Imagination is like the common cold virus: it's always there, lurking, waiting for the chance to nip in and take the wheel. There's no sure cure, though you can treat the symptoms. Medical advice says let it run its course.
Today's fiction prompt: a photo I took on a fishing trip to Wyoming.
Rudolph was no fiberglass elk, bugling soundlessly on the street of Thermopolis.
He was neither the victim of a fierce electrical taping nor did he lose an ear during a wrestling match with a drunk guy.
He did not lift his rack of fiberglass antlers into the wide Wyoming sky in an effort to voice his pain.
He did not wear a saddle-pad of twinkling holiday lights.
He did not sport a compact fluorescent bulb painted red at the distal point of his noggin.
They might have let Rudolph join in any reindeer games, but little matter.
Was he like Bartleby before him, preferring not?
Or like Robert Cratchit, beetling away for the chance of a day's liberty?
Or Balthazar, with the insight to know what lay ahead?
Or maybe, inert as can be, he is like the Yule log, waiting for the dark to yield to light and then celebrate another year beginning.
Hope your season is bright.
Life is not the only thing out there imitating art.
Evidently Nature's in on it too.
According to Edgar Degas, "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." And for that I might as well go ahead and apologize.
I was thinking about the Alexander Pope quote, which was –– I thought –– Art is but Nature to advantage dressed. Or, in this case, not dressed. I meant to rift extensively on part about being undressed. Low humor, sure, and possibly dragging in the topic of saggy pants.
But when I checked the quotation (From his Essay on Criticism, which is in strictest truth a poem), Pope actually wrote:
"True wit is Nature to Advantage drest,/What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well Exprest,/Something, whose Truth convince'd at Sight we find,/That gives us back the Image of our Mind."
Oh Alexander Pope, you navel-gazing noodler.
I read Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey only after we'd hiked in Arches National park in July.
We started the Devil's Garden trail at 6:30 perhaps –– the sun was up, but the shadows were long when we left the paved trail at Landscape Arch.
Bonus travel tip: Even in the busiest and most popular national parks, we found that by hiking a few hundred yards down nearly any trail*, we could leave most of the seething mass of vacationing humanity behind.
Sad truth: few tourists do more than meander to overlook, snap a photo, and then roar off in an air-conditioned car.
Edward Abbey was right: "What can I tell them? Sealed in their metallic shells like molluscs on wheels, how can I pry the people free? The auto as tin can, the park ranger as opener."
Desert Solitaire p 290.
*Exception to the trail rule? The Narrows at Zion. It was kind of the only game in town after the landslides of 2018 (aside from scaling bare rock faces). That hike –– a wet, awe-inspiring meander up the slot canyon –– did fill up considerably come lunchtime. Early morning or off-season recommended.
So, back to the dusty devilly trail.
Devil's Garden trail is nearly 8 miles there-and-back again. A good scramble up red sandstone rocks, along ledges, through dusty piñon pine groves. We ran into families of deer –– the females showing ribs and the fawns leggy and curious –– a couple of parties of human hikers, lizards of various stripe, intriguing tracks in the sand, and the odd path marker.
Some markers odder than others. To a certain sort of thinker, this is an ambiguous sign:
I read it first as a series of nouns: road + leaf + laundry.
A series of verbs: follows + goes + cleans.
Er, nope. Because, you know, why? But interesting. Return to this thought later, I told myself, tucking the camera back into my pocket.
I stopped for a sip of water a hundred or two hundreds yards later. The words transposed themselves: Trail Wash Leaves.
That seemed nearly probable: maybe the trail had a new name. The National Park people seem to engineer their signage so that visitors can have a more genuine park experience, complete with navigational anxiety and an understanding that maps are imperfect representations of the truth.
Maybe. But probably not.
The pieces fitted together a half mile or more later: Alert, hikers: your trail, which has followed the path of this dried stream-bed –– known locally as a wash or a gulch –– is about to diverge from the stream-bed.
For the rest of the walk, series of words started presenting themselves. Triangular structures, each side a simple word that goes both ways: One can trail one's hand on the trail. One can leave the leaves behind, one can wash the wash.
