“The Book Shopper – a Life in Review” by Murray Brown

This book is fun, and useful to anyone looking for suggestions in the category of modern fiction and (to a lesser extent) non-fiction. Brown and I have several things in common. We’re both frustrated book reviewers. We both have blogs. His is at www.thebookshopper.org Neither of us is listed in Wikipedia. Or if Murray Brown IS there, he’s lost among a crowd of other people with the same name.

The memoir aspects of this book are as interesting as his opinions about books. One early influence was his grandmother, who loved books, patronized her local library and eventually asked her grandson to pass along his copies of the New York Times Book Review.

Did you ever hear of “competitive reading”? In eighth grade, Brown (unable to win distinction as an athlete) decided to read the most books of any pupil in his class. At the end of the school year, he received a trophy. Would he have been happier with a free meal at Pizza Hut, the bribe offered to my sons in elementary school?

One way or another, some of us get hooked on books.

“A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska – The Story of Hannah Breece” edited by Jane Jacobs

I was on vacation (in Alaska) and had promised myself I wouldn’t buy gifts for family and friends – I was trying to travel light. But when I saw this book, I had to have it! Memoirs about Alaska’s early days are numerous, but this one stood out because of the identity of the editor. Jane Jacobs is identified on the book cover as author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Yes, that Jane Jacobs! A Google search of her name yields 22 million hits! Okay, it’s a pretty common name, but I’ll bet the majority refer to the “American-Canadian journalist, author and activist” smiling out at me from Wikipedia (but modestly absent from the book). Hannah Breece, sadly, is not listed in Wikipedia. I hope this is remedied soon.

How did Jacobs-the-activist end up editing this 193-page memoir? In a sense, she inherited the job. Hannah Breece was Jane Jacobs’ aunt. Late in Ms. Breece’s life, when she had retired to Oregon, acquaintances urged her to write about her experiences teaching in Alaska from 1904 to 1918. She asked friends and relatives to return her letters, and used them to assemble a memoir. It was not published. Jane Jacobs admits she was put off by the racism, sexism and colonialism detectable in her Aunt’s writing, though they were merely a reflection of the times.

Hannah Breece died in 1940, and Jane Jacobs published the memoir in 1995! She added detailed commentary that tremendously enhances the value of Ms. Breece’s record. Under the heading of “Puzzles, Tangles, Clarifications”, she addresses the social and political climate of Alaska, its relation to the rest of the US and numerous omissions in the memoir. (In fact, Ms. Breece had left out a great deal.) Jacobs offers seven brief essays clarifying various points. My favorite was #6, entitled “Miraculous Rescues”.

Make no mistake, Hannah Breece was very fortunate to have survived her time in the wilderness. Any newcomer to Alaska had to be smart, strong and LUCKY to deal with the hazards of climate, wildlife, topography and lack of government. Ms. Breece recounts two experiences that “should” have killed her, for which no “rational” explanation of her survival can be offered. Jacobs doesn’t back off from this complex territory. She assigns one experience (a near drowning) to the category of “intuition”. Before crossing a frozen bay, Ms. Breece felt “irrational” fear that was readily explainable after the fact. The second experience was more complex. Perhaps, suffering from hypothermia, Ms. Breece hallucinated. She was helped by a person who wasn’t there. In her dire need, did she remember someone strong and competent from her childhood?

Now that I’ve read it, I’ll pass this book along to the intended recipient. It’s a good thing he likes used books!

“Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson

K S Robinson writes a great survival/adventure story. I couldn’t stop reading. Aurora is a real page turner. But Aurora isn’t on my list of favorite science fiction/fantasy. Why?

The plot is weak. SO many good ideas from the first section of the book just evaporate. Gone – when their further development would have been so interesting. Who were the five ghosts, and how do we account for them on a space ship? How many travelers went “feral”? What could be done about the difficulty of deciding who could have a baby, and when?

On the other hand, “Aurora” contained some wonderfully mind blowing plot twists. One involved the “structured forgetting” of an event that had the potential to destroy a small group (2000 people) that could only survive through intense, consistent cooperation. I’m always interested in schism and schismatics, and the meaning of “the rule of law”. When a sophisticated computer develops self awareness and identity, and then announces its role as “sheriff”, I’m intrigued.

