Category Archives: Dusty Shelves

Coming into the Country

John McPhee | Non-Fiction

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I was delighted by this book from the very first page.  McPhee’s writing is like having a conversation over coffee. It is easy, engaging, curious, unhurried.

Before I opened this book, I thought I had made a mistake.  Other travelers give you books to read before you travel somewhere.  I received an extensive list from Off the Beaten Path for my tip to Alaska (which I didn’t even find until the day before I left.)  Anyway, I digress.  I began this book after I returned from Alaska, and I loved that I had seen a number of the places McPhee writes about.  I wasn't totally dependent on my flawed imagination.  I could truly picture what he saw.  Of course, McPhee shares a common Alaskan comment, “I’ve flown it but not walked it.”  That is very true for me and my “seeing” of the spaces and places.

This book is actually three separate stories, woven together by McPhee and his experiences in Alaska.  In the first, “The Encircled River,” he travels down a Brooks Range river with a cadre of men from various government agencies – the Federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game, for example.  I loved this true wilderness story.  It spoke to the only fantasy I left Alaska with; to maybe, someday, float a river in the spectacular Brooks Range.

The second book is about urban Alaska – a minuscule but important part of the state.  In “What They Were Hunting For,” we go on an air-and-land search for new state capital, after a 1972 initiative passes the voters.  The difficult-to-access town of Juneau was (and is) the state capital.  In the initiative, the capital could not be Anchorage nor Fairbanks, or within 30 miles of either city.  Eventually the Capital Selection Committee selects Willow as the new capital, and we see the lands they explored on their way to that decision.  (Funds never were allocated for completion of this capital and it remains Juneau.)

Finally, the last book, “Coming into the Country” is more than half of the total read, in which McPhee tells story after story about the people who choose to live a subsistence life in the very remote back-country Alaska interior.  These are fascinating, sometimes sad, and often inspiring stories.  (Reminded me of the style of a favorite author, Studs Terkel).  McPhee also portrays and explains the considerable challenges encountered over time among and between the values of the Alaskan white people, Indians, Eskimos, and the Federal government. I find myself using these stories today to speak to topics of risk, adventure, values, principles, self-sufficiency, life and death.

Coming into the Country deserves four hearts.  It is a strong read.  I have not read other John McPhee, but I understand all of his books are a force to be reckoned with and good way to while away winter hours.  A part of me wanted to give this book three hearts, but I realized this was my failure, not the failure of the author.  Coming into the Country was published in 1976/77.  McPhee incorporates many interesting statistics, such as the price of milk, the number of people living in Eagle, the journey and cost to bring a large CAT machine into the back-country, and the percentage distribution of lands that are federal, state and private. These statistics are all very dated – they are more than 40 years old – and I found myself constantly wondering “What is it today?”  Unfortunately – no, fortunately – I read Coming into the Country while camping at Little Crater campground and had no internet service to distract me with the answers to these questions!

Enjoy this book!  And please let us know what other John McPhee’s you have read.  What did you like or dislike?

 

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Dominic Smith |  Fiction

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I really like the story line of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.  Sara de Vos is a not-very-prolific painter in Amsterdam in 1631, and the first woman master painter in the Guild of St. Luke. Centuries later, 1957, Ellie Shipley is a struggling art student in New York City, when she paints a Sara de Vos forgery.  Of course, her single moral failure haunts her all her life, and comes to roost in Sidney in the year 2000.  Here is her nadir, against the allegory of an old painting:   “For two days she has had the sensation of seeing her own life under an X-ray – the hairline fractures and warped layers that distort the topmost image. She sees her private history, the personal epochs and eras in foreign cities, with a clean, clinical detachment.  They have all led to the cracks on the surface and it is time to take responsibility for those flaws.  Last night, she drafted two letters of resignation, one to the museum and one to the university.”  (Page unknown ... it is page 371 in the large-print edition)

It took me a while to become engaged in this book, in part because of the jumps in time. Although each chapter is clearly marked, I still had a bit of trouble wrapping my head around who, where and when. As the novel begins, there are four settings: two in New York in 1957; Sydney in 2000; and Amsterdam, 1635.

The other challenge is becoming accustomed to Mr. Smith's writing. I find it rather flowery and hard to grasp.  Some of you might quite enjoy his writing!   Here is an example of what kept me at a distance from the novel for the first half (page 155, large print edition):  “Tulp is a man on the ascent; as a city anatomist he is said to have personally signed the fitness reports of the first settlers in New Netherland.  With mayoral aspirations, he regularly publishes essays in the newspaper about apothecary reform and the plague and the circulatory powers of human blood.”

