Borrowed Time–Paul Monette

     …and “Last Watch of the Night.”  The first is about the final year or so of the author’s life-partner and the second is about the final year or so of the author’s life.  Both died of AIDS.  Paul Monette’s earlier novels are a bit of tentative gay soft porn romance–more romance than porn as I remember.  I say “tentative” because the author seems to have been searching for his authentic voice among the emerging broader voice of a rapidly evolving, newly valid genre in the chaotic realm of self-conscious, noisy American culture.  A peer of Somerset Maupin of “Tales of the City”–a most amazing set of books which also bridge the lives of characters from the 1970’s pre-HIV/AIDS era through the full blown catastrophe of the 80’s. Monette’s memoirs chronicle this time well laid to rest in the past with a humanity he didn’t have in the earlier novels.  It is a great loss to literature that we never will read any later novels by him.  

     I often feel like I live on Borrowed Time; the title is apropo. If I had more time, attention span, and  energy, I would reread this best of all such “How We Die” (Nuland), or rather, how our loved ones die books. 

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Einstein’s Dreams

     One of the great aspects of having Ely and Lea in highschool (Ely, Grant HS class of 96; Lea, Grant HS class of 97) is that I got a hold of their reading lists, got to read and often edit their papers, and got to eavesdrop in on their teachers lesson plans, comments, and wisdom.  I missed a lot in my own high school years–part of that “school being wasted on the young,” which I don’t believe for a moment but youth and age access information and entertainment and art and culture and everything from such different vantages that we may as well be different species.  Alan Lightman’s “Einstein’s Dreams” in one of the works Lea’s sophmore(?) English teacher introduced me to when I went in to talk to her about thesis sentences? Vico? something?

     It is in fact a treatise on the many guises of time. Time, herein, is delineated in its multi-faceted physical, if ephemeral, but concrete nature as revealed since Einstein made his famous early 20th century jumps.  While, simultaneously, Lightman–wonderful name for a physicist turned novelist–overlays washes of human time: e.g. a mother, who’s child has grown up and moved away, perceives it.  Time intermingled with love assumes meta-metaphor status in this gentle delight.

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The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven–Sherman Alexie

     Before I forget: Sherman Alexie is one of those authors–few and far between, but all so far in this post to one degree or another–who after I’ve read them, I think well, now, that’s been written so I don’t have to worry about writing it down myself in a novel, story, letter, or blog.  I have a sense of relief when I read his work.  This is probably not a surprise because we share time, place–he grew up in and around Spokane, Washington where the landscape was carved and scoured by the Bretz Floods just as my home territory of The Dalles/Celilo Falls was down stream.  Also, he is a poet and then some.

     I bought “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” when it first came out solely because of its title.  Upon reading, it turned out to be a remarkable work and Ken and I both were entranced with “Reservation Blues” and “Smoke Signals”–we liked the movie, though I’ve read that Alexie didn’t like the adaptation from his screenplay and critics disparaged it.

     Sherman Alexie stopped into one of Ely’s classes at UW to conduct a seminar and won Ely’s heart.  I’ve since heard him speak on NPR and seen him comment on PBS now and then.  However, the last week of summer vacation last year the day or two after I’d had my 6th and last infusion of Taxol/Carboplatin Lauren came over with the book she’d chosen from her required summer reading list.  It was “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” and she read it aloud to Ken and I.  We would laugh until it hurt and then we’d talk about it and us and being children, parents, grandparents and people living lives today in our world.  So many blessings, too many to count.

     Everybody Reads-2013, Multnomah County Library’s community reading project chose Alexie’s book of short stories: “Ten Little Indians,” and Lauren’s “The Absolutely True Diary…” for this year’s shared experience.  Congratulations to us all.

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Cosmic Comics–Italo Calvino

My all time favorite book: Calvino stretches time and space to encompass the infinite, parallel worlds, and misunderstandings across galaxies in an expanding universe.

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Steppenwolf–Hermann Hesse

I think of Ken and I as steppenwolves with our piles of books stacked around each of our chairs…We growl when forced out of our isolations and into bourgeoise society.  Ha, steppenwolves who knit!

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The Plague–Albert Camus

For several years in the ’90s I wrote nature book reviews for The Washington Times–Washington DC’s other newspaper and purported to be the only media Clarence Thomas reads.  Our friend Colin Waters was the book pages editor there; he recruited and mentored me through the sometimes excruciating process of becoming a critic which I was never more than mediocre at.  I loved receiving parcels of new books–like having Christmas several times a week–(I gave all but the few I reviewed away, most to the Grant High School Library); I liked reading and writing about the select few; but agonized through the editing process.

