Thursday, August 28, 2014

Elena Ferrante: The Story of a New Name

Elena Ferrante is the mystery woman of Italian fiction. No one knows much about her. No one knows who she is. James Wood wrote a profile in the New Yorker a while back, but it was mostly speculation and analysis of her works. The recent speculation is Italy in that she's really a man. I doubt it.

Readers are usually fascinated to know, after reading a novel, “How much of this really happened?”

In the case of Ferrante, there’s no one to ask.

Yet to judge by the second installment of her trilogy, The Story of a New Name, much of it probably close to the truth. I say this because the book is sprawling and full of incidental details that seem to be lifted from someone’s personal diary rather than concocted as structural elements of a plot.

The book is set largely in Naples, and it deals with two young women, friends since childhood, who become estranged after one marries into a successful but crime-tinged family while the other continues her education, falling in love with the son of her favorite professor.

That's a very simplistic description of a 400-page novel, needless to say. It reminds me of the TV Guide description I saw once of Hamlet: "Man returns home to find father dead."

The novel is well worth reading, I think, if you can survive the occasionally long-winded and irrelevant passages. Rather than describing it in greater detail, I might just as well refer you to the review I wrote, which appeared in Rain Taxi a few days ago. 

In case you’re interested.



Thursday, August 21, 2014

Three Days in a Leaky Canoe

I had always attributed the water than collects in the bottom of the canoe to my wet shoes. But on our recent trip to the BWCAW, it seemed to be accumulating more rapidly than any pair of shoes could account for…and because we’d loaded off the dock at the landing, my shoes happened to be dry. Strange.

By the time we reached the north end of Sawbill Lake, after an hour and more of paddling into a stiff wind, it was an inch and a half deep under my seat, though the water hadn’t made its way to the front half of the canoe. 

After an additional half hour of searching for a campsite, we secured the only one left within reach, on a back bay on the lake’s northwest corner.

When we set out for an evening paddle an hour later, I noticed a more severe leak near the center of the canoe—a slit in the aluminum through which water was gurgling at an alarming rate. That leak had just “sprung.” We returned to camp immediately and applied duct tape both inside and out. After standing around for ten minutes wondering what to do, Hilary said, "Why don't we try it out?" And so we set out again, just to see what would happen.

The tape held. Nevertheless, the hairline crack was at precisely the spot in the hull that buckles every time I hoist the 80-pound vessel onto my knee, before heaving it up onto my shoulders with a trick of leverage I mastered 45 years ago and still (just barely) command. I was well aware that if that two-inch crack became a six-inch crack, four or five portages further into the bush, we’d be in big trouble.

So it happened that we spent three nights camping on the same spot on Sawbill Lake.

As Hilary’s brother Paul matter-of-factly put it when I described the situation to him later, “So, you had a good excuse not to do so much work.”

Right On, Brother. 

 But it was a good spot. Out of the way. Only two parties came near in two days, one of which was looking for the portage in a different bay a mile away. (Lord, have mercy.)

The view was somewhat enclosed, though without much effort you could see several miles of lake spread out to the south. And a creek feeds into the bay from the north. The last time we camped here, I walked down to the creek to see if a moose was anywhere nearby—only to see a moose climb down the opposite bank that very instant to feed in the stream for twenty minutes!

We saw no moose during out recent visit, but we did make a different discovery. If you follow a little trail to the south along the shore, climb over a few fallen trees, and shimmy up a rock face, you come to a little island easily reached by a short hop over the gap in the rocks.  

This island has several rock shelves that look west, and they're shady and cool during those morning hours when the campsite itself in scorched by the sun.

Thus we found ourselves occupying a multi-room suite.

In the morning, we sat on the rock shelves, reading or sketching.

We spent the afternoons back at camp, doing the same.

Each day we went out on two or three paddles around various nearby islands and up the creeks on the north end of the lake. (The tape was leaking more than at first—but not as much as the leaky keel.)

The woods behind the campsite was open, and if I happened to hear an interesting bird call, I might spend half an hour finding out what it was. Waves of warblers would sometimes pass through, already on their way to Central America. We saw myrtle warblers, Nashville warblers, black-and-white warblers, and quite a few pine warblers, too.

