Category Archives: books

Oregon rain, rivers, and beaches.

Umpqua River

Two new pieces of equipment helped immensely to make my Oregon road trip a joy: the first good raincoat I’ve ever had, and my new iPhone. The way they accomplished this was by helping me to relax so that I could be receptive to all the people, scenery, stories, and weather that came my way.

Vine Maple

Not long ago I figured out how to use the maps feature on my cell phone, and now I engage the help of the eternally patient lady who tells me when and what direction to turn. She is the only navigator I’ve ever had who knows all the roads, and even if I miss my turn several times, she never gasps or raises her voice or shows the least bit of anxiety about the situation. She doesn’t shame me.

I’m really poor at orienting myself – I get turned around so easily and even after studying maps, I often go the opposite direction from what I intend. This makes me a unlikely road-tripper, because if I explore new places the threat of getting lost keeps an undercurrent of anxiety flowing. I wasn’t quite conscious of this feeling until it was gone.

Going north from home, I almost always stop at Pippin’s near the top of California, because it’s about five hours away, and that is certainly long enough to drive in one day. I get to see Scout, Ivy and Jamie, and often take a walk, hold a purring cat, and see some new flower or insect.

lotus

I smell the trees, which perhaps because of the density of the forest make their aromas intensely present. Getting out of my car in their driveway, I am handed a delicious and rejuvenating drink in those first whiffs of pine and cedar and fir.

Ivy showed me her Hole, the spot she has appropriated where the furniture does not come together the way her parents would like, but where a child can be glad of the wonkiness, and fit snugly.

 

Oxeye Daisies

This time, I continued to Pathfinder’s in southern Oregon where my third grandson in that family was graduating from high school. I wore my raincoat when we went to the ceremony, where the mist turned to drizzle turned to rain, and at one moment all of the graduates, who were sitting in the open, stood up and donned ponchos. We the audience had roofs over us, but we sat on metal bleachers and our legs and backs stiffened with the damp and cold. Our particular group was snacking on Peanut M&M’s and Red Vines during the whole evening, leftovers from an afternoon graduation party we’d enjoyed in the rain, under umbrellas and awnings. I felt a special camaraderie sharing the mildly uncomfortable local weather with my people. It was for a good cause.

My raincoat was a recent purchase that I think God must have prompted me to accomplish, because after trying in late winter to find a really good and proper raincoat, something I’ve never had, I had given up and decided to wait until the fall when there would be more selection. Then I got a 20% coupon for a store that was having a 40% off sale, and I couldn’t resist trying again, and succeeded. I put my beautiful rain gear in the closet for next fall, not having any idea at the time that I would soon be needing it.

Pathfinder and Iris took me on a Sunday afternoon outing that included a visit to Mill Creek Falls and Pearson Falls on the Rogue River. The rain seemed to have let up that afternoon, but the woods were very moist and lush. The Rogue River is a beauty!

Rogue River

Mill Creek Falls

When I left my family, I drove farther north visiting the Oregon Coast and the town of Astoria where I’d been with my late husband four years earlier. At that time we’d said we must come back for a more leisurely visit, and this was my chance to do just that.

I wanted to climb the Astoria Column again and stare at the misty rivers that were the waterways and/or neighborhood for Lewis and Clark, that winter that they spent on the Pacific Coast before returning cross country to make their report to President Thomas Jefferson. And I wanted to walk on Oregon beaches and collect more sand samples to add to my tiny collection.

I took all day getting up the state. I kept trying to take pictures of the oxeye daisies that were sprinkled everywhere and waving so cheerfully even in the rain. But the ones that are weeds in Pippin’s flowerbed are the prettiest.

I stopped at Manzanita Beach and walked with a friend – um, having forgotten my raincoat ! in my car, so I was exposed to the gentle and mild Oregon rain that fell that afternoon, and felt better for it. That’s how Oregonians do, anyway! A change of clothes was also waiting in my car.

My B&B was in the hilly part of town, above the Columbia River, and my room, “Little Hummers,” was up high enough that I had this view of the river the night I arrived late:

Another thing I liked about my lodging was that it was just a mile from the Column, so one morning when I woke hours before the scheduled breakfast, I set out on foot up the steep hill behind the hotel, and then climbed 163 or so steps to the top, where you open a heavy door and step onto a balcony in the round from which to view three rivers and the ocean. It was barely eight o’clock and I was the only one in the park. It was sublime.

If you cross over that bridge on the right, you land in the state of Washington.

