March 2013

The Last Light Breaking

Nick Jans: The Last Light Breaking: Living Among Alaska’s Inupiat Eskimos (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 1993)

Jans - The Last Light Breaking
Nick Jans may not have intended to move permanently to Northwestern Alaska, but somehow he found his home among the people, native and transplanted that live in a small town. By the time he wrote this book, he had more than 15 years of experience living as an outdoorsman, teacher, merchant, and friend among the people of one of the most remote areas of the world. His writing is warm and poetic and a wonderful way to connect with a place, but more wonderfully a way to connect with a people, whose way of life is changing. Twenty years after the book was written, I wondered as I read if I was reading about something that is now forever gone. It isn’t like reading history, really, but it was a window on something that I know is not a part of the world where I live. I was saddened to think of what has been lost.

I’ve been reading books about Alaska as a way of dreaming about a trip that I may one day take. I have long thought of Alaska as an amazing place and I have imagined that I might visit a place where there are few people. What I know from Nick Jans book is that it is unlikely that I will be able to get away from people even in remote areas of Alaska. But it also reminds me that the people I might meet in the place were there are fewer people are remarkable indeed.

The John McPhee Reader

John McPhee, The John McPhee Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974)

The John McPhee Reader
I’m not sure why it took me so long to discover John McPhee. I’ve heard of him, I’ve even read a few reviews of his books, but I never got around to reading much of his writing, so recently I picked up two volumes of samples of his work. What a treasure! He has thoroughly researched his subjects that are as diverse and varied as one might imagine. From oranges to nuclear weapons to the Pine Barrens to the Birch Bark Canoe, he has collected a delightful assortment of characters. The reader flows like a collection of essays, but each essay promises more to the reader as the reader realizes that each represents a book that can be read.

This is definitely not the last of John McPhee that I will be reading.

Totem Tales

E.C. (Ted) Meyers, Totem Tales: Legends from the Rainforest (Surrey, B.C., Canada: Hancock House, 2005)

Meyers - Totem Tales
This is a wonderful collection from a several different Pacific Northwest tribes. As is true of most indigenous legends, these tales explain the mysteries of nature and the story of the land. Formation of rivers, explanations of climate, the behaviors of different birds, fish and animals - all are topics for the tales that have been collected in this volume. The book contains two dozen legends that range from a single page to several pages. But the length of the stories is not the critical part. These are tales that are meant to be told and not read. At a bare minimum, they should be read out loud to capture some of the character of the stories.

The book does not give any biographical information about Ted Meyers, but I suspect that he is a collector who has spent time with several different tribes. Each tale is identified by the tribe from which the legend has come. It is unlikely that Meyers speaks the dialects of all of the different tribes whose tales appear in the book, so there has been some translation before he learned the stories. Like all stories, they probably have lost some of their meaning in translation. Nonetheless the book remains interesting and a joy to read.

it is another great addition to our collection of indigenous stories and legends.

Alaska Wilderness

Robert Marshall, Alaska Wilderness: Exploring the Central Brooks Range (Berkeley: University of California Press, Third Edition, 2005)

Marshall - Alaska Wilderness
With my imagination going full steam ahead thinking of a trip to Alaska, I’ve been reading a lot of books about that part of the world. Having read Bob Marshall’s Arctic Wilderness last year, Alaska Wilderness was a great follow-up book. Bob Marshall is a real folk hero in my home state of Montana and I would be inclined to enjoy anything that he wrote. The fact that these excerpts from his journal were published after his death by his brother adds a great deal to the mystique of the book. A forward by Rick Bass is another treat.

What shines through after all these years is Marshall’s love of being outdoors in the wild places, his ability to survive when hundreds of miles away from other humans, his skill at working with partners both human and animal, and his respect for the land. The book is a treat from beginning to end. His joy radiates from his vivid descriptions of the places he has visited.

The book only makes me more eager to plan a trip to Alaska. And it reminds me that I won’t have seen the state until I get out of the car and walk out of sight of the places most tourists visit.

Real Man Adventures

T Cooper, Real Man Adventures (San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books, 2012)

Cooper - Real Man Adventures
Cooper has a powerful way of pulling the reader into his story. He starts by speaking of what appears on the outside and then slowly strips away the layers for a very revealing memoir. Along the way he takes the reader on a journey and does a great deal of teaching about a subject that was, for me at least, quite unfamiliar. I two have one close friend and two additional acquaintances who are transgender. But I have little curiosity about the details of their transformation. All three made the transition from male to female. While I know that there are transgender people who have made the transition from female to male, it isn’t likely that I would know that detail about an individual unless he chose to share it with me. T Cooper does choose to share, in intimate detail.

The question that I pondered as I read, which is discussed in one chapter by Cooper is when does an individual cease being in transition and just become a single gender. Is it when the hormone therapy has done its work and secondary sexual characteristics have changed? Is it when the name and the pronoun changes? I guess for me it seems that once a person has made the transformation in the public eye, from my perspective I have no way of knowing that he or she is “trans” nor do I need to know. The intimate details of another person’s anatomy are not for me to know. I don’t need to have the details. I am comfortable in relating to the person as presented to me.

Still, it is valuable that Cooper has shared so intimately so that the rest of us might gain a degree of understanding and increase our ability to accept others.

The New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, Revised Edition, 2012)

Alexander - The New Jim Crow
We like to think that we have moved beyond the overt racism of previous generations, but the reality is that race still makes a huge difference when it comes to opportunity in our country. Michelle Alexander’s well-researched and complex argument certainly opened my eyes. It also made me to some checking about my home state of South Dakota where a disproportionate percentage of Native Americans are incarcerated. The war on drugs has done little to curb the use of drugs, but it has done a great deal to place families at risk and to keep whole groups of Americans in permanent poverty. This book should be required reading for all legislators.

I highly recommend this book. My copy is going to be donated to our church library in the hopes that more people will read it and become aware of its challenging and frightening conclusions.

Search Sweet Country

Kojo Laing, Search Sweet Country (San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books, 2011)

Lang - Search Sweet Country
We develop some inaccurate perchoptions about language. One of the misperceptions that I have recently been discovering is that I have, in the past, approached English language literature as if it came from Europe or North America. Because I am familiar with American and English literature to some extent, I forget that the globe is filled with lots of other speakers and writers of English and that there is English language literature that comes from other continents.
Kojo Laing’s novel, Search Sweet Country is an excellent example of an English language work from Africa. Set in Ghana, the story provides a wndow on the culture of the country as well as weaving a delightful story. Some of the long sentences almost beg to be read out loud to capture a different way of speaking than is my common mode. The novel, while definitely written language reflects a spoken style that is delightful and a bit challenging for the reader. This is a novel worth putting on the shelf to read again. There are all kinds of details that are easy to miss on a first reading. Originally published in 1986, it is a real gift for McSweeney’s Books to to bring it back to the attention of the American audience.