Winter Reading 2004-2005
Reading: A Lifelong Joy
Learning to read ranks well above the other notable achievements of my childhood, such as learning to ride a bike and later to water ski. Hearing spoken words, feeling the heft of books and smelling their unique scent triggers a sweet anticipation that's stayed with me as long as I can remember. Even before I could read, I enjoyed words, stories and songs. I was captivated by being read to by my mother and sitting attentively in the reading circle at the local library.
The little East Texas town where I was born sponsored performances by a road company of the Clare Tree Major School of Children's Theatre in New York City. As a pre-schooler I attended their plays, thrilled by "Hansel and Gretel" and deliciously frightened by "Rip Van Winkle." I listened to the radio on Saturday mornings when "Let's Pretend" aired hour-long adaptations of children's stories, with "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" my favorite.
I am grateful for being born into a family of readers, because the pleasure books bestow has made my life richer and happier.
The books reviewed in this issue are for adult readers, but I know no better way to build lifelong readers than to let children see that you value reading. Reading aloud to them, surrounding them with books, taking them to the library and bookstores, and expanding their experiences through theatre, dance and music are gifts that grows with time. Happy Holidays.
— Lois Wadsworth, Arts Editor.
Familiar Voice on Cold Mountain
Poetry: Danger on Peaks by Gary Snyder. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004. Hardcover, $22.
On August 13, 1945, Gary Snyder climbed Mt. St. Helens and was relaxing at Spirit Lake when he read a newspaper account of the atomic bombs dropped on two cities in Japan. In his new collection, the poet of the high Sierras reports that he vowed "by the purity and beauty and permanence of Mt. St. Helens" to "fight against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to use it, for all of my life."
And he has, with backwoods savvy, urbane wit, scholarly acumen and a simple, graceful invocation of the gist of what growls, crawls, walks and flies in this world. He also tallied a tour as a fire lookout in the Washington Cascades; spent a few years in North Beach with Beat scribblers Jack Keroac, Allan Ginsberg and Philip Whalen (his roomie at Reed); studied Buddhism for 10 years in Japan; and racked up 16 collections of poetry and prose.
Loowit (a Sahaptin name for Mt. St. Helens) blew her cone in 1980 and is now bubbling lava and steam. The dogs of war are snarling, and the fat cats are grinning in the shadows. So it has all changed, and it is all the same. I find it particularly heartening to read these new offerings from a familiar voice still up on Cold Mountain, penning words that drift down the page like October along the McKenzie River Highway.
Snyder says Danger on Peaks contains "poems of immediate life, gossip and insight." As well as a harvest of bite-sized nature poems and crisp homages to Quan Yin, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva and Sir Francis Drake, he includes a batch of prose/poems written in a form called haibun—an anecdotal passage or brief travelogue followed by a short haiku-style poem echoing its essence.
"A Dent in a Bucket"
Hammering a dent out of a bucket
answers from the woods
Although I allotted myself a few pages each day, my autumn hike with a "crazy country guy/with an earring and a/gray-green cast eye" was over much too soon.
— David Johnson
An Unfinished Life, a novel by Mark Spragg. Alfred A. Knopf, 2004 Hardcover, $23.
Mark Spragg's An Unfinished Life is the most satisfying novel I've read since Kent Haruf's Plainsong, to which it may be compared for the clarity of the writing, its unromantic Western setting and the spare, true language the characters speak to one another. Like the characters in Haruf's novel, two of the central figures are old, hard-working cowboys, who have lived on the same piece of Wyoming ranch land for more years than they care to count. A young mother, Jean Gylkyson, and her 10-year old daughter, Griff, invade their familiar routine.
Einar Gilkyson bears a hard grudge against his former daughter-in-law, Jean. But he never knew he had a grandchild, and Griff wins him over with her goodness and enthusiasm for ranch life. Einar's a tough old cuss, and his partner and former war buddy, Mitch, won't put up with Einar's meanness towards Jean. Mitch thinks highly of Jean, always has. He's missed her these last 10 years. Jean loves Mitch, too, but she's shocked to see how he's changed since he tangled with a bear, and the bear won.
The past has a way of not staying gone and over. Things that happened long ago and decisions made more recently have altered all their lives. Each of the four is tested, pulled out of their comfort zone and forced to meet the bold challenges new ways bring.
Griff embraces change joyously, and both her grandfather and Mitch welcome her into their hearts. One night Griff comes out to the bunkhouse with popcorn to watch television with Mitch. She moves his arm around her shoulders and falls asleep sitting next to him on his bed.
"He watches the movie until it ends and then closes his eyes. He keeps his arm around her, holding her close, and dreams he's a bear. A large bear out on open land. An animal satisfied with its life, prepared to lie down and sleep forever."
Read this book now, before Miramax releases the movie next year. Lasse Halstrom directs the screenplay by Mark and Virginia Spragg, but Jennifer Lopez as Jean — yikes! Robert Redford will play Einar, Morgan Freeman is Mitch, and Becca Gardner is Griff. — Lois Wadsworth
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a novel by Susanna Clark. Illustrations by Portia Rosenberg. Bloomsbury, 2004. Hardcover, $27.95. 2004 New York Times Notable Book.
Little seems to happen for large portions of Susanna Clarke's much-lauded debut. Her prose is deliciously precise, imbued with the style and detail of the era about which she writes. The deliberate language and plot nearly deceive, but by the end, so much has happened that it's a wonder the whole story fit in 782 pages.
In the early 1800s, English magic has become an academic pursuit. Ancient practical magicians are well known, particularly the Raven King, who ruled Northern England from Newcastle and who, it is said, may someday return. Instead of the Raven King, England gets Mr Norrell, who shocks the magical community when he entices the statuary of York's cathedral to speak. In return for this show, Norrell insists that the present magician-scholars swear to cease their studies. Norrell rides this selfish success to London, where he ingratiates himself with various Lords and Ministers, convinced of the importance of using magic for the good of England. Eventually, and against his first instinct, Norrell takes a pupil: Jonathan Strange.
Strange's path to Norrell's tutelage is much simpler. An impressionable young man, Strange takes up magical studies at the prophecy of a tattooed stranger. The opposite of Norrell, Strange is imaginative, inclined to share his magical knowledge and interested in understanding the ancient magic of the Raven King, rather than demonizing it. When Strange returns from honing his craft on the continent — fighting against Napoleon under Wellington's direction — his eventual clash with Norrell is hardly a surprise. The story takes a dark. emotional turn as Strange splits from Norrell, and their friendship turns into a bitter campaign for the future of the magic each man feels he's returned to the land.
Clarke's enchanting story draws on a deep knowledge of literary tradition and European history, placing her in the company of the best fantasists writing today. Her England is rife with tales waiting for the telling. We can only hope she will return there, soon, and fetch them back for us.
— Molly Templeton
Rich in Story
The Love Wife, a novel by Gish Jen. Knopf, 2004. Hardcover, $24.95.