The Youngs and the Lewis and Clark Rivers

When I returned to my hotel, I stopped on the sidewalk in front to dig in my bag for my key, and when I looked up this deer was calmly considering me. She had a young fawn hidden in the bushes; that evening I looked out my window to see them picking their way across the grass in the dusk.

This same day I visited Fort Clatsop, and while waiting for my friends to join me, I studied this map at length. In the car I had been listening to Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose, without the aid of maps, of course, so this was my chance to imprint the picture into my mind.

I never get tired of hearing about Lewis & Clark and the many things they and their Corps of Discovery did and discovered, so it was fun to visit this park again. I spent the rest of the day in Astoria, and didn’t get showered with either rain or sunshine.

Japanese maple along the waterfront

Back down the Oregon Coast I drove, to the town of Newport where the Sylvia Beach Hotel stands above Nye Beach (Sylvia Beach is the name of a person). I was so bushed from lack of sleep, and from hauling my bags up three flights of stairs, that I crashed on the bed for a quarter of an hour and enjoyed this view out my window, as the breeze flowed in:

This was the first day of my journey that the sun shone, and it was wonderful. I knew that rain was forecast for the next day, so I needed to take advantage of the afternoon. I went down to the beach and sat with my back against a log, and let the sun pour down on my face until it had gone away and down. I left my windows open all night and listened to the surf!

Yes, the next day was stormy. I tried walking on the beach in my raincoat anyway but the wind was blowing too hard, and sand stung my face. So I took a nap, and then enjoyed the howling of the wind and the rocking of the building the way the regulars at this hotel do, by sitting in the library reading, stoking the fire occasionally, and feeling cozy. The people I talked to said that rainy is their preferred weather for a sojourn here.

There is no TV, no wi-fi, but there are lots of books, and comfortable chairs and couches for settling into. It’s a hotel all about books, authors, and reading, and each of the many rooms – more than 20 – is themed after an author. I was in the Jane Austen Room, but other rooms are decorated to remind one of Dr. Suess, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Tolkein… I very much enjoyed my time here, and was somewhat sorry that it was a sort of introductory stay, that is, too short.

I am moving right along in my tale of my expedition, because I know this is a too-long post, but my pace of travel was actually more relaxed than usual. I made sure I didn’t hurry – I was on vacation! The morning of my departure from my Jane Austen room and that rejuvenating place, the thought crossed my mind that I might skip breakfast and get on my way early. But why? I forced myself to browse the library, to eat the most civilized and hearty breakfast in the leisurely fashion it deserved, chatting with other lodgers.

Then I took a slightly longer route back toward home, so that I could stay on the coast as long as possible. I turned inland at Reedsport, not knowing – because my Oregon map had slipped off the seat and I couldn’t find it – that my road would wind along the Umpqua River from there, the most beautifully deep green waterway, a peaceful companion on this leg of my trip.

I must have added at least an hour to my journey, stopping many times to walk up and down the roadside and through deep wet grass, trying to get a good picture of the river through the thick stands of trees and shrubs and every kind of plant all tangled together. When I was able to frame a little bit of water in my viewfinder, it eventually dawned on me that under the clouds, the dark surface is reflecting so much of that green foliage, it’s often hard to see where the woods end and the river begins.

These were the last images of Oregon, and then my route took me back to California and familiar roads and scenes, and home again. This road trip was a bit of an experiment, to see how I liked it. Oregon is not too far, and it’s very diverse. This tour was mostly in the western parts, but I know from experience that I like the eastern parts, too. I hope more exploratory road trips are in my future, because this one was happy.

Books that keep me happily reading.

My project of reading “easy” books continues, as I find a certain satisfaction that comes from the process of reading itself, and not from digesting new (or even old) and difficult ideas. Trashy books, however you interpret that term, will not do. They have to have content I can grasp, and/or be reasonably well-written, if they are to keep me going past the first few pages, and to satisfy me.

I stopped listing “Books I Am Currently Reading” on my blog sidebar when I gave myself permission to pick up and put down titles in quick succession if necessary. At my stage in life I don’t want to bother with an annoying writer or boring content.

I have re-read some from years ago, and that is a happy activity; I’m often surprised at how much of the content seems completely new. I am not the same person who read the book back then, so my relationship with the author and the work is bound to be different.

I feel a review of one such recent engagement shaping up in my mind, but while it’s slowly forming, I thought I’d share this funny list, taken from a book I haven’t read, and don’t think it likely I will ever read. Have any of you read it? Unfortunately, for me most books in the world, including Calvino’s, must fall into his fifth category below.

