Sunday, August 03, 2014

Book review: Down in the River

Ryan Blacketter, author of Down in the River, used to teach a class at PCC, entitled "High-Risk Fiction." I had the good fortune to experience the class back in 2011, in which Blacketter led us in examinations of great works of fiction (mostly short stories), examining them line by line and explaining how everything in these works --every change of perspective, every phrase, every sentence, every long vowel --is significant. 

After reading Down in the River, Blacketter's first novel, it's apparent that he puts his conviction into practice.

Down in the River is the story of Lyle Rettew, a troubled youth struggling to find his place in the world after the suicide death of his twin sister. Lyle, his unstable mother and authoritarian older brother (the family patriarch) find themselves in the alien world of Eugene, Oregon. His sister's death, caused the family to be uprooted from their Idaho home, ostracized by their religious community. Lyle has a history of psychological instability made all the more pronounced by his peculiar family life and his adolescent struggle to find acceptance among peers from his new school. In his attempt to find acceptance and to come to terms with his sister's death (a subject which is strictly avoided among his family) Lyle chooses a dark and perplexing course of action.

As I stated, in class, Blacketter emphasized how in great works of fiction, nothing is insignificant. Down in the River is a clear demonstration of that precept.

First of all, there are the characters. Besides Lyle, there is Rosa, Lyle's girlfriend, and her sister, Shanta, who come from a troubled hispanic (and very Catholic) family. And there is the bitter albino, Martin, who is the first among the Eugene social set to befriend Lyle (albeit for morbid and vengeful reasons). These characters are significant, of course.  But beyond them, even the minor characters --the cardigan-wearing Catholic priest, the mannish Sergeant Krune who heads-up the juvenile detention facility --project special significance on the canvass of the larger story.

The novel is composed of a series of events that also hint at something larger that is occurring beneath the surface. A pipe bomb blows the lock to a mausoleum. A distressed wild goose crash lands on a bridge that spans a river. A pair of delinquent youths are mistaken for respectable Canadian tourists.

There is a lot to think about in this novel. However, I have to admit that, overall, I found the book to be obscure. I recognized that the aforementioned events and characters were significant, but I wasn't always able to make the connection. Also, I generally found the dialog to be colorless.

Which is not to say that Blacketter lacks eloquence. Scattered throughout the work are lines that stand out, McCarthy-like, approaching poetry:
"Martin slipped his BB pistol into the back of his pants and opened the front door, gesturing grandly for Lyle to go first, as though introducing him to the night."
"The land gathered into desert promontories above the Columbia. When the dusty hills swung away, a valley fell before them. The road was a thin line that would take them into its distance."
One last nit-picky observation: I'm not sure I'd call Down in the River a novel. It is perhaps too long to qualify as a short story, but on the other hand, there is only the single plot line and the single main character. I'd argue, rather, that this book is a novella. (But, then again, I might be a little too persnickety.)

All in all, Down in the River is a success. Blacketter succeeds in winning sympathy for his characters. And if, in the end, readers are unsettled by the novel's conclusions, isn't that one of art's primary functions?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Urban lifestyle double-down

Living room
If anyone (including we) had any doubts, our recent change of residence ought to about kill them off: Maty and I are city folk.

Our new residence, an ultramodern, wired-in, and energy-efficient condominium situated on SE 50th Avenue between Division and Powell, is even more urban than was our old vintage house in the Hawthorne district. It's a brand new construction; we and our neighbors in the other eleven units that together comprise the Richmond Heights condominims, are the first residents.

It feels great to live in a place where everything is modern and works correctly.

Kitchen. The doorway on the right leads to a half-bath.
We're not fully setup yet. We still lack blinds. So there's a certain fishbowl quality to our current state of existence. We're still awaiting the weeks-out delivery of some of our furniture. The AC unit has not yet been installed (quite a burden in these dog days of summer) and the garage situation is a long term project. But the kitchen is fully functional, the new "smart" teevees are on the wifi, and our new gas grill is assembled and functioning from its place on the balcony.

