The Lonely Land

The idea behind Sigurd F. Olson’s The Lonely Land is very simple: six men head out into the Canadian wilderness to travel the Churchill River, paddling five hundred miles over the course that the Hudson’s Bay Company voyageurs would have taken to transport beaver pelts through what is today Saskatchewan. There is no major drama — everyone survives, everyone gets along. Nobody gets mauled by a bear; nobody has to hack their arms off with a pocketknife. The men run rapids, meet the men and women who live along the river, and settle in at night for a little rum, a little bannock, and the aurora borealis. It is not what today’s audiences would consider high adventure.

But it is beautiful in its simplicity. Olson, a seasoned outdoorsman with a gift for words, describes the lichen on a cliff or the rush of the rapids in such a way that you breathe in the mist or the aroma of damp spruce. As the group’s bourgeois (the title the voyageurs gave to the leader of their expedition), Olson leads his band of men and the reader through calm lakes, nasty headwinds, fierce storms, and spruce-bough beds at the end of the day.

At the end of the book, when the crew reaches “civilization” again, the newspaper reporters who have come to meet them seem disappointed that their trip seems so ordinary. Nobody lost a canoe or nearly drowned, so while the expedition was a success, it wasn’t inherently remarkable. The men can’t find a way to describe their experiences that accurately conveys the feeling they’ve brought away from the wilderness. One sums it up in a way that resonates strongly with me: “I went along to iron out the wrinkles in my soul.”

When I describe my own trips into the wilderness to friends, there’s often a certain skepticism, a lingering, unasked question of “Why?” I suppose it doesn’t make sense in a modern setting to head off into a world without toilets where you willingly drink lake water and don’t wash your hair for days at a time. There’s a certain feeling of accomplishment, though, when you look across a lake you just crossed under your own power. There’s a certain self-sufficiency to eating a fish you yourself caught, knowing that had you not caught that fish, you’d be eating some very lonely macaroni. There’s a certain ache where your pack cut into your shoulders as you walked the portage trail; there’s a different ache in a different part of your shoulders from paddling into a headwind.

I haven’t been in a canoe for years. Teenaged me would be surprised at this, as every summer from 1995 to 2002, my dad, my brother, my grandpa and I (sometimes guests, but always this core group) spent four or five days in August paddling the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota. We didn’t always go to the same places, but normally we would carry our packs and canoes across a 200-rod portage (approximately 2/3 of a mile), paddle across a wide lake and either camp there or move on. We would spend the next few days camping, fishing, swimming, exploring, eating gorp and drinking lake water the color of cream soda, and generally having a great time.

I was a rather bookish and not terribly athletic kid, so making these trips made me feel hardy and capable in ways nothing else did. These trips meant time spent in the canoe trying to out-fish my grandpa, a seasoned fisherman with a jukebox of songs and a thousand and one stories in his memory. They meant cutting up with my brother, my strong and serious opposite, six years younger than me. They meant cooking over a campfire with my dad, a light-hearted, caring man who always listens, always has time, and leads by example. We looked forward to the trip all year long, and grew giddy as the day neared and our pile of gear took over the living room.

Traveling to the wilderness of my youth is a journey of 786 miles one way, so while my dad and my brother have been back a few times, my recent experience with roughing it has been a few state park camping trips. In the last nine years, I have been in a canoe once, on a float trip, which mostly drove home the difference in how people use canoes. To me, canoe travel is just that: travel. It’s a way to get somewhere. It’s an enjoyable way, yes, but the point is to get to across the lake to the fishing hole, the swimming beach, the next portage, the next campsite.

Float trips, on the other hand, are lazy meanderings down well-traveled rivers, where the point is all about stopping on the sand bar to go swimming and making small talk with the other sunburned travelers who happen to be passing you by. On a float trip, you bring your picnic and a bag for your trash, a lifejacket and some sunscreen, and off you go. If you forgot something, ehh, what’s the worst that could happen? You’ll be back at the car in three hours. Float trips have no portages, no heavy-laden canoes that hold food for five days and tents in the middle and Grandpa in the stern. Float trips are about having a good time and making sure you don’t wreck your rented canoe.

