Category Archives: Nonfiction

Beautiful Beautiful Words: Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

For the last week I have been adding new words to my “favorite words” list, which isn’t an actual list but something I have vaguely kept track of in my head over the years (past favorites: idiosyncrasy, verisimilitude). Sometimes I like a word because of how it sounds. Plain and simple. “Juxtaposition!” But sometimes I like it because it’s like a portal into its meaning, which of course is only the beginning of its meaning, because aren’t words kind of like ciphers, arrangements of letters and sounds and whatnot, sometimes forcibly squared away into discrete objects or alphabetical permutations, but that can remotely access great wells of significance and the barely differentiated oceans of continuous meaning that constitute the human encounter with the world?

Maybe that theory is a bit grandiloquent. (Favorite.)

But anyway, this past week I came up with two new favorite words, in comparatively rapid succession, kind of by accident. Because they both do that access-y meaning-y thing, where they can be used literally to describe a thing or they can be thought through more deeply or used as a metaphor.

Anyway, I’ll just tell you what those two words are. Without any explanation or anything. One is “deconsecrated” (found in a New Yorker article about high art puppet shows, in which the featured players are rehearsing in a deconsecrated church). The other is “enharmonic” (meaning two musical notes, like D-sharp and E-flat, that have different names and functions but are, at pitch, the exact same note).

This is a roundabout way of telling you that my own personal word guru is Vladimir Nabokov (I wonder if he’s ever been called that before?) and I think I’ve gone on enough about him in the past, but I just finished reading his memoir Speak, Memory so I need to go on a little more about how he is the master of all things words. I’ll stick to the point.

Purchased at Half Price Books (Berkeley). Vintage International, 1989.

Purchased at Half Price Books (Berkeley). Vintage International, 1989.

Vladimir (we’re on a first name basis) started the reminiscences that constitute Speak, Memory as a young man, which roughly cover the period from his birth to the birth of his first and only child Dmitri, though he didn’t finish and publish them until sometime in the 1960s. He has a remarkable memory for detail, like superhuman—it seems memory, like writing, entomology and synesthesia, was an innate talent.

For me, the ultimate Nabokov fangirl (I wonder if anyone else has ever described themselves that way before?), this work is a real treat, because it allows the reader into the thoughts and feelings of the man, the myth, the legendary author. As much as I love his fiction, it can lean too heavily towards the cerebral, a showcase of his magisterial intellect and imagination, while missing a warmth or a tenderness or any window into Nabokov’s own humanity. Maybe that’s not fair—I think the warmth is there, but it’s faint and subtle and buried. His most famous protagonist is a monster. His family relationships are distant and ridiculous, and his love affairs tend to be all-consuming, fiery instruments of their participants’ destruction.

Which is why this sublime passage from the end of Speak, Memory is, for me, so revelatory (note that towards the end of these recollections, he begins periodically addressing the narrative to a “you” that can only be his wife Vera; the most overt manifestation of the fact that all of his books are dedicated to her):

“Whenever I start thinking of my love for a person, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love—from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter—to monstrously remote points of the universe. Something impels me to measure the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable and incalculable things as the behavior of nebulae (whose very remoteness seems a form of insanity), the dreadful pitfalls of eternity, the unknowledgeable beyond the unknown, the helplessness, the cold, the sickening involutions and interpenetrations of space and time… It cannot be helped; I must know where I stand, where you and my son stand. When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake. I have to make a rapid inventory of the universe, just as a man in a dream tries to condone the absurdity of his position by making sure he is dreaming. I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence.”

So, freaking, romantic. If you’re into that kind of thing.

Anyway. It’s hard for me to explain why I love Vladimir Nabokov so much (beyond posting long samples of his writing). I think I should just consider myself lucky that I’ve found an author that so consistently and so unexpectedly impresses and thrills and delights me, that I love not only as a writer but as a person, and yes that includes the times where I come across something about him and am like, “Vladimir, why do you have to be so stuck-up about writing?” or “Vladimir, what’s wrong with you that you don’t like music?” but that’s normal with anyone you love.

The things that DO make him lovable: his awkward feelings about public speaking. His strangely pompous humility (how can you be self-deprecating about your own writing in writing so grand? Er, grandiloquent?). His obviously deep love and attachment to his wife and son. His ethics (which will of course be politically problematic on several points in retrospect, but which generally tended to abhor racism, anti-Semitism, violence and tyranny; his wife Vera was Jewish; though, also close to home, he never quite accepted his brother’s homosexuality). And—DUH!—his butterfly hunting!

