Literature


I haven’t hiked the John Muir Trail (JMT), at least not yet. But if all goes as planned, Stan and I will spend three and a half to four weeks next summer doing just that in the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

http://www.parkreports.com/gallery/image.php?park=Killarney&id=1373

Before we complicated our lives by switching careers, going back to school, finding new jobs and buying a house, we spent a fair bit of time backpacking. Most of our trips involved hiking up and around the mountains in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, but we also took one especially memorably canoe trip to Killarney, a very, very old mountain range in Ontario, north of Toronto. We’ve backpacked and camped during all four seasons, and while I’m not crazy about the amount of gear I have to haul around in the winter, I love the feeling that we have the whole Adirondack mountain range to ourselves. In spite of all this, we have never done any backpacking that comes remotely close to being as challenging as the John Muir Trail.

The JMT runs 211 miles north/south along the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, starting at Yosemite Valley and ending atop the 14,494′ peak of Mt. Whitney. (Yes, that’s the highest peak in the continental U.S.! How hardcore is that?) Hiked from the north, the trail gradually gains elevation, so the hikes gradually increase in difficulty. I’m in favor of taking this route, because while I hope to start the hike in good shape, I know I’ll be in better shape by the end.

Mt. Whitney

Mt. Whitney, one end of the John Muir Trail!

Hikers who plan to hike the length of the trail in one trip are known as “through hikers” and there are essentially two ways to hike the trail as a through hiker. The first involves carrying all the food and supplies necessary for the hike on your back from start to finish. I shudder to think what that pack might way, but I would guess that Stan’s would be upwards of sixty pounds and mine might weigh in around forty. I suspect this would take away from the experience significantly! In fact, it might not realistically be possible for me to make it over all those mountain passes carrying so much weight. The second option involves utilizing the various resupply stations along the trail, allowing you to carry food and supplies necessary for six or seven days. Either way, the trip involves a lot of planning, which is why we’ve started thinking about this now.

Where did this idea come from? I’ve always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail, but this particular hike was the brainchild of Andy, a classmate Stan spent a lot of time with during his two-week field trip out West for a geology class, Geology of the West. Andy has hiked the Appalachian Trail, and is jonesing to hike the whole Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), but suggested that the JMT (actually a section of the PCT) might be a good place us to begin. Hopefully, he’ll join us next summer too!

Getaway Guide to the JMTNaturally I’ve already read a book on the subject, The Getaway Guide To The John Muir Trail by Guy Saperstein and a lot of the factual information I related above came from this source. In it, Saperstein describes both the planning and hiking portions of his trip. He’s what Stan calls a weight weenie, choosing or rejecting various items based on the number of ounces he won’t have to carry, but I’m all for his methods since I’m not really equipped to haul around a huge pack! Overall, I found it an interesting, informative, and easy to read book.

Sources: The picture of Killarney comes from the Ontario Parks website, the picture of Mt. Whitney from Destination 360, and the jacket cover of Saperstein’s book from Amazon.

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Bernard ShawThis past weekend, I attended two performances at the Shaw Festival, A Month In the Country by Brian Friel (based on Turgenev) and Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw. As I reflected back on the experience, it struck me that I try to understand myself through linguistic art forms–typically novels, but also poetry, film and music. Obviously, given what I do for a living, I’m fascinated by language in its many guises, but my need runs more deeply than fascination–it’s almost a primal urge to understand myself, to understand others, to understand each of us as we relate to one another. Language just happens to be the most natural way for me to explore these questions.

