March 1, 2017
I have three relatively short trips planned for Oregon in 2017, but I won’t be surprised if a few more opportunities to travel there won’t pop up. Oregon is one of my neighboring states, and I can cross its border after a three-hour drive south along I-5 from Seattle. Like my home state of Washington, Oregon offers a selection of diverse geographic destinations — untamed ocean coastlines, mountains, dry lands, vibrant cities, and fertile agricultural valleys. As I read my way across Oregon for this virtual travel post, I discovered that its literary offerings were as rich and varied as its physical ones.
I very much enjoy reading books in this series on armchair travel, but I have a tendency to get greedy and my book lists grow and at some point I begin to feel overwhelmed. That certainly happened again with my reading about Oregon and by Oregon authors. It didn’t help that a couple of the authors — William Stafford and Brian Doyle, for example — were such good writers that I wanted to read more deeply from their published works. I hope this post can do justice to the literary wealth of the state.
I asked for recommendations for books that capture the spirit of Oregon from the reference librarians at the Multnomah County Library. Tara, the librarian who responded to my request, is a native Oregonian, and she offered these suggestions:
- Fiction (adult/young adult): Ricochet River by Robin Cody. This novel is told from the point of view of Wade, a high school senior from a small logging community. While he is an easy-going guy, finding comfort in just going with the flow, his girlfriend yearns to leave and break free. “Everything is so predictable,” she says. “They box people up in tight little packages . . . Your cheerleaders, your farmers, your hoods, your jocks.” But it is Wade’s friendship with Jesse, a Klamath youth and gifted athlete, that begins to open his eyes to the undercurrents of prejudice and conformity in his town.
- Fiction (adult/young adult): Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin. Charley is a 15-year-old essentially raising himself. His father has brought him to Portland and poor parenting leaves Charley struggling to cope on is own. He shoplifts for food while diligently trying to keep in shape for the upcoming football season. He takes on a job at a racetrack in order to earn some pocket money, but his boss is a shady character. In a misguided effort to save the life of a horse destined for the knackers, Charley steals his boss’s truck, trailer, and horse, and sets off to find his aunt in Idaho and a chance for a more secure life.
- Nonfiction: Fugitives and Refugees by Chuck Palahniuk. A tour of Portland showcases the “hipster and weird.”
- Juvenile: Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary. What a joy it was to reread this book. Cleary captures perfectly the trials of being a younger sister, the strange happenings at kindergarten, the perils of being misunderstood. “Things had such an unexpected way of turning out all wrong.” I remember my ex-Marine, rather reticent brother-in-law reading Ramona and Her Father out loud to his two young sons, and breaking into guffaws over some of the antics in that book. If you hanker to revisit childhood, I highly recommend all of Clearly’s books about Ramona, her sister Beezus, and neighbor Henry.
- Poetry: Traveling Through the Dark by William Stafford.
- Art book: Oregon: A Photographic Journey by Greg Vaughn.
In addition to Tara’s recommendations, all of which I read, I also read the following books on my “Armchair Travels” to Oregon:
Fiction: Martin, Martin by Brian Doyle. This was the first book of Doyle’s that I read, and I liked it so much that I went on to read Mink River, The Plover, and Children and Other Wild Animals.
Martin, Martin is about 14-year-old Dave and his loving family who live in a cabin on Mount Hood, and Martin, one of a litter of four martens born to a a single mother. The lives of the two Martins cross paths from time to time, each watching the other with curiosity and interest. Here the martens emerge from safety of their hidden home: “And so it was the five marten made their way to the river through an astonishing new world of trees and rocks, songs and whistles, bushes and scents, mud and flowers, all bathed in the high thin light of a mountain afternoon in spring.” And this is Dave’s first glimpse of the marten: “. . . and then Dave saw, one after another in a line like hikers on a narrow trail, five small lustrous golden brown animals slip out of the woods on the other side of the river. Four were smaller than the leader, who was clearly in charge, probably a parent, and the last one in line looked for all the world like he or she was the trusted deputy, bringing up the rear as a precaution against stragglers and mischief.”