Speaking of which. One of my favorite and most adorable and endearing passages from Speak, Memory, about the unwanted attention he draws when going about his butterfly-hunting business (something he loved from childhood all the way to his death):

“America has shown even more of this morbid interest in my retiary activities than other countries have—perhaps because I was in my forties when I came there to live, and the older the man, the queerer he looks with a butterfly net in his hand. Stern farmers have drawn my attention to NO FISHING signs; from cars passing me on the highway have come wild howls of derision; sleepy dogs, though unmindful of the worst bum, have perked up and come at me, snarling; tiny tots have pointed me out to their puzzled mamas; broad-minded vacationists have asked me whether I was catching bugs for bait; and one morning on a wasteland, lit by tall yuccas in bloom, near Santa Fe, a big black mare followed me for more than a mile.” (131)

So for anyone who loves Nabokov three eighths as much as I do, Speak, Memory is like an ostentatious gift of words that’s dropped in your lap and you almost feel guilty that you get to indulge in it. But the words are finite, and one thing that I tend to do—and maybe others can relate—or maybe I’m a big weirdo—is be constantly cognizant of the finiteness of the things I love and the time I get to spend with them.

This phenomenon manifests most overtly when I’m on a trip and I start to panic a little as the days slip away, all the more so if I felt they weren’t used to their utmost potential. But it also manifests in books, music, etc. When I first got into my favorite band Radiohead in early college, I had an exquisite first few months of acquainting myself with and acquiring their ten-year catalog, and then (until In Rainbows) one day it was gone. When I first started reading Harry Potter, the last book had already come out and I’d seen four movies, and I got to rip, leisurely, through all seven books without the anguish of the multi-year gaps that my hipper friends had to wait through. And then after Deathly Hallows it was gone. When Fellowship of the Ring came out I watched it four times in the theater, five more times at home before the second movie came out one year later, bought every theatrical and extended edition and CD soundtrack, plus film production picture books, plus at some point acquired one life-size Legolas poster (it was a GIFT), and then Return of the King came out and I saw it opening night and it was exhilarating and it was gone. Until The Hobbit, kind of.

I still have a ways to go through Nabokov’s entire oeuvre (favorite), but I feel the end, creeping up on me from behind Pale Fire and the rest of his Russian Period. I guess the best thing to do is enjoy it while it lasts.

…So here I am again. Talking about Nabokov, Radiohead, and Lord of the Rings. Some things don’t change at least.

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Travel Writing and the American Gaze: The Best American Travel Writing, edited by Anthony Bourdain and Jason Wilson

(Disclaimer: I feel super obsolete writing a review of a 2008 collection. In fact, I even felt obsolete reading this book in public. The downside of including years in collection titles [as opposed to, I suppose, big Roman numerals, or even Arabic numerals; see the “Now That’s What I Call Music” CD series]. I’ll just pretend that 2008 was a good year for wine and travel essays.)

Best American Travel Writing

I would never have read this book, but my mom happened to have it and was no longer interested in reading it. My mom regularly checks out plastic-coated hardcovers from the library that some American woman or British man or vice versa wrote about their lovely summer or decade in Tuscany or the south of France or Venice or where-have-you. She thought this would be in keeping with her reading proclivities, but no— the book is instead filled with reporter-at-large type essay dispatches from Chad, Cambodia, northwest Pakistan, Turkmenistan. Full of danger and discomfort; not stories where you necessarily want to trade places with the protagonist. She blamed series guest editor Anthony Bourdain, whose brand is after all titled “No Reservations.”

She thought it would be my thing though. And I guess it kind of is.

The diversity of the stories and the journalistic clarity of the writing (the most-represented major publications here are The New Yorker and Travel + Leisure, with some Harper’s and Slate thrown in) made for consistently interesting, entertaining reads. I’ve never followed travel writing as a genre, but there’s something to be said for getting the opportunity to be thrown into a far-flung place for 6-12 pages at a time, learning minutiae about a country or city or neighborhood you’d maybe never have thought of otherwise, much less visited.

But I have my complaints. And I don’t know if I should lay these complaints at the feet of individual writers and editors, or upon the shoulders of the genre as a whole.

The first thing that struck me, several stories in, was that most of the writers were men. Four out of the twenty-five essays were written by women. It took about ten essays to get to the first woman-penned story, and, lo and behold, it was a super-short, semi-humorous, quasi-poetic reflection on a bathroom hookup with a hot Israeli in a Brazilian youth hostel (“Mr. Tingler,” by Emily Maloney). Not exactly comparable in gravity to, say, the embedded reporters in African war zones (see: “African Promise,” by J. Malcolm Garcia; “The Border,” by Peter Chilson).

I get that this is largely a question of access. While women can and do travel most of the world, there are places and contexts where they aren’t quite as welcome, and spaces that are not as easy to penetrate and move freely in. (Exceptions, maybe, can be found in Kristin Ohlson’s “Kabul Nights,” in which she visits secret restaurants in the Afghan capital, and Annie Nocenti’s “The Most Expensive Road Trip in the World,” in which she and a female documentarian ride along with Qatari princes and real estate magnates on a falconing trip through some of Pakistan’s least hospitable parts.)

This lack of representation makes sense, but it’s still disappointing. It’s like living in a little world where, superficially, women have every opportunity that men do, but then zooming out and remembering that they don’t, that the outside world is even farther from a liberal paradise than America is.