I was, early on, a little offended by the computer-develops-personality theme, regarding it as being stolen from 2001 A Space Odyssey. But did Arthur C Clarke really invent that? Who did? In Aurora, it works well, and I enjoyed it. Interestingly, the emerging computer/person was first called Pauline, but later merely addressed as “Ship”, not even consistently capitalized. “Ship” seems to have taken a step back from human relationships when it’s first “friend” died.

Like HAL (in 2001), “Ship” had to intervene to save the project (interplanetary travel), taking steps as radical an interfering with the 3D printers used to produce objects required for survival and lowering oxygen levels to suppress violence. “Ship” prevented disorder from growing into warfare, if the term can be used within a group of only 2000 people. “Ship” also took over entirely, easing its passengers into hibernation when food supplies failed, and carefully reawakening them later.

The characters are not as well developed as in the author’s highly amusing New York 2140. Freya, the closest to a protagonist aside from Ship, baffles me. She becomes a leader unintentionally, and a symbol of the prolonged mental and physical suffering of all the space travelers. Finally making it back to earth, she speaks out on behalf of “involuntary space travelers” like herself, people born into their difficult if not fatal roles due to decisions made by their ancestors. How is this different from being the child of an immigrant? Perhaps it is an issue of scale. An immigrant (theoretically) gains a “whole new world”. A person born on a multigenerational space flight faces a very, very restricted existence.

Robinson is a prolific author, with 19 books and many short stories published. I will sample further before I decide how I think his works will stand the test of time, whether any of them can be classified as “literature”.

Schodak Island State Park, Schodak Landing, New York

https://parks.ny.gov/parks/images/018805be-1f62-4217-9015-728d3eddfe67.jpg

I didn’t pick this campground! Flood plain location, built on dredge spoil, near two rail lines AND under a turnpike bridge. Really, who decided to put a state park here? Just as well I didn’t know all of that in advance.

Schodak Island State Park turned out to be great! For starters, it’s close to the mighty Hudson River, so beautiful and historic. The State Park is relatively new, so the bathhouses are nicer than anything I saw in other New York state park campgrounds. The bathhouses were helpfully marked “shelter here in case of inclement weather”. I’ve experienced enough “inclement weather” in my camping trips to be very grateful for clear advice.

After flush toilets and hot showers, what makes a good campground? At Schodak Island, the campsites have been improved with a layer of sand, so securing tent stakes is easy. The camping area is blessed with tall trees and wildflowers. With only 66 sites, the campground felt cozy.

The highway and train bridges near the site are very, very high. I never heard the highway traffic. I heard the train engines moving past, but only once in three days did I hear a shrill whistle.

Management and staffing are important. At this state park, facilities were clean and functional. Our main contact was a friendly campground host, who not only answered questions but also delivered wood and ice for a nominal sum, whenever we wanted it. Delivering wood is smart management, as scavenging by campers can be destructive. The ice delivery was a GREAT luxury in a campground that’s relatively isolated. If there was a convenience store within 5 miles, I didn’t spot it.

So how did we spend our time in the woods? The usual… eat and talk… talk and eat. Plenty of casual hiking and bird watching. Bicycling for the more ambitious.

PileatedWoodpeckerFeedingonTree.jpg

A little north of the State Park, I saw my first pileated woodpecker! (Photo from Wikipedia. I was in a moving car…)

Some of us are diehard public transit enthusiasts, and Schodak Island is, in fact, quite readily accessible, by (you guessed it) TRAIN. There’s a station about 20 minutes to the north (Albany Rensselaer) and another a little further south (Hudson). Three campers took advantage of this.

So I take back some of what I’ve said about New York state campgrounds in the past. (It wasn’t nice.) I’ll be happy to return in the future.

PS! Almost forgot something very nice! We found a shelf of books on the outside of the bathhouse – a “free library”, so if it rains and you forgot to bring something to read, there it is! The reaction of most of our group was “I should have brought some books”.

Intersectionality – a personal essay

“Intersectionality” is getting lots of buzz. (See Chronicle of Higher Education, for example. Google it, for more than you ever want to know.)

I stepped into an intersection yesterday. Not in a street, but at my usual place-of-yoga, the local Hindu Temple. I have a long, comfortable relationship with the Temple. They offer yoga in return for a $5 donation. I speak well of them in the community.

Yesterday the regular yoga space looked different. The amount of artwork on the walls had been doubled, and two beautiful “altars” had been arranged, decked with candles and floral arrangements. What?! I had never seen this degree of formality at the Temple. We learned that a Vietnamese group was holding a meeting or celebration. Preparations had been made. Are there Hindus in Vietnam? I don’t think so. My guess is that the group is Buddhist.

