Monday, March 9, 2009

From the Library: "Grey Seas Under" by Farley Mowat

We have been wondering whatever happened to the procedural adventure novel. Remember how thrilling stories used to have a lot of how-to-ing? In between being shipwrecked and domesticating his man Friday, Robinson Crusoe explains in detail how he learned by trial and error to carve a canoe, or discovered how to fire cooking vessels. And in between being circled about by wolves and beating off locusts, we learn how the Ingalls family made maple syrup, or how Pa and Laura made a door with leather hinges for their little house.

Farley Mowat's Grey Seas Under -- which, you might know, we have been reading -- turns out to be another story in which daring exploits alternate with technical explanations. For example:

"Biederman saw that he could not hope to make the ship even remotely watertight and that there was no possibility of pumping her dry. Calling upon his long experience as a pneumatic-caisson engineer, he thereupon decided upon a risky but novel alternative. His plan was to seal number one hold from the top, making it airtight, and then force in compressed air until there was sufficient pressure to hold the water down to a safe level. Some hundreds of tons of wet and viscous grain, still remaining in the hold, were to be left in position to form a mattress nicely balanced between the pressure of the air above and that of the water below. On this, and on a cushion of air, he thought that Firby might conceivably stay afloat until she reached Quebec."

To be sure, the adventures in Grey Seas Under are thrilling: the "extraordinary ship...manned by no ordinary men" regularly takes on seas in which she "rolls so badly she put[s] her gunwales under." Her sailors undertake rescues which, "under the circumstances then prevailing seem to verge on the suicidal," with "the full weight of the Atlantic beat[ing] down through the open grille above them." All this derring-do is very nice.

Ultimately, though, PDXWD turns out to be in it for the procedures. The thrill of the novel of adventure finally comes -- does it not? -- from how it prepares us for the unlikely. Who knows if we might one day be called upon to rescue a hundred and twenty maimed, starved, and freezing Newfoundlanders from the ice, using only our wits, our courage, and our extraordinary ship? Or if we might need to know how to repair the nine-ton bilge pump in tank two? By reading these procedures, we believe we equip ourselves with knowledge we will probably need sometime. Somehow, the stuff just feels valuable.

And yet, with the exception of the crime genres, and of actual survival guides, we haven't seen a lot of novels like this published in the last few decades. (Grey Seas Under was published in 1958). So, Portland Writer, we put it to you: are we missing something, or are thrillers and spy novels the procedural novel's last stand? Discuss.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

From the Library: "Bowl Of Cherries" and a chat with Millard Kaufman

For a great many reasons, Millard Kaufman is an anachronism. For one, he doesn't have email, and for two, he thinks most movies today are "made for kids." At 90 years old, he stands as a noteworthy exception to our youth-obsessed society, and may force us coin a phrase at the opposite extreme of "child prodigy." With his debut novel Bowl of Cherries, Kaufman might be considered the antithesis of writers like Keats (whose entire oeuvre was written before his death at age 25) or Jonathan Safran Foer (who, in his mid-20s, published a highly successful first novel). "I'm a late bloomer, I guess," Kaufman said via telephone with PDXWD. "[Movie] producers are looking for writers as young as possible nowadays," said the Mr. Magoo co-creator who worked in film until the age of 86, "and I'm not as young as possible."

But why a novel? And why now? Like the book, Kaufman says, "It’s about existence. How do I do it? How do I keep going?"

This inquisitiveness and tenacity shine throughout the book. Slightly reminiscent of Sartre's "The Wall," Bowl of Cherries is the story of Judd Breslau (a 14-year-old genius, ironically enough), kicked out of his graduate program at Yale and, after a series of wildly unlikely events, thrown into an Iraqi prison to await his execution. Nowhere in the tale does Kaufman relax his sharp wit or penchant for lucid observation. As Judd ponders adolescent beauty alongside imminent death, Kaufman's writing summons the ghosts of Nabokov and Kafka. Judd globetrots in seek of his first and only love, Valerie, but finds himself in the shadow of a multi-armed political and intellectual beast, a conflict that Kaufman says is rooted in both human temptation and the mysteries of the world. "How the hell did the Egyptians build the pyramids?" he asked us rhetorically. "Umm, we're not sure, we're just book reviewers" we told him. "Exactly! No one seems to know!" he responded. "And why did Thomas Chatterton, a little-known English writer, commit suicide at such a young age? But above all," he went on, "what are humans supposed to do with their excrement?"

