Travels in Siberia

Ian Frazier
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

UnknownFrazier admits to “Russia love,” which by his description is comparable to the passion of ardent Francophiles or civil war re-enactors. Caught up in a love of country that is not his own, he writes that during his time of research he “had been to Siberia five times, to western Russia five or six times.” To prove his point he gives future historians a book over 500 hundred pages that ambles like the love story it is where even the faults of the beloved are tinged with imagined glamour.

Approximately two-thirds of the book was a summer’s road trip from Moscow to the far eastern city of Vladivostok. Traveling by car with his guide Sergei and assistant Volodya, Frazier takes copious notes on subjects as different as fishing, museums and beautiful women with periodic digressions into Russian history, geography and politics.

There is an overview of Ghengis Khan, leader of the Mongols who

Genghis Khan courtesy of Wiki Media Commons.

Genghis Khan courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

is reported to have said his enjoyment was “to cut my enemies in pieces, drive them before me, seize their possessions, witness the tears of those who are dear to them and to embrace their wives and daughters.” To support the embracing of wives and daughters, Frazier reports Khan’s DNA is believed to have come down through the generations to “one-half of 1 percent of the world’s entire male population.”

Far to the north in a country of near unfathomable distances where life is defined by work, cold, and hunger under the control

Alexander II was the Emperor of all the Russias when the U.S. had President Lincoln. Courtesy of Wiki Media Commons

Alexander II was the Emperor of all the Russias when the U.S. had President Lincoln. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

of despots, Russia has historically been isolated and forgotten by the rest of the world. Its history is replete with cruelty and subsistence living under leaders like Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, the Romanovs, Stalin and Lenin while the rest of Europe was experiencing the growth of commerce, scientific advancements, and artistic freedom. After explaining this Frazier promotes a theory that he believes Russia was so mistreated as a child that she should be recognized as an abused child that needs allowances in getting up to speed in today’s political world and economic structure.

Frazier pesters his reluctant traveling guides to show him the real lives and history of Russia. He sees the now empty sanitariums, gulags, and prisons. They camp along rivers and in woods like other Russian travelers. They stay in hotels where men are in one room and women in another. They strike up conversations with strangers, eat what others eat and visit quaint museums of one or two rooms that are run by characters from a Chekov story.

There isn’t a unifying theme in the book. Like any love story it is

This version of the Decembrists looks vaguely Ralph Lauren or Abercrombie & Fitch fashion statement. Courtesy Wiki Media Commons.

This version of the Decembrists looks vaguely Ralph Lauren or Abercrombie & Fitch fashion statement. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

written by the lover who will write about what he wants. From his childhood Frazier has gauzy memories of the Russian Sputnik being praised by his father, the glamor of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and the drama of the Cold War. Intellectually he is enamored with Russian history, particularly the brave rebel Decembrists who revolted against Nicholas I in December 1825. Their history is sprinkled throughout the book but he concludes what makes them dearest to him is, “Their lives were noble, epic, partly finished sketches, backlit and sanctified by suffering.”

Posted in A Book Stream Review, Grief's Blossoms of the Lower Branches | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Volunteering at the Library

Volunteering has been part of my life since I was in my twenties. Where, how, and why have changed through the years, but today I am driving to the closest local library to put in a little time and see if I want to continue. At the Volunteer Orientation they were enthusiastic about any and all four of us who showed up.

There's not much to see in the garage, but it seems an official place to start.

There’s not much to see in the garage, but it seems an official place to start.

Today was my second go-round. Tell me what you think. First I back out of the driveway and leave my community as it is called here.

I turn left and head due

The road out of my community.

The road out of my community.

north. It is a four lane highway that is posted fifty miles an hour. Everyone travels over sixty. I would have taken a photo but there is not a shoulder on the road and I’m not great at multi-tasking. Nine miles later I turn right and head east for a distance that I could walk, but on a hundred degree day I would rather not.

Now I am heading east and am pulled over on the shoulder.

Now I am heading east and am pulled over on the shoulder.

Then I again head north and go under a freeway overpass. The left arrow is Phoenix, the right Globe.

Once passed it I am on town streets. This is an intersection on Idaho Road and Superstition Road.

Freeway underpass.

Freeway underpass.

Over twelve miles from the garage door I am at the library parking lot. More cars are parked behind me but I want to show you the vastness.

This is the now blooming desert in front of the library. The long yellow stalk is a flowering yucca.

Idaho and Superstition.

Idaho and Superstition.

I knock on a locked door that says Library Personnel Only and a woman lets me in. She guides me to the returned children’s backpacks and shows me how to repack them. I was handed an industrial size box

The parking lot is not as deserted as it looks.

The parking lot is not as deserted as it looks.

of wipes and told to clean every surface. Then I was shown how to securely lock them so nothing is stolen by lurking library opportunists. The backpacks are quite clever with each mesh backpack put

The library garden.

The library garden.

together like a theme party. This one is about numbers and math.

Another had sea creatures I got to play with to make sure they worked.

I wiped them all down and re-inserted them in perfect order.

I wiped them all down and re-inserted them in perfect order.

The teddy bear in the Teddy Bear Pack had a note on the inventory sheet that the nail polish on the paw was noted.

Finished with that little task I was led to the video display and told to alphabetize any out of order and

This kit looked fun.

This kit looked fun.

replace returned ones. There were hundreds with many people coming and going. Videos are very popular at the library.

An hour and a half

Teddy with nail polish belongs with several bear books.

Teddy with nail polish belongs with several bear books.

had passed at this time so I strolled through the used book store and picked these up to bring home.

