Rediscovering London

I developed a love of reading at a pretty young age. Some of my childhood favorites included Encyclopedia Brown, The Hardy Boys, Scott Corbett’s The Lemonade Trick, Sterling North’s Rascal, Henry Higgins, and How to Eat Fried Worms. I’ve always thought reading was cool, and I credit it with fostering my love for writing, as well. The two go hand in hand.

My favorite author, hands down, was Jack London. I fell in love with his stories, particularly Call of the Wild and White Fang. Hardly a surprise there. I found his writing to be very accessible and lacking the simplicity and gimmickry of, say, a Hemingway. His tales were set in exotic locations and featured colorful characters, both human and animal. One of London’s biggest strengths in my opinion was his ability to anthropomorphize animals. He wrote so convincingly of Buck’s transformation from domestic pet in sun-drenchd California to alpha dog of the Yukon who (spoiler alert!) answers the call of the wild that I believed with every fiber of my being the thoughts attributed to the St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix. The same holds true for White Fang, the wolf-dog hybrid born in the Klondike who, in direct contrast to Buck, travels a path to domestication. White Fang’s initial exploration of his environment when he first leaves the safety of the cave as a cub is a gripping scene full of suspense, danger, and discovery.

I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.

My favorite London novel of all, however, centers around people rather than animals. The Sea Wolf reeled me in and so captivated me I read it several times over the years. It pits well-mannered, sophisticated Humphrey van Weyden against nefarious sea captain Wolf Larsen in a high-stakes game of life or death that features mutiny, survival, murder, and romance. What’s not to love, right? London

As a teenager, we often visited my aunt Nancy, who lived in Sebastopol, California in the 1980s. She happened to be a stone’s throw from Jack London State Historic Park, and we ventured out there one time to wander around the 47.5-acre property that includes the cottage where my favorite author penned some of my favorite books. It’s a beautiful place, and I swear I felt the energy of the man amongst the towering redwoods. Which makes sense: he was cremated and had his ashes buried there.

The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.

Because everything comes full circle, I have been rereading Jack London’s classic novels again. I was browsing through Amazon’s Kindle listings recently and found a whole bunch of free (or 99-cent) books that had fallen into the public domain. Among them? A collection of 22 of London’s novels and short stories. Score! Reading them again has made me rediscover everything I came to love about Jack London all those years ago. They are every bit as good as I remember them being when I was a kid.

But really, is it any wonder? Jack London was a novelist and social activist who loved nature. My kinda dude! If you’ve never read any of his works, I highly recommend them.

Catching Up to Stonehenge

Every December(ish), I look at critics’ lists of the year’s best books, and add a bunch to my semi-official “To Read” list. Novels making the most recent cut include Delicious Foods, City on Fire, and The Incarnations. I am currently 39% through one of them: Lauren Groff’s Fates and FuriesI bought this book because of the many glowing reviews I read. For example, The New York Times calls it “a novel of extraordinary and genuine complexity…Fates and Furies is an unabashedly ambitious novel that delivers — with comedy, tragedy, well-deployed erudition and unmistakable glimmers of brilliance throughout.”

Wow. Who wouldn’t want to read that?! Even President Obama called it his favorite book of 2015.

Image courtesy of New York Times/Anthony Russo.
Image courtesy of New York Times/Anthony Russo.

And I am enjoying it quite a bit. It’s lyrical, poetic, and beautifully written. Take, for instance, this description of a tree:

His wife carried their picnic basket to the edge of the lake under a willow so old it no longer wept, just sort of bore its fate with thickened equanimity.

The whole story is chock full of similar turns of phrase, which is great.


I do have one minor quibble. Or not so minor, as it requires a rather hefty suspension of disbelief: people in real life do not talk like the characters in this novel. Check out this too-witty exchange between the couple at the center of the story.

“Medieval Madonna,” he said. “In gouache. Haloed in gold leaf. Thank you.”
“Happy birthday, friend of my heart,” she said.
“It was happy. It is. That opera changed me.”
“I thought it would,” she said. “I’m glad it did.”

Come on. Nobody is this clever. I had to look up gouache because I had no idea what it even meant. [Opaque watercolor paint. Can be applied in solid colors, allowing the artist to paint in layers from dark to light.] Don’t even ask me to try to pronounce it. Every exchange they have sounds like it’s coming from classically trained actors on a stage, reciting well-rehearsed lines constructed with precision by an English literature major slash poet (we can probably add a second slash, coffee barista, because homeboy’s gotta pay the bills somehow).

On my birthday last year, Tara made a dig about my advancing age (“you’re catching up to Stonehenge, babe”) and told me my t-shirt clashed with my shoes so I’d better change before we headed over to my parents’ house for lasagna. There was nary a mention of haloes or Madonna (either the religious icon or the Material Girl) – and, for that matter, we did not attend a life-changing (or any sort of) opera or drink champagne and eat fancy cheese in a field of gold adjacent to an old farmhouse, as our protagonists did.

