Friday, March 22, 2013

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Saturday evening post: A modest proposal: RJ Huddy, two-timer

After four RJ Huddy novels it's time to start asking what is up with all the twos.  

Let's take it chronologically: The Verse of the Sword—a sprawling, epic story—could be described as a story of a man who dies one life in the U.S. and is born again in North Africa. Harrison Bacon, the protagonist, begins the novel in a hospital recovering from a boating accident, but this is not the central rebirth in the plot. That comes later, when he takes a teaching job in Morocco and fakes a suicide in order to start a new life. Along the way, he associates closely with several twins—first there is Rebecca, the nurse in the hospital who develops as a serious lover; then there is Abdelkader, the Algerian who provides him with work in North Africa; after that comes Laurence, a French woman and kindred spirit who gives way to Latifa; the Algerian soulmate that Harrison marries. Along the way there is his brother Mark and the evil twin John DeSpain, who though serving as the defining opposite of Harrison becomes his double in a faked identity Harrison is forced to assume. All of these associations create the full portrait of Bacon. Which is the truest twin? It has to be Latifa, who serves up the final punchline of the book. Yes, it sprawls and travels the globe, but the story is really about twos—Harrison's various twins and Harrison's two lives.

Huddy followed up The Verse of the Sword with Learn Thai with Me. Of all his books, this is the one that has the structure of twos built into it most intricately. The story is of two men (what else?), one a black hunchback, the other a gay white man, who arrive in Saudi Arabia as English teachers in 1980, just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is starting and the flow of arms travels right through their new neighborhood, where the two men—Jack Robinson and Nigel Peterson—reside as roommates. That they are two "sons" by name is not happenstance. Here again this is a fraternal, twin-like relationship, and though they both have other relationships (in Nigel's case, many other relationships), it is the bond between the two that is central to the story. The great bit of whimsy in this book is the title, which also serves as the title of a book that Jack and Nigel write together, described in the story this way:
An even more daring departure, one that he felt sure would be referred to as “revolutionary” in book reviews, was this: Learn Thai With Me was to be a work of art. The reader would begin it merely to learn the language, and throughout the preliminary chapters, of course, would do little more than that. But with the accumulation of vocabulary and grammar, the language would become lost in the art. Dick and Jane would give way to real characters. The reader might be touched by certain passages. People might read far into the night and turn up late for work the next day with the excuse, “Sorry about this, guys. I studied Thai until three this morning.”

No Senator's Son

Which, in a way, is a description of the book you read when you read this novel. The joke continues in the real world: When you search "learn thai with me" the results show Huddy's book along with several volumes  of Thai language instruction. The book Jack and Nigel write is another twin: the twin of the book you are reading as you read about the book they are writing.

Having established two as a fundamental element to his art, Huddy wrote No Senator's Son about not one, but two  sons of a senator. The problem is that one them, groomed to follow his father's footsteps, dies in Vietnam, leaving the younger brother, Clark Hatling, to be the one who fulfills that promise. But guess what? He lives a double life that is ultimately part of his undoing. The plot moves along at a familiar Huddy pace (fast), but once again the pattern of twos helps drive things along.

And now comes Death to the Rescue, which for once does not focus on international intrigue in the story line (it is there, but not a prominently). Not a problem, though, since there is still plenty of room to create a plot that continues with the pattern of twos. This time, the novel is actually composed of twin tellings of the same story. The first telling ends one way, happily, and the second ends . . .  well, happily, too, but with evil underpinnings that the first telling has ignored. If we need more to bolster the theory that pairs drive the Huddy narrative, there is the fact that part two of the novel incorporates a play, an actual staged representation, of the events of part one, starring some of the characters playing themselves and their townsmen.  A surprising, postmodern twist to this small-town murder mystery.

All well and good. There is a pattern of twos throughout these Huddy novels. What, then, is the big deal about that? Why is that significant in any way whatsoever?

I'm tempted to say that that right there is enough. It makes the books more fun somehow when you take note of this phenomenon. It is its own reward! These are not just page-turners with well-developed, interesting characters , injected with humor both wry and ribald. These books have a discernible pattern to them, a structure that unites them, that holds them up, if you will.

But there has to be more to it than that, there really does.  And it goes beyond what was mentioned before about the reflecting stories of Learn Thai with Me and Death to the Rescue, though it is worth mentioning that those quirky elements add depth to the stories. The book-within-the book on the one hand and the play-within-the-mystery on the other both resonate similarly. That is, they reinforce that external appearances are never enough; you also need the internal reality to get the complete picture. Also true with Harrison in The Verse of the Sword and Clark in No Senator's Son: the central characters become complete with the addition of others to bounce off of.

And this, at last, gets to the heart of the matter. It is easy to get drawn into these novels and forget about what is the core issue that makes them more than just good stories with plenty of twists and turns to keep your attention. I finally come down to the most obvious answer: These are love stories, and the pattern of twos is there because the love that is represented is not the ambiguous agape or some feel-good love of humanity. Love is about coupling, after all.

