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Confluence: Navigating the Personal & Political on Rivers of the New West, by Zak Podmore.

June 9, 2019

Confluence: Navigating the Personal & Political on Rivers of the New West, by  Zak Podmore. Torrey House Press, Oct. 2019.  FORTHCOMING

4 stars

A moving memoir and commentary by an author, and independent journalist from Bluff, Utah, sharing his stories and thoughts of the running the rivers of the American West.

Zak Podmore grew up in the Red Rock Canyons of the American West. He credits his mother with teaching him as a child to love rivers. Her recent death haunts his trips and his book.  But his commitment to this lonely country has not turned him into a hermit. He is an editor-at-large for Canoe and Kayak, he regularly has articles in regional and national publications, and he creates videos.  In addition, he is part of Utah politics, working on local issues of justice and the environment. As he indicates in his title, Confluence brings together Podmore’s personal and political writings about rivers and water in the West.

Parts of Podmore’s book are accounts of river trips he has taken in which he shares the excitement of how it feels to be on the water.  My favorite was his trip down the Little Colorado at flood stage.  Other trips are linked with specific issues. He travels the Rio Grande through Texas and discusses the conflicts over immigration.  He floats from the source of the Colorado River to the point where it once flowed into the sea, linking the river’s blockage with our determination to produce ever-increasing surpluses.  He visits the Pacific Northwest to experience rivers newly freed by the removal of dams.

Podmore has obviously been shaped by writers like Edward Abbey and Charles Bowen.  He understands their rage, and is tempted to become as bitter and despairing as they are.  But he refuses to give in to negativity.  Rivers, including some he visits, can be saved.  His writing is a part that of struggle, not a eulogy.

My response to this book was an intense desire to return Utah.  A more practical suggestion is to read Confluence and think about the issues Podmore raises.  Simply enjoy the beauty and joy he shares.

I strongly recommend this book.

The Stone Circle, by Elly Griffiths. 

June 6, 2019

The Stone Circle
The Stone Circle, by Elly Griffiths.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.

2 stars

Domenica de Rosa is a prolific and popular British writer in her 50s. She has written two crime novel series under the pen name of Elly Griffiths.  The Stone Circle is her eleventh mystery about Ruth Galloway, a forensic archeologist.

The Stone Circle takes place on the English coast near Norfolk where  Ruth Galloway has been called back to help the local crime team at the scene of a prehistoric dig where they had been involved 20 years before.  The more recent burial of an adolescent girl on the site raises new questions and opens a host of old ones.  Characters from the previous novels in the series abound.  Events from the past haunt the present, including the past relationships among the main characters.

Finding the right balance of previous and new material in a series is always a problem for those who write series.  As a new reader of this series, I was overwhelmed by people and events from the earlier books.  I had trouble following 15 or 20 characters who had had complicated histories with each other.  Not only was it hard to keep up with everyone and their pasts, but unresolved problems from previous books clutter the book.  Subplots dangle without clear connection to the main narrative.  Even more problematic, the mystery being investigated got lost in subplots.

I suspect that readers already familiar with the series will find the book more rewarding than I did.

A Bitter Feast, by Deborah Crombie.

June 1, 2019

A Bitter Feast
A Bitter Feast, by Deborah Crombie.  HarperCollins, September 2019.

4 stars

Another enjoyable novel in a mystery series about London detectives, Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, and their family and friends.

Deborah Crombie was born and raised in and around Dallas.  After living for a time to her Great Britain, she has returned to the Dallas area.  Beginning with her Kincaid and James novels in 1993, she has been widely read and rewarded for their excellence.

Crombie has published almost 20 novels about the detective couple Kincaid and James since she began their saga in the 1990s.  They have gone from partners at work to a married couple raising children as they have solved crimes in varied sites around England.  Their series is a saga of loosely connected family and friends, sparked with crimes that reveal how individuals react to extreme situations.   Yet she has kept their stories fresh by balancing previous characters, locations, and plots with new ones.  Although bad things happen in Crombie’s books, her characters are often good, usually balanced people whom the reader can come to know and to be glad to spend time in their presence.

