Posts Tagged ‘Book Review’

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. Rinker Buck. Simon and Schuster, New York. 2015. 450 pp.

In the summer of 2007 Rinker Buck, a journalist researching a story in the Black Hills, made a serendipitous detour to visit the Hollenberg Ranch and Pony Express station, a way stop on Oregon Trail, now restored and maintained by the Kansas State Historical Society. It was there, reading a 1850 journal entry describing this Ranch by Margaret Frink, pioneer traveller on the Trail, that Buck caught the bug; like Frink, he too decided to travel west on the Oregon Trail. From April to October, 2008 Buck lives his dream, traveling two thousand miles from St. Joe, MO to Baker City OR, in a covered wagon, pulled by a team of three mules.

the-oregon-trail-9781451659160_lgThis book describes that momentous journey, the first of its kind in over one hundred years. Buck spends that winter voraciously reading, purchases a restored wagon and a team of three Amish mules, designs and has a “trail pup” (a two wheeled covered cart which tagged along carrying supplies) constructed. At some point his brother Nicholas (to whom the book is dedicated) invites himself along accompanied by his Jack Russell terrier Olive Oyl. This turns out to be a lucky turn of events; Nick is an expert mule team driver, (true!) who also can swear a blue streak and does, in almost every sentence he utters. He also seems capable of repairing anything, which turns out to be a necessity as along the way axles and wheels break as well as many other parts of their rig. A third “companion”, the ghost of their father who had taken them on another covered wagon expedition as children through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, “joins” them at various locations as the journey unspools.

This book chronicles the Bucks’ adventures and the (mostly) helpful people they meet along the way. It talks about breakdowns, the weather, where they camped, eating at roadside truck stops as well as at town parks, the fine art of mule handling and the daily push to make 25 miles between sunup and sundown. In the dreamy hours spent on the wagon seat, Buck reflects on the beauty of the remaining original Trail, and figures out how to get around places where the Trail has been paved into interstate, Buck also grapples with the role in his psyche his larger-than-life father continues to play.

The Oregon Trail is also an illuminating account of the Trail’s history through the personal histories of some of the people who travelled its length. He considers a kaleidoscope of stories the Trail holds: the Mormons, the broke farmers, the women and children, the wayside ranches, the Indians, even the shysters at the Missouri jumping off points, who are there selling second grade wheels and untrained mules as well as all sorts of goods the pioneers are often forced to abandon along the way.

Part memoir, part rousing history, part how-to drive a covered wagon and mule team, Buck offers a panorama of a part of history which seems to have been mislaid in the telling of the American story. And this may be the most important insight of them all:

“The exodus across the plains in the fifteen years before the Civil War, when more than 400.000 pioneers made the trek between the frontier at the Missouri River and the Pacific coast, is still regarded by scholars as the largest single land migration in history. It virtually defined the American character—our plucky determination in the face of physical adversity, the joining of two coasts into one powerful country, our impetuous cycle of financial bubbles and busts, the endless, fractious clash of ethnic populations competing for the same jobs and space. Post Oregon Trail—with a big assist from the Civil War—America was a continental dynamo connected by railroads and the telegraph from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

“Seeing the elephant” was the phrase often used by pioneers to describe their Trail journeys. Buck’s trip, 127 years later, shows us what that elephant looks like today.

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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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The Water Museum: Stories by Luis Alberto Urrea. Little Brown and Co. New York. 2015. 257 pp.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s latest short story collection The Water Museum has a little bit for everyone. As other reviewers have pointed out, there’s drugs and sex and even a little rock n’ roll. I’ve talked about Urrea  and two of his earlier books, Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America (https://wanderwest.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/luis-alberto-urrea-speaks/) and have read the marvelous Into the Beautiful North. I’m a true fan of his novels.

I’ve also read short pieces before, particularly in Orion, where I greeted his places “out west” not “back east” (the Orion staple US landscape) with gladness, and not a little wonderment about what those New England types made of home boys, low riders and alligators. (He did a memorable piece set in Louisiana; granted it’s not the high plains or the Pacific Coast but it sure as heck isn’t western MA.) He now has a column called Wastelander, appropriate for his often blasted out urban landscapes and polluted streams as well as his characters, who possess equally blasted out souls.

WATERMUSEUM2These are the characters that inhabit the short stories in this collection. I don’t think there was one that had a happy ending; and that’s just alright for the folks who populate his world. That can make reading Urrea’s stories bleak at times. But it’s often bleak softened with a sly grin or a wink, especially if the main character is an overlooked, misunderstood “I” who’s trying to get the swing of making it in a tough world.

The most thought-provoking essay for me is the title story: The Water Museum. As much of the West parches, this is a particularly timely allegorical tale about school kids who know water only as it originates from the tank of a water truck. They are taken on a school field trip to “experience the real thing”—even though it’s only a simulation of waterfalls and flowing rivers in a fake children’s “discovery” museum. Their reactions are fascinating, and not a little frightening.

Luis Alberto Urrea is a member of the Latino Writers Hall of Fame and has been inducted by many reviewers into what I consider the Writers Hall of Glowing Reviews. I think he’s a fantastic, unique writer, who inhabits a a space exactly right, carved out by him for himself. At least I haven’t read anybody call him a blue-eyed, red haired Mexican-American Thoreau yet. I guess maybe that’s too much of a stretch, even for reviewers who have been known to get lost in a swamp of superlatives. (Think “magisterial”, “pitch perfect”, “a must read.”)

I thank heavens for that.

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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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