Stone Ride Ice.
Rein Plant Saddle
Mount Slide Hollow.
Chant Riddle Stop.
Then we arrived back at the start of the trail.
And in the blink of an eye, we were addressing ourselves to pizza and cold beverages and a bookstore on the funky little main drag of Moab.
A tall glass of iced lemonade beaded with condensation.
A pillow-lined nook on the porch overlooking open water or a garden.
The warm breeze carrying the scent of seaweed, or pine, or fresh-cut grass clippings.
And some books.
I had the enviable job for a while of reviewing new books for the erstwhile Tampa Tribune. I'd go into my editor's office with a big empty LL Bean tote and then stagger out like a bookwormy donkey. I'd review books that I liked and ditch the ones I didn't.
As a job, it didn't pay very well, but I did get to keep the books.
These days, I don't gobble up piles of reading material. Even with the bounty of the public library easily within reach, good books seem thin on the ground. When I do find one, I wish I were still writing reviews. Word of mouth only goes so far.
And hence, a couple of summer reading recommendations.
If you are a fan of Stephen King's apocalyptic masterpiece The Stand, let me humbly suggest Joe Hill's The Fireman.
The parallels –– each a brick-sized opus with a New England setting, a fatal plague devastating the country, a pregnant heroine –– are entertaining but not distracting. Both books take place in the near future and tackle deceptively complicated moral dilemmas –– as is the wont in apocalyptic fiction.
The disruption of society in Stephen King's The Stand sets the stage for a showdown with capital-letter Evil in the form of Randall Flagg. In The Fireman, the enemy is less showy (not a Big Bad, as Buffy would say), which gives Hill's suspense an edge: what does victory look like when the evil is not separate?
Hill's take on the calamity is not a super-flu but a fungal plague that sets its victims on fire. His descriptions are vivid, his pacing brisk (hold on!), and the characters reveal themselves with a nice, writerly economy.
The Fireman requires a chunk of time; and if you haven't budgeted some hours on the porch, you may have to forego sleep to finish the book.
But isn't that what you're looking for in a summer read?
It's not fiction at all but the memoir of the author's friendship with Lucy Grealy. Grealy, of course, wrote the Autobiography of a Face about her lifelong struggle with facial cancer, facial reconstructive surgery, and a longing to be more than her own appearance. Patchett is the award-winning novelist who wrote Bel Canto, The Year of Wonders, and Commonwealth.
One of my favorite nephews was helping me shuffle boxes of stuff from one place to the other recently. With that mix of patience and impatience native to the under-20 crowd, he did not express the slightest flicker of curiosity.
Still, his doubtful expression as he slid the carton (Marked "A-16") into the back of the Honda made me want to explain a little.
"I haven't unpacked that box since before your Uncle Jeff and I got married," I ventured. Which would make it the equivalent to the Jazz Age to him.
"Toss it!" he said, then, reluctantly, "Why?"
"Because there was space?" I said. "Because I never got around to it?"
"Huh," he said. "Welp, that's the last of the pile. Anything else?"
There wasn't, except my continuing impulse to explain. And of course my own curiosity.
I hadn't unpacked the box -- or possibly even peeked into it –– for a very long time.
Under a layer of yellowed St. Petersburg Times packing paper, an old acquaintance gazed back at me.
Wide Wide World was the first real bestseller in the U.S. Published in 1850, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. And then, for a couple of solid reasons, it disappeared from most people's memories.
Why was it forgotten? Here's the short list:
1) It's a "woman's" book, which critics and scholars later tended to dismiss. What's a "woman's book"? Well, the short form is that, like Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford novels, The Wide Wide World is focused on a heroine within the limited sphere of house and hold.
2) Like Little Dorritt or The Shack, the book offers a lot of weeping. Sentimentality is all well and good, but like unhappy families, I think every generation needs its own sentimental novel. Bridges of Madison County, anyone? Jonathan Livingston Seagull?
It's almost as if the reading public wrings the emotion out of a popular book, leaving a dry husk for the next wave of readers. Or not. It's just a theory.
