My 2015 Summer Reading List

Ahhh summer! Freshly mowed lawns and the sound of sprinklers, grilled corn on the cob and cold slices of juicy watermelon and summer reading. Definitely summer reading. My summer memories are filled with trips to the downtown library, coming home with a stack of hardbacks and afternoons reading.

Most summers I make two reading lists — one for me and one for our grandbabies. I get reading ideas from best seller lists, from what’s on the shelf, and by asking co-workers what they’ve read lately. Quite a few of their suggestions are on my list. Here it is:

index (4)I have currently dropped everything else to read  Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish by John Hargrove, former Senior Orca Trainer at SeaWorld. John Hargrove loves killer whales. He was elated after finally realizing his dream to perform with orcas at SeaWorld. Once on staff, however, Hargrove began to realize that all was not right behind the corporation’s shiny, happy facade. I highly recommend this book and the film Blackfish, which tells the story of Tilikum, the notorious performing whale who has taken the lives of several people while in captivity.

index (6)I am listening to David McCullough read his impeccably researched and brilliantly written book, The Wright Brothers. It offers a rare portal into the turn of the century, but more than that it helps us understand ourselves as Americans. To say that focused perseverance is the key to the Wright Brother’s story would be an understatement. David McCullough demonstrates the fortitude of the brothers in the context of the family which made them possible. This book has been highly acclaimed and it lives up to every accolade. Read it!

index (7)The World’s Strongest Librarian is by Josh Hanagarne. He writes about everything: his parents, his doubts about his Mormon faith, his Tourette’s and the problems it causes, and his search to find a meaningful career. And he makes the reader want to keep reading. I’m glad that he described the reasons why he thinks books and reading are important. He also makes an impassioned plea for the future of libraries. For that, I thank him from the bottom of my library-loving heart. But most of all, his is an amazing story. You’ll be glad you read it.

index (8)The Heir Apparent:  A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley is more than a biography of the playboy prince. The whole family gets into the act. Edward was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and she thought he was stupid and lazy. He was pretty much stuck being the heir apparent for 60 years and made up for it by being a notorious gambler, glutton and womanizer. Surprisingly very few scandals had any impact on him and eventually he became very popular with the English people. He also spent a lot of time on the continent and by the time he became king, he was a very adept diplomat. His main worry diplomatically was his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany who was very paranoid and Edward thought war with Germany was inevitable. Having died in 1910 Edward didn’t live to see his fears come to pass. This is an interesting book for lovers of the British monarchy.

index (1)index (2)indexindex (3)That’s a lot of non-fiction! How about a novel for some real summer reading? I have any and all of the works of Kent Haruf on my list thanks to the recommendation of fellow librarian Sarah who says that his writing is simply beautiful. All of his novels are set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado which is loosely based on Yuma, Colorado, an early residence of Haruf in the 1980’s. These books are fabulous as his wonderful writing is reminiscent of Steinbeck. They come highly recommended and should be cherished as the author recently passed away and there won’t be anymore. I want to carry these around all summer if only for the beautiful covers.

indexA Room With A View by E.M. Forster portrays the love of a British woman for an expatriate living in Italy. For Forster, Italy is a country which represents the forces of true passion. Caught up in a world of social snobbery, Forster‘s heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, finds herself constrained by the claustrophobic influence of her British guardians, who encourage her to take up with a well-connected boor. When she regrets that her hotel room has no view, a member of the lower class offers to trade rooms with her.

index (1)And one more! I have to add Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee to this list. This long-awaited sequel will chronicle the adulthood of Scout in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. Will this be another courtroom drama? Since it is set in the 1950’s, will it reference the civil rights movement? What’s gonna happen? Will they make it into a movie? We’ll have to wait for the book to be published on July 14th to find out.

 

And finally, here’s (part of) the pile of books for the grandbabies:

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So, that’s it for my summer reading lists. I hope that you have one and I’d love to know what’s on your list. Have you read any good books lately?

Go the Distance with Audiobooks

Yes Please coverFor those of you who don’t keep up with obscure monthly observances, June happens to be National Audiobook Month. This, in my opinion, is excellent timing. What better month to celebrate a form of reading that allows us to enjoy the best of summer? We can safely read while we run, garden, hike, or embark on long road trips. It should come as no surprise that our library employees are avid consumers of the audiobook in its many forms. In order to help you choose your next ear-read (I’m making that a word), we’ve asked our staff to review some of their favorite audiobooks. Place your holds now!

Leslie

Harold Fry coverThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel  Joyce (CD and eAudio).  This novel is about a man who is convinced that he must deliver a letter to an old love in order to save her, meeting various characters along the way and reminiscing about the events of his past and people he has known, as he tries to find peace and acceptance. I enjoyed listening to it partly because of the narrator’s British accent but mostly because of the well written and compelling story.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is also by Rachel Joyce (CD) and it is the story told from the perspective of the woman who Harold Fry is walking to visit. It features another charming British accent and there’s a surprise at the end.

