Daily Archives: 09/06/2004

Adrift In de Gaulle

Monday’s Guardian has a fascinating story about Merhan Nasseri, the man who inspired Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal. For the past 16 years, Nasseri has lived a Kafkaesque existence in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle International Airport. An Iranian by birth, he was expelled from his country and wandered Europe for several years. In 1988 he was turned back from London’s Heathrow Airport and sent back to France. The French refused to allow into the country, no country would take him and he settled in next to a basement shopping area. Since 1999 he has been free to leave the airport, but he chooses to remain. The strange world of the terminal has become the only home he knows.

Bear Wrasslin’ In Wyoming

Continuing my coverage of the bear revolt that others refuse to acknowledge, here’s a gripping story about a cyclist attacked by grizzly bear in Wyoming. The mountain biker wasn’t making enough noise and the bear charged. Kirk Speckhals, the cyclist, used his mountain bike to fend off the bear a few times, until the animal tossed it away like a used dish rag.

With the bear distracted, Speckhals started creeping away, but the bear immediately left the bike and put its front paws on Speckhals.

In a Greco-Roman wrestling stance, Speckhals sensed he was going down.

“This time he just took me out — drug me to the ground,” he said. “I knew I was in trouble. I rotated and got on my chest.”

I have this image of him wrasslin’ that bear like some circus strongman. I’m sure it was a lot more terrifying than that.

The bear was finally deterred with the arrival of Speckhals’ companions, a can of pepper spray, a barking dog, and a lot of shouting.

I don’t know why nobody else senses the impending revolt from the world’s bear population. They’re testing our defenses, scouting out prime locations. And people refuse to see the danger. We need an immediate preemptive war on these ursine extremists and the nations that harbor them.

Books Galore

Since my guilty double all-nighter reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons a few weeks ago, I have been on a reading kick. Most of the books passing under my gaze the past two weeks are from the Guam Public Library, a fine institution that needs patronage and financial support. The stacks at the Nieves M.
Flores Main Branch are not exactly brimming with recent works, but there is a passable collection of books from before about 1980. I’ve been reading a great deal lately, turned off the one eyed opium eater that dwells in my home and I feel all the better for it.

