Wordstock – Portland, Oregon

We went to Wordstock today walking the mile and a half there in a steady drizzle. One umbrella between us, which I used because Duane has a hat. Just the one umbrella. I’ve lost too many of them to be trusted with one of my own. It really didn’t seem like that much of a rain, but we were damp by the time we got to the Convention Center. There were not many attending Wordstock. Not like in years past. Something a little depressing about it this year. I don’t know when they started charging for the event, but I think that has something to do with the lower turnout.

We cruised the booths. I had a nice chat with a couple of vendors. Duane and I went to our friend’s reading and there really wasn’t anyone else we were interested in hearing until much later in the afternoon and even though we paid $7 to get in, we left to find something to eat and go home. We talked about why Wordstock seemed so unsatisfying this year. We figured that most of the attendees were writers or people involved in the publishing industry in some way. The exhibitors were much the same–writers and publishers. Nothing wrong with that. Except that something is missing. It isn’t creative or exciting. It’s restrictive, traditional, stodgy.

Portland has a tendency to be stodgy in spite of all the young creatives everyone claims have moved here in droves, in spite all the tattoo parlors and micro-brew pubs, at heart Portland has always been the sort of city a little afraid to color outside the lines. At least on the surface and it is on the surface where Wordstock takes place. What Portland needs is an underground literary festival for all the fringe dwellers and marginalised folk, the ones who can’t afford the Writer’s Dojo or writing jaunts to Prague with their favorite author. It should take place on the streets and in the coffee houses and small bookstores. It should take place in the tattoo parlors and brew-pubs.

A proper literary festival would be a celebration. It would be a recognition of language as the primary medium of culture. It would explore the history of story, the politics and economics of literature, the state of the publishing industry, how literature has been shaped by invention–the printing press, the internet. There would be discussions on the impact of film on literature, the search for authentic voice, and translation. It would involve theater and meaningful workshops.

People would read their work, sell it, trade it, give it away. We might come to understand that the tradition of word is an endlessly evolving creative stream and we could walk away dazzled by our own dreams, which is how it should be.

Book Review: The Double by José Saramago

No writer has impacted me to a greater extent in the last four years than Jose Saramago. Blindness was a gift from a good friend and from the first I was captivated, by style, by substance, by story. The Double is the latest among several that I have read since receiving that first brilliant introduction to this nobel laureate.

Identity is an undercurrent in all of his books. A strong undercurrent. What do we know of ourselves, who do we become, when suddenly we and everyone else, save one, succumbs to blindness? And the minions of us recorded dutifully on birth and death records and in the cemetery registry, on the tombstone, if that is the only record of our existence, the sum of our lives, who will go searching for us among these breviary? What is the identity, the meaning of an entire city if its history is altered by one event? Suppose the ground beneath us begins to move and we who were peninsula become island and drift?

And suppose you are a history teacher, divorced, depressed, childless, in a relationship that you want to end and you discover that there is someone in the world, in your own city who is your exact double. Not your twin. Your double. A scientific impossiblity. A freak of nature. You and this other man. He is an actor who puts on other identities for the camera. A minor actor whose career has gradually ascended until he is on the brink of celebrity, but not quite there. Can you bear that he exists? Tertuliano Maximo Afonso cannot bear it. Identity becomes central in The Double.

Saramago is a master at creating tension, at making characters who, if these were horror stories, are bound to go into the “dark room”. It is an inexorable journey into the dark room. Tertuliano makes one step after another, this decision and that one. Most of his decisions are guaranteed to be disastrous. He discovers love and loses it. He discovers a capacity to destroy and a capacity to redeem. Ultimately, he discovers that his desire to be unique is futile, never to be realized.

If you have not read Saramago, you may well be confused by his style. Few writers would dare to use this form. To read Saramago is to adjust to a whole new way of regarding the printed word. It is like listening to a great story teller. Listen to him.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****

P.D. James, The Children of Men

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The Children of Men, by P.D. James
Published in 1994 in the U.S. by Warner Books, copyright 1992 by P.D. James

P.D. James is an English author and is most well-known for her mystery novels. Several of these have been made into episodes for the BBC television series Mystery.

It has been twenty-five years since any human child has been born. The last generation drifts without purpose, alternately useless and violent. Enfeebled elderly are disposed of because there are not enough young people to take care of them. The countryside is emptying out as villagers move to larger metropolitan areas to maximize the shrinking labor pool. People of child-bearing age dote on their dogs and cats as they would have doted on their children. The main character of the book, Theo, is that saddest of men–an aging man responsible for the death of his only child in a world where there are no longer children. He bears an additional burden. His cousin is Xan the Warden of England, a more or less permanent position of ultimate power, whose directives are increasingly fascist.

James builds her provocative story thread by thread, carefully, skillfully. She draws you along with her deeper and deeper into her world as Theo is drawn into the plot of a group of resisters who call themselves the five fishes.

The Children of Men reveals James to be what her most devoted readers have always suspected; a brilliant thinker, a writer with uncanny reach. Her mystery novels are explorations of particular characters and the character of humanity in general. This novel deserves a place among the classics and it would be a shame if it is relegated to lesser status simply because James writes excellent mystery genre fiction and could thus be passed over by the arbiters of literature.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****