TedG's blog

REVIEW: “Monster Fire at Minong” by Bill Matthias

  • Posted on: 31 July 2012
  • By: TedG

After a one-month hiatus, the Men’s Group leapt back into action, meeting this past Friday to discuss a book of local history. We had our second-best attendance for the year, with seven of our community’s finest minds gathered together. Re-joining us after a one-year hiatus was Chuck Hyser, who blended back into the group as if he had never left.


Unfortunately, Ted had not read the book because he knew he was not going to be at the June meeting when it was originally supposed to have been discussed. Consequently, and as always, Ron fired him from the coordinator’s role. Once that was settled, our food had arrived, and we delved into it and the book.


There was general agreement that Monster Fire provides good documentation of the fire – numbers and names of those who fought it and the like – but it’s not a particularly gripping story. What made it interesting for most of the group was that it was a very local story. Adrian said that he drove out to County Highway T, where much of the story’s action takes place just to see what it looks like today. He also was interested in the book because he and the author are friends, so there was something of a personal connection for him. He told how Matthias, who was a Superintendent of the Minong area school system at the time of the fire (1977), had developed a school program to which he had recruited high school students who helped to fight area wildfires. Those students, along with many other untrained volunteers, were involved very heavily in the fight against the monster fire, which turned out to be the last time untrained volunteers were allowed to help. Today’s wildland firefighting is done exclusively by well-trained professionals within local fire departments, the Department of Natural Resources, and many federal agencies.


Along with the heavy use of volunteers, readers were amazed at the long hours and days firefighters were subjected to. “I got the sense that a lot of people went for long stretches with little food and less sleep,” commented John Sill (by email). Again, today’s wildland firefighting is heavily regulated to prevent overwork and subsequent fatigue, which can lead to injuries and even death on the fire line.


Irv said he would like to have seen more about the natural role of fire in the pine barrens ecosystem. Wildfire today is recognized as a necessary influence on the health of this habitat, and the book may have missed an opportunity to reflect on this 35-year-old event in the light of contemporary knowledge and thought.


Not surprisingly, the group’s rankings of the book were in the low-to-mid range, with Interest averaging a 2.9 out of 5 and Readability averaging 3.25. Most were not likely to read another book by Matthias, but I think we can agree that if everyone has one story inside them to tell, Matthias didn’t do too badly with this one.


Our next meeting will be Friday, August 17th, at 6:30, when we will discuss The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig.

Summer Reading

  • Posted on: 26 June 2012
  • By: TedG

We have all been busy these last two months. Summer has just started, but already we have so many competing interests that our group pushed back our discussion about Monster Fire to July because too few of us could make the June meeting.


Thus, with no review to put forth, and having already written about fire-related books, I think I will use this month’s post to suggest some summer reading. Of course there are any of our group’s fine selections (see previous posts for lists and reviews), but I will focus here on two books I recently finished and two books suggested to me by family. DISCLAIMER: I have not read the books suggested to me so I only relate here what I have read about them.


My dad called me last week to tell me about The Shack by William Paul Young. It was suggested to him by my Uncle Fran, who said his whole family read it, and they knew people who like it so much, they bought copies to give to others. Turns out my mom had a copy already but she had a hard time following it, so she handed it over to my dad. Dad is half-way through and is thoroughly engrossed.


The Shack might be called a book about faith, but other reviewers describe it as a book about loss and recovery, about redemption, and one even uses the word “fantasy.” Here’s how the book’s publisher describes The Shack:

Mackenzie Allen Philips' youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation, and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack's world forever. The Shack wrestles with the timeless question, "Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?"

The website Christianbooks.com reports that 86% of their customers would recommend this book to others, and it averages 3.4 out of 5 stars. Yet, a reviewer for Christianbooks.com says, “I would encourage Christians, and especially young Christians, to decline this invitation to meet with God in The Shack. It is not worth reading for the story and certainly not worth reading for the theology.”


