Posts Tagged ‘Book Commentary’

The Essential West. Elliott West. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman OK. 2012. 328 pp.

In this collection of 14 essays, penned across his career as a western historian, Elliott West (one of those remarkably synchronous names) takes on topics as diverse as epidemics and Lonesome Dove. Divided into three sections—Conquest, Families and Myth—the book takes a tour around the real and mythic geography of this region of the US, starting with the Lewis and Clark Expedition and ending with stories we continue to tell about the area, no matter their accuracy or not.61NYW73gBNL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_

Of course a central question any reader might ask is how West defines the West, on the ground and/or in the mind. Geographically West takes his delineation as the 98th meridian, originally posited by Walter Prescott Webb in the early 1930s, the far eastern edge of the Great Plains, the de facto starting line for the western frontier migrations after the Civil War. Wallace Stegner (following John Wesley Powell) later moved the line to the 100th meridian about 100 miles west, where rainfall dropped below 20 inches per year. As the author points out, the West of the Imagination is another place entirely.

There are a multitude of interesting facts and asides throughout this book. The one most startling to me is the observation that really the US was settled from west to east, not our standard approach of east to west. Changing perspective is, I think, one of his major insight into historic re-interpretation.

West gets into some mind-bending shifts between myth and reality, especially when he looks to the cowboy movies, dime novels and other sources of received wisdom as they relate to historic interpretation. In some of the essays, I admit I lost track of the logic. Perhaps though that is exactly the point, illustrating the zen-koan-like paradoxes the West embraces. In the end, West suggests we rely on the variety of stories which taken together can “show the way to that meeting ground where people and their places are in common identity. They give westerners the power to know where they stand.”


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Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West. Bryce Andrews. Atria Books, A Division of Simon and Schuster. New York. 2014. 238 pp.

A short, powerful memoir, Badluck Way chronicles a year in the life of a Seattle-born lover of Montana who follows his heart to a huge conservation-oriented cattle ranch in the state’s Madison Valley.617XgEfo2oL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

With an unflinching eye, Andrews recounts his own struggles to harmonize his environmental ethic with the raw demands of protecting huge herds of heifers and steers as they grow on the ranch’s range. Especially difficult is trying to deal with the predations of a resident wolf pack. One the one hand Andrews is awed and humbled when confronted with the wolves’ unabashed wildness in situ while on the other hand, he finds himself growing ever more antagonistic as the wolves begin pick off his charges with apparent impunity.
The explosive crisis which he describes in all its conflicting emotions and necessities becomes a nerve-wracking. soul-searching window into all humanity’s muddied waters of pure vs. situational ethics and what that means for all of us environmentalists as we try to place ourselves in the all too real non-human world.

His descriptions of the Sun Ranch’s lonesome and brutal landscape are often achingly moving. I’m not so sure about his use of the occasional chapter written ostensibly from the wolf’s point-of-view. I see what he wants to do and probably even why: It does a great job of dialing back the emotional level while providing helpful information. But even as he makes the point that wolves don’t see the world as we do, he raises the question “how does he know?” and illustrates some of the pitfalls of trying ever to get into another’s head, and complicated by the fact that it’s a non-human’s psychology he’s exploring.

Overall the book is thought-provoking and extremely well written. And I can only admire his candor about his own conundrums and the impossibility of bringing his conflicting values together into a philosophical whole. Rarely are authors so honest with themselves or their readers.

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All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West by David Gessner. WW. Norton and Co. New York. 2015. 354 pp.

To look at the rise in twentieth century environmentalism in the West, David Gessner chooses two formidable voices: Wallace Stegner, novelist who penned the Pulitzer- winning Angle of Repose, essayist and coiner of that most memorable of descriptorsof the West, the “geography of hope”; and Edward Abbey, the merry prankster author of numerous novels including most famously the Monkey Wrench Gang and the formative memoir Desert Solitaire.9780393089998_300

As Gessner ranges across the West in search of iconic locations these two authors have lived in and written about, he uses excerpts from their writings as well as extensive interviews with experts as well as people who knew one or the other as friends and colleagues. It’s a huge journey, starting at Edward Abbey’s childhood Pennsylvania, then dipping down for a visit to Wendell Berry in Kentucky who knew them both, then on to Saskatchewan where Wallace Stegner spent many of his most important childhood years. Then Gessner takes the reader deeply “Out West”, visiting ecological high spots which were critical to each writer’s world view, from Arches and Glen Canyon to Stanford and the University of New Mexico.

