Monthly Archives: May 2019
The friendly old refrain is very much alive on America’s campuses: “Have a good summer.” I was working this sunny spring week at a big university in the middle of the country, and those words were in the air a lot. There are friends and acquaintances, over 30,000 of them, who lived, worked, and played together for eight or nine months during the academic year, who said goodbye for a spell as they finished exams and split off from each other.
As we interacted briefly, a few kids, (strangers to me,) even gave me, “Have a good summer,” as a pleasant goodbye. It is a nostalgic phrase to hear, and my mind floods with images of fresh young faces — long-ago friends engaged in smiley handshakes and hugs — memories from 35 years ago.
Well, I intend to have a good summer, and I will need a proper soundtrack for the season. Mine will begin with lots of songs from the recent self-titled release by Sasami Ashworth, who performs as SASAMI.
She is new to me. SASAMI is a music school graduate and multi-instrumentalist. Until recently she was the keyboard player for the rock outfit, Cherry Glazerr. A little over a year ago, she left the group to pursue her own career as a solo artist. In addition to playing keys she is a wonderfully straightforward and expressive singer. Her vocals sometimes carry an unaffected quaver that matches the woozy synth melodies. The combo’s guitarist is Sasami’s brother, JooJoo, who plays his instrument with the aural equivalent of someone wielding a beautiful kaleidoscope.
Fans of early shoegaze music, (think Cocteau Twins,) and fans of the un-bright, Bacharach-styled, 60s-influenced jazz/pop of groups like Broadcast and Stereolab will find lots to love.
Here are a four songs to get you started. Keep them in your back pocket for playing some night soon when the sun sets late, and the sun-warmed earth radiates its insistent heat upward after dark.
Nature vs Nurture
The nature part…
The Night Swimmers by Peter Rock
Peter Rock is a Portland writer and he teaches at Reed College. I’ve read two of Peter Rock’s books, My Abandonment and The Night Swimmers. In each novel Peter Rock’s protagonists bob and weave and hide from their demons. And they seek sanctuary and balance in nature. In My Abandonment, comfort is taken in the Pacific Northwest woods. In The Night Swimmers, the characters swim in Lake Michigan for miles under inky black night skies.
The Night Swimmers has been reviewed as an autobiographical novel, but the lines may be blurrier than that. The story starts in the 1990s on Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. The narrator has recently graduated from college and is beginning his life as a writer (all the hows and whys of his future remain undefined and this troubles him). He is living with his parents on the lakeshore when he meets an intriguing widow at a party. And they have this in common, they both enjoy distance night swimming, but the commonality is discovered later and accidently in a near collision in the dark water. As the summer continues, the narrator and the widow begin to swim across miles of open water together in the dark. The narrator is attracted to the widow in an undefined way but nothing comes of it. The widow, Mrs. Abel, remains mysterious, as unobtainable crushes often do. Then one night during an exceptionally long swim, Mrs. Abel disappears at a strange shoal. The narrator swims back to shore without her after searching frantically. When he is at last able to get out of the water, dawn is breaking.
Twenty years later the narrator is a novelist, married, and a father to two daughters. He is able now to reflect on his summer of Mrs. Abel, their night swims and her disappearance. As the narrator considers that time, he gathers artifacts from his past – photographs, letters, art work and his mind wanders to the painter Charles Burchfield and the psychic photographer Ted Serios. (Serios reportedly had the ability to take a Polaroid shot of his head and produce photographs of places he had never visited.)
The narrator weaves together all the gathered detail to help him make sense of that summer -it is after all the tangents that flesh out our storyline, that add color. In further pursuit of understanding, the narrator returns to Wisconsin with his family to wander through empty cabins and share secret summer spots with his delightfully odd daughters. And of course, he begins to swim again, late at night.
I loved this novel of remembrance and Peter Rock’s tribute to the watery depths of memory. It’s how I too envision memory, my own secret pool of images and flashes of light. A body of water both roiling and placid. When I dream of water, I know I am dreaming my life. And on different nights there can be misshapen grotesque monsters in the water or sunshine on turquoise water. There are sometimes –often– flotillas of people I love shouting back and forth stories of our shared time and there is outrageous laughter. Sometimes the water is peopled with those from whom I ran. On a walk today through a reach on Chrystal Springs I looked for spring runs of steelheads and lampreys with an environmental engineer. I learned about fish and wetlands from him and I also discovered he too envisions his memory like water. And when he dreams of himself, he is water. I asked if he fished, “no”, he shook his head thoughtfully and, “no” again. He said, “it would be like killing a part of myself”.
My Abandonment is based on a short newspaper article Peter Rock read in The Oregonian. The article told of an adult male and his daughter found living in Forest Park – Portland’s largest wilderness park. Rock researched the story and then imagined the end. The book was made into a movie in 2018 called, Leave No Trace. Both the book and movie are well worth the time.
Leave No Trace. Ben Foster is stellar in his role. The daugher reminds me of someone we all know.
The nurture part…
The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman.
The Gunners is the name on a mailbox in front of an abandoned house. And it serves as a secret club to six friends growing up in an economically depressed section of Buffalo, New York.
Kauffman has written truth in The Gunners and so like real life, the novel is keen and funny. And sad. It is filled with equal parts of loss and mistakes, grace and love -not unlike most lives. Through all the years the Gunners — Mikey, Lynn, Alice, Sam, and Jimmy hold on to one another. They don’t do it seamlessly, because each has their own shortcomings, and there have been gaps and a few mistakes.
