Category Archives: Lost in Literature

Introducing Uncommonly Bound

Hello Beautiful People! I am proud to announce that I just launched a new blog called Uncommonly Bound. Don’t worry, you can still expect new posts on this blog as well!

On my new site, I plan to use each post to compare two or three different books which, on the surface, have little in common. They are often written in different styles, genres, and/or time periods. However, in each pairing I will point out a similarity I have found between these disparate books.

 

First up: The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

Merged--Winter-Pulpit

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Magic in the Mojave

J.K. Rowling recently announced that there is an American school of witchcraft and wizardry on the East Coast. However, after spending several months in the Mojave Desert of California/Nevada, I have started to suspect there may be another school for budding sorcerers out West–or at least a lot of magic. Here is a list of my reasons:

  1. The Mojave, like Hogwarts and Ilvermorny, is a remote place with lots of hard-for-Muggles-to-access locations. It would be easy to hide a giant castle here.
  2. Hermione mentioned in Goblet of Fire that Muggle electronic devices go haywire around Hogwarts because there’s too much magic in the air. Based on how difficult it can be to get cellphone, CB, or radio reception out in the middle of the desert, this seems par for the course.
  3. There are basilisks. Sort of. Say hello to the beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris)–affectionately nicknamed basilisk due to it’s Latin name. It may not venomous (or poisonous) and you would die from looking at it, but you definitely don’t want to touch those fuzzy little spines! Also, if you stare at a picture of its bright magenta blooms for too long, you’re likely to be seeing spots for a while.
  4. Okay, so there may not be “real” basilisks, but there are plenty of dangerous snakes. And a whole mess of unusual wildlife like Gila monsters, jackrabbits, and the formidable Desert Clicker. Who’s to say there aren’t any magical creatures (or plants) somewhere out there?
  5. And the spiders! My field partner and I found this one hillside in particular that was dotted with these funnel-shaped webs. The webs extended out from a small burrow where the spider would lie in wait until something got snagged. Little tiny Aragogs!

    Mini Aragog Lair

    A normal funnel-web spider or something more?

  6. A lot of the rock formations around look a little to much like sleeping dragons to be coincidence, if you ask me.
  7. The Mojave may not have any Whomping Willows, but I personally would never want to get on the wrong side of a Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia). They may look scrawny, but those yucca leaves are sharp!

    Joshua Tree Wonderland

    Welcome to Joshua Tree Wonderland.

  8. The creosote bushes have clicking guardians that get angry if you get too close. I know Google told me it was a grasshopper, but what with all the mounting magical evidence, I suspect bowtruckles.

    The Angry Creosote Buh

    Don’t let the calm exterior fool you. That creosote bush was not very happy with me!

One Wild and Precious Life–Part 3

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? –Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

I meant to post this a while ago, but life, moving, and limited internet access got in the way!

I recently took a solo train trip from the Mojave Desert to Portland, OR. For details on why on earth I thought this was a good idea, please read One Wild and Precious Life–Part 1 and One Wild and Precious Life–Part 2. This post recounts, the final leg of my journey.

My train wasn’t set to leave until 2:30PM the day after the Dear Sugar Radio Live taping. It may have been wiser to spend that time sleeping since I would be spending roughly 30 hours riding in trains and buses, but I had never been to Portland before. I opted for adventure. The first thing I discovered is that nothing opens in Portland before 10AM. Except the coffee shops. After strolling through mostly-deserted streets for an hour, I found my way to Pioneer Courthouse Square and finally found people.

After a while, I found Powell’s City of Books, which claims to be the biggest new and used bookstore in the world. I believe it—the store takes up an entire city block. Needless to say, I was in heaven. I allotted one precious hour to wander the shelves, but really I could’ve spent the entire day there easily if I hadn’t needed to catch a train. On the top floor, in the Pearl Room, I found an autographed copy of Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren—a book I’ve been wanting to read anyway. It was like the Universe was telling me to buy the book. Who am I to deny the Universe?

I made it to the train station not long before my train started boarding. Before I knew it, I was speeding back to the desert. Sort of. After a few hours, I made my way to the observation deck and found a seat. While I knitted a blanket, I listened to Sarah Hepola’s Blackout: Remembering What I Drank to forget. At some point, a woman from another car sat in the seat next to me. We didn’t talk much. I was knitting with headphones and she was reading Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Still, there was an unspoken comradery between us that made me wonder if she was traveling alone as well.