Our first evening Hilary spotted a beaver swimming past the campsite on his way up the creek. The next evening, he reappeared from the opposite direction as we were eating dinner, swimming directly over to where we sat to get a better look at who the intruders were.

Waking up before dawn and emerging from a tent is always glorious. I made it through the night, you say to yourself. Yes, I slept well (though you’ll be wondering in a few hours why you’re dog tired.) You look around, happy to be alive, happy for the clear skies, though the temperature is 42 degrees, and fog is racing down the creek and out into the bay in the morning shadows, obscuring the opposite bank to a height of thirty feet. No, happy isn’t the word for it. Indescribably joyous.

Three loons are cavorting in the bay fifty yards away. “I wish Hilary was up,” you say, though you know sleep is more important than loons.

You start a fire. Bang a few pots making the coffee on the butane stove. The sleeper wakes.

Two of the loons come back, fishing not more than ten feet off shore. They linger for fifteen minutes, appearing and disappearing, following the west shore of the bay out into the larger lake. Sublime.

After a cold breakfast—granola, instant milk, figs, banana chips, turkey  jerky—it’s time to head out to the “island.”

Though you’re several miles from a road, you’re hardly alone. Two teenage boys camping with their parents a half-mile up the lake are fishing in your private bay.

“Our canoe sprung a leak,” you shout.

“We have some resin and fabric patches,” they offer.

“It’s an aluminum canoe,” you counter. “But thanks.”

“Do you want us to go fish someplace else?” one of them asks.

“Um, that would be nice.”

And so they do.

I don’t like to get immersed in a novel when I’m already immersed I the landscape all around me, so I often end up at the two extremes—German philosophy or Japanese poetry. (Shades of WWII?)

Thus, Ernst Cassirer: “Universality is not a term which designates a certain field of thought; it is an expression of the very character, of the function of thought.”

Or Basho:

Birth of art -
Song of rice planters,
Chorus from nowhere. 

Time passes. The deer flies grow tired of buzzing around my head. The sun drops and the shadows swing across the campsite. Yet here I sit, caught in the sun’s rays again. Should I move? Or should I wait for the shadows to return? Already, it’s getting cooler again. And if I moved, those Chinese wasabi snack crackers sitting in the grass in a zip-lock bag would be farther away than ever.

An afternoon swim is refreshing.

Cassirer cogently dismisses the aesthetic positions  of Bergson, Nietzsche, Santayana, and even Croce in a few choice paragraphs, insisting on a theory that acknowledges the inseparability of beauty and form.
Meanwhile, I turn to poetry, not bothering to count the syllables:

The haze departs,
Sunlight bathes the far shore.
Relax, it’s summer.
Hunting the pack for banana chips,
I find smoked almonds!
Unexpected delight.
Cool evening breeze
assuages the sunburn –
How long before I dash for another shirt?
Carpenter ant in the tree all day,
Gnawing, gnawing—
“I want to get out!”
The super-moon rises
Later each evening—
Water waits to shine.
Waterbugs dart across trees and clouds,
Unsure what line to take:
When they meet, they hop!
Iridescent loons
drift by the canoe—
regal, they think only of fish.
The eagle’s high-pitched cry
Disturbs my sleep—
Brother, I was up there with you!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Jazz: Overrated?

It’s been widely noted by now that the recent Washington Post editorial declaiming the death of jazz was written by someone (Justin Moyers) who knows very little about jazz. In any case, any “think piece” that purports to tell us in what direction “jazz” as a whole is going is obviously painting with a very broad brush.

Moyers' first specific point, that “Jazz takes great songs — and abandons the lyrics that help make them great,” draws our attention to one of the many veins of musical interpretation that call themselves “jazz.” I number myself among those listeners who would argue that most “vocal jazz” isn’t really jazz at all, though it’s a near relation, and often pleasant to listen to. The problem is…the words. Even the most inspired lyrics grow tiresome with repetition. The singers know this, of course, and do all they can to keep the phrasing interesting, then step back and let the band strut its stuff.

Though Moyers likes lyrics, he doesn’t think much of improvisation. No wonder he doesn’t “get” jazz. That’s what it’s largely about. He shares that handicap with most listeners, to judge from the fact that jazz hasn’t been widely appreciated or “popular” since the early 1950s, when it ceased to be “dance” music.

