In a pair of unprecedented moves for our book group, we (a) met somewhere besides the Rivers, and (b) reviewed two books at the same meeting! Wow! A two-fer two-fer!
The change in venue came about because of a fundraiser event at the Rivers, so at the suggestion of Bev and the gracious hosting of Bill Brakken and his staff, we met at The Rookery. It was a nice change of pace––wonderful ambience, good food, and as usual, good conversation.
The review of two books was caused by a snowstorm in April that prevented everyone but Adrian making it to the Rivers on meeting night. Thus, at this meeting, Ron led the discussion about Jim Geiwitz’s Town of Watered-Down Whiskey, and Adrian led the group in discussing Beast in the Garden.
Ron has a personal affinity for The Town of Watered-Down Whiskey because Jim Geiwitz was Ron’s college roommate at St. Olaf. They started out studying chemistry together, which Ron continued while Jim moved on to psychology. He has since had a successful career in that field, writing a number of professional books on the subject. Town of Watered-Down Whiskey is Geiwitz’s first attempt at writing fiction.
The book, Ron explained, is a loose biography of Jim’s growing up in Minneota, Minnesota. At least some of the events in the book actually happened to Jim, though the story’s characters are fictional. Our group generally enjoyed the book, though all agreed it was sometimes difficult to know what character was speaking. Additionally, John noted that Rumplestiltskin keep popping up, either in the discussion between characters or in person. No one could figure out what that was supposed to mean. Though no one said they would read another of Geiwitz’s books (and Ron noted that Jim’s psychology books were not something the group would be interested in reading), The Town of Watered-Down Whiskey still ranked highly, scoring an average of 4.18 out of 5 for Readability (Adrian gave it a 3.75, giving the average its unique score) and 4.75 out of 5 for Interest.
Jim Baron’s Beast in the Garden was entirely different. “It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the Men’s group,” Ron said. In balanced fashion, John compared it to The Tiger––which our group read and discussed in May 2012––saying Beast in the Garden was “like The Tiger, but this story wasn’t as interesting.”
This is a true story of attacks made on people by mountain lions in Boulder, Colorado, in the early 1990s. The increased presence of cougars in the area was precipitated by a ban on deer hunting around the city, which resulted in a burgeoning deer population. The lions came to where the food was. Unfortunately, the lions habituated to the presence of people and dogs and came to see them as prey, same as the deer.
The book “was very relevant to our area and the issues we have with wolves,” one person noted. In the end, though, Irv was impressed with how the people dealt with the “cougar problem,” and we agreed that it probably would not have been how a similar “wolf problem” in Wisconsin might have been handled.
The story brought on some very interesting discussion, because Adrian was formerly the Wisconsin DNR’s main wolf biologist and is familiar with large predators of all kinds, including cougars, which have also been seen in Wisconsin in recent years. In fact, Adrian, who first read this book when it came out, did not notice until this recent reading that he is listed in the author’s acknowledgements. He doesn’t think he’s ever met David Baron, “but he must have been in touch with me to ask some questions when he was researching the book,” Adrian mused.
The comparison to John Vaillant’s The Tiger a year ago followed through to the scores for this book. On our 1-to-5 scale for both Interest and Readability, everyone gave it 5s in both categories. In yet a third unprecedented move, Ron gave it a 6 for Interest, bringing the average score up to 5.2. Everyone agreed they would also read another book by Baron.
Our next meeting will be back at the Rivers on June 20th to discuss David Treuer’s Rez Life.Thanks to Bill Brakken and our wonderfully patient server, Jenny, for their hospitality at The Rookery.
Visionary: (1) Characterized by vision or foresight. (4) Not practicable; utopian.
These are two of the definitions given in my American Heritage Dictionary. It is odd that a word filled with such intangible greatness can also refer to very measurable paucity. It is perhaps the equivalent of bipolarity –– fantastic heights matched by debilitating lows.
In some ways, this is an apt description of Edward Curtis’s life. The rising star of Seattle society at the turn of the 20th century was a photographer without equal, a maker of art whose eye and skill were sought after by all the elite who wished to record their visage for posterity. Then, a chance encounter on Mt. Rainier, in which Curtis helped a lost party of climbers find their off the mountain, led to the conception of a grand idea to record on film and in words the fast-fading cultures of the North American Indians. It was an idea nurtured by no less than George Bird Grinnell and Theodore Roosevelt, and financed by J. P. Morgan, but the project that was lauded by newspapers and dignitaries across the country and around the world, consumed 30 years and every last material possession Curtis owned. As with so many biographies of artists, writers, and activists, Curtis’s ends with the words “penniless and alone.” It is a heartbreaking coda for a life lived so fully and for a talent given so freely to the completion of a project of legendary historical import. This is the story Timothy Egan tells in his superbly written biography of Edward S. Curtis, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher. It is a fascinating story of rising from humble beginnings to becoming a self-made man through chance moments and undeniable talent.
