Add a star if you're someone who breaks into a smile when you hear the word "portage" or feel a sense of disappointment when the winter temperature juAdd a star if you're someone who breaks into a smile when you hear the word "portage" or feel a sense of disappointment when the winter temperature just refuses to go below 10. (If you're not one of those people, I can assure you after living in Wisconsin for 30 years that they actually exist.)
The best parts of The Singing Wilderness, a series of short essays arranged by the cycle of the seasons in the border region between Minnesota and Wisconsin and Canada, are those where Olson simply observes. There are wonderful descriptions of otters, weasel, pine knots, and many waterways. Clearly, he had a profound love of the landscapes he grew up in and continued to revisist.
Not quite four stars for me because there's a bit too much of the American transcendentalist drive to derive "meaning" from nature. Olson's very much aware of his relationship to the tradition that grew up around Emerson's "natural facts are symbols of spiritual facts." He quotes Thoreau frequently and I liked the sense of his affectionate conversation with an elder and fellow tramper of paths. Olson's take on Native Americans doesn't stand up to contemporary perspectives--more than a touch of romanticism, primitivism and noble savagery. But almost no white of his time avoided those and his attitude is always respectful, so I didn't find it difficult to just skim over those passages when they occurred. ...more
Open City is cousin to the sub-genre of the "flaneur," a French word referring to the "lounger" or "stroller," someone who walks aimlessly through citOpen City is cousin to the sub-genre of the "flaneur," a French word referring to the "lounger" or "stroller," someone who walks aimlessly through cities gathering impressions and sharing his/her thoughts. Written by a Nigerian-born writer who moved to the U.S. in 1992, it's an extremely interesting contribution to the literature of New York City, where roughly 2/3 of the action takes place, and the global/multicultural strain of contemporary American fiction. Cole's protagonist Julius, son of a German mother and Nigerian father, is a psychologist who frequently gives himself over to lengthy meditations on subjects sparked by his surroundings. He's a classical music afficionado, distant from popular culture as well as from jazz; there's a moving scene near the end in which he listens to a performance of Mahler's Lied von die Erde. While the title refers primarily to New York (and, save a brief excursion to Queens where he encounters the marvelous New York City panorama at the Queens Museum), Cole clearly wants us to think about the ways in which the continents are interlinked: there are scenes in Nigeria and Brussels and characters from the middle east, China, and Japan.
Now for the problems. Although there are a few memorable side characters--Julius' Japanese-American mentor Dr. Saito, a clerk at a internet cafe in Brussels--the book is really about the narrator's consciousness, which doesn't really change much. In the absence of external action, I wanted more sense of internal struggle/tension. There's not a lot of difference between Julius' perceptions in the first half of the novel (which concludes with a passage nicely echoing the end of Joyce's The Dead) and the second half (which ends less successfully for me). When Cole does introduce "big" plot elements, they didn't work well for me. I'll phrase this to avoid spoilers, but both his encounter with two young men in his upper west side neighborhood and his final conversation with a friend's sister from Nigeria felt contrived to me. I'll definitely read Cole's next novel....more