There it is, jumping off the page of “One Good Man,” the last of nine Sherman Alexie short stories in this collection:

“What is an Indian?”

I’ve been asking myself either this question, or others just like it, ever since the third story. I don’t have an answer. I’m not even close. Each story spins me around, leaves me breathless. The question is asked again,

“What is an Indian?”

Years ago I saw “Smoke Signals”. Then I read its inspiration, “The Loan Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” I’ve been a Sherman Alexie fan ever since, buying books for the lovely readers in my family, my wife and two daughters, but not finding, it seems, time to read them myself. They would read. I would buy. Repeat. Finally, I noticed a well-thumbed copy of “The Toughest Indian in the World” lying on my shelf, taking its time so I began carrying it around with me.

Every story was a surprise. Raunchy stories, sweet stories, ghosts and horror stories, family stories, almost always family. Stories filled with truth tellers who spin lies, liars who sliced through the garbage to bare the truth, teasers, drunks, half breeds, and orphans. Seymour and Salmon Boy ran from the international House of Pancakes, never getting more than one kiss and $10 ahead of the law. The “thin white skeletons of one thousand salmon.” Jonah’s nightmare. Low Man Smith rescuing, *** being rescued by ***, a white lesbian flame that will forever burn in his heart. Roman Gabriel Fury sitting down to pee for the woman he loves. The good son who lights his dying, diabetic father’s stash of candy on fire, and then carries him in his arms across the border.

What is an Indian?”

I still don’t know. There is a professor, Crowell, who throws the question at us over and over again, terrifying us.

“What is an Indian?”

The steady repetition finally breaks through my reader’s armor. What is an Indian? What is your original face? What is the Way? What is in Indian? Of course. An Indian koan. Words, thoughts, rationales – all beside the point.

“What is an Indian?” Crowell asked as he stood in front of the classroom.
My father raised his left hand.
“Anybody?” asked the professor.
With his hand high above his head, my father stood from his chair.
My father dropped his hand, walked up to the front, and stood directly in front of Crowell.

Enlightened, enit. Maybe for a moment, but – (there) – I see!



December 6, 2017

It was just a year ago, last Christmas to be exact, that I opened up one of my presents and found Paper: Paging through History by Mark Kurlansky. I think the book came my way because I had requested it. I think I had read the NY Times review, been drawn in by such descriptive phrases as, “The history of paper is a history of cultural transmission, and Kurlansky tells it vividly in this compact, well-illustrated book.” Also, the topic of paper connected with my interests on several levels: biographical (as a high school exchange student in Japan in the 70s’ I spent an hour in the workshop of a famed Japanese paper maker and artist), tactile (I love the feel of paper), regional (paper production has played a central place in the history of the wood and water-rich Pacific NW), and professional (for about half a dozen years I worked with a team of chemists that were trying to find chlorine-free methods to bleach pulp). So I probably sent the link to the Times review to my kids with a note saying, “Xmas is coming. You could get this for me.”

Once I had unwrapped my present, things took their usual course. The book, like so many others in my possession, was inspected, appreciated, and then allowed to lay untouched in the dining room built-in for months. Finally, realizing that I might need to make room for new presents, I picked it up earlier this fall and began reading. And then, for reasons unclear to me, I finished it.

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Morris Dancing for Chemists

December 1, 2017

A couple of years ago I bought a copy of John Cleese‘s “So, Anyway . . .” for my younger daughter. I don’t know if I discovered the following entry on my own, or if she ran across it and dutifully brought it to my attention. Either way, when the dancing shoe fits … dance!

Still, it gave me a moment’s pause to realize that my life (chemistry professor, folk and Morris dancer, pub singer) had been constructed from exactly the nerdy materials that John Cleese chose to mock. What can I say? Had it been me at Cambridge, and not Cleese, I would have been right at home at the Morris Dance stand, the Dancing for Chemists stand (is there such a thing?), and even, God willing, a Morris Dancing for Chemists stand.

Did I  mention that some of my friends say I can sing? It seems I just can’t catch a break.

From “So, Anyway . . .” (chapter 6),  Read the rest of this entry »

A Man Called Ove

November 26, 2017

According to Fredrik Backman, the man called Ove, is mad at the world.

Ove, if he could be persuaded to take any notice at all, would no doubt say this is incorrect. He is not mad at the “world,” only at the annoying creatures in it who refuse to behave as he thinks they should. Which includes practically everyone. Even a cat.

If one didn’t know any better, one might think a person with Ove’s hostile attitude would eventually kill someone, and that is his plan. To kill someone. Or, to be correct in the way that only an Ove would insist on, to kill himself. Ove plans to do this not for the reasons we think (he doesn’t care what we think), and not because of his anger with the world, but for another reason entirely. So he makes one plan after another, only to be frustrated (temporarily) by the annoying creatures who surround him.

Ultimately, this is not a story about anger. It is about loneliness, and how one can be saved from it by simply living, by accepting that one must deal with all of its annoying creatures, even the pregnant woman next door and the men in the “white shirts.” There’s no need to put on a special sweet face when dealing with annoying creatures. Just be yourself, which in Ove’s case means demanding that these creatures behave according to his rules. Don’t drive in the Residential Area (can’t you read the sign?). Learn how to drain a radiator and fix a bike. Drive the right kind of car, a Saab, maybe a Volvo, but never a BMW or a Renault (French car!).