Moyer argues that jazz has stopped “evolving,” but the point is immaterial. Evolution is overrated. In any case, the concept is misleading when applied to jazz idioms. Big Band music didn’t “evolve” into bebop, though bebop's creators cut their teeth in the big bands. The two genres are distinct, offering different thrills, and they’re both being performed today. 

By the same token, modal jazz didn’t evolve out of the small combos of the 50s, nor did fusion evolve from modal jazz, though we’ve been brought up to think that way. The music has gone in many directions, without rendering its predecessors uninteresting or “extinct.” What has remained throughout is a distinctive lilt or pulse and an exuberant urge to extemporize. Once those elements are gone, we’ve entered a new domain.

A few nights ago Hilary and I went to St. Paul to pick up a family friend who was arriving from Chicago on the train. The train was due to arrive at 10:03 p.m. We showed up a half hour early and parked at the first open meter we could find. It happened to be directly in front of the Black Dog Coffee House. 

We wandered in to find that a very young trio was playing some darned good jazz. They looked like high school kids, but they were probably college juniors. The drummer looked like my nephew, Paul—scruffy beard along the jaw line, a little overweight, a little shy, but also funny and exuberant. He did the talking.

The bassist was a wiry dude who crawled happily all over his instrument during his solo. The pianist was a clean-cut kid who probably had a closet full of Bill Evans’ records back at the dorm—his harmonic sense was already remarkably advanced.

They were working hard, and were great fun to listen to. There might have been five people sitting at tables nearby. Some were fiddling with their phones. The ones who were listening might have been the musicians' parents.

I never caught their names, but at the end of the set, the drummer urged us to return the following night to hear the trumpeter Steve Kenney. And so we did.

Kenny is a seasoned trumpeter, and he brought some other veterans with him: Brian Courage (bass), Babatunde Lea (drums), and Christopher Thomson (tenor sax). They played a set of standards ranging from “Summertime” and "Bye Bye Blackbird” to “Maiden Voyage” and “Caravan.” 

The intros were often slow, dissonant, and only vaguely rhythmic. The tune would emerge by fits and starts, then the band would step up the beat on cue and head into the arrangement, exchange solos, and then return to familiar ground.

It’s a standard formula, and it’s a kind of music I love. There is seldom a dull moment, and there is very little distance between performer and audience—maybe twenty feet. Kenny’s solos were often fierce, though I sometimes found Thomson’s saxophone riffs more musical.

Kenney took the time to point out that "Maiden Voyage" is a modal piece but very "chordal," which presents a challenge to a group without a piano. They pulled it off nicely.

That Herbie Hancock tune holds a special place in my heart: the version I listened to when I was about the age of those kids up on stage was on an album called Happenings by the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, with Hancock on the piano.

The odd thing is, Hancock's slow and meticulously developed solo on that track is associated in my mind with the slow movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, with which I was equally infatuated in those years. Whither jazz? Hancock's recent album The River, devoted largely to Joni Mitchell tunes, has all the harmonic ambiguities of impressionist French piano music... but also the probing and inventive forward thrust of genuine jazz.

I've heard other, and sometimes more exciting, versions of "Maiden Voyage" since, including one at breakneck speed by alto sax Justin Robinson on The Challenge, a bouncy and irreverent one by an ensemble led by Fred Hersch, and a largely unrecognizable one by the pianist Robert Glasper.

The Kenney-Thompson version was also very good.

These talented men were twice the age of the youngsters we'd heard the previous evening, and they drew twice the crowd--maybe twelve avid listeners. We stayed for the entire set, grooving the whole time while nibbling on a well-designed hummus plate.A glass of wine from Catalonia was also involved somewhere. At one point I dropped a ten into the donation jar (cheap skate!).

No, jazz is not dead! Nor is it over-rated. It's the best. And it lives. It's just that most people don't "get" it, and it bothers them.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Cool August Morning

These cool summer mornings must be considered great. Or better yet, heavenly.

There’s a cardinal on the feeder, I can only see the bottom of his reddish tail, bobbing up and down as he eats.

House wrens chatter in the distance. And the blue jay delivers his submarine chortle from off in the woods.