My father-in-law is a life-long civil servant, so it was appropriate when he told me about a book he recently finished called The President’s Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael DuffyThe publisher (Simon and Schuster; describe it as “The first history of the private relationships among modern American presidents—their backroom deals, rescue missions, secret alliances, and enduring rivalries.” Using numerous examples ranging from Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover to George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the authors show how “relationships among former presidents have been characterized by ‘cooperation, competition, and consolation’”. Publisher’s Weekly says, “While this work could have used some pruning, it is canny, vivid, and informative on an important and little-explored subject.”


I recently finished reading Sara Wheeler’s The Magnetic North: Notes From the Arctic Circle. Having written previously about Antarctica (Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica), Wheeler sets her sights on the opposite pole and travels counter-clockwise around the Arctic Circle to Chukotka in Asian Russia, the Dalton Highway in Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Svalbard, Lapland, then to European Russia. Along the way she relates the history of each place, examines the current state of things, and looks toward the future. The excitement and the challenges of exploration are a common thread throughout the book, and it is given full address in “Ship of Fools,” a chapter on the Arctic Ocean and its fabled (and true) passages. Though the reading can go slowly in places, Wheeler’s wit and the purely fascinating nature of his topic kept me going.


Closer to our own part of the north, Amalia Tholen Baldwin’s Becoming Wilderness: Nature, History, and the Making of Isle Royale National Park is a quick read that reveals the incredible story behind Isle Royale’s transition from a fishing and resort community to a national park. I had learned parts of the story from disparate sources over the years, but Baldwin’s book brings it all together and shows how discussions in the 1930s about Isle Royale’s history and character informed the concept of what would became the federal Wilderness Act of 1964. I was surprised to learn that the National Park Service’s interest in Isle Royale as a “water and trail park” was in direct response to the U.S. Forest Service having recently established the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. Isle Royale was intended to attract the same sort of user-group.


Summer is upon us. These are just a few ideas for you to consider taking along wherever the season takes you.

REVIEW: “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival” by John Vaillant

  • Posted on: 5 June 2012
  • By: TedG

Submitted by Adrian Wydeven 

We had a nice review of the book The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant.  This of course is the book about the attack of an Amur (Siberian) tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) on men in Russian Far East, and attempts to subdue the offending tiger.  The Amur tiger is the largest cat in the world and depending which records you accept for animals weighing over 800 lbs, either the 3rd or 4th largest carnivore in the world. The American black bear is probably the 3rd largest, with polar bears being number 1, and brown bears being 2nd largest.

Along with a great adventure story, there was a lot of interesting background information. There was a lot of information on the history of the Russian Far East, and especially the impact of Perestroika on the region.  While the breakup of Communism and the Soviet Union helped end the Cold War, the people of East Russia were almost a forgotten people who were left to eke out survival in a harsh but beautiful environment.  The book also discusses the biology, ecology and human interactions with tigers and other large carnivores.  Despite its large size, tiger attacks on people in Far East Russian were relatively uncommon and much lower than tiger attacks on people in India or lion attacks in portions of Africa.  East Russia in the Province of Primorye is the last stronghold for Amur tigers in the world and there is a lot of pressure on the tigers from the illegal wildlife trade with China to the south. Along with providing an exciting narrative of the tiger attacks and pursue of the offending tiger, Vaillant takes us on numerous side trips.  While in some books the many tangents might have gotten tedious, in this book, the side tours work well and help add to our background.  We felt the tangents did not detract from the book.   

For our review we had Barry Blakeborough, Irv Berlin, John Sill, and me.  We were also joined by Gary Crandall, and although he had not read the book, he indicated if he had read it, he would have really enjoyed it.  We thoroughly enjoyed the book and for all three categories of interest level, readability, and likeliness to read another story by this author, we all gave it our maximum rating of 5.  We didn't let Gary vote, but let him join us in the discussions.  Probably the most difficult part of the book for us was trying to keep the Russian names and individuals straight.  We needed Ron Caple's help on the Russian names and additional background on the political and social upheaval occurring in Russia at this time. 