Eventually, however the story takes over and the language moves into the shadows.  All in all, if the topic sounds interesting, yes, read this clever tale.

 

Two Old Women

Velma Wallis | Fiction

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This writing is the retelling of an Athabascan Indian legend passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters in the upper Yukon River Valley in Alaska.  In this legend, two old women are abandoned by their tribe in a brutal winter.  Yes, in the legend, they survive and thrive.

I believe legends like these are interesting in their telling AND also communicate messages for parallel circumstances.  As I read this legend, I found myself reflecting on how I contain elements of both of these women ... the courage and fortitude of one; the fear and sadness of the other.  I find it a useful and inspiring tale for myself while I continue to process my grief and try to create a life for myself.

I highly recommend this book. It is very short – small in size and only 127 pages long.  I bought it in the Fairbanks airport, and would like to give it away to whomever of my blog readers feels drawn to it ... just let me know.

 

The Stars are Fire

Anita Shreve |  Fiction

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This is the book that compelled me to clarify my four-heart rating system.  It is a perfect two hearts:  “I don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.”

This is a novel based upon the ferocious 1947 fire that broke out all along the coast of Maine (yes, fires have a significant place in recent blog postings!) It tells the made-up tale of Grace Holland, a 24-year old woman whose house burns down and her challenges as she is left with two toddlers to protect and support.

Unfortunately, it is too saccharin for my tastes.  I don’t believe Ms. Shreve manages to convey almost any of the angst, anger, and pain such a disaster would instigate.  Grace’s resolutions come too easily and are not believable.

Shreve’s writing style is, however, absorbing.  This novel is fast-paced, a quick and easy read.  I DO recommend it if, given that it is late July, you are looking for a rather mindless beach read.  It is perfect for that!  If you have more important, more satisfying books on your reading list, then defer this one and move on.

Temperance Creek

Pamela Royes |  Memoir

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In the early 1970’s Pamela Royes, discouraged with college, was trying to find her path. She makes her way to the Hells Canyon area of eastern Oregon ... a remote and wild wilderness … and proceeds to blossom into a strong and capable woman, living in the back country, learning to survive on a horse, in a tent, sometimes herding sheep.  She falls in love with an austere place and a Vietnam veteran, Skip.  Together they carve a home out of the wilderness.

I liked the story; I liked Pam's resilience; I liked her realism; I admire her courage.  This is NOT something I had the tenacity to do (Pam and I are almost the same age), even though there were times I dreamt of it.

Her writing is not always perfect, and there are a few small inconsistencies, but if you like to read about the wilderness, growing into adulthood, or the journey of strong women, you’ll like this read.

We will be discussing at book club this week.  Perhaps I will have some additional comments then.

 

The Big Burn

Timothy Egan  |  Non-Fiction

On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, the national forests of Washington, Idaho and Montana raged with forest fire.  I love reading outdoor adventures, from climbing Annapurna to trekking the Continental Divide Trail to fighting wild fires.  However, I hate reading history.

This book, which tells the story of the Big Burn within the context of Teddy Roosevelt and his chief forester Gifford Pinchot was too much history and not enough adventure for me.  I couldn’t get through it.  (Sorry, Rene!)

 

What do the Hearts mean?

In thinking about The Stars are Fire (blog posting is on its way!) I was struggling between two hearts and three hearts and decided it would behoove the Dusty Shelves Book Blog if I defined the hearts system a BIT more clearly.  Given that it is really a compilation of scales, and rarely all one rating or another, here’s my best attempt to explain what my hearts mean:

four-heartsLike it a lot or loved it; I recommend it; put it on your list!

three-heartsLike it; I recommend, with some reservations.

two-heartsI don’t recommend it, though it was compelling enough for me to finish reading.

one-heartI couldn’t get through it.

Pet Sematary

Stephen King  |  Fiction

A friend sent an article that posed a challenge … to read something you don’t normally read. Now, I SUPPOSE that meant I should read a book about the history of the relationship between North Korea and South Korea, or maybe a tome on the rise of the drug cartels in South America.  But no!  The first thing that popped into my mind was to read a genre I had assiduously avoided ... a horror novel by Stephen King.  And so I picked the one King himself describes as “the most frightening book I’ve ever written.”  I was curious to see why this author is so popular.

