April 2013

The Second John McPhee Reader

John McPhee, The Second John McPhee Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996).

The Second John McPhee Reader
Like the first John McPhee reader, this volume impresses with the eclecticism of the author’s interests. John McPhee is an excellent writer and the collection of excerpts from his books has already gotten me to order some of the complete volumes. Any writer who can get me to read essays on geology and want more has a special touch. The four books on geology gathered under the title “Annals of the Former World: Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, and Assembling California.” Assembling California, for example, is not just a book about geology, but also the history and people whose lives were shaped by that geology. “Coming into the Country” is his book about Alaska that drew me to discover McPhee in the first place.

The volume, like the first one, is an excellent introduction into John McPhee. It will likely invite the reader to pick up and read the complete books whose excerpts make up this volume.

Quiet Strength

Tony Dungy with Nathan Whitaker, Quiet Strength: The Principles, Practices, & Priorities of a Winning Life, (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2007)

Dungy - Quiet Strength
The men’s Bible Study group at our church is working our way through a Bible Study prepared by Group Publications based on this book, and so it just made sense for me to read the book. I had followed the career of Tony Dungy a little bit simply because of his fame at being the first African-American head coach to win the world series. Obviously, his faith is an important part of his life and the Bible Study is providing opportunities for some good conversation between group members.

Dungy seems to have found a good match with Nathan Whitaker to do the writing. I suspect that much of the text came directly from dictation or conversation by Dungy, because it carries his voice and commitments clearly.

What I had not known before reading the book was the personal journey of Dungy that includes not only successes but also failures and how his life was shaped by the intense grief of a parent who experiences the unexpected death of a child.

The book is easy to read and an inspiring volume.

Ordinary Wolves

Seth Kantner, Ordinary Wolves (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2004)

Kantner - Ordinary Wolves
This semi-autobiographical novel is a masterpiece of description of life, culture and even language of the remote areas above the arctic circle of just a few years ago. It is clear that the world is changing and that the impact of contemporary culture on the people of the arctic is dramatic. Kantner captures both a sense of how it has been and of the dramatic changes in a single generation. He describes an Alaska about which it is easy to become nostalgic even it one has not experienced what he has seen.

His descriptions of places and people are masterful and his explanations of Inupiat language gives one a sense of the original language as well as the pidgin English that some people speak. All in all the book weaves a lot of culture into a wonderful tale - a coming of age story that is unique not only due to the setting, but also due to the characters that inhabit the tale.

Kantner is a gifted novelist and with this book has definitely become an author to watch.

The Color Purple

Alice Walker, The Color Purple (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2011 edition)

Walker - The Color Purple
The Color Purple is one of the stories that I thought I knew even though I had never read it and I never watched the movie. But both the book and movie were so powerful for those who connected with them that their stories made me think that I knew the book. So the book stayed on my list of books I wanted to read, but I put it off, grabbing other volumes from the library. However, during Holy Week, 2012, I decided it would be a good time to read the novel.

I didn’t expect to be surprised, but I was. The story wasn’t quite what I expected. It is masterfully written and the characters are complex ant incredible, while being believable at the same time. Alice Walker is a terrific novelist and I hope to read “The Temple of My Familiar” before much longer. You can easily tell how Walker was awarded a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. Both honors were well-earned.

I have no idea why it took me so long to get around to reading this book.

The Survival of the Bark Canoe

John McPhee, The Survival of the Bark Canoe, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975).

McPhee - The Survival of the Bark Canoe
The story is of a canoe trip in Northern Maiine taken in hand-made bark canoes that had been built by Henri Vaillancourt. Henry Vaillancourt is well-known in the community of traditional canoe makers. I have read a great deal about Henry and about the canoes that he makes in Greenville, New Hampshire. But this adventure is as much about the personality of Henry as it is about the remarkable craft that he makes at his home.

I have had the pleasure on a couple of occasions of meeting individuals that can best be described as a person who was born a century too late. That seems to be the case with Henry. He has a soil set that would have made him successful a hundred or even three hundred years ago. In our culture, however, those skills don’t garner much public attention. And Henry is happy without the attention. He makes the canoes and he sells canoes to get the money to live, but he doesn’t really want to sell his boats, and money is hardly a motivating factor in his life.

If I am a paddler who occasionally makes a canoe, Henry is a builder who occasionally paddles a boat. He lacks some of the social skills and some of the survival skills that it would take to be a good Maine guide. Still, I leave the book wishing that I could go on such a trip with Henry. I’d be willing to make extra trips at portages and endure a bit of abuse for the experience of being next to someone who really understands how to make a canoe of all natural materials and leave a small footprint when he passes.

Again I am grateful for John McPhee’s superb storytelling skills. This is a book that will be sitting next to Thoreau’s “Into the Maine Woods,” in my library. In the midst of a sleepless, stress-filled night somewhere in my future, the story will transport me to a time and a place where the world makes sense and the beauty and power of nature offers a partnership to those who are willing to embrace it.