Riding Lessons, by Sara Gruen

I found Water for Elephants an enjoyable read (see this blog, 2 July 2007), so I checked out Gruen's earlier book. After a prologue-like chunk of back-story, the book starts out like a bad sitcom: within the first few pages, the heroine has lost her job, discovered that her teenaged daughter is on the verge of being expelled from school, and been abandoned by her husband. Unfortunately, this heroine's surliness and self-absorption made me think all of these events justified and placed my sympathies exclusively with the other characters who had to put up with her.

She has also been informed that her father, whom she hasn't seen in years, has ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), so she collects her daughter and heads to her parents' riding school, determined to take over and run it. Mired in self-pity and arrogance, she quickly brings the school to bankruptcy. The worst kind of daughter, she is still (at 38) stuck in a teenager's rebellion. The worst kind of parent, she undercuts her own attempts to discipline her daughter, giving the girl treats when she misbehaves. And this woman, who apparently doesn't understand the first thing about rewards and punishments and has no self-discipline, is supposed to be a whiz at training horses?

The descriptions of horses and riding are the best things about this book. However, the heroine's self-centered and destructive behavior made me dislike her so much that I found myself hoping more horrible things would happen to her so that she would start acting like an adult instead of a spoiled teenager. Sadly, that never happened, turning her eventual triumph into a disappointment, for me anyway.

While this book was ruined for me by my intense dislike of the heroine, it is not impossible to have a central character whom the reader dislikes but cares about anyway. An example for me is Snowman in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake whose trials moved me although he wasn't particularly likeable (see this blog, 5 November 2007). I couldn't help rooting for him as he navigated his peculiar world.

This whole business of how to encourage a reader to care about a character is fascinating to me. Obviously readers are more likely to care about a character they like and sympathise with, but even that simplistic formula has its variables. I've been surprised, discussing books with friends and book clubs, how often we've disagreed about the main character. For example, one of my friends named the narrator of Truth and Beauty whom I found both creepy and dishonest (see this blog, 6 August 2007) as the character she had admired and cared about most deeply. Another detested Jane Eyre, who remains one of my favorites. More on this subject another time.

Deep Economy, by Bill McKibbon

Thinking about the effects of global warming, the loss of open land to suburban McMansions, and the widening gap between rich and poor can be depressing. However, this series of essays is curiously hopeful. As always, McKibbon has the numbers to back up his descriptions of the challenges we face, but here he gives us possible solutions, things you and I can do.

He uses the term “deep economy” to echo the term “deep ecology” which urged a more cohesive look at environmental issues. Instead of just enacting some new law to limit emissions, “deep ecology” looked at the way we live our lives and what choices we can make that will cause more fundamental changes and improvements. Similarly, McKibbon urges us to think beyond the usual statistics economists love—GNP, growth, stock markets—and instead look at measures of human satisfaction.

Like most people, I feel overwhelmed and powerless when I try to think about the problems mentioned above. Therefore, I was thrilled by McKibbon's vivid descriptions of solutions—small-scale, to be sure, but solutions nonetheless. And when he starts talking about communities—building them, strengthening them, looking to them for answers—well, he is singing my song. Moving toward a more local economy just makes sense for everyone: business owners, workers and consumers.

The chapter that may be most familiar to people is on eating food grown locally. Where I live, we are lucky to have several farmers' markets and, during the season, many independent roadside truck stands. I have been going to one farmers' market for over twenty years. Many of the vendors are the same. It's been a joy to me to watch my fruit guy's children grow up and my vegetable lady's business expand. The flower lady, who loved my dog, grieved with me when the dog succumbed to old age. Writing in this blog about A Brief History of the Dead I said that if I were ever to win an award, the first people I would want to thank would be all the folks who enrich my life and make it possible by fixing my car, making pizza, etc.

These, too, are people who are part of my community and decades of interaction, of watching their children grow up, have made them precious to me, as precious as my friends and dancing partners, my poetry chums and book club pals. At this time of year, we look to our families but also take time to socialise. I just want to take this moment to celebrate all the people in my life. Thank you. Read this book.