In form and content, The Love Wife is a staggering achievement and a great read. Blondie, the only non-Asian among five narrators, sets Gish Jen's third novel in motion: "The day Lan came, you could still say whose family this was – Carnegie's and mine."
Carnegie Wong, Blondie's husband, provides another point of view. He describes his mother, who swam across the shark-filled harbor from Mainland China to Hong Kong using two basketballs as flotation aids. "The week before our wedding, she bought a Mercedes," Carnegie notes. "She steeled herself for the event by reading over the owner's manual."
Lizzy, a third narrator, is the elder of Blondie and Carnegie's adopted daughters. Asian of indeterminate origin – "soup du jour" in Lizzy's words – and born in America, the teenager struggles mightily with her ethnic and cultural identity.
Wendy is the younger daughter, born in China and acquired with great difficulty. On the way to the airport to pick up a woman who will irrevocably alter her family, Wendy observes: "The windshield wipers keep on wiping and wiping as if that's their homework and they just have to do it."
Lan, the fifth narrator, is a Chinese relative who supposedly comes to America — a condition of Carnegie's mother's will — to work as nanny to Lizzy, Wendy and their "bio" baby brother, Bailey. Lan's emotional range extends from "For did not Blondie decide I should live in the barn with the goat instead of in the guest room?" to "Of course the [Mao] badges were beautiful, everyone thought that. Even I thought that until the Red Guards killed my father."
Mama Wong sums it up: "Sometimes I think how many people are bored, and how we are not bored. We are going somewhere; we are going, going. I made up my mind about it already, and I know. We are going up. You can be rich in money, and of course, this is good. But you can be rich in story, and this is good too."
The intersection of these marvelous lives, The Love Wife is comic, tragic and filled with wisdom. — Josephine Bridges
The Master, a novel by Colm Toibin. Scribner, 2004. Hardcover, $24.99. Short list, 2004 Booker Prize. 2004 New York Times Notable Book.
Like a shoehorn, Colm Toibin's eloquent novel slips inside the soul of Henry James, a 19th century literary force. True to James's voice, Toibin is a guide through the inner life of this androgynous virgin, the epitome of decorum, a man who "retreated into the locked room of himself."
Poised in doorways, observing the enigma of relationships, penning psychological novels in minute detail, James sequestered himself from intimate life. Thinly veiled references of latent homosexuality include the poignancy of Henry in the rain, all night gazing at the lighted window of a man.
The American James (1843-1916) grew up in a well-to-do, intellectual, eccentric family immersed in Emerson, Trollope and Balzac. Because of a geographically restless father, James was educated abroad. His mother, in unspoken collusion, cosseted and protected him from the intrusions of daily life. He spent days in his tower of thought, reading and writing. This habit cultivated a lifetime passion for solitude.
James's four siblings included William James, the famous psychologist with a penchant for psychics. Henry's literary influences included invitation-only audiences with George Sands and a London-playwright phase with Oscar Wilde.
The Master strolls between key events in Henry's life that permeate his novels. He lived abroad, writing about the upper crust writers and artists he mingled with in Florence, Paris and London. The powerful theme of the unspoken dominates his fiction.
James loved and abandoned two women at critical junctures. After her death, his spirited cousin Minny inspired Daisy Miller and Portrait of a Lady. She was his hidden self, "the part he guarded most fiercely." Novelist Constance Woolson was his closest friend, yet he turned his back on her, "retreating into the locked room" before she committed suicide. James grieved, but their deaths made him feel safe. His astute analysis about other people did not extend to self-scrutiny.
James lived in "the shadowed corners, and all the other rooms from whose windows he had observed the world, so they could be remembered and captured and held." A privileged gentleman who could have led a dilettante's life of leisure, James chose rigorous discipline to support himself and published a book every year until his death.
— Mara Thygeson
Snow, a novel by Orhan Pamuk. Knopf, 2004. Hardcover, $26. 2004 New York Times Notable Book.
Orhan Pamuk's earlier novel, My Name is Red (reviewed in Winter Reading 2001-2002, 11/29/01), mesmerized me. A convoluted tale of murder and love, the story winds its way through the intricacies of the guild of court miniaturist painters in late 16th century Constantinople, the Turkish capital of the Ottoman Empire.
Now Pamuk takes us on a more contemporary but no less mystifying journey to a remote Turkish town on the Russian border that's been snowed in by a giant storm and cut off from the outside world for a few days. Ka, a political exile, has arrived on the last bus into Kars. A poet, Ka has come to find Ipek, a beautiful woman friend he desperately wants to marry and take back to Germany with him.
Into the sociological microcosm of the snowbound town, the multiple woes that plague Ka's country erupt as Islamist radicals led by the mysterious Blue stage a rebellion, theatrical players take over the television station, and a military coup attempts to restore order. Meanwhile Ka tries to understand Ipek's labyrinthine family and her love relationships and to come to terms with his own ambivalence about God.
Ka enjoys the adulation of being recognized, or should I say exploited, as an iconic poet. Various political and religious individuals have a stake in Ka being on their side in the struggle for leadership in Kar. And what is up with Ipek during all this uproar? She is Ka's lover, but will she leave with him?
In the words of one of the characters: "It was Hegel who first noticed that history and theater are made of the same materials. …Just as in the theater, history chooses those who play the leading roles. And just as actors put their courage to the test onstage, so too do the chosen few on the stage of history."
Pamuk weaves the slender thread of a mystery throughout the story, a strand that only becomes visible at the end. Satiric and brilliant, Snow is another tour de force from one of the world's acknowledged masters.
— Lois Wadsworth
Waterborne, a novel by Bruce Murkoff. Knopf, 2004. Hardcover, $25.
Novels in which engineers figure prominently almost always involve some larger-than-life construction project. If that project happens to be a dam, readers sit back knowing the flood waters will rise, and the dam will eventually be breached. The challenge lies in guessing which characters will survive. Kathleen Cambor's account of the 1889 Johnstown flood, In Sunlight, In A Beautiful Garden, is a recent, poignant, example of the genre.
Bruce Murkoff's first novel, Waterborne, tweaks the formula.
Using Boulder dam (not renamed for Herbert Hoover until 1947) as his backdrop, he introduces us to two of the men who have come to build it: real-life engineer Frank "Hurry Up" Crowe and the fictional Filius Poe, a tall, young engineer with a tragic past.
As the Colorado River is being diverted below, Boulder City, Nevada is flooded with people trying to make a buck. This is the wild, wild West of the 1930s, where the good guys do the heavy construction, and the bad guys keep the speakeasies and whorehouses open around the clock.
The unlucky-in-love Lena and her son Burr provide some tender moments, while Lew Beck, a thug whose capacity for violence belies his small stature, lends a distinctly noir quality to the proceedings.
Some of Murkoff's best writing takes place at the dam site, where the muckers muck, and the high scalers dangle off cliffs hundreds of feet above the river, jackhammering away at the canyon walls.
Don't expect any of these characters to debate the environmental costs of plugging Black Canyon with 66 million tons of concrete. Boulder Dam has been called the ultimate Faustian bargain, but Murkoff's men are just grateful to be getting a paycheck.