Sunday was a marathon. It started at 6AM when the train I’d caught in Portland arrived in Sacramento. From there I took a bus to Stockton, then a train to Bakersfield, and another bus to LA. I arrived at the Los Angeles Union Station about an hour before my final train left for Needles. I was exhausted.

The very last leg of my journey was a six-hour train ride. I was hoping to spend most of that time sleeping, but my body had other ideas. All the travel and sleeping in quasi-horizontal positions was starting to take its toll. Only a couple of hours in, my left leg started twitching. My calf muscles were so tight that my entire leg would jump to the left at random. This was a problem since there was definitely someone sitting in the seat to my left. Luckily, the back half of the car was empty at that moment, so I ambled over to the set of seats just behind the staircase where I knew there would be a little more room to maneuver and I stretched. Toe touches, hamstring stretches, quad stretches, cow/cat poses, child’s pose, lower back stretches, shoulders, triceps, forearms, neck, upper back. At some point my nose started bleeding and I had to stop. Once the bleeding had stopped and my face was clean, I walked back to my assigned seat, reclined it as far it would go, and lost consciousness.

The next thing I knew, the conductor was announcing “Needles in ten minutes.” I folded my blanket, made sure I had all my belongings, and made my way down the stairs to the loading door. The train slid to a stop. The doors opened. I dragged my luggage and my sluggish feet to the cars where my roommate was waiting to pick me up. I had made it.

During the podcast taping in Portland, Cheryl explained a concept she called “retrospective fun.” Essentially, it means that you aren’t necessarily having fun in the moment, but when it’s all over and you’re looking back on the experience you can say yeah, actually that was fun. A few parts of my train adventure to Portland definitely fit that bill. Overall though, it was a great trip—fun, inspiring, and empowering. I’m glad I went.

 

P.S. I pay my own electricity bill.

 

One Wild and Precious Life-Part 2

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? –Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

Dear Sugar Radio recently taped two podcast episodes in front of a live audience in Portland, OR. I decided to attend–even though I live no where near Portland, OR. For details on how that happened see Part 1.

I made it to the hotel with plenty of time to walk to Revolution Hall.

“You walked?” My grandma was utterly scandalized when she heard that part.

“It wasn’t very far and Portland is a very walkable city.”

“Alright then—keep going.”

It started drizzling on my way over, but not much. I was surprised that there were more people queuing outside the building even though I arrived only about 10 minutes before the doors were set to open. To my surprise, I was allowed to enter the building right away. I made my way upstairs to the theater and suddenly understood—a long line had already formed in front of the main theater doors. That’s the part that would be opening in a few minutes.

I wandered over to the back of the line and resolved myself to a long wait. After just a few minutes, though, an employee clued those of us in the back that there was another set of doors with almost no line just around the corner. A few fast-paced steps later and I was near the front of the other line. A few minutes after that, the doors were open and I found myself in the 5th row from the front. I was ready.

There was a huge backdrop reading “Dear Sugar Radio” across the back of the stage behind large red armchair and a beige love-seat. The arm chair was for Cheryl Strayed while Steve Almond and the guest speaker would sit on the couch. I had originally thought that I would be watching one episode with two guest speakers, but it soon became apparent that there would be two episodes taped that night. Works for me!

Each episode of Dear Sugar Radio starts with a voice-over of Cheryl while the theme song plays. For the first year or so, the theme was “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” by Nina Simone, but sometime around January they switched to an original song played by the band Wonderly and sung by Angela Freeman. I got a little thrill when Wonderly started playing the song live at the start of the first episode. Then Angela Freedman strolled on stage, belted into the microphone, and sauntered away. And so it began.

Both episodes followed this format: opening song, introduction of the episode’s theme, introduction of the episode’s guest, reading and discussion of a letter from a listener, and Dear Sugar-style Q&A. Each episode ended with a live song played by a musical guest. I’m not going to give a complete summary of each one because I think it would be better to just listen to them.

The first episode focused on the idea of reinvention and featured writer Lidia Yuknavitch. I had read Lidia’s novel, The Small Backs of Children, on the train to Portland, so it was very fresh it my mind. There is a chapter in that book called, “White Space”. It is only six pages long, but it is some of the most beautiful and complex writing I have ever read in my life. I am a better writer just for having read those six pages. [Thank you, Lidia! P.S. I loved your red boots!]

Lidia Yuknavitch and The Sugars

Lidia Yuknavitch and The Sugars

 

The second episode focused on addiction and featured writer Sarah Hepola. Sarah spoke about her own experiences as a recovering alcoholic in response to that episode’s letter. I started reading her memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, the next day. I have never drunk to the extent that Sarah describes, but I definitely related to many of the insecurities that she cited as reasons she drank such as building up courage in social settings. I also loved her writing style. Steve read a few excerpts from the book during the podcast that he especially loved, but really the entire book is full of beautiful sentences.

Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola helps The Sugars answer a letter from a listener.

Like I said earlier, both episodes ended with a Dear Sugar version of a Q&A. Rather than having audience members ask questions in a microphone, someone had gone around with blank index cards while we were waiting in line so to allow questions of a more anonymous and intimate nature. Cheryl and Steve gave advice that night regarding such topics as infidelity, hiking, writing real-life events, and parenting. I didn’t ask a question that night. I thought of a couple I could have asked over the next few days, but in the moment I was too full of euphoria to remember that, just like everybody else, I have problems.

I walked back to my hotel in actual rain, rather than just drizzle, but at that point I was way beyond caring. There was a piano in the parking lot of Revolution Hall and some was playing in the rain. I didn’t recognize the tune, but in the moment it was magic.

Tiny Beautiful Day

The end of a tiny, beautiful day.

One Wild and Precious Life–Part 1

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? –Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

I moved to the Mojave Desert to escape my comfort zone. (Also, because I got offered an internship which would give me some much-needed field experience.) I wanted to live up to my own lofty ideals of “going where life takes me” and “living with no strings attached”. I’ve learned a lot out here so far—mostly in regard to plants and field work and desert life, but also about myself. I’ve also gotten a little braver.

Whipple Wash

Monitoring rare plants in Whipple Wash.

One of my current heroes is Cheryl Strayed of Dear Sugar/Wild/Tiny Beautiful Things fame. When Cheryl was 26, she spent the summer hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from California and Oregon. She did this alone. Solo. By herself. Sociologically speaking, women in our society are not expected to do things alone (ie: go to bars, eat dinner at sit-down restaurants, travel, walk through miles and miles of wilderness). Through reading her work, I have come to the understanding that Cheryl is not only brave enough to do all of those things, she is also compassionate and a very attentive listener.

So, I’m in the desert. I am an avid listener of Dear Sugar Radio (a podcast featuring Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond). I found out that there would be a live taping of Dear Sugar Radio in Portland, OR in July. Can you see where this is going?

The idea seemed crazy at first—I came to the desert to find plants, not to go gallivanting off to see writers. Portland was still a long way away—closer than it would be from Wisconsin, but still. It was on a Friday, I would have to take time off from work. I would have to drive to the Las Vegas airport. It would be frivolous—I should be saving money. Who would go with me? I casually mentioned the upcoming event to one of my friends who also loved Dear Sugar Radio, but she didn’t bite. So much for that idea.

I couldn’t shake it though. I really would like to go. My friends were going places on the weekends—Vegas, Death Valley, Iowa, Florida. Sure they were either reasonably nearby or places they had once called home, but still I didn’t really want to drive through Vegas. I tend to get lost a lot. You could take a train—you’ve never been on a train before. I looked it up—I could easily catch a train that would take me where I wanted to go. You said you wanted to be more adventurous.

It was like I dared myself to do it. I looked up the price of a ticket to the event, a round-trip train ticket, and a hotel nearby. I could do this. So I did. I bought all three in one day. Then I started telling people: my roommate, my parents, my friends back home. By that time, it was too late for them to talk me out of it—I already had the tickets. Actually, no one did actively try to talk me out of my trip. They said they were worried about my safety, that they wished they could go with me, that I was very brave to go all by myself. But no one said, “Don’t go”. For which, I was grateful.

Droid 7-25-16 402

Ticket for 1 to Dear Sugar Radio Live!

My parents did request regular updates, though.

It wasn’t until I had already purchased the tickets and started informing people of my upcoming trip that I started seeing the parallels. Cheryl grew up in Northern Minnesota. I grew up next door in Northern Wisconsin. Cheryl started her hike in the Mojave Desert. I was travelling all over the Mojave desert for my botany internship. (Mostly in 4-Wheel Drive vehicles, but there was definitely some hiking involved.) Cheryl was 26 when she hiked the PCT. I’m 26 now. Cheryl ended her hike at the Bridge of the Gods, about 40 miles away from Portland. I was going to Portland. Basically, in my own way, I was kind of, sort of maybe, ish, following in Cheryl’s footsteps. That thought alone was empowering.

My grand solo adventure was supposed to start at 12:30AM on a Thursday, but the train was delayed. It finally pulled up to the station at 1:32 AM. By that time, I was exhausted. I found my seat, stashed my luggage and fell asleep. Done.