Wikipedia tells me that Buddhism is the dominant religion in Vietnam, carrying with it strong veins of Taoism and Confucianism originating in China. I’m not sure what script I was seeing on the new posters in the Temple. Possibly a version of Sanskrit, but it didn’t match the flowing script seen around the Temple.

The Vietnamese event was not set up in the sacred part of the Temple, with the God images. I couldn’t tell if the human figures on the Vietnamese posters correspond in any way to the Hindu deities, or whether they are intended to be divine. I have so many questions!

So many stories waiting to be told. The world comes to my neighborhood!

Penn Museum and Penn Cultural Heritage Center

My son invited me to celebrate Mother’s Day in “the city”, which in our case means Philadelphia. This is where we went:

Penn Museum

Hello India

I highly recommend both the Penn Museum and this special exhibit! First, the Museum. What a beautiful place! If you need peace and quiet and beauty, here it is. I think you can dine in the cafe without even entering the exhibit area.

Our first stop was the special exhibit “Cultures in the Crossfire”. One of the heartbreaking aspects of war is the destruction of artifacts, buildings and neighborhoods – all the things that make up a way of life. People are displaced. Language and identify become blurred. This is what the Cultural Heritage Center has to say about itself: “…(our) mission is to activate conversations about why the past is important…” The stories from Iraq and Syria conveyed in this exhibition are very sad.

We moved on to one of the classic permanent exhibits. Who can resist mummies?

Finally, we visited an additional special exhibit, “Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now”. I especially admired the contemporary silver jewelry.

We decided to continue the multicultural theme of our day by dining at an Indian restaurant with a great buffet, the “New Delhi” at 4004 Chestnut Street. Highly recommended! Let’s not forget that culture includes food.

“Gunnloethe’s Tale” by Svava Jakobsdottir

This Icelandic novel was written in 1987 and translated into English in 2011. I’m glad I read the Translators Afterword FIRST. (Come to think of it, I would always advise reading the translator’s notes before starting a book, if you know the work was written in another tongue.)

Translation aside, this is already a twice told tale, being a classic (authorless) myth that was “codified” in writing in a thirteenth century treatise. Svava Jakobsdottir brings the story to modern Iceland, for a third expression of the ancient story line.

A young Icelandic woman steals an old and very beautiful chalice from a Danish museum. Nothing about the crime makes sense. How did she lay hands on it? What motivated her? The explanation she offers is so bizarre that an insanity plea is considered. Her mother, traveling to Denmark, loses her “ultra modern professional woman” identity and falls in to the company of strangers. Mother and daughter begin to relive events from the Icelandic saga of Gunnloethe, with its themes of gifting and betrayal.

There are two voices in the story, the modern voice of the mother and a older “mythic” narration on behalf of the daughter. I liked the modern voice, which was vigorous and straightforward. The “mythic” voice seemed stilted.

The author used an interesting plot device to “date stamp” her book. The mother, in Copenhagen, suddenly finds herself in an unruly crowd. Later she learns about the explosion at Chernobyl (in Ukraine, Soviet Union) that released radioactivity across Scandinavia. Protests and disorder ensued. The plot of the book NOT really being impacted, I believe the author included this unmistakable historic event so that future readers will know, without question, that the book was written after 1986. The Chernobyl disaster was a modern glance into the open gates of Hell, the underworld that figures so prominently in Scandinavian mythology.

Sagas are a great source of literary inspiration. This one is well worth your time. Serious/academic readers should seek scholarly interpretation – I’m not well qualified to comment on this book.

PS: Later comment! Prowling on the page after the title page of Gunnloethe’s Tale, I found the following statement: “The translator’s moral right to be identified as the translator of the work has been asserted.” I’ve never seen this before. But I accept it, and have added the name of Oliver Watts to the tags on this post, hoping to increase the chance he will be found by those who might seek him. I can’t FIND Oliver Watts. There’s only one such person in Wikipedia (the first place I looked) and plainly it’s the wrong man. I occasionally contact authors and others, especially when I feel their work suffers from lack of well deserved exposure. I’ve got two more leads – Norvik Press and The Icelandic Literature Fund.

And, by the way, I couldn’t figure out how to get an unlaut (the double dot) over the “o” in Gunnloethe, so I settled for jamming in the extra “e”. Sorry if this complicates anyone’s search process.