Archive | December, 2013

Hunt’s 2013 Book Picks

31 Dec

For better or worse, I mentally divide my reading into fiction and nonfiction.  This is, in part, to keep up my fiction reading. A few years ago, I found I was reading almost exclusively nonfiction and that scared me. I didn’t want to become a non-reader of fiction.  So I’m picking two favorite books from my reading this year.

Fiction Pick: The Round House by Louise Erdich

Erdich’s books are always well reviewed nationwide and well read in Minnesota, which is where I live.  I loved The Round House because it was so evocative of a Gen X childhood.  The fact that Erdich did not herself grow up in the 1980s and 1990s makes me that much more jealous of her powers as a writer.  And she is amazing.  She tells a damn good story and she perfectly captures the most important tension in a teenager’s life—the tension between the desire to effect the newly understood world and feeling powerless to do so.

I feel old to say that I liked this book because it brought me back, but it really did that.  The allusions to Star Trek: The Next Generation brought to mind the sound of a knife clacking against the lip of a blackened popcorn pan.  My dad always melted a cube of butter, which he would then pour over the giant stainless steel bowl of popcorn that we would eat by the handful as we watched TV.

The way that the protagonist and the other kids in The Round House talked about church camp and Star Trek: The Next Generation was so true to life and so funny that I almost cried in places. Too often, the pop culture references in books work like winking—they’re for the in-crowd and like a wink, they drive away all sense of majesty—but that wasn’t the case with Erdich’s references to Lieutenant Worf.  These references only made the book more evocative of life at the end of the Twentieth Century.

Nonfiction Pick: Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia

I don’t think I would have enjoyed Pilgrim’s Wilderness as much if I had already known the story of Papa Pilgrim and his family.  But because I didn’t, the plot twists surprised me and I was hooked.

I think I was lucky to be ignorant of the story beforehand, because it’s a fairly recent one, which received some national news coverage.  A back-to-the-bible eccentric, self-christened Papa Pilgrim, buys several acres within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska and, after moving his wife and fourteen children onto the land, begins a battle with the National Park Service.  Pilgrim has a troubled and fascinating past and Tom Kizzia, a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, unspools it like a novelist.

The book is great because its lead character is so unique—and, in his way, compelling—but also because Kizzia makes the story about more than just the Pilgrim family.  He explores the meaning of Alaska, a liminal place where government and wilderness meet and the rules break down.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness reminded me of Jon Krakauer’s breakout book, Into the Wild. And though some might bristle at even mentioning the name of Christopher McCandless in the same breathe as Papa Pilgrim, the two men both showed that the idea of Alaska is still a powerful force in the imaginative lives of many. Unfortunately, that imaginary Alaska is different from real Alaska in important and sometimes costly ways.

The Most Visited Grave in Swan Point Cemetery

21 Dec

Ladd Observatory

Ladd Observatory, where Lovecraft looked into deep space. 
We stumbled upon it while on our walk to the cemetery.

 

I’ve always had mixed feelings about H.P. Lovecraft, the pulp horror writer, whose grave I visited recently. He was a racist and his prose is sometimes as scary as his imagination. But talking to the security guard at Swan Point Cemetery helped me clarify my thoughts about the great pulp horror writer.

We heard the guard before we saw him.

“No pictures!” he called to Lizzy and me from further down the hill. I’d been walking toward the modest headstone, phone in hand. The red-haired guard walked toward us with a quick, wide gait. He explained that the cemetery was private and didn’t allow photographs of the monuments.

I put my phone back in my pocket. I’m ambivalent about images, anyway, so I didn’t feel robbed. There was a strange mix of objects on the grave – seashells, small stones, hand-written poems, and a key.

“Once the plot is clean, it stays clean for weeks,” the guard said. “And then someone puts something new on it and stuff starts to pile up.”

“Why is there a key?” Lizzy asks.

“I don’t know why people leave keys,” he said. “One person left a key and now everyone leaves keys.”

“What are those notes?”

“I don’t know. You can read them if you want.”

Lizzy leaned over and looked at the crumpled paper held in place by a stone.

“That’s a strange thing to be carrying.” The guard nodded at Lizzy’s left hand, which, curled nonchalantly under her right hand, held a can of green beans.

Years ago, while I was reading systematically through all of Lovecraft’s stories, I also read the final volume of his Selected Letters. At the end of his life, Lovecraft was very poor and virtually every meal he mentioned eating came out of a can. In many cultures, it’s common to leave food on a grave and I thought a can of food would be most appropriate.

“We were going to leave it,” Lizzy said.

“That’s fine,” he said. “But it’ll just be cleaned off later.”

He said this as if he expected us to be disappointed that Lovecraft wouldn’t wake up that night and chow down.

Lizzy set the can on the grass next to one of the hand-written notes.

The guard said the can was a fitting offering for a man who had contemplated cat food as a viable food source. There were people who left baggies of marijuana, he said, people who obviously knew nothing about how Lovecraft felt about intoxicants. And there were people who left heavy metal CDs, which he doubted very much that Lovecraft would have liked.

We spoke for a while longer and he told us more about his job and the visitors to the gravesite. Lovecraft’s grave was the most visited grave in all of beautiful Swan Point Cemetery, where governors and Civil War generals were buried.

On our walk back to downtown Providence, I wondered why that was.

I personally don’t look up to him as I do some writers. I look back on him as I look back on my younger self, admiring his fidelity to some vague artistic ideal completely separate from the market, his cosmic worldview, and his dogged desire to live as much as possible in his head. But obviously, not everyone visits his grave for the same reason I did.

I think part of it is his posthumous popularity – a common nerd fantasy. His fanbase is made up of writers, artists, horror aficionados, and misanthropes – “losers, no offense” as the guard termed us. We are people who feel some disconnect with the world, but still dream of adulation.

Not that Lovecraft’s fans are a cohesive mass. There’s something incredible about a writer who can appeal equally to black-clad metalheads, potheads, English majors, Stephen King, the French writer Michel Huoellebecq, and a mysterious German man – described by the guard – who flew in on Lovecraft’s birthday and stood by the grave in a three-piece suit for a half-hour before flying straight back.

Lovecraft’s all-things-to-all-men quality is due, in part, to the grand, cosmic scale of his stories and, in part, to the way he shied from society.

Reading Lovecraft’s letters I was reminded of Adam Gopnik’s essay, “Van Gogh’s Ear,” which describes Van Gogh’s final months in an asylum and connects this to the incredible prices which Van Gogh’s paintings now fetch. That essay concludes by contrasting the difference between art collectors who bet huge sums of money on paintings they hope will appreciate and the artist who “bets his life.”

That’s my answer to why his grave is still visited. Lovecraft bet his life.

The security guard told us that the time you consider cat food as a viable food source is the time you put down your pen and get a job at a factory. That’s the way most of us think. Certainly, all the governors and generals buried in Swan Point would have been so practical.

But not Lovecraft.

 

Note: This post first appeared on the Innsmouth Free Press website.