This week is turning out to be a mini-family reunion for me. My parents and two of my brothers are in town as are some aunts and uncles and cousins. Yesterday evening at a family barbecue near Venice Beach I fell into a conversation with my aunt and uncle about the reading habits of my young cousin, Tim, who is 10. He’s a very precocious reader and has finished off nearly all of the highly recommended children’s series that are out there right now: Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and Brian Jacques’ Redwall Series (I recommended Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy since he hasn’t gotten to that yet.) The thing is, there’s a limited amount of high quality young adult fiction out there, so what do you do if your kid has read it all? Since I started working at the bookstore I have occasionally been posed this question by parents. It’s actually a crucial moment in the life of a young a reader, the point where they could very easily lose some interest reading because they have read all the kids’ books and aren’t allowed to read adult books. What folks sometimes forget is that there are quite a few books that, though they are shelved in the adult fiction section, are perfect books to help segue strong, young readers into the wider world that lies beyond the young adult section. Some people call these books classics, but they are perfect for challenging kids and keeping them interested in reading: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, to name just a few. I would also recommend that these children read the books in their original forms, not the abridged versions. I remember reading abridged versions of various classics when I was younger, and I think lots of other folks do as well, but looking back it just doesn’t seem necessary. In fact, as an eleven or twelve year old, I learned a lot of complex things about the world around me from the books I read, and these important details, the harsh language in Huck Finn, for example, seem to be just the things that are excised in order to create the kid friendly versions. We challenge kids in many aspects of their lives, why not challenge them to explore the big questions that arise from reading the classics. I hope that the children’s book industry continues to move in this direction, and a lot of the intelligent and challenging kids’ books that are out there indicate that it will. On the other hand, my friend Edan pointed out to me the other day the upcoming release of a “Student Edition” of Yann Martel’s international bestseller Life of Pi, from which, one can assume, the editors have removed anything that might distress, and therefore challenge, a young reader. Here’s hoping that this doesn’t kick off a new trend.
I have been living in a room in a house perched on a cliff that overlooks the Oregon coast for almost a month. A window with an ocean view spans the width of my desk, but when I sit down to write, I often find myself doing anything but that. I stare at the sea and the rolling clouds, or follow the beachcombers, the joggers, the surfers, and the fishing vessels further out with the binoculars my aunt uses to spot whales in the winter. The setting is striking to the point of distraction for this city dweller accustomed to skylines punctuated by skyscrapers, to glimpses of rivers from the Manhattan Bridge, to lawns circumscribed by park walls.
In Newport, Oregon, nature dominates. The only depiction of this town I’ve encountered beyond a travel guide is in Jon Raymond’s story “The Coast” from his collection, Livability. Raymond’s eye is attuned to the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. In his story, he describes the coastline in quadrants and colors as if he’s painting: “The wind was blustery and the sky was all over the place–dark in one quadrant and pale blue in another, with splashes of magenta, orange, and streaks of hot pink in the lower regions. The billowing cumulus clouds gliding over the ocean were like slow-moving buildings of water and air. I skirted the edge of the tide, avoiding heaps of bullwhip kelp and seagull carcasses and blobs of broken jellyfish.” The sea, the wind, and labile sky capture the tableau precisely.
The first few days after I arrived, I found myself spouting dumbfounded phrases such as, “The clouds! The mountains! Like a painting!” as if I were severely nature deprived. I’m sure I sounded like the equivalent of a yokel visiting the city, jaw dropping at the sight of yellow taxi-filled roads and towering buildings–just like the movies! I am smitten with the sea lions, the sand dunes, the washed up bivalves and cracked crab shells that litter the beach. The open skies have cleared the smog in my mind. The landscape works its way into my stories and it infuses my essays (as you can see).
It’s difficult not to notice the differences here, and not respond to the surroundings. When I was at the local library, a man found a pocket knife on the floor and turned it in to the lost and found. Hitchhikers walk backward along the coastal highway, carrying sleeping bags nestled atop oversize backpacks. More abundant and less haggard than the east coast variety, they make me think of ranch hand and expert hitchhiker Sissy Hankshaw and her magnificent thumbs, straight out of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The fluorescent red and green sea anemones in the tide pools mimic the Day-Glo hues made popular by the Merry Pranksters, so it’s fitting that head Prankster Ken Kesey grew up in Oregon, just outside of Eugene.
I took up with Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test out of curiosity about Kesey, his writing, and his influence on the sixties West Coast acid scene. Wolfe emphasizes Kesey’s tremendous physicality and soft country drawl, which owe much to his upbringing in Oregon’s outdoors. Kesey’s father “had started him and his younger brother … shooting and fishing and swimming as early as they could in any way manage it, also boxing, running, wrestling, plunging down the rapids of the Williamette and the McKenzie Rivers, on inner-tube rafts, with lots of rocks and water and sartin’ death foamin’ down below.” He came off as a country boy, but when he moved to San Francisco as a Stegner fellow, his physical prowess and charisma made him popular with the bohemian literary set.