The plot feels a bit forced at times. So do the motivations of a few main characters. But these are minor cracks in the larger structure, and Waterborne is strong enough to withstand them. — Nowell King
Never Mind The Pollacks — A Rock and Roll Novel by Neal Pollack. Perennial, 2003. Paperback, $12.95
As a satire of the debauchery that our culture automatically associates with the rock and roll lifestyle, Never Mind the Pollacks is an often funny, frequently disgusting journey.
Told through a series of interviews by fictional rock critic Paul St. Pierre, the story opens with the untimely death of another fictional rock critic, who shares the author's name: Neal Pollack. In a quest to write a biography of this now dead yet still infamous, if not famous, self-aggrandizing character, St. Pierre embarks on a journey that tracks fictional Pollack's life and ultimate demise.
In the process, the real Pollack, the writer of the story, trashes and makes fun of flowery, self-important rock journalism and just about every major rock star you have and haven't heard of.
The book is strange. It's like a journey into the mind of a lunatic. The one question that most puzzles and disturbs me is this: Why would Pollack name his main character, who is often disgusting, utterly lacking in qualities that inspire empathy, and overall just a pompous, gross ass after himself? Actually, who cares? For anyone familiar with the artists who shaped rock and roll, from Bob Dylan to Iggy Pop, Never Mind The Pollacks, is pretty damn funny. It sucks you into to a cesspool of depravity and leaves you feeling like you need a shower.
You'll also laugh out loud. Frequently.
For example, fictional Neal Pollack was born Norbert Pollackovitz in Chicago in 1941. At fictional Norbert's Bar Mitzvah, his neighbor from across the hall, Elvis, renames him Neal Pollack. Later on not-real Neal visits Woodie Guthrie in the hospital, where he meets Bob Dylan, who's trying to strangle Guthrie. Fake Neal sodomizes Iggy Pop, gets beaten up by the Rolling Stones, and dates and lives with Joan Baez. It goes on. And just when you've had about enough, Pollack throws in a twist that keeps you reading.
— Melissa Bearns
Cool. Or not.
Hairstyles of the Damned, a novel by Joe Meno. Akashic Books, Punk Planet Books, 2004. Paperback, $13.95.
Brian Oswald, the narrator of Joe Meno's third novel, begins: "The other problem I had is that I was falling in love with my best friend, Gretchen, who I thought the rest of the world considered fat."
Brian is a high school outcast who wants to be cool, but he doesn't listen to the Clash, make mix tapes or wear his dad's actual combat boots. He wants to be cool in the particular way a music-obsessed, parentally-neglected teen in the early 1990s could be.
Brian's narration is nearly nonstop, an interior monologue interrupted by the rest of the world, including Gretchen, who is making mix tapes for her "white power thug" crush. Brian's life, like the lives of nearly everyone around him, is a mess. His dad sleeps on a recliner in the basement. His best friend Mike's mom has locked the refrigerator, installed a pay phone, and told Mike to fend for himself. As for Gretchen, her mother is dead, and her sister is too beautiful to be tolerated.
Brian's sole friend with a "normal" home life is Rod, who has two loving parents. But at school, Rod's too white for the black kids and too black for the white kids. In Meno's South Side Chicago, no one's got it easy, least of all Brian, once he alienates both Gretchen and Rod.
Though its angst level is fairly high, Hairstyles of the Damned thankfully avoids becoming another lesson-heavy, young adult "problem novel." Instead, Brian's distinct, believable voice makes a place for Meno's book as the rebellious, potty-mouthed little brother of Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Both are narrated by disaffected young men, outsiders to a world they aren't entirely sure they want to be part of. But where Chbosky's narrator disconnects, Meno's Brian dives in, searching messily for something he can believe in.
Ultimately, Brian's quest isn't to find all the answers or to find a place for himself in the wasteland of high school. It's to find punk rock and figure out things for himself.
— Molly Templeton
Country of Origin, a novel by Don Lee. Norton, 2004. Hardcover, $24.95.
Tokyo, 1980: Lisa Countryman never felt she belonged anywhere. A prickly, desperate young woman, she has disappeared.
Inspector Kenzo Ota has a lot on his mind — noisy air conditioners, neighbors and elevators in his apartment building. He thinks about a fat, juvenile delinquent, who may be his son, and he worries over his relegation to the dead-end "window tribe" at work. But something about Countryman's disappearance tugs on his conscience, even as he's ordered to forget about her.
"She was never black enough, or Oriental enough, or white enough, and everyone always felt deceived if she didn't announce her ethnic taxonomy upon meeting them, as if not doing so were a calculated sin of omission, as if she were trying to pass," author Don Lee writes. "But just as often, when she did claim racial solidarity with a group, people didn't believe her, suspecting she was merely trying to appropriate the radical-chic color of the month."
At the American Embassy, Tom Hurley, a Junior Foreign Service Officer, catches Lisa's case. Hurley is half-White and half-Korean but tells everyone he's Hawaiian. He also exaggerates everything from his height to his familiarity with architecture.
Lee's Tokyo is as vivid as his characters, and Country of Origin evokes 1980 so thoroughly it feels a little like a time machine. "Some forecasters surmised that volcanic ash from Mt. St. Helens was to blame" for Tokyo's coldest summer in three quarters of a century, he writes. Carole King's Tapestry plays in a bar. There's news from Iran, El Salvador, Afghanistan, and none of it is good.
Lee concludes this wise, compassionate exploration of belonging more than 20 years after the disappearance of Lisa Countryman, in whose words he writes about America. It is a "land where all was possible, where truth prevailed, goodness was rewarded, and beauty could be found in the meeting of outcasts. We are orphans, all of us, she thought. And this is our home." Such are the disappeared girl's thoughts upon observing her mother seeing the U.S. for the first time.
— Josephine Bridges
Crescent, a novel by Diana Abu-Jaber. WW Norton, 2003. Norton paperback, 2004. $13.95. 2004 Pen Center Fiction Award.
I can close my eyes and imagine myself in Nadia's Café, the scent of cardamom, mint, lamb and Arab coffee in the air. There at the grill, visible from the café through a small window, is a woman. She looks like Diana Abu-Jaber, pretty and slender, only her name is Sirine, and she has blonde hair. Sirine is Nadia's chef, whose cooking
and beauty attract Arab-American students and teachers from the university to the
Abu-Jaber herself regards the art of cooking with fondness. From her recipe for Stuffed Grape Leaves with Lamb Shanks in the appendix:
"Sirine rolls her grape leaves alone by the light of the moon because it's just that sort of dish: you have to be patient and have a nice long afternoon or evening laid out in front of you. It's the sort of task you lose yourself in: the mild, easy-going boredom of laying out the grape leaves, placing the rice filling just so, and seeing how neat and narrow you can roll them."
