Red Chair Reads: Another Place and Time: Voices from the Carrisa Plains

Every two years, I play “literary critic” by volunteering as a preliminary reader for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.  Sounds grand, doesn’t it?  Actually, the long list takes all comers, which is how I ended up reading the totally execrable 33 Bits a few years back.  I may never recover from that experience.  Anyway, nothing since has even come close to being as bad as that book, but I keep thinking there must be a better mechanism for slamming the door on delusional writers.  Cross my fingers, but I have not encountered another Jane Bash since the 33 Bits debacle.

This year, my nonfiction choice was Another Place and Time: Voices from the Carrisa Plainsby Craig Deutsche.  I picked this book because I think local histories can provide wonderful material for literary nonfiction works, but the genre requires someone who not only knows how to write but who also understands that organization and ruthless editing are absolutely essential when dealing with oral histories.  Oral histories provide valuable glimpses of the past, but they can be difficult to handle.  Sometimes, boring stories are just boring stories, and putting them down on paper does not make them any less boring or repetitive. This book could have benefited from an editing that asked the critical question: Does this anecdote add to, or detract from, the main narrative?  Craig Deutsche is a reasonably competent writer with a natural, folksy style that worked well with the stories in the book; unfortunately, in his eagerness to tell us how he got from point A to point B, his voice began to compete with the “voices from the Carrisa Plains.”   Somewhere near the middle of the book, he made a too-many-pages detour into a seemingly endless search for the recorder of some oral history tapes he found.  It was ultimately a fruitless search, and the person he thought had made the tapes turned out not to be the recorder after all.  This section, as well as the “pause for assessment” interlude, seemed a self-indulgent chapter that should not have been included at all.  Neither of the chapters added anything substantive to the book.

Another problem with the book is the organization.  Craig Deutsche made a point of telling us that his book is not meant to be a straight history.  Fair enough.  I admit it, the historian in me thinks the book would have been more valuable if it had foot notes or end notes, a better index, a better reference section — in other words, more rigorous documentation.  But I can overlook all that, if only he had found a better way to organize the subjects.  I understand the difficulties of artificial boundaries: cowboys, shepherds, ranchers — there are overlaps in roles, in places, in time.  But it was frustrating to be reading about a particular person or family, only to have the subject be dropped with the note that “so-and-so” will be encountered again at some later chapter.  This was particularly glaring when Deutsch embarked on the search for the Van Mastre family, and wrote about the beginning of the journey in the chapter on the search for the oral history tapes recorder.  And then, for some inexplicable reason, he dropped the family until the end of the book.  Perhaps it was meant to be suspenseful, but it just added to the impression of disorganization and the feeling that perhaps the author should have been less ambitious with the scope of work.  The Van Mastre family could indeed have been the subject of a monograph all by themselves, a lens through which to view a particular history of agriculture in California.

I quibble about the scholarship but not the intent: the book is important for shedding light on a little-known piece of California history.  The author has made a truly remarkable effort to gather in one place the stories of a people and place, stories that highlight the resilience of pioneers as well as the sometimes ephemeral nature of human settlements.   And, perhaps unintended, the book is also a celebration of the life of the land, its resilience and its ability to absorb, and cast off, the efforts of man.  Someday I will go to the Carissa Plains;  perhaps I will hear the voices, but more likely, I will feel merely my own puny mortality.


Toss the Book: 33 Bits

When I was much younger and could just about call myself a pianist, I was always surprised by the competitions my teacher chose for me, was always surprised when I won those competitions, and was always surprised by the judges’ comments and compliments.  Each time I touched the piano it was an adventure of sorts, because I could never hear myself play.

This past weekend I had to read Jane Bash’s 33 Bits (2009) because the author had submitted it for a literary competition (which apparently takes all comers, but then relies on volunteer readers, such as me, to cull the entries), and I had chosen to read it based on a blurb supplied by the writer.  Like the selective deafness of my younger self, Jane Bash cannot hear her words.  Or perhaps the problem is that her estimation of her writing  far out-strips the reality of her efforts.

I want to point out that “writing” is part of the title of this literary prize:

The barbeque grill was emitting swirls of sweet mesquite smoke and was anxious to meet up with the slabs of meat that were forthcoming.

He had been out of the military long enough now to have sampled the various women he might consider dating for more long-term aspirations.”

He couldn’t wait to return from Spain to his little filly.  She exhibited such promise.” [And no, the filly did not refer to a horse.]

While Etta took in the room, she didn’t notice Joseph taking her in.  He was enjoying watching her eyes.  She seldom moved her head, but her eyes were actively taking in the details of the room.  Gosh, she had beautiful eyes.  Joseph did not know how to engage her in conversation, so he just beheld her, entrapping the lovely vision of her in his mind’s eye.

It is a romance novel of many, many words — 360+ pages worth, in fact.  At some point the heroine started to cry — but she didn’t just cry, she had tears coming out of her eye sockets.  Me?  After the excruciating hours I spent with this book (hours, by the way, that  I will NEVER EVER be able to get back), I’m just glad I still have eyes IN my eye sockets . . . .