To be honest, I rarely shop in brick-and-mortar bookstores. I feel guilty about this. But the last few times I did shop in the old-fashioned way, I brought home books I didn’t ever crack open once I got them home. What was that about? And I had spent hours wandering, wasting time I might actually have been reading one of the venerable favorites at home on my shelves. Calvino’s categories apply nonetheless.

SECTIONS in the BOOKSTORE

– Books You Haven’t Read
– Books You Needn’t Read
– Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading
– Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written
– Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered
– Books You Mean to Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
– Books Too Expensive Now and You’ll Wait ‘Til They’re Remaindered
– Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback
– Books You Can Borrow from Somebody
– Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too
– Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages
– Books You’ve Been Hunting for Years Without Success
– Books Dealing with Something You’re Working on at the Moment
– Books You Want to Own So They’ll Be Handy Just in Case
– Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer
– Books You Need to Go with Other Books on Your Shelves
– Books That Fill You with Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
– Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time to Re-read
– Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them”

― Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

Painting above by Tavik Simon – “Vilma reading on a Sofa”

Isak Dinesen amongst graves.

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One of the books that I took off the shelf this month was Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, what looks to be a first edition that my grandfather received through the Book-of-the-Month club soon after it was published in 1938. I have read parts of this book many times over the years, but never the whole thing. It is one of those works that is compelling in many ways, though it “lacks narrative interest,” i.e., it is not a page-turner.

It was sitting on my desk and one day I opened it in the middle and enjoyed, as always, the voice of the writer through her vivid stories. I transcribed one for my edification, and I trust yours.

THE IGUANA

In the Reserve I have sometimes come upon the Iguana, the big lizards, as they were sunning themselves upon a flat stone in a river-bed. They are not pretty in shape, but nothing can be imagined more beautiful that their colouring. They shine like a heap of precious stones or like a pane cut out of an old church window. When, as you approach, they swish away, there is a flash of azure, green and purple over the stones, the colour seems to be standing behind them in the air, like a comet’s luminous tail.

Once I shot an Iguana. I thought that I should be able to make some pretty things from his skin. A strange thing happened then, that I have never afterwards forgotten. As I went up to him, where he was lying dead upon his stone, and actually while I was walking the few steps, he faded and grew pale, all the colour died out of him as in one long sigh, and by the time that I touched him he was grey and dull like a lump of concrete. It was the live impetuous blood pulsating within the animal, which had radiated out all that glow and splendour. Now that the flame was put out, and the soul had flown, the Iguana was as dead as a sandbag.

Often since I have, in some sort, shot an Iguana, and I have remembered the one of the Reserve. Up at Meru I saw a young Native girl with a bracelet on, a leather strap two inches wide, and embroidered all over with very small turquoise-coloured beads which varied a little in colour and played in green, light blue, and ultramarine. It was an extraordinarily live thing; it seemed to draw breath on her arm, so that I wanted it for myself, and made Farah buy it from her. No sooner had it come upon my own arm than it gave up the ghost. It was nothing now, a small, cheap, purchased article of finery. It had been the play of colours, the duet between the turquoise and the “nègre”, — that quick, sweet, brownish black, like peat and black pottery, of the Native’s skin, — that had created the life of the bracelet.

In the Zoological Museum of Pietermaritzburg, I have seen, in a stuffed deep-water fish in a showcase, the same combination of colouring, which there had survived death; it made me wonder what life can well be like, on the bottom of the sea, to send up something so live and airy. I stood in Meru and looked at my pale hand and the dead bracelet, it was as if an injustice had been done to a noble thing, as if truth had been suppressed. So sad did it seem that I remembered the saying of the hero in a book that I had read as a child: “I have conquered them all, but I am standing amongst graves.”

— Isak Dinesen in Out of Africa

Four Seasons in Rome

Only a few pages into Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome, and I was enthralled; I began to want very much to make my own visit to that most historic and colorful city. But a chapter in, I realized that Doerr had brought me with him, and that my vicarious travels were so much more exciting and satisfying than anything I could accomplish in real life — all without the huge expense and strain of international travel.

Energy pours off the traffic, off the sidewalks; it feels as if we are pumping through the interior of a living cell, mitochondria careering around, charged ions bouncing off membranes, everything arranging and rearranging. Here is a pair of stone lions with crossed paws; here is a Gypsy sleeping on a square of cardboard. Down the white throat of a street a church floats atop stairs.

gld-stone-pine
Stone Pines, aka Umbrella Pines, of Rome (internet)

Doerr’s year in Rome was certainly stressful, but he was young and strong, and was able to take his adventures, which any of us might know in the present moment as anxieties, dilemmas, pain and suffering, and turn them into prose that conveys not just a complainy travelogue, but his own engagement with the sensory overload of living in Rome, combined with being a new father. Fatherhood alone is such a transformative experience, it would give such a writer plenty of material for a book, but to have twins, and then to take them at six months of age to live in Rome, where you don’t even know the language, is exciting to the point of crazy.