Writing this makes me salivate, and I
recall a birthday dinner years ago that featured stuffed grape leaves. Short of catching Ms. Abu-Jaber visiting friends in Eugene and being invited for dinner, my only solution may be to make this fabulous dish myself. But, oh, I'd love to eat in the Los Angeles area that Arab-Americans from a variety of countries have made home and call Teherangles, the exotic setting for Abu-Jaber's romantic novel.
Raised by her uncle since her missionary parents' death when she was a child, Sirine loves her uncle, who teaches at the university and tells tall tales with unlikely heroes. The café's owner, Um-Nadia believes in love, good food and paradise. Sirine is attracted to Hanif Al Eyad, a lovely looking émigré Iraqi teaching in Near Eastern Studies and often surrounded by students. Aziz is a poet, whose "words conjure up the image of an old man sweeping the streets in Baghdad, Jerusalem and Damascus. Sirine sees trees filled with birdcages, sparkling with colored songbirds. She sees sinewy sands, palm trees bending in the sky."
These characters and their intermingled lives will fill your dreams. Sirine and Hanif's love story will break your heart with its tenderness. Intellectually satisfying and culturally enriching, Crescent is a book to share with those you love. — Lois Wadsworth
Resistance, stories by Barry Lopez. Monotypes by Alan Magee. Knopf, 2004. Hardcover, $18.
This small volume is designed to look like a journal held together with plain rubber bands, with only the title and the author's name showing through. It's a lovely idea — as if the book itself had traveled the world, picking up the stories of diverse narrators. But it doesn't fit this collection, where the stories have as much to do with stepping apart as with being held together.
The opening piece comes from Paris, where an American expatriate receives a letter from "Inland Security." The letter explains "in phrases that bore the brushstrokes of zealots and lawyers" that the man and his scattered friends are acting against the nation's best interests with their varied pursuits. They are to come home and answer questions, then be assimilated into the mainstream.
Lopez takes on a very tangible fear with this notion, which sets up the rest of the stories. A person who chooses to remain outside the norm and always to be on the move tells each story. Above all, each narrator questions what it means to resist, both for one's self and for the world.
These narratives are written with an economy of words in a voice that sounds familiar, like an acquaintance summing up his life story. Yet each phrase seems almost too carefully chosen, and as the stories go on, the voices merge. One story is told by an abused young man whose narrative voice is nearly identical to that of the detached middle-aged woman whose piece came before his. This is the book's chief weakness, but it would be unfair to call the book ineffectual.
Lopez's stories are ultimately hopeful and seductive. Leave it all behind, these voices say, let go of the things you take for granted and find the things you really need. While it's easy to scoff at the straight shot of hope in the introductory tale, Lopez is persuasive. Something true is revealed in the following pages, he suggests, and when you find it, he'll have succeeded. – Molly Templeton
Haiti in the Sixties
The Dew Breaker, stories by Edwidge Danticat. Knopf, 2004. Hardcover, $22.
A feat of atmosphere and connection, this collection is a painstaking testament to the effects one man can have on many disparate lives. A "dew breaker" is a torturer. In this case, the torturer is a tool of the government of Haiti in the 1960s. He is also, later, a father, a lover, a barber and a quiet man whose former life is invisible, even to his children.
He is introduced first through his daughter, as she learns the truth of his past. As the book continues, we meet him again and again, sometimes as his life changes, sometimes as part of a life he's changed.
To an old bridal seamstress, he is an inescapable memory of fear so constant she's convinced herself he lives in the house across the street. In New York, a young woman, formerly a funeral singer in Haiti, decides she must return home. She's determined to fight against the forces that led to the dew breaker's existence, the same powers that caused her to sing for so many needless deaths.
These voices and others move through and around the life of the dew breaker, carrying part of his legacy. And each voice is striking, defiant or resigned, astonished, almost, at the past they share in Haiti's tumultuous history.
Danticat has written often and beautifully about her native Haiti, most hauntingly in The Farming of Bones, a love story set around a 1937 massacre on the Dominican side of the Haitian border. Her talent is not only in her cogent, clear writing but also in her ability to see and express the parts of experience that transcend culture, gender, race and belief. She brings the horrors of this man's history to us through fear, anger and the desire for revenge as well as through love and the longing for freedom.
The Dew Breaker isn't as engaging as Danticat's earlier works, but this step away feels intentional, as if a level of detachment is necessary to view the whole picture clearly. What a striking, heartrending picture it is.
— Molly Templeton
Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, nonfiction by Richard Manning. North Point Press, 2004. Hardcover, $24.
In his new book, Richard Manning challenges a commonly held notion about evolution: that agrarian societies developed because they were good for humans. He argues that since its inception, agriculture has done little to improve the human condition. It has succeeded in a biological sense in the species' ability to be fruitful and multiply. The masses could be fed with the proliferation of cheap grain, and eventually, sugar. Manning reaches back 2.5 millions years and carefully maps a trail to American fast-food culture and worldwide hunger.
Rather than a dry, scholarly account, Manning weaves a story of people caught in an agriculture juggernaut marked by serial famines and a division of wealth. From Ireland's potato famine to Uganda's displaced populations to the modern Ukraine, the record shows when food is absent "love, cooperation, empathy, the sharing of food" are abandoned, and people neglect each other.
Manning descends from American farmers, but his examinations of land use extend beyond agriculture and borders. Most recently, Food's Frontier: The Next Green Revolution maps a worldwide expedition to study how, with alternating success and failure, countries are transforming old ways of approaching agriculture to maximize crop yields. Manning has also documented corrupt timber practices and the ruin of the American prairie.
When reading Against the Grain, move quickly past the first chapter. Disengaged contemplations of the sensory world and musings about plums akin to female anatomy undermine the book's message. Misplaced meditations are a weak thread throughout the book, however, and in the first chapter, a misleading introduction to the book's intent and its strengths.
In a culture of sound bites and short-term thinking, Manning looks back millions of years to understand the seeds of modern industrialized agriculture and the debilitating effects of American subsidies on people's ability worldwide to feed themselves now and in the future. Despite intentions to increase yields and feed the poor, he reminds us that "modern agriculture does not exist to serve human demands" but the accumulation of wealth. — Tracy Ilene Miller
Ecological Medicine: Healing the Earth, Healing Ourselves by Kenny Ausubel, editor. Sierra Club Books, 2004. Paperback, $16.95.
We live in a world of things connected. Air flows over the ocean, through power plants and into our lungs. Pesticides travel from labs to crops to our stomachs. As pollution levels increase, so do the instances of chronic disease. Editor Kenny Ausubel and the essayists featured in Ecological Medicine stress these vital connections in their argument that to heal ourselves, we must also heal the planet.
"We come to realize that none of us is immune to the assault of environmental harms compromising our health and that we cannot ultimately solve our personal health problems without cleaning up the environment," Ausubel writes in the introduction. "Ecological medicine shifts the emphasis from the individual to public health; from nutrition to the food web and farming systems; from a human-centered viewpoint to one of biodiversity and all the other ecosystem services that are the foundations of health."
