel sits on my desk. A dedicated trip to (and from) the airport to return it would cost in gas a good chunk of money that would negate much of the refund, and with family coming to town for the holidays, it’s possible that I will be traveling to the airport. If I have the presence of mind to take the book with me should I make that trip, and I have the time whilst there, I could return the book then.

But my wife has said she might like to read it. She usually has a half dozen books going at one time so she’s not a fast reader (of a given book). The return window for the Doerr novel is six months. I suspect this book will join the others sitting on a shelf to eventually be donated to the small-town library near my woods in the Ozarks, but that’s a good thing too.

 

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a matter of perspective

Posted December 11, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

Tags: , ,

In my old blog, Roundrock Journal, I had kept a lexicon of words and phrases I used regularly that I thought readers might appreciate understanding a bit more deeply. “Tawny tussocks” for example was not an exotic dancer but a reference to little bluestem grass. “Loathsome goo” was the muck and mire at the bottom of the pond, in which I had once sunk to my thighs when I had dared to venture in there, nearly losing my shoes as I tried to extract myself.

I had also defined the distinction between “critters” and “varmints.” “Critters” were any kind of naturally occurring wildlife, looked on benignly by me. “Varmints” were critters that had gone bad, making some affront to my presumed mastery over the place. The mice that had found their way into the cabin recently were varmints.

On our trip to the woods two weekends ago, we saw more evidence of varmints. Above is the only survivor of ten shortleaf pine trees I had planted on one of the islands in the lake. (That it is rarely an island because the lake is generally too low is beside the point; the definition stands!). I had raised a chicken-wire fence around the trees — about four feet tall — and visited them regularly to do what I could to nurture them (not much). Because they had to rely on the rain to be watered and whatever nutrients might be in the rocky soil of the island, their chances had never been good, and that one of them survived at all and even thrived was a kind of validation to me.

But you see it above. It’s been vandalized. Some buck deer needed to rub the velvet off his antlers, and rather than use any of the thousands of cedar trees nearby, he apparently jumped the fence into the smallish enclosure and ravaged my pine. Those green things you see on the ground are its lower branches. Varmint!

The bark has been stripped away but this, apparently, is not a threat to the tree. Several of the pines in the plantation suffered this similar abuse and have grown into tall trees.

We repaired the fence as much as we could and continued on our hike.

And I suppose the forest could consider me a varmint. See the evidence here:

There are many trees in my forest like this. I have wedged a round rock or two into their clefts and left them there. Sometimes I find the rocks dislodged, presumably from windy days that make the trunks sway and separate. But there are others where the rocks remain, and one of them now has three rocks wedge into it, the first being nearly completely swallowed by the growing tree.

one-match fire

Posted December 8, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

Tags:

Once again, I didn’t intend for so much time to pass between posts, but life happens, I guess. I am sad to say that for the entire month of November, I did not make a single visit to my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks. And looking at the calendar for December (with family coming and holidays and obligations and such), I saw few weekends when I could visit then. So when the first weekend of December opened, I took the chance and we went to the cabin for an overnight.

The Saturday started with us driving west forty miles to my son’s house to watch little Emmett while his mom and dad strung Christmas lights on their house. He’s a sweet and busy boy and he kept us busy while they were busy. But that ended mid-morning and we returned home to pack the truck for our trip one hundred miles southeast to Roundrock. The dogs are always eager to jump in the truck, and most of the time they are going someplace nice: the park or the cabin or just a drive. Sometimes, though, they are going to “camp” where we leave them for days at a time. They’d recently gone to camp when we went to Seattle for Thanksgiving, but they seemed to have forgotten that trauma when it came time to jump in for Roundrock.

And so off we went. Arriving later in the day, and with sunset maddeningly early, my only agenda item was to burn the wooden parts of an old compost bin that had been rotting in our backyard for decades. You can see some of it in the photo above, at the top, to the left of the flames.

So once we were unpacked and the cabin was thoroughly checked for mice (none found, nor any sign), I began work on my one-match fire and soon, successfully, had it going. We were running out of daylight quickly, and we still had burgers to cook, so instead of throwing the bin bits on the fire, I put on some oak I had cut and split during the summer. I’d hoped it had seasoned enuf to burn fast and make coals. The white oak did better than the blackjack oak, but once we had some glowing embers (and the falling sun), we moved them under the grill and dropped the burgers on. I spent a lot of time fanning these embers to keep them hot, even rousing a flame now and then. (The constant heat of coals is better than the variable heat of flames for cooking.) Longer than perhaps necessary, we finally called the burgers cooked, and Libby slipped them onto waiting buns, prepared with Swiss cheese, pickles, and hot mustard. We devoured those, with the help of the dogs, and then it was time to burn the bin.

I had four panels to burn, and each was a larger dimension than the fire ring. So I simply laid the first atop the fire, letting it overlap the blocks until it burned enuf for me to push it all in.