But I tell you this: I had to work harder at enjoying myself for three hours on the float trip than I ever did in five days on a Boundary Waters trip. There’s something about the solitude, the self-sufficiency, the simplicity that rings true for me, that makes my wrinkled soul sing.

If you add it up, I have spent over a year of my life waking up in a tent in all weather. When it rains, I think of camping – the damp sheen of humidity over my sleeping bag, the stark blackness of rain-soaked bark against the vivid popping green of wet leaves, water pooling under the canoe. When there’s a cold snap in the summer, I think of camping. When I chance to see a particularly starry night – when the mosquitoes howl and get fierce – when I eat a bowl of oatmeal or mix Kool-Aid in my Nalgene bottle, I think of doing the same while sitting on a rock in the literal middle of nowhere with my brother, my grandpa, and my dad, our bourgeois. There are few adventure stories that go with these memories — Olson’s newspapermen would be just as disappointed with me as they were with his band of voyageurs — but they are memories that I cherish among my fondest.

I fight the girlie-girl culture. It’s not easy. I feel sometimes like a one-woman crusade against Cosmopolitan and inane chick-lit and spoiled entitlement and the idea that there’s something wrong with being smart and a woman. And now I have a daughter, and I’m fighting the good fight on her behalf.

While I was pregnant, I chanced to hear Peggy Orenstein on NPR discussing her latest book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. Her concerns revolve around the growing up younger, staying young older culture that we send our women through. When eight-year-olds wear mascara and Disney starts their princess marketing to girls the moment they’re born, some people (myself included) would say it’s time to take a step back and look at just what it is you’re creating.

This book is very interesting — alternately horrifying and enlightening. I never noticed before reading it that the Disney Princesses never interact with one another. I never felt the need to watch Toddlers and Tiaras, and after reading this book, I certainly never will. This book made me feel as though I am not the only one who has tried to dress a baby girl in something that’s not pink, and made me feel a little better about not being sure where we’re going to draw the “girlie” line. But the slight disappointment with this book is Orenstein doesn’t know what to do either. I didn’t think she would have all the answers, but she’s in the same place I am, trying to raise a daughter who is well-rounded, confident, interesting and all-around wonderful while avoiding the pitfalls of entitledness or three-going-on-thirteen-going-on-thirty.

This is something I struggle with — is a tiara now and then going to permanently damage my daughter? Will the one and only “daddy’s princess” tee she got as a newborn change her psyche (especially seeing as how we dressed her in it a couple of times)? Is it less about the material culture and more about the attitudes it influences? Can you grow up to be a balanced, strong, feminist woman who was once Cinderella for Halloween? I would hope the answer is no, no, yes and yes, but the hard thing of it is: how do you know?

Is it going to damage our daughters if we let them play princess? Probably not. The damage comes, I think, in buying into a consumer culture… a culture that says that your birthday party has to be at Libby Lu in the first place, not just a culture that says that six-year-olds should get makeovers and shake it on a runway. It’s the culture that says that you can’t just play with your American Girl doll, but she needs the four-poster bed and the dog and the horse and the wardrobe and the steamer trunk in which you store the wardrobe.

You only get one shot at raising your kid, and you have to do it the way you think is best. I’m not sure anyone has it figured out — and those who claim to are probably still kept up at night wondering if saying no to the Happy Meal but yes to the My Little Pony will come back to bite them. In our case, we’re going to try to let our kid be herself, offer her lots of opportunities from dress-up clothes and tea parties to dump trucks and model rockets, and see what sticks. We’ll probably change our minds a couple of times, lose a few battles, rethink our entire philosophy here and there. Our daughter can’t even speak in sentences yet, so the theories we have are largely untested (aside from the insistence that she does not need pastel duplo blocks — what ever happened to the primary colors?).

But the one thing where I’m standing firm: she only gets one “daddy’s princess” tee, and she already outgrew it.