In general we really enjoyed this book and found it to be a great read.

Books on Fire

  • Posted on: 20 May 2012
  • By: TedG

The Men’s Book Group is reading John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival this month. It’s a story about Amur tigers and how they live in close proximity to Siberian Russians – not always harmoniously. The book begins with the mauling death of a man named Vladimir Markov in 1997. This starts a sort of murder mystery which Vaillant uses as a starting point for discussing larger issues of people and large predators living in close proximity and how increasing human populations and land use put pressure on tiger populations, which are struggling.


The Tiger was selected as the 2010 winner of the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award (www.northland.edu/sonwa). The SONWA is presented annually by the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, to a “published book of literary nonfiction nature writing that captures the spirit of the human relationship with the natural world, and promotes the values that preserve or restore the land for future generations.” It is named after the conservationist and author Sigurd Olson, who wrote in beautiful prose nine books celebrating wilderness and the human place in it. The award seeks to encourage writers who carry on Olson’s tradition of literary nature writing, and since 1991 it has recognized the talents of regional and national authors including Michael Van Stappen, Jim dale Huot-Vickery, Richard Nelson, and Kathleen Dean Moore. Two requirements for entries to the SONWA competition are that the book is an original work (no edited compilations of writing by others) and it must have a current-year publication date, which is always one year behind the year in which the award is presented. So Vaillant’s 2010 book was selected and presented with the award in 2011.


In late April, the six-person SONWA selection committee met to discuss and ultimately choose the 2011 award winner from among a field of 46 entries. This was my second year on the committee. It didn’t take long for us to agree that Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors was the clear winner. Connors is a former Wall Street Journal editor who, by whim and serendipity, left his financially secure New York office job to become a seasonal (April to August) fire lookout stationed in a mountain-top tower in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. He’s still there, and Fire Season is his month-by-month account of why. After reading it, I expect a run on these low-paying and tedious but ultimately very fulfilling jobs.


What makes Fire Season the 2011 SONWA winner? I made just one note in my book journal about it: “This book is both the proponent prescribed fire needs and an added voice to Stephen Pyne’s advocacy for the place of fire in general.” Unfortunately, that means more to me than it does to the average reader. Stephen Pyne is a prolific writer about wildfire and its important role in the ecology of North American landscapes. It has been said that his equal is needed in the realm of prescribed fires (also known as controlled burns) so that the importance of that restoration tool can be highlighted and used to move public opinion away from fear and towards an understanding of its necessary use. Fortunately, the allure of Connors’ book arises from more than just that which is summarized in my semi-technical note-to-self.


Fire Season simply captures the imagination. Connors’ descriptions of the arid lands he watches over sing with admiration and awe. His recounting of forest and fire history are enlightening without the weight of a rote lecture – they don’t just fill the spaces between his personal stories; they put Connors’ time in the tower in the rich context of a topic that has wound its way back and forth across the landscape of American opinion. Who wouldn’t feel an adrenaline-filled importance at being the first to spot and report a rising column of smoke in the wilderness? Who wouldn’t see a lightning storm flashing through the night or thunder rattling the very 7-foot-by-7-foot box one is sitting in as a humbling reminder of our fragile human nature? Fire Season does all this and more. It is as much a celebration of solitude as Thoreau’s Walden. It is a proud paean to the history of wilderness preservation and conservation. And it is a serious reminder of the dangers inherent with putting oneself between what one holds dear and the fire that threatens to consume it. (For more on this topic, see Sebastian Junger’s Fire or Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, which our group will read in December.) Then there are Connors’ stories of hiking and fishing his way around the mountains in which he works, his encounters with bears and elk and hummingbirds, with horse packers, hikers, and firefighters. His is a varied and interesting life made clearer by its simplicity.