When I went to Lebanon solo (I swear, I’ll shut up about this some day), I felt extra apprehensive because of my gender. My fears proved mostly unfounded, though I definitely attracted strange looks wandering the streets of Beirut by myself, taking pictures. When I arrived in Paris, before my (male) friend met up with me, I was hassled by two separate panhandlers in front of Sacre-Coeur within two minutes; after he joined me, there was no similar incident for the remainder of the trip. When a female friend told me about her solo travels in Eastern Europe, she recommended attaching oneself to older local women to safeguard against creeps. Shit, even here, when I walk home from BART at night, I have my spidey senses on for the entire walk home (it’s generally a pleasant enough suburban neighborhood, but there is the occasional crime in the area and there’s almost no street light, which turns every shadowy passerby into a potential misogynistic psychopath).

One of the products of walking around Beirut by myself taking pictures. Copyright me.

One of the products of walking around Beirut by myself taking pictures. Copyright me.

So maybe there are problems in other parts of the world, presenting us with a stark dichotomy of gender access, and this isn’t the fault of the authors or editors of any one travel volume. But my other complaint was the way the writers themselves, these American men, talked about the cultures they visited, in particular foreign women, their interactions with them and how they are treated by their countrymen: what I like to call the American gaze.

In particular, two stories rubbed me the wrong way. The first was “The Woman in the Kuffiya,” by Jeffrey Tayler. You might already be apprehensive because of the title. I was too.

“The Woman in the Kuffiya” is a short, three-page personal anecdote originally published on WorldHum.com. In it, Jeffrey Tayler retells a brief encounter he had with an Arab woman in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border, in a town called Harran. He is walking along a road by himself, “lost in thoughts about history and the Bible.” Then, the young woman in the kuffiya, or red-and-white-checked Arab scarf, pulls up her horse-drawn cart and offers him a ride. She speaks no English, and he converses with her in his limited Arabic. Her name is Hawa’. He asks if she is married, she is. She offers him fresh baked bread. She complains about the men in her village and how lazy they are.

Smiling girls in Harran, Turkey in a tourism photo. Photo credit: Turkey Travel Planner.

Smiling girls in Harran, Turkey in a tourism photo. Photo credit: Turkey Travel Planner.

But mostly, Tayler is captivated by her beauty. When she first releases her kuffiya, it unmasks “a comely, full-lipped mouth and clear bronzed skin.” Aware of the fact that he is in an Islamic country, he tries to avoid staring, but “she was just too beautiful.”

When they reach his destination, he turns to say goodbye, and they share a charged gaze filled with a shared “repressed lust.” Then she readjusts her kuffiya and moves on.

Tayler ends by contemplating the strength of his attraction to this woman. The last two lines:

“The oft-maligned Islamic custom of purdah does much to preserve passion in its most urgent and ineffable form. No topless beach has ever, to me, looked the same after Harran.”

I’m really not sure how to take this. On the one hand, he could be commenting on the paradoxical tendency of sexual repression to perversely promote sexuality and bring it to the forefront of thought, something Foucault wrote about and Russell Brand adapted in a bit to apply to the Jonas Brothers’ purity rings, which I don’t disagree with. But what else is happening here? Is he Orientalizing/fetishizing Islamic womanhood? Is he placing an entire culture and its participants within the context of his own male, desirous American gaze? (“Gee whiz, I don’t really believe in women covering themselves, but now that you mention it, it’s pretty awesome for my libido.”)

Admittedly, it’s a brief, subjective piece, and it’s Tayler artfully, un-self-consciously reproducing the experience exactly as he lived it. But sometimes the way we live things doesn’t deserve to be transferred unfiltered from head to page, where it can sit with an undue sense of its own weight and authority.

The second story was “Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World,” by Seth Stevenson, originally published on Slate.com, about the author’s through-the-looking-glass trip to Dubai. This one I was a little more ambivalent about, because in some ways it feels like it could have been written by the male me. Like “The Woman in the Kuffiya,” it’s more overtly subjective than most of the other essays in this collection, and the dude doesn’t try to hide his insanely American and Western worldview. In fact, he comes off sounding like he’s never even been a travel writer before this moment—there’s a sense of innocent wonder in his story lacking in the work of the other writers, who tend to favor feigned objectivity or, at the very least, wry appreciation.

The Dubai skyline, fantastical. Photo credit: Pan Arab Enquirer.

The Dubai skyline, fantastical. Photo credit: Pan Arab Enquirer.

On the flip side, Stevenson’s naïveté also means he seems to have embarked on this little journey with only the shallowest understanding of Islam and the Arab world, likely gleaned from cable news channels and newspaper headlines. His mission: to understand the bizarre spectacle of capitalism in the middle of the Middle Eastern desert that is Dubai, and to extrapolate that to grandiose statements and solutions on the East-West cultural divide. For him Dubai is confounding: how can the Arab world have its own answer to Las Vegas? How can a religion so often at odds with Western civilization enjoy the fruits of our decadent, consumerist system?

