Thursday, September 27, 2018

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson is not really a novel, as much as a meditation on romantic love, sex, and what it means to be an embodied being.  There are some neat tricks in the novel.  We never find out if the narrator is male or female.  So eros becomes free floating, detached from gender.  This brings with it limitations.  Male and female desire have elements in common, but also, generally, dissimilarities.

When the novel actually develops a plot, Winterson’s power wanes.  She is not as adept at telling a story as outlining the landscape of human desire.  So the end comes with a plop.  After some gorgeous prose, we are treated to a happy conclusion that brings little joy.  

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Disappearances

Scott Thybony’s The Disappearances: A Story of Exploration, Murder and Mystery in the American West follows three somewhat interrelated tales in 1934 and 1935.  All take place in southern Utah and northern Arizona.  The first deals with a “lost” young explorer who was really only late emerging from the wilderness.  The second, an unfortunate murder and kidnapping.  The third, the life and disappearance of Everett Ruess, wandering painter, writer, poet.

Davis Gulch

His examination of the Ruess disappearance was my reason for reading the book. The author examines an interesting lead about the twenty year old's fate. In the 1970s, a California man boating on Lake Powell with his family hiked up Davis Gulch looking for Indian ruins, and discovered a skeleton in a crack in a rock.  The remains showed signs of a broken hip and fractured color bone.  The man took a few of the bones, put them in a bag, and flagged down a park ranger once back on the lake.  The remains were taken and the California man gave information about the location of the rest of the bones.

Thybony located the park employee in 1991 and heard a similar story.  The park employee said he gave the remains to his boss and then heard nothing.  Similarities of the California man’s description of the site of the bones and a cave where a “Nemo 1934” inscription has been found, led Thybony to examine the area anew.  

He found the description of the place matched the California man’s story. He found an area of the Nemo cave which showed signs of a brief stay many years ago.  He discovered the crag where the bones were probably discovered.  He scaled down it, and realized that anyone who was scaling down and slipped and fell would likely receive fatal, or near fatal, injuries. In all likelihood Ruess fell while exploring for Indian ruins, as he often did during his travels.

Thybony can’t prove the bones discovered in the 1970s were the remains of Ruess.  He didn’t find bones in the crag (it is flushed out yearly during floods) and the remains are nowhere to be found in Park Department storage.  There has never been any evidence that Ruess left Davis Gulch.  The 1970s bones many very well be his. But shy of finding the bones in Davis Gulch, or some shelf in the Parks Department, the mystery remains.

And excellent article on this theory can be found here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War

If you want to eliminate your post-Cold War feeling of security regarding nuclear war, than The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear Planner, by Daniel Ellsberg, is the book for you.  Ellsberg (of the famous Pentagon Papers) here documents all the ways and means by which a nuclear war could have accidentally occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union. He also delves into the false sense of security we all walk around with now that Russia is a second rate world power; a nuclear war between us is still very possible.

He will also burst your balloon about a ‘regional’ nuclear exchange between Indian and Pakistan.  Smoke and dust from those burning fires (along with killing hundreds of millions of people outright) would lower ground temperatures world wide for a decade.  It would be impossible to grow grain in Canada.  Widespread famine would occur.

This is an important book, but difficult to read.  Also Ellsberg is often, oddly, self-congratulatory regarding nuclear planning he did in the 60s, which now he sees as wholly misguided, and even insane.  He is aware of this, but at times can't help but be proud of his work.

Friday, September 14, 2018

American War: A novel

Omar El Akkad's American War: A novel is so tremendously successful because the author is able to transplant events and circumstances that Americans think of as happening over "there" to here.  This is the chilling aspect of the novel.  

What we see now, the shrinking of American economic and military power, our retreat into tribalism/regionalism, the massive gaps in income and ethnicity that are widening in our society, and environmental degradation become, in American War, our social and political reality.  This unmasking of American exceptionalism makes for sober and scary reading.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Cool Water: Poems and Songs by Robert Burns

Reading Poems and Songs by Robert Burns is a fascinating journey into a linguistic landscape that is like English, but also extremely different.  His Scotch-English, at times light, at others heavy, unmistakably bears the imprint of his land and culture. 

This work is deeply refreshing.  We are so hidebound to our formal language; we are afraid to write the way people speak, to create alternate spellings... to be creative and playful with our language.  Burns shows us how to do this, and it is like a swimming in cool water.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

Nothing illustrates both the problems and distortions of the “American Dream” than the settlement pattern of desert west.  At once part of our mythology, and collective nightmare, the American desire 
the author in a pool in Las Vegas
to live in places (in large numbers) where rain does not fall from the sky in sufficient quantities to support human life, is far more than a footnote in our history.  Rather, it is our history.  [The wrangling over water in the west pits the environment, politics, capitalism, bureaucracy, greed, corruption, and degradation against each other – mirroring many other of our national struggles.]

The titanic struggle over water in the American West's proof text is Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, by the late Marc Reisner.  Written in the mid-eighties, when the west still had plenty of water, now, in 2018, as the west continues years of terrifying drought, Cadillac Desert reads more like prophecy than history. 

In this book American hubris is on naked display.  Our attempts to tame and control nature have only shown us how powerless we actually are in the face changing climatic conditions.  But we are not only helpless - we make things far worse.

the author in the Utah desert