The Last Journey (East of the Mountains by David Guterson)

Underfoot, a fine sand shifted and confounded his progress. A strange apprehension haunted his limbs. He changed his direction twice, three times. Low, barren mountains appeared on the horizon. A lunar barrenness, the topography of dreams, stones strewn artfully down an arroyo as if laid by a Japanese gardener, a sinuous bend in the dry bed of stones, one, stone, two, a stone carved in runes… .

Like David Guterson’s award-winning Snow Falling on Cedars, East of the Mountains, is dense with description that uses all of the senses to draw us into place and experience. Besides the extraordinary detail, the end-papers provide a map of the mountain journey to help us traverse the route taken. East of the Mountains is an Odyssey, except we cross mountains rather than sea.

In Snow, Guterson explores relationships between Japanese Americans and their Caucasian neighbours along the northwest coast of the U.S. during WWII. East of the Mountains moves inland but remains true to place, although in this book the relationships involve Mexican migrant farm labourers. Here, the major conflict is within his protagonist Dr. Ben Givens and between Givens and the orchardists and other residents of the area. But East of the Mountains is essentially a character study that reveals one man’s journey toward death and acceptance.

The story is raw with pain: of bereavements; of terminal cancer and dying; a particular gun and the hunting of small birds (with two Brittany spaniels); and Italy during WWII. Balancing the emotions these themes elicit are tranquil orchard scenes from Givens’ youth; love and sensuously drawn passion; and his openness to life’s surprises.

The doctor plans suicide to protect himself from the pain he knows lies ahead and to protect his family from witnessing it. He goes off toward his childhood home among orchards to see it one more time. He hasn’t reached it in this scene where he’s arrived at a rough town. He feels like “a transient pauper, a graybeard drifter, a derelict or vagrant.” He’s on a quest, which he’s beginning to recognize:

Sitting there with his jug in his lap he thought of those Hindu wanderers he’s seen on a public television documentary, mendicants abroad with begging bowls, dressed in rags and clutching staffs, divested of all other property, seeking to meet the world unencumbered, aspiring, always, toward—what did they call it?—atman, the self, God. 

Soon, Givens will wrangle a ride with a trucker. As they share their stories, he comes to another kind of realization:

Ben’s heart recoiled. The lean, spare life of the wanderer, which had held some attraction an hour before, held no attraction now.… He tried to embrace some other end than the one he’d chosen for himself—he thought of dying in a hospital room, imagined languishing in one. He fell silent and stared out the window. There were no good answers to important questions. He tried to picture the shape of Stu Robinson’s [the trucker’s] final days, but he couldn’t even begin.

Throughout, Ben Givens is pulled by his moral centre. Haunted by memories and a promise, he seeks—what? answers to the big unanswerable questions, but he tries. He becomes caught up in others’ lives and surmounts his pain (both the memories and the physical, which run a parallel course).

Inevitably, there was no other subject, and he forced himself to muse on death as though it were simply a form of sleep, warm and full of dreams.

His musing finally gave way to sleep, and Ben dreamed he was traveling in the desert. On a journey whose purpose he couldn’t guess.

The inevitability of death and the bigger questions of meaning and memory, and of promises, thread through East of the Mountains. At times, I thought the detail would overwhelm me, but I’m very glad I read to the end in order to experience the epiphanies of personal discovery. Guterson is a writer who isn’t afraid to probe the big questions, and I’m glad I journeyed through waste- and lush lands sharing the loves and fears and coming to acceptance of Ben Givens.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: East of the Mountains

Zen Travel (Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing: Meditation in Action by Frederick Franck)

A true drawing is a very private dialogue between the artist-within and some facet of the world around him or her.

Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing came to my attention in 2013, already a 20-year-old book. Since then I’ve read it a few times and it continues to speak to me. I recommend it to you, especially the travellers and writers among us.

Like Franck, I cannot sit and meditate. I fail to clear my mind of the dribble that pushes its way into any space and silence. Yet, when I sit to sketch, everything disappears except the object of my attention. I slip into Zen-state where an hour or two passes as if it was a moment. Franck explains this magic as he walks readers along the path from his early days of gallery shows to his gradual movement into drawing and eventually to the transcendent moment of the unification between seeing-drawing and the experience of oneness. But I am more writer than sketcher – more years of practice – so besides the sketching advice, I’m taken with the writing advice he offers.

Bashō, the father of haiku, warned his students: “Jot down your haiku before the heat of perception cools!”