But to return to the topic at hand, I find theater both exhilarating and terrifying for its immediacy and truthfulness. A good performance draws the audience into the emotions being acted out (or actually felt) on stage. The immediacy comes from the live performance, there is no escaping whatever is being put forth for the audience’s consumption. It is there and if you are in the audience, it is virtually impossible to avoid the impact. As much as I love literature, it is possible to put the book down should my emotions become unbearable. Likewise with film, there always exists a certain distance between the audience and story, because the action has already occurred, the audience simply views a recording of those events. Not that I wish to diminish the value of a good film, since I too love being lost in the images, action and dialogue skillfully woven together by a good director, but it is a different experience. The truthfulness of a dramatic performance emerges when you recognize yourself in a character on stage. The realness of the experience makes the association (positive or painful) inescapable. Literature (dramatic or other) for me will always be of paramount importance because it demonstrates what we all have in common, and while I might not like what I see reflected in the words and actions of a character on stage, I know that if nothing else, I am not alone.

Courthouse Theater
The Court House Theater on Main St. in Niagara-on-the-Lake

The picture of Shaw’s statue and the Court House Theater are from Galen Frysinger’s web page, accessible here.

Kerouac

On The Road is fifty years old. This, itself, is reason to pause since Kerouac’s greatest hit has retained much of its original urgency despite the passage of time. I discovered the novel when I was sixteen, the title reaching out to me much in the same way as it did for a generation of disaffected children in the sixties and still does for teens today, nearly twenty years later. On The RoadVery few books can make such a claim. In honor of the anniversary, the publishing house Viking is releasing what amounts to an unexpurgated edition of the novel. In doing so they are drawing attention to the unusual nature of the original manuscript (long sheets of tracing paper later taped together to make an uninterrupted scroll). In Kerouac’s case, such a release is long overdue because the editors of first edition altered the stream of consciousness aspect of the novel forcing it to conform to more a more traditional model. Doing so literally altered part of what Kerouac and the Beat Generation figuratively stood for.

That I am curious (and even suspicious) about the motives for such a release is thanks to a particularly useful graduate seminar taught by Danny Hack, unfortunately no long with the University at Buffalo because he has moved westward to the University of Chicago. That I recognize Viking’s emphasis on the manuscript as a marketing tool as well as a useful addition to the literary canon is thanks to the issues raised in his course, particularly with respect to The Bondswoman’s Narrative. Perhaps our tendency to view first impressions, editions, ideas, etcetera as being most authentic may comes from the sense that the first of anything is always the purest, the closest to the truth. But is first always best? While in Kerouac’s case the answer is probably yes because of the reasons explained above, I wonder if that’s always so.

(I also think it is interesting to contemplate the origins of our ideas. Adam came before Eve and of course it should come as no surprise to anyone which one of the two ate the apple (or pomegranate) slyly persuaded her husband to go along with her transgressions and got everyone kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Was her fallibility the result of femaleness or her less than pure second status? I’d argue the two are inseparable.)

AlcottBut to return to the subject at hand. I dealt with this question in some depth when writing the thesis required for completion of a M.A. in English. Without getting into too much detail, Louisa May Alcott published two version of her first novel Moods, the first in 1865 and a revised version in 1882. The second version significantly tones down the radical ideas put forth in the first edition bringing it more into line with the works of literature Alcott published during the years in between. Which is the truer version? While I, with my twenty-first century feminist sensibilities, might lean toward the first version, the reality is that the truest picture comes from taking them together. As a pair, they encompass all of Alcott, her early radical feminism and her later savvy business acumen that prompted her to revise her own ideas bringing them more into line with her successful novels for girls.

If Kerouac were alive today, what would he have to say about the publication of “the scroll?” I wonder.

Sources: Picture of Kerouac from authorsguild.net, On The Road book jacket from Amazon, and Louisa May Acott from The Sheila Variations.

Deathly Hallows coverAnyone paying close attention to the date of this post should know exactly which book I’m referring to without reading any further. As I mentioned previously, I pre-ordered Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows from Amazon and as promised it showed up on my doorstep on Saturday, July 21. I finished reading it last night. I’m sure I will have more to say about this in future posts as I continue to work through my reflections on how the series ended and what J. K. Rowling does with this final book, but my first impressions are very favorable. Not surprisingly in the battle between good and evil there are some tragic losses, particularly in chapter twenty-four, which reduced me to tears. There are a number of deaths in the climatic battle scene at the end of the novel, but interestingly these were less moving. As for the ending itself, Michiko Kakutani, writing for The New York Times Book Review claims that Rowling opts for a “good old-fashioned ending” that lays out the characters’ fates rather than settling for a more modern “equivocation.” On one level, this is a fair assessment, but after some reflection I wonder if the circumstances at the end of the novel are as tightly sewn up as they initially seem.