Once in my car I spotted this beautiful Saguaro on the grounds and faced the three flowering pale verde trees at the stop sign before leaving.

A few of the Ws.

A few of the Ws.

The Library Saguaro.

The Library Saguaro.

Three blooming Palo Verde trees.

Three blooming Palo Verde trees.

My purchased books.

My purchased books.

Posted in The Street View | Tagged | 11 Comments

Passing

Nella Larsen
Rutgers University Press, 1986

UnknownOh, so many things our little brains think about. There are endless ways to justify our actions, question another’s, and paint our memories. The pitiable protagonist, though she wants to be noble, is Irene Redfield who believes herself faced with saving her children from life, her husband from adventure, race secrets, and she is assuring her own security.

This succinct, precisely written novella by a Black woman is about Irene’s thinking and justification in helping a childhood friend “pass” as White. Passing was put on my reading list by Maxine, my only friend who took a college Black literature class. A successful career woman, Maxine was intrigued by the lingering questions of how often and how people attempt to “pass” in the business and social worlds–in other words the fracturing of our own personalities and repudiation of personal history to attain a goal. On top of all that, this one hundred page read covers Irene’s security driven justification to “pass” on her responsibility to the needs and desires of others so she can maintain her own security.

This book has a lot to say in direct, every-paragraph-has-a-purpose-writing. In the first three pages which made up chapter one, the reader is plunged into the mystery of a letter Irene doesn’t want to open. She experiences a memory of the calculating, cat-like, yet graciously warm Clare who was her childhood friend who had the drunken father brought home dead, Clare’s disappearance, and in the finally opened letter, a reference to “That time in Chicago,” that flared resentment and humiliation in Irene.

imagesThis is serious chick lit set in Harlem during the Renaissance of the 1920s. These are the parties The Great Gatsby and Nick Carraway, his storyteller, would have visited. The women wore beautiful frocks, smoked cigarettes with a flourish, and gave society parties without the modern day illusion of women’s liberation, or gender and race fairness. Passing is the gritty, not-at-all-pretty, inner life of a woman faced with real decisions about her uninspired marriage, loyalty to her race, and raising two young boys in a society that lynches their fathers and uncles and drives their mothers and aunts into situations they cannot control to change life forever.

Posted in A Book Stream Review, Writing and Creativity Outpost | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Ghostwriter Mommy Blues

There aren't good matching photos for this post so here is a photo of the pizza I made last night. Can you see the line between the meat side and the non-meat side?

There aren’t good matching photos for this post so here is a photo of the pizza I made last night. Can you see the line between the meat side and the non-meat side?

Good news. A book I was hired to write has been nominated for a statewide award. The news came via a text message from the man whose childhood story needed telling. I congratulated him and he texted back that he had been invited to speak before a group about domestic violence.

The story was about that, but it was also about a redemptive weekend he spent with grandparents as a teenager that was crucial in helping him stabilize his life. When we met he’d been fretting for years how to write the story he felt he needed to get out of his heart and down on paper.

It was an extremely rainy spring morning as I gave a talk about writing grants to a nonprofit group. Grants were not my strongest topic and I was not thrilled with that day’s delivery so I was surprised

It was a rainy morning in Edinburgh, Scotland when I took this photo of a graveyard that was downtown.

It was a rainy morning in Edinburgh, Scotland when I took this photo of a graveyard that was downtown.

when he came up to me afterward to suggest we meet to talk about a writing project.

The timing was good for me to devote myself to something entirely off the grid of what I’d been doing to expand a resume. Without a contract we agreed on payment, a general outline of how it would be handled, and what would be included.

The story wasn’t mine but there are enough similarities in being human that I started to catch on and feel an affinity for this time in a young man’s life. A challenge I hadn’t experienced since writing copy for advertisers was keeping his voice, word choices, and cadence without my intrusion.

Billable time that didn’t include obsessing about it while driving, preparing meals, showering, sleeping, and meetings at Starbucks was over 200 hours. I was an outsider listening to a story from his and his mother’s views, discerning emotion and what was behind the words, constructing and parsing sentences that portrayed but did not glamorize, discount, or make human experience sappy. Then I edited and re-edited until it was time to give it up. Give it back to the one who had lived this now fictionalized life.

A Chiluly glass exhibit in a water setting at the Phoenix, Arizona Desert Botanical Garden.

A Chiluly glass exhibit in a water setting at the Phoenix, Arizona Desert Botanical Garden.

Oh boy, could I get corny with all the metaphors that at their best would never compare with really having or giving up a baby, but still… I’m going to push a few. When the manuscript was gone and no longer mine to fuss over, I was sad like a mom is sad sending the kid off to kindergarten. “Let me wipe a tear that Baby grew up so soon while I giggle in joy that I might now get a free hour to myself.”

When he called me weeks later thrilled he was getting nibbles from a publisher who represented an author friend of his, I was happy and envious. Months later when it became apparent that wouldn’t happen I didn’t know how to untangle a knot of disappointment and anger.

The anger was toward me. Why hadn’t I seriously started writing decades earlier? I did have some talent with it. I did. I did. I did. But time slipped through my fingers with other responsibilities. Phooey. What really slipped through my fingers was belief in myself. Time was the by-product.

Editorial changes by him and others have inevitably been included. Perhaps I wouldn’t recognize the end product though he told me the changes were minor. He said he’s sending me a copy.

A year has passed while the real dad has nurtured the manuscript and

There's time to enjoy a variety of things in life if we pay attention.

There’s time to enjoy a variety of things in life if we pay attention.

he deserves the accolades I hope he gets. The story has done what it needed to do for me, too.

Posted in Writing and Creativity Outpost | Tagged , , | 13 Comments