Each essayist expounds on this idea from a unique angle. Environmental writer Michael Lerner confronts the bitter irony that incinerated medical wastes from hospitals release dioxin and mercury into the air, landing more people in hospitals. Activist Carolyn Raffensperger advocates the Precautionary Principle, that industries and governments must prove the safety of a new technology, practice or chemical before it is released into the environment. Social justice advocate Henry Clark draws the connection between pollution and racism, while ethnobotanist Kathleen Harrison links plants with people. And Eugene's own Mary O'Brien uses the case of the proposed West Eugene Parkway to illustrate the breadth of viable alternatives to ecologically destructive practices.
The book is not a quick read. The essays don't all flow smoothly one to the next, and some ideas are redundant. But each author offers valuable advice for humans navigating an increasingly toxic world. Taken together, these 30 essays sketch an environmental philosophy that views precaution as paramount, communities as powerful, and planetary and human health as inseparable. I'd like to see this book in the hands of every teacher, student and policy-maker. — Kera Abraham
Under the Banner of Heaven, literary nonfiction by Jon Krakauer. Anchor Books, 2004. Paperback, $14.95. A New York Times Notable Book and national bestseller.
Best-selling author, Jon Krakauer, isn't uncovering the fatal stories of climbers attempting to scale the peaks of Mt. Everest (Into Thin Air) nor writing about those who have vanished into the Alaskan Wilderness (Into the Wild). Here Krakauer explores the darker, criminal side of fundamentalist faith in America.
And on the eighth day, the Lord declared Murder. …
On July 24, 1984, Ron and Dan Lafferty fulfilled a "revelation from God" by slicing the throats of a woman married to their brother and her baby, using a 12-inch boning knife.
Krakauer parallels the faith-based violence of the Taliban to the fundamentalist Mormon sects at the beginning and end of the book, but his failure to raise the issue throughout the book suggests the connection was thrown in to make a story that is over a decade old seem timely. In reality, the lack of in-depth cross-cultural analysis is a tease to the reader and a weakness in the book's structure.
The book succeeds in illustrating a well-researched history of the Mormon faith and the fundamentalist sects it has spawned. The author reveals the beginnings of the Mormon Church, its taboo rituals and even the sometimes freakishly creepy behavior of its members. He looks at the modern practice of polygamy, incest and rape. He visits a fundamentalist sect in Oregon that believes a revelation from God permits the members to partake in frivolous sex and drug use.
Though you have to chew through a bit too much Mormon history, you'll finally get to the juicy stuff. The murder itself is intriguing because it provides shocking insight into the power of faith in modern civilization.
Krakauer ends the book with a thoughtful analysis of what faith means to society and why people are so willing to believe in seemingly outrageous tenets. When he's not flooding the reader with the names of Mormon prophets and their history, Krakauer's book is closer to an interesting novel that keeps you turning the pages.
— Christine Mathias
Ghosts of Vesuvius: A New Look at the Last Days of Pompeii, How Towers Fall, and other Strange Connections, nonfiction by Charles Pellegrino. William Morrow, 2004. Hardcover, $25.95.
Charles Pellegrino has worked in various fields, often simultaneously: entomology, forensic physics, paleogenetics, advanced rocketry, astrobiology and marine archaeology. His writing is literary, lean and learned. With a stunning breadth of education and interests, Pellegrino weaves facts from disparate sources together to tell lively, compelling stories. Here he makes a strong case that life on earth has not evolved in a straight line but from a history marked by catastrophes.
Writing about the eruption of Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD, Pellegrino calls on volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson's expertise as well as recent discoveries in forensic archaeology. He creates a dramatic picture of the final minutes of about 300 Herculaneans who had taken refuge in the city's marina boathouse. The pillar of glowing ash rising from the volcano had reached 20 miles into the atmosphere by midnight of August 25. When the column became unstable and collapsed it struck the ground less than four miles from the city, with a downblast equal to a thousand Hiroshimas. (For comparison, the downblast from one of the 110-story towers was about 10-15 percent of one Hiroshima.)
The Herculaneans felt the blast and may have seen the first surge-cloud from the eruption column, which reached them within two minutes. It must have looked like an "incandescent tidal wave spreading over the earth, full of light, full of sparks," he writes. Many of the "stone" figures unearthed in the city's ruins are looking in the direction of the blast. Although the ash was so hot it vaporized "all soft tissues," Pellegrino notes that "volcanic dissolution exceeds the speed of astonished thought. …Within two-tenths of a second, it is all over."
The Vesuvius eruption holds the key to our understanding the physics of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Pellegrino has written an obsessively readable book, with much to marvel upon.
— Lois Wadsworth
Clueless at the Top, nonfiction by Charlotte and Harriet Childress. Cypress House, 2005. Paperback, $18.95.
Picture George W Bush speaking at an elegant fundraising dinner, surrounded by wealthy contributors. He says, "It is good to be with the'haves' and the 'have-mores.'" He continues, "Some call you the elite. I call you my base." Delighted laughter ripples through the audience.
That image from Farenheit 9/11 came to mind as I read Clueless at the Top, a clear description and detailed analysis of our often unperceived and nearly always ignored systems of hierarchies in the United States. Our stratified socio-political system, for example, has regrettably produced our current president, a veritable poster boy for hierarchies.
After 12 years studying people in the U.S. at work, home and play, sisters Charlotte and Harriet Childress seek to transform our perceptions of social systems, develop a common language and leave behind hierarchies and their clueless leaders with "noble causes," who are making a mess of our world. Rather than an academically oriented study, though, the Childresses have chosen to present their findings in a series of anecdotal tales, punctuated with their interpretations and remedies.
Albert Einstein's quote, "If you cannot explain it simply, you do not understand it well enough," illuminates the Childresses' unique, deceptively simple, manner of providing deep analysis of the U.S. traditional power structure. On the surface, the book shows a series of likeable characters struggling with their personal hierarchy-related dilemmas. But upon going deeper, readers make connections with their own lives and the peculiar aspects of our political and social systems where mysterious and frustrating impediments block the way to achieving a more hopeful future.
Since November 2, many of us are asking ourselves: How did we get here? Careful reading and honest self-examination may provide us with the answers we need to finally move out from under or climb down from the top of our deadly hierarchies.
The book is available at local bookstores. A book signing and party are happening 5:30 pm on Dec. 9 in Tsunami Books.
— Mary Meredith Drew
Fiction for Children
Books to Grow With: A Guide to Using the Best Children's Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges by Cheryl Coon. Lutra Press, 2004. Paperback, $17.95.
If you have a child or grandchild struggling with the trials of growing up, help is on the way. Portland parent, lawyer and loyal school volunteer Cheryl Coon assembled this wonderful, useful common-sense guide to direct you to the right books to ease childhood struggles of all dimensions.
Coon recommends and briefly reviews more than 500 children's fiction, divided into 100 topics from potty training to boredom to bullies to alcoholism and divorce in the family. No book is longer than 100 pages. Many are simply picture books. Coon estimates the age level (oldest is 10) and reading skill level for every book. Many are parent read-alouds.
