"There are certain places that feel charged. Visiting them gives me an electrical surge, as if I have plugged in to some current. The headwaters of the Metolius River are like that. So is Short Sands Beach on the Oregon Coast. And the tunnels snaking beneath Edinburgh. And the Von Trier bar in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The horror section at the downtown Powell’s makes me feel the same way. I grew up in Central Oregon, but my grandparents lived in Portland, so every few months, we’d cram into the truck and growl over the mountains for a visit. We had no local bookstore — outside of the sad little Waldenbooks in the Bend River Mall — so the Powell’s visit took a lot of time and strategy. This was our literary haul for the next two months. We had to choose wisely.
For those who have never visited, the downtown Powell’s takes up a whole city block. A giant concrete split-level sarcophagus of books. There is a ghost that haunts the water fountain. An urn of cremated remains that moves from room to room, depending on space. The shelves spill books, used and new, and the aisles buzz with the kind of diversity you’ll only find at the DMV: dudes in suits and dudes in mud-caked cowboy boots, a woman with dreads and a woman with a tiara and a woman with bright blue hair. A carnival of wonders for a kid from the boonies.
We would push our way through the 10th and Burnside doors, and the smell of paper and ink and glue (and oftentimes patchouli) would result in a sensory overload. I would feel jittery and starved. I cut through the Blue Room (which I always thought of as English class, home to all of the serious lit-e-ra-ture) and slowly, slowly made my way through the Gold Room, where all the sci-fi and fantasy and thrillers and horror novels could be found.
The smell there — sort of mildewy earthworm meets mottled paper — is one of my favorite smells. I remember the horror aisle as shadow-soaked, far from any window. Over the next few hours, I would pull down books and read from them and build a dark tower of mass-market paperbacks, the greatest treasure of my childhood.”
Author Benjamin Percy is guest-blogging all week at Powells.com: http://powells.us/11QAmNa
"In high school … I joined a role-playing group. ‘Joined,’ in this context, is actually the wrong word; ‘was abducted by’ is possibly a little more accurate. This group (led by my friend Luke) was extremely aggressive in its recruiting, I suspect because they had discovered that the people who would be most interested in an RPG group were exactly the sort of shy, awkward types who would never voluntarily join one. They operated a bit like a role-playing Mafia. Incoming freshmen were carefully scanned for signs of geekdom: Star Wars T-shirts, boxes of Magic cards, a Dragonlance novel sticking out of a coat pocket. Any likely prospect was cornered at lunchtime and convinced to drop by the Brick Oven Pizzeria, where Luke would make him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
Author Django Wexler on how he became a gamer and writer. Read the rest of the essay on our blog: http://powells.us/10dQGGT
I was being driven up some steep gravel roads in a pickup truck, above Paradise Valley, in Montana. This was back in 2007. Below, the Yellowstone River snaked back and forth, Highway 89 running parallel. The driver of the truck was a man I’d just met, a friend of a friend; somewhat taciturn, he didn’t seem to know what to make of me. He seemed suspicious of my interest in where he’d agreed to take me.
Seventeen years before, this man and several thousand other people were members of the Church Universal and Triumphant, a sect led by the Messenger Elizabeth Clare Prophet. With the help of the Ascended Masters, a group of deities who spoke through her, the Messenger had proclaimed the late ’80s a particularly dangerous time. Preparations would have to be made, for it seemed quite possible that the world might end.
The landscape around us showed those preparations. Here and there, the ground had caved in on what had been shelters for families or groups of families. Steel doorways were cut into the sides of cliffs. The ground rose up in rounded, paranoid humps, and pipes jutted through it. For ventilation, to bring air underground.
"I’ve been doing these interviews," I said. "I’ve talked to some people; I guess you know that."
He drove, shrugging his shoulders. The wind was blowing so hard outside; it whistled all around the truck.
"What’s amazing to me is how different everyone’s recollections are," I said. "It’s going to be hard to figure out what actually happened, whose story to tell."
"You know," he said, taking one hand off the wheel and pointing down to the valley, now far below. "If there was an accident down on the highway, there’d be plenty of witnesses. And every witness would have a different story." He paused. "Of course, if an accident happened up here, there’d just be the two of us."
I nodded, not sure how to take that. I was already nervous.
Read the rest of Peter Rock’s original essay for Powells.com here: http://powells.us/10jSMr7
What do you write?
I used to say book-length essays, but the inevitable follow-up question — essays about what? — would take me to another dodge, first-person narrative nonfiction… and seconds later I’d admit, I write about myself.
Now I just say the word: memoir.
I’m 38 years old and I’m working on my third memoir.
As I wrote in the first one, I have never shot heroin in an alley with a needle I knew was dirty, killed anyone by mistake or on purpose, spent even one night in jail, lost a limb, watched anyone burn to death, had to choose the child that would live, seen active duty, lost everything in a flood…
Which is to say: I have almost no story to tell, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that almost no story. A lot of thinking about almost nothing.
In that first memoir, during the seventh year of a remission, I tried to remember the experience of being chronically ill.