This may sound corny, but love is about close relations between two people sharing as much of their innermost beings as they can possibly share, and almost all the plot-driving scenes in these books center on interactions between two people. At the end of Death to the Rescue there are pairings and couplings and marriage plans enough to make Shakespeare blush. Intimate relationships are integral to all of these books, and that is the what-for with this pattern of twos. It comes down, partly, to a vocabulary term I never knew until I got to page 87 of The Verse of the Sword: "uxorious," meaning excessive love of one's wife.  Huddy's books come to you this way, like a proposal of marriage asking you to partner with them and get up close and personal; to let the reader be defined by the written, and vice-versa; to be their better half to the end.

Will you accept?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Travelbug Friday: Eastern Mongolia

It is, by many accounts, one of the least-visited places on earth, home of Lake Buir (Buir Nuur):

The Dornod Steppe:

And the Numrug Strictly Protected Areas:

Located along the border through the western region of Hyangan Mountain range, this protected area of 311,200Ha was established in 1992 in order to protect the forest area, animal and plant species of Hyangan mountain range and the water shed that is found in this area. Numerous rare and endangered animal species such as; Ussuri Moose, Manchurian mole, otter, brown bear and bird species such as wild duck, eagles, falcons, cranes and condors can be spotted here.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Friday, February 15, 2013

Travelbug Friday: Daşoguz, Turkmenistan

I have some fascination with these Central Asian outposts of the Soviet Union. According to Wikipedia:
Early in its history, it was a popular stop on the Silk Road because it had a spring, hence its name [meaning, roughly, "stone spring"]. Founded as a fort called Tashauz in the early 19th century by the Russians, the name was changed to the Turkmen form Dashkhovuz in 1992 after independence, and to Daşoguz by order of President Niyazov in 1999; the modern city is a Soviet-designed city with many monuments and museums acting as a local administrative and cultural center and rail junction.
They aren't kidding about that "Soviet-designed" business:

Boarding school in Dashhowuz
 Eastern neighborhood in Dashhowuz

World War II Memorial in  Dashhowuz

And the weather for today? Clear and cold.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Travelbug Friday: Saint-Pierre et Miquelon

Never knew they existed until very recently. The last of the French colonies.

So it can be a little cold:

And a little remote:
saint pierre and miquelon map

It's still lovely:
Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon cherche à récupérer un bout d'océan

And home to 5,831 French-speaking actual French people very far away from France!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Taking a trip on a plane? Death to the Rescue!

There is a review at Peace Corps writers of RJ Huddy's latest book, Death to the Rescue, pointing out something that is essentially true of all his books—they will make you put down whatever else it was you were doing and read them before you can get back to whatever else it was you were doing.

And, oh yeah—great airplane lit, for sure, so if you're about to get on a flight, think only this: Death to the Rescue!

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Global Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Here in the US it's Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but monuments have gone global:

Westminster Abbey, London:

 Newtown, Australia:



Images from The Root.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Saturday Evening Re-post: My wife edits Proust


For a long time, I’ve had middle-of-the-night insomnia. I quite enjoy it. When I go to bed I fall asleep quickly, soundly, but then about four hours later I wake up, fully alert, and know that I have at least an hour with nothing to do. At the end of that period, which I think of as “halftime”, the need for sleep returns and when I next wake up, it is morning and I am refreshed.

This wasn’t always the case. There was a time when I’d get up during “halftime” and read, or even watch television, then in the morning I was exhausted. It felt like having jet-lag without the benefit of travel. Soon enough, though, I figured out that the problem was bright light. If I simply lay there in darkness, I awoke refreshed, even with the broken sleep.

The only problem was: boredom.

But along came the solution: audiobooks. Over the years during my halftimes I have listened to—hard to say…hundreds?—of audiobooks. My nomination for the best ever audiobook to cure insomnia is Marcel Proust’s beautifully mis-titled Remembrance of Things Past. If I were in charge of marketing his audiobooks, I’d use the slogan, “Nothing puts you to sleep like Proust.” I don’t think he’d mind. He might even be pleased, since he chose to begin that whole seven-volume set with the very sentence I stole and altered to begin this blog.

Our landlady in France knows that my wife loves her tea and tisanes and infusions and what not. One morning this summer she brought over a decorative tin (she’s not going to bring a Zip-Lock bag—she’s French) of flowers from the “tilleul” tree in her mother’s garden in Alsace. Her dictionary translated “tilleul” as “linden tree,” so, okay, now we can add linden tea to the list. No big thrill for me. I observe the six basic drink groups: beer, wine, scotch, coffee, orange juice, cola. Call me limited, but there it is, and even the landlady didn’t expect me to get excited about her “tilleul.” It was for my wife. I was hors de combat, as far as those two were concerned.