Master bedroom
We've condensed from about 2300 square feet in the old house to 1450 square feet in our new unit. In making the transition, we had to shed a lot of stuff. Books, lamps, old furniture, and various other household items found their way to the Good Will, the recycling center, or as a last resort, the landfill. And what a pleasant catharsis to rid ourselves of so much! 

But despite the smaller size, we have three bedrooms and three-and-a-half bathrooms. It's a townhouse layout, with garage, bedroom and bathroom on the bottom floor, kitchen/living area/balcony on the main floor, and two bedrooms, two bathrooms, walk-in closets and laundry facility on the top floor.

Master bathroom. Note the stand-up shower, jacuzzi bath, and dual sinks!
Downstairs bedroom

Downstairs bathroom


Office bathroom
To add to the good news: our financial situation is moderately better as a result of the move. And since we're living in a brand new place rather than a 103-year-old house, less of our income will be spent maintaining our residence, freeing up resources for travel and other interests.

All the stress and anxiety we suffered over the past several months seems to have paid off.

Our new place already feels like home. And we both love it.

Blessings to all!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Book review: Maribou Stork Nightmares

Sometimes, in order to hook into a novel or some other work of art, you need to broaden your perspective. That's a big advantage to participating in a book group. In the last four years or so, the lads and I have read 36 books together. And more than once, after discussing a particular book at our semi-regular meetings, I've come away with a changed impression of the work. Indeed, books that I hadn't thought I'd liked all that much gain a new appreciation as a result of the widened perspective.

So it is with Irvine Welsh's Marabou Stork Nightmares. When first I finished the book, which is a sordid story of gritty, nasty Scotland (with a bit of apartheid South Africa thrown in), I was pretty much disgusted.

Welsh's claim to fame is his authorship of the novel Trainspotting which was adapted into a smash hit flick by Danny Boyle. And while I enjoyed Trainspotting, the film, I felt at first that Marabou Stork Nightmares transcended the bounds of good taste with its ugly descriptions of life in the Scottish tenements, with the casual brutality of its principle characters, and with its excessive use of profanity. (Picking 3 pages at random I count 9 uses of the words "fuck," "shit," and "cunt.")

Further, Welsh's prose alternates between "regular" English and a Scottish-phonetic invention of his own that, at first, was interesting, but quickly became annoying. Example: "They were scruffy cunts glad to be let intae some cunt's hoose even if it wis the Strangs." Or: "He'd just come back tae the scheme n aw; tae stey wi his auld man eftir being in Moredun wi his auntie." Imagine wading through pages of that!

The novel, by the by, is the story of the Strang family, a working class and highly dysfunctional gang of neer-do-well Scots rising like scum to the top of the slop bucket that is blue-collar Scotland --at least as Welsh describes it. The story is told from the perspective of Roy Strang, a computer programmer and street ruffian who, at the time of the story, exists in a coma-induced dream state, from which he recounts the events of his life that led him to his current situation.

Mary Poppins, it ain't. Nonetheless, as my book-reading pals pointed out, there is a larger theme at work in this rough-cut novel. Redemption, regardless of how it is attained, is still an admirable achievement. Cruelty and barbarous acts are generally the downstream symptoms of some evil that has gone before. I doubt I would have noticed these lessons if I'd read the book by myself, without the benefit of the perspectives of Mssrs. Kemmerer, Johnson, Insera, and Kidwell.

All in all, I wouldn't say Maribou Stork Nightmares is a must-read. Not by any means. But it's not a waste of time, either.

Like I said, it's good to be in a book group.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Goodbye, old house

So long, old house.
Typing this while Maty nestles down for the evening. She's been packing all day and she's exhausted. I'll join her shortly. The electric fan is droning away against the humidity, but it is much better than last night. Our new place will have central air.