I keep looking at my booklist and thinking, “I had to have read more books than that in 2011.” According to my accounting, I read fourteen books last year. Fourteen. And one of them was short enough it really should have been in the running for what they’re calling “long reads” these days. But I’ll count it, because at this point I’ll take all I can get.

I’m still kind of reeling at the thought that I read about a book a month this year — about 1/3 of the books I read in 2010. Does having a baby make that much difference?

Yes. Very yes.

With this limited time, I chose my books more carefully. No more of this spending six months picking away at a book off and on (I’m looking at you, James Madison) — I decided that if I was going to read something, it was going to be something I wanted to read, something I was going to enjoy, something I was going to finish. I didn’t assign myself any reading this year. I didn’t read with an agenda. I didn’t read with an angle. I didn’t read anything that would set me up to fail (except the two books I tried to read on my phone — I really have to either cave and buy a Kindle or accept that I am not quite a member of the digital age yet).

I read books I had been meaning to read. I read books that excited me. I read books that I had to talk about with other people. I read books so I could be part of a conversation. I read books to make sure there was more to me than being Erin’s mom.

So while I only read fourteen books this year, I read mostly really good books. I read books that make me think and books that made me laugh and books that made me wish I had more time to blog. I hope 2012 is full of those kinds of books as well.

I made a promise to my dad that The Lonely Land by Sigurd F. Olson would be my first read of 2012 — a book that needs to go under “Books I’ve been meaning to read” and “Books that evoke an emotional response” and “Books that are beautifully written” and “Books that will make me go buy the rest of the author’s catalogue.” After that, I don’t know what I’m going to read — okay, I’m lying, I’m reading Mindy Kaling’s book next, but after that, who knows where I’m going next. And that, friends, is part of the excitement of reading.

I’ve got issues

When I was a kid, my parents always made sure I had, among other things, a magazine subscription. At various times throughout my childhood, I had a subscription to Your Big Backyard and Ranger Rick and Highlights for Children and Disney Adventures. As a teenager, I got seventeen and Brio and then later, once I decided that I was not the target audience for magazines detailing eyeliner reviews and flirting tips, Reader’s Digest. In most everything else, I was a proponent of the idea to save the best for last (usually a philosophy I applied at dinner while saved my fruit salad as a reward for suriving the green beans at the head of the meal), but when it came to magazines, I sat down the day they came and devoured them.

I never asked my parents if they wanted to make sure I was reading (never a problem) or if they wanted to make sure that at least once a month I had the joy of having my own piece of mail. All I know is from the time I could read until the time I went to college, I always had a magazine.

In college, the girls I lived with my freshman year did not get magazines but instead, the magazine’s free and more frequent sisters: catalogues. They inhaled and exchanged j.crew and Victoria’s Secret with fervor and glee until someone’s P.O. box was graced with the crown-jewel of catalogues, the A&F Quarterly. At this point all work stopped until the analysis of the current crop of Abercrombie Boys could be thoroughly and thoughtfully conducted. While I had no interest in clothes I couldn’t afford or disarmingly attractive men who would in real life likely dismiss me unforgivably nerdy, I could appreciate my floormates’ thrill at the catalogues. Who doesn’t like seeing mail in the box that’s not asking for money? Who doesn’t need a fifteen-minute break to window-shop and dream? Who doesn’t appreciate an excuse to put the reality of life on hold for a minute to peruse this fun surprise that came in the mail just when it was needed most?

For all of these reasons, I decided when I was in grad school that I needed something to read that wasn’t assigned to me, that didn’t require in-depth analysis or a reaction paper or even for me to discuss it intelligently with anyone. So sometime in 2006 I ordered a subscription to Entertainment Weekly. I was in love. It was there, in a pile of bills and credit card offers and mail for the previous residents, in my mailbox every Friday. It meant I could set aside half an hour over the weekend to revel in pop culture. If I didn’t care about the feature (Lost, Sex in the City, Twilight), it was only a few days until the next issue came out to redeem itself.