In recognizing the beauty and literary panache of Fire Season, the SONWA selection committee is not alone. Fire Season is also a winner of the National Outdoor Book Award (www.noba-web.org/books11.htm), and it has been named to the Reading the West Book Awards Shortlist in the Adult Nonfiction category (www.mountainsplains.org/publishers/reading-the-west/shortlist-2011).


As a bonus for us in the area, we will have a chance to meet Philip Connors, hear him read from his book and tell his own story when he visits Northland College to accept his award this fall. This is one of the SONWA’s benefits to the college students – award winners come to campus and visit classes, facilitate writing workshops, and give presentations that can make a personal connection to aspiring writers. Stay tuned for details as they are made available.


Many books begin with a memorable line. Think of Moby Dick’s “Call me Ishmael”, or that loveable beagle Snoopy’s perpetual novel-starter, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Only a few end with a line that makes the reader want to go back and start the book over again. In the final paragraphs of Fire Season, Connors contemplates his place in the long line of fire lookouts who came before him, and he imagines asking them if they saw and did things he has seen and done. In the end, watching from his tower as night falls over the forest, he lets the questions evaporate into the mountain air. “I stare at the endless dark north and west, the big wild, more than a thousand square miles unlit by a man-made light, and I let the questions go and think instead of a line from the poet Richard Hugo: If I could find the place I could find the poem. I have found the place. This is my poem.” I encourage you to read Philip Connors’ poem.

 You can see Connors in his “office” at www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uzC01Jd1Z8. 

REVIEW: "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson

  • Posted on: 15 April 2012
  • By: TedG

Though conversation on the book itself was brief and interspersed between other important matters to discuss, the opinion on Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City was a resounding and unanimous WOW! GREAT book! It received 5s all around for Interest and Readability, and everyone was interested in reading another of Larson's books.

General comments included how the 1893 World's Fair (Columbian Exposition) was a magnet for many people who were well-known at that time (including President Grover Cleveland), and how it touched the lives of or influenced those who would be well-known in the future. It also sent up-and-comers on to bigger and better things. Architect and World's Fair proponent Daniel Burnham, the "co-star" of the book (with the muderous "Dr." H.H. Holmes), and Charles McKim, one of the architects who worked with Burnham on designing the the World's Fair, went on to design the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Others of the World's Fair planning contingent went on to less desired fates. Frank Millet, who Burnham hired (at the recommendation of McKim) to lead the painting of the Fair buildings and was later appointed "Director of Functions" at the Fair, was one of the 1,500 lost aboard the Titanic. It was entirely coincidental that our meeting (on Friday the 13th of April) took place just hours before and 100 years after that ship hit the iceberg.

We were impressed with the vivid descriptions of Chicago in the late 1800s ("impressed" is perhaps too kind a word for the descriptions of the stockyards and slaughterhouses; "vivid" is perhaps the better key word here). We also marveled at how the construction of such grandiose buildings as those seen at the Fair were basically "throw away" items that were burned down (intentionally or not) and never used again after the Fair ended.

We talked about how the story of sociopathic murderer, Dr. H.H. Holmes, was a completely separate plot line from the one about Burnham and the Fair. The two men's paths don't quite cross (though Holmes did go to the fair), but the main connection was in Holmes using the occasion of the Fair to draw victims to the city. I think, as well, there was a sub-text of light and dark. It's alluded to in the book's title, and it is manifested in the pomp and circumstance of the Fair, which serves as a backdrop to the darker purposes of Holmes. Ultimately, we felt Larson wove the two sub-plots together very well. We highly recommend the book, and we may return to Erik Larson in the future.

Irv mentioned that Leonardo DiCaprio purchased the rights to develop the book into a movie, and it's rumored that he will play the part of Holmes. It will be interesting to see if the film follows the book or focuses more on Holmes's story.  

