What I’m Reading

Finding Abbey, by Sean Prentiss

University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque  2015

Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave

I had been meaning to read Finding Abbey, by Sean Prentiss, but was somewhat reluctant to because I know the author and because I know me. I know that I am judgmental about what I read. I know Sean, like him as a neighbor, so was reluctant to risk a disappointing read and the ensuing awkwardness. Well, phew!

Finding Abbey did not disappoint; peace will prevail in the neighborhood. I have read Finding Abbey and will not have to avoid Sean or lie to him or run him through the one star mud. It truly is a good book.

How do I know this is a good book? I know because of what I didn’t notice while reading it. I was well into the book when I realized I was well into the book. Had I tripped over clumsy sentences or stilted language, I would have put the book down. It’s what I do. I didn’t.

Recently I read a discussion about the voice we hear when we read, which is maybe why I noticed that I didn’t notice Sean’s voice while I read his words, at least not his ‘Hey neighbor!’ voice that I was familiar with, which could have been a distraction to my reading. What I heard was the same reading voice that well written prose elicits, a testament to Sean’s strong writing voice. It never faltered from start to finish.

I know that I probably would not have bought and read this book if I didn’t know its author. Which would have been a shame. I probably wouldn’t have selected it because I don’t know too much about Edward Abbey, and am was not that interested. But now I do know more about Abbey and am more interested. And I would have been mistaken passing this book by, to assume that it is just about Abbey and finding his secret burial site in the desert. It put me in mind of other books that I have enjoyed over the years, rolling reflections that are about the journey as much as the destination; Steinbeck, along with his dog Charley, traveled the country looking for his remembered America; Howard Frank Mosher, upon turning fifty, traveled the northern border, his journey a “midlife adventure” that became a memoir; “the story of (his) own life in the north country and how (he) became a writer here”. Like Travels With Charley and North Country, Sean’s narrative also shares reflections and musings that has the reader in the passenger’s seat, window down, enjoying the ride. Sean sets off, traveling in the wake of the mentor that he had only known through his writings, to know Abbey better as a writer, looking for connections to the places that had moved Abbey so strongly.

Except that reason for this journey is simplified; it is certainly not the whole story. In the prologue Sean contemplates all the many reasons that might have inspired his journey to seek out Abbey’s hidden grave. Beyond getting to the essence of Abbey and discovering the secrets of his teachings, Sean’s quest to know more about Abbey’s mysterious and secret burial site might have been for the sake of mystery itself. As he says, “This journey is about the need to unravel, thread by thread, this mystery- to follow where those threads lead. People need mystery… or maybe we are pulled by mystery like we are pulled by wilderness- that desire to enter self-willed lands.”

Had Sean been satisfied with his life and living situation at the time, this journey likely would not have happened. For he also admits that his self-imposed quest originated from “knowing I need to get out of the devastation that we call the city, out of this job we call a career. And what better way to break free of these emotional fences than to begin a journey, a sally, to hit the road, to hunt for something secreted so far away that it feels as if it is in terra incognita, beyond the edges of all the maps.”

While there were many influences for Sean’s quest, it becomes a point of irony that this journey begins in Home, Pennsylvania, the town where Abbey grew up, in the state that Sean also lived in as a child. Like so many odysseys, Sean’s would also end up at home, the purpose of his journey finally clear, his destination finally reached. Upon completing Finding Abbey I gave Sean a copy of a picture book, The Treasure, where the man travels far from his humble home to a distant city because he dreamt of a treasure buried there only to be told that the treasure was back in his own village, buried beneath his own stove. For Sean’s unique narrative also ends happily ever after, with Sean finding the real treasure that he sought, perhaps where he least expected.

Finding Abbey is a worthwhile foray into the “fourth genre”, a robust example of creative non-fiction; it is a true story well told. While it is not “loud” and “belligerent” like Abbey’s writing, it is authentic with “no bullshit, no fluff”. Even if you have no experience with Abbey, you will celebrate the connections that the author makes with his mentor and will appreciate learning about him and his friends and their lasting legacy as environmental activists.

And perhaps more than the mystery of Edward Abbey’s burial site, you will enjoy Sean’s tale as an engaging examination of an unfolding life, with twists and turns that eventually circle back to a beginning, that lead a man home.

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 Confessions of a Bibliophile

I like books. I have a few. Okay, quite a lot of books have found a home with me over the years.