The Portland writer firmly believes in the power of the right book or books to help a child work through a problem. "Sometimes offering advice just isn't enough," Coon says. "A child may be too young to understand, or they're at the stage where advice is the last thing they want to hear. The right book about a fictional character experiencing the same issue can help them handle difficult situations."
Coon tells whether a book includes multicultural characters and specifies books available in Spanish. It's also instructive to read her list of qualities that make a fiction book especially useful for helping children: characters we care about and believe in; characters with believable emotions and reactions; humor, surprise, or suspense; creative problem-solving; and engaging, eye-catching illustrations.
Coon is working on a similar guide for middle-school kids. — Anita Johnson
All About Gardens: Tips and Commentary from the Southern Willamette Valley by Rachel Foster. Drawings by Diane Lewis. Stone Pig Press, 2004. Paperback, $14.95
As I child I spent many an afternoon with my mother in her garden. She would tell me about all the plants, how to use them in the garden, how to make them happier. It was a great time and so natural and easy I still adore wandering through gardens with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable gardener. Rachel Foster is just such a person. Personal and informative, her new book should become a reference for regional gardeners of all levels.
A regular columnist in the Eugene Weekly since 1993, Foster has collected her favorite articles for All About Gardens. They cover a range of topics, including how wide your garden paths should be; the best roses, geraniums, blue flowering plants or dahlias; organic control of garden insects; a nursery that sells native plants; and what plant might best suit your shady corner.
As a child in England, Foster was surrounded with people passionate about gardening. Foster's mother taught her the Latin names of plants and paid her to transplant seedlings. A botany major in college, Foster's first garden was in Urbana, Illinois, 1977. Her "after work" hobby soon took over evenings and weekends. In 1991 she came to Eugene to live with an old friend, whom she later married. She became a Master Gardener, and met Barbara Cowen, who owned a gardening business. The two teamed up, and Foster stepped into the world of professional gardener.
Eugene's climate is similar to England's, and Foster found she could again garden year-round, something she had missed in the Midwest. Her writing gives people who garden a new appreciation for our remarkable Willamette Valley climate. The book has an exceptional index, and Diane Lewis's charming drawings appear throughout, including the cover. The writing style is true. I feel that I have my own garden expert to consult whenever I wish. — Catherine Beard
The Ephemeral Art
No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick. Illustrated. Yale University Press, 2003. Hardcover $50.
Page-turning reference books are hard to come by, but No Fixed Points, a nearly exhaustive history of dance in the last
century, is indeed such a book, It should be fascinating to anyone interested in cultural history in general and dance in particular, with deft, informed accounts of both.
Both authors started their professional lives as dancers. Nancy Reynolds, director of research for the Balanchine Foundation, danced with New York City Ballet. She wrote Repertory in Review: 40 Years of New York City Ballet and was an editor of the International Encyclopedia of the Dance. Malcolm McCormick also contributed to the International Encyclopedia and was a contributor to The Golden Age of Costume and Set Design for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Both writers are skilled at making the reader see what they have seen, and each has an uncanny ability to select quotations from other eyewitnesses to performances, such as critics, historians and audience members, that do likewise.
The 900-page tome includes footnotes, bibliography and index, all of which are equally invaluable to researchers or someone seeking a quick reference to a dancer, choreographer, composer, designer or specific work. Want to know about the Judson Church Movement? You'll find references to the participants — Twyla Tharp, Trisha Brown and many others — as well as to its chroniclers, such as critic and historian Sally Banes. Look up The Rite of Spring and discover there are many choreographic takes on the revolutionary work as well as different uses of Stravinsky's score. Like good dictionaries or library stacks, one subject in the book leads to another in extremely logical ways.
The principal focus is on European and North American dance, but there are also accounts of Indian classical dance, Japanese butoh and other indigenous forms. The book's few weaknesses are dance in film and the history of musical theater. But basically the authors have synthesized a huge amount of material in a captivating, thought-provoking account of this ephemeral art.
— Martha Ullman West
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, nonfiction by Lynne Truss. Gotham Books, 2004. Hardcover, $17.50.
In his foreword to Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Franck McCourt writes, "Parents and children will gather by the fire many an evening to read passages on the history of the semicolon and the terrible things being done to the apostrophe." (The book's title comes from a joke involving a panda, a weapon and a dramatic exit.)
And author Lynne Truss writes, "If there is one lesson to be learned from this book, it is that there is never a dull moment in the world of punctuation." Can commas and dashes really thrill and inspire us? Can hyphens make us laugh out loud? In a word: Yes.
A bestseller in Great Britain where it was originally published last year, the book is for "any true stickler," Truss explains. She writes a concise job description for the apostrophe, then treats readers to some aberrant uses of this most beleaguered of punctuation marks. "Member's May Ball (but with whom will the member dance?)," "Please replace the trolley's (replace the trolley's what?)," and "Dicks in tray (try not to think about it)."
As for the dash, people use it mainly because "they know you can't use it wrongly" hey, I didn't know that – "which, for a punctuation mark, is an uncommon virtue." Here you'll find the story of "Victor Hugo, who – when he wanted to know how Les Misérables was selling – reportedly telegraphed his publisher with the simple inquiry '?' and received the expressive reply '!'"
And when the author "heard of someone studying the ellipsis (or three dots) for a PhD," she wrote my favorite sentence among a lorry load of splendid contenders. "The ellipsis is the black hole of the punctuation universe, surely, into which no right-mined person would willingly be sucked, for three years, with no guarantee of a job at the end." Tell it, sister! — Josephine Bridges
Foxfire 12, folklore edited by Kaye Carver Collins, Angie Cheek and former Foxfire students. Anchor Books, 2004. Paperback, $16.95.
The Foxfire books have been loved and cherished by millions since the first volume appeared in 1968. Eliot Wigginton, editor of the first book, took a teaching job in Rabun Gap, Georgia, heart of rural Appalachia. Facing bitter, bored students, Wigginton suggested they throw away the textbooks and start a magazine.
Students proposed topics that reflected the time and place in which they lived — interviewing their parents and grandparents to gain knowledge of mountain lore, faith healing, home remedies, log cabin building, planting by the signs of the zodiac, hunting and dressing game and "other affairs of plain living."
With the intention of involving the entire class in the process, Wigginton hoped that even one issue would rejuvenate his tired pupils and reawaken their love of learning. That hope was repaid as the first issue of "The Foxfire Magazine" blossomed into a regularly published journal, with subscribers all over the world and a book series now in 12 volumes.
Foxfire 12 shares topics such as the art of making beads from rose petals, the biography of a local potter, how to make a wooden coffin and the history and how-to of square dancing. "Personality Portraits" includes interviews with and biographies of community elders, such as Fred Huff, a teacher and country music buff, and "the Goat Man," a wanderer known for his deep connection with barn-yard animals. There are interviews with veterans of World Wars I and II and stories from Rabun Gap's elder Cherokee residents.
With black and white photographs throughout, the Foxfire books provide satisfying information about rural living and explain how people accomplished things before technology. Number 12 is a welcome addition to a folklorist's bookshelf.