The 1893 World's Fair - What a Time It Must Have Been

  • Posted on: 10 April 2012
  • By: TedG

I am always amazed at the opulence (at least in photos) of early American cities. The buildings that were constructed just for the 1893 World's Fair (the Columbian Exposition) were enormous and grand both inside and out, and I wonder what it would have been like to walk through those exhibit halls and to take in the grandeur of this very hopeful age.

It doesn't take much to find photos from that time. Type "1893 World's Fair" into Google, and you'll find a load of photos and postcards and other other memorabilia of the event. But if you haven't had time to do that, I've pulled together a few photos here of the places and things that are most mentioned in Devil in the White City. Open the attached document to see them all.

REVIEW: "Griftopia" by Matt Taibbi

  • Posted on: 18 March 2012
  • By: TedG

Among the five men at the table on Friday, four read the book but none had finished it. “The level of greed was depressing,” Irv commented. “They should all be in jail,” said Ron. Regarding the author, Adrian thought it was difficult to distinguish when Taibbi was using well-documented information and when he was recalling views expressed in interviews. All agreed that Taibbi’s frequent use of expletives was unnecessary, detracted from the message, and diminished Taibbi’s credibility.

Still, even though no one had finished the book (and Ted spent last month reading One Second After instead of Griftopia), the conversation went long and dealt with the topic of greed more than the book itself. What will it take to reverse this all-encompassing value system based on wealth? Ron passed out some recent newspaper stories about this very question. A study in California suggested that the wealthy lead such insular lives that they do not recognize (and feel they don’t need) their ties to the rest of society. It’s a dispiriting situation that seems to have no answer, at least from our group.

Ratings by those at the table were in the middle ground of 3s and 4s. Barry, relaying his comments by email, did finish the book and enjoyed it enough to give it a 5. Even with that high mark, the average rating for both Interest and Readability was 3.6. One person would definitely read another book by Taibbi, while four are not likely to do so, mostly because of his objectionable writing style.

Our next meeting is on Friday, April 20th, when we will discuss Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, which is a true story about the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and the dark element of evil at work in its shadow.

REVIEW: "One Second After" by William Forstchen

  • Posted on: 19 February 2012
  • By: TedG

Eight of us turned out to discuss William Forstchen’s One Second After! There is only one other time we reached that level of attendance, and it was in October 2010 when eight of us discussed Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. This is interesting because Adrian described One Second After as basically a story along the lines of The World Without Us but we are still here.

This is a fictional story of what happens after the United States “loses a war that sends our nation back to the Dark Ages… because of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP).” The story is fictional, but the weapon – the EMP – is real. Forstchen imagines how U.S. citizens might respond when an EMP knocks out all electronics. It is a story, he writes, “I hope never comes true.”

Much of what happens is perhaps predictable. There is a descent into chaos as people are forced to go without the technology upon which we have become so reliant. There is cannibalism and savagery as food becomes scarce. Yet there is also a theme of community, Art pointed out, and how a community comes together in a time of tragedy. Who are the people that become useful when everyone is turning on one another to covet the food, water, and shelter needed to survive? It’s the militias who become the ones to protect the community. It’s the farmers and the young college students (presumably biology majors or similar) who can identify natural food items in nature. Despite the tragedy that befalls the country, a sort of new world emerges, a leaner world.

A question to ask is “how do we respond to a book like this?” Do we use it as a reason to learn some skills and to become more self-sufficient? Or do we use it to scare people into believing we need to arm ourselves against an unseen terror?

The book provoked good discussion among the group along these lines, wondering how those of us living far from most metropolitan areas would respond. It’s an interesting thought exercise, but one we hope, too, never comes true.

The average Interest score for this book was 4.5 out of 5, while Readability scored 4.8. Two said they would read another book by Forstchen, two would not, and three said maybe.

Our next meeting is Friday, 16 March, when we'll discuss Matt Taibbi's Griftopia. NPR calls the book "the financial crisis easily explained" (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=131106798). But, Gary, if you're reading this, as far as we know there are no zombies in this book either.