And this is the way Franck suggests we draw. See the object, enter it through the pen, and experience oneness with it. He compares this experience with the fleeting, but timeless, haiku:

An authentic haiku must, in one breath, grasp the joy as it flies, the tear as it trickles down the cheek. In its seventeen syllables a haiku must catch the unsayable, the mystery of being and non-being: timeless mini-satori in fleeting time:

This dewdrop universe
Just a dewdrop
And yet,
And yet …
            Issa

This is what the sketcher strives to achieve: the quick rendering and the immediacy of becoming other; the Zen moment (whether it passes in mere seconds or whether it stays with you minutes or more).

A final thought on haiku and drawing: “Haiku transmit neither an idea nor a philosophy; they transmit pure experience into a minimum of words that grasp a moment of grace, be it joyous or heartrending.” When I facilitate writing workshops, this finding the essence of experience is what participants are encouraged to discover through their stories.

One of the reasons I’m back at sketching after a bit of a hiatus is to really see what’s before me when I travel. Like Franck,

… I entrust my bones again and again to flying contraptions to circle the globe. I can’t help belonging to this generation of the restless, the globetrotters, the astronauts, obsessed with seeking, pursuing salvation elsewhere, as if the black-eyed Susans in Provence were more black-eyed than the ones in my backyard.

He ventures at some length to explain why taking photographs is less apt to allow us into a culture, for example (and can actually be intrusive and alienating) than drawing. In addition, with photography, the Zen experience is more elusive and, if it is present at all, passes within the nanosecond release of the shutter and, with rare exception, fails to capture the essential essence of the subject/experience. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to photograph my travels, but I’ll add to those images the pleasure of sitting in parks, standing in doorways or on a rock by the ocean with pen, blank journal page, and a box of watercolours. To give you two representative examples, recently in both Morocco and in Mexico, people shied away from the camera but when I got the sketchbook out, people came over to peek and to talk about the process.

Discovering the essence of the object, its authenticity, and its oneness in a Zen sense, is what painters and sketchers seek. It is what I seek in my humble, clumsy and beginner’s way. It enhances travel experiences and the memories that follow.

 

 

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing

Japan across time (Tale of the Gengi by Murasaki Shikibu)

“She was clever for her age, and she interested him. Difficult and unconventional relationships always interested him.”

In some ways, The Tale of Genji is a coming of age story. A handsome and charming youth, Genji has a way, as they say, with the ladies.

What is old—and this story is old—is new again. Written in the 11th century in the milieu of the political court of Japan, Murasaki gives us a story that is timeless. Just remove it from the privilege of palaces and the political intrigue and we have a story that could have been written today. Murasaki has managed a story that isn’t dated in language, style, or content.

The Tale of Genji has been compared to Gilgamesh and to The Iliad in timeless appeal, and it has the force of Shakespeare. As Shakespeare’s plays are interspersed with poetry, so too is Murasaki’s prose:

He plucked a few notes on his koto, but the sound only made him sadder.

“The waves on the strand, like moans of helpless longing.
The winds—like messengers from those who grieve?”

But the poetry she inserts is not hers. It is attributed to Chinese and Japanese poets of the past (that is, previous to the 11th century). And, like haiku, the quotes are pithy, descriptive, and timeless, and they totally relate to the passages they enhance.

My reading has taken place during the period of recent “Me Too” revelations and accusations. Clearly, while many of the women in this novel were willing participants and, like Genji, shed tears when the affair took a hiatus, there’s often that awful power imbalance. At least in one instance, there are uncomfortable circumstances involving a young girl he’s raising like a daughter. Genji’s behaviour can create shudders, yet Murasaki paints a feeling, sensuous young man who makes his way through a convoluted, political maze and … (ah, no spoiler here).

As to how I happened across such an ancient story, I read an article by Joe Fassner published on Atlantic online, January 23, 2018 in which he discusses The Written World, by the Harvard professor Martin Puchner who calls The Tale of Genji a “foundational text.” Fassner quoted Puchner:

The book was written about 1,000 years ago, at a time when a lot of literature was still produced by scribes, collected from various sources and cobbled together by editors. The foundational epics and religious texts in circulation then were very different from the reading material we’re used to. In that context, Murasaki’s diary felt to me like a turning point in the history of literature—it sounds so recognizable, so intimate, so modern. The fact that someone living in an extremely different time, halfway around the world, a thousand years ago, could whisper in my ear in that way—it’s magical.

And that is what Murasaki did for me: she whispered in my ear during nights of bedtime reading.