The book is brimming with observations that evoke the lush Pacific Northwest forests and rivers landscape. “We sit on park benches and beaches and couches and hilltops, listening and dreaming seemingly to no particular purpose. But isn’t it often the case the when we cease to move and think, we see and hear and understand a great deal?”
You can tell that Doyle is a writer who just loves words and the sounds of words and the play of the tongue: “By now, almost June, the snow was gone, this far down the mountain, but the river was still crammed with melt, and it raced and thrummed and braided in endlessly riveting ways. You could, as Dave many times had, just sit there in the sun with your back against a tree and watch and listen to the river sprint and thurble and trip and thumble . . .”
You sense that Dave’s dad embodies some of Doyle: “That is how Dave’s dad talks, with words like donnybrook and vainglorious and epistolary and he just expects you to know what he is talking about, says Dave, as if you too had read every book in the town library and every book in the bookstore’s lending library and every book in the lost-and-found library at Timberline Lodge up the mountain, where Dave’s mom works in laundry services.”
I just savored Doyle’s exquisite and apt descriptions: “Dave’s dad knew that it was going to snow. He could tell. The clouds were pregnant, it was too cold for rain, and there was a sort of glower in the air . . . A sort of chilled expectation or premonition — like the air was grimacing, and soon it would begin to cough relentlessly.”
Doyle says, “People are stories, aren’t they? And their stories keep changing and opening and closing and braiding and weaving and stitching and slamming to a halt and finding new doors and windows through which to tell themselves, isn’t that so? . . . You find that your story keeps changing in thrilling and painful ways, and it’s never in one place. Maybe each of us is a sort of village, with lots of different beings living together under one head of hair, around the river of your pulse, the crossroads of who you were and who you wish to be.”
Mink River by Brian Doyle. The protagonists of this novel are two guys in their 60s — Worried Man and Cedar — who are co-managers of the Department of Public Works in the small town of Neawanaka, where the Mink River meets the Pacific Ocean. Their mission is “Brains against pain” in this town of 500 souls.
This is how Doyle describes Neawanaka as seen through the eyes of Worried Man’s wife, the town’s teacher: ” . . . her town, the poetry and pain and poverty and plainness of it, the bravery and belly laughs, the stunning volume of rain, the sadness of winter, the petty crime, the smell of manure, the squelch of mud, the smell of skunk cabbage, the burble and babble and bubble of the children in her classroom, the endless fleeing of children to the city as soon as possible, the sticky smell of cottonwood buds opening, the prevalence of mold and mildew, the gargling snarl of chain saws, the violet green sheen of a swallow, the hollow eyes of retarded children, the stunning sunlight after rain, the prevalence of car parts in yards, the mustiness of basements, the prevalence of divorce, the slam of screen doors, the paucity of voters, the night oratorio of tree frogs, the smell of fish like a wall near the co-op, the smell of beer like an aura around the pub night and day, the thrill of thrushes, the smell of a crate of new school books, the riotous vegetation, the patient heartless brooding watchful sea.”
Doyle’s litanies are a signature characteristic of his writings. Here he describes the Pacific Ocean: “The sea is green and blue and gray and white and purple. He stares at it for a long time. It shimmies and shivers and shines and shudders and shimmers and twitches and glitters and trembles and gleams. It stutters and whispers and moans and sighs. It snarls and roars and hammers the patient shore. It tosses its hair and rolls its shoulders an shuffles its feet.” Yes!
I fell in love with the human and humane, struggling, flawed, yet loving characters in this fictional town. “Sometimes I think the all people in all times must have had the same joys and sorrows, says Nora. Everyone thinks that the old days were better, or that they were harder, and that modern times are chaotic and complex, or easier all around, but I think people’s hearts have always been the same, happy and sad, and that hasn’t changed at all. It’s just the shape of lives that change, not lives themselves.”
“. . . each of us, man and woman alike, is a seething sea of desires and shadows, of illusions and dreams, of courage and cowardice, and we arrive in peaceful harbors only by sailing ourselves true, by finding and wielding our talents and tools to help others.”
The town doctor says, “We make our holy gestures, we conduct our intricate and complicated rituals, we apply salves and poultices, elixirs and potions, and people remain broken and torn. The best I can do it just witness the pain.”