Short Nights coverShort Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan (CD and eAudio) is the story of photographer Edward S. Curtis and his passionate project of documenting the remaining Native American tribes in stunning photographs. An incredible adventure narrative and a penetrating biographical portrait, Egan’s book tells the remarkable untold story behind Curtis’s iconic photographs. You obviously don’t see the photos while listening to this book, but the images created by this author are still vivid in my memory. I associate it with painting our basement as that’s what I did while ‘reading’ this fabulous story. Now if I could just have a Curtis photograph for my basement walls…

These Few Precious Days by Christopher Andersen (CD) will amaze you with the whole story of Jack and Jackie’s final year together. This book is a glimpse into the twilight days of Camelot.


One Summer coverYes, Please! By Amy Poehler (CD) is simply hilarious and made even better by being read by the author herself. Listen to this one if you need a good laugh, and who doesn’t? (Lisa here – I have to second this choice – it’s fantastic!)


One Summer: America 1927
by Bill Bryson (CD and Playaway) is about just that: America in the summer of 1927. This is a big story about the big personalities of the day: Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge, Charles Lindbergh, Al Jolson and more. Do yourself a favor and let someone else read it to you! It’s fascinating.

Alan

Grapes of Wrath coverThe Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (CD)
I had always meant to read this and once I had a long commute, I was able to find the time. The book about the plight of American farmers who were forced off their farms by drought and foreclosure during the 1930’s is everything you’d expect. But the narration adds so much to the story. When you finish the audiobook, cue up Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads, which the library also owns.

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B. J. Novak (CD and eAudio)
Very funny, well worth hearing B. J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Mindy Kaling, and many, many others perform the occasionally brilliant, sometimes underdeveloped, always funny pieces on the audiobook version of this short story collection from a writer of the American version of “The Office.”

Fighting Chance coverA Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren (CD and eAudio)
Elizabeth Warren’s story of her bumpy rise to fame and political power not only sets the stage for (likely) a higher office, but serves to inspire and make her as relatable as she appears in interviews and speeches. Read by the author/politician, Warren has a wonderfully rich voice, elevating the telling nicely.

Joyce

Born Standing Up coverBorn Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, written and read by Steve Martin (CD). Listening to the long-time writer/producer/actor/musician/comic’s audiobook gave me a jolt of intimacy and pleasure that his book—no matter how well written—could not have delivered on. Born Standing Up had me marveling at not just the words, but his voice: the tone and timbre, and timing, and Martin’s is impeccable. Martin’s memoir about growing up in southern California, working and learning magic at Disneyland, playing banjo in coffeehouses, his unusual, breakthrough comedy routines and becoming hugely popular on Saturday Night Live was a funny, enthralling life story.

Eileen

I have become an audiobook fanatic since acquiring an MP3 player several years ago. I listen when I’m gardening, walking, cooking (sometimes this is not a good thing), ironing—in other words whenever I’m doing something that doesn’t take a lot of concentration.

I have several favorites. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (CD and Playaway) is one I heard early in my career as a book listener, and it still comes back to haunt me. The reader’s voice was perfect for conveying Didion’s sense of loss and hopelessness as first her husband then her daughter die in the same year.

Bringing Up the Bodies coverI listened to both of Hilary Mantel’s books about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his association with Henry VIII.  Several people had told me that they found it difficult to track who was who when they attempted to read Wolf Hall (CD and eAudio), the first book in what is expected to be a trilogy. Listening to it there was no such difficulty. The right reader is critical to my enjoyment of an audiobook, and Simon Slater was the perfect choice for my ears. But then I also enjoyed hearing Simon Vance read Bring up the Bodies (CD and eAudio), Mantel’s sequel.

Dance with Dragons coverLastly I thoroughly enjoyed all of the George R. R. Martin series, Song of Ice and Fire (CD and eAudio).  I didn’t expect this to be true because I don’t normally read fantasy or science fiction, but I was hearing rave reviews from library patrons, and thought listening to the audio version would be easier than reading all 694 pages of A Game of Thrones. Many hours later—and I mean many hours since each of the books in the series so far run more than 30 hours—I came to the end of the fifth book,  A Dance with Dragons, and all I could think of was when would he finish writing the next book so I could find out what happened!

Julie

Misty imageMy all-time favorite audio book has to be Misty of Chincoteague read by Edward Hermann (Playaway). His voice is so great and friendly, making me feel like a grandpa is reading it. I also like that it is a playaway so I can walk around with it. My commute is only 1.5 miles, so a book on disc would take me ages!

Me

I blogged a little while back about some excellent non-fiction audiobooks that I really enjoyed; you can find that post here. More recent favorites include:

The Road coverThe Road by Cormac McCarthy (CD). Imagine the Walking Dead, sans walkers. The world as we know it has been obliterated by an unspecified disaster. Father and son find themselves on a furtive journey to the sea. What they hope to find there is unclear, but it has to be better than where they’ve come from. Doesn’t it? Haunting, anxiety-ridden, but strangely beautiful at times.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (CD). Young love is rough and often prone to failure. What happens if it never truly dies? Love in the Time of Cholera is a fairly humorous and slightly dark look at one man’s 1/2-a-century struggle to overcome his first heartbreak. It may leave you asking: does love ever truly die?