There is certainly a lot of meat to digest in this book. Gessner obviously did his homework and he brings the two characters into sharp relief, both personally and in how they inspired future Western environmentalists. Some may have chosen Abbey’s model of “monkey wrenching”, working outside the box by physically trying to stop odious development (think sugar in gas tanks). Others may be drawn to Stegner’s moderated voice, a call to work within the system by describing in heartfelt but restrained writings about what our country stood to lose by that development.

While Gessner presents the two in a “compare and contrast” mode (Stegner the “sticker”, Abbey the firebrand). It seems to me a slightly wacky stretch that emphasizes their personal temperaments and styles rather than what overarching truths they tell that sets them apart as two of the greatest voices for preservation of western wilds. Of course they are—it’s just that they make such strange bedfellows. The book seems to unnecessarily overreach to point out their differences—I take away “button-downed” Stegner vs. “wildman” Edward Abbey, neither especially enviable characters. I’d rather revere them both for their common passion for the West and their lifelong devotion to its preservation.

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In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape by Gretel Ehrlich. National Geographic. Washington, DC. 2010. 319 pp.

6200574In the Empire of Ice distills Gretel Ehrlich’s experiences accumulated through multiple extended stays with the native cultures which circle the Arctic—from Siberia, through Alaska and Canada to Greenland. It presents an eloquent scientific and oh-so-human personal lament to an almost mystically alluring landscape and its adapted human culture, both of which are quickly being destroyed by global warming.

Here, living in sub-zero weather, small groups of indigenous people are still trying to follow their ancestral way: a traditional subsistence path which relies on marine mammals to supply everything from coats and house walls to vitamins and minerals generally derived from plant sources they don’t have. As marine mammals—narwhals and walrus as well as seals—migrate through the Arctic waters, natives from Siberia to Greenland traditionally use the frozen seas as their highways.

But the sea ice and the glaciers behind it are melting at increasingly alarming speeds. The Arctic provides a particularly heartbreaking example of the earth’s natural heating and cooling system gone awry, heat absorbing dark open water replacing reflective ice and snow surface. As the ice rapidly melts, traditionally nomadic hunters are forced to take more and more risks at the ice’s edge. Often they miss the migrations entirely and are reduced to participating in our place-settled, money-based economy to obtain necessary food and other staples. Now in some places dog sleds are being replaced by snowmobiles, breaking ancient bonds among humans and animals. It’s truly horrifying to read accounts of what these self-reliant, interrelated communitarian groups, (the type those few voices calling for sustainabie interconnected living yearn for) are losing, subsistence replaced by dependence as their traditional ways are literally melting away. While not minimizing the hardships, Ehrlich and her Inuit friends are obviously devoted to their old ways.

It is yet another clarion call to wake up to the truth of global warming. Will we hear This One and finally answer with bold action? I’m not optimistic but as Wendell Berry insists: “Hope is an obligation.”

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The Graveyard Book. Neil Gaiman. Harper-Collins. New York. 2008. 242 pg.

Alive in Necropolis. Doug Dorst. Penguin. New York. 2008. 437 pg.

Waiting for Gertrude. A Graveyard Gothic. Bill Richardson. St. Martin’s Press. 2001. 184 pg.

In celebration of Halloween, last month I decided to read books set in graveyards. I have already reviewed A Fine and Private Place. Alas, after an election that also felt like a cemetery tour, it’s taken me a while to get to reviewing these other three. Perhaps, in reading these books you may see prototypes of our current elected officials. That’s for you to decide.TheGraveyardBook_Hardcover_1218248432

The Graveyard Book, is a young adult (YA) book which follows a living human raised by the dead in a graveyard. Winner of the 2009 Newbery Award honoring the best American children’s book it joins such heady companions from my youth as Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Witch of Blackbird Pond. It ‘s a strong book, full of strange ghosts, malevolent pursuers and powerful protectors. Definitely a classic battle between good and evil.

