Category Archives: literature

Celebrating Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey died 20 years ago tomorrow. I’d never even heard his name until at least 10 years after he died. But since the first page I read in The Monkey Wrench Gang I’ve been captivated by his writing. I’ve read nearly all of his books since. I agree with him on a lot of things, and disagree on a lot of other things, but I always find his writing thought provoking and entertaining.

Monday at Maria’s Bookshop in Durango there’ll be some people gathering and reading to celebrate old Cactus Ed. I’m excited to go and meet some like minded people, hear Ken Wright and Kate Niles (among others) read and just have a good time.

There’s more info at The San Juan Almanac and Maria’s Bookshop.

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Fire Lookout Towers

A few months ago I was reading through The Paris Review when I came across a story called Diary of a Fire Lookout by Philip Connors (you can read an excerpt online, and maybe find it at the library to read the rest). It’s a diary of the authors time spent as a fire lookout in the rugged Gila National Forest in New Mexico.

Fire lookouts are becoming more and more rare as modern technology encroaches upon the task of spotting forest fires. Which is sad because some of my favorite writers spent summers high up in a lookout tower thinking, writing, and watching for signs of smoke. Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. Ed Abbey’s Black Sun. Doug Peacock spent some time as fire lookout after Vietnam, I’m not sure that he ever wrote about it, but it probably helped clear his head and help him to readjust.

As Connors’s story shows, not all fire lookout towers have been shuttered, but most aren’t in service anymore. The Forest Fire Lookout Association has a list of links to retired lookout towers available for rent, most from the US Forest Service.

A recent article in the UT talks about the old fire lookout tower on Palomar Mountain reopening to be staffed by volunteers.

There’s something romantic about fire lookout towers, spending all that time in the woods. The solitude. The open space. The few journeys into town, via steep mountain trails, to get supplies. The chance encounters with passing hikers. Connors’s story captures the mood perfectly.

Tecate, A Magical Place

Me outside the Tecate Brewery, photo by Kinsee Morlan

Me outside the Tecate Brewery, photo by Kinsee Morlan

I drink a lot of Tecate beer, they seem to have a monopoly of some sorts in Mexico. But Tecate is a lot more than just a beer. The town of Tecate — where the beer is made — is a small border town about 45 minutes east of Tijuana. As it was pointed out to me this weekend, Tecate, unlike many border towns, is a Mexican border town, rather than an American border town. There is a Tecate, USA just north of the border, but it exists because of Tecate, Mexico, the town just south of the border, not the other way around.

Before recently I had only been to Tecate once. We drove down from San Diego, parked on the US side of the border and walked across. The central part of the town, the plaza and the brewery are within a five minute walk from the border, which makes it really convenient for tourists to get around. The first time I went a few years ago the brewery was closed by the time we got there but we spent some time wandering around town, took in the wonderful plaza in the center of town and had some cheap Mexican food.

Five years ago or so, an English teacher I had at Grossmont college recommended I read a book called Enchiladas, Rice and Beans by a writer named Daniel Reveles. I picked up a copy and read it, it’s short stories about people in Tecate. Daniel Reveles I learned retired to Tecate after working in Hollywood and started writing books. The stories usually follow one or two characters around Tecate and tell stories about the people and the place. They have a bit of mysticism, but are rarely impossible tales that couldn’t really happen.

After I moved to Tijuana a few months ago I started thinking about this book again. Tijuana is nothing like Tecate, the only thing they have in common is that they’re both on the border with the US. Tijuana has about 1.5 million people, it’s a real city. Tecate has about 150,000 people, it just barely qualifies as a large town. I looked up Daniel Reveles and found a story about him from a few years ago in the Union Tribune, I saw that he has released a couple books since Enchiladas, Rice and Beans which was his first.

Last week I picked up a copy of his second book, Salsa and Chips at the library and started reading it. As far as I can remember it’s much like the first book. Short stories about the people in the town of Tecate. Saturday morning Kinsee and I woke up and decided to drive out to Tecate and try to find Daniel Reveles. If his stories could be believed we assumed we would be able to find him wandering through the plaza on a Saturday afternoon, having a drink at Bar Diana or maybe dining at La Fonda restaurant. After a lazy morning and a late start we hit the road to Tecate. There are two ways to get to Tecate from Tijuana, a toll road that costs $75MX, about $6US, each way and a free road that is slower, farther out of the way, and presumably more dangerous. I’ve heard stories that often times the pavement just disappears and one finds them self driving on gravel, that speeding trucks don’t always mind the yellow divider line in the road, and that if you get a flat you might not be able to find a shoulder to pull over on for a while.

In order to save time after our late start we decided to take the toll road, but when I missed the turn off and we saw a sign telling us the free road was just ahead we decided not to backtrack and take the free road. We drove through the outskirts of southeastern Tijuana, the farther we got from the center, the more poverty there was. The neighborhoods and houses reminded me of Salvador Brazil, but without the beautiful beach on the other side of the road. After about twenty minutes we were out of town and cruising along the road. While passing the municipal dump we saw smoke rising from the ground, Kinsee tells me it was methane from the cows.

