A Walk in the Woods

Wherein the prolific writer Bryson tackles the Appalachian Trail, or at least 34% of it. Setting out in early spring from the southern end of the trail in Georgia, Bryson and Katz struggle with heavy packs through cold and snow, feasting on noodles and Snickers, plodding steadily ahead until the grand realization hits them that they don’t have to do the whole trail, they can take a cab to Knoxville, rent a car, and hit the trail again in Shenandoah National Park which other hikers have told them is a much pleasanter stretch of trail. The horrors of Gatlinburg, the fat baseball capped Reebok wearing tourists that hop out of their car and walk 200 yards into the wilderness, snap some photos then retreat back to their mobile machines. Bryson bemoans the remoteness of the AT, hard to get to, meandering through no towns or villages, having to sleep in “shelters” with dozens of other hikers. The snow chases them into a bunkhouse filled with dripping tents and endless bowls of chili, and the hikers band together to rent a van to take them into the town of Franklin.
Bryson peppers his tale with facts about flora and fauna, Civil War history, ranting about the inefficiency of the National Park System, pleasant rambles through Luxembourg, trail deaths and sneaky hypothermia, acid rain warnings, geological history, anti-technology rants, AT history. After the initial phase of hiking, Katz and he part for the summer, to meet up again in Main to tackle the final 100 miles. Bryson then engages in a series of ill advised hikes using his car. When they meet up again in Maine, Katz is out of shape and drinking, Bryson loses him on the trail one night and when they meet up they decide to bail on the final leg.

Henry VI, Part I

Trying to remember these Shakespeare histories before I go to the Richard III performance next month. This one was kind of unmemorable; Henry V dies, leaving an open throne. French leader Charles mucks about with Joan of Arc (his close ties think “doubtless he shrives this woman to her smock” instead of them discussing battle strategy), England and France do battle ending with Henry VI needing to marry Margaret to seal the French peace.
Only a few choice bits worth quoting:

Winchester: Do what thou darest. I beard thee to thy face.
Glouchester: What! Am I dared and bearded to my face?

Talbot: Your hearts I’ll stamp out with my horse’s heels, And make a quagmire of your mingled brains.

Winchester: Rome shall remedy this.
Warwick: Roam thither, then.

Lucy: Oh, were mine eyeballs into bullets turned, That I in Rage might shoot them at your faces!

Pale Fire

My cheek has been bruised by my tongue, there is so much play and word frolicking and hide-and-go-seeking in this. There’s a whole section on Word Golf, for petesake, including a couple entries in the Index. For the uninitiated, this book is made up of four parts: Foreword (by Charles Kinbote), Pale Fire the poem in four cantos, 999 lines (by John Shade), Commentary (by Kinbote), and Index (by Kinbote). In Kinbote’s hands, Shade’s poem is overshadowed (!) by Kinbote’s own story, that of the Zemblan king in exile living as a neighbor to Shade for half a year, and the man called Gradus on the exiled king’s trail to assassinate him. The poem takes up 36 pages, Kinbote takes the remaining 266 pages.
How is it possible that a non-native English speaker has such a vast vocabulary that I must needs have a dictionary nearby to discover the meaning to words such as scholium (explanatory notes on a text), sempiternal (everlasting), chtonic (spirits of the underworld), glacis (gradually decreasing slope), acclivity (gradually increasing slope), nictitation (blinking rapidly, a tic), enceinte (pregnant), revanch (revenge). He even includes “lemniscate” as a word to be explained in the commentary (a plane curve generated by the locus of the point at which a variable tangent to a rectangular hyperbola intersects a perpendicular from the center to the tangent).

The poem: Pale Fire

A delightful work, one worthy of memorization by those with more dedication than me. There are great lines like “She called you a didactic katydid,” “and all tomorrows in my funnybone.” In the poem, Shade reveals his childhood, his daughter’s suicide, his love of wife Sybil, his creative process.
One of my favorite sections:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By feigned remoteness in the windowpane.
I had a brain, five senses (one unique),
But otherwise I was a cloutish freak.
In sleeping dreams I played with other chaps
But really envied nothing – save perhaps
The miracle of a lemniscate left
Upon wet sand by nonchalantly deft
Bicycle tires.

A section that collapses the poem and commentary down into two lines:

Man’s life as commentary to abstruse
Unfinished poem.
Note for further use.