I like books for what’s on the inside, yet I admit to judging books by their covers. A bad cover or title can be hard to get past.

I like real books, the ones that don’t have a lowercase /e/ or /i/ associated with them, ones with pages and ink, that hold some memories of trees.

I buy books. I buy professional books that inform my teaching. I buy books that are recommended to me by others, or books whose author I know I like, or books that just seem interesting. I like to buy in local bookstores, and do. I buy from online second hand book dealers who probably get some of their inventory from the stores that go under. And yes, I sometimes buy books from that huge online place that gets blamed for the demise of our local bookstores because it is convenient and expeditious to use them. (And they sometimes, but not often, sell my books.)

I buy books but mostly my books find me. They find me at yard-sales and flea-markets, and the Take-It-Or-Leave-It at the dump. These findings, this being found, is the most beautiful way of acquiring books. It cannot be forced; it is a serendipitous, Zen-like connection. I just know it when it happens and count it as another blessing. The book that finds me may be something I had been looking for or something I was not looking for, never heard of it, but upon reading it realize it is just what I needed. These books might be part of a direction I was already reading in, or they may lead me off in another direction.

These books, up for adoption, have plenty to say about their former home. They reveal the interests and inclinations of their previous owners, the phases that that person went through, the predilections they held. And if those interests and predilections were similar to mine, if I am found, I take these books home where they are introduced to their new bedfellows on my shelves. There may be some shifting around; this placing is important. I don’t impose the Dewey decimal system, but there are themes. Books are placed with other books where they will have something to say to one another. The books are additions to collections, which are really ongoing conversations among books, conversations with my books and myself.

There’s no real point to this. Except to say that I like books. I suppose one day I will have to downsize and put my books up for adoption, or someone else will have to deal with the collections when I’m dead. Dead or alive, I hope that my books end up finding someone who appreciates them, even as that someone might be wondering about their previous owner.

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M Train       by Patti Smith                                41akis0RyWL._AC_US160_

“How was your weekend?” a colleague asked. Hard to answer, but I mentioned reading this book by Patti Smith. “Oh, who is she? What’s it about?”

The short answer to the first question, to one not familiar with Smith, is musician, artist, writer. My first discovery of Smith was as a musician; I have delighted, in my later years, in discovering her as a writer.

What is M Train about? Nothing. Everything. And, as Smith has been told by a quirky recurring character, it’s not so easy writing about nothing.

One thing that M Train is, is a book about writing, by a writer. It doesn’t take many sentences to realize that Smith is foremost a writer and that that is how she sees herself. The book is a journey of writing, of the writing of this book, as if she herself did not know what it was about, where it would lead. Mystical and atmospheric, M Train is a portal, as good books are, into that self-absorbed and timeless place that we as readers and as writers are wont to go. Smith sets the mood in the beginning:

I sit before Zak’s peerless coffee. Overhead the fans spin, feigning the four directions of a traversing weather vane. High winds, cold rain, or the threat of rain; a looming continuum of calamitous skies that subtly permeate my entire being. Without noticing, I slip into a light yet lingering malaise. Not a depression, more like a fascination with melancholia, which I turn in my hand as if it were a blue planet, streaked in shadow, impossibly blue.

Smith, fueled by coffee, takes us along real and remembered journeys as she scribbles on napkins, creates messy lists, carries close her favorite notebooks and pens, and as she gets lost in lifelike dreams and dreamlike contemplations. Smith refers to the allure, the experience, of timelessness, of the tyranny of time and the escape from time that can be achieved through reading and writing. Smith has means beyond books to lose herself. She has favorite TV shows, detective shows that she uses as distractions and as sources of musings. “It kills me to say it, but I don’t think (I would have been a good detective). My eyes seem to roll within.” It is her inward turning that propels the narrative. Smith unravels her own story even as she knits it together.

Despite her past successes, National Book Award-winning author Smith reveals the vulnerability and the self-doubt that haunt a writer. “All writers are bums”, she murmurs to two favorite dead authors. “May I be counted among you one day.” Smith reveals her many deep relationships with other writers, living and dead, and their work; but she also writes with a direct connection to her reader. One relates to her total immersion in reading and in writing even as one is swept up by her words, absorbed in her travels and her musings.