She wrote her story at a time when women were not taught to read and write (apparently by listening from behind the paper screens to her brother’s lessons). Her topic is modern in subject and theme. The writing is accessible, despite the gap of eons and culture. And, adding to the magic, the story is illustrated with woodcuts that were first published in the 1650 edition of the Illustrated Tale of Genji. The world’s first novel is also one of the greatest, even if you’re not a Japanese aficionado, but if you are, you are in for a special treat.

31 The Tale of Genji

Note: I cannot locate a source for the edition I borrowed from the library (Vintage Classics Edition, June 1990) that is annotated and illustrated. The link (kindle edition) I’ve provided is also copyrighted by Edward G. Seidensticker and is most likely the closest to the version I read.

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Tale of Genji

Review: In a Landscape of Sand & Stone (The Painter of Birds by Lídia Jorge)

“I dread to think what they’ve told you about me!” He laughed, he was always laughing. “I bet they told you I was a wastrel, a soldier, and about a blanket I used to lie down on when I went off drawing birds. I dread to think what they told you about that blanket and those birds… They probably described me as a con man, a globe-trotter and an adventurer. I bet they poisoned your mind against me.”

In provincial Portugal not far from the Atlantic a family lives together in a dilapidated rambling house under the thumb of a tyrant father, Francisco Dias. Sons, daughters, in-laws, and grandchildren call the house home. The men provide the back-breaking labour on the farm. All, that is, except for the youngest son, Walter, who is The Painter of Birds. Walter is as free and migratory as the birds he paints. As you can imagine, this creates some trouble for his father and brothers. But this isn’t the only cause for distress in the house. The house and its inhabitants are all rife with the collusion of secrets.

Without giving too much away, in his youth Walter was a charmer of young women. When the parents of one of the girls discovers the rounding of their daughter’s belly, they take her to the doorstep of Francisco Dias. Walter’s brother Custódio marries Maria Ema and in due course gives birth to a daughter. It is through Walter’s daughter that the story unfolds.

This may sound like a hokey soap opera or melodrama, but it is not. The Painter of Birds is literary and lyrical. Lídia Jorge subtly reveals psychological and emotional insights into a time and place when families were held together by custom, poverty, and relative isolation from the larger world. It is a story of pent-up jealousies and resentments. And it is the story of a daughter’s quest for love and understanding. At the same time, Jorge’s story is metaphor.

Early in the book, Francisco Dias is called to the school where the teacher tells him:

…what extraordinary hands Walter had, hands that drew as if the memory of nature were concealed beneath their fingertips. A truly remarkable talent. …Walter used to lie down on the ground and wait for the birds to land, sometimes he would catch them in baskets and cages from which he would subsequently release them, but first, he would reproduce them on paper, copying their feathers and their shapes, giving their eyes in particular a special life. It was as if the wretched sparrows could speak, as it the thrushes were laughing, all because of those lines he added to their eyes or because of the way he drew their raised tails and their spread wings.

Much later, birds adorn the letters that arrive at the house. Birds. Well-travelled birds. But it is not only birds and Walter that will travel during the changing world of mid-twentieth-century-rural Portugal. This complex story explores timeless themes of family, dependence, and independence wrapped in a daughter’s yearning for truth. I particularly enjoyed the metaphors of travel and birds and would love to hear from other readers of The Painter of Birds.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Painter of Birds

Review: Lighten Up…& Not Just Your Suitcase (Here & There by A. A. Gill)

Many travel writing collections are “precious,” but not Here & There by A. A. Gill.  He writes with acerbic wit and irreverence. At the same time, he manages to share his fascination with people and places.

Gill, writing in “Spice of life” for example, acknowledges the poverty of Calcutta (he doesn’t use the city’s newer name, Mumbai) but raves about India’s post-Mogul culture and “an embarrassment of world-class universities.” Then, he goes on to note that “Calcutta was invented by the English on the banks of the Hooghly, the last stretch of the Ganges. It was a stupid place to build a city, but that never stopped the English.” After a number of suggestions to experience during your visit, he turns the tables: “I loved Calcutta because it’s a city on the way down…Cities that have been something and seen stuff have stories to tell. Places can be trippers or tourists or, like Calcutta, they can be travellers.” What a recommendation!