And then our daughter was born. I’m not going to pretend I stopped caring about pop culture or say that I don’t have time to read since she came along, because that would all be a pack of lies. I probably read more articles and features and reviews in a week now than I did before she was born — but they’re all on my iPhone. If it’s linked off my Twitter feed, I probably read it at 3 a.m. as Erin nurses and I try to stay awake while making sure everyone else in the house stays asleep. Magazines — dark, unwieldy, low-tech magazines — are not conducive to this kind of reading.

I kept lying to myself, thinking that I was going to get to the growing stack of Entertainment Weeklys someday. When I realized that the issue with my long-time hero Kermit the Frog on the cover came through and I hadn’t made time for it yet, I knew the time had come. I broke up with Entertainment Weekly.

Monday, as I sat at an airport gate with a napping Erin sprawled across my lap, I caught up with the last two issues of Entertainment Weekly. I had a moment as I finished the “Stars’ Worst Movies!” issue that perhaps I was making the wrong choice by unsubscribing, but the time and energy devoted to the latest Twilight movie in the other issue reaffirmed to me that it was a good time for a clean break. I’ll miss a lot of things about this particular magazine, but I think the thing I’ll miss the most is the same thrill that comes with every magazine I’ve ever had: the thrill of opening the mailbox and seeing my name on something that is specifically and intentionally for me.

I stood in line juggling a stack of books. A really delicious stack of books, I might add. As I waited to check out, I culled a few titles that I didn’t absolutely need and left them on a table for that purpose. I threw an extra book in my pile at that table, justifying it as it wasn’t for me, it was for Mike.

It’s the swan song of Borders, and on Friday I stopped at the store I’ve called “my Borders” since 2005 to pick through the leftovers of a sale that has been going on for a month or more.

I stole glances at the people around me, all of whom juggled similar stacks of books, and all of whom, I’m sure, would call themselves booklovers. Rather than just booklovers, though, we were book vultures. The line between the two blurs when the entire contents of the store are 60 percent off or more.

When I slid my leaning tower of books across the counter, the cashier next to me chirped the total for her customer. “That’s six books for a total of $23.86. What a bargain!” “Nope, you can’t beat that,” the customer said as she reached for her credit card.

I wondered as my cashier scanned my selections if the people around me were buying the books they were buying because they wanted them or because they were on sale. Every book in my tower (with the exception of a stargazing book I’d picked for Mike) had been at least on my radar if not on my Amazon wishlist. Every book I’d selected had been one I’d been meaning to buy and was buying now in one fell swoop rather than buying them piecemeal.

For example, I’ve been mentally salivating over the latest David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, since before it came out in May. I vowed, however, that there was no way I was paying the list price of $37.50. Nope, I could wait — and not just for the paperback. I could wait to luck out at a book fair, one of those great events where book nerds give in to their spouses who have asked them to get rid of some of these books already and come home with the same number of new treasures to fill the space they just cleared out on the shelves. I could wait for the price drop at Amazon Marketplace. And now I didn’t have to. At $15 before tax, I was getting a better price than I possibly could online. So McCullough became the foundation of my pile.

But as the people next to me crowed over their good fortune, I remembered: We are the problem. We, the book vultures, are the reason Borders is closing. We can always find a better bargain somewhere else, and so we do.

On Thursday I visited an independent bookstore in suburban St. Louis. It’s a great store, straight out of the imaginations of all of us kids who dreamed of owning a bookstore some day. Floor to ceiling books. Books stacked on books. Used books. Rare books. New books. Classic books. Books upon books. But the real reason I was in the store was because I’d bought a Groupon worth $25 in merchandise. As I always do when I have a Groupon, I spent more than the Groupon was worth. But as I looked through the inventory for books on my list (looking as always to build my presidential biography collection), I reshelved several, refusing to pay “that much” for a used book. I was happy to be supporting an independent bookstore and pleased to be browsing in someone’s dream, but I still couldn’t bring myself to buy something I didn’t think was a deal.