We left that last question alone. And needless to say, these conundrums are not easily answered, but, as Kaufman says, "Nothing is impossible. We have been through many terrible losses and defeats and each time we have survived," which explains why, as Bowl of Cherries progresses, Judd's past and future converge, as does world history. The cyclical, parallel motifs Kaufman uses suture together not only the threads of the plot, but his outlook on the plight of our world. "I'm not necessarily optimistic, but we'll manage, we'll get through this, too. We will not be defeated that easily."

Fruit, especially a bowl of cherries, is tempting, both allegorically and literally. The bowl of cherries in the novel, though, packs a wickedly subtle surprise, and like the book itself can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Fraught though it is with existential futility, the floor of Bowl of Cherries never falls through to hopelessness. "Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail—but we just have to keep plodding," Kaufman said, a statement that goes far to answer why he decided to write a book while most of his peers are watching The Price is Right reruns and drinking fiber in a glass of water.

Already at work on his second novel, Kaufman seems, if nothing else, intent on proving that younger isn't always better. At the end of our conversation he even asked us if we wanted to go to lunch in San Francisco soon, which we unfortunately had to turn down as we are not currently in that city, a fact that seemed to slightly, though only temporarily, perplex Mr. Kaufman. "Well, maybe someday, then," he said. Yes, Millard, maybe someday.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

From the Library: "State By State," plus additional interview with editor Sean Wilsey

This reader is fully on board with Matt Weiland, who in the preface to State By State asserts, “There is poetry in the Rand McNally Atlas.” A rhythmic beauty exists in watching the country unfold as you drive across it, witnessing firsthand how climates and forests and deserts and mountains blend and twist into and away from one another in a manner that often defies human-drawn borders. More intriguing than that, however, is experiencing the seismic cultural shifts that occur between Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Des Moines, Dallas, Boston, and Miami. You begin to wonder how all this could possibly be the same country.

And yet it is, which is precisely what Weiland and coeditor Sean Wilsey aim to capture in this collection of 50 essays by 50 different writers about the 50 states (actually, 51 when you count Edward P. Jones’s afterword about D.C.). Speaking with us via telephone last fall, Wilsey said that the idea for State By State came out of discussions with Weiland about the legendary WPA Federal Writers Project of the 1930s, which “gave jobs to writers and sent them out to write about the country.” One unfortunate part of this now-famous State Guide series, however, was that the thousands of publications that resulted “tended to be dry,” Wilsey said, “like guidebooks. We didn’t want that sort of stock Chamber of Commerce style, but rather wanted our collection to have a more memoir-esque feel to it.”

It seems that State By State could hardly come at a more timely moment, either, as we have just ushered in a historic new President and begin to seriously face several national challenges, including an economy in freefall, a housing crisis, soaring food prices, and a war whose dimensions are ambiguous, not to mention eight years of disastrous international relations. And before November 4th, we seemed as divided as ever: red, blue, solid, leaning, swing, toss-up. It would be no exaggeration, then, to say that we are a nation poised on a precipice, wondering: can anything save us?

This book might, actually. “We wanted something broad-minded and good-hearted,” Weiland writes in the preface, “something bold, intimate, and funny; something full of personal anecdote and strange characters and hidden truths,” and that’s exactly what they delivered. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the collection is noting which authors are present, which states they’ve been asked to represent (Oregon is rendered by Joe Sacco in a graphic short story comic about Portland, Eugene, and wine country), and which authors are missing. Over the two years it took to make the book, those who turned down the project included Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Lillian Ross, J.D. Salinger, and Annie Proulx.

As you make your way across the landscape of State By State you’re surprised at a great many things about our country. America is an enormous place, made up of an extraordinary mélange of people and cultures. Wilsey said that in editing the collection, he sensed Americans are “hopeful, but not unthinkingly so, like people beginning to pull out of selfishness. Everyone everywhere takes pride in where they’re from, though, and honestly, there’s a lot to be proud of.”