Human Traces, by Sebastian Faulks

I picked up this book because I’ve enjoyed other books by this author, but perhaps that says more about me than about his writing. His World War I trilogy fell into my hands just as I was reading everything I could find—poetry, history, memoirs—about that time. And I came across The Fatal Englishman the year that my bedside table was stacked with books about Antarctica: Cherry-Garrard’s memoir, Scott’s journals.

Human Traces was more of a challenge. It is the story of two men, Jacques Rebiere and Thomas Midwinter who decide to devote their lives to the study of mental illness in the hopes of understanding and curing the diseases afflicting Jacques’s brother and others. We first meet the two men in 1876 when they are 16, and follow their story, and the entwined stories of their wives, children, patients, and co-workers for the next 45 years, through the ambitions and dreams of youth, the disappointments and shortcomings of midlife, the reflections and griefs of age.

Faulks writes well. He made me care about his characters and what happened to them even though I have little interest in the Victorian period or in the early days of psychology. He writes well enough to keep me reading no matter how annoyed I get. And I did get very annoyed with this book.

For one thing, it seemed just too long. Did we really need the full text of speeches and letters, pages and pages quoting a scientific paper, long lectures about the latest discovery? It seemed like padding to me, as I waded through it, and I kept wishing he would get on with the story. Yet I kept reading.

For another thing, the story, the plot itself, was a bit thin. Every time a conflict threatens to emerge—such as when Thomas’s sister falls in love with Jacques and decides to marry him against her parents’ wishes—the potential unpleasantness falls apart like mist, and everyone is happy after all. The experimental cable car works without a hitch; a wealthy sponsor appears when the men need money for their sanatorium; an affair is forgiven with the husband not even realising the wife knows about it.

Gradually, however, it became clear that the plot was not really about such things as money and marriage. Instead, it was about ideas: the conflict between ideas and theories of how the human mind works, how it malfunctions, how to fix it. The late 19th century was the time, as well, of Darwin and the conflict between ideas of science and religion, when people debated just what separated humans from apes.

And so, by the end of the book, I was grateful for every lecture, every scientific paper, every tedious debate. Because, by the time I turned the last page, I did feel that I had learned something new about what it means to be a human being.

The Big Sky, by A.B. Guthrie

One last western. A traditional theme of the west is renewal, the chance to leave the past behind and recreate yourself. In A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky Boone Caudhill leaves home after finally standing up to his abusive father. In 1830, he is 17 years old and determined to walk from Kentucky to St. Louis, and from there into the west. Callow and trusting, he runs into trouble almost immediately but eventually makes his way up the Missouri River accompanied by two friends he has picked up along the way: Jim Deakins, a merry and loyal friend who has all the gregariousness that Boone lacks, and Dick Summers, an old mountain man who passes on his skills to the two younger men. Even more than the chance to start over where no one knows him, the skills that he learns from Summers contribute to Boone’s renewal and form the essence of the man he becomes.

Together the three men travel the mountains, from the Seeds-Kee-Dee to the Snake, from Jackson Hole to the Tetons, trapping beaver and anything else they think they can sell, living off the land. After a few years in the mountains, Boone looks like an Indian himself, with his buckskins and feathers. He has learned to appreciate the Indians’ ways and how to accommodate himself to them and eventually finds his way to Teal Eye, daughter of a Blackfoot chief.

The Big Sky is not a romantic tale of dancing with Indians and combining the best of both worlds. Instead, it tells of a savage life where you are in constant danger from animals, the weather, other mountain men, Indians, and all you have is the friend at your back, your weapon, and your own courage. Boone finds that courage in himself, along with the kind of ruthlessness needed to be a trapper in the mountains, far from any kind of law. He finds, too, a way of life that suits him down to the ground. There is an innocence about Boone, a dislike for the complexities and betrayals of other white men. He doesn’t fit in with the Indians, either. He is best off by himself. “This was the way to live, free and easy, with time all a man’s own and none to say no to him . . . Here a man lived natural. Some day, maybe, it would all end, as Summers said it would, but not any ways soon.”