So it's not a book that is going to have a revival, like Beryl Markham's West with the Night*. It's not a book I'm going to read again, ever. But I don't want to forget it. And so it has waited in a cardboard box lo these many years.
Wide Wide World essentially fired up the country's book publishing industry. The novel was huge. It outsold David Copperfield in England.
But Susan Warner did NOT make a fortune from it. She and her sister started writing after their father lost all the family money in the panic of 1837. The girls were poor and writing was their best option to keep body and soul together. They managed, but they did not enjoy the life of bestselling authors. Susan went on to publish a book a year until her death at age 66. The Warner sisters have been mostly forgotten.
Mostly: they did manage to pass along their family property, Constitution Island, to the US Military Academy at West Point. The island is part of the campus, although their house (Warner House, natch) is presently in a state of disrepair.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
*A quick essay about West with the Night.
What Katy Read: Feminst re-readings of "classic" stories for girls, by Shirley Foster and Judy Simons, University of Iowa Press, 1995.
Child brides in present-day US
Goodreads page for Wide Wide World
"Loving The Wide Wide World: a novel, its fans, and their fictions" essay by Jennifer L. Brady, Harvard.
Margaret Atwood on "Women's Novels."
Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism, edited by Nancy A. Hewitt, Susanne Lebsock. University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Nineteenth-Century American Women's Novels: Interpretative Strategies by Susan K. Harris, Cambridge University Press, 1990
"Panics, Gifts, and Faith in Susan Warner's Wide Wide World" in From Gift to Commodity: Capitalism and Sacrifice in Nineteenth-century American Fiction, by Hildegard Hoeller, University of New Hampshire Press, 2012.
Susan Warner and "The Wide Wide World" by Mabel F. Sltstetter, The Elementary English Review, Vol 14, No 5 (MAY 1937), pp115-167.
When asked, many of the manly American men writers of their day used to claim that writing is easy. You just open a vein.
(Versions of the quote come from sportswriter Red Smith, sportswriter and novelist Paul Gallico, wordy novelist Thomas Wolfe, and his High-T Manliness Himself –– Ernest Hemingway. Thanks Garson O'Toole for this blog all about it.)
Um, okay, boys. Not for nothing, but bleeding is a lot easier.
Which opens the door to the real the question: why write at all. Why not just not write? Get the other things on my list done. Retire or whatnot.
I would, actually, if I could.
So far I have failed to give it up. I've alluded to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner a time or two; it's that poem with the old guy pestering people at a wedding, insisting that he tell them HIS story –– that's a pretty good illustration of what goes on over here.
And yet, despite characters shouting and raising their hands frantically in the back of my skull-duggery room and a good playlist cued up, I am dipping into Reynold Price's wonderful Learning a Trade: A Craftsman's Notebooks 1955-1997. It's an annotated journal that gives me hope: in it, Price writes about his process. He dithers and wonders about his characters' motivations and choices. He revisits and re-considers his own moral position based on the things his characters do –– or what they must do, whether he wants them to do or not.
Price was a young man at start of these notebooks studying and writing in Oxford and then back in North Carolina, before he wrote A Long and Happy Life, his first novel. By the end, he's had a has successful career, including Kate Vaiden, and a dozen other novels, as well as screenplays and short stories, books with a biblical bent, and volumes of memoir.
Here's a sample from page 77 of Learning a Trade.
20 January 1957 LONDON
But look, isn't this story in danger of ending with a kind of cheat, that is with no resolution? What is the end going to imply?: simply that she leaves home for Norfolk or wherever? Maybe Wesley had better make some kind of gesture, however small.
And page 129:
27 August 1960, DURHAM
Rosacoke has told Wesley her pregnancy. His only reaction has been silence –– then question: has she known anyone else? Then simply telling her to come on, they must practice. Her own feeling through the revelation is chiefly numbness, tiredness –– though Wesley notices on her face the same look that was there on the November night (which was described then as hate).