Edward Curtis was born in Whitewater, Wisconsin, raised in Le Sueur, Minnesota, and moved with his parents and three siblings to the Puget Sound region in 1887 when the Midwest was proving to be a dead end for a struggling preacher who was “trying to turn the ground for food or a soul for Jesus.” Curtis dropped out of school after sixth grade to help provide food and a place his family to live. Curtis first took a chance on a dream when he moved across the Sound to Seattle in 1891, in response to an ad for a photography studio looking for a partner. He was a natural, and his wealth and fame grew. One day, he sees “Angeline,” an old woman living in a squalid shack near Puget Sound, walking the shoreline. She is the daughter of Chief See-ahlsh (Anglicized to “Seattle”), but she is forbidden by law to live in the city named after her father. She is both despised by the citizenry and used as a tourist attraction. But in her Edward Curtis sees history walking in stark contrast to the city growing up around her.
There against the deep waters of Puget Sound, there with the snow-mantled Olympic Mountains framed behind her, there with the growl of earth-digging machines and the snorts of steamships and loading crews and the clatter of streetcars and trolleys –– with all of that, Curtis saw a moment from a time before any white man had looked upon these shores. He saw a person and nature, one and the same in his mind, as they belonged. A frozen image of a lost time: he must take that picture before she passed.
After a time, Curtis did take that picture, convincing Angeline to sit for a portrait for which he paid her $1.00. From this experience, Curtis learns that what crosses cultural boundaries and language barriers is kindness, respect, and an equal exchange –– to give as well as to receive.
Two years later, while hiking on Mt. Rainier, Curtis comes across a hiking party that has lost their way. He invites them into his camp for the night, and then guides them down the mountain the next day. Later, he is asked by one of the members of that party –– C. Hart Merriam, co-founder of the National Geographic Society and director of the U.S. Biological Survey –– to join a scientific expedition to the Alaska Territory as the official photographer. It is a life-changing experience, and his grand idea is hatched soon after that in conversations with another member of that lost hiking party, George Bird Grinnell, found of the Audubon Society and editor of Field and Stream magazine. Grinnell shares Curtis’s philosophy of treating native people as equals, of coming into their society as an observer, not to make demands or push them around. This philosophy will guide Curtis for the next 30 years as he creates the 20-volume masterpiece, The North American Indian.
Egan’s storytelling is phenomenal. His subject needs no decoration; Curtis lived, in the words on the book jacket, as “an Indiana Jones with a camera.” But even with such rich material, Egan is masterful in creating a sense of excitement and in crafting a rich tapestry of images in the reader’s mind. There are so few books that I sit and read for pages on-end, but this book held my attention as so few have in recent months. This is an amazing story, with startling revelations about moments in American history that have been incorrectly portrayed for more than a century. It also tells the story of Indian dispossession and assimilation, and the contradictory ways in which those policies were carried out, but it does so in the context of how Curtis’s grand idea is a race against time. Native cultures are fading as quickly, if not faster, than Curtis can preserve them to the page.
As the project continues into the 1920s, the story becomes more than a little dispiriting. Curtis is disparaged by the institutions and people who are threatened by this uneducated man’s anthropological prowess. Also, his grand idea is losing ground to changing social interests, and completion of the project is threatened by a lack of money. In the end, it is Curtis’s single-minded pursuit, his sense of duty to complete that which he has started, that drives him deep into debt. He is estranged from his brother and he loses his wife, his savings, his photography business, and in the end, the rights to his life’s work that he selflessly brought to completion in 1929. For all the cutting-edge artistry, keen insights, unprecedented access, and big-named support he had, Curtis dies in 1952, at the age of 84, penniless and alone in a small apartment in Los Angeles, cared for by one of his daughters who lived nearby.
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is an incredible story of vision, adventure, commitment, and loss. It is a unique glimpse into native America as 20th century Manifest Destiny drove it to the edges of society. It is a book I recommend to anyone.
The photographs from all 20 volumes of The North American Indian can be found on the Library of Congress website, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/award98/ienhtml/, and the photographs and full text can be found at http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/.
Two books I’ve read recently have dealt with mental health from an “inside” perspective—through the eyes of those who are mentally ill, or at least diagnosed as such. First was Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, which a friend loaned to me, saying, “it really is a fascinating story.” He was right.
