Sunday, September 25, 2011

Scouting the territory: day trips in central Virginia

For more photos from our day trip scouting missions, click on Gordon's blog at Gordospace -- see blogs I follow.

On weekends we scout.
We set a time to shut down computers, hop into the Prius and head for scenic frontiers. I drive. Gordon navigates – but he doesn’t like maps and sometimes naps, so he can be unreliable.
It matters little or as the young and glib say, “No worries.” We can’t get lost if we aren’t headed anywhere. And if it should happen that we grow tired, cranky and wanna go home, we tap on our Tom Tom GPS, and a firm, but slightly sexy, British voice tells us how to get there. Sometimes we wander nearby roads to see what’s around the corner; other times we try to follow planned routes that loop from home and back.
We are discovering central Virginia after moving from Maine.
What a surprise it is! Landscapes unfurl before us, more beautiful, more rural, than I ever imagined. The truth is, before moving I had no sense of what our new state looked like.
A little more than two years later, I am still awed by roads that wind past vast expanses of mowed fields – fields patterned in yellow hay, newly plowed red Virginia clay and green abundant crops. Cows, horses and a few donkeys graze in endless Arcadian pastures. White slatted fences outline grand estates; some are gated; many are named. I look and drift back to the newsroom where I worked for a few decades and think about all those dying Maine farm stories. Who lives in these places? Where do they work? Or do they? Are most of these places owned in the Jeffersonian tradition by modern-day gentlemen and gentlewomen farmers? What becomes of these non-CAFO cows?
I know Virginia agriculture has been transforming itself over the past several decades, but it seems while many of Maine’s farms have closed down, some of Virginia’s have spiffed up. Fueled in part the local foods craze, their abundance –organic and otherwise -- spills out at the area’s numerous Farmer’s Markets and upscale restaurants. As we drive along, we pass orchards and vineyards, many of them recent sophisticated additions to the rural landscape. The vineyards beckon day trippers for wine tastings and offer pastoral settings for weddings and other galas in sumptuous grand halls. On a recent trip we came across a variation on this theme, a “cidery” -- but all the cider was hard so as the teetotalers we are, we declined to imbibe.
Some roads twine up through heavily wooded mountain passes, so narrow we hope no cars approach, and fear if there are no cars, we could be stranded for days. Another road led us to “a ford,” a place where we would have to drive through a stream to continue along the road. Presumably the folks who live here regularly drive pick-ups, but we turned around, not quite sure what tire-high water might do to an electric hybrid.
On many nearby roads, the Blue Ridge Mountains loom in the background or declare themselves in the foreground, spectacular and soft, mystic in majesty.
            There’s a valley road just an hour northwest of here. Look left, mountains; look right, more mountains. And then of course, there’s the famous Blue Ridge Parkway. The first time we took it, the mountains made Gordon think of his father, Georg, who emigrated to Maine from Austria. He had been a ski guide in the Alps where mountains soar to more than 15,000 feet. Georg, or George as he renamed himself, would privately voice his opinion that what the natives call mountains like these– he called hills. Hills or mountains, they are big enough for me and blue truly Blue, amazingly blue, just as Vermont’s mountains are Green, truly green, and shall we even think it, New Hampshire’s mountains are White. At the peak snow persists into summer on Mount Washington, which Georg had Gordon and his brother trek up and ski down one spring.
A little Wikipedia research tells me “trees put the ‘blue’ in Blue Ridge, from the isoprene released into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to the characteristic haze on the mountains and their distinctive color.” Click deeper into Wikipedia on isoprene and it says that oaks and poplars are among the emitting trees and there’s a “hypothesis that isoprene emission appears to be a mechanism that such trees use to combat heat stresses.”
Note that’s not cold stresses, which gets us back to why we are here. While we have not yet found ourselves oppressed by heat, Gordon still suffers from an accumulation of lifetime cold stress.
Those who play outdoors in the cold have good reason to live in Maine. But it’s been a long time since we took advantage of winter. Gordon skied enough in his youth for a lifetime, and while I may have enjoyed a few more winter walks on Pine Point Beach, the occasional snow here satisfies my need for white stuff. There’s even skiing available at nearby Wintergreen resort though so far we have only taken our car to its summit.
The Blue Ridge mountains south of here are higher than the Green and the White, (in North Carolina and Tennessee there are 39 peaks that are more than 6,000 feet, while only the White’s Washington reaches that high.) The Blues have no Alpine zone, no tree line. While Georg, who skied into his mid 80s may not have been comfortable here, we now call this climate zone, and its big blue hills, home.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Nesbo's "Nemesis" stakes ground in Nordic Noir