The bin had been made by my neighbor and used in his yard for years. (In fact, a walnut tree had sprouted in it one year, thriving in the rich soil, and I dug it up — with permission — and planted it in my pine plantation. It’s thriving there now.) My neighbor did not do things half way. This bin was solid, and though I was able to separate the four walls, I did not want to break them down any farther. Hence my overlapping plan.

The first panel took its time getting ignited, but once it did, it burned bright, hot, and quick. The flames were taller than I am, and I began to wonder how recently it had rained in my little forest. The fire was contained in the ring, and I had been careful to rake away all of the leaves within a dozen feet of it, but even so, I worried that this big thing could somehow get out of control. That didn’t stop me from putting on a second panel a little while later. It did the same, burning slowly then quickly. I did decide after two, however, that that would be all for the evening. I could probably have burned the other two, but with the darkness having fallen, and me being exhausted anyway, I didn’t think it was prudent. So they wait for my next visit.

In retrospect, I probably should not have burned these panels. The wood had been treated to prevent rot — and that worked for a long time — so burning them likely released all kinds of toxins into the atmosphere. That’s also why we didn’t use their coals for cooking our food.

We did other things in our woods last weekend, including a hike and the usual general upkeep needed for a neglected cabin, but maybe I’ll tell you about that in another post.

the unbearable creativity of distance

Posted November 27, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons, Humble efforts, short stories

Tags:

Depending on when you are reading this, I may be several miles above the planet, winging my way home from Seattle. My visit was circumscribed by the needs (demands?) of a fussy almost two-year-old, so I didn’t do much in the way of sight seeing or touristy stuff. (Nor did I go running, though had I wanted, it happened that the Seattle Marathon took place while I was in town. The day was filled with ominous clouds and frequent rain and plummeting temperatures, but despite such delightful conditions, I could not have done anything respectable with that distance right now.)

I did, however, manage to finish two stories. (I am as amazed as you are!) The first is the story I’d mentioned recently called “Forest Succession.” I’ve already sent it to a trusted reader, and I’m feeling good about it. It is not part of the One-Match Fire novel, but it does deal with many of the characters in there, though much later than the time period the novel covers. (I have a vague notion of writing a sequel to that collection.)

The second is a wholly new story that I’m calling “The Kick” and that is unrelated to anything I’ve written, though it is about running, sort of. I’ve often growled at the word count limit of many publications. A thousand words just doesn’t seem enuf to tell a solid story; the shortest of mine start at more than twice that number. Yet “The Kick” comes in at just over one thousand words, so maybe I finally have a contender. It’s only a first draft, of course, so it is likely to change.

I didn’t have much trouble adjusting to the two-hour time difference in Seattle (though the evenings were tough). Since I am naturally an early riser, I had no trouble with that part of the day; I actually had to sleep in. And since the household was quiet in the early hours, and since I had copious amounts of iced tea (unsweetened, of course), I found myself before my laptop with my ideas in my head, and the words flowed.

So this leaves me with the question, do I need to travel long distances and be in unfamiliar places in order to write? Does it do something to stimulate my creative ferment?

the Transcendentalist and the detective

Posted November 24, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

Tags: ,

Having read somewhat extensively both Thoreau and Sherlock Holmes, I guess I kind of knew this at a subconscious level: it turns out that Henry David Thoreau and Sherlock Holmes are actually the same person!*

And apparently there are many of us who are convinced of this truth.

__________

In other news, today is Black Friday, and I traditionally spend the day at my cabin in the woods in defiance of the dictates of our frenzied consumer culture. I am, however, instead in Seattle visiting my son and daughter-in-law and granddaughter, Elaheh. I saw a rainbow upon my arrival, which persuaded me that the sun does make an appearance here, but like most of my visits to the PNW, I expect the sun to appear only on the day I arrive and the day I leave and naught in between.

 

*And then there is this speculation!

succession success

Posted November 20, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been making some progress on a new story. Since then I’ve more than doubled the word count, and that was after some serious editing to clean out excessive phrasing. It’s a tighter story, even as it’s grown longer overall.

The working title is “Forest Succession” and you can guess that it’s about the little cabin in the woods that my One-Match Fire family has. It’s not a story for that novel; in fact, it occurs many years after the end of that novel. But it involves the same characters and the hundred-acre forest they have been going to for four generations (five if you count the great, great grandfather who first bought the property).

The idea I’m writing toward is that just as a forest goes through a succession of trees in a cycle that eventually repeats, so the property is going through a succession of people coming to it who will leave their own marks on it.

I should have a first draft finished with one more writing session. It’s satisfying.

hello

Posted November 16, 2017 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Ramblings Off Topic

Yeah, I’m still here. Life intervenes sometimes.

I am making some satisfying progress on a new story and otherwise just moving along.

A sixth grandbaby is due in April.

We will have five houseguests for the Christmas holidays, three of whom will be under three years old.

I earned one black toenail from the half marathon last month.