After being drawn into a strange hoax, Ronson, a freelance writer, is looking through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known simply as “the DSM”). Of course he is able to diagnose himself with a few things, but after looking through it, he begins to wonder how many important politicians and business leaders could actually be diagnosed as psychopaths. Along the way, he meets Tony who, in order to avoid a prison sentence, faked mental illness and was summarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Twelve years later, he is still stuck there, unable to convince his therapists and doctors that he is in fact sane. Ronson draws on other examples in the history of treatment for the mentally ill, not all of which are pretty. He raises questions about the validity of what is done in the name of “treatment” and whether that treatment makes things worse.
Ronson attends a workshop led by Bob Hare, creator of the PCL-R checklist, which is used to identify and diagnose psycopathy. The PCL-R checklist is a list of 20 behavioral traits such as superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, parasitic lifestyle, lack of remorse or guilt, and irresponsibility. Here again, Ronson is able to identify some of these traits in himself. He then arranges to meet people like the former head of a Haitian paramilitary group and a former CEO who seemed to enjoy firing people. He listens to their stories, mentally armed with the PCL-R checklist, looking for proof that those in power are indeed psychopaths at some level. The stories are fascinating, and the people even more so, but they are frightening as well. By the end of the book, Ronson concludes that there is a fine line between the sane and the psychopath and that the people are as nuanced as the science used to diagnose and treat them. He asks Bob Hare as much about the man who faked mental illness to avoid prison: “should we define him by his psychopathy or his sanity?” This is the question that stuck with me long after I finished The Psychopath Test, and especially as I read Paul Gruchow’s Letters To a Young Madman.
When I first learned of it, Letters To a Young Madman was expected to be published in April of 2009; I have been watching for it with anticipation ever since. It finally came out in 2012, and I found it in a bookstore in Duluth this past February, the same month in which Gruchow died of a self-induced prescription drug overdose in 2004.
Gruchow suffered from depression and bipolar disorder, and this book is his memoir of “childhood trauma, the stigma of psychiatric diagnosis, and how the treatment system infantilizes patients.” It is a collection of dozens of short essays—some just a paragraph or even two sentences—in which Gruchow writes under the headings of Grief, Love, Diagnosis, Work, The Hospital, Boredom, Suicide, and others. He, like Ronson, shows the very fine line that exists between sanity and mental illness and how the system that is supposed to help patients instead drives them deeper into their illness.
I was going to write about the year I spent getting my character adjusted in twice-a-week therapy sessions, but I realize now that the experience can adequately be summarized in a sentence or two. The therapy utterly failed because I never believed in it. And I did not believe in it because I knew that I was grieving half a dozen substantial losses, all of them unresolved. Any one of them might have explained my despair. I didn’t need to be defective in character to be unhappy. But I did need to acknowledge my grief, to feel it, and to find a way through it. I didn’t need somebody to explain me to myself, or fix me or teach me how to manage myself in six easy steps. I need somebody to listen. And because I didn’t get that, I lost an entire year of my life.
Gruchow’s book can be difficult to read. Like Ronson’s, it casts a light on the nature of mental illness and how it is addressed by health professionals, and in that way, both books are troubling. But unlike Ronson, Paul Gruchow does not go home in the end with a note wishing him “good luck.” We know what happens before we start the book, but it is somehow more personal.
Before his illness became so debilitating, Paul Gruchow was a newspaper reporter, a teacher, and an author. He wrote seven books and collaborated on or contributed to numerous others. He was one of the humblest writers I have ever read, which is why I like his books immensely. The joy he expressed in writing about canoeing in Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild or the subtle beauty of the prairie in Journal of a Prairie Year is equally balanced with his clear-eyed and sharp assessment of mental health treatment programs in this book. It is a testament to his skill as a writer that my mind and soul are lifted to great heights in reading the former and fall to equally great depths while reading the latter. Never the less, both are necessary reading.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “something worth doing is never easy.” Similarly, many also know that some of the best experiences or even scenic views a person can have come about after some amount of work. It takes a bit of effort to get off the well-worn path, to go beyond the normal and to enter the realm of the new and uncommon. I have experienced the results of these adages many times, usually in the process of canoeing or visiting national parks during the course of my work. Something similar happened this week when I finished reading Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood.