      Just when you think you know what’s going on, you know you don’t. Such are the twists in Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo’s Nemesis.  Solutions are always just out of the mind’s grasp – and there may be double or triple possible answers for the intertwining investigations detective Harry Hole pursues.
      A masked man enters a bank and when the money is not withdrawn fast enough, he shoots a teller. Robbery becomes murder. Both crime and robbery divisions of the Oslo police investigate.
      After an evening visiting ex-lover Anna, Harry, a recovering alcoholic, wakes up at home vomiting with no memory, and no mobile phone.  Anna is found shot to death. While others deem the death a suicide, Harry secretly pursues it as a crime, with himself as a possible suspect.   Intrigue deepens when Harry starts receiving cryptic e-mail messages from someone who has knowledge of his visit.
     Two more unsettling deaths occupy the background: that of Harry’s former partner, Ellen, and that of colleague Beate Lonn’s father, a police officer shot during a robbery years before.
      Tall, athletic, pushing 40, and full of flaws, Harry ranks as the best investigator on the Oslo force.  As a result he’s resented by some colleagues, protected by the Crime division boss, Bjarne Moller, and valued for his unconventional methods by  the Chief superintendent who confidentially gives him free rein when the robberies continue and the search for the perpetrator dubbed “the Expeditor” appears to be going nowhere.
     Harry’s self-described vices include smoking, lying and holding grudges. Holding grudges is a motivating force in his pursuit of justice.  (His least attractive trait is his name. Intentional humor or translation fluke? ) Harry’s  virtues include the dogged pursuit of justice, loyalty, craftiness and a sweet devotion to and tenderness for his girlfriend, Rakel, and her young son, Oleg, who are  away in Moscow in the midst of a contentious custody battle.
      Other characters come with their own well-defined personalities complete with quirks: 
 There are fellow police officers.
      Beate Lonn, a woman so unremarkable Harry thinks upon meeting her that if he turned away for a second he would forget what she looked like, becomes the officer in robberies unit he will work most closely with.  Small, plain, pallid, her oddity is a remarkable enhanced Fusiform gyrus, that part of the brain that specializes in facial recognition. Hers allows her to recognize all the faces she has ever seen and remember them forever.  (Does she also possess enhanced memory?)
     Egotistical, blonde, blue-eyed, always tanned Rune Ivaarson struts in as head of robberies unit. He grates so on Harry that Harry covertly finds a way to ditch him and work a parallel investigation with just Beate.  Ivaarson’s wits do not match his looks. His is a minor league ego compared to the slimy, but very smart, Tom Waaler, who’s been  told he looks like David Hasseloff from Baywatch  -- the same chin, body and smile. Waaler appears as if he is God’s gift to women but operates as if women are God’s gift to him.
      There are the victims and their survivors.
      Anna, a mediocre artist who lives fully, provides a sexy Bohemian to the plot.  Many lovers have been drawn in by her slim curvaceous body, dark, husky laugh and indecent lips.  A few wrinkles and strands of gray hair suggest fading vitality
     The bank teller Stine Grete’s grieving widower, Trond Grete picks up the role of madman for a time. He’s  so distraught he plays tennis alone in the rain following her death, and is subsequently treated for a breakdown.
      Perhaps the most wily among this crafty cast is self-imprisoned gypsy, Raskol Baxnet, master bank robber, illusionist, unpredictable chess player, and wily philosopher of revenge. He cites Sun Tzu’s Art of War,  a book he says is about the art of winning conflicts or getting what you want at the lowest possible price.   Using sleight of hand, he proves a good manipulator can make you believe that a money bill is a knife’s edge. He, like Harry, lies and hold grudges and honors his promises.  Noble in character, he settles scores adhering to a personal code outside the law.  Harry follows his example finding a haven from pursuit in prison, if only for a visit.
       U.S. armchair travelers like me may enjoy becoming familiar with Oslo’s chilly weather, streets, and temperament. We are also treated to an exotic journey to a community in Brazil where wanted criminals and shady characters from all over the world can live a safe, clandestine existence ignored by local officials for a price.
     Jo Nesbo’s plot layers, repeats images, uses doubles and foils creating patterns almost geometric through reflections.  It’s as if we are seeing the pieces of truth, not as parts of a puzzle piecing together but through the lens of an ever-shifting taleidoscope, the kaleidoscope cousin that mirrors what it’s pointed at.  We may be dazzled with the ever changing splinters of possibility, even as we yearn to see the patterns resolve into the full picture beyond.
     Such reflections are applied not just to events, but also to the familial relationships of characters. Characters double and recombine as family ties bind, shift and break into surprising patterns.
      And finally the taleidoscope aims at the book’s theme, “Nemesis,” and revenge in its spectrum of forms: settling scores, retaliation, retribution, justice.  Nesbo explores revenge as motive and motif. Nemesis is the name of the work of art Anna hopes to be remembered for: a triptych lighted by a lamp whose base is figurine depicting Nemesis, the goddess of revenge.   Nemesis recurs as code and as part of the larger arc of the series.
     Revenge as theme is explored as a psychological concept: A psychologist Harry consults suggests suicide is often a form of revenge. Harry catches a bit of television punditry and a philosopher and a social anthropologist discuss revenge as a political concept. One says:  “A Country like USA, which stands for certain values like freedom and democracy, has a m has moral responsibility to avenge attack on its territory as they are also attacks on its values.  Alone the desire for retaliation – and the execution of it – can protect such a vulnerable system as democracy.” Revenge is discussed religiously: “The lord shall come to judge the quick and the dead. God as Nemesis. Harry references revenge in a discussion of Aristotle’s aesthetic principle of catharsis.   Finally revenge is seen as the raison d’etre for Harry’s  profession: Humanity and society, we are told, can’t survive without it.
     While the book knits the many plots and subplots to a satisfying conclusion, one large end remains loose, as yet beyond Harry’s and the reader’s reach – Harry’s Nemesis. For the reader the loose end becomes reason to continue in the series.  Like others, I have not read the books currently available in translation in their sequential order:  The Redbreast, Nemesis, Devil’s Star, The Redeemer, The Snowman, The Leopard.  I will go back and fill in with Redbreast before proceeding.
      With the enormous success of the Millenium Series and the death of Steig Larsson, American publishers  and readers are hungry for more in the genre I recently saw referred to as “Nordic noir.”  Nesbo stakes his ground at the top of this niche. The best part: He’s alive and writing.