I’ve recently heard disparaging comments about this frugality being a generational thing, that people of “my generation” feel so entitled that they don’t think they should have to pay full price for anything, even things they love. I was born in 1982, so I hover on the cusp between Generation X and Generation Y — although making the distinction in this case really doesn’t matter, as both generations bear the selfish and entitled mantels. My grandparents come out of the Silent Generation (those who were born in the Depression, too young to serve in WWII, past the typical age of service or protest during Vietnam) and thus are more frugal than I am, refusing to pay more than $12.95 a month for internet service. I don’t think my attempts to get the most for my money or their hesitance to spend money on what they consider luxuries comes from entitlement; I think it comes from knowing what it is to not have anything. I’ve never been Depression-poor, but I certainly have had to be frugal, and have had to find ways to make what little I’ve had stretch.

In this era of austerity, we’re all trying to do more with less, to find ways to have the lifestyle we want on the money we have. In the end, Borders is just one of the stores who has paid for the bargains we’ve craved.

(Originally written September 6, 2011)

American Wife

I read once that fanfiction is simultaneously the easiest and hardest thing to write. The part that makes it the easiest also makes it the hardest: you have a universe and a set of characters established for you, and while you don’t have to create these elements, you are also stuck operating within the parameters someone else set. As someone who spent an embarrassing amount of time in high school madly scribbling stories about characters I had not created, I can attest to the truth in this observation.

This is also a challenge of writing fiction based on real people and real events — especially when those people are still alive. Curtis Sittenfeld has her work cut out for her in American Wife, a book based on the major events in the life of former First Lady Laura Bush. Mrs. Bush, as one of my colleagues pointed out recently, was a bit of a blank slate during her eight years in the national limelight. What is she actually like? We’re not sure. Thus, it is at once easier and harder to buy Ms. Sittenfeld’s portrayal of the fictional Alice Lindgren Blackwell than it would be of a sketch of a more well-known First Lady, because any baggage we (at least, I) carry about Mrs. Bush is actually that of her husband. Easier because any details Ms. Sittenfeld paints on that blank slate don’t contradict what we already know, because we know very little; harder because we know so few things, there’s very little framework to build on.

I can’t imagine anyone writing fiction from the perspective of Hillary Rodham Clinton or of Michelle Obama, and it’s not just because they’re married to Democrats, or because their stories are less interesting than Mrs. Bush’s. No, I simply can’t imagine anyone feeling the freedom to step into Mrs. Clinton’s or Mrs. Obama’s minds, as Mrs. Clinton’s and Mrs. Obama’s approach to being First Lady seems much more public than that of Mrs. Bush. This is not a criticism of Mrs. Bush — the role of First Lady is one to play as one sees it — but rather an observation that she left a lot more blanks to fill than either Mrs. Clinton or Mrs. Obama. I can accept the idea of fiction about Mrs. Bush much more readily, as my image of her in my mind is much more shadowy than the fuller characters I see of Mrs. Clinton or Mrs. Obama. I can’t call foul on Ms. Sittenfeld’s characterization as I might a characterization of Mrs. Clinton or Mrs. Obama, because I don’t feel that I know Mrs. Bush well enough to see where the real person fades and the fictional fills in.

As the book is mostly about Alice Blackwell, it hangs on her being a compelling character, and I don’t feel that she is. Even with the liberties Ms. Sittenfeld was able to take, the restrictions of the real characters don’t make this extremely interesting reading. I don’t think this book would stand on its own if it weren’t based on the Bushes, and at the same time, the fact that it is based on the Bushes isn’t enough to drive it forward. Specifically, Mrs. Blackwell is so convinced of her own ordinariness and her own reservedness that she can’t quite convince us that she is worth spending over 500 pages with.

Anyone reading this looking for insight into the relationship between the real George and Laura Bush based on the fictional Charlie and Alice Blackwell is going to have a hard time as well, as Ms. Sittenfeld never quite convinces me what it is that Alice sees in Charlie. Truly, one of the hardest things in the world is trying to figure out what makes other people’s relationships tick, but it is generally easier in fiction than in real life. Not in the case of Charlie and Alice Blackwell — Ms. Sittenfeld paints a man who is so difficult to take seriously that you wonder if she was still trying to figure the attraction out herself.

