ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

A blog for those who desire a more creative relationship with the natural world.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Keeping Your World Safe within the Pages of a Book: Learning from Kazuo Ishiguro

I recently attended a very public evening, and less public morning, with renowned British author Kazuo Ishiguro.  He read from and discussed his new novel The Buried Giant, his fourth since writing Remains of the Day (awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1989).

Here was my chance to sit at the foot of a master storyteller, to learn about his creative process, and about the emotional impulses and insecurities that haunt even one of the world’s most prominent writers.  Thank you, Lighthouse Writers, for organizing this event. 

Ishiguro was born in Japan, but moved with his parents to Great Britain when he was only five.  He talked a great deal about memory, and how it defines individuals and cultures.

“I became an adult with the memory of a very precious place, Japan, in my mind—a Japan that didn’t really exist.  I wanted to preserve this remembered place and I thought:  If I write a novel, I can recreate this world, and then this world will be safe within the pages of that novel."

In listening to him, I realized that my own desire to keep the memories of my beloved Wyoming ranchland safe within the pages of a book was the deeply rooted yearning that urged me forward during the entire writing of my memoir In Search of Kinship.

I had never before articulated this desire in quite that way, yet it was into that well of desire that I dipped my emotional bucket each and every time I sat down to write.  And now, with the Wyoming Highway Department's plans to reroute a major highway through this land, the memories contained within the pages of In Search of Kinship are all the more poignant.

Three of Ishiguro’s books now inhabit my writing office: The Remains of the Day, The Buried Giant, and Conversations with Kazuo Ishiguro.  Anytime I wish to once again sit at his feet as a disciple, all I need to do is reach out a hand and the maestro is there, extending his art and his passion, inviting me into his world.

Note: Watch video of full book scene from The Remains of the Day.  

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Extraordinary Worlds of Alice Hoffman and Nick Arvin


A few days ago, as I was turning the final page on Alice Hoffman’s novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Nick Arvin posted (rather humbly) to his Facebook page that his short story “The Crying Man” had just been awarded this year's Alice Hoffman Prize by Ploughshares.

Alice Hoffman, as final judge for the Ploughshares award, was obviously impressed with Arvin's writing.  She singled his story out from an elite field, as did the final judges (myself, and two others) who selected his novel Articles of War to receive the Colorado Book Award for Best Novel in 2007.
 
How interesting if we could somehow weave a web made of all the synchronistic strands that link judges to winners.  More than luck connects us - some mysterious "call and response" seems to be at work, an invisible silky strand linking this particular story to that particular heart and mind.

Arvin’s work first impressed me when I read Articles of War, his spare and powerfully moving novel about an eighteen-year-old farm boy from Iowa who enlists in the Army during World War II, arriving in Normandy just after D-day. 

Unlike the steel-nerved, real life character in the recent movie blockbuster The American Sniper, Arvin’s young soldier is consumed by fear and ultimately must face what for a soldier with a deep sense of cowardice is a horrifying job—to be a member of the firing squad assigned to kill a fellow soldier committed of treason.

In the novel Articles of War, Arvin takes us back to America of the mid-1940s.  In The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman takes us back more than a century, to New York City’s Coney Island in 1911, and to a young woman raised by the sinister impresario of a museum filled with grotesque and extraordinary things. 
 
Born with webbed fingers, trained to breathe underwater, Coralie lives among these unnatural creatures (and for whom the public pays good money to gawk)—the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, a two-headed fetus—hundreds of exhibits all either natural oddities, or gruesomely manipulated to appear so by the man who raised Coralie.
 
Eventually, Coralie finds herself in a glass fish tank, exhibited to drunken men only an arm’s length away, her father’s patrons leering at her night after night—this pale and sensual creature, falsely portrayed as half mermaid, half girl, floating in illuminated water.  Unlike Arvin’s crying man, her sorrowful tears fall unnoticed.
 