It's our last night in the house on Southeast 36th. Tomorrow, we change residence. This old house is a great old house. But just like old people, old houses need more and more help to keep going. It's time for us to part ways.

Allow me a little nostalgia, will you? I've been nearly 15 years at this address. No other home has come close.
More blueberries than ever before
The blueberry shrubs I planted about 10 years ago have not been very productive. At least until this year. Our biggest shrub produced several pints of big, fat berries. And there are more coming. The new folks, the folks who bought our home will get to enjoy them, I hope. 

The canebrake of raspberries continues to thrive. A bumper crop came in mid-June, and then disappeared quickly. It was a short season, but a heavy one. To think that the entire bramble came from just two stocks that a coworker gave me in 2000. Fifteen years later, they've spread to the neighbor's yard. I view them as my endowment to the neighborhood.

Family gathering, 2013
Between Maty and me and the ten roommates who've come through, we've filled this house up with many good memories. It's sad to leave them.

And it's really sad to say goodbye to our good neighbors. Fifteen years of three to five minute conversations add up. You come to like the easy feeling you get from knowing everyone around you.

Maty's new kitchen, 2012
This afternoon, I made a last quick trip to Freddie's to get Maty some mango juice. I walked past the waffle window, where folks were lined up for waffles. The tables outside the Baghdad were full of young people enjoying the aftermath of the brief thunderstorm earlier in the day. I ruminated on the thought that I'd made that walk maybe 5000 times over the years. And this was the last.

As recently as 4 months ago, I'd imagined that I might stay at this house through my someday retirement. Funny how things can change so fast.

But I've got a lot of memories that I'll be sorting through well past my retirement. Memories about this house on 36th Avenue in southeast Portland. And about the young man who came there in 1999, hopeful and fresh from a vision-quest tour of Europe, firm in his convictions and his optimism. And about how he changed over the years. And about how he found the woman that would save him.

So long, old house. So long, old neighborhood. So long, old life.


Monthly family dinner, 2010

Jabañero peppers grown in pots on the back deck in that summer to beat all summers, 2009
Neighborhood block party, 2010

Maty comes to the house, 2006
Mahatma Candy, hanging out in the stairwell, 2001
Hannah (front) and Roxanne (rest in peace, girls), hangin' in the office chair, 2003

Gathering friends to join the great war protest of March 15, 2003

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Ugly Americans terrifying children

These days, you won't have to strain your eyes to see examples of the ugliness of nativism and xenophobia here in these United States.

Yesterday, the world was treated to an ugly display when a mob of angry and misguided people in California blocked a bus carrying women and children (many of them toddlers or infants) from reaching Murrieta Border Patrol station near San Diego.

The would-be immigrants are part of the wave of women and children who, according to reports, have been lured by coyote people-smugglers on a perilous journey from their homes in Central America to our southern border. Coyotes prey on desperate families, convincing them to pay to have their children taken from their homelands (Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala) --where murder and crime rates are through the roof --to the US, which still holds the allure of a golden land of promise. Reports say that the children, when deposited, simply sit and wait for the US Border Patrol to find them and take them into custody.

This seems to be a new phenomenon. So many of these misled and desperate people have appeared on the border that they've overwhelmed detention facilities in Texas and Arizona. Unspecified authorities believe that some 50 to 80 thousand unaccompanied minors will be deposited throughout the year.

It's a full-blown humanitarian crisis. (And, yes, crises like these happen here, too. Not just in Africa and Asia.) In an attempt to deal with the flood of refugees, authorities arranged for buses to take the overflow from the aforementioned border states to a facility in California there to await their day in court.

But, of course, our nation's ample supply of xenophobes, with their ignorant slogans and their misguided apoplexy, felt they needed to get involved. A swarm of them met the buses on the roadway, blocking their progress, screaming and waving signs. The buses were turned around and their passengers taken to another undisclosed location.

I wonder if the bigots have enough self-awareness to understand how their behavior is perceived.

