Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The lives of books

Just before the holidays a friend and colleague who knows a great deal more than I do about the Balkans -- historically, linguistically, and in literary dimensions -- gave me a book I don't believe I would ever have found or picked-up otherwise.

She thus added to my personal store of proof that people find and read books that are recommended by people they know and/or trust (a widely-held belief); and more so when those books take a while to show their value (i.e., when it's not the first pages read in a bookstore that 'make the sale').

But it also happened that reading My Father's Books by Luan Starova crossed currents in a curious way with a chapbook of Glenn Ingersoll's poetry that I happened to obtain from the author himself on the same day I finished reading Starova's volume.

First, here's what I wrote about My Father's Books on Goodreads:
I had a hard time finding my way into this volume, slim as it is. The author's abstractions eluded me, as if they were written in code that could only be deciphered by those who knew in their own blood what "his Balkan fate" -- referring to the author's father -- means. Only in Part Two, as Luan Starova's four years in Constantinople on the cusp of the Ottoman Empire's collapse are described, did I begin to unlock the quiet, dogged stoicism of a protagonist bound to a thankless and likely futile task of charting a path through decades of foreseen and bitterly-experienced pain of a subject nation as the empire that held it in thrall for centuries dissolves. As My Father's Books finally opened to me, I found in the volume a mystery in meticulousness I first encountered in Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red, crossed with the melancholy inherent in the ending of great historical movement that Joseph Roth evokes in The Radetsky March and The Emperor's Tomb. [...]
My Father's Books is organized around the core characteristic of Starova's father, who (unless I missed it) is never named in the text: that he lived the richest aspects of his life in books he collected; studied; carried from place to place through a lifetime of exiles, one after the next; and considered deeply in relation to questions of identity, nation, and (collapsing) empire over the course of his adult life. It unfolds as a series of briefly sketched episodes, one or two pages, occasionally one or two more than that. From the book's blurb on the U. Wisconsin Press website:
Weaving a story from the threads of his parents’ lives from 1926 to 1976, [the author] offers a child’s-eye view of personal relationships in shifting political landscapes and an elegiac reminder of the enduring power of books to sustain a literate culture.
And here is a passage from the penultimate section of the novel, titled Time Discovered:
Those books would follow my father through the collapse of several kingdoms and empires. The books outlived eras; they outlived my father as well. I remained powerless to interpret them; I followed a different route through other languages and cultures. Yet, I know very well that much of my father remains in them -- his spirit, his unspoken admonitions and advice. The books contain streams of time not yet past. With these books one could collect the currents of past times. These books enchant because they stand outside of time. They revived within me my father's illusions and his powerlessness to build from them the truth. I do not know where these books will end. When our life ends, what of us remains in the books that we have read? ...
So on Saturday I was a couple of dozen pages from finishing My Father's Books when I stopped by the Elmwood branch of the Berkeley Public Library, where Glenn Ingersoll happened to be working that day. I know Glenn from quite a few years back, when we were both a part of the East Bay chapter of the political group/movement Queer Nation and Glenn worked in Doe Library, on the UC Berkeley campus, where I often retreated to work on a novel project after my work for a living was done for the day. On Saturday, I congratulated Glenn on recent completion of his years-long endeavor Thousand, a "long piece" built of one hundred words written each day for a thousand days and published on his blog, Love Settlement.

We talked about our various projects, past and present, and he ducked into the back of the library to fetch a copy of his chapbook Fact, published last year by Avantacular Press. I bought Fact, and read it, interleaving a run of Glenn's short poems with a few pages from Starova's novel. Many of the poems in Fact are self-referential. Others are written in the voice of the poem itself.

The correspondences were startling within the coincidental frame of my reading, alternating as I was between these books. Contrast the end of passage from My Father's Books excerpted above:
I do not know where these books will end. When our life ends, what of us remains in the books that we have read? ...
with this short poem a few pages from the end of Glenn's chapbook:
The poem is sleeping.
You are one of its dreams.
See what I mean? ...