A Geography of Blood is a memoir, a cultural and natural history of the Cypress Hills, and a story about Savage’s relationship to her prairie home in Eastend, Saskatchewan. The book came to me as a candidate for the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. As a member of the award selection committee, I receive dozens of current-year publications, beginning in the fall, about various aspects of the natural world. There were 55 submissions this year. As you might imagine, I do not actually read them all. Many are rejected right out of the box because they don’t fit the criteria (publishers seem to take a shotgun approach in submitting entries; if a book has the slightest relationship to the outdoors, they send it). Some I consider to be “maybes” after a chapter or two, and they are relegated to a pile while I spend time reading more completely those that are closer to being “yes” votes. This was not a good year for submissions. I have no “yes” votes, and A Geography of Blood was a “maybe/yes” for the longest time. But I couldn’t put the book away. Something about it wouldn’t let me cast it aside, and it sat out in plain view for months. So I inched my way through it, and then the last two chapters revealed the reason why I couldn’t put it away.
I will say that it can be a slow-moving book. While Savage’s writing style is engaging when she’s in the groove, it can sometimes be a challenge to keep going. She begins by talking about the author Wallace Stegner. In writing a book about the natural history of the prairie, she has an opportunity to stay in his family home in the town of Eastend, Saskatchewan, while she continues her research and writing. Stegner is Eastend’s most famous export, and she first looks at the town through his eyes as he described it in his book Wolf Willow. Coming from Montana, she found the landscape similar to what she knew, but she feels something more. She senses a greater purpose, a larger story that is calling for her attention. “Stop, a quiet voice kept saying. Stay put. Pay attention to where you are,” she writes. So she and her partner, Keith, buy a house down the street from the Stegner place and move in. Thus begins her story.
In learning about her new home, she explores and investigates stone circles in a field, remnants of teepees used by the Plains Indians. She explores the prehistoric, visiting the T. Rex Discovery Centre and Scotty, Canada’s most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that was unearthed there. She visits Fort Walsh, a national historic site that holds the dubious honor of having played a role in the destruction of some of the province’s Plains Indians and their culture in the region. Throughout all of this, she is haunted by a recurring dream she has had since childhood of her grandmother and a native woman facing each other from opposite sides of a field, not speaking. The dream is heavy with regret, but she doesn’t know why.
As she learns more about Eastend’s history, she discovers a personal connection to the dispossession of native people in the region. This is the source of her dream, an unconscious connection to the past that has brought her to this place and led her down this path of discovery. In the last two chapters, she befriends some Cree people and begins to see through their eyes the history she has been learning. It is then that her dream changes and the women come together. A centuries old rift has been mended.
I read the last two chapters in one sitting because its connection to me began to come clear. That connection is personal in the sense that I realized this book I thought was a “maybe” in meeting the criteria of the nature writing award is in fact what Alison Hawthorne Deming has called the “third wave of the environmental essay.” It is a melding of nature and culture, a breaking down of the barrier between people and their environment. She shows, perhaps without intending to, that people and nature are one. This is a topic I have been struggling with for a few years, and one that has come to light again in my professional life in recent weeks. Yet my response to the new discussion has been scattered. My words feel old and stale and somehow unworthy. Yet in Savage’s book I found affirmation of what I have been saying. This is why I couldn’t put the book away. Like the unknown force that was pulling Savage into the story of Eastend and the Cypress Hills, her story was somehow pulling me towards greater clarity in the things I have been thinking and writing about. It renewed my enthusiasm and it gave me a new perspective from which to work.
Nothing worth doing is ever easy, and to achieve your goals, you must give something of yourself to show your commitment. It has to be something of value equal to that which you hope to gain, even though you often do not know what it is you are hoping to gain. Candace Savage learned that what she had to give was her attention and her time. She had to listen, and to keep returning to places and learning their stories until the importance they held for her was revealed. There is more to tell, and so she brings the book to a close by saying, “this is a story that has to be marked: To Be Continued.” For me and this book, it was time that had to be given as well. I had to put in the time reading the book through to its conclusion before I would see the importance it held for me personally. So in the end, even when the story was moving slowly, it was time well spent.
To learn more about Candace Savage and her work, visit her website: www.candacesavage.ca/home.html
In a Publisher’s Note at the front of Young Men and Fire, the reader is told that Norman Maclean began working on the book in 1976 (“his seventy-fourth year”), after A River Runs Through It was published. The publisher’s note and some of Maclean’s writing in Young Men and Fire suggest a man taking an accounting of his life, but also fulfilling the need to tell a story that lingered in his mind for well over 40 years. The book seems to carry a great deal of baggage, not all of it being obviously connected to the story. So it seems appropriate to lay out a brief timeline of this story and Maclean’s own.
1902––Norman Maclean is born.
1905––The United States Forest Service is created by President Theodore Roosevelt.