2439336Alive in Necropolis follows a similar theme of a living person (in this case a cop) who can see the dead. This guy’s a beat patrolman for the city of Colma, CA, aka “ The City of Souls,” the true town in San Mateo which 1400 of the quick call home, as well as about 1.5 million who have gone on, and now rest in one of Colma’s 16 cemeteries. Again, it’s the good guy and helpful spirits vs. the bad ghosts who beat up or “root out” any spirit they’ve tired of.

Waiting for Gertrude is set in Paris’ famed Pere-Lachaise cemetery, a picaresque community of characters from the past: Moliere, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas, Oscar Wilde and Chopin, Sarah Bernhardt and Marcel Proust among other luminaries. In this case they have all been “translated” (re-incarnated) as cats. Some remain true to their original “calling” (e.g. Maria Callas, once a diva, always a diva) while others have taken on new roles: laundress, private investigator, tour guide. Central to the cast is Alice B. Toklas who has translated into a caterer of note (Hashish plays a spicy part in her most treasured recipes.) Alice is waiting, waiting, waiting for her beloved Gertrude (Stein) to translate. The cats—most of the females pregnant—are preparing for a Renaissance Revue to be held at midnight on Christmas Eve at the Columbarium Theatre. Against this backdrop, treasures have gone missing, and Marcel Proust, resident PI, has been retained to find them.352381

The Graveyard Book assumes a reader of previous deep immersion in the fantasy genre and thus able to recognize that various characters represent certain types of fantasy inhabitants. So while I read the book quite happily I completely missed most of the metaphoricals; for example there were werewolves. I didn’t realize that until, after reading the book, I read other reviews. I do this frequently after reading a book only to discover I’ve read too shallowly. Still, it does come as a put-down when I missed the symbolism in a YA book! So for all you fantasy fans, I think you’re going to love this book.

Alive in Necropolis skips the symbolism (I think) and goes for ghosts who did exist but perhaps were never household names, like Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a San Francisco heiress and patron of firemen, Lincoln Beachey, stunt aviator, and Ishi, last of the Yahi Indians, as well as bad guys like Doc Barker, bank robber. The extant policeman, Michael Mercer, replaces a cop who, it appears, died of fright although it is termed a heart attack, patrolling Colma and its 16 cemeteries. Mercer’s enlisted to aid the good ghosts in eliminating the bad ghosts even as he works on a crime among the living, the torture and abandonment of a teenager in one of the columbarium vaults. He also tries to deal with his erratic loves and life (He’s not called “Boy Thirteen” for nothing) and a partner who, rebuffed by a circus performer, turns to Zen for comfort. I think everything came to a close at the end. I doubt anyone lived happily ever but there were so many sub-plots and twists I lost count. Still, some were sufficiently interesting to keep me reading the book until its conclusion and a semi-messy ending is the stuff of life. So as a mock noir spoof, Necropolis, rates a read. FYI, it’s got a boatload of foul language, drinking, drugs and casual sex.

Last and definitely winner of the “most throwing caution to the winds” award, is Waiting for Gertrude. Filled with puns, double entendres and just plain hilarious situations it was both the best and the worst of the lot. If you are more than willing to suspend disbelief (is that a definition of fantasy?), this is definitely a book worth spending a rainy Oregon winter afternoon with. Told in letters, meeting minutes, notes, and musings, a little bit of Gertrude goes a long way. Rather than try to disentangle the plot, here are a few quotes from Alice B. Toklas which will give you the flavor:

“After my life on two legs ended and before my life on four began, there was long stretch of stasis…an endless novel whose pages bore only one word: Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. And then, without warning, the word was made flash.”

and lamenting the loss of the transformed Rossini, who became somewhat dotty as an ancient cat:

“I will miss him…the cubist nature of his conversations and his easy way with non sequiturs. ‘It all comes down to noodles,’ he might say, when the talk was about weather or rheumatism.”

All in all, a ribald romp, full of dazzling language and innuendo.

