I found enlightenment in the Pacific Northwest

In May, I happily stumbled on the secret to enlightenment when I attended the Medical Library Association (MLA) annual meeting in Seattle and vacationed with my family in the Cascades.

It all started with MLA speaker and best-selling author Steven Johnson, who told us about a theory he encountered while researching his latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  (Steven is a great speaker, not to mention that he reminds me of one of my favorite Downton Abbey characters.)

Some believe the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment occurred, in part, when the middle class switched from alcohol to coffee and tea as their beverage of choice. With clean drinking water scarce, people drank ale or wine, even for breakfast. When coffee and tea imports became available, many switched from alcohol – a depressant – to caffeine, a stimulant.

Coffeehouses, where “ideas [could] spill from one mind to another,” became popular, according to Johnson. “The coffeehouse was a multidisciplinary space.” (So are libraries, he said, in a nod to his audience.) People from all walks of life who normally would not encounter one another engaged in “a diversity of conversations.”

So, coffee and tea led people to a kind of hyperactive exchange of ideas, which in turn led to innovation.

Johnson predicts that the internet and social media are a new kind of global, virtual coffeehouse spawning another great age of innovation.

I experienced coffee and coffeehouses on an entirely new level during my stay in Washington. In Rochester, New York, we don’t have drive-through espresso kiosks as in the Pacific Northwest. They are ubiquitous in the Seattle area, even on the edge of wilderness. Up in the Cascades, if you need a dentist, quick, or someone who knows how to repair a transmission, you may be out of luck – but you can almost always find a cup of coffee.

My theory is, there is so little sunshine people need the caffeine to keep going.

At any rate, I also noticed that the Pacific Northwest has thriving literary communities. People here really appreciate books, and they love coffee, and they love combining the two.

For me, the combination of exceptional coffee, great bookstores, access to the internet and, last but certainly not least, absolutely stunning scenery and fresh, mountain air, was so invigorating. I felt the ideas flowing. Like I was on the verge of my own personal enlightenment.

The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle

The Elliott Bay Book CompanyWe spent several hours visiting The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle’s largest independent bookstore, which also has (of course) great coffee. Elliott Bay has a full roster of book signings and author readings, and a terrific blog. Here is what I bought there:

The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, by Karen Armstrong

Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel

Pearl Street Books & Gifts in Ellensburg, WA. Pearl Street Books & Gifts

I wanted to see the high desert on the eastern side of the Cascades, so we drove to Ellensburg, WA, where we discovered the delightful Pearl Street Books & Gifts. Owner Michele Bradshaw is passionate about books and literature.  She and I talked about our reading interests. Michele enjoys making recommendations, and it’s obvious she puts a lot of thought into creative, customer-responsive bookselling.

I liked the Magic Table, a display of enticing best-sellers and high quality fiction and nonfiction. Quality is apparent on every shelf and surface in the shop, where carefully chosen books are displayed cover side up. Michele has put together a number excellent book collections, including young adult, children’s, fiction, memoir/biography, and Pacific Northwest authors.

Pearl Street Books & Gifts also hosts 11 book clubs, a tea club, a knitting club, and yoga workouts.

While I was there, I bought:

The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche, by Gary Krist

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, by Timothy Egan

Booklust to Go, by Nancy Pearl

Queen Anne Books

Cover of Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott

Climb, climb, climb Queen Anne Avenue in Seattle and you’ll be rewarded at the top of the hill with tree-lined streets and all manner of shops, including Queen Anne Books. On the shelves are literally hundreds of hand-written staff recommendations, the sign of a great bookstore. Here, Windee recommends Anne Lamott’s latest book about her new grandson, Some Assembly Required.


Seattle Central Library

The Seattle Central Library, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and a local architectural firm.

I had a great time this spring walking the Pacific Crest Trail with Cheryl Strayed (who has just inspired Oprah Winfrey to revive her book club!), sailing the waters off British Columbia with M. Wylie Blanchet and her children, clearing forest trails with Ana Maria Spagna, and observing life through the eyes of the characters in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.

In June: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

“Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them.”

This is the opening line of The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (first-time, best-selling novelist making her debut at age 57, wrote novels in secret for 25 years when the kids were at school), which I’ll be reading in June.

Highlights from the jacket copy: 1914. A bride on her honeymoon. Adrift on the Atlantic Ocean. Not enough to go around. A power struggle. Choosing sides.

Will you read it with me?

Quote from: The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2012.

Train Dreams

Just steps from our front door, I can see the jagged peaks of Mount Index in amazing detail, lit up by the last rays of sun.

The evening we arrived the mountaintop was hidden in fog.