1917––Fifteen-year-old Norman Maclean goes to work fighting wildfires for the U.S. Forest Service because there is a shortage of men available to do so, many of them being overseas fighting World War I.
1940––The first parachute jump is made on a forest fire.
1941––The U.S. Forest Service formally creates the position of smokejumper.
1949––On a hot and windy day in the first week of August, sixteen smokejumpers drop into Mann Gulch, part of the Helena National Forest in Montana, to fight a wildfire. Thirteen of the men are killed when the fire unexpectedly intensifies and makes a run up the mountain while the men are moving down slope towards it.
A week later, Maclean arrives at his cabin in Seeley Lake, Montana, near Missoula, and learns of the deaths. Another week or two later, he makes his first visit to Mann Gulch.
1968––Maclean’s wife of 37 years, Jessie, dies. As she requested, her ashes are spread in a valley north of Mann Gulch.
1976––Maclean begins researching and writing his story about the Mann Gulch tragedy, Young Men and Fire.
1978––After locating and contacting two of the survivors, Maclean revisits Mann Gulch with them on 1 July. Maclean is 76 years old.
1984––Maclean writes a preface to the book that gives the impression he is taking stock of his life. As the publisher notes, “Young Men and Fire was where … all the lives [Maclean] had lived would merge: woodsman, firefighter, scholar, teacher, and storyteller.”
1990––Maclean dies at the age of 87. Young Men and Fire is unfinished.
1992––The University of Chicago Press publishes the book.
This timeline puts into perspective the close ties Maclean probably felt with the Forest Service and its firefighting history, as well as with the area in which the Mann Gulch tragedy occurred. He identifies with the dead men in many ways. He considers Montana a second home (he lived, worked, and raised his family in Chicago). And the symbolism of his wife being cremated and her ashes, like those of the men who were killed, being on the side of a mountain probably carries some emotional weight as well. These underlying motivations of Maclean’s may have something to do with the impressions our group took away from the book. He was obsessed with the story, said one. He included a lot of extraneous information; why include the interview with the retired fire investigator when it didn’t lead to any new information? And what was Part 3 for? Maclean waxes poetic in many parts of the book, but never more so than in Part 3. Was he searching for answers to more than just the story at hand? Or was he trying to form pertinent conclusions?
I, an old man, have written this fire report. Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. … Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.
Here again, Maclean’s motivations are muddled, and the reader is left wondering what we should take away from the story. So it was with our group. Though most thought the story was basically an interesting one, it was thick with detail and thin on purpose. Overall, the group gave it an average score of 3.7 out of 5 for Interest, but just 3 out of 5 for Readability. Few felt compelled to read another of Maclean’s book, though Art has read A River Runs Through It and thought it was better written than this book.
In a group of four men who each have a scientific background (two biologists, a chemist, and an ER nurse), you might think that discussing a book on the “evolution of God” would be a short conversation… or not much of a conversation at all. In fact, the conversation was thoughtful and did not even touch on the scientific meaning of the word “evolution.”
In a brilliant move, Adrian suggested we start the discussion by sharing what each of us believed about God. Fortunately, everyone was comfortable with this idea, and it was an interesting round-robin. As you might expect, we all come from some form of Christianity––two Catholics, a Lutheran, and an Episcopalian. Such upbringing shaped our thinking, of course, but our current views on God, religion, and faith are slightly different from when we were younger.
The four of us were interested enough by Wright’s exploration of religion and God that we generally liked the book. Adrian wondered why it was so focused on the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and did not delve as much into any other faiths. Early parts of the book discussed the development of animism and polytheism, but there was nothing about the current state of these belief systems. Of course, the book is about the “evolution of God,” which is ostensibly intended to focus on the rise of monotheism. It is not really a comparison of world religions.
We were all looking forward to hearing what the two pastors in our group thought about the book. Unfortunately, neither could make it to the meeting, but one – Art – did send some thoughts by email.
I really like it... don't agree with all of it, of course, but absolutely agree with most of it. For this Christian, the notion of an "evolution of God"––or I would term it an "evolution of our understanding of God"––is not threatening in the least. Nor does it shake my faith. I think, however, that this book would be regarded as heretical by some of my Christian pastor friends! Were it not so long, I would use it as the basis for my adult Christian education class so as to help my people think about what they really believe and how they came to [think that way].
Wright does have an enjoyable writing style, which is necessary for a book of this sort. John summed it up nicely: “It's quite readable, but, much like when I read the Bible for confirmation classes, there are a lot of names and places. This is one of those books that you can't just breeze through; you have to pay close attention.” Still, Wright’s sense of humor comes through, and that’s one reason John said he would read another. Adrian and Irv were also interested in reading something else by Wright.