— Vanessa Salvia
Anarchy in the Desert
This Is Burning Man, nonfiction by Brian Doherty. Little, Brown and Company, 2004. Hardcover, $24.95
Over-zealous recruitment can turn off the uninitiated. For people who have never been to the annual week-long party in the desert known as Burning Man, Brian Doherty's new book may have that effect. Such readers may roll their eyes at sentences such as: "A flood of glorious superfluity washes over you, and each day and night seem an eternal reoccurrence of everything both wonderful and terrible about life in a human community." But for die-hard Burners, Doherty's work might do the event as much justice as a mere book can.
From its first paragraph, Doherty adopts a wide-eyed, you-had-to-be-there tone, maybe because Burning Man is so hard to pin down. In some ways, the author does a good job of summing up the indescribable. He calls participants "a gang of 'twixt-hippie-and-punk intellectuals and edge-seekers — not the cool kids but the weird ones." And he paints a lively picture of Black Rock City as a place of "functional anarchy," where living in the moment is the cardinal rule. In these aspects, Doherty hits a nebulous nail on the head.
For dedicated Burners, the book provides context for an event they know and love as well as an insightful biography of founder Larry Harvey and the history that led to Burning Man's conception. It details the excruciating nuts and bolts, which hold together an event that feels effortless. And its images illustrate the sheer weirdness of Burning Man: a dirt-surfing dwarf in bondage gear, a mechanical dragon breathing fire into the star-spattered night.
Burning Man is not "a mere indulgent feast for the senses," Doherty says, but "the largest act of ephemeral collective creativity man has ever known," an outside-of-the-box model of human society, which values craziness above composure, generosity above greed and art above all. But while Doherty exalts Burning Man as "a new American underground," this book reveals the event's emerging status as an increasingly mainstream phenomenon. — Kera Abraham
Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, a memoir by Ann Patchett. HarperCollins, 2004. Hardcover, $ 23.95
Novelist Ann Patchett's dazzling, heart-felt memoir of her relationship with writer Lucy Grealy, who died of a heroin overdose in 2002, is a loving paean to one of the most enduring social institutions in our culture — women's friendships.
In a memoir that is as devastating as it is celebratory, Patchett gives us the bones, tissue and spirit of her 17-year relationship with Grealy, a gifted, deeply wounded artist, who spent much of her adult life trying to cope with the prison her body had become.
Grealy developed cancer of the jaw when she was nine years old. Treatment for the cancer resulted in the loss of part of her lower jaw. Grealy told the story of her ordeal and its effect on her childhood in her own celebrated memoir, Autobiography of a Face.
Grealy and Patchett began their friendship when the two Sarah Lawrence grads met in the house they were to share while both attended the University of Iowa's Writers' workshop in 1985.
Grealy took one look at Patchett, whom she barely knew, and catapulted herself into Patchett's arms. "It was not a greeting as much as it was a claim: she was staking out this spot on my chest as her own and I was to hold her for as long as she wanted to stay," Patchett writes.
Their friendship wound through separation, boyfriends, writers' despair and writers' triumph. Grealy relied on Patchett's solidity and calm. Patchett basked in her friend's luminescent spirit and confounding ways. "We were better off when we were together," Patchett writes. "Together we were a small society of ambition and high ideals. We were tender and patient and kind. We were not like the world at all."
Patchett doesn't shy away from Grealy's faults, which were considerable, or her wonders, which were far greater. After all, what writer could resist the author of a letter that begins: "Dearest Angora, my cynical pirate of the elusive heart, my self-winding watch, my showpiece, my shoelace, how are you?"
Memoirs are a complex art. So are friendships. This lovely book melds the two.
— A. Tallmadge
The Book of Jon, a memoir by Eleni Sikelianos. City Lights Books, 2004.Trade paperback original, $13.95.
This touching memoir of her late father, Jon Sikelianos, by poet and eldest child Eleni Sikelianos, is revelatory — both a pursuit of him as father and an uncovering of herself as daughter.
Jon was a driven man, a drug addict from age 22, dead too early. But he was also a tree trimmer, a musician, a father who sang and told stores, beloved by his four children. Eleni was his first child, born when he was just 19. Jon wasn't really part of her life after she was six months old, until she was 13. And then only sometimes. She writes: "It's true / I probably love him / more than you do, / and it's funny / that this is based simply on the fact / that he's my
In a prose poem written after Jon's death, "Object too Heavy for Earth," Eleni writes: "When you are a drowning man, you need things that float. How can I explain this? For some people, all the objects of the world lose buoyancy; they pull you down. Bus schedules, chainsaws, belts, wallets, money, socks, liquor stores, trees — like lead weights around the wrist and ankles. …My father was a fine swimmer; it was the world that got too heavy…"
Sikelianos weaves poems, recollections, dreams and family memories into a multi-layered word-collage of a fascinating man impossible to count on but unforgettably present. She infuses emotion into this unflinching portrait and brings her readers into the presence of man unlike any other they will know.
I met Jon once when he stayed in the little northern New Mexico village where I lived in the 1970s. I remember that his electrifying personality quickly and effortlessly galvanized the energy in the room. The oldest brother of my longtime friend, Poppy Sikelianos, Jon was grand-uncle to Poppy's daughter, Sophia, whom I have known all her life. I hope Eleni's courage and poetic artistry comforts their loss.
— Lois Wadsworth
Tip of His Hat
Chronicles, Vol. One, an autobiography by Bob Dylan. Simon and Schuster, 2004. Hardcover, $24.2004 New York Times Notable Book.
Bob Dylan's Chronicles is a tale of the characters who have influenced Dylan's life. Two album covers came to mind as I read: The Basement Tapes and Nashville Skyline. The jacket of Tape celebrates a march of carnie-world characters, while Skyline boasts a smiling, contented Dylan tipping his hat to us. In this volume of his memoirs, Dylan tips his hat to every man and woman who put him here, and he creates a parade of the honest, full souls they were.
Here is a simple cross-section from Dylan's parade: Gorgeous George, Harry Belafonte, Bob Neuwirth, Robert Johnson, Ray and Chloe, Alan Lomax, John Hammond, Bobbie Vee, Woody Guthrie and Arthur Rimbaud. And that's just the beginning. On the feminine side, he writes graciously about mom, grandma and his wives (whom he doesn't name), Irma Thomas, Susie Rotola, Joan Baez, backup singers and leading ladies.
Dylan's generous unfolding of the pages in his book of days begins with his daily life as he was rising to stardom and covers his many roles from musician, song writer, lover, husband, dad and grandpa — then back again to the budding artist who didn't want to be a spokesperson for anyone. He reveals the personal struggle within him between man and artist, focusing on the production of two albums, New Morning and Oh Mercy. Every time Dylan departs from himself, he reveals himself. Chronicles is both a departure and an unveiling. Take a look.
— Bob DeVine
A Complicated Man
Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance by Deborah Jowitt. Simon & Schuster, 2004. Hardcover $40. 2004 New York Times Notable Book.