In the end, Ove’s loneliness is defeated by love. Which Sonja, Parvaneh, Anita, Nasanin, Adrian, Jimmy and Mirsad, and many others, could have told him was pretty much there all along, if only he would open his heart.

Thank you, Warren, for recommending this book. Seeing you in Irvine at Thanksgiving reminded me once again why we have been pals for so long. Take care.

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The Hidden Life of Trees

October 29, 2017

How do trees see humans? As clear-cutting maniacs bent on driving native forests to extinction? Or, as angels of mercy, quenching forest fires, watering thirsty roots, and planting future generations?

Questions like these have an undeniably odd quality – do trees even ‘see’ humans? – but the fact that they seems worthy of consideration is testimony to the power of Peter Wohlleben‘s little book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. One short chapter after another explores the lives of trees from all sorts of unexpected angles: their feelings, how they band together in mutual defense, how they compete, how they raise their young, why they hold on to/lose their branches and leaves, what dictates their growth and death, and how human behavior shapes their lives.

Wohlleben does not regard trees as humans-made-of-wood, but he does not shy away from using descriptive language that positions trees in a web of relationships similar to ours. One of my favorite chapters, “Street Kids”, begins,

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The Sixth Extinction

September 27, 2017

How do I say this?

Elizabeth Kolbert is a national treasure. I had arrived at that conclusion from reading her numerous magazine articles and interviews, but I knew I was really on to something when I mentioned my feelings to a daughter who replied, almost reflexively, “Oh my God, yes!” It turns out that there’s almost nothing as affirming as finding out that some idea you reached on your own is also held by your super-intelligent children. I may be old, but I can still have good ideas! (It helps to ‘share a brain’ with your child.)

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Immigration Fairy Tale

September 13, 2017

My wife is a book shark. She needs to read constantly to survive, and so she (we!) take precautions to make sure there is always an unread book nearby just in case, when she finishes her current read, she still feels that gnawing hunger…

To my surprise, something like this hit me last week. We were spending a week at the coast avoiding hot weather and wildfire smoke as best we could when I unexpectedly finished the only book I had brought with me. Suddenly I felt the hunger so I had to comb through our shelf of “beach books” to find something to keep me occupied. That’s where I found Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford’s first novel from 2009 (Kirkus review).

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I’m too scatter-brained about money. Thinking ahead to retirement, I worry “will there be enough?” I studiously refrain from major purchases, but I’m profligate when it comes to the smaller expenses, $20 lunches, $80 concert and play tickets, $60 dinners (for two).

It wasn’t always this way. Early in my College teaching career I would watch carefully for the emails from the College Bookstore announcing one-day end-of-semester sales. My shopping tastes were simple: a quick peak at the software rack, scan the clothing on sale (my drawers and closet are filled with cheap t-shirts and not-so-cheap sweatshirts sporting the College’s name in various designs, and my family hasn’t been spared either), and then step over to the book bins. Clothing wears out so I still shop the Bookstore sales, but I’ve noticed that I no longer glance at software, and the “$5 or less” book pile seems less appealing too. Here are two book reports from my “sales” period.

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I Am a Cat

July 5, 2017

I fell in love with San Francisco, and with Northern California generally, while a postdoc at Berkeley in the early 80’s. It was a tumultuous period in my life. Adding to the usual hassles of new job, new home, there had been a recent death in the family, and my marriage was on the rocks. Quickly settling down to professional responsibilities just wasn’t in the cards. For several months, a daily battle was fought between the lab and the Bay, a battle the latter often won, particularly if the sun was already breaking through the clouds by early morning. This pattern couldn’t continue forever, aided by my research mentor’s gentle prodding, I eventually returned to steady work, but the allures of walking through San Francisco, hiking the Marin headlands, and driving Highway 1 towards Mendocino and Big Sur, have stayed with me.

Fortunately for me, my wife, a Berkeley grad, and my younger daughter, currently a Berkeley grad student, are more than willing to join me in SF adventures. This explains why I was able to lead them over to the Japan Center in October 2015 and the Kinokuniya bookstore, and why no one protested when I made my way to the cashier with two books, one of which was I Am a Cat by Sōseki Natsume.

The book’s cover advertises everything that might be said about it, “Richly allegorical and delightfully readable, I Am a Cat is the chronicle of an unloved, unwanted, wandering kitten who spends all his time observing human nature.” Here are two reviews, Kirkus Review and a compilation of Goodreads reader reviews.

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June 28, 2017

I don’t recall when our family made its first trip to Astoria, Oregon, but I can still bring to mind the glum, puzzled expressions on the faces of my sweatshirt-clad daughters as they emerged from our new, white Previa van. Each face seemed to ask, “Dad, why did you bring us here? What is there to do in this cold, gray, dismal place?” Thinking back to the rundown Astoria of the early 90’s that greeted us, I can’t say what exactly had motivated the trip, but I’m guessing that, as the fearless instigator of many family car journeys, I had probably gleaned from the nightly 11 o’clock weather forecasts that Astoria was 1) located on the mouth of the Columbia, and 2) a city of some importance and worthy of a visit. Had I paid closer attention, either to a proper map, or a weather almanac, or preferably both, I might have saved our family from making a potentially disastrous trip. Little did I know then that many others had come to this spot before me, driven by a similar mixture of adventure and curiosity, and they had suffered for it.

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