Just as in All the Pretty Horses there is a nostalgia for a time past. It seems as though people head into the wood in search, not just of adventure and a chance to prove themselves, but to reconnect with a way of life, a way of being that is stripped to its essentials, that is more genuine, to discover our essential nature. It is a romantic notion, one that recurs, from the Romantic Movement of the 18th century looking to nature for freedom from the stultifying formalism, to Thoreau with his little cabin and rows of beans, to the back-to-the-land dreams of the 1960s.

Where we get in trouble, though, is in confusing that escape from civilisation with freedom. In Wendell Berry’s essay “The Nature Consumers” collected in The Longlegged House, he describes an encounter in the 1960s with some boatmen on a river near his home in Kentucky who thought that because they were on the water, they were free to do whatever they wanted. “A wild, uninhabited place, such as he wanted to believe he had come to, is by the definition of our frontier experience a free place. One has no bosses there, one is free of responsibility and can do purely according to pleasure. How illusory that is is proved by the fact that the country is inhabited and that some of the inhabitants objected to anyone’s behaving as if it were not. How illusory it is, and how dangerous, is proved by American history: Those pioneer forebears of ours, so attractively free of responsibility, no only settled the country but also used up the fertility and wealth and beauty of it at a rate that made their lives a disgrace to them and a burden to us.”

Sons of Texas, by Elmer Kelton

Sometimes I just get in the mood to read westerns, but they have to be of a certain type. Not about cowboys—ranch life doesn’t interest me. Nor does violence. I’m interested in the adventures of a man (or woman, but in these books it’s nearly always a man) who can read the sky or listen to the wind. A man who can interpret a bear’s track or find water in a dry land. A man who can be alone in the woods for weeks and months at a time, comfortable with himself and at home in the world.

Elmer Kelton is one of the best writers of westerns, and this is one of his best books. Young Michael Lewis is entranced by his father’s stories of far-away Texas, which still belongs to the Spanish. One of those men who keeps moving his family westward as the land gets too crowded, Mordecai continually leaves Michael and his brothers to farm the land while he himself sets out to find some better place or seek some great adventure.

Listening to their father talk about Texas, Michael dreams of a vast and unspoiled land, so when his father and a group of neighbors set out for Spanish-controlled Texas to capture wild horses, Michael decides to follow. However, his first encounter with that land is both brutal and devastating, and he barely makes it home alive. Years later, having become a solitary trapper in the woods he loves, Michael is still haunted by his dreams of Texas and eventually decides to return, accompanied by his younger brother Andrew. As Michael travels along, he recognises that the land around him is good farmland and considers abandoning his quest and staking a claim here. But he is afraid it will soon be settled and changed.

Susan Lang, author of Small Rocks Rising and other books, has said that in westerns, the land itself is a character. As I mentioned re All the Pretty Horses love of the land seems to be wrapped up with nostalgia for an unspoiled world. Perhaps it is just our hindsight, but the trappers and mountain men in these stories, even as they forge their way into new territory, are already regretting its loss, as if the present were shadowed by the future. Part of the romance of the west is that it was “unspoiled” and “unsettled”. But of course there were people living there already.

In The Practice of the Wild Gary Snyder points out that what we call wilderness isn’t all that wild. When explorers landed on this continent or pioneers pushed into the interior, they were not entering an unpopulated land. There were people there and animals and trees and plants, all with their own sets of rules. Ecologists have picked apart the components and interdependencies, even of systems devoid of people. There are rules. They may not be our rules, but they are there nonetheless.

So when we set off into the woods, we are not entering a truly wild place, merely a place where our normal rules don’t apply.

These liminal places fascinate. We sing songs in a minor key and read those fairy tales about venturing off into Germanic woods. It seems—at least until we learn the language—as though anything can happen. Where there is space for something new to emerge or be created, an opening, something new to be explored, an adventure to be had.