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Living small

Andy Newman blogged in the NY Times today about the winner of a competition to design a building full of much-smaller-than-you-might-expect housing to be built on E. 27th St. between 1st and 2nd Avenue: City Unveils Winner of Tiny-Apartment Competition. The "micro-units" will measure 250 to 370 square feet each.

The article reports that 40% of the apartments will be "priced to be affordable" (from which one must suppose that 60% will be unaffordable?).

As one early commenter pointed out already there's an awful lot of space devoted to hallway. And as another has noticed, there's not much room for owning anything, like clothes. I'd add kitchen equipment beyond the very basics to that. And, looking around my own apartment, and imagining myself living in a space this size, I'd have to add books too, and a desk that has more surface than the minimum required for a laptop.

On the other hand, if I can imagine trading in ~140 shelf-feet of books for an e-reader that contains only the ones that have been digitized ... and if I can imagine divesting myself of too many shirts and a ridiculous number of fileboxes full of redlined drafts of fiction-in-progress ... and if I can imagine cooking less complex meals for fewer friends, and only occasionally ... and if I can imagine dumping several decades' collection of CDs and -- yes, it's true -- vinyl in favor of crappier-quality iThing recordings ... and if I were to imagine living alone (no, M--, I'm not really imagining that) .......... well ... maybe I could make a micro-unit work for me.

I'm thinking these micro-units would work pretty seamlessly for someone just starting out, someone who hasn't acquired much s/he wants to keep. A micro-unit would certainly work for me as a pied-à-terre (and who wouldn't want a pied-à-terre in Manhattan, perhaps not perfectly located, but, hey, only 4 blocks from the 6 Lexington, and two more from Madison Square Park and the Flatiron Building?).

Imagining all that divestiture of stuff is not such a hard thing to do. It's not nearly so hard, say, as imagining being homeless, and living out of one's car or a shopping cart or a backpack and a sleeping bag ... and you only need to look around Berkeley (where I live now) to be able to imagine that, vividly.

Can you see yourself living in a micro-unit? What would be the hardest thing(s) for you to give up?

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Everywhere that I'm not

On Thursday evening I was listening to the radio while making dinner, like most everybody has, for hundreds or thousands of dinner times each. Then a song came on, like they do. You know, the song you haven't heard in thirty years, and haven't thought of either, but that just nails a particular time in your life.

On Thursday evening that song was Translator's Everywhere That I'm Not. I swear it's been running on continuous loop in my head ever since it came on at 7:24 p.m.

Never heard of Translator? Have a listen.

'Cause you're in New York, but I'm not
You're in Tokyo, but I'm not
You're in Nova Scotia, but I'm not
Yeah, you're everywhere that I'm not
Yeah, you're everywhere that I'm not
It's your basic longing-for-lost-lover tune, you've heard the trope before, you'll hear it again: everybody's been there, everybody imagines nobody's ever been there the way they have.

The video? It's so early MTV (the channel launched the year before the song's release), so band-that-barely-made-it-past-College-radio ... but for me it perfectly evokes a time when I spent every weekend night at San Francisco's legendary Stud -- the old Stud, pre-1987, on Folsom Street. I can smell the cheap gin-and-tonics well before the first refrain ends.

Here's a guidebook-style description of the dance bar, but only because I found it in Google Books, taken from San Francisco Bizarro: A Guide to Notorious Sights, Lusty Pursuits, and Downright Freakiness in the City by the Bay, by Jack Boulware:
If not the oldest continuous gay bar in the city, The Stud is right up there, opening in the late 1960s at 1535 Folsom between 11th and 12th [...]. A popular gay stoner hangout, The Stud gained a reputation as San Francisco's quintessential alternative gay bar. Patrons o f the era speak of it with almost spiritual reverence, and with good reason. The business operated for a time as an ordained chapel of the Universal Life Church, holding "services" after the 2 a.m. closing time so that the bar could remain open into the early morning hours.
The other song that does that for me, evokes that same bar in the same era, is The Clash's Should I Stay or Should I Go, a song of the same vintage, but one that made it into the Canon: anybody who has listened to more than a miniscule corner of late 20th century British music has listened to The Clash.