 Smith refers often to her photography; her camera is with her almost as much as her notebook. She speaks of exceptional pictures and unexceptional, but which “contained the mission itself”. This book not only contains the author’s mission, it does so quite artfully. Smith leads the reader as well as herself into a lighter atmosphere towards the end of the book, letting go of the “fascination with melancholia” that began the mission. The mission was the process and act of writing, and through that process to experience acceptance and closure. For Smith has real sorrows, as anyone who has lived will, but is not “overcome with sorrow- more a sense of wonder”.

As Smith has been told, it’s not so easy writing about nothing. She manages to do it eloquently and engagingly, but not effortlessly; Smith is a writer who works at her craft. This is a remarkable, timeless narrative that reveals the work that went into the weaving of M Train, a beautiful tapestry of the nothing and the everything of a reflective life. The reader doesn’t finish the book so much as emerges from it, refreshed and inspired as from a dreamful sleep.

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Songs of the North; A Sigurd Olson Reader       71B00RZCVTL

Songs of the North; A Sigurd Olson Reader is a sampling of the many essays by teacher, wilderness guide, nature writer, and preservationist Sigurd F. Olson. The twenty essays in the collection, selected and introduced by Howard Frank Mosher, are from six of the nine books written by Olson. I agree with Mosher when he states that “the vast majority of (Olson’s) work far transcends the genre of conventional nature writing”. If you have not yet read this great twentieth century naturalist-philosopher, this collection may be the place to start.

For Olson, paddling his beloved wilderness was a link to history as well as to nature, and his books now serve as a link for us. His essays are first person accounts of the Quetico-Superior border territory of the twenties and thirties, a place then still wild and untamed. He recounts meetings and travels with old time woodsmen, Indians, prospectors, and other characters both human and animal. As Olson writes of the watery trails and the portages that he personally experienced, he also shares his knowledge of those canoeists who first plied the waterways that he explored throughout his lifetime, the voyageurs. Boldly going where no Europeans had gone before, these hardy adventurers were only able to do what they did because of that iconic Native American technology, the canoe. In Olson’s time, decades after the time of the voyageurs, a canoe was still the most practical means of traversing a vast land etched and imprinted by water. Beyond practical transportation, Olson found canoe camping to be enriching on many levels. The wilderness routes of Indians and traders that Olson paddled became his route to an increasingly cohesive and well articulated philosophy of better living and of preservation.

Whether reminiscing about his own canoe trips into the Quetico-Superior region and northern territories of Canada, discoursing on the history of the voyageurs, or reflecting on the power of paddling the wilderness, Olson’s themes are of timelessness and of ancient rhythms. He writes of wilderness experiences as an antidote for what ails us, as individuals as well as society as a whole. “Beyond the Ranges”, is much more than a memoir about his becoming a guide. Those years in the woods and on the water informed and inspired Olson’s teaching, as well as his own maturity and humanity, and led him to share his insights with others. In “The Maker of Dreams”, Olson describes his development as a nature writer. “I have discovered I am not alone in my listening, that almost everyone is listening for something, that the search for places where the singing may be heard goes on everywhere. It is part of the hunger all of us have for a time when we were closer to nature than we are today. Should we actually hear the singing wilderness, cities and their confusion become places of quiet, speed and turmoil are slowed to the pace of the seasons, and tensions are replaced by calm.” While not overtly about preserving wilderness areas, Olson’s writings are imbued with the idea that wilderness is necessary to our own preservation.

Olson wrote of his experiences and observations, trusting that there were others who would respond to his simply eloquent evocations and philosophic musings. You will relish his writings if your kayak, like his canoe, “gives a sense of unbounded range and freedom, unlimited movements and exploration such as larger craft never know”, that it “is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores”; if you too, in your small craft on the water feel “There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.” (“The Way of a Canoe”)

Read Songs of the North; A Sigurd Olson Reader , a Penguin Nature Library book, if you are unfamiliar with Sigurd F. Olson’s writing. The selection of essays is representative of his style and themes. In it Olson writes about all the reasons we paddle; adventure and exploration, recreation, and also solitude and introspection. Drift along on his lyrical prose and be buoyed by the quiet strength of his writing. If you explore Olson’s writing more fully beyond this Reader, you will notice recurring themes and revised ideas as Olson continuously refined his thoughts. You will enjoy that further exploration, just as you enjoy paddling a favorite area again and again, always discovering something new.

Find out more about Sigurd F. Olson at http://listeningpointfoundation.org/sig-olson/.

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