The proper part of Thursday (the part on the other side of sunrise) was a blur arriving at LA’s Union Station, finding some breakfast, waiting for my next train, boarding said train, finding my new seat, and PA announcements about dinner options, and this is a non-smoking train, and our next stop will be.., and seriously people—don’t smoke on the train. I had a window seat and watched graffiti melt to mountains which gave way to the ocean, then vineyards, which later vanished into evergreen forests and misty lakes. I’ll admit that I didn’t pay as much attention to the scenery as I maybe should have. I was too busy reading The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch. It was a little more difficult to drift into dreamland the second night, but I managed.

In the morning, I woke up to a seat-neighbor—it had been empty up until then. The lady next to me was retired and off to visit her family in Seattle for 2 or 3 weeks. I figured she was okay when I saw the book she had brought with her—A Mercy by Toni Morrison. We talked about her siblings and her grandchildren and her plans for the next few weeks. She asked where I was going and why. She seemed pretty impressed. “I love that your generation is encouraged to do that sort of thing. When I was your age, it was all about finding a husband and raising a family. Even working outside of the home was a big deal.”

When the train arrived in Portland, my seat-neighbor wished me luck and reminded me to “call your mama.” I stepped off the train. It was gray and less than 80°F—I wasn’t in the desert anymore.

 

 

POSSIBILITY, USA: Beach Front Property

My mind loves to wander. I will be driving to work or pushing a shopping cart in the grocery store and suddenly I realize that I’ve been thinking about redwood trees or beluga whales or World War II or whether lions and bobcats have the same reaction to catnip as house cats. What about cheetahs? I’m often not sure how these particular thoughts came into my head or what I should do with them once they settle in, but I try to embrace them. Who knows which stray thought might lead to something bigger?
CATNIP: Friend to ALL feline kind?

CATNIP: Friend to ALL feline kind?

Lately, I have caught myself pondering Emily Dickinson‘s poem about possibility. Particularly the first line, “I dwell in Possibility.”
I guess I’d always imagined this version of “possibility” as Hogwarts with its endless rooms, moving staircases, secret passages, hidden chambers–even the Great Hall’s ceiling which had been bewitched to look like the sky above. Do you think J.K. Rowling had this poem in mind when she designed the school? [If anyone knows her, please ask, because I’d really like to know!] Come to think of it, Hogwarts even has its very own private lake which in turn holds its own underwater world of unknowns. Dwelling in Possibility sounded like the best situation ever, I mean what kid in the Harry Potter Generation didn’t want to go to Hogwarts?
Tie-Dye/Bleach homage to the Battle of Hogwarts which I made for the opening night of Deathly Hallows Part II.

Tie-Dye/Bleach homage to the Battle of Hogwarts which I made for the opening night of Deathly Hallows Part II

Lately, though, I’ve started to view “dwelling in possibility” from a very different perspective. Since graduating from college three years ago, I have dwelt in nothing but possibility. I have hopped from temporary employment to temporary employment, from potential career path to potential career path, from small town to small city.
I have no idea what my life will look like one year from today. Will I have a full time job? Will I have my own apartment? Will I be living in the same city? The same state? I can’t picture it.
I always thought living in Possibility would be freedom, but in reality I have found it utterly terrifying. Well, sometimes, that is. True, the financial burden is daunting. Sure, it’s difficult to see all my friends coupling up and settling down with families of their own. Yes, it would be nice to have a few certainties or definitive life goals to direct myself toward. I would definitely like to answer the inevitable variations of “What are you doing with your life?” with a single sentence. And yet.
I find there is still some magic left for me in Possibility. I enjoy the mystery of what lies a few months down the road or the future acquaintance that could change the course of everything. I was once asked by a job interviewer, “What drives you?” A question to which he felt I didn’t have a satisfactory answer. The truth is, the potential energy of “what if?” is what keeps me going. I’m not quite ready to be completely pinned down and defined. I am not ready for my life choices to fit in a single sentence. That’s why I am wanderlost (at least for now).

What Really Happened?

Lots of writers incorporate real experiences from their own lives into their stories. Examples include Torch by Cheryl Strayed, How to Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Strayed incorporated her own mother’s early death from cancer into her first novel; several other details–such as Northern Minnesota as the setting–also mirror the author’s own life. Like Harper Lee, Mockingbird’s main character, Scout, grew up in rural Alabama with a lawyer father. She also based the character of Dill of real childhood friend Truman Capote. Melville used his own whaling experience to inform his epic novel. Although drawn from actual events, these novels are clearly fiction–the main plots and/or important details deliberately vary from what actually took place. I recently came across several books that take a whole new approach: taking events from the lives of historical people whom the author did not know personally and presenting it as fiction.