Thanks to Amanda for suggesting this author.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Cost of Knowledge In Caleb's Crossing

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away,
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry --
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.
             ---- Emily Dickinson 

Geraldine Brooks’ latest frigate bears us effortlessly into the 17th century past of Martha ’s Vineyard and Harvard College via research and imagination in her novel “Caleb’s Crossing.” Using the historical figure, Caleb Cheesahteauhmauk , Harvard’s first Native American graduate (class of 1665) as a springboard, Brooks invents early American profiles in courage.
For such traverses, like sea crossings at the time, come with much “oppress of Toll,” for the hero, Caleb, and narrator, Bethia Mayfield, as they attempt the precarious journeys of book learning and cross-cultural experiences.
Caleb, a Wampanoag, defies a powerful relative and learns the language, customs and beliefs of the English settlers’ by living among them, studying their books and attending Harvard College. Bethia, a minister’s daughter, surreptitiously wanders the island, sneaks books and silently learns Wampanaontoaonk speech, as well as rudimentary Latin, Greek and Hebrew, by listening to lessons given to men --lessons scandalous for a woman.
Both venture into forbidden realms and pay the price.
Young Bethia believes the price is her soul. In the opening pages, written when she is 15, living in Great Harbor, she tells the reader, “I killed my mother,” by which she means she believes her mother’s death is God’s retribution for her sins.

 “I broke the commandments day following day.  And I did it knowingly. Minister’s daughter: how could I say otherwise? Like Eve, I thirsted after forbidden knowledge and I ate forbidden fruit. For her, the apple, for me, the white hellebore – different plants, proferred from the same hand. . . .
 We are taught early here to see Nature as a foe to be subdued. But I came by stages, to worship it. You could say for me, this island and her bounties became the first of my false gods, the original sin that begot so much idolatry. 