The story starts as the kids randomly find one another and agree to form a club in the abandoned Gunner house. The years pass and their ties loosen. But death brings them together again and they return to Buffalo for a funeral. They reunite at a lake house and discover their feelings for one another haven’t changed, that their ties are true and meaningful. And it’s time to start filing in the blanks…
Kauffman’s writing is clean and it enables her to sidestep gooeyness. She builds individuals with specific vulnerabilities and personalities, you don’t feel sorry for anyone, even though there is tragedy. Reading this book is like taking the hand of a dear childhood friend and heading out for a purposeful stroll.
The Immortalists by Chole Benjamin.
What if you were told, as a child, the exact date you would die? Would you live your life differently? The Immortalists is about the four Gold children who on one boring summer vacation day meet with a psychic who has a gift to foretell the exact day on which a person will die. The novel follows each Gold as they set out to live their lives, with their death date fueling many of their choices. This one is about family and destiny and illusions. The novel takes place in San Francisco during the early AIDS epidemic, Las Vegas during the Siegfried and Roy years, New York, and primate labs focused on ageing experiments. I think Chole Benjamin is a bit of a smart-y. You’ll learn a lot if your read this book and I suspect you will enjoy it mightily.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
This book is won.der.ful. The story centers on quirky Eleanor who is the embodiment of that one person in the office with whom we are all (likely) familiar. Eleanor has only clipped responses for her co-workers, she wears crummy out-of-date clothes, and getting to the point: she is simply an all-around socially clunky oddball. You know workers snigger behind her back and make after-work plans that intentionally leave her out of the fun and bonding (and Eleanor knows it too).
Eleanor’s profound loneliness is carefully revealed to the reader and its shattering. But wait, get this, despite her loneliness the story is also funny because Eleanor is funny. Eleanor’s humor is shared in her internal monologues because Eleanor doesn’t think much of people and talks almost exclusively to herself. Even so, you know something has to change.
And here is how it happens -she of all people falls in love with a local jackass pop singer. Her crush brings Eleanor out of her shell a little but her fantasies are upended when she is persuaded (by a co-worker) to help an old man who has fallen in a crosswalk. Read it before Reese Witherspoon turns it into another HBO mini-series (not necessarily a bad thing).
It’s been a while. I’ve missed you.
It’s that wonderful time of year for a teacher. I’m in between semesters. I have no class… But you already knew that.
I’ve been a so-so reader since I last caught up with you. I’ve started a lot of books, but probably put more aside than I have finished.
But I want to tell you about the latest book that I enjoyed. Vox by Christina Dalcher.
It takes place in the very near future. A Trump-like government is in power. The regime has taken measures to silence women. Females are dismissed of their wage-earning positions. Passports are confiscated, for those that hold them, and not available for those applying. Women are issued counters to wear on their wrists. The counters count their words: they are allowed 100 per day, unless they curse. A curse word costs them 10 words. They are not allowed to use sign language, read, or write. They can watch the news: a Fox News-like program with a constant feed of pro-government propaganda. Young girls get counters too. Their consolation – they get to pick the color. They can continue to go to school, where they are offered classes in cooking, sewing, and household management.
The rest of the world looks on, heads shaking in disgrace, but no country stepping in for fear of disrupting the already fragile balance of the world economy.
How did this happen? Not to blame the victims, but half of the voters, women, did not see it coming. They underestimated ultra-conservative’s fear and contempt for women’s reproductive power. They overestimated the morality of the men they thought held them equal.
And they sorely underestimated the power of their own vote. They didn’t have time to canvas, to engage people in “women’s causes.” They didn’t see things ever really changing from the status quo, so what good was it to talk and talk and talk about it?
Dr. Jean McClellan is one of the many women silenced. She is a neuro-linguist who, with her federally-funded research team, had discovered an antidote to Wernicke’s Aphasia right before being dismissed of her government research position and being issued a counter.
[J’s blog note and a speech language pathology primer: Aphasia is a term for the loss of language following a brain injury – most commonly an ischemic stroke occurring in the brain’s left hemisphere. Generally, 80-90% of the human population’s language centers are in the left hemisphere. Wernicke’s aphasia is characterized as poor comprehension and a confused meaningless output of words. Damage specifically in the posterior temporal lobe results in Wernicke’s aphasia, named so for the scientist who discovered that particular neural real estate. ]
Jean’s husband is a high-end government official with ties to the president. They have four children. Three boys, the oldest of whom has slowly been falling into line under the current doctrine. Jean is beginning to hate him. Twin boys, oblivious now, but probably following their older brother’s lead. And a young daughter who, heartbreaking to Jean, is beginning to win awards in her kindergarten class for fewest words used during the day. A prisoner in her own home, subservient to her husband and sons, Jean yearns to take her daughter and run away.
But one day, the president’s brother is afflicted with Wernicke’s aphasia and Dr. Jean McClellan, the researcher with the solution, is called back to duty with the the promised allowance of all the words she needs while she refines her antidote.
As you can imagine, Jean negotiates for more words, plus her daughter’s words, and much more. And the race is on.
This is a good one, Scramblers. A Handmaid’s Tale for the Trump era. A modern-day horror-story.