What did Columbus write in his log as he set out from Spain? “Above all, it is fitting that I forget about sleeping and devote much attention to navigation in order to accomplish this.” Henry wakes again at two. Owen is up at three. Each time, rising out of a half sleep, it takes a full minute to remember what I have forgotten: I am a father; we have moved to Italy. All night I carry one crying baby or the other onto the terrace. The air is warm and sweet. Stars burn here and there. In the distance little strands of glitter climb the hills.

Last year I read Doerr’s 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See. All I did was run my eyes along the words and lines, and the author did all the magic of transporting me to another place and time, to rooms in Germany and houses in France, to the beach and along streets and into human hearts beating with fear and hope. I couldn’t help but love them, we were that close – and it was the writer who had brought us together.

It seems that he was already working on All the Light ten years earlier, while in Rome on a literature fellowship at the American Academy. It was a good thing he didn’t have to show anyone a progress report, because Rome and twins were all-consuming. He did write a lot of journal entries, which eventually became this delightful book.

During the Doerr Family’s year in Rome the twins didn’t let their parents sleep much. They also were very sick for weeks, and then Doerr’s wife Shauna ended up in the hospital. Pope John Paul II died, and a new pope was elected. The seasons changed, the husband and wife went on outings to Umbria, and the babies learned to walk. They watched the pines out the window:

Mediterranean pines, stone pines, parasol pines, and umbrella pines—all the same thing: Pinus pinea. Regal trees, astounding trees, trees both unruly and composed at once, like princes who sleep stock-still but dream swarming dreams.

In another place I read that Anthony Doerr likes to quote Victor Shklovsky, who wrote 100 years ago: “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.”

And this is what Doerr tries to do – but first he must shake himself out of the habit of not seeing, this habit that he explains is quite necessary:

Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We’d pass out every time we saw—actually saw—a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there’d be pandemonium in the streets. People would lie by the thousands in the fields on their backs…..

“Habitualization,” a Russian army-commissar-turned-literary-critic named Viktor Shklovsky wrote in 1917, “devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.” What he argued is that, over time, we stop perceiving familiar things—words, friends, apartments—as they truly are.

If I did go to Rome, I’m sure I would be shaken out of my everyday way of seeing things. This has happened to me many times, being in a new place without The Usual surroundings and schedule and people in my life. Even the air smells different, and seems to wake up the brain. Reading Doerr makes me want to take off the blinders more often and really be attentive to what is bombarding my senses.

It could be scary, I know – or exhausting, as he warns:

The gaze widens and drifts; the eye is insatiable. The brain drowns.

gld-fontana_dellacqua_paola01
“The Big Fountain” near the Doerrs’ apartment. Completed 1690.

So Anthony Doerr is very good at what he does, but he is more than a skilled observer and wordsmith; as he imparts to the reader what he receives from the world, his own warmth and humanity come with the package. He is a grateful and caring man who reveals his humble likableness in this very personal account. As he tells you what he sees, he can’t help but tell you who he is. When he looks at his little son:

…his entire four-pound body motionless except his eyelids, it seemed he understood everything I was working so hard to understand: his mother’s love, his brother’s ceaseless crying; he was already forgiving me for my shortcomings as a father; he was the distillation of a dozen generations, my grandpa’s grandpa’s grandpa, all stripped into a single flame and stowed still-burning inside the thin slip of his ribs.

When it is time for the Doerrs to return to their Idaho home, Anthony tries to put the experience of leaving Rome into words:

I know nothing. I lived in Rome four seasons. I never made it through the gates between myself and the Italians. I cannot claim to have become, in even the smallest manner, Roman. And yet I can’t stop myself: a pen, a notebook, the urge to circumscribe experience. Roma, they say, non basta una vita. One life is not enough.

I was grateful to visit Rome by means of this book, but of course, it was enough for me. I don’t have a bucket list of books or places to see or experiences to have, because if I ever start to think like that, I am reminded of the example of our Lord’s earthly life that was on the surface quite confined — He didn’t go to Rome, either — but was the expression of the best human life ever lived.

I could also be content not reading another book for the rest of my life, but I did just order Doerr’s collection of short stories, The Shell Collector, and in that way hope to see more wide views through his brain-drowning gaze.