In Bitter Feast, Kincaid. James and friends plan to spend a weekend with the prosperous and prominent parents of Gemma’s detective partner and to attend a gala being held by her mother.  Instead, they become wrapped up in murders.  Action centers around a successful woman who owns and runs the local pub and restraurant .  The plot is complicated, but in the end, we can see why events have developed as they have.   The murderer was deeply involved in the whole plot, not simply added at the last moment to provide a solution.

I started reading Crombie’s novels when they first appeared in the 1990s, a time when feminist and anti-feminist hostility was rife.  I remember being impressed with Gemma who was in no way caught up in that debate.  Her life simply transcended it.  Her story was a romance and then that of a wife and mother, while simultaneously Gemma has had a compelling and independent career, a pattern many women assume they can do today. For me, Crombie’s books, including this one, are “comfort reading” at its best.  If you haven’t read her, do.

PS  If you are a map junkie, check the maps for each book, available at her website.

Being with Dying, by Joan Halifax. 

May 28, 2019

Being with Dying
Being with Dying:  Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death, by Joan Halifax.  Shambhala, 2011.

4 stars

An insightful guide to Buddhist wisdom about death and dying by an American Buddhist teacher, long active with those facing death.

Roshi Joan Halifax is a Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, and pioneer in the field of end-of-life care.  Her Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology has led her into academia settings, and the projects she has initiated have allowed her to share her wisdom with Buddhist and non-Buddhists.  She has published four books and numerous shorter writings and spoken widely.  She also directs the Upaya Zen Center for study and meditation in Santa Fe.

In Being with Dying, Halifax writes for a wide audience, including those with little or no experience of Buddhism.   Because Buddhism is not monotheistic, followers of other religions often find its practices and assumptions compatible and meaningful. This is particularly true around death and dying.  Hallifax is among those who have made Buddhism accessible to American practioners by removing some of the tradition’s  more unusual details and focusing on its broader concepts.

As Hallifax states in the title, compassion and fearlessness can assist us as we face death.  She offers a way of understanding that is uncommon in western culture, yet beneficial as we are confronted with death. Each chapter in the book raises ideas to consider and then offers us guidance in meditating on them.  For example, Halifax asks us to meditate onhow we want to die.

Being with Dying has much to offer readers, no matter when we expect to die.  It carries the calmness and grace that we come to expect of Buddhism and helps us learn to practice it ourselves.

Butterfly Yellow, by Thanhha Lai. 

May 19, 2019

Butterfly Yellow
Butterfly Yellow, by Thanhha Lai. HarperCollins, August 2019.

5 stars

A fine YA novel about a refugee newly arrived from Viet Nam, searching for her lost younger brother on the plains of west Texas. She slowly opens herself to unlikely friend and to the scars of her own traumatic journey.

Thanhha Lai was born in Vietnam and fled as the war ended.  For a time she lived as a refugee in Alabama where she encountered our nation’s “sharp-edged barriers of color, ethnicity, religion, and custom.” After graduating from the University of Texas, Austin, she worked as a journalist on the west coast, reporting on its Vietnam community.  She earned a Masters of Fine Arts from New York University.  She has published several children’s books and been awarded that genre’s highest prizes, National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and a Newberry Honor.   With her new novel, she enters the field of Young Adult fiction.

In Butterfly Yellow, Hang is a teenage refugee who arrives in “the brown ocean” of west Texas  with a clue that her younger brother had gone there after being lost in the chaotic exodus in Siagon six years earlier. Hang feels responsible and guilty for his loss, and her main purpose is to find and “save” him.  With the help of unlikely strangers, Hang locates her brother, but he no longer remembers her or their family.  He rejects her and she takes a job nearby to watch him and try to gain his acceptance. In the process, Hang slowly begins to open herself to new friends and to her own scars from her traumatic journey across the Pacific.