The commentary notes “If I correctly understand the sense of this succinct observation, our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnoes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.”


Kinbote reveals himself quickly as a unique editor, suggesting in paragraph two that Canto Two is “your favorite”, and in the next paragraph telling us “There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.” Seeds of a madman planted on page one of the work. Kinbote uses the Foreword to explain his relationship with Shade and how he came to edit this work.


Normally, explanatory text for a work focuses solely on the work itself. But Kinbote takes this opportunity to tell his own story, the exiled king of Zembla, which he had been pouring into Shade’s ear during their nightly strolls in hopes of having it immortalized by a Shade poem. He frequently goes on tangents then draws up short, “enough of this”, or says that he hopes the reader has enjoyed this note.
The comment to lines 47,48 is particularly humorous, detailing the house that Kinbote is renting from Judge Goldsworth and the specific instructions left by the Judge on taking care of the place, feeding the cat, moving the curtains to not sunbleach the furniture. “A description of the position of the sun, daily and seasonal, was given for the several windows, and if I had heeded all this I would have been kept as busy as a participant in a regatta.”
The note for line 181 also includes a hilarious backhanded attack on Sybil:

“Speaking of novels,” I said, “you remember we decided once, you, your husband, and I, that Proust’s rough masterpiece was a huge, ghoulish fairy tale, an asparagus dream, totally unconnected with any possible people in any historical France, a sexual travestissement and a colossal farce, the vocabulary of genius and its poetry, but no more, impossibly rude hostesses, please let me speak, and even ruder guests, snobbishness repeated and expanded to an unsufferable length, adorable seascapes, melting avenues, no, do not interrupt me, light and shade effects rivaling those of the greatest English poets, a flora of metaphors, described – by Cocteau, I think – as ‘a mirage of suspended gardens,’ and, I have not yet finished, an absurd, rubber-and-wire romance between a blond young blackguard (the fictitious Marcel), and an improbably jeune fille who has a pasted-on bosom, Vronski’s (and Lyovin’s) thick neck, and a cupid’s buttocks for cheeks; but – and now let me finish sweetly- we were wrong, Sybil, we were wrong in denying our little beau ténébreux the capacity of evoking ‘human interest’: it is there, it is there – maybe a rather eighteenth-centuryish, or even seventeenth-centuryish, brand, but it is there. Please, dip or redip, spider, into this book [offering it], you will find a pretty marker in it bought in France, I want John to keep it. Au revoir, Sybil, I must go now. I think my telephone is ringing.”

For the rest, the main takeaway is the thousands of words dedicated to telling the story of King Charles & Zembla, but parceling out tiny bits on Shade. As we get closer to the end of the poem, we see Gradus in New York City, flying to New Wye, staking out Kinbote and accidentally killing Shade, then sitting on Kinbote’s porch and sharing a glass of water with the gardener who beaned him with a spade. Jack Grey/Gradus admits to being an escapee from an insane asylum and is whisked back there. After a few interviews with Kinbote, Grey kills himself in his cell.
Questions swirl around who Kinbote is -> Botkin -> Nabokov. Nabby himself loved to utilize index cards with his writing. Overall, this is a great work; not an easy read, but a fun one if you’re up for all of Nab’s games and tricks.

As I Lay Dying

A family prepares for their mother’s death, and journeys with the body to take her to her desired burial ground. Addie Bundren lies in bed, listening to her coffin being built by son Cash. Sons Darl and Jewel take the wagon into town to sell wood, not at home when she dies. The rains that all characters have been hinting at finally arrives, swells the river, washes out bridges. Lazy husband Anse relies on everyone else to get things done, but persists in taking her forty miles to be buried with her family. Darl is the most poetic character, eventually degenerating into madness along the journey. Jewel the hard-working and driven son who worked at night clearing stumps out of a field to raise money to buy a horse, which Anse steals along the journey to sell for mules. Jewel’s father is Whitefield, a man Addie had an affair with after Cash and Darl were born. Daughter Dewey Dell and son Vardaman came after Jewel and were Anse’s children, making up for Jewel.
The body deteriorates over the days of the journey, buzzards circling overhead. Crossing one river, the wagon is swept into the river, Cash breaks his leg. Days later they pour cement on it to set the bone. Dewey Dell sneaks off to the druggist in each town to acquire medicine to abort her pregnancy. The last pharmacist tricks her into thinking hair of the dog will treat her best. They drag their weary party into the town of Jefferson, Cash having lost his leg, Darl having lost his mind, Jewel having lost his horse, Dewey Dell having lost all hope, Vardaman having lost his mom. Anse borrows two shovels. When he returns them the next day, he acquires another wife. He also acquires teeth with the $10 he steals from Dewey Dell that was meant for her treatment.