For the most part he tackles these questions with humor and levity, and for the most part that’s fine. But at one point, he goes into a little “aside” in which he lists three bones he has to pick with the way women are treated in the U.A.E. He puts these “bones” in list form, which was such a total me move that I almost liked him for it—but then, the content of this aside was stunning in its ignorance (not me, I hope):

“1. It seems horribly unfair that the men’s dishdashas are white, while the women’s long cloaks (called abayas) are black. I ask you: Which would you rather wear beneath a blazing desert sun? If Arab culture weren’t otherwise so progressive on gender issues, I might say this was a clever means of discouraging women from leaving the house.
2. The unfairness becomes crystal clear when you go to the beach here. The Emirati women keep their abayas on. Meanwhile, their husbands strip down to tight, short bathing suits—exposing their flabby stomachs and hairy backs.
3. I’m fine with the headscarf that covers the hair. (This seems not unlike wearing a yarmulke.) But the face veil is fundamentally different and, in my view, not okay. One cannot happily contribute to society when one has no face. The veil transforms women into a pair of downcast eyes. And again, it seems, more than anything else, like an enticement to stay at home.”

Oh. Kay. So. Many things wrong. Here.

…Let me respond with my own mini-listicle.

1. Seth, you’re speculating. Nothing else in this fun little story gives me any confidence that you’ve studied Arab history, social or sartorial, so I’d be careful about making any bold hypotheses on the development of gender practices, lest you influence a young mind as impressionable as your own. Read: Your one visit doesn’t make you an expert. And that whole “progressive on gender issues” line? Just snarky. Especially because I feel like you’d be one of those people who’d ask me how much I had to cover myself in Lebanon and how hot it was in the desert there. (For those people: No more than here, and Lebanon isn’t desert.)
2. Considering your #1 and #2 make the implicit assumption that these hypothetical beachgoing couples are Arab, your observation on the hairy backs sounds vaguely racist.
3. Oh, so we’re starting from the place where all things associated with Jewish culture or religion are deemed “good” and a Western-sanctioned benchmark as to what types of head coverings are acceptable? Alright, so with that potentially flawed premise, let it be known that Seth is fine with the headscarf, but he draws the line at the face veil (as he calls it). “Not okay,” says Seth. Those women are oppressed, those men are bad, and Seth is standing by shaking his head. It’s just that simple, people.

Anyway. Believe it or not, this wasn’t the part that gave me the most pause. The pausiest part was later, as Seth tries to wrap up all of his uninformed observations and cultural aggrandizement in one neat little bow, if that bow were a horrible anecdote that somehow managed to be offensive to both Western and Eastern sensibilities at the same time.

It happens when he and a friend go to a club called Cyclone, which is full of prostitutes. The scene disturbs him: young, attractive women playing up to old, bald men, as security looks on to make sure “transactions” are made outside of the club and not in. He even notes the “desperation” in the air, as strong as the scent of one of the Hungarian hooker’s perfume. After scurrying out:

“Let it be said: I have witnessed sexual deviance being tolerated—or at least ignored—within the borders of a Muslim country. And I’m declaring it a promising sign. If there’s one thing the West and the Middle East can come together on, it’s a Hungarian hooker.”

Whether or not this was slightly tongue-in-cheek (it may have been, but still ultimately fit with the overall earnestness of his article), this sentiment kind of took me aback. Coming together over the shared notion of women as prostitutes? Hookers as preferable to women wearing veils? Middle Eastern society being viewed as “progressing” no matter what attribute of Western society it adopts/shares? So creepy in so many ways. (And really: you witnessed sexual deviancy in an Arab, Muslim country? Do tell! …This is kind of like the moment when you’re a certain age and you realize your parents had to have sex to have you.)

Note that the entire essay was written from the point of view of someone who clearly deemed himself a progress-minded liberal, who ended his little story by criticizing some British teenagers who called the Arabs backwards. Racist teenagers. Always easy bait. (See: Twitter.)

These were the two stories that I found the most problematic, maybe in part because of my own focus on the Middle East. But there were others, other stories that produced uneasiness about the nature of the white, male, American gaze, activated in a foreign land. “African Promise” by J. Malcolm Garcia, which unquestioningly adopts the ironic phrase of the title. “Dark Passage” by Peter Gwin, which comfortably revisits Heart of Darkness for the 21st century. “Wheels of Fortune” by Peter Hessler, which basically talks about how much everyone sucks at driving in China.

Travel literature by its very nature must be subjective, a reflection of the society the writer represents entering the society the writer visits. For the American traveler, the American gaze is unavoidable. But I wonder—as a newcomer to the genre—can you write around it? Can I take the scribblings in my travel journals of yore, which admittedly contain signs of my own American gaze, and translate them into something I’d be comfortable publishing? Do Americans have to encounter the world this way—so limited, yet so assured?

I’d be interested to know. Because I kind of want to be a travel writer.

Kindle Fire and “Paris in Color”

First. I got a Kindle Fire. Yes, I got a Kindle Fire. An electronic reader; or, an “e-reader,” as the kids are calling it. Something I swore never, ever to do, something that undermines all the values I hold most dear and strikes at the very core of who— I— am.

That’s not true, it’s actually not that big a deal. In part, because I will always retain my love for books, the physicality of books, their tangible existence, but also because the Kindle Fire is less a reader and more a mini tablet, with email and internet and photos and apps and games and etcetera. In fact, what I’m loving most about it so far is the brilliant screen with its high definition and vivid colors. Fruit Ninja looks phenomenal. My Southwest photos look editorial.