After this intensive, I think there is a reason why few novels are set in graveyards. They require too much infrastructure and supporting information to move along easily, as is illustrated by all these books in one way or another. In each the author has chosen a different backstory and approach. I would recommend all three, although none, in my opinion, matches Peter S. Beagle’s 1960 original, A Fine and Private Place.

At least they may provide amusement through the next Congressional session should you need even more than it’s bound to offer.

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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt and Co. New York, NY. 2014. 319 pp.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction has received glowing reviews since its release in February.

Her writing, is lucid, inviting, eclectic, engaging and in some instances downright, if only vicariously, exhausting for us armchair travelers as we tag along with her as she treks around the globe, hunting for examples of the story of mass extinctions. Generally biological time on earth has been divided into five great extinctions. The rise of homo sapiens, and our impact on the rest of the world is considered by Kolbert (and most field biologists) to have set the sixth great extinction in motion.

Sixth-extinction-nonfiction-book-kobertKolbert makes an amazing number of stunning and mind-bogglingly depressing observations. Reviewers have marveled at her “objectivity” in presenting facts like this: “Today, amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals; it’s been calculated that the group’s extinction rate could be as much as forty-five thousand times higher than the background rate.” For facts as nightmarish as hers, a “hair on fire” approach would certainly not be out of order. Still, I can imagine two reasons for it: One is to let the facts speak for themselves, which to people like me, they do, elegantly and inarguably. The other, and probably equally potent, is that expressing any kind of emotion would give the idiot deniers of human-caused mass extinctions (much less climate change) the lead to dismiss out-of-hand as mere hysterical overreaction what is the frightening reality of what they are being presented with.

The one literary trick she uses I wish she would tone down is a New Yorker trademark in science writing, the interjection of information on personality and physical descriptions of the scientists which are generally novel but unenlightening. For example, one of people she interviews has differently colored eyes. I may be easily distracted, but I retained that factoid rather than the scientific discoveries those eyes had made.

Still this is a timely and important book whose major takeaway is precisely this:

“To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.”

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The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry. Liveright, 2014. 196 pp. and

The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral—and How It Changed the American West by Jeff Guinn. Simon and Schuster. 2011. 392 pp.

18379039Larry McMurtry’s new novel The Last Kind Words Saloon is the latest take on Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the shoot-out at the OK Corral. The short novel of brief movie-scene-like chapters follows Wyatt and Doc through a series of escapades involving other Earp brothers, various “wives”, even Charlie Goodnight, eventually arriving in Tombstone. The famous “shoot-out” is dispensed with quickly, beginning with Wyatt remarking,“This is a damn waste of time” and ending 120 words later with three dead, two wounded, and Wyatt and Ike Clanton (who ran away) unscathed. Life went on. Dark humor prevails throughout; in the end we find Wyatt with wife Jessie broke in San Pedro.

McMurtry, with short and sweet completeness, creates an ironic, myth-busting take on “heroes”, who really never were. There are plenty of reviews out there—labeling the book everything from disappointing to  great. It’s sure a book worth reading, (one gratuitously grim recounting of an Apache raid  and a problematic cover notwithstanding) but not worth extended analysis. Although there is the skeleton of truth, 100 years and Hollywood’s extensive spin later, in The Last Kind Words Saloon a great storyteller appropriately re-tells the now mythic tale as a novel, where it feels it really belongs.9587101

Not so The Last Gunfight, a extended non-fiction wade through the “literature” and records of the Earps, their friends and enemies. The title immediately sets out an enormous challenge that Mr. Quinn spends almost 400 pages attempting to meet. While trying to make compelling arguments about Wyatt and Doc’s respective psychological motivations, Quinn ends up with an overzealous “deconstructed” remake of the same old story. By the end, it seems he’s presented  every detail short of dental records to make his point. By page 205 when readers arrive at the OK Corral shoot-out, I found myself rooting for a truly “deconstructed” result with everybody dead, not just the two McLaurys and Billy Clanton. Alas, the book has to complete the story which takes another 150-plus pages.

Still, if you’re a commited Tombstone aficionado, you may find some new nuggets of information (especially slang) in The Last Gunfight. Otherwise, if you only read one, make it McMurtry’s.

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