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not.

The Snow Leopard

A dreamy, spiritual journey into Nepal’s outer regions near Tibet. Matthiessen searches for enlightenment, release from the pain of losing his wife to cancer that winter. He journeys with George Schaller, a zoologist studying the Himalayan blue sheep, bharal, a combination sheep/goat. Along the way they hope to see a snow leopard, hunting the bharal. It is September 1973, they walk for 250 miles to Shey Gompa near Crystal Mountain, hidden in the land of Dolpo on the Tibetan Plateau.
PM has extensive notes of the wildlife, birds, fauna. Lammergeier are bearded vultures with 9 foot wingspans. They see yak, wolves, dogs, sheep. He walks ahead with a rucksack while Sherpas and porters carry the tents and food. Frequently runs into others on the path and they greet with a simple bow and “Namaste.” He meditates and watches the sheep, reminisces about D (his wife Deborah Love). He gushes forth about Zen Buddhism, trusts Sherpa Tutken when all others mistrust him (Tutken turns into PM’s teacher, vanishes in the back of a taxi and when PM goes to seek him out finds that he never existed). He finds the Lama of Shey holed up in Tsakang, happy and wise.

There is also a custom called “air burial,” in which the body of the deceased is set out on a wild crag… to be rended and devoured by the wild beasts; when only the bones are left, these are broken and ground down to powder, then are mixed into lumps of dough, to be set out again for passing birds. Thus all is returned into the elements, death into life.

I grow into these mountains like a moss. I am bewitched. The blinding snow peaks and the clarion air, the sound of earth and heaven in the silence, the requiem birds, the mythic beasts, the flags, great horns, and old carved stones, the rough-hewn Tartars in their braids and homespun boots, the silver ice in the black river, the Kang, the Crystal Mountain. Also, I love the common miracles – the murmur of my friends at evening, the clay fires of smudgy juniper, the coarse dull food, the hardship and simplicity, the contentment of doing one thing at a time: when I take my blue tin cup into my hand, that is all I do. We have had no news of modern times since late September, and will have none until December, and gradually my mind has cleared itself, and wind and sun pour through my head, as through a bell. Though we talk little here, I am never lonely; I am returned into myself.

In its wholehearted acceptance of what is, this is just what Soen Roshi might have said: I feel as if he had struck me in the chest. I thank him, bow, go softly down the mountain: under my parka, the folded prayer flag glows. Butter tea and wind pictures, the Crystal Mountain, and blue sheep dancing on the snow – it’s quite enough!
Have you seen the snow leopard?
No! Isn’t that wonderful?

White Noise

Toxic air event hits the idyllic college town where Jack Gladney teaches Hitler studies and is covertly learning German (the shame of being a non-German speaking Hitler prof!). Jack lives with 3rd or 4th wife Babette, who is covertly taking Dylar, a experimental drug to fight fear of death. They live with sons and daughters from previous marriages, a brood including Heinrich (moody, hits his stride when the town has the apocalyptic event), Steffie, Denise (worried about her mom’s drug consumption), Wilder (youngest child who is not yet speaking, who rides his tricycle across the highway then topples into a pond and is rescued by a passing motorist). One of my favorite characters was Murray, the visiting professor who attempts to create an Elvis studies department at the college, taking copious notes at the supermarket, living in a rooming house, hitting on Jack’s wife openly in front of Jack. The passing of the pleasure baton between Jack and Babette, wanting to be sure that the other is receiving maximum pleasure. Babette sleeping with the drug manufacturer to receive her doses, Jack hunting this man down and shooting him in his motel room, then being shot in the hand after he places the gun in the victim’s hand but he’s not dead. Evacuation to the Boy Scout Camp from the toxic air event. Phantom symptoms that everyone experiences after they hear about (clammy hands, nausea, dejavu).
A buzzing, coherent, layered and complex story. Not incomprehensible as some had warned me, the pages did not devolve into white noise.
Finished on the plane, which was a bit uncomfortable with the discussion of plane crashes.