If you're under 30 in 2013, and knew Translator's Everywhere that I'm not before you pointed a web browser my way, please leave a comment. I salute you.

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Friday, January 4, 2013

Point Reyes National Seashore at the start of the year

One of my favorite getaway spots ever is Tomales Point, the northern end of Point Reyes National Seashore on the Marin County coast. The visitor's center at Point Reyes is about an hour's drive from where I live, and Tomales Point is another half-hour from there. Each of the many times I've been over a long stretch of years I marvel that a place that feels as wild as Point Reyes does is so easily and quickly reached from San Francisco or the East Bay (it's not really wild: there are too many roads and trails and chemical toilets and pay phones to qualify).

I drove out to the coast yesterday, drawn by a need to hear the pounding surf as much as anything else. I don't think I'd been out to Point Reyes in all of 2012, sad to say.

The Tomales Point Trail overlooks steep cliffs and the narrow strands of beach below them. The surf is treacherous, there are rip currents galore, and "sneaker waves" -- infrequent and irregular waves that reach far beyond the  point that seems to be the furthest inland that the tide-of-the-moment extends -- can be lethal. In fact, stopping in San Rafael on my way out to the coast yesterday, I saw headlines in the newsracks warning of three deaths caused by sneaker waves in the past week alone.

The beaches are lonely, lovely, and steeped in a sense of the sea's seemingly limitless power.

I know no better place to put life in perspective.

As you can see in the photo at left, from the top of the cliffs of Tomales Point, the beaches below are more or less inaccessible. For the determined, however, the key phrase is "more or less." Where there's a will...

And yet.

I didn't make my way down yesterday.

But at a particular cut in the cliffs, where a gully has deepened over centuries into a cleft, I've scrambled many times, alone or with a friend, down the steep deer-paths and onto the sandy stone that leads to a magnificently empty stretch of beach. When the tide is low enough, one can go even further south, over a low rock spit, to an even more remote strand. I've often had those hundreds of yards of coast all to myself, and marveled that this could be so some thirty or forty miles from San Francisco. On a clear day you can see the Farallon Islands, thirty miles out into the Pacific, etched sharp against the horizon.

Here's the view from where I lingered for the longest while yesterday, sitting on a boulder embedded in the hillside. The surf's crash rose -- after an odd second's delay for the sound to reach my perch -- as majestically, if not as loudly, as one hears from the beach itself.

I'd arrived late enough that I didn't want to take the time to make the climb down and up again. Moreover, the hills were soaked and the ground loose from recent storms. Climbing down would have done ugly damage to the hillside, and the prospect of slipping and breaking a wrist or a leg didn't seem attractive on such a lovely day in such a beautiful place...

Tomales Point is also an elk reserve.

The native-Californian tule elk that live on the Point now were rendered nearly extinct in the nineteenth century, but conservation efforts over the course of some thirty five years have established hundreds of the imposing animals on the reserve, and smaller free-ranging herds elsewhere in Point Reyes. I saw three separate clusters of the animals yesterday, all females except for one group of thirty or so over which a magnificent bull presided. The view was much better through my 8x binoculars, but here's the best I could do, with my little point-and-shoot Fujiflex, of the bull up on a distant ridge:

Can you make out the antlers on the elk standing about a third of the way from the right edge of the photo? Click on the image for a larger view.

On the way back to 'civilization' I stopped at the next beach south, Kehoe, because McClure's beach, at the base of Tomales Point, was inaccessible due to a mudslide on the trail.

I have a rule about visiting the ocean: it's not a real visit unless I touch the water. Not get in for a swim necessarily:

But I had to dip fingers or toes in the waves washing up on the beach before I could call my day complete. (The sign above reads: "Surfing, wading, and swimming not advised. Shark area, strong undertows, currents and sneaker waves. Enter at your own risk." Just sayin' ...)

It was nearly sunset. No pelicans, but plenty of seagulls and sandpipers.

All in all, a fine day at the head of a year.

Wishing all my readers the best in 2013...

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