Spoiler alert! If you have not read the ending of the seventh book yet and do not wish to know the outcome, do not read any further!

Acting on the precept that neither could live and therefore neither must survive, Harry ostensibly sacrifices his own life in order to end Lord Voldemort’s. Yet after dying, in a deus ex machina-like plot twist, he finds himself in a liminal state at King’s Cross. (It turns out that this location is just a figment of his imagination, but according to Dumbledore, this makes it no less real. The relevance of this will become more evident below.) After killing him, Lord Voldemort takes Harry’s blood–believing that it will strengthen him–and in doing so creates the loophole allowing Harry to go on living. Since the two are inextricably linked together, Voldemort’s survival grants Harry the opportunity to rejoin life. He does and makes short work of Voldemort, proving himself the stronger wizard of the two.

So far, very cut and dry as Kakutani suggests. However, while at King’s Cross, Harry notices the presence of another creature, “a small, naked child, curled on the ground, its skin raw and rough, flayed-looking, and it lay shuddering under a seat where it had been left, unwanted, stuffed out of sight, struggling for breath” (Rowling 706-7). When Harry asks Dumbledore if something can be done for the creature, Dumbledore intones several times that no help is possible. Rowling leaves it up to the reader to decide what the creature is, but given Harry’s link to Voldemort, one can only assume that this is the portion of Voldemort (and the seventh Horcrux) that has lived in Harry since their auspicious first meeting. Presumably, if Harry is able to rejoin the world of the living through Voldemort’s greed, then this creature is given an entryway back to life too. Rowling’s epilogue, “Nineteen Years Later,” depicts Harry and Ginny and Ron and Hermione seeing their children off to Hogwarts. Why nineteen years though? Without going back through the first six books, I can’t argue definitively about earlier parallels to Tom Riddle, but I wonder if just enough time has passed for the evil creature Harry saw at King’s Cross to have begun to establish himself again, suggesting a more complicated and equivocal ending to the fight between good and evil than first meets the eye.

Swimming To AntarcticaIt should go without saying that I’ve read a book on open water swimming, Lynne Cox’s autobiography, Swimming To Antarctica: Tales of A Long-Distance Swimmer. Compared to her very impressive achievements, swimming two miles in the balmy waters of Canandaigua Lake doesn’t even count as a warm-up, much less a real open water event. As far as open water swimmers go, she is legendary. Lynne CoxHer most impressive accomplishments involve multiple English Channel crossings (in record-setting times), and swimming the Bering Sea from Alaska to the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, both a physical feat and a diplomatic achievement. As the title of the book suggests, she also swam one mile in thirty-two degree water (not solid ice because of the salt content) to set foot on the continent of Antarctica. Cox’s tales are absolutely fascinating and well written, and as I read them I was struck by her humility and down-to-earth assessments of herself, very much at odds with her extraordinary abilities.

Douglas AdamsIn case you haven’t picked up on the reference yet, the title to this page is a not so subtle homage to the late, great creator of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. (That’s him over to the right.) I haven’t reread Hitchhiker’s in a few years, but I was pleasantly surprised by the movie adaptation, especially considering I had what were probably impossibly high expectations. Once again, Alan Rickman is absolutely without equal as Martin. Who would Adams appeal to? Anglophiles (his pillorying of British bureaucracy is priceless), anyone with a sense of humor and appreciation for good satire, and obviously sci/fi enthusiasts.

The picture of Douglas Adams is from his website, http://www.douglasadams.com