The frightened passengers on those buses, having  just been through the harrowing ordeal of leaving a dangerous home and crossing an inhospitable desert, are no doubt confused and frightened by these frothing bigots. The rest of us --you know, those of us who might have empathy for the kids --are sadly not surprised. (Well, I'm not surprised, anyway.)

Immigration law, of course, provides that these refugees --these mostly children and young mothers --be afforded due process. The law states that each case is judged individually. But that doesn't matter to the bigots. To them, the Constitution is a cudgel to wield when it works in their favor; an ignorable nuisance when it gets in the way of their hatred.

I find it all disgusting and shameful. When I think about those kids on the buses it hurts my heart. These displays of bigotry leave scars that stay with you for life. I've seen it first-hand.

Ugly, I tell you. Ugly.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Reaper looms

Hello, there!
"There has been a lot of good and a lot of bad in this life, but on the whole it's been good." That was the conclusion drawn by one of my oldest and dearest friends as he lay in a hospital bed with his blood pressure at 198/120 and his white blood cell count through the roof. He felt as if a house had fallen on his chest.

Three days previous, he'd been at work, speaking with clients on the phone, when he began experiencing stomach pains. As his shift progressed, the pain increased to the point where he could not continue, nor could he drive himself home. He called his wife, who retrieved him and deposited him in his bed at home before returning to work herself.

Later that evening, the pain dissipated and my friend began to believe that whatever he had experienced --stomach flu, indigestion --was over. But it was a false reprieve. The next day the pain came back, magnified. My friend suffered severe stomach pains and an inability to keep down any food. He vomited up everything he tried to ingest. Even water.

My friend is a tough guy and he attempted to tough it out. But after three and a half days, with no abatement in symptoms, his wife insisted that they go to the Emergency Room. "It's not getting better," she said. "We've got to go."

He was diagnosed with an extreme case of diverticulitis --a violent inflammation of the intestinal wall. A cyst had formed on his bowel, become infected, and ruptured. Oxygen and fecal matter were leaking into his body cavity. His lower intestinal track had shut down completely.

That night, in the hospital, when his faithful wife dozed off in the chair next to his bed, my friend supposed it might be the last time he would ever speak to her.

Eventually, the doctors were able to get the situation under control and my friend's condition stabilized and then improved. He spent two weeks in the hospital before being released. In that time, he lost 38 pounds. His recovery was complicated by a severe gout attack. Had he gone untreated for much longer, his chances of survival were very slim.

A rough road, to say the least.

As I mentioned, the subject of this tale is one of my oldest and dearest friends and for a long, bewildering moment, he stood at the edge of the cliff. As he related the story to me the other night I was reminded again of the constant presence of that dark, solemn figure.

The Reaper looms.

I think it is wise never to forget that.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Cantor loses!

So long, loser!
This morning, when I turned on the radio, I about got knocked over with the big political news out of Virginia. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) lost his primary reelection bid to one David Bratt, a Tea Party advocate and political unknown.

It was a humiliating defeat and a great big fall for a man who some predicted would someday be the Speaker of the House. Even though his internal pollster predicted that Cantor would win by 30 points, the actual vote tally was a twelve-point whipping in the other direction. This, despite Cantor raising over 5 million dollars for his campaign while his opponent had a mere $120,000.

Ultra-right-wing commentators are celebrating today. They see this electoral upset as an indication that the "moderate" Republican leadership is in trouble, as a demonstration that the Tea Party is still in ascendancy. They might be right.

But I'm celebrating, too. Because I believe the more success the Tea Party has in driving the agenda of the GOP, the better it is for those who oppose them. And besides, there are few politicians in this country more deserving of humiliation and rejection than one of the most bald-faced hypocrites on the American political scene today. Namely, Eric Cantor.
"If you read the newspapers today, I, for one, am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country. And believe it or not, some in this town, have actually condoned the pitting of Americans against Americans. But you sent us here to fight for you and all Americans." --House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, responding to the Occupy movement in October, 2011.
Good riddance!