They say truth is stranger than fiction, but I’ve gotta tell you, I think it’s the other way around.

Flannel, Peace and Hunger

With yesterday being Leap Day – a once-every-four-years event – I wanted to do something special. February 29th is rare, and it practically screamed for something unique and fun. Adventurous, even. I contemplated various ideas in my head, but quickly dismissed most of them, as they fell a little short of what I was aiming for (namely, living to see another day). Skydiving? Hell, no. Bungee jumping? Not on your life. Taking a stroll down the aisle of Walmart? Never in a million years. It was too cold and wet for hiking, or a trip to the beach, or even a jaunt downtown. However, I realized that I had never once, in my entire life, curled up beneath a set of flannel sheets in the middle of the afternoon while reading a good book.

And so, that’s precisely what I did yesterday, for about ninety minutes.

I am hooked on The Hunger Games trilogy, and Tara got me books two and three for Valentine’s Day, so I have been eagerly lapping up Catching FireI usually knock out two or three chapters before bed, but am so engrossed in the story I didn’t want to wait that long. Besides, Suzanne Collins has this annoying little habit of ending each and every chapter with a mini cliffhanger, making each book extremely difficult to put down. I find myself wanting to keep reading, regardless of the hour, just to find out what happens next! It’s a rare book that can captivate me so strongly; few novels – of any genre –  have ever managed the feat of pulling me in like this. So, even though crawling into bed at 1:30 in the afternoon is the epitome of decadent laziness, I did indeed find myself in that very position on Wednesday. Better still, I wasn’t wearing pants. But only because jeans and flannel sheets don’t mix. It would have been absurdly pointless to keep them on. Those sheets, by the way, were a gift from Tara’s mom, Tracy. I’d remarked how much I liked them last week when we were staying with her, and next thing I know she’s practically shoving them in my suitcase, imploring me to take them home. I swear I wasn’t hinting, but they are flannel, and have peace symbols all over them. What was I supposed to do, pretend I’m not secretly a hippie at heart? What with my Woodstock records and lava lamps and stash of LSD?

Leap Day 2012: flannel sheets, peace symbols, and a good book!

Kidding about the LSD.

I’d never owned flannel sheets before, always believing they would be too warm and uncomfortable. My body temperature has always run warm, anyway. Right up until my gallbladder surgery in November. Ever since, my internal thermostat seems to have readjusted itself, and I find myself much colder than I’d ever been before, or am used to. Tara suggested it might be the blood pressure medication, and there’s some evidence that elevated blood pressure might, indeed, cause a person to feel warmer than others around him. I have no idea whether this is the case or not, but I can tell you that those flannel sheets are a godsend every night. I slip beneath the covers come bedtime and don’t have to put up with chattering teeth, no matter how cold it is. They keep me nice and toasty, and are plenty soft.

Plus, they’ve got peace symbols on ’em. Have I mentioned that?

As nice as my afternoon reading-in-bed break was, I couldn’t stay there for long. I just felt too damn guilty whiling away the day in such fashion, while plenty of other people were going about their routines, stuck in cubicles or bussing tables or bungee jumping or wandering the aisles of Walmart. I allowed myself that hour and a half, but then forced myself to get up and put pants back on.

Before heading downstairs to the couch, but that’s neither here nor there.

So, while my first Leap Day since my last Leap Day wasn’t exactly chock full of excitement, I still managed to do something fun and different. Man, I can’t wait to see what my next Leap Day will bring.

The day after Leap Day has not been without its share of thrills, however. This started with a phone call at 6:05 in the morning, rousing me from a luxurious sleep courtesy of my peace symbol flannel sheets. It was an automated phone message from the kids’ school district informing me that CLASSES WOULD BEGIN TWO HOURS LATE DUE TO INCLEMENT WEATHER. Inclement weather? I wondered. Nobody had been forecasting anything more exciting than rain. Skeptical, I peeked through the blinds, and was greeted with the unexpected sight of snow. Quite a bit of snow, actually. Gleaming and white and covering the neighborhood in glorious wonder. This, after a disappointing winter largely void of anything even remotely exciting. Plus, it was March now. I read somewhere a few days ago that the odds of Portland seeing measurable snow after February 25 are about 1%. To say I was surprised is an understatement. I did what any perfectly sane 42-year old parent would do in this situation: leaped out of bed, threw on a robe, dashed into the hall, and excitedly encouraged my kids to look outside, look outside!! 

I have really got to get a grip on this snow fever of mine.

Besides, here it is, 2 PM and everything is completely melted save for a few sparse patches in the shade. Those, too, will be gone by sunset. What’s the point of getting excited over a couple of inches of heavy, wet snow when it’s all gone within hours, anyway?

Actually, the answer is simple. I’d rather enjoy a brief, fleeting glimpse of beauty than to never experience it at all.

A great philosophy for life, by the way.

Totally worth the few hours it stuck around.