In my second memoir, during the third year after his death, I tried to remember my friend.
In the third one I seem to be trying to find a reason to stop (or to continue?) my ongoing 20-year, 800,000-word diary.
By the judgment even I would make of myself, if I didn’t know myself, I contain a malevolent, bottomless narcissism.
Read more of Sarah Manguso’s original essay for Powells.com here: http://powells.us/Zceahv
I have recently been living in Texas. You’d need to be like me, an apprehensive Englishman, to share or even understand the uneasy thrill I have felt when walking in its countryside (though countryside is not a fitting word; it’s far too tame for Texas — its wilds, perhaps, or its terrain).
A country hike — if you can find a stretch of land that isn’t fenced or defended with “bob war” — is at best a risky affair in the Lone Star state. I’ve made mistakes. As the blundering innocent abroad, trusting everything I see, I have inspected a poison ivy too intimately on the seemingly innocuous Hike & Bike trail round Austin’s Town Lake (the blisters stayed with me for weeks), and I have been fooled by seemingly smooth-skinned cactuses into grasping hold of their stems and then spent a week tweezering out a hundred tiny and invisible lances. I have tested my nerve by reaching a little too closely toward a lengthy alligator on the Gulf Coast and a saucer-sized tarantula in a Houston car park. I have failed to protect myself sufficiently against mosquitoes and ticks, and then had to spend the next few hours scratching off my skin with my nails and wondering which of the punishing insect-borne diseases now current in Texas — West Nile virus, St. Louis encephalitis, La Crosse encephalitis, dengue fever, Lyme disease… a deadly and growing list — would be the one to end my days.
Even as I write now, back in the unheroic safety of my English study, a photograph above my desk reminds me of the living hazards and perils that bothered me — though clearly not any of my American companions — every time I stepped into the Texan boonies. I am pictured next to a Lion Warning sign at the foot of the Chisos Mountains in the Big Bend National Park. (DON’T FLINCH OR SHOW ANY FEAR if you are threatened by “the aggressive lion that has been frequenting this area,” I am advised. APPEAR LARGE. And — the most testing instruction — ENJOY THE ENCOUNTER.) In my right hand, I am holding a sturdy and defensive stick; in my left, I’m clutching a snake bite kit with its “easy-to-use lymph constrictor”; there are rattlers and copperheads about. Just out of shot, a ranger is telling me about the black bear he’d had to “find, immobilize, and relocate” the day before. The bear had separated a German hiker from his rucksack and its stash of apples. Tracking that animal was “as easy as fried pie,” he said. Its dung was full of Gore-Tex. Its droppings were waterproof and breathable!
— Jim Crace, author of Quarantine, Being Dead, and, most recently, Harvest.
"When I was 17, I fell in love for the first time. His name was Dylan. I had first noticed him when he performed the Elvis Costello song ‘Alison’ in the Beaver Country Day School Talent Show. His voice was thin and cracked in places during the song, but something about him up on stage playing the guitar with his eyes shut and his head thrown back got to me in a way nothing ever had before. He rocked along as he played, spastically dancing in a mustard-colored suit that he wore with a skinny black tie. He looked goofy and exposed and I felt like he was singing to me. I approached him afterward and told him I thought he should have won instead of the girl who twirled batons to the Star Wars theme. In a few days, we were going out. And a few months later, I was ready to have sex for the first time.
I drove to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near my home in Belmont. In the waiting room there were a few middle-aged women and some young couples who were holding hands, some married and some not. I took a chair next to a hugely pregnant, crying girl who was a few years younger than me. Her mother sat with her, frowning sternly and ignoring the girl’s whimpering. I wondered what my mother would do if she knew I was here.
My mother wasn’t like other mothers. She didn’t bake cookies or go to PTA meetings; she wore a mink coat and always had a lit Dunhill plugged into her cigarette holder. She had slept with too many men, and some women, and she didn’t like dogs or children. The last time I had confided in her about romance, I’d told her I thought the boy who mowed our lawn was cute. She’d delivered a lecture on ‘hot-blooded Latin types’ and the next week seduced the lawn boy in our backyard pup tent. He never came back.
Despite my mother’s long history of promiscuity, I had very little actual knowledge of what happened between men and women, and I was grateful to have access to someone who could help me. When I heard my name called, I followed the nurse down the hallway to a small examination room.
I sat on the padded table in a paper dress waiting for the doctor to come in. I had left my socks on because I was cold. I stared at the brightly colored oven mitts with a kitty-cat pattern on them that covered the stirrups at the opposite end of the table. I wondered if the oven mitts were meant to keep the stirrups warm or to help catch a flying baby. On one wall was a large medical drawing of the female reproductive system with everything labeled in large red letters, as if issuing a warning: Danger, Uterus Ahead! On the other wall was a travel poster advertising the Swiss Alps. I pondered the possible connection between the vagina and all that snow and ice. Would losing my virginity be exciting like being transported to the top of the highest mountain, or would I be frigid, feel nothing, and wish I’d stayed home? There were no magazines to look at in the room, so I bit my fingernails while I worried and waited.”