The goldfinch is fearless, but prudent. He doesn’t waste time, just nibbles and leaves, close enough that I can see his dainty orange beak.

Raccoon tracks on the deck. He’s been in the ashes of the grill, looking for grease.

Suddenly a plan for the day takes shape:
—fill the birdbath;
—water the compost pile with the same hose;
—admire the cup flower that’s finally blooming after months of clumsy growth.

 Then, another cup of coffee.

Down in the yard, I come upon the remains of a robin. Hawks tend to swoop in from the south, nab their prey, and enjoy a meal in privacy on this very spot.

Now it’s the sharp “tisk, tisk” of the red squirrel, and a single nuthatch with his nasal “beep-beep.”

Four chickadees chuckle on the same branch. It’s a family! But I don’t think they’re getting along.

Finally chipmunk arrives. He slept late.

And now all the birds are singing at once! I've never heard anything quite like it...unless it was that morning we were camping in a county park near Northfield. I never found that park again.

You can’t really capture the joy of such a morning.

Just keep the windows open, stay away from the computer.

Keep the breeze moving through.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Bright Summer Morning in Grand Rapids

On the way into town on Highway 2 we pass a small, cheery, farmer’s market in a parking lot, across the street from the looming Blandin paper mill, with its sprawling, four-story, windowless walls and seemingly endless stacks of uniform logs.

Vegetables are less well represented here than cut flowers or baked goods, though one young woman has three varieties of organic kale for sale. “I’d buy some,” I tell her, after admiring the arrangement, “but we’re camping out tonight.”

Across the way, I come upon a display of jams and jellies, and ask the woman behind the table where the fruit came from. She’s flustered. She doesn’t know the answer. “Well, my mom and her sister do all the canning. I know they pick the fruit themselves, but I’m not sure where….”

“Well, I don’t need to know the exact plot of woods. But at least it didn’t come from Washington State or Chile,” I hastily reply, trying to reassure her. “That’s all I was wondering about. My aunt used to make chokecherry jelly on Lake Vermilion, back when I was a kid.” And I purchase a jar of pin-cherry jelly out of sheer nostalgia.

At the coffee shop a few blocks down the street we order a latte and inquire into the whereabouts of the local art gallery. “It’s a block down, tucked into the mall. It’s not in the mall, but on that same block. You’ll see it…”

And we did.

The MacCrostie Art Center is a fine art gallery, on the order of the Lanesboro Art Center or the Kaddatz Gallery in Fergus Falls, rather than a North Woods gallery like the Sivertson galleries in Duluth and Grand Marais, which specialize in artwork suitable for a hunting lodge or a North Shore estate—often beautiful, but invariably woodsy in flavor. The MacCrostie mounts one-person shows of aspiring and established artists, while also offering a handsome selection of photographs, pottery, hand-woven fabrics, note cards, and other more affordable stuff.

The show we saw was a hum-dinger called Elements Unheard. It consisted of a series of paintings and drawing of various sizes by a young artist named Liza Sylvestre that superficially resemble big, colorful balls of twine, or arteries, or aquatic tentacles, or coronal ejections, or hair—often several such substances intermingling and wrapping around one another.

The balance of colors and forms is sophisticated. But if you’re thinking “action painting,” think again. A close look reveals an astonishing line control and premeditation, as strands cross over and under one another, bulge out like a hernia (well, I’ve never actually seen one), or bundle surrounding elements up within a protective scarf.

The images are attractive but also unsettling, because they have no place to rest.

The same could be said of a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, I guess. But his creations are present in front of us as objects to be admired. Liza’s works are representations…of deafness. More accurately, they are representations of what sound looks like, how it moves through the body, and “how the various senses attach themselves to each other and mix up.”

If you didn’t read the accompanying artist statement, you wouldn’t know that. I didn’t read very far.  In the first place, it seems to me that a work of art must present itself to us without commentary. But the little I did read confirmed the notion established by the images themselves, that Liza is engaged in musical creation of a visual nature.

Was it Walter Pater who said that all art aspires to the condition of music?

And novelist Jim Harrison remarked recently: “I probably wouldn't have been a poet if I hadn't lost my left eye when I was a boy. A neighbor girl shoved a broken bottle in my face during a quarrel. Afterward, I retreated to the natural world and never really came back, you know.”