I learned to edit from writing and having someone edit my work.  School teachers begin this process but rarely have the time, skill, or energy to carry it far enough and didn’t for me.  College was a bust in the editing department, also–it never occurred to me during these developmental years to work on school newspapers; though I was co-sports editor for our high school’s annual my senior year and relished the layout and photography opportunities.  Growing up in small town, east of the Cascades Oregon with ever-present spectacular views of the Columbia River, the Klickatats, and Mountains Hood and Adams insured the natural history facet of my nature until OSU’s science education could hone it but I still wasn’t much of a writer, much less an editor.  Gervais was my first real editor and a hard task master he was, too.  He helped me learn to write what I wanted to say in my divorce communications.  My first experience with professional editing came about working with Meldon Kraxberger–past editor of The Rhododendron Society of America Journal.  Meldon was a self effacing 80 years old if she was a day who was a childless widow recently moved to a small apartment from her and her husband’s rhodie nursery next to the Unitarian church out in SW Portland–the one where Ely, Lea, and I went to see a Russian artist one Easter and Lea asked on the way if we had to pay money; I explained about the tithing basket to which she responded: “If they want to make money, they should bring in a bear.”  This was also the church where Ken and Pam got married.  They used Meldon’s phone to call the church people when they arrived to find everything locked up.  Meldon was a gentle lady in every sense of the word except when it came to editing when she turned into a dragon. We had some knock down drag outs over commas, semicolons, parenthesis, the ethics of rewriting whole passages or, better yet, just deleting them, etc. while editing The Berry Botanic Garden’s Newletter.

I took my new found editing skills and applied them to Ely’s and Lea’s papers; I preached the rule that nothing should be submitted without at least a good once over and better yet twice or thrice over.  Lea, years later, when applying her editing skills told her victims that her papers used to look like someone had been stabbed and bled all over after given them the once over.  Working under Colin’s tutelage, though, was a whole other kettle of fish (I’m liking trite metaphors these days, especially malapprop ones).

I have some notes from Colin’s and my phone conferences.  One says: “remember semantics,” another: “think pithy.”  I still have to look up “semantics” in the dictionary, only these days I google it.  One recent example occurred in my ovarian cancer surgeon’s office when I asked her if the difference between “persistent disease” (which I have at this point in the process) and “recurrence” is just a matter of semantics.  She paused, because these are medical appellations and do have specific, inherent medical science meanings, then said: Yes.  Pithy is harder to do than one would think.

After a year or so of nature reviews, Colin thought it time for me to branch out, become a true critic and do a novel.  He sent along a translation of The General by an Albanian author whose name escapes my memory–I know it is not Milan Kadera, who I’ve been confusing him with.  In my review I alluded to Albert Camus’s The Plague.  Colin was scathing in his edits especially to, in his opinion, my misapplied Camus point.  Colin said The Plague was one great metaphor for WWII.  I was amazed because I didn’t see that at all.  I read The Plague in my young adulthood as a story about an epidemic of plague truamatizing a city in Northern Africa–it was a good story but I think Camus loses a lot in translation.  I didn’t let Colin’s interpretation change my opinion–he lived through The Blitz, I didn’t–but I did see how important works could be completely different for different readers and retained confidence that whatever I read, or didn’t read, in a work was as relevant as anyone else’s take.  Several years later when our retired UV English professor friend Michael Stanton, who authored Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards: Exploring the Wonders and Worlds of JRR Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, said that it was not a WWII metaphor, I heartily disagreed and cited Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (I know it is about WWI) and Doing Battle by Paul Fussel. My novel review didn’t get published.  I tried one more novel, missed the important metaphors in it also, plus I thought it was stupid and said so and that the author, another Vermonter should find some other life work.  I came to realize that I didn’t want to read books that I didn’t like and I didn’t want to say piddling negative things about other people’s creations.  I quit.  Colin and I remained great friends until his death in 2003.  He was my first email buddy even as he failed as a literary mentor and majorly succeeded in propelling my writing down its esoteric path.

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Moby Dick–The Great American Novel

     I didn’t write this book blog yesterday because, I rationalized, it was Sunday and a day of rest and it might be a bit neurotic to write something, anything, everyday.  However, I did think about words, books, and notes…at 3:30 AM when I was laying awake waiting  for my cold meds to kick in so I could go back to sleep.  I am off Adivan (anti-anxiety medication) now so no longer sleep through the night and well into the morning; it was probably the culprit in these “step on my soul” feelings I’ve been having because of its rebound potential.  Mostly, I’m nursing myself back to wellness with a lot of help from you all: my community.

     Apparently, the crew of the ‘Pequod’ serves as a metaphor for community. according to English Lit. Professor, immigrant since he was 6 years old from Santo Domingo, Junot Diaz.  Diaz sees “”Moby Dick as the first modern novel which jibes with my sense of it and discusses it here with Bill Moyers: http://billmoyers.com/guest/junot-diaz/

     I would only add that “Moby Dick” is as one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.  Just hearing the title makes me smile.  As a metaphor for America “Moby Dick” complexly satisfies in its ernestness and horror, but mostly in an egocentric, pervasive silliness which is as delightful as it is reflective and is completely American.  Art Spieglemann caught a similar note by representing Americans as dogs in his “Maus” duet.  Joseph Heller’s “We Bombed in New Haven” also is a child of “Moby Dick.”  We are lucky to be a country with such a definitive novel so early in our history. 

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