After what I thought was far too short of a drive, we arrived on the outskirts of Tecate. We parked near the plaza and walked to the brewery. We found the gates locked, the attendant told us they were closed. But then when we pointed out that the sign said they weren’t closed yet he let us in, they were however done giving tours for the day. We got to look around the garden and drank our complimentary beer. While drinking we got to talking to the guy at the bar. I told him this was my second time coming and that both times I didn’t make it in time for the tour, he gave us his email address and told us to let him know next we’re coming and he’ll schedule a special tour.

We walked back to the plaza and just wander through. Small restaurants line one side with tables outside. One of the first thing I noticed was white people. In Tijuana it’s very rare to see any other white people, tourism is nearly nonexistent. But in Tecate there were plenty of Americans walking around eating and shopping. It’s obvious the plaza is a social focal point of the town. There were families with kids running around playing, teenagers that appeared to be on dates, old men playing chess, as well as vendors selling anything you could want, everything from cowboy hats and leather products to cotton candy.

While wandering around the plaza we stopped to watch the old men playing chess, looking for Daniel Reveles, wondering if he still looked the same as the picture on the jacket of his latest book. A man of about 60 sitting on a bench asked us if we were enjoying our time in Tecate. We got to talking to him, in Tijuana I would have assumed he wanted to sell us something, but this man just wanted to talk, wanted to make sure we were enjoying ourselves and finding everything we were looking for. He made sure we had gone to the brewery and recommended the bakery down the street. He told us that he’s lived all of the US, everywhere from Florida to Alaska, but retired to Tecate because it’s cheaper and life moves at a slower pace. He told us where Bar Diana was, and admitted he didn’t know a restaurant called La Fonda. He asked another old man: “Jarocho, Sabes el restaurante La Fonda?” The man thought for a moment and then gave directions in Spanish. “I don’t know it,” he tells us, “but my friend says it’s two blocks up the street.” We thank him and as we’re walking away tell him we’re actually looking for Daniel Reveles. He doesn’t recognize the name at first, but then tells us he knows who he is, that he often sits in the plaza, but he hasn’t seen him yet today. I start to think to myself that it was silly to think we’d be able to just show up in town and magically find Daniel Reveles, that he’d be just hanging out in the plaza or drinking in the bar. But I’m consoled by the conversation with this man, that he was nice and friendly and wanted to talk with us. Even if we don’t find the author it won’t be a wasted trip to Tecate.

Walking into Bar Diana, a bar that the man in the plaza described as “A small, family bar”, its small, with only a few people inside. Looking over at the three men to my left I think I recognize the one in the middle. It’s been about five years, but I’m pretty sure that’s my old english teacher, the teacher that introduced me to Daniel Reveles’s books. We sit down at the bar and Kinsee asks the bartender about Daniel Reveles. He says he knows him, but hasn’t seen him yet today. The next thing I know one of the men beside me is saying to his friend, “They’re looking for Reveles.” I look over and say hi, and introduce myself and confirm that this is indeed my old English teacher from five years ago. He’s there with two friends and colleagues of his, also from the English department at Grossmont College. Introductions are made and the next thing I know the bartender is handing Kinsee the telephone. After a few minutes she rejoins us and tells me Daniel Reveles will meet us here in a few hours.

We drink beer and tequila and chat while watching both American football and European football on the televisions above the bar. A group of musicians come in and we’re told that the guitar player is a character in one of Daniel’s stories. After a while the English teachers leave to have some dinner, telling us they’ll be at a restaurant next door if we’d like to join them. After a few minutes an older man walks in the door and the bartender seats him next to us. Daniel Reveles introduces himself to us and orders a tequila straight, with limes on the side. We talk for a while, about Tecate, about his life experiences that brought him to Tecate to be a writer of English language fiction. He tells us he names his books after food because the short stories are like a combination plate, with a little bit of everything. After talking a while longer we tell him his friends, the english teachers, are next door and were looking for him. Soon we all migrate the the restaurant and I hear the story of how the English teachers from Grossmont college discovered Daniel Reveles at an old bookstore out in Rancho San Diego (a bookstore I used to frequent some years ago, run by an amazingly nice woman, which is gone now). I heard some more stories and soon it was time for them all to leave.

Before leaving town Kinsee and I stopped by the plaza again. It was dark now but just as lively as it was in mid afternoon. Kids were still running around playing, people were singing and dancing around the gazebo. After taking in the scene for a little while we head back to the car. It was dark and we were tired so I decide to take the toll road home. It was quite a bit faster, but a lot more expensive, although the free road at night might be a bit hard to navigate.

I walked away thinking Tecate is just as mystical and magical as the stories Daniel tells in his books.

Me, the English Teachers, and Daniel Reveles, photo by Kinsee Morlan

Me, Tony Ding, Homer Lusk, Daniel Reveles and Joe Medina, photo by Kinsee Morlan

Halloween One More Time

Kinsee and I dressed as Trout Fishing in America made it on to The New Yorker Book Bench Blog’s Halloween costume post. I really like the two costumes above us a lot also.