And what I’m discovering (though my relationship with the Kindle may change—it’s still early) is that, principally, I think this little guy* will make an excellent magazine reader. I already signed up for a subscription to Vogue (a sign of the medium’s potential salvation?) and the photo spreads and layouts are, no exaggeration, freaking gorgeous. I actually think they might look better in digital than on the page. The white glow emanates always outward, from the spread itself, a superior luminary arrangement to the glossy page’s tendency to reflect large crinkled spots of daylight that in passing obscure the ink.

This admission of digital superiority is an implied blasphemy on my part, coming into conflict with my core tenet that the page always trumps the screen; but I think as long as I limit that blasphemy to magazines, as interactive and visual and occasionally tawdry as they are, I can still belong to my church. (Not that one. The bibliophile one, that holds congregation at used bookstores.)

*He still needs a name. Idea: Pantalaimon?

paris in color, photo book, france

Purchased at Builder’s Booksource. Chronicle Books, 2012.

Moving on. A few months ago, I made an impulse buy at an architects’ bookstore in Berkeley: Paris in Color, a photo collection by American-in-Paris Nichole Robertson. Having recently been to Paris, and having some of my favorite movies set in Paris (Amelie, Moulin Rouge, Paris, je t’aime), and aspiring to be an American-in-Paris, and just, generally, being a Francophile (or maybe, more accurately, a Paris-phile), I thought that a visual hodgepodge of the city would be perfect for my collection, even though I tend to avoid art books: the ones you don’t read but just awkwardly look at from time to time.

Awkwardness aside, this lovely little offering from Chronicle Books (awesome San Francisco-based publisher that focuses on art-related and visually appealing books) is slightly unusual in that its representation in Paris is, well, so colorful. Separate sections devoted to purple, pink, blue, yellow, orange, display every chroma Paris has to offer; even though the city tends to be associated with black, gray, beige, red, and, I suppose, the gold-yellow of its lights. The photos also eschew touristy or landscape-y views for closeups: chairs, signs, bicycles, awnings. My favorites are the patisserie menus, written in chalk cursive. Very evocative of the being there.

Pink.

Pink.

But I still associate Paris with those aforementioned moody colors (just like I associate London with browns, whites, reds, and royal blue). Maybe that’s why my favorite sections are the black and the white. So pretty!

And to my aunt, if she’s reading this— thanks for the Kindle (a.k.a. Pantalaimon)!

On Road Trips and Road Literature: Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

Subtitled: America, like it or not it’s beautiful, even if patriotism isn’t in vogue, because I haven’t been patriotic since post 9/11 pickup trucks turned me off the idea ten years ago, but I think I still love America, kinda

Having recently completed a five-day road trip across the American Southwest, I found myself reflecting on the soul of America.

I don’t know how much I, personally, can speak to it, not having been to the Midwest OR the South which are America’s proverbial heart(andsoul)lands. But I’ve been to three corners and three islands of the contiguous country—15 states—besides myself living in the West — so that’s a pretty good chunk of it eh? And not one but two books I’ve recently read—Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, and American Gods, by Neil Gaiman—deal with the topic of traveling the road in America, as does one of my favorite books of all time, Nabokov’s Lolita. And with the American road trip, intentional or not, comes the search for the meaning of America.

into the wild, jon krakauer, wilderness, america, literature, journalism

Into the Wild is a nonfiction work by outdoors journalist Jon Krakauer that chronicles the life and death of Chris McCandless, self-dubbed Alexander Supertramp, focusing on the two years he spent living out of his backpack in the Western United States in the early 1990s up to his untimely death. He perished in the summer of 1992 after months of living out of an abandoned bus near Denali National Park, at the edge of the Alaskan wilderness. He probably starved.

In terms of what drove him on this crazy quest: Chris was from a fairly well-to-do DC-area family, but had a difficult relationship with his parents, who he seemed to see as Caulfieldian phonies. As an honors student at Emory University he experimented with asceticism and grad-student theory, growing increasingly disillusioned with his privileged lifestyle and fantasizing about throwing all material possessions and former-life connections to the wind, and instead just existing, body and nature and no commitment to the corruptions of modern human society.

A lot of people think he was stupid or crazy, or at least arrogant, and there is definitely an argument to be made in that vein. But Krakauer’s portrait is deeply sympathetic. He interposes a personal story of his own foolhardy attempt to climb a glacial mountain in Alaska as a youth, solo, as well as the stories of many others who have wandered off into the wild for various reasons and, in most cases, not survived. McCandless, Krakauer implies, was not some loony but rather an idealistic young man following the time-honored tradition of looking for meaning and fulfillment in nature.

chris mccandless, into the wild, alaska, literature

Chris McCandless poses for a self-portrait outside of the abandoned Alaskan bus where his body was later found.

On my own road trip, my path twice crossed Krakauer’s and McCandless’s, once in the physical sense and once in the narrative sense. McCandless lived and worked for a time in Bullhead City, Arizona, which sits just across the river from “Las Vegas for families” Laughlin, Nevada.  We stopped at this hokey casino town on the Colorado River for a very hot, very dry, not entirely interesting night.

arizona, nevada, bullhead city, laughlin

Bullhead City from a boat on the Colorado.