Well, okay, I am now done with horror again.  Not because it was so scary, but because it was boring!  King writes to a general audience, and so he does not provide a lot of depth or subtlety or complexity. I like his use of short quick sentences, however. I found them engaging and fast-moving.

This story line in this book is what you might imagine – bury your pet it this place and it will come back to life, though typically meaner and scarier and more evil than it was before it died.  Of course, the characters in this book begin to see applicability for humans as well.

About half-way through I really wanted to put the book down, but I decided to complete my commitment to myself.  What I learned about this style of writing is that while there are hints of horror to come, really there is a lot of plot and storyline that needs to happen before the horror can have any emotional impact.  The horror in this book all happened in the last 50 or so pages (it’s a 400-page book).

So, don’t waste your time.  And, in the future, I promise to consider carefully what challenges I accept.

To the Bright Edge of the World

Eowyn Ivey | Fiction

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This novel is based on an actual 1885 expedition by Lieutenant Henry T. Allen.

Eowyn Ivey’s character, Colonel Allen Forrester, travels up the Wolverine River with a small band of men (and soon, one woman and one dog) into the vast untamed Alaska Territory.   There are three simultaneous story lines. Forrester’s journals create the main story line.  He writes of the Alaska expedition, complete with cold, ice, encounters with native peoples, near starvation -- all the challenges you would expect.  His wife Sophie, a feminist who has been left behind in Oregon, also keeps a journal, which makes the second story line.   The third story emerges from the delightful current day letters between one of Forrester’s descendants, Walt, and a museum curator, Josh, in Alaska. In addition, there are period photographs, drawings and diagrams sprinkled throughout the book.

I wondered what magical realism might appear, given Ivey’s predilection towards it in her first novel, The Snow Child.  And there is a rich theme of magic in To the Bright Edge of the World that shows up in the Old Man, a raven, the woman Nat’aaggi, and various events, which would prove to be spoilers if I told you about them! 

My friend Mary suggested this novel as a preparatory read before I travel to Alaska later this month. An excellent choice!  It isn’t dry history, but it did imbue me with a sense of the vastness and the hardships of Alaska, brought alive by Ivey’s fine imagination.

If you read it, please weigh in on who you think is the author of the infrequent journal entries that begin with latitude, longitude and the weather (page 84 and 207 are but two examples of these.)  One person I know thinks these writings belong to Pruitt, one of the men on the expedition.  I think it is the Old Man and the raven, who I believe are one and the same.  Or are they reports from Nat’aaggi?  Who do YOU think it is?

 

Someone Knows My Name

Lawrence Hill | Fiction

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The book is the perfect follow-up novel after reading Homegoing and learning about the slave trade, and appreciating The Underground Railway about slavery and the fight for freedom.  Someone Knows My Name is another fictionalized book about slavery, but in this novel, the slave truly does gain her freedom.  Her journey from Africa to South Carolina to New York to Nova Scotia to Africa to London is a truly remarkable story.

Solidly based in history, Aminata Diallo is stolen from her African village in 1756 when she is eleven.  She endures many hardships, cruelties, and humiliations.  However, this novel explores her journey towards freedom, with its myriad of experiences -- disappointments, setbacks, mistrust, trust, and occasional compassion.  Aminata becomes the author of the Book of Negroes, a record of 3000 black women, men, and children who served the British during the Revolutionary War, in exchange for freedom and transport to Nova Scotia from New York and other places in the east.  (You can see The Book of Negroes in the National Archives of the United States, Canada, or England).

I loved this book!  It is well written, compelling, and fascinating.  It is about 500 pages, so it takes a while, but it is one of those long books that you don’t want to end ... every chapter reveals something new and intriguing.  Three times I checked to confirm that Someone Knows My Name was written by a man.  I am always in awe when I feel a male author can truly represent the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of a woman, and Lawrence Hill does that unerringly.  And then to reach the end and discover that he is a Canadian, born and raised in Toronto – I was even more impressed.  While he wrote about slavery in the not-yet-united-states, I suspect he was inspired by the role Nova Scotia played in the salvation of these slaves.

I fully recommend Someone Knows My Name. And I am very grateful to Jan D, from the Casting Crew book club, who suggested in this book as a 2016 read, and when we rejected it, fought for it again in 2017.  She was right all along!