In an interview with Nick Arvin for the blog Eudaemonia after Articles of War was named a book of the year by Esquire magazine, and received several other prestigious awards, Arvin was asked if the book had been optioned for film. 

“It's become almost commonplace to say that recent fiction has been heavily influenced by cinematic techniques,” said Arvin, “and generally cross-pollination between the arts is a good thing, but is there a danger that readers might begin to see a novel, any novel, as merely a kind of half-assed movie? (I think there actually is a danger of this, based on how quick people are to ask me whether my novel will be a movie, and ask this in a way that seems to imply its potential will only be fully realized if it does become a movie.)”

More than once, when reading The Museum of Extraordinary Things, I closed my eyes and imagined the scenes Hoffman was describing - the Wolfman, covered in hair, kissing the beautiful woman whose face had been scarred with acid.  Or young Coralie confiding in a 100-year-old turtle held captive for nearly a century.  I imagined Coralie swimming alone through the cold, dark waters of the Hudson River—a lonely young woman more at home with fish than with humans.  I imagined the young Russian man who visited her in her dreams, his immigrant heart steeled against his own father until he met Coralie.   

All of Alice Hoffman’s books have been optioned for films and  she has written several of the screenplays herself.  Yet I doubt if any serious fan of Alice Hoffman novels wishes the movie "had come out first."

According to Shortlist.com, The American Sniper is the first of eight books to read before they become movies in 2015.  Too late for those of us who have already seen the movie but haven't yet read the book.  I saw The American Sniper  the same week I was reading The Museum of Extraordinary Things. 

Yet it is the world of creatures, both natural and unnatural, rendered vividly by Hoffman, that stays with me in my waking dreams.
Yesterday, swimming in the Pacific Ocean, I felt my body swayed by the current, like the sea turtles riding the waves, imagined the lives of the whales in the waters beyond the reef, and I thought of Coralie.  I felt grateful that the boundaries of my imagination seemed wider than the waters of the Pacific, unbounded by the square-cornered walls and flat screens of even the most luxurious movie theaters. 

Also noteworthy:

WATCH Alice Hoffman talk about the transforming power of the imagination.

Nick Arvin's story "The Crying Man" was recently featured in a dramatic reading by actor Michael McNeill during the Stories on Stage event, Another Fine Mess.) 
ATTEND the upcoming Stories on Stage production, “Son of Very Short Stories,” featuring wildly eclectic flash fiction performed by the Buntport Theater Company Saturday, March l7, Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Denver, and Friday, March 13, at the Chautauqua Community House, Boulder.












Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Oxford Junior Silences Wind in the Willows, Strikes Fear in Piglet

Audible cries rattled the WILLOWS along the river where OTTER lived when good-natured Mole brought news that the head honchos at Oxford  had struck his name from their Junior Dictionary.  Toad, who enjoyed all the latest fads, wasn't upset until he realized that there would be no more stilted HERONS pounding down the river (a lovely phrase he discovered reading Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men). 

"Yea gads!" exclaimed Badger. "Will I be the next to go?" Even the WEASELS, who had taken over Toad Hall, were aghast.  "Hair today, gone tomorrow!" 

In Winnie the Pooh's forest, just a short dusty walk down the bookshelf, another ruckus broke out when Christopher Robin brought the news to his woodland gang.  "Dear dear little PIGLET," he said, "I'm afraid you have become defunct."  Piglet's smile turned upside down.  "What's defunct?" Pooh asked.  Christopher Robin shook his head. "It means kaput. Gone. A blip on the radar." Eeyore's ears drooped. "What's a radar?" he asked.

And so it is.  Words come and go.  In 2008, author Richard Louv (Children & Nature Network) and a pack of journalists and conservationists ferreted out the news that the folks at Oxford Junior Dictionary had removed dozens of nature, farming and agricultural words, like these ones:

Photo by Alistair Fraser
Beaver, boar, cheetah, colt, cygnet, doe, drake, ferret, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pelican, piglet, plaice, porcupine, porpoise, raven, starling, stoat, stork, terrapin, thrush, weasel, wren.  Acorn, almond, apricot, ash, beech, beetroot, blackberry, bluebell, bramble, brook, buttercup, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, fern, fungus, gooseberry, hazel, hazelnut, heather, holly, horse chestnut, ivy.