Average rankings for this book (on a scale of 1 to 5) were 3.3 for Interest and 3.4 for Readability.
Our February meeting would fall two days before the Birkebeiner, so we pushed it into March and will take February off. We will discuss Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire on Thursday, March 7th. We also made a group decision to read The Town of Watered-Down Whiskey by Jim Geiwitz for our April meeting. Aside from being set in Minnesota, there’s a much closer connection: Geiwitz was Ron’s college roommate.
From the Publisher (http://solbooks.com/blog/?p=617): Minneota, Minnesota. Smalltown, America. For some, growing up in a place where everyone knows everybody evokes memories of grandmothers’ quilts, cruisin’ after school, and leaning in for your first kiss. But for others, a small town becomes a prison and as each year passes, the cell bars grow closer to asphyxiation. In The Town of Watered-Down Whiskey, Geiwitz taps into the nostalgia and claustrophobia of Smalltown, America, where each citizen learns they have an outlandish, wise, regretful, or tragic role to play, whether they choose it or not.
As I sit at the dining room table watching Black-capped Chickadees, Common Redpolls, and the occasional nuthatch fly back and forth from the feeder, it occurs to me that I have spent almost my entire life doing this: watching birds. It began when I was young with plastic binoculars and a Golden Guide to the Birds. The fascination continued through my young adult years when family vacations took me to northern lower Michigan, and I desperately wanted to see an endangered bald eagle soaring over the dunes along the Lake Michigan shoreline. In college I became fascinated with loons in part because of where they are found ... on northern lakes, and that fascination carried over into the beginnings of my career in biology. Today, I still work with birds, but at somewhat of a remove, and to be honest all the number-crunching that accompanies that work does not come close to matching the interest I have in simply seeing and hearing them.
But as I sit here, I began to wonder what books fed my curiosity through the years, so I went to my shelves and found the ones that have stayed with me. These are not the scientific volumes, mind you, but the books that celebrate birds in general. There may be some science attached to some of them, but it's not overwhelming and the underlying fascination with the simple beauty, song, and joy of birds is what makes each of these books remarkable and why they are still on my shelf. So, if you're interested, here are my favorites.
For the kid in each of us, or the ones in our lives:
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen I was swept away by Jane Yolen's Owl Moon when I first discovered it. Though I don't particularly identify with the story of a father taking his daughter out "owling" under the full moon, I do identify with the experience of the silent winter woods, of listening to the deep, resonant conversations of owls in the darkness, and of occasionally being fortunate enough to call one in to view by mimicking the sounds. I bought a brand new copy of it so that I could one day share it with my niece, but when that time came, I bought another copy for her and kept the one I had.
Bird Watch by Jane Yolen My wife and I had just moved to Wisconsin (Lake Geneva) when I found Yolen's Bird Watch in the public library. It was winter then, and I sat by a window overlooking the lake and read the entire thing. Published three years after Owl Moon, Bird Watch is a book of poetry, about common birds - turkeys, killdeer, robins - and their simple beauty. The opening poem, "Bird Watcher," is one of my favorites.
Across the earless
face of the moon
a stretch of Vs
From the lake
laughs the last joke
of a solitary loon.
Winter silences us all.
I will miss
the trips at dawn
where I listen carefully,
only with my eyes.
The illustrations in Bird Watch (drawn by Ted Lewin) are equally as enjoyable as the poems, and the image of birds sitting on wires drawn to look like a musical chart for the poem "Song/Birds" is simple and clever.
For the young adult reader:
In Search of a Sandhill Crane by Keith Robertson I cannot remember how I came to own In Search of a Sandhill Crane by Keith Robertson. I think it may have been one of the many former library books my dad brought home from work (he was a high school history teacher). However it came to be, I have held tight to this book since then, my name, address, and phone number scrawled in my newly-learned cursive handwriting on the inside of the front cover.
Published in 1973, this is a story about 15-year-old Link Keller, who lives with his mother in New York (his father died when he was younger). One summer, when his mother's employer signs her up for a 10-week computer training course in Ohio, the family - his mother and various aunts and uncles - fret about what to do with Link while she's gone. Eventually it is decided that he will spend the summer with his Aunt Harriet, whom he's met only once but who lives in Michigan and has a cabin in the Upper Peninsula. In the midst of the planning for his trip, Link's Uncle Albert, a quiet, rather eccentric man who enjoys birds, asks if Link will find and photograph a Sandhill Crane for him. This becomes Link's challenge, along with surviving the wilds of far northern Michigan, which is probably what attracted me to the book. My young imagination was attracted to anything involving time spent in the wild (especially northern Michigan), in search of a bird, and involving canoes and packs. My older imagination still is.
Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich Bernd Heinrich has a talent for simple experiments that lead to astounding insights on bird behavior. He is currently a professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont, and he is an internationally recognized authority on ravens, about which he has written extensively in the scientific journals but also in the popular press. The book I have, Ravens in Winter, is just one example of his sheer brilliance.
I first became interested in ravens while working as a field research assistant in Maine one summer. I was particularly awe-struck by the variety of their vocalizations. (What I thought was a bongo player in the middle of the Maine woods one day turned out to be a raven.) So it was with this interest that I read Ravens in Winter and enjoyed my first exposure to a scientist who can also write in engaging prose. Ravens in Winter is in essence a book-length scientific paper, but it is written in a style that is easy to read, such that bird enthusiasts as well as scientists can share in Heinrich's discoveries. He does things as simple as hiding a deer carcass in the snow to see how long it takes ravens to find it and how they communicate that find to others. This is a wonderful introduction to an iconic species of the north and one that holds cultural importance as well as scientific interest. The raven figures prominently in many Ojibwe and Native Alaskan stories, being both a trickster and a benevolent provider to the people.
The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds With Common Birds by Julie Zickefoose Finally, I recently came into possession of Julie Zickefoose's The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds With Common Birds as a result of my participation on the selection committee for the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award (http://www.northland.edu/SONWA-Overview.htm). The Bluebird Effect was submitted by its publisher as a candidate for the award.
Zickefoose is an artist who specializes in biological illustration, and I am including the book in this list of my favorites based on her artwork alone. I haven't even read it yet, but the illustrations are so wonderful that I have no doubt this book will hold a place on my shelf for years to come.
Well, the feeding wave has ended. The birds darting back and forth in front of the dining room window have gone, probably into the trees to stay warm. They will be back later, just as they do every day. Until they return, I will look for them in the pages of my books.
A record-setting eight men came out Thursday to discuss Destiny of the Republic (and to select the 2012 Book of the Year). Only two other times have we had this level of attendance but never during the holidays!
Destiny of the Republic is Candice Millard’s second book, her first being River of Doubt, which we read in 2010. John felt River of Doubt was the better of the two, saying that this story petered out as it went on. Adrian noted that Millard’s first book was more of an adventure story. This one, he said, became more pathological by the end.
What does the title mean? Irv pointed out that both Garfield and his assassin, Charles Guiteau, had survived boat-related accidents that seemed to set their individual destinies. In Guiteau’s case, it fed his delusion that he had been chosen by God for greatness. Ron wondered if this was somehow related to the title of the book. Assassination of a president certainly wasn’t a change in the country’s course, as Lincoln had been killed just 16 years before Garfield was shot. How was the destiny of the republic altered or set by the shooting of President Garfield? We still don’t know.
Everyone commented on how James Garfield was a man without an ego or sense of grandeur. How different from politicians of today! Garfield was a reluctant, in fact, unwilling presidential candidate. Though he had little time in office before being laid up by the shooting, all signs indicate he would have been a great president, one who truly did work in the interest of the people and the nation. Many before and a few after him have done as much, but has anyone done so after having to resign himself to the assignment? It’s too easy to say there were fewer influences on Garfield––No Super-PACs or interest groups to contend with. But politics was just as rife with influence in those days as they are now; only the form of it has changed…maybe. The character of Garfield’s nemesis, Roscoe Conkling, is proof of that.
Our rankings of Millard’s second book were a 4.8 out of 5 for Interest, 4.8 for Readability, and 6 who said they would definitely read another of Millard’s books (we already have!); two said probably, but they would want to know about the subject first.
Defying social conversational conventions, we jump from politics this month to religion next month when we discuss The Evolution of God by Robert Wright on Thursday, 24 January 2013. Happy Holidays!
The second annual Book of the Year meeting was a gala affair, with double the number of men in attendance from last year’s inaugural gathering. Only three of our group was known to be coming to the meeting as night fell. Yet, as the time drew nearer, it seemed every other person coming in the door was there for the meeting. The six-person corner table we initially chose was soon abandoned in order to accommodate everyone.