The Road We Traveled by Jane Kirkpatrick. My sister, who lives in Oregon, recommended Kirkpatrick to me. She writes historical fiction. The Road We Traveled was inspired by the life of Tabitha Moffat Brown, a widow and grandmother, who came west along the Oregon Trail when she was in her 60s. She made the trip against the wishes and advice of her family, who wanted her to stay behind. The novel imagines what the move might have been like — what to shed and leave behind, the nature of attachments, the courage to live true to one’s convictions, the tendency to second guess decisions. Here is how Kirkpatrick describes Brown’s arrival in the Salem area: “An afternoon of balm with shafts of sunlight through a pewter-colored sky greeted them. The world here looked green and the Willamette River ran blue, unlike the brown Platte and Missouri they’d left behind. Every shade of green covered the ground around them; fields, riverbanks, the centers of the trails they rose marked by sturdy grass. Even tree trunks had moss, as did the shingle of the ferryman’s shelter. The landscape promised spring even in December with a sky as gray as the bottom of a duck.”
Nonfiction: Coastal Range: A Collection from the Pacific Edge by Nick Neely. This is a collection of essays about Oregon’s Rogue River valley and other landscapes. Neely writes about the journey of salmon to their hatchery where they spawned, free gold mining by suction dredging along the Rogue River, madrone trees, and his experiences on a six-month writing residency off the grid in the backcountry of southern Oregon, among other things quintessential northwest.
Neely is a good writer. Here’s how he describes salmon: “fifteen or twenty pounds of sauntering muscle wrapped in silver” and “sleek torpedoes with jaws, speckled and scarred.” And of the Pacific Coast he says,” This layer of continent is now disappearing: Sea stacks stand as pillars to a former coastline, and the basalt of the shore is riddled with coves and inlets the funnel waves furiously into blowholes, as if in homage to a volcanic past and the migrating gray whales.” And, “. . . the sound of stones being tumbled by the waves is remarkable. It is a thousand knuckles rapping softly at a door.”
“As we drove along the Oregon Coast, we were absorbed by the bands of the landscape: The blue and white waves. The slick and dry stretches of sand. The quiet back pools reflecting the fast clouds off the Pacific. Swaths of tidal marsh. Bluffs and chasms. The pavement the thinnest of lines.”
The love of this landscape permeates Neely’s writings. “To become at home in a place, I think, is mainly to discover the words for things. The names.”
Poetry: I am drawn to the poetry of William Stafford, and have featured some of my favorites of his in past blog posts. You can revisit them here: “Watching Sandhill Cranes,” “Ask,” “What’s in My Journal,” “Things the Wind Says,” “The Dream of Now,” “Yes,” and “An Afternoon in the Stacks.” Stafford was born in Kansas, but he lived and taught at Lewis and Clark College near Portland for many years.
I don’t have a favorite among the several collections of Stafford’s poems that I read and reread for this blog post. I did copy out many poems and quotes that I am sure I will be sharing with you in future posts. For now, I leave you with this William Stafford poem:
“You Reading This, Be Ready” from Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect the you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found, carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life —
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?
December 4, 2010
One of the biggest joys in my life is reading. I always look forward to new releases by a handful of favorite authors. And I’m always on the lookout for new authors to add to my favorites list. When I find one, it’s like getting an unexpected present.
Some time ago I read Sonny Brewer’s first novel, The Poet of Tolstoy Park, and I liked it so much that I kept it in my personal library. Brewer’s novel was inspired by the real-life story of Henry Stuart, who in 1925 was diagnosed with consumption and told he had a year to live. Stuart decided to live that last year deliberately — he moved from Idaho to Fairhope, Alabama, where he fashioned a life of dignity and meaning.
Since reading that first book, I had forgotten to follow Sonny Brewer. So I am especially delighted to find that he has since published three other novels. The wonderful thing about rediscovering Brewer now is that the library has copies of his older books on the shelves, and I can get them immediately, without a long wait list.
I just finished The Widow and the Tree, which is also inspired by a true event, the killing of a champion centuries-old oak tree in Alabama. Next I will read A Sound like Thunder and Cormac: The Tale of a Dog Gone Missing. And I’ll probably reread The Poet of Tolstoy Park. I can’t think of a better Christmas present to myself.