Say what you will about Laughlin, but it truly is an American place, down to its classic American origins story of pluck and business know-how. Don Laughlin (b. 1931) worked in Vegas and attended card dealing school, teaching himself all the tricks of the casino trade, before buying an old hotel in this rundown little community across from Bullhead City. This he gradually grew into a mini-gambling empire that was later named for him. “What you’re looking at is the realization of one man’s dream,” the tour boat guide (a recording) told us. The American Dream, right?

laughlin, nevada, american dream, into the wild

Laughlin, the realization of one man’s dream.

For many tourists, it’s a weekend trip from their nearby Arizona, Nevada, or California hometowns; for (less fortunate) others, it’s their vacation destination of the year. For me, it was a pit stop on a road trip and nothing more, a mere geographic location, something that wasn’t made for me and that didn’t really welcome me in the physical or metaphysical sense. For McCandless, it was also just a stop: a stop on his cross-Western journey, where he put in hours at a part-time food service job to help pay for his ultimate destination, Alaska.

“Bullhead City is a community in the oxymoronic, late-twentieth-century idiom. Lacking a discernible center, the town exists as a haphazard sprawl of subdivisions and strip malls stretching for eight or nine miles along the banks of the Colorado, directly across the river from the high-rise hotels and casinos of Laughlin, Nevada. Bullhead’s distinguishing civic feature is the Mohave Valley Highway, four lanes of asphalt lined with gas stations and fast-food franchises, chiropractors and video shops, auto-parts outlets and tourist traps.” (p. 39)

The second time my path crossed McCandless’s was when we browsed a tiny espresso ‘n’ books ‘n’ outdoor gear store near our hotel in Kanab, Utah, a small town located just north of the Arizona border and south of Utah’s grandiose national parks. The subject of several of the display books was young Everett Ruess, one of those other foolhardy youths that Krakauer speaks about in his book.

kanab, everett ruess, utah, road trip, literature, america

Books Espresso Outdoor Gear in Kanab, Utah.

Everett Ruess (b. 1914 in Oakland, CA– a fellow East Bay Areaite!) left his family and friends at age 16 to hitchhike around the West and live out of his backpack. This he managed to do for a few years, until somewhere between 1934 and 1935, in the Utah wilderness near Glen Canyon Dam, he disappeared. All that was left of Everett were his packs and his mules. They never found out what happened to him; it’s surmised he probably fell off a cliff. Whatever the case, the mystery surrounding his wanderlust-fueled death transformed him into a local legend, if the proliferation of Everett Ruess-themed books in the area gift shops is any indication.

everett ruess, into the wild, kanab, utah, america

Everett Ruess with one of his mules.

For all the times that McCandless seems like an idiot who didn’t plan ahead—kind of like Aron Ralston of 127 Hours fame, except that dude pulled through—there’s this flip side of empathy because he did what maybe a lot of us have thought about, even just for a brief second. Maybe he lived in a way that none of us ever will: with no earthly connections, existing in nature and outside the bounds of society, being completely self-sufficient. There’s times when I’ve gazed out a car window and wished I could just hop out the door and run out into a particularly beautiful landscape (kind of a comical image, I know) but reason and logic and practicality and fear of bugs and all these other societal values and inhibitions forbid me. Sometimes I want to make snow angels in a dry meadow. Grass angels.

emile hirsch, into the wild, chris mccandless, alaska, literature

From the film. This looks like an awkward overbite, but in motion it’s a beautiful shot of a moved McCandless (Emile Hirsch) witnessing the grandeur of Alaskan wildlife.

The search for the transcendent, the desire for life to have meaning could undoubtedly be considered universal sentiments. So could the desire for absolute freedom, particularly as the conditional freedoms of technology bind us, as we are ever more connected and ever more restricted by our connectedness. Even more, though, the special brand of McCandless’s search could, I think, be considered an American sentiment: a messy mixture of rugged individualism and self-reliance and reverence for the natural world that McCandless found in American writers like Emerson and London and Muir. (He also loved Tolstoy.) That these values ultimately took precedence over self-preservation (even before his sojourn to Alaska, McCandless put himself in danger several times) says a lot about their power.

For what it’s worth, I don’t have a lot of patience for people who profess or attempt to live lives of utter self-sufficiency. I think it’s a uniquely American fantasy that’s incredibly indulgent, manifested politically in Ron Paul-style libertarianism. The rejection of society—the societal fabric, the society of others—is a lie unless it is undertaken to its utmost extremes (I’m thinking, hermit on an island?), and anyone else who claims it is a hypocrite who doesn’t appreciate that society does so much for them, that society made them.

McCandless was probably indulgent; he was a privileged kid who hadn’t really experienced hardship; he undoubtedly failed to live completely independently, whether or not he thought that he had. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t succeed to a greater extent that most people ever will; and it definitely doesn’t mean there isn’t value in his story. Even as I shake my head at him, I admire him.

into the wild, film, hal holbrook, emile hirsch, chris mccandless

Ron (Hal Holbrook) and Chris (Emile Hirsch) climb a hill in the Into the Wild film.