I first heard about Frog Music by Emma Donoghue through Goodreads. A friend gave it a glowing review, so I decided to add the novel to my “to-read” list. When I found myself dangerously close to finishing Frog Music, I decided to wander the shelves of the public library in search of my next conquest. I ended up with two–Radioactive by Lauren Redniss and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. I chose Radioactive mainly because of its bright colors. One glance told me it was a biography of Marie and Pierre Curie in picture-book form–I was instantly hooked. Z had popped up on my Goodreads Recommendations after I had read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and a friend had placed it on her own “to-read” list. When the title jumped out at me from a real-life library shelf, I decided to take it as a sign and read the book.

“Frog Music” is a fictionalized account of the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet.

Frog Music is a historical novel which explores the murder of Jenny Bonnet near San Francisco in 1876. Bonnet, a quirky individual infamous for wearing pants, is shot to death through a window by an unknown party in the opening pages. The reader then follows Jenny’s friend Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer/prostitute who really likes her job, as she tries to move forward by finding Jenny’s killer as well as Blanche’s own missing son. In the meantime, Blanche (and the reader) keeps getting pulled back to her memories of Jenny and the events that ultimately lead to her death. I was entranced by the dual journey as well as the many songs from the era which are sprinkled throughout the novel. I thought the plot was very fantastical and inventive–a trio who ran away from the circus, a woman who wears a suit even though her occupation is catching frogs, baby farms! It wasn’t until I’d actually finished the novel and moved on to the Author’s Notes that I realized this was based on a real historical event. I was shocked. To be fair, many important details–such as the identity of Jenny’s killer–are imagined by the author, but the broad facts and almost all the characters in the story are actual circumstances of the case and people whose names came up when Donoghue was researching Bonnet.

“Radioactive” by Lauren Redniss is a biography of the lives of Marie and Pierre Curie is picture-book form.

Although Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout is essentially a picture-book, I wouldn’t say it’s meant for children; it is just that the narrative is related as much through art as it is through words. Much of this artwork was created through a process called cyanotype which evokes x-rays and radioactive elements (both of which play a part in the tale). I delighted in the story of love in the midst of scientific discovery as well. Redniss precludes her narrative with a disclaimer :

I love this--the author is both proving that she's done her research and acknowledging that this is merely her own version of events.

I love this–the author is both proving that she’s done her research and acknowledging that this is merely her own version of events.

I think this is brilliant–Lauren Redniss is simultaneously proving that she’s done her research–she knows what she’s talking about–and admitting, that although this story is made up almost entirely of plain facts, it is still merely Redniss’s version of events rather than a “true” biography.

“Z” is a novel following the events of Zelda Fitzgerald (née Sayre), real life celebrity of the 1920’s.

I was not expecting to like Z very much. Hemingway’s description of Zelda Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast had prejudiced me against her. The concept itself also seemed a little presumptuous to me–it’s one thing to speculate about the particulars of a long ago murder or to present someone’s life as a tragic picture-book fairy tale. It’s a completely different thing to follow the in-and-outs of a real-life person for 20+ years–to write as if you know the inner most thoughts, hopes, and fears of a woman who spent much of her adult life in the limelight. I mostly decided to read the novel simply because Fate seemed to demand it. I would like to take this moment to thank Fate; I am so glad I read this book. I understand that Therese Anne Fowler has no way of knowing what Zelda was actually thinking when she met Scott Fitzgerald, or relocated to New York or Paris, or gave birth to her only child. Therese Anne Fowler couldn’t possibly know what was going through Zelda’s mind when she decided to become a prima ballerina at 27 or when she was first admitted to a mental institution or diagnosed (many now believe incorrectly diagnosed) of schizophrenia. And yet, I believe her. Reading a novel for me is all about suspending my disbelief–if you can convenience me that, within the rules of your written universe, everything you tell me is possible and even logical, then the battle for my love is already half won. Therese Anne Fowler was able to convince me for 375 pages that I was privy to what Zelda Fitzgerald née Sayre was feeling and thinking at different points throughout her very eventful life. Fowler obviously conducted just as much research as Donoghue or Redniss and it showed in the fullness of her fictionalized Zelda.

The funny thing is, I didn’t mean to read 3 “real life as fiction” books in a row. It just sort of happened. I love stumbling into unforeseen connections like that; it’s what makes wandering so rewarding–if you are willing to keep an open mind, who knows what you may discover?