Books and Movies

  • Posted on: 7 February 2012
  • By: TedG

Next to books, movies rank highly on my list of things to do, and more than one book I’ve read in the last three months has mentioned a movie or movies that I subsequently found and watched. In all cases, they were movies that were related to the book, but were not about the book itself. It’s great fun when this happens because it seems to deepen both the reading and movie-watching experiences. It’s sort of a retro-technology.

This happened, but not in quite the same way, last night. At the video store, my wife chose a 2009 Harrison Ford movie neither of us had heard of called Crossing Over. In it, Ford plays an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer in Los Angeles who leads a team that raids warehouses and factories employing large numbers of Mexican immigrants. Unlike his younger, more gung-ho colleagues, he has a soft side for the human suffering he knows he is causing to those he arrests. Early in the film, he finds a young woman hiding behind some clothing racks. Her silent pleading eyes convince him to look the other way this one time, but just as he’s about to push the clothes back in place, a younger officer shows up and Ford is forced to pull her out and arrest her. She tries to give Ford an address and some money to take to the woman who watches her young son, but he won’t take her money. She is ultimately deported. Ford’s search for the boy and then the mother are a primary plot line throughout the rest of the movie, which also raises issues of racism, exploitation, and compassion. It is easy to see how Americans wield a double-edged sword in addressing the immigration issue, and how it can seem an endlessly circular fight for those who enforce the law.

The movie reminded me of the book The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea, which our group discussed in March of 2011 (ranked 5 out of 5 for readability, 4.9 for interest), and which we selected as our 2011 non-fiction Book of the Year. The true story told in Urrea’s book was an excellent argument for why our immigration process could be improved. Like the stories told in Crossing Over, The Devil’s Highway illuminates the hidden costs of simply arresting and deporting those who come to the U.S. to find a job and a better life. Crossing the border illegally is a roulette-like experience that ends in a horrible death for too many people.

Edward Conlon’s Blue Blood talks in great detail about the history of the New York City Police Department. He returns repeatedly to the true stories of Popeye Doyle and Frank Serpico, two New York cops made “famous” by The French Connection (with Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle) and Serpico (Al Pacino played the title role), respectively. He also mentions Fort Apache, The Bronx, which was not a true story, but was about a real precinct house. I am on the hunt for these three movies, as they are old enough to not be found in the usual movie rental places – not even the library.

Earlier this year, I read The Meaning of Rivers, a book of literary criticism by T.S. McMillin that looks at the how rivers are portrayed in books, music, movies, and art. In a chapter on “upriver stories,” McMillin discusses The New World (a story about the early colonization of America, with the role of Captain John Smith played by Colin Farrell) and Apocalypse Now (the Vietnam era movie with Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando among others). Upriver stories, says McMillin, spend all their time talking about the journey upstream, but almost never talk about the journey back. One reason for that is because journeys upriver are almost always fraught with peril, what with having to move against the current and into a gradually narrowing channel. By the end, the one telling the story is often just happy to be alive and be done with the journey … and the story.

I rented The New World and Apocalypse Now and watched them over three nights. The New World was interesting but not nearly as illustrative of McMillin’s point as was Apocalypse Now, which was downright disturbing in its alignment with McMillin’s discussion. The farther Sheen’s character moved upstream, the darker and more depraved the world became. It was hard work and it took a heavy toll. When Sheen finally found what he was searching for – the calmly psychotic rogue officer played by Brando – and he finished the job he was sent to do, he was the only one of the original boat crew to return back downstream. All the others were dead. Upriver stories are generally about discovering the unknown, about seeking the source of something. One should be prepared for whatever it is that might be found at the wellspring.

Take the time to follow the leads presented in books. Seek out the author’s reference material, whether it’s books, movies, music, or art. It might enrich your experience and help put the book into a greater context.