Thanks to Chris for taking our picture.

Halloween 2008

A few months ago a friend of a friend introduced me to the works of the writer and poet Richard Brautigan. I read Trout Fishing in America and enjoyed it. Then I read The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (a collection of poetry) and fell in love. I later read another poetry collection, Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork.

While trying to decide what to dress up as for Halloween I knew I needed a costume that would allow me to keep my moustache, as I’m just not ready to shave yet. Somehow Kinsee and I came up with dressing up as Richard Brautigan and Michaela Clark LeGrand from the cover of Trout Fishing in America.

The actual cover

The actual cover of Trout Fishing in America

Kinsee and Jeff as Trout Fishing in America

Kinsee and Jeff as Trout Fishing in America

Random bits on literature

I’m almost done reading The Elementary Particles. I started off not liking it, but it’s grown on me a bit. I’ll try to say something more about here after I finish reading. I also started reading Everyday Drinking by Sir Kingsley Amis. The book is essays on drinking and various types of alcohol, I think collected from a magazine column, but I’m not sure. It makes for good bed time reading because the essays are fairly short.

Yesterday I listened to parts II and III of the KCRW podcast Bookworm‘s An American Bookworm in Paris. The host recently went to Paris and recorded interviews with Parisian writers. On part II he talked with Camille de Toledo author of Coming of Age at the End of History, a look at growing up in our post-modern culture.

On part III he spoke with Emmanuel Carrère, a french author who wrote a book called The Mustache. A couple months back I watched a French movie called La Moustache which was based on this book. I hated the movie, it was poorly made in my opinion, but after hearing the author I now want to read the book.

The New Yorker Book Bench blog talked about Literary Halloween costumes. They set up a flickr group for people to upload pictures of their literary costumes. I’ll post pictures of mine next week. I’m not going to mention yet who I’m dressing up as, but I’m pretty excited about it.

Russia! Magazine posted a guide to translations of classic Russian Lit. Sadly they only list six authors and one book by each. Anyone know of any good guides to English translations of popular foreign novels?

Deb Olin Unferth, a short story writer who just published her first novel, was asked by The Week about her favorite books. She included Trout Fish in America by Richard Brautigan (a favorite of mine) on her list, and had this to say about it: “A classic. Better than On the Road. Better than whatever’s better than On the Road.”

Someone recently asked John McCain and Barack Obama to list their favorite books, I’ve seen the lists all over the web. According to NPR, both candidates listed Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. I’ve seen it listed elsewhere that McCain also listed All Quiet on the Western Front. What I haven’t seen and would like to, is a report asked McCain to reconcile the anti-war themes of both novels to his foreign policy views. As well as explain his views on the socialist and fascist concepts in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Personally I don’t think they would reconcile very well with his views.


Books

I’ve been reading Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey for a few weeks now, and I was only about 200 pages into it. Which is a sure sign that I’m not enjoying it too much, which is causing me to read a lot less than I should. So I took it back to the library and picked up The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq. I’m hoping I can get more interested in this book.

I recently signed up for a book based social networking website called Goodreads. You enter the books you’re reading, want to read, and have read. It lets you rate them, recommend them to people and even offer to give away/sell them. Then you connect up with your friends (or strangers with similar interests) on the site to get book recommendations.

After I signed up for it I was looking at my “to read list”, and realized I kept a list of books I read for most of the year I lived in Santa Cruz. I read a lot that year. Then I stumbled upon this woman who is reading a book a week for a year and blogging about it, the 52 Books Project.

She just got done reading Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men, a book I read a few weeks ago and really enjoyed. She also enjoyed it. But what really stood out to me was this quote: “I probably shouldn’t mention it because I refuse to actually read any more than the excerpts, but The Average American Male (and its popularity) made me lose just a little hope in the male subset of the human race. All the Sad Young Literary Men redeems it, makes me realize that, while the average male exists, his existence necessitates the existence of above-average men. And there are men (possibly not only fictional) who think women are attracted to them because, “for all your problems you still read books, you were still a thumb in the eye of the way things were.” They have female counterparts, too.”

Now I haven’t read The Average American Male either. I haven’t even read the excerpts. But a friend recommended it to me, while we were talking about Bukowski (which I’ve learned to always be weary of reading anything anyone compares to Bukowski, because in my opinion it’s never as good, and almost always terrible, Fante excepted). I went out and read a review or two and realized I wanted nothing to do with this book. I hoped (and still do) that it was just perpetuating a stereotype about “the average American male”, but more and more I think it’s not just a stereotype. I obviously can’t speak for the book since I haven’t read it, but I have a feeling I know the general theme, and I just don’t like the idea of men, myself included, portrayed in such a way. And it’s a comfort to know that people recognize not every American male is like that. (Call me narcissistic, but I’m including myself in the “above-average men” category).

Looking quickly over the list of books she’s read, and those she liked, I think I’m going to follow along and get some reading ideas for myself.