Jerome Robbins, the quintessential American choreographer, was as good at making ballets as creating groundbreaking musicals. West Side Story, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof are three of many. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Robbins was a thoroughgoing man of the theater, whether opera house or Broadway, like all great choreographers. I had forgotten how much so until I read dance historian and critic Deborah Jowitt's lucid account of Robbins' intertwined life and work.
Senior dance critic for the Village Voice, Jowitt has not yielded to the temptation of psycho-biography in telling the story of this very complicated man.
Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz, who changed his name to Robbins in the late 1930s when his professional career began, was born in 1918 in New York City. His father owned a corset factory, and his mother both coddled and criticized him. Like many American male dancers, Robbins owed his dance start to his sister, who was studying modern dance. She not only encouraged Jerome to try dance but also fought their father to let him do so.
Apart from the sexual orientation issues, Robbins' father didn't think his son could make a living in dance. He was wrong. Robbins made a great deal of money, mostly on Broadway, and it is to him that scholars owe the phenomenal Jerome Robbins Dance Division in Lincoln Center's New York Public Library for Performing Arts.
Robbins' own introspective writing reveals a soul-searching artist of wide interests. Jowitt deals with both Robbins' homosexuality and his unfortunate naming of colleagues to HUAC, but she makes it clear that neither issue is the reason for her biography. In felicitous prose Jowitt synthesizes vast raw material into a book of interest to anyone more intrigued by American cultural history and the social forces that shape an artist than by gossip and cheap psychology.
— Martha Ullman West
The Handsomest Man in Cuba: an escapade, nonfiction travel memoir by Lynette Chiang. Small Wheel Press, 2004. Paperback, $14.95. First published in Australia and New Zealand by Bantam Press, 2003.
Cuba conjures images of cruiser cars, cigars and a populace yearning for a better life. Lynette Chiang finds these things as she bikes around the island nation, but she also discovers that living in survival mode — whether by choice or by necessity — is a bracing way to peel back the numbing layers of complacency.
The Handsomest Man in Cuba is equal parts self-reflection, adventure and travelogue. The author, a self-described "small Australian with a Chino face," is used to some cultural schizophrenia from "having been born yellow in a white country." Feeling like an outsider propels her to seek answers through adventures, and she works her way deep into a culture that few people in the U. S. know. Chiang's resourcefulness and buoyant spirit make her adventures fun to read. Her willingness to describe her self-doubts and bouts of loneliness make the book even more compelling.
Being a lone woman on a bike — a folding bike, no less, a Eugene-made Bike Friday — and toting gear for a three-months' stay, Chiang is seen as a curiosity. Cubans are eager to help foreigners, in part to gain access to dollars to supplant their meager lifestyle. Chiang usually stays at the homes of friends she makes along the way, even though this could cost her hosts a huge fine from the government, which tries to keep tourists and their dough funneled into a straight and narrow path. But people share their rationed food and often give her the best (or only) bed in the house. Many of her hosts refuse money, saying, "friendship is better."
Chiang's quest for getting past the guide-book view gets her into some tight spots, but the stories are upbeat and full of surprises. If you're thinking of going to Cuba, this book will help you understand your destination and make the most of it. If you're not likely to go to Cuba, The Handsomest Man will set you thinking about the power of prosperity to tie you down. It will take you on a ride with someone whose curiosity about the world inspires her to choose a different path.
— Cecelia Hagen
Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River, travel adventure by Peter Heller. Rodale, 2004. Hardback, $24.95.
For those who have braved the thunderous thrash of a Class III rapid, threaded through boulders the size of SUVs, careened along a whitewater chute or glided over cataract lips into the misty unknown, this is a book for you.
On the other hand, if you're an armchair adventurer who's never dipped a paddle in the drink, Hell or High Water is a great read, written with gusto and insider know-how by Peter Heller. A seasoned kayaker, journalist and contributing editor for Outside magazine, Heller makes a living risking his neck.
Seven of the world's best kayakers make an audacious river journey down the relentlessly lethal Tsangpo River, as it plummets through a deep gorge in the mountains of Southeastern Tibet to the most challenging river portage in recorded history. Then it winds around the "Big Bend" to where it joins the Po Tsangpo on its way into Far East China.
Heller keeps to dry land, but eloquently writes about the gathering of the elite band of river rats — their gleeful put-in, close-calls every day before lunch, and individual triumphs of skillful craft. Heller doesn't exclude the inevitable ego-butting that seems unavoidable during such life-threatening, high adventures.
He also records the struggles and noteworthy feats of the sherpas and porters who accompany the kayakers. They hike over icy ridges and down into swampy jungles, clad in tennis shoes and army jackets, earning a few yuan to hump the food and gear while the American, English and Aussie boys play in the water.
The author also reports on earlier attempts to conquer this stretch of the Tsongpo including 19th century expeditions by India-based British explorers, who returned with breathless word of a place they called Shangri-La. He also writes of more recent kayaking jaunts ruined by obstacles and accidents.
One of the greatest adventure-sport outings captured in print, this heart-pounding travelogue doesn't include photographs — something about a deal made with a filmmaker/kayaker team — so your mind's eye has to provide the visuals. Remember to wear a lifejacket and a helmet.
— David Johnson
The Art of Travel, essays by Alain de Botton. Pantheon Books, 2002. Vintage International, 2004. Paperback, $13.
Alain de Botton's essays don't go where I thought a book called The Art of Travel would. He writes about travel experienced in airport waiting rooms, driving multi-lane freeways, sleeping in uncomfortable beds, arguing with your traveling companion and wishing you'd stayed home. He not only shares his contemporary experiences but also those of luminaries from various arts and ages, who wrote about their travel.
De Botton's fellow-travelers include poet William Wordsworth, novelist J.K. Huysmans, painter Edward Hopper and art teacher and critic, John Ruskin, among others. And he structures the book by sections such as departure, motives, landscape, art and return. Within landscape, he includes two essays: "On the Country and the City" and "On the Sublime." In the latter, de Botton travels to the Sinai desert with Edmund Burke and Job as guides.
Great, treeless deserts make us feel dwarfed, de Botton notes, a not unpleasant experience. This widely desired emotional state was spoken of as "a sense of the sublime" by the early 1700s. When de Botton travels to the Sinai, he takes Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. "A landscape could arouse the sublime only when it suggested power — a power greater than that of humans, and threatening to them," de Botton writes of Burke's theory. "Sublime places embodied a defiance to man's will."
Likewise, God's response to Job's asking why bad things had happened to him, a good man, arrives "from a whirlwind in the desert." God asks: "By what way is the light parted, which scattereth the east wind upon the earth?"
"It is not just nature that defies us," De Botton writes. "Human life is overwhelming. But it is the vast spaces of nature that perhaps provide us with the finest, the most respectful reminder of all that exceeds us." Sublime landscapes may help us accept obstacles we can't overcome and events we can't make sense of, the author suggests.
— Lois Wadsworth