The Northwestern terrain also infused Kesey’s fiction. His second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, is set in a logging town near the Oregon coast where a family of loggers break from the unionized strikers by supplying lumber to a local mill. Kesey researched the book while living in Florence, a coastal town just south of Newport. He lived the logging life, in a way. By day he rode in the pick-up trucks that bussed loggers to and from their camps and by night he hung out at the loggers’ watering holes. The novel opens already anchored in the landscape, the pages suffused by passages describing the contours of the land: “ Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range … come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River … ”
After Kesey wrote the novel, his artistic focus shifted from writing to life. He devoted himself to living in the moment, to making experimental movies and bringing fantasies to life, to reaching higher states of awareness tripping on LSD. “I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph,” was Kesey’s reason for quitting writing. Wolfe adds, “He talked about something called the Acid Test and forms of expression in which there would be no separation between himself and the audience. It would be all one experience, with all the senses opened wide, words music, lights, sounds, touch–lightning–” Even Kesey’s metaphors reference the outdoors–acting as a conduit for electricity rather than recording the earth’s movements with ink.
A Harvard undergrad on the staff of the campus literary magazine in 1970 spoke to The New York Times about her extracurricular reading habits and the irresistible appeal of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. She said, “Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Air [sic] Acid Test really gets to some of us. I had to stop reading it half way through because I never would have gotten my work done. I wanted to freak out on acid, and like Ken Kesey take a bus onto the road and just live!”
How does one get work done when it becomes obvious there are fantasies to enact, road trips to take, rules to flout? How does one write when nature, and life, beckon from beyond the window? Put the book down. Close the blinds. Or don’t. There’s a delicate balance to strike. Even Kesey, magnificent lightening rod that he was, wrote more books after the acid tests ended. And without Tom Wolfe’s assemblage of interviews and documentation of the Pranskters’ escapades in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I would know far less about Kesey, his medium, and his life. I know I will soon pack my bags and go home. But I am lucky to have witnessed the landscape, and to know there is the possibility of return.
[Image credit: Anne Yoder]
The first chapter (or a fraction thereof) of John Irving’s new novel Until I Find You has been posted at the Random House Web site. This novel looks like standard Irving – in the brief excerpt I noticed two classic Irving tropes, Toronto and a protagonist with a missing father. It’s hard to say if the book will be good or bad. His last couple have been clunkers, but if Irving has managed to recreate some of the magic from his earlier novels in Until I Find You, I’ll certainly read it. According to this article in the Times, he started the book back in 1998, which I’ll take as a good sign. The reviews will probably start coming in soon. The book comes out July 12.Update: Until I Find You gets a “B-” at the Complete Review.
I get a fair amount of catalogs from publishers these days, and since they’re always chock full of new and interesting books that I’m guessing people will want to know about, I’m thinking about instituting a semi-regular feature called Covering the Catalogs wherein I pick out a handful of items that I deem interesting from the most recent catalog to cross my desk. And since I received the newest Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press/Black Cat/Canongate catalog yesterday, this one’ll be the first.Recently, Maud was expressing her discomfort with the impending media coverage of the upcoming Samuel Beckett centenary: “I await commemorative events like this centenary with excitement that tends to mutate, as the press coverage appears, into dread, then lamentation, and finally, resigned disgust.” The “news” that arises from the anniversary of the birth of a dead writer isn’t always scintillating, but, on the upside, such occasions give publishers – wanting to cash in on said press coverage – an opportunity to reissue and repackage the work of the great writer. As such, Grove is putting out two different items to mark Beckett’s centenary. The first is a bilingual edition of Waiting for Godot. The play was originally written in French by Beckett, and he translated it into English himself. This edition provides both texts, side-by-side. Grove is also putting out a four volume set of Beckett’s collected works with introductions by well-known writers. The first volume of novels is introduced by Colm Toibin and the second volume of novels is introduced by Salman Rushdie. The volume of collected dramatic works is introduced by Edward Albee, and the volume of collected poems, short fiction and criticism is introduced by J.M. Coetzee.Coming in April from the author of Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden is Guests of the Ayatollah. Bowden is well-known for his immersive coverage of armed conflict, and in this book he is setting out to provide an account of, as the book’s subtitle calls it, “the first battle in America’s war with militant Islam,” the Iran hostage crisis.Coming in July from Atlantic Monthly Press is Tom Drury’s first new novel in six years, The Driftless Area. Drury was among the “Best of Young American Novelists” named by Granta, and his stories regularly appear in the New Yorker, including “Path Lights” from last fall in which a bottle falls from the sky.I plan on continuing to cherry pick items that interest me from other catalogs as I receive them, so stay tuned. If you are a publisher and would like to send me your catalog, please email me.