Perhaps it is in part the amount of time I spend reading about actual accounts of presidents and first ladies that the fictional bothers me. Anyone who checks in on this blog from time to time will see that I spend most of my time complaining about the problems of reading fiction that is based on someone or something real, and you, like I, probably wonder why I keep reading it. I think I keep hoping that fiction will allow me to understand a more personal aspect of things that are real (as fiction is supposed to), and all it does is make me long for the solid certainty I feel when I read good non-fiction. My next goal is to read Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History by Kati Marton, and maybe that book will give me what I’m looking for.

(Originally written August 20, 2011)

Musings on bookstores…

I remember thinking as a kid that I could easily live uninterrupted and happy in a Barnes and Noble. It didn’t register with me at the time that the big bookseller I loved made life that much more difficult for the independent bookseller in my hometown. I was simply in love with the dark wood, comfy seats, enticing aroma of coffee, the invitation to stay awhile amongst a backdrop of more books than I could possibly read in a lifetime. It was like a library, but better: any one of the books could be mine to take home, put on my shelf and enjoy indefinitely.

When I went to college and found myself living in a community that featured both Barnes and Noble and Borders, I should have been thrilled. Unfortunately for my twelve-year-old self, I found I didn’t have the money to indulge — I didn’t even have the money to go window-shopping. During this time I established my still-firm affinity for the used book and my feeling that there was no reason to pay full price for a book just to be the first person to have the privilege of reading that particular copy.

As you probably know, Borders filed for bankruptcy this week and is planning to shutter over 200 stores nationwide. I recently clicked through the interactive map of stores being closed and noted with some relief that “my Borders” is not one slated for closure.

I stepped back for a moment, though, and wondered why I cared. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been in “my Borders,” and I certainly couldn’t remember the last time I’d bought something for myself there. Borders recently sent me an e-mail with a coupon, encouraging me to buy books based on my recent purchases: graphic novels, Stargate on Blu-ray, and an Ubuntu for Linux guide — all gifts for the certain geek in my life. So if I hadn’t been in “my Borders” since Christmas (or possibly Mike’s birthday), why would I care if Borders was still there on my commute, the halfway point between work and home?

I had the same mixed feelings when our Hollywood Video closed. I remember mentioning my remorse to the cashier, saying that I enjoyed wandering through the aisles looking for a movie when I wasn’t sure what I was in the mood to watch, and the cashier said in a very snippy manner, “Well, clearly you haven’t come in often enough. If wandering were that important to you, we wouldn’t be closing.” And it’s true. We have Netflix, we use Redbox — but I still wanted Hollywood Video to be there if I wanted to wander.

And there it is. I don’t want to buy books for full price. I want to be able to shop online where I can see reviews and other information about the book instantaneously. I want to be proud of the good deal I got on a like-new presidential biography. But I want the book store to be there when I want to meander and peruse. I want to feel like a kid when I walk through the door and smell the mingling aroma of printed pages and freshly brewed coffee.

Ultimately, I want other people to shop at the bookstore so it will be there for me when I want it. I know this is an unstable business model, and completely ridiculous on my part. But I also want our daughter to know the joy of walking into a bookstore and seeing it as a world of possibilities. I want her to be able to meander — but I also want her to know that books don’t have to be new to be good.

I recently heard a report on NPR that independent bookstores that are finding ways to integrate digital media into their businesses are actually looking better than the chains right now, and that encourages me. When Mike and I were in San Francisco in August, I asked the concierge at our hotel in Union Square if there were any good local bookstores nearby. The woman replied, with absolutely no trace of irony, “There’s a Borders about three blocks from here.” I thanked her, pulled out Google Maps on my phone, and found Alexander Book Company. I spent a lovely hour or two perusing three floors of overstuffed shelves and I knew that the $30 I spent (on some really great books) was going back to the neighborhood rather than a corporation.

The Borders the concierge recommended is one of the ones that is slated to be closed, and Alexander Book Company is still going strong. Even the twelve-year-old who wanted to live in a Barnes and Noble sees that as a triumph.

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