(The film version of this book, by the way, is lovely. Sean Penn directed it and Eddie Vedder wrote a perfect, rambling acoustic soundtrack, and Emile Hirsch was a very fitting and earnest McCandless. Ironically, the relationships McCandless made on the road while trying to escape society were unnaturally deep and meaningful for their short duration—he made an impression on everyone he met, and the film captures this beautifully. Most touching is the scene when Hal Holbrook’s character “Ron” [name changed from real life], who lost his wife and kids in an accident decades earlier, asks to adopt McCandless as a kind of grandson. McCandless demurred until he got back from Alaska, which of course he never did. I openly wept. Holbrook was nominated for his first Oscar.)

Into the Wild is compelling because from the very first page we know what happens in the end. Yet despite the inexorable direction of the story and McCandless’s sensational death (I was too young to follow the news in 1992, but my mom tells me it was a big story), the real value of the narrative is the journey– which in an ironic-but-oh-so-expected twist is ultimately and chiefly life-affirming.

Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell: Hawaiian history, American imperialism

I have been to Hawaii before, and I hope to go again, not too long from now. There’s a lot of reasons. I mean, it’s beautiful, for one thing. It’s the picture of an island paradise. Its picture should be next to “island paradise” in the dictionary. It’s kind of ridiculous—palm trees, waterfalls, warm water, white beaches, green mountains, gentle breezes, the whole nine yards. The other thing is, plate lunches. I coincidentally had one the other day, at the L&L on Homestead and Lawrence Expressway in Santa Clara, in the strip mall across from the Kaiser, made up of BBQ chicken, rice, and macaroni salad. It was perfection.

The last thing about Hawaii is more complicated.

hawaii, landl, plate lunch, bbq chicken

Nothing complicated about this, though. It’s delicious.

Sarah Vowell starts off her popular history, Unfamiliar Fishes, with plate lunches, which was part of what drew me into the book. “Why is there a glop of macaroni salad next to the Japanese chicken in my plate lunch?” she asks in the first sentence. Ah yes—immediately inviting her readers to grasp the deeper implications of cultural mixing (and behind that, imperialism, colonization and globalization) found in the entirely quotidian experience of local fast food. I liked this book right away.

unfamiliar fishes, hawaii, history, missionaries

I also like Sarah Vowell. I knew she wrote popular histories, including The Wordy Shipmates (about Puritans) and Assassination Vacation (about U.S. presidents who got assassinated). I knew that she was the voice of Violet in Pixar’s The Incredibles (I truly believe Pixar is pure goodness, sent from heaven in the shape of children’s films). I have seen her do segments on “The Daily Show.” So, all in all she seems pretty freaking awesome. Her writing is, not surprisingly, a mix of serious scholarship and Daily Show-esque humor, reminiscent of America: The Book. (My favorite of her many historical zings: calling Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” a “slasher sermon.”)

actress, voice actress, Violet, historian, comedienne

During my childhood my parents and I used to take tropical vacations in Mexico, but would often entertain the notion of going to Hawaii instead (and yes, I know what ridiculous privilege I grew up with). I was against it, because my mental picture of Hawaii was like this resort outpost of America, paved over in concrete and built up with hotels and filled with daily luaus aimed at fat Ohioans in aloha shirts. I thought, Hawaii isn’t a real cultural destination, the way Mexico is. This was my view until in high school I finally went to Hawaii. I was wrong about the culture. I was right about the fat Ohioans in aloha shirts.

luau, maui, hotels, americans, tourists

My first and only luau. I mostly remember a pig and a white Las Vegasy MC who sang “Tiny Bubbles.”

I finally realized Hawaii did have a culture, a history, that lived outside of America and Sheratons, in 2003 when we visited the Big Island. I was 17 and two things stick out in my memory. First, visiting the bay where part of Waterworld was supposedly filmed (of all the things to make a place a destination, right?), just north of Kona. A local – Hawaiian – family was having a barbecue nearby. Two little kids, playing roughly, were laughingly reprimanded by one of the men: “You kids want to be like the white man? Killing everything you see?”

Two, sitting in a parking lot in a Hilo shopping center, on the other side of the island. A few locals – white – male – were having a chat, having run into each other on the way to the store. They were discussing local elections. They referred to “the Japanese” (meaning, Japanese Hawaiians) in some way that surprised me—something like, “the Japanese voted for him” or “the Japanese got a lot of seats this year.” “The Japanese” as a group, “the Japanese” as other. (I immediately disliked them.)

Hawaii, Maui, Iao Valley, kamehameha

Iao Valley, 2002. Please ignore… everything I am doing in this picture, and focus on the grandeur of the rock needle behind me instead.