  • cover The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima: I read Temple Of The Golden Pavilion earlier this year, and I thought another work by Mishima was in order. This book is a gripping tale of desperate love and perverted idealism, told in simple terms but dealing powerful issues. Young Noburu is a bright, fatherless boy. He runs with a gang of similar youths, and they all scorn society and the emptiness of civilized life. His mother Fusako is a lonely widow in a perfect, orderly world until she falls in love with Ryuji, a sailor that Noburu idolizes. As the relationship between Fusako and Ryuji deepens, Ryuji abandons his aloofness and struggles to become the perfect father and husband. All his efforts are in vain as the boy’s admiration of the sailor fades into disgust. The chilling conclusion is a study in nihilism and how the best intentions lead only to ruin.
  • coverThousand Pieces of Gold by Ruthanne Lum McCunn: The story of Polly Beemis, an actual pioneer from Idaho’s frontier history. The novel is a ‘fictionalized’ biography, with actual events in Polly’s life interwoven with McCunn’s speculations. A young Chinese girl sold into servitude to a well off merchant in the mining town Warren Idaho, Polly adapts to the frontier life, earning her freedom, opening a boarding house and eventually ending up at a remote ranch with her husband. McCunn recasts the details of Polly Beemis’ life as a struggle for freedom and dignity as a human being. The subject matter is interesting but the book has its flaws. The simple writing seems aimed toward young adults, but I have a hard time believing the author intended this book for kids. The story is full of rape, murder, racism, prostitution and slavery – hardly appropriate subjects for pre-teens. I understand McCunn uses the simple language to underscore Polly’s place as an uneducated foreigner in the frontier, but the writing becomes a major irritant. It’s interesting, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea is also told with simple language, but the effect is completely different.
  • coverA Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin: Last time I read this book I was 12 years old. It was great back then, and it is still good today. Le Guin crafts a fine coming of age story. Ged is a young and impetuous youth; gifted in magic and blinded by his own arrogance. He becomes a man by dealing with the evil he unwittingly released upon the earth in his hubris, and makes the first steps towards greatness. The book is a masterpiece of young adult fiction, an empowering story about growing up and coming to terms with the wild impetuous behaviors of youth, taking responsibility for one’s actions and having the resolve to repair the damage wrought. Ursula Le Guin is one of my favorite authors, and her Earthsea stories are especially important to me. While it is a fantasy world, it is not the generic sword & sorcery world that so many authors churn out.
  • coverThe Magus by John Fowles: It’s dense, literate fiction; spiced with amoral sex, drug use, bacchanalia and sadistic Nazi violence. What could be wrong with that? Well, a lot actually. I enjoyed reading this novel immensely, but it had its problems. Fowles tries hard, but something felt wrong with the story. The biggest problem with the novel: Nicholas Urfe, the protagonist, is a loathsome, odious character. Fowles goes to pains to portray Urfe as self involved, emotionally distant, and condescending. Urfe is deliberately set up for his fall, as the web of illusion and madness grows about him, his chilly demeanor and callous disregard for life is broken down and humbled, setting up a new outlook and vicariousness for life afterwards. Whatever. He’s still a complete tool throughout the entire novel. Actually he’s a bigger asshole at the end of the novel than he was at the beginning, because he now realizes his failings, yet deliberately continues in his old behaviors. If he was callous and self involved at the beginning of the story, he is consumed with vitriol and spite its conclusion. Not much of a transformation.
  • coverThe Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin: The second story in Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, the focus shifts to a young girl in the service of an ancient religion, chafing at the strictures that bind her and finding her only solace in the vast caverns that are her temple. When Ged, a wizard from a distant land, arrives in her subterranean world, he challenges her assumptions about all she believes and opens her mind to the world beyond her dark labyrinth. I thought this was the weakest of the original trilogy when I was a kid, but I am not so sure now. Le Guin makes some pointed references to the hollowness of religion and how society inculcates often sadistic and cruel behaviors onto children.
  • coverThe Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin: The last Earthsea book I read as a child, it was definitely the meatiest of the three. Ged, now an aging wizard, embarks on a journey to distant lands. Something is terribly wrong in Earthsea. Men are forgetting the magic that binds society together, and the creeping malaise threatens to hurl the islands into anarchy. Le Guin explores the darker recesses of the human soul in this final book of the original Earthsea trilogy, drug use, poverty, the fear of death. The result is sometimes disturbing, but ultimately elegiac as Ged and the young prince travel across the waters of Earthsea to a final confrontation with a terrible foe. And while they heal the harm in the world, things are certainly not back to normal. The world survives, but it is irrevocably changed. And isn’t that what happens in the real world as well?
  • coverTehanu by Ursula Le Guin: After twenty years, Le Guin returned to Earthsea in the early 90’s and wrote this new novel. While the first three were children’s books and told from the perspective of a child on the cusp of adulthood, Tehanu is a somber, adult tale told by an aging woman. Tenar, the young priestess from The Tombs of Atuan is now an aging farm wife and widow. She takes in a horribly abused and burned child while facing the diminishing prospects that come with old age. Into her quiet life comes Ged, no longer a wizard but a mortal man grieving for the loss of his magic. Together they build a life around each other and their adopted daughter. Tehanu is quieter and slower than the original trilogy, portraying the life of ordinary people of Earthsea in intimate detail. But the story is more dramatic, as Ged and Tenar face their emotions and deal with loss and discrimination. And it opens new paths of exploration for the Earthsea saga.
  • coverTales from Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin: A collection of five short stories based in Earthsea. Le Guin fleshes out the history and cosmology of Earthsea in this book. The stories work forward in time, beginning with the founding of the wizardry school during a dark age and concluding a few years after the events of Tehanu. Her focus is always on wizards, their magic and their place in society, and how they try to maintain the balance. Being human however, they err and can be led astray. Le Guin sets the stage for her final Earthsea novel with these stories. Especially interesting is a long essay at the back of the book on the world of Earthsea. She sets out the geography, history, languages and historical figures of Earthsea. It represents Le Guin’s vision of Earthsea after thirty some odd years of crafting the fantasy world. Interesting stuff.
  • coverThe Other Wind by Ursula Le Guin: The most recent book in the Earthsea saga. The book is an allegory for our troubled times. The world of Earthsea is changing and unsettled. While most people are content and happy in the new kingdom, the wise sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the world. Gradually the source of this trouble is revealed. The very magic utilized by men is unbalancing the earth. Greed and the thirst for power, the human longing for immortality, men broke the delicate equilibrium of earth desiring these things. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what Le Guin is talking about. No enemy exists in The Other Wind, just the ignorance and prejudice of wise men stubborn in their beliefs. They refuse to accept how their actions upset the harmony of nature, even as the situation worsens. This being a fantasy however, eventually everyone sees the error of their ways and they work together to mend to harm done to the planet, even if it means abandoning the source of their power and immortality. If only reality were so easily transformed.
  • coverOcean’s End: Travels through Endangered Seas by Colin Woodard: In 1999, I spent a week in Pohnpei with friends, touring the ruins of Nan Madol and diving in the clear waters of the island. We met a fellow guest at the Village, who told us he was working on a book about the degradation of the ocean. His name was Colin, and we exchanged email and physical addresses. About 18 months later I got postcard from Colin, announcing the publication of his book. Ocean’s End is a well-researched investigation into the problems that threaten the world’s oceans. Pollution, overfishing, environmental destruction, the litany goes on and on. The world’s oceans are in real danger of collapse and most people are blithely unaware of the danger. The ocean is a powerful engine for life on the planet, and I shudder to think what would happen if the Atlantic Ocean collapsed into hypoxic, polluted sludge like the Black Sea.
  • coverCritical Path by R. Buckminster Fuller: Seminal thinking by a rationalist thinker. Scoff if you must at Buckminster Fuller’s kitschy domes and the trinkets, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that we are in trouble. Resources are dwindling, the environment is degrading, human population is exploding, pollution is poisoning the air and water, poverty is endemic, species are dying off like never before and it becomes increasingly apparent that we are headed for a catastrophe if we don’t radically change our course. This is one of Fuller’s last works, and while his writing is sometimes painful to read – okay it’s a bear to read, the ideas it contains are potent augers of humanity’s direction and possible future.
  • coverFull Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon: Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda by Pablo Neruda, trans. by Stephen Mitchell: A brief taste of Neruda’s poetry, with selected poems from his major mid-life works. I bought this book ages ago in Manila, and I finally pulled it down from my bookshelf around the time of July’s Neruda-fest in Chile. Not bad collection, but it does skim a great deal. Only three of his 100 Love Sonnets, and not nearly enough from his early years. The book contains a great many of his Elemental Odes though. Neruda is so damn enjoyable to read, the words are so juicy they drip off the page. I can’t help but read the poems aloud two or three times.

On deck for my reading pleasure: A couple anthologies of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, A Universal History of Infamy and The Book of Sand. I read an enjoyable piece in Salon earlier this week about Borges and it sparked my interest. I don’t think I’ll hit fifty books this year, but it will be fun to try in these last few months of 2004.