My favorite image was the first one. I also liked others. The airier the better. In fact, Hilary and I have one of Liza’s early works. You see, she’s our niece.

We spoke with Summer, the woman behind the counter near the front door. She happens to be from St. Paul. Her husband is a sales manager for Pepsi. He was offered a position in Grand Rapids, and he asked his wife if she’d consider moving to a small town.

“I told him, ‘If it has a coffee shop and an art gallery, I’ll go.’ ”

To which I replied, “If you’ve just come from Bachus or Boy River, Grand Rapids is not a small town.”

I mentioned that we were planning to bike the Mesabi Trail, and she told us where the trailhead is located.

“But you might have some difficulty getting to it this morning. The trail starts at the fairgrounds, and they’re having a big swap meet and a vintage car show up there today.”

“Gee, there’s a lot going on around here,” I said. “And then the rodeo up in Effie.”

“Yes, and tonight they’re going to shoot off the fireworks down at the dam that were flooded out on the Fourth.”

Cars were backed up for blocks heading into the fairgrounds. After consulting two sets of locals, both of whom recommended that we turn around and head for Coleraine, seven miles down the highway, to pick up the trail there—it runs all the way to Ely—Hilary had the brilliant idea of simply parking on a side street nearby and cycling down to the events. 

Inside the fairgrounds there were people and hot-rods everywhere, and merchants selling decals, caps, used furniture and fishing equipment, food, and a wide assortment of rusty metal junk. The smell of fry bread and sugar filled the air.

As we were walking our bikes toward the distant arches, I heard one young man say to his sister, “You would never have bought that coil. You don’t even know what a coil does.”

To which his sister replied, “I do too. You just told me.”

Though I’m not much for vintage cars, the ones on display were spectacular.

The entry to the trail, we soon learned, was through a thin golden arch on the far side of the fairgrounds, at the edge of the woods. When we reached it, we diligently put our fee in a yellow envelope—though without filling in any of the blanks on the form—dropped it into the slot in the metal pipe by the path, and headed off.
Or I should say, headed up.

The trail climbs for a few hundred yards before reaching the level of the open-pit mines the railroad used to service. Cars were parked under the trees on both sides of the asphalt path but eventually they gave way to open woods.

Then we came to the pits, surrounded by high banks of orange slag and filled with water. Clear, clean water. Two loons were swimming in the pit fifty yards below us—not an unusual sight in northern Minnesota. But when they dove, we could continue to see them easily under the water as they darted after passing fish. Three more loons joined them, seemingly from out of nowhere. Babies? It soon became obvious they were otters.

We passed several mine pits on our way to Coleraine, and also crossed the lovely Prairie River, where the first iron ore on the western Mesabi Range was discovered almost exactly 150 years ago.

The cherry trees along the way were bursting with fruit. It was a spectacular, though unusually hilly, two-hour ride to Coleraine and back. Along the way we met up with two pedestrians and were passed by three cyclists.

Where is everybody? They were down at the fairgrounds, I guess. Though when I asked the very knowledgeable man at the Visitors’ Center in Marcel, 20 miles north of Grand Rapids, why the Forest Service campground on nearby North Star Lake was largely empty on a Saturday afternoon, he replied, as if it were common knowledge: “Everybody’s up at the rodeo in Effie.”

We didn’t get that far. We’d made a reservation at Schoolcraft State Park, twenty miles west of Grand Rapids. One our way out of town we picked up some pasties for friends, and also for ourselves, at Pasties Plus. (They’re pretty good. Ours are better.)  

The pastoral countryside we drove through to get to the park, freshened by a late afternoon cloudburst, was stunning. Our campsite, on the banks of the still-diminutive Mississippi River, is the best in the park: ample, open, and grassy enough for a major bocce ball tournament.

Some people were fishing by canoe out on the river. Our woman caught a walleye—probably her first, to judge from how excitedly she was shouting to an elderly couple in a big kayak nearby; then came the bad news.

“We got it into the canoe…then we lost it.”

At which point a male voice chimed in: “We didn’t lose it. YOU lost it.”

But things soon quieted down, and by nightfall we were being serenaded by the guttural groans of a vast assortment of leopard frogs luxuriating in the reedy muck along the riverbank.