These are insignificant events on their own, and the place from which they come seems obvious now, but they were my first indication that there was anything underneath the surface of Hawaii’s glossy exterior, or its unquestioned inclusion in the U.S. 50. I think this occurs to very few tourists. Instead hordes of sunburned mainlanders experience the islands as an American resort (now Disney has one too) and the extent of their cultural appreciation is a luau outside the hotel lobby. And their kids, Hunter and Tanner, will experience it the same way. (Big Island, 2007, some young middle American boys playing football with their burly blond dad in our hotel pool—I mostly remember because of their next-generation names and the forlorn little brunet boy nearby, whose father couldn’t elicit a similarly healthy enthusiasm for sports from his son.)

Despite my experience with Hawaii, and my epiphany that “Hawaii has history too!”, and my intense interest in imperialism (only recently, however, of the American variety), it actually took Sarah Vowell’s book to get me extremely enthused about Hawaiian history.

Kamehameha, Big Island, Hawaii, statue, history

Photo courtesy my dad. Kamehameha and an (I think) unintentionally ominous fragment of U.S. flag.

The gist of Unfamiliar Fishes is this. Hawaii’s main islands were ruled as separate kingdoms up until the early 19th century, when King Kamehameha I “united” the islands through a series of bloody wars. (Vowell brings up the theory that it was Captain Cook’s arrival to the “Sandwich Isles” in the late 18th century that disrupted the previous way of life. Indeed, though I’m skeptical of such simplistically divergent narratives, when the Americans arrived half a century later, certain court Hawaiians wore Western clothes.) Some crazy New England Protestant missionaries were sent to the islands in the 1820s, where they, as per usual, tried to Christianize and civilize the Hawaiians. Schools were built, old laws were discarded, God was adopted. (And, though Vowell doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about this, diseases decimated, particularly after Manifest Destiny and the Gold Rush made sea passage from the mainland quicker and more efficiently pathogen-transporting.) Though the monarchy survived until the 1890s, the missionaries and their descendants increasingly got wrapped up in local government, and during the Civil War non-Hawaiian sugar planters bought up large tracts of land, as per usual 100% legally (as if that means anything). With the growth of the plantation economy, foreign laborers flooded in, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and later Filipino (partly accounting for Hawaii’s current demography). In 1893 there was a coup against Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, led by white missionary descendants. Some ass named Sanford Dole ruled the Republic of Hawaii for those last few years before it was annexed to the U.S. in the orgy of worldwide imperialism and violence that was 1898.

Vowell makes frequent reference throughout the book to all of the places where you can still tangibly see this history. Kamehameha’s statue, the old schoolhouse that privileged missionary kids attended (still a high school—Obama went there), an old Hawaiian religious site abandoned after the abandonment of kapu, the Iao Valley where one of the bloodiest inter-island battles was fought. There’s so much to see! Besides Pearl Harbor! It makes me really want to go back armed with what slightly greater degree of historical understanding I now have.

(A super-brief anecdote to illustrate Hawaii’s American retreat island status—Disneyland for adults—in 2002 when I went to a luau at a hotel on Kaanapali Beach on Maui, my parents and I ended up sitting at the same table as my middle school band teacher, Mr. Guzman, and his wife. Side note: His wife was super loud.)

USA, Missouri, battleship, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

For the record, THIS is what greets you at the USS Missouri, at Pearl Harbor. A flagtacular flagasm.

My most recent research paper focused on the American liberal project in the League of Nations mandates of the Middle East, specifically the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, which has its roots in the missionary project (founded as the Syrian Protestant College in 1866 by American missionary Daniel Bliss). To the extent that I’m fascinated by the British and French imperial projects, the American is like a whole ‘nother animal—empire for the new century (millennium), coded empire, empire as liberation. I’m super fascinated by the goings on of the Spanish-American War, shit McKinley and TR and Taft said (and did), the annexations of Hawaii and the Philippines. WTF America! (A research inquiry.)*

Anyway. End of the day, Vowell’s book is a super quick and digestible and entertaining (though also upsetting) account of Hawaii in the nineteenth century, as it went from self-ruling set of kingdoms to American territory. It’s part of a much larger story, but I think it’s a very worthwhile read for – well, anyone. You might not even think you’re interested in Hawaii, but you will be. Try and see. And maybe you, too, will be inspired to write a too-long blog post about it and all its attendant themes and your tangential personal experiences. From this side I can say, it was worth it.**

“When Yale’s Timothy Dwight delivered the founding sermon at Asa Thurston and Hiram Bingham’s alma mater, Andover Theological Seminary… Dwight preached that, ‘Come over to Macedonia, and help us,’ is audibly resounded from the four ends of the earth… The nations of the East, and the islands of the sea, already wait for his law.’

“Acts 16:9 is the meddler’s motto, simultaneously selfless and self-serving, generous but stuck-up. Into every generation of Americans is born a new crop of buttinskys sniffing out the latest Macedonia that may or may not want their help.

“For the Thurstons and their brethren, it was Hawaii.” (82)

Unfamiliar Fishes in bookshelf. Book powers unleashed, activated. Put in inventory.

*WTF America?: Empire and Expansion in America’s Long Twentieth Century. Best dissertation title ever.

**Next related to-read: Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, by Liliuokalani (1898). Would especially love to read about her trip to England (including a train ride across America) to attend Queen Victoria’s jubilee. Also, where she got the ideas for her songs.