But sometime during the day I started to wonder just exactly what Proust’s narrator had drunk in the famous passage when he dips a madeleine into “lime-flower tea” and suddenly his whole past—seven volumes worth—opens before him. So I found a French copy of Swann’s Way and looked for it. Sure enough: tilleul.There it was! The elixir of one of literature’s crowning achievements! In my own kitchen! In a pretty coppery tin, hand-picked by a real little-old-French-lady grandma!

That afternoon I walked to the local patisserie for some madeleine cakes, while my wife set out her tea things in the garden. It was a gorgeous day and we were doing this right. She tasted her tilleul, then a madeleine. Something wasn’t to her taste. She went into the house and came back with some sprigs of mint and a jar of rhubarb jam. While I slathered the cakes with jam, she emptied our cups into the teapot, added the mint, and gave it all a good swirl.

“Ah,” she said, “Much better now.”

Friday, January 18, 2013

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Saturday Evening Re-post: 84,000 = one gazillion



If pressed to define the momentum that underpins Learn Thai with Me, I would have to say it’s the abandonment of the western view of human suffering in favor of the Buddhist view.

It’s common these days among humanists—and among Buddhists too, come to that—to see all religions as basically different paths toward the same goal. And of course it’s true that every major religion I know anything about does indeed advise charity, good conduct, honesty, and kindness to others. But when it comes to the ultimate aim of Christianity/Islam—which to an alien researcher would seem more like twinned stars circling each other than intractable enemies at daggers drawn—and Buddhism, the central thrusts couldn’t be more opposed.

Christianity/Islam holds that life’s great goal is an after-death paradise where all suffering will be banished because all our deepest desires will be abundantly fulfilled. The suffering of this world is variously explained as a test, a punishment, or perhaps just a mystery, but in any case a fleeting condition that will be followed by an eternity of happiness beyond our earthly ability to imagine.
Buddhism says suffering is a result of desire, and the great aim should be to banish it by banishing desire, period. Just make it go away. We can never get our fill of what we want, so let’s stop wanting.
 I recently heard from a woman who had lost her little girl to a horrific kind of wasting muscular disease. She said that although she tried to console herself with the notion that the child was in a better place now, and that they would someday be reunited, still the waves of grief swept over her, and her life was filled with despair.

On a much smaller level, I myself recall asking my grandmother, after hearing the crushing news of my first dog’s death by snakebite, whether I would see him again in heaven. She assured me that he’d always be there, waiting to chase his red rubber ball all over the back yard. It would never have occurred to me to doubt my grandmother’s honesty, but I remember crying for days anyway. As adults, even believers seem to suspect that the whole meet-me-in-heaven business is too close to a Hollywood script to trump the loss of a loved one.

There’s a story in which the Buddha met a weeping woman named Ubbiri. She explained that she was mourning the death of her daughter, Jiva. The Buddha told her, “Eighty-four thousand daughters named Jiva have died. Which one do you weep for?”

Or as my wife, channeling the Buddha, likes to say when I get anxious: "Jai yen-yen. Puay-man." Which means, “Be of cool heart. Release it.”

Friday, January 11, 2013

Travelbug Friday: Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Home of Newcastle Brown Ale:

Like my home Portland, a city of bridges:

A little architecture:

And home of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne:

 File:Lit and Phil.JPG

Let's hear it for Newcastle!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Fruit of the day: the wood-apple

More fruit, the wood-apple:

 File:Wood-apple dec2007.jpg

 . . . also called limonia. Read about it here.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Travelbug Friday: Tintange, Fauvillers, Belgium

This came up for me as the random spot in the world for MapCrunch. It isn't anywhere I've been or would have thought to feature, but having pulled it up I see it as a suitable escape fantasy.

My own run in with Belgium was thirty-one years ago hitchhiking out of northern France and to the border, far north of Tintange. I had devoted the day to the project, starting out early in the morning in Calais, thinking it would be a breeze to get into Belgium. Many hours and a few short rides later, I was finally dropped off by a French truck driver late at night. He pointed the way to the border kiosk, letting me know the entry to Belgium. I approached the customs agent near midnight with nothing but a backpack, half expecting him to turn me back. Instead he waved me in. I thought there ought to be more to this entry than that, so I asked if he shouldn't stamp my passport. He shrugged his shoulders, pulled out his reluctant little bureaucratic inkpad, and obliged with a gesture that said nothing but "if you insist." And then waved me to get a move on again.

I turned to the big empty Belgian field next to the highway that looked, naturally, identical to the empty French field behind me. At midnight I was done with my hitchhiking for the day, so I did the best I could to find an out-of-the-way spot in the grasses where I rolled out my sleeping bag and waited for the day to come.

I couldn't have predicted the contrasting experience the next day would provide, with every Belgian driver seeming eager to advance my cause the instant I put out my thumb. I arrived in Antwerp early in the day, and as I stood on a street corner studying a city map to figure out the directions to the hostel, a businessman approached offering help. I told him the address I was looking for and asked the best way to get to it. His answer: Hop in my car, I'm going in that direction; I'll drop you off.

I've never been back to Belgium, but if these photos are any indication, I think I'd like try a little further south next time.