It’s spring and we’re in the Cascade Mountains in Washington. To me, this is strange, wild, intimidating country. Rivers and creeks are raging because snow is melting in the mountains. We’ve passed by several streams of snowmelt tumbling down walls of rock alongside the highway.

Our vacation cabin is perched on the banks of the Skykomish River. It was raining our first night here, and the rain, together with the rushing river, created quite a din.

My husband built a fire in the wood burning stove, which took the chill out of the air and made everything cozier. After a while, though, we noticed a dull thunder swelling to a roar that soon overpowered the sounds of downpour and river flow outside our picture window. My first, nervous thought was “flash flood,” but when a high-pitched whine of metal on metal joined the mix we realized it was a train.

Train in Skykomish

We are in train country. The legend of the Great Northern Railroad is very much alive here, though nowadays the trains that run are mostly on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line. Twice now, while having lunch at the Cascadia Hotel Cafe in Skykomish, we’ve watched trains pass through, heading east from the port of Seattle with container cars from China, Germany, and Scandinavia.

Several times a day and into the night we hear the trains.

In a kind of parallel journey to my vacation, I’m reading Train Dreams, a novel by Denis Johnson about a logger and laborer who worked for the Pacific Northwest train companies of the early twentieth century.

The Pacific Northwest is a surreal and dangerous character in Train Dreams, as much a character as Johnson’s protagonist, Robert Grainier.

Photos of loggers

I thought about the life and times of Grainier when we hiked the Iron Goat Trail, along the now abandoned Great Northern Railway bed. On plaques along the way, old photographs depicted loggers like Grainier taking down giant cedar and fir trees.

Grainier grew “hungry to be around….massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.”

Yet Grainier also saw the great mountains and forests defeat the ambitious plans of mere humans. The land defeated him, too, in a very personal way, but he learned acceptance and, finally, a kind of reverence for the terrible beauty of the land he lived in.

The Iron Goat was the last spur of the Great Northern Railway, crossing the Cascades at the treacherous Stevens Pass. (I found Stevens Pass stunning the first time we drove through, going east at sunny noon, but on the late afternoon return trip, when it was foggy, overcast, and raining, I could hardly stand the vertigo.)  Disaster Viewpoint on the Iron Goat Trail marks the spot where, in 1910, an avalanche swept two snowbound passenger trains into the Tye River below, killing nearly 100 people.

Snowshed, hiking path

Snowshed

To alleviate the dangers of avalanches, the railroad companies eventually built snowsheds, huge retaining walls to protect trains from tumbling snow. My husband and I walked alongside an old snowshed on our hike.

We knew our hike would be cut short because a sign at the trail head indicated an avalanche had made the trail impassable a half mile in.

Sure enough, just a few feet from where the snowshed ended, we could go no further, thanks to a wall of hard-packed, dirt-encrusted snow.

 

Snowmelt avalanceh

Loggers photo: D. Kinsey Collection, Whatcom Museum of History and Art, Bellingham, WA.
Quote from Train Dreams, Denis Johnson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011.

Listen to a trailer of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, the audiobook published by Macmillan:

Mount Index

Mount Index

Why There Should Have Been a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

There was no Pulitzer Prize for fiction awarded this year because none of the three finalists received a majority vote from the Pulitzer board.

The judges who screened 300 or so books, narrowed the field to three, and submitted their choices to the board were just as surprised as everyone else when the decision was announced.

I think there should have been a fiction Pulitzer winner this year. Here’s why:

  1. Ann Patchett said so.
  2. Authors of books that may have been years in the making shouldn’t be denied the chance to win this prestigious prize just because they published in 2011.
  3. Fiction needs all the support it can get. The book as a form of artistic expression is reinventing itself before our eyes, and some think it may go the way of the dinosaur. This isn’t the time to be stingy with book awards.
  4. The Pulitzer Prize celebrates great storytelling about who we are and how we live in America. The three nominated books, as well as the other contenders, had important and unique things to say about that. Prizes such as the Pulitzer bring more readers to these works.
  5. We reward our sports figures and entertainers lavishly. Our greatest storytellers will never make that kind of money or achieve the fame of baseball players and movie stars, but they do deserve to be rewarded and honored.
  6. Many books published in 2011 were good enough to have been chosen, not just the three nominated; the lack of a prize creates the impression NO books were deemed worthy. I would think this was especially disappointing to the authors of two of the nominated books. (The Pale King was published posthumously.)

One of the disappointed judges said perhaps this will draw readers to three deserving books, rather than just one.

Maybe the Pulitzer board should change the rules so no artist or artistic form suffers when the numbers don’t add up just right.

The three Pulitzer nominees were:

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace

Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson

There are many fantastic books from 2011 to choose from. Let’s all buy one to show our support for the great writers and the great books.

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