In an article called “Dawn of a new era,” Gill twigged memories from my Kenya-Tanzania trip, and he made me want to visit South Africa. He puzzles out how and why South Africa managed truth and reconciliation and elections, while avoiding civil war. Quirky, as always, Gill begins with a tokoloshe, which is a “Zulu demon, a nightstalker, a sprite goblin…a real five-star terror. He describes Jo’burg before and after apartheid. Gill also highlights a few things not to be missed: “Not just the apartheid museum,” (which he claims to be “the most thoughtful and emotional couple of hours I’ve spent in a museum for years”) but “the townships and the markets and cafés, the music and jacarandas, and the high, dry veldt, but you should go because this is the luckiest place in the unluckiest continent.” After musing about the cause of such luck, Gill concludes:

Personally, I think it was the tokoloshe that made South Africa hold back, divert the consequences of the past. South Africans lay awake in the hot night and heard the panting and the muffled sharpening of little goblin pangas and knew what the fears made flesh would bring. The tokoloshe still lurks under the bed, but the longer this normalcy goes on, the smaller the fears that feed him.

From Iceland to Vietnam, from the U.S. to Europe (East and West), Gill covers the map offering surprise discoveries and often wonky bits of information gleaned from the streets.

Here & There is a collection of 58 brief articles from all over the map, plus two introductory pieces. Without exception, the travel writing is sharp and insightful, written with empathy and humour, and it is thought-provoking. Gill also raises questions about traveling and travellers, and about travel writing. He also affirms something I believe (don’t we love when that happens?):

One of the things that fascinates me about travelling is how places make people. The received travel writing wisdom is always the other way round: it’s people who make places….But over and over I’m aware that the characteristics and beliefs of nations seem to flow from the land, seep up from the earth.

 Gill explains a bit about the norms of the travel industry, suggesting how and why the PR people are able to pique our interest and loosen the savings nested away during our work-a-day lives. About “Why go?” he shares a few ideas while debunking the notion that travels “broadens the mind” and emphatically that “the dumbest reasons for travel, the most thoughtless expectation of a holiday is to relax.”  He claims, “Travelling to do nothing is the great holiday oxymoron….” He’s less clear about the positive outcome, except it isn’t to know thyself (to borrow the cliché). It is about the people you meet and experiencing the places out of which they’ve grown. I think he’s urging us to travel curiously. About travel writing, Gill says, “The pleasure of the craft of journalism is that you start to work for money, but end up working with friends, and collaborating….” It is about the people and about experience (again).

My bookshelf should be drooping, given the weight of the travel books stacked on it. Here & There differs from all of them.

12 Here & There

Available through your local bookstore or online: Here & There

 

Review: Between Men (What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt)

I admit it. I bought this book because I loved the painting on cover.

What I Loved tells a story of friendship between two men, a friendship that expands to include their wives, and then their sons. A painting by New York artist William Wechsler (not the one on the cover) is bought by Leo Hertzberg, an English professor at Columbia. It is Leo who narrates the story, part saga and part thriller as it turns out.

When the story opens, the men are young and married: William/Bill to Lucille, a poet, and Leo to Erica who teaches English at Rutgers. The model in the purchased painting (and others) is Violet Blom who flies off to Paris in a veil of intrigue. The two couples become neighbours and friends, and later each have son during one summer: Mark to Bill and Lucille, and Matthew to Leo and Erica. As happens in stories—and life—trouble develops in paradise: Lucille moves out and Violet moves in. Of course, it is all more complicated and Siri Hustvedt weaves a much better tale. But this is merely to sketch the backdrop for the drama that unfolds. The painting, however, is central to understanding the story; first impressions can be superficial.

Leo describes the painting as it hung in the gallery:

Bill’s painting hung alone on a wall. If was a large picture, about six feet high and eight feet long, that showed a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room. She was propped up on one elbow, and she seemed to be looking at something beyond the edge of the painting. Brilliant light streamed into the room from that side of the canvas and illuminated her face and chest. Her right hand was resting on her pubic bone, and when I moved closer, I saw that she was holding a little taxi in that hand—a miniature version of the ubiquitous yellow cab that moves up and down the streets of New York.

It took me about a minute to understand that there were actually three people in the painting.

We’ll see other paintings, each obscuring details so that it takes time and careful looking to actually see what they include. Things are not as simple and direct as first imagined. Over time, Bill’s creativity shifts to include sculptural forms, boxes that tell stories almost like visual folk or fairy tales. His vision suggests trouble and, for Leo, reminders of grief. There is tragedy and heartache, desperation and loneliness beyond the art.

Hustvedt writes with precision and psychological insight, with clarity and care for her characters. What I Loved’s ambiguities subtly reflect life—its joy and darkness. The writing is ambitious, compassionate, intelligent and will leave you thinking long after you’ve read the novel’s final word.

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Available through your neighbourhood bookstore or online: What I Loved