Photo by Alistair Fraser
The list goes on: lavender, leek, melon, mint, mistletoe, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, poppy, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, willow.

Yep, even Steinbeck's stilted heron as pictured here in Alistair Fraser's blog Exploring Kootenay Lake (the largest natural body of fresh water in southern British Columbia) was removed.

Enter instead words like blog, celebrity, cut-and-paste, broadband, and analogue.

Now, with the latest Oxford revision, a swarm of writers like Margaret Atwood and Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) have sent a letter to Oxford expressing why they are profoundly alarmed. "We believe the OJD should address these issues and that it should seek to help shape children’s understanding of the world, not just to mirror its trends."


Alistair Fraser, the Kootenay Lake explorer, digs deep in his blog post "Shooting the Messenger," posing the question that perhaps the Oxford editors aren't to blame so much as their decisions are a reflection of the culture - kids want to play inside because, as a child once told Richard Louv, "That's where all the electrical outlets are."

I have no desire to read or write a book about an electrical outlet.  Yet I love Shilo Shiv Suleman's Ted talk, "Using Tech to Enable Dreaming" and how she takes us inside the world of interactive books.  "Storytelling," she tells us, "is becoming more and more sensorial."  A sensory experience: something you can taste, touch, smell, hear or see.  Its how our bodies interpret the world.

I like Mole's world. "Hullo, World!" he calls out to Rat.  And I like Pooh's world, where Piglet asks, "What about me?"  A.A. Milne answers, "Yes, what about us?" And I can't help but hear the entire world of Nature answering, "Yes, PLEASE, keep us on your radar!"

NOTES: Read more at CBCNews/Arts & Entertainment. Read more in Nature Canada.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Beauty, Mystery and Community - Gary Ferguson's "Carry Home" Bridge

When my sister and I told our beautiful Hungarian stepmother that we would honor her request to wait to scatter our father's ashes until she also passed away, we didn't realize "Dad" would be sitting on the bookshelf for 17 years.  We also didn't realize that when she passed, the sense of grief would be twofold.

Over the years I consoled myself, joking that Dad wouldn't mind being nestled between the books he had written, and his presence had surely comforted our bereft and beloved stepmother.  And now, on the wake of casting both their ashes into the salty sea air of San Francisco, I think back to scattering our mother's ashes among the Ponderosa pines nine years ago. 

A few weeks ago, Gary Ferguson and his wife, consultant Mary Clare, stayed with us while Gary was on book tour for his new book The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness. The book is about Gary's remote journeys into the wilderness to honor a promise to his wife Jane before she died - that if anything happened to her, he would scatter her ashes in the wild locations she loved the most.

Over dinner and red wine, Gary, Mary and John and I talked about the complexity of life and love, and of death and grieving.  "I learned the importance of community," Gary said, "and of the need to honor the mystery of it all. Beauty, Joseph Campbell reminds us, is what nudges us toward a new vision of ourselves as we come out the other side of grief. Community, mystery, and beauty - these three things formed the bridge for me."

I found beauty in the seagulls wailing over the soft wash of waves on the seashore, just as I found beauty today in the snow layering the boughs of the Ponderosas, the way their trunks bend to the wind without breaking, the way the earth holds their roots, and my mother's ashes. 

But perhaps the most mysterious beauty of all is found in the way the human heart can choose to heal by choosing to love again, and again, and again.

Wishing you beauty, community, and a New Year imbued with the mysteries of the heart.

Note: Gary Ferguson and Mary Clare have begun a new venture, The Carry Home: Life Changes and Here You Are, offering retreats and programs designed to help people traverse life's changes with vision and integrity.