I haven't read the story in question, and may never do so. Can't say I am want to know about Wesley and Rosacoke. What's interesting –– and heartening –– is that Price clearly spent a good portion of his waking life playing with his paper dolls, too, imagining an inner life for these imaginary friends, worrying about their actions and what it all means.
Misery is not the only thing that loves company.
Meg Rosoff"s The Bride's Farewell.
Maybe the best book of my reading year.
So many stories start off with a interesting set-up, but then turn in to the same-old same-old:
An under-appreciated gal finds love and a glamorous makeover.
The unreliable narrator turns out to be hiding a truth worse than you think at first.
Square-jawed hero will decode the ages-old secret before the collapse of civilization.
Freakishly clever serial killer will do awful things and then get caught, except he will escape in the last paragraph.
Don't get me wrong, these books can be delightful.
But we like surprises, we people do. Which might be why I have enjoyed this book so much.
The Bride's Farewell starts with a girl running away from home the morning she's to wed. It's 1850-something, and Pell takes some food, the coins meant as her dowry, her beloved horse and, then, as she starts off, finds that her silent little brother, Bean, refuses to be left behind.
Like many another character before her, Pell is different from her dirt-poor family, from other girls, from what society expects.
It's not just her unwillingness to settle down and marry the local boy she's known her whole life. It's not just her fear of ending up like her mother, exhausted and wrung-out from endless childbearing and grinding disappointment.
No, Pell is good with horses –– really good –– and she hopes to use this skill to make her own way through the world. But she does not quite reckon on the difficulties she'll face with people.
The Bride's Farewell is full of surprises and twists that make perfect sense in hindsight (like all the best fiction). Pell's insight into the thoughts of animals (matched by her lack of insight into the thoughts of humans) is utterly convincing and thought-provoking.
At 214 pages, it's easy to down in a single sitting, but Rosoff's stylistic strengths (the writing is vivid and restrained, with only the best details filled in) bear re-reading. Now go to your local and read it.
The open road. What a trio of words. What a vision of blue sky and untouched hills and narrow trails heading God knew where and being free––free and hungry, free and cold, free and wet, free and lost. Who could mourn such conditions, faced with the alternative?"
It wasn't intentional, but I read two memoirs back-to-back last summer. Each was written by a clever youngish white American woman, each describing the choices that set her on an unusual path, each was thoughtful and entertaining –– but how different one from the other!
But books are not like friends –– where I might weigh the quirks in one against the charms of another when planning a night on the town or a weekend road-trip. Nope, books will just wait peaceably until you have time to get together. And they rarely squabble.
It wasn't original when Shakespeare put on the show. But a person has to wonder how many –– so many! –– different ways can storytellers present that sad tale of star-crossed lovers...
The kids can be members of rival gangs in Spanish Harlem, they can be old people, they can be soldiers. Maybe they survive and have a happy ending. Maybe they burst into spontaneous song and dance. Perhaps Romeo and Juliet work at the same diner. They can be a dog and a cat, they can be, oh hell, garden gnomes, or, surprisingly good in a novel as a zombie and a warm-blooded girl.
Creativity isn't about creating something from nothing. It's like recombinant DNA, picking up a little bit of this and merging it with a little bit of that. Sometimes you get an awkward chimeric failure, other times, a handsome mule of a hybrid.
Which plots (or songs) prove most inspirational? That's a whole other question.
The first Russian novel that I really enjoyed came from a friend who included an index card listing the names of the characters, including their various nicknames and honorifics.
Turns out that Russian names really are complicated. Alexander becomes Sasha. Also Alexi. And something like Alexandrushka among friends. Or they might call him Ivanovich, because that's his middle name. Another time, the same guy is referred to as Alexander Ivanovich or Alexander Dolohkov. Dolohkov being his last name, although the reader has probably long forgotten it. And so on. The index card was both a kindness and a necessity.
Does it matter what you call it? Kind of no, but kind of yes. It's the difference between a socket wrench and a open-ended one. A pencil or a pen. A steak knife or a cleaver.
In this case, here's a video clip of Spawn from the 2016 Everglades Challenge. The boat is winging along under jib and main.
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