I found Thanhha Lai to be a sensitive writer graphically describing landscape and individuals with grace.  Her prose is clear and calm, and does not overly dramaticsize painful events.  She is particularly good in writing about trauma, quietly and with dignity.   Butterfly Yellow will probably  be especially meaningful for young people encountering a range of peers, foreign and hurt by previous experiences unlike their own.  Her book models how we all can  relate to other people’s pain.  LeeKidd, a Texas pseudo-cowboy, offers an example of simple friendship that allows Hang to thaw.  He doesn’t push her to reveal her scars, but he is there to listen and be supportive.

Although this is a book written primarily for young adults, older readers can enjoy and gain from it as well,  if they can avoid getting impatient with the naivete and silliness of the teenage characters.

Under the Nashagak Cliff, by Mia Heavener.

May 14, 2019

Under the Nashagak Cliff, by Mia Heavener.  Boreal Books, November, 2019.

4 stars

An unusual, insightful novel about several generations of mothers and daughters living in an isolated fishing village on the northern coast of Alaska.

Mia Heavener was born in Illinois and raised in Alaska where she spent summers on Bristol Bay listening to the native women’s stories.  After earning her degree in Civil Engineering at M.I.T., she returned to Alaska where she spent ten years designing adequate water facilities for rural villages.  She also earned a M.F.A. degree at Colorado State University and began to write and publish while continuing to be involved in commercial fishing.

Under the Nashagak Cliff is set in a village on Bristol Bay, the large pristine bay on the northern edge of Alaska, in the last half of the twentieth century.  As the book begins, life there is isolated and very hard.  Slowly contact with the outside world increases.  Supplies can be ordered and shipped in.  Missionaries arrive. Men from various countries come to work the fishing season.  Motors are allowed on the boats working the bay.  But for women, little changes.  Frustration and loyalty toward each other remain.

Heavener does a fine job of capturing the landscape of rural northern Alaska, a region under attention today oil companies again seek to drill around Bristol Bay.  She is also insightful about the changes contact with the outside world brings.  The story she tells help readers better understand not only northern Alaskans, but people everywhere who deal with the pluses and minuses of increased involvement in the global economy.

I recommend this book strongly because it addresses how “modernization” brings or fails to bring meaningful choices. And it is simply a good read.

The Word for Woman is Wilderness, by Abi Andrews.

May 10, 2019

The Word for Woman is Wilderness
The Word for Woman is Wilderness, by Abi Andrews.  London: Serpent Tail, 2018.

2 stars

A novel about a reckless young woman who travels to the Alaskan wilderness alone to prove that as a woman she can be as strong and free as her “Mountain Men” heroes, only to reveal how little she really knows about wilderness or life.

Abi Andrews is a young English woman in her twenties.  She lives and works in London and has published her writing in several journals.  She claims no particular knowledge or experience of wilderness.  Although she clearly states her new book is a novel, I had difficulty distinguishing the narrator’s voice from the author’s.

Erin is a 19-year-old English women whose experience of wilderness comes come TV programs that feature rugged men on adventures to the exclusion of women.   She wants to prove she is as rough and independent as they.  But the men she names as models were not conquering heroes, but men like John Muir and Henry David Thoreau.  Such assumptions make her one-woman challenge to male adventurers is confused and incoherent.

Much of Erin’s excursion is not in actual wilderness, but a long journey across the North Atlantic, and the ice fields and small communities of Canada.  The actual time she actually spends in Denali National Park is only a part of a risky larger journey. The dangers she faces come primarily not from the wilderness but from ill-advised relationships she enters with other people.  In addition, she frequently interrupts her travel account to expound on seemingly diverse topics such as abstract physics, nuclear war, the Gaia hypothesis and the pill—none of which can be explained coherently in the few paragraphs they receive.  What gets slighted in the book is the natural setting in which she is living. Reading her book, we aren’t even told how the seasons change.  The book is perhaps clever and full of ideas, but lacks the grounding in nature of Thoreau or Muir.   Or the women who have actually lived in and write about the wilderness.

Obviously I found Erin, or Abi Andrews, irritating.  Smug and silly, she is out of touch with the reality outside urban illusions.  I cannot recommend you waste your time on the book. Go find yourself some wilderness instead.