TedG's blog

"A Geography of Blood" by Candace Savage

  • Posted on: 28 March 2013
  • By: TedG

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


REVIEW: “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean

  • Posted on: 10 March 2013
  • By: TedG

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.

REVIEW: “The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright

  • Posted on: 1 February 2013
  • By: TedG

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. 

Stay warm!

And Now For Something Completely Different...

  • Posted on: 6 January 2013
  • By: TedG

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

honks homeward.

From the lake

laughs the last joke

of a solitary loon.

Winter silences us all.

I will miss

these conversations,

the trips at dawn

and dusk,

where I listen carefully,

then answer

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.

For adults:

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.


REVIEW: “Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard

  • Posted on: 16 December 2012
  • By: TedG

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!

2012 Book of the Year Selected from a “Year of Good Books”

  • Posted on: 16 December 2012
  • By: TedG

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.


The Contestants

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.

Presidential Reading

  • Posted on: 10 December 2012
  • By: TedG

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.

REVIEW: “Country of the Bad Wolfes” by James Carlos Blake

  • Posted on: 23 October 2012
  • By: TedG

Submitted by Adrian Wydeven 

Four of us met to discuss Country of the Bad Wolfes, and Ron Caple submitted his comments in absentia. Only Barry and Ron had finished the book, but we all enjoyed as much as we had read and intend to finish it. 

The book is set in Mexico and traces a family with roots in New England. Through different means, family members find their way into Mexico. The story runs from early 1800s through the early 1900s. The story has nothing to do with wolves. The author, James Carlos Blake, apparently wrote this novel about his ancestors. It is a great story, with lots of adventure, interesting historical details, and interesting and well developed characters. I think the greatest difficulty we had with the book was trying to remember all the characters.

Average ranks (scale of 1-5) were 4.75 for Readability and 4.8 each for Interest and Likely to Read Another by This Author.  

Great read; hope others get to read it as well.

REVIEW: "Operation Mincemeat" by Ben MacIntyre

  • Posted on: 1 October 2012
  • By: TedG

Late summer and early autumn are proving to be a difficult times for our group to gather. Yet, we persevere.

Ron and Angelo were the only two to attend the September meeting and review Operation Mincemeat. Though Ron had read the book, Angelo finished it just a few days later, and both give it a 5 out of 5 on all counts (Interest, Readability, and Would You Read Another by this Author?). No details were given about what they liked, but if you attend the next meeting on October 19th, they promise to reveal all!  

Thanks, Ron and Angelo!  

We are now reading Country of the Bad Wolfes by James Carlos Blake.  Next meeting is 6:30 on Friday, October 19th.

REVIEW: "The Whistling Season" by Ivan Doig

  • Posted on: 25 August 2012
  • By: TedG

The writing, we all agreed, was outstanding. Irv was quite taken with the metaphors. When Ron finished this book, he immediately read Doig’s Mountain Time, which he says was equally grand.  But that’s where the agreement ended. John and Ted both remarked how the book began slowly and seemed to be headed nowhere in particular, yet it was so engaging, neither could give it up. “There was no gunfight, no drama, nothing really happening,” John noted. Ted agreed, saying, “It stayed that way right up to the end, too.”

The Whistling Season is a coming-of-age story set in 1909 Great Falls, Montana. Oliver Milliron is a “dirt farmer,” which occupies all of his time, while Oliver’s sons––Paul, Damon, and Toby––are concerned with typical kid things, namely attending school, avoiding bullies, and simply being kids. The family lost its wife and mother a year before, making elder son Paul the second-in-command. Paul is realistic and very mature for his age, but he is still just a 13-year-old boy. When Oliver sees a classified ad in the paper entitled “Can’t Cook But Doesn’t Bite,” he decides the family needs a housekeeper. So they answer the ad, hiring Rose Llewellyn of Minneapolis to come to Montana. The story then spins out over a year. Rose’s brother, Morrie, comes with her from Minneapolis, and almost immediately is asked to take on the job of teacher for Great Falls’s one-room school house. Morrie is a fine dresser with a large vocabulary that he wields with great skill, neither of which fits well among the wide-open spaces of Montana except within the walls of frontier academia. He turns out to be a great teacher, and the kids whose education has suffered with the frequent coming and going of teachers begin to excel under Morrie’s tutelage. But he’s hiding a secret.

Amazingly, we don’t know Morrie’s hiding a secret until the end of the book, which is why Ted and John wondered where the book was going nearly to the end. It’s precisely the end that troubled Irv––it’s just so unlikely that a 13-year-old boy would confront an adult in the way that Paul does. Perhaps it’s a result of that early frontier living––people were tougher then, no-nonsense, even the 13-year-olds.

The Whistling Season reminded Ted of Russell Baker’s autobiography, Growing Up, in part because Paul is thinking back on his childhood from a future in which he’s a school superintendent for the very district he was in as a boy. Coincidentally, John revealed that he grew up in Great Falls, and would have been a student at the time Paul Milliron was an administrator there. “But we didn’t learn any of those big words,” he says. The vocabulary and level of intelligence was pretty amazing for a prairie dirt farmer’s kid in the early 19th century.

The story’s slow pace lowered our Interest ranking just a little, with the average rank coming out to 4.6 out of 5. Readability, though, was held in high regard, and all of us gave it a 5 out of 5, and all of us said we would read another of Ivan Doig’s books. In fact, Ron already had.

The conversation ended with a question: what was “the whistling season?” Did it refer to that one year when Rose Llewellyn came into the life of the Milliron clan and whistled her way through each working day as their housekeeper? Or was it the migration of whistling swans (now known as tundra swans) that Paul briefly mentions is one of his annual markers of the seasons? We’re not sure, but no matter the book’s title, it was a very good part of our group’s reading-year.


Two rankings sent to me by email change our average scores a bit.

Interest = 4.2, Readability = 4.5.