She comes by her independent spirit and rebellion against rigid Puritan codes by example; family members present mixed messages.  Her grandfather settles on the island community breaking off from the strict and punitive Massachusetts Bay Colony.   In public, Bethia’s mother cultivates silent listening and picking up information.  At home with her children she tells stories about foreign lands and strange ways. Bethia’s father’s teaches her only what’s appropriate for a girl—her catechism. When he discovers he has learned her brother’s lessons by listening in, he tells her “You risk addling your brain by thinking on scholarly matters that need not concern you. It is not seemly for a wife to know more than her husband.” Nevertheless, in his will he leaves her his Homer and Hebrew Bible. Bethia’s father also preaches to the natives, stands up to the xenophobe in his congregation and even takes in Caleb to live under his roof.
Bethia begins her tale on the eve of the day Caleb is to live with them, to join her brother Makepeace, and another Wampanoag Islanderunder the tutelage of her father. As she describes events that led to this moment, a moment she is partly and secretly responsible for, she says her first sin was disobedience. At 12 she went into the island wilderness alone where she met Caleb.  He taught her the island’s secrets – such as how and where to berry and fish, while she, in turn, taught him reading, speaking and the beliefs of her religion. Entranced by his customs, she also dabbledin encounters with pagan ceremonies and intoxicating spiritual substances.
The death of her mother is followed by others that she will likewise attribute to divine punishment for transgressions and/or intervention by Satan.
Caleb also loses relatives.  Spurred by those deaths as well as curiosity and intellectual talent, he is less conflicted in his ventures across cultures. He reveals to Bethia just before they both set off for Cambridge why he seeks knowledge of the powerful English god, and the settler’s books despite disapproval of his uncle, a powerful spiritual healer.
The second section Bethia writes at age 17 in Cambridge which according to Bethia is “an unlovely  town.”  It also stinks. “There was a reek of beasts from the Ox-Pasture and the Cow Common, a rich tidal stink of rot and decay, and a stench such as comes from people pressed in close habitation.”
Bethia  accompanies her brother to Mr. Corlett’s  School, a preparatory school for nearby Harvard College. Bethia works as an indentured servant in exchange for Makepeace’s fees, cleaning and waiting on the young scholars. Caleb and Joel also attend the school; their way is paid by English benefactors who wish to convert the Indians. It’s cold. The boys must drink only weak beer because the water is brackish and they bathe in an outside trough.  Homemade soap is difficult to come by. The boys eat off wooden plates. Nevertheless, the boys  find a way to distinguish between the well to do and the less so. The  most privileged are the “pewter platers” so named because they have brought pewter tankards and trenchers, engraved with their initials, so they don’t have to eat off the worn wooden ones the common students use.
   Following her years at the prep school, Bethia chooses to work  in the Buttery at Harvard, where she can also  listen in on lectures. Once again we get a very different view of elite education: students are not allowed to use the books in the library; only lecturers and tutors; young men crowd into a leaky, drafty ruin of a dormitory and many pay part of their board in goods – cows, shoes and  firewood.  The best building, made of bricks, was built with British funds from Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to the Indians to be used as the Indian College. (In time, Harvard’s president finds a way of subverting this original intent for use by the settlers.)
 While Caleb negotiates prejudice and discrimination and proves his scholarly mettle, Bethia negotiates marriage offers discovering along the way that arguing and swearing an oath at her brother to whom she is subservient is an offense punishable by the courts.
The final section is written in Great Harbor when Bethia is 70. Her own passages almost complete, she feels compelled to take up her pen and finish Caleb’s story, calling him a hero for having the courage to challenge what others thought was unthinkable – crossing into another culture.
No such prohibitions held back author Brooks as she researched and wrote, though a few she consulted were guarded about her work. Some current tribal members, says Brooks, “have been frank in expressing reservations about an undertaking that fictionalizes the life of a beloved figure and sets down an imagined version of that life that may be misinterpreted as factual.  She attempts in her afterword to address reservations by setting the historical record straight and “distinguishing scant fact from rampant invention.”
  Much of the grace of her book comes from the way she blends specific facts and general research about the period with skillful invention.  Like Bethia, we easily pick up and adapt to the language as we eavesdrop on unfamiliar words like “salvages (for savages), somewhen,  sennights, tegs,  and sonquem, and turns of phrase: “He brims like a stream in spate, gathering all the knowledge.”   How smoothly we  cross into this world Brooks creates. There are rich descriptions of place and references to historical figures of the time --- the poet  Anne Bradstreet, the heretic Anne Hutchinson, Govs. Danforth and Winthrop as well as early Harvard figures like Chauncy. We never feel the story becomes an occasion for a history lesson; rather the narrative holds us in its present, unfolding events fluently, as it transports us to another world in another time.
By book’s end we may remind ourselves that even today many vilify those who worship different Gods and knowledge can come at great cost. But Brooks’ chariot confirms the cost of ignorance is greater.
Nathaniel Hawthorne said of nearby Boston of 1642 that it owed its state of development to the “sombre sagacity of age; accomplishing so much precisely because it imagined and hoped for so little.” Hester Prynne’s sin in “The Scarlet Letter” was adultery, but her transgression was that she thought, imagined and hoped outside her time.  What we allow into our heads matters. But what we allow ourselves to imagine also matters.  Both knowledge and imagination are luxuries struggling communities sometimes seem little able to afford.  It may take two young people who embrace the pursuit of knowledge and the invention of the imagination for change to begin to happen.
I’m glad that Caleb Cheesahteauhmauk and Bethia Mayfield had the courage to cross cultures.
I’m also glad Geraldine Brooks indulged her inquiring and imaginative mind to give us such a satisfying armchair journey. For me the ride was not just frugal, but free; a friend passed along the book.