Eleven titles were in the running, and more than one person commented that we read some really good books this year. This would prove to make for close competition, and the winning selection, though a clear victor, would not win by a landslide. The books were:
The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley
Blue Blood by Edward Conlon
One Second After by William R. Forstchen
Griftopia by Matt Taibbi
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
The Tiger by John Vaillant
Monster Fire at Minong by Bill Matthias
The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig
Operation Mincemeat by Ben MacIntyre
Country of the Bad Wolfes by James Carlos Blake
Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
The most recent book, Destiny of the Republic, received very favorable reviews from the group, and it was among the top 3 choices of a few members. In fact, Ron Caple noted that Country of the Bad Wolfes was his number one pick for Book of the Year until he read Destiny of the Republic.
The Tiger was also a favorite for enough of the group that Art, who hadn’t read it, was nearly swayed by the conviction with which the others spoke of it. “I feel like I should vote for The Tiger even though I didn’t read it,” Art said, “but I trust you guys.”
After some discussion, each person was asked to name his top two choices. This decision was difficult for Irv, who insidiously tried to insert three titles: “My choices are Destiny in the White City and The Tiger,” he said.
“What was that first one?” Ted asked. Irv quickly recanted and separated his melded first choice into one.
The Final Choice
Four titles were named as the number one choice, five titles for second choice. When the votes were tallied, Destiny of the Republic and One Second After shared three votes each and third place. Devil in the White City took the runner-up spot with four votes. And with five votes, John Vaillant’s The Tiger was chosen for 2012 Book of the Year.
It was noted that only one of the top books was fiction, so as we did in 2011, we agreed that William Forstchen’s One Second After would be considered our number one fiction book of the year.
The Tiger’s win was carried by its story. “When I think back on what book I remember the most about, it’s The Tiger,” said Irv. “It has good imagery, and it’s a very good adventure story,” commented Adrian.
Ron noted that the book won the 2011 Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, which is conferred by the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College in Ashland. He went to the award ceremony in which the Vaillant read from his book and was impressed. He added that, “a colleague [in Russia] read the book and said that it is very accurate in its description.”
The discussion ended all too soon, though we had been at it for nearly an hour. Many of the men lingered, talking in groups about the merits of the other books along with the recent deer hunt and holiday plans. Soon, though, it was done, and the selection was set in the pages of time.
Our group discussion this week will center on the fourth book about a U.S. president that we have read in our three-and-a-half-year existence. This is also our second selection written by Candice Millard, and even though it was the subject matter and not the author that attracted us to Destiny of the Republic, I would now say that if my future book browsing turns up something written by Candice Millard, that will be reason enough for me to read it.
Millard is a former editor and writer for National Geographic, so she has a lot of experience writing about history and geography in a way that captures people’s imaginations. In her first book, River of Doubt, which told the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s trip down a tributary of the Amazon River (and which our group discussed in April 2010), and in this most recent book, she has exercised those skills in the telling of historical biographies that are either out of the mainstream (Roosevelt’s trip occurred after his time as president) or not entirely about the person at the center of the tale. Destiny of the Republic is certainly about Garfield, and she tells the whole story of Garfield’s rise through politics to his less-than-willing nomination and election to the presidency. But the bulk of the book is about the medicine and technology that were brought to bear in trying to save Garfield’s life after being shot by a deranged “supporter.”
Alexander Graham Bell played a prominent role in the events following the assassination, and the book tells us nearly as much about his life as it does about Garfield’s. Bell invented a metal detector that could be used to locate the bullet lodged in Garfield’s abdomen. The machine worked by registering sound waves when the flow of energy through the body cavity was interrupted by a solid object (the bullet). The invention ultimately failed to locate the bullet, but through no fault of Bell’s; Garfield’s primary doctor – D. Willard Bliss, who also cared for Lincoln after he was shot – tyrannically controlled every aspect of Garfield’s care, such that he only allowed Bell to search the right side of Garfield’s body because that is where he believed the bullet to be. (After Garfield’s death, the autopsy found the bullet in the left side of his abdomen.)
Bliss and the state of medical care in the late 1800s are another topic of Millard’s. Dr. Joseph Lister was, at the time, promoting antiseptic techniques in patient care, but many of his colleagues scoffed at the idea of sterilizing equipment and anything else that came into contact with a patient. This ignorance on the part of Bliss proved fatal for President Garfield, as Bliss refused to believe there was any infection caused by his less-than-sterile medical practices, and it was this infection that ultimately killed the president.
As in River of Doubt, Candice Millard weaves an intriguing story about a president and the time in which he lived. Through extensive research, she has constructed context and dialogue between the characters that would seem as if she (and by extension, the reader) were there. It is the kind of writing that informs as it entertains, and it can move an unsuspecting reader toward an interest in history that will take them in all sorts of fascinating directions.
This is just my view. Our next blog post will feature the group’s review and rankings.