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Warmth of Other Suns coverThe other day I was walking out with an armload of books on CD, and Richard our audio book selector got all excited because he thought I was getting non-fiction (something he’d like to see checked out more). Shamefacedly I had to admit that it was all fiction, and that I had been slacking a bit on listening to anything factual. His enthusiasm for promoting our non-fiction audio books inspired me to put some of my selections back and browse the other shelves.

I’ve always been a big non-fiction reader, but for some reason this passion hasn’t translated well to audio books. I have a long commute and like to pass the time listening to stories. I’ve found them to be easier to listen to in the little 35 minute drives I have to do throughout the week because I don’t have to pay too close attention to make sure I’m not missing any important points. It’s also easier to pick up where I left off if I haven’t listened in a while because we’ve been using the other car; often with non-fiction audio books I have to rewind a bit to refresh my memory. The only things that combat these issues for me when listening to non-fiction books is to find ones that are written in a very narrative style and have great readers.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of non-fiction audio books that I’ve listened to recently that have kept me enthralled from start to finish.

The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (read by Robin Miles). I guess if you need a place to start, choosing a Pulitzer Prize winning book generally isn’t a bad idea. Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration by tracing the paths of four African-Americans who migrated north and west to escape the Jim Crow world of the South. Because the author interviewed all four individuals, the book is rich with dialogue and personal stories. Miles does an excellent job of reading Wilkerson’s work, making each individual’s personality shine through, and adding appropriate emphasis and emotion to some of the more difficult passages.

Mushroom Hunters coverThe Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, by Langdon Cook (read by Kevin R. Free). Foodie, traveler, hiker, lover of the Pacific Northwest – no matter what you consider yourself to be, you’ll probably find something to enjoy about this title. Mushroom Hunters reads like investigative journalism mixed with Food Network programming (in the best way possible). Cook tells the story of his quest to learn about the secret not-always-legal world of commercial mushroom harvesting in the Pacific Northwest. I really enjoyed driving back and forth on Highway 2 as Free described the kinds of lush rainy mountains that surrounded me, and all the secret things that may be happening in them.

Detroit cover imageDetroit: an American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff (read by Eric Martin). This is a book that I would have loved even if Mickey Mouse was reading it, but Eric Martin’s narration took it from good to perfection for me.  Martin’s gravelly no-nonsense delivery perfectly matches the tone of LeDuff’s vignettes of the rough, hard-working, beautiful, disturbing, hopeful, and troubled City of Detroit. This book isn’t another work of ruin porn aimed at exploiting what befell Detroit after the decline of its industrial might. It’s the honest collected experiences of a journalist who has spent his entire career covering every side of a city that seems to be almost universally hated and feared by the rest of America. No predictions are made about the future. No excuses are made for the past. It’s just the facts as he saw them happen, and it’s dark, light, and magnificent.

Naked coverNaked, by David Sedaris (read by the author and his sister, comedian/actress Amy Sedaris). Ending on a lighter note, I just have to say I’m a sucker for David Sedaris in any format, but I think experiencing his writing performed by himself is always the best. Whether it be appearances on This American Life, or full-length readings of one of his many titles, you’d be hard-pressed to not be entertained. Well, at least you would be if you and I share a similar sense of humor. In Naked, Sedaris tells stories about his upbringing; considering that his family spawned two comedians, you know things had to be unorthodox.  Even though he may be describing something completely ridiculous, his sense of humor remains dry and ironic. This tone is amplified when you hear him perform his work. His readings are so well-timed and pitch perfect that it’s almost impossible to later read something of his without hearing his voice in your head.

I hope some of these recommendations inspire you to treat yourself to some of the many excellent non-fiction audio titles we have in our collections. I know I’ll continue exploring!

A History of Things

Historical nonfiction comes in all shapes and sizes. There is the grand sweeping kind that tries to tell the story of a whole era or a monumental event. Then there are the social histories that see history from the perspective of a particular class or group of people. Another popular type is the historical biography that illustrates the life of an important individual. I’m an indiscriminate lover of all these varieties but I must admit I hold a special place in my heart for a historical work that zeros in on a specific object and tells its story through time. In addition to having a pleasingly quirky and often obsessive focus, these books also provide the service of telling history from a different perspective. At their best, they can help us to rethink assumptions about what is truly important and give us the rare gift of learning something new.  Here at the library, we have many of these histories of things. Listed below are a few of the standouts.

Concrete Planet by Robert Courland
concreteplanetWe take it for granted every day. The house you live in, the sidewalk you walk on, the countless bits of infrastructure that make civilization possible: they all rely on concrete. But where did it come from? Courland guides the reader through the fascinating tale of a substance that was created long ago, but only recently rediscovered after centuries of being lost. In addition to many interesting facts, the author also reveals a few disturbing ones. Chief among them is the fact that the concrete of today is not as strong as that of our ancestors despite many modern manufacturers’ claims. It turns out that those Roman ‘ruins’ have a much longer shelf life than a modern office building.

Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht by Bryan Burkhart and David Hunt
airstreamThis book is many things. It is a biography of Wally Byam the inventor of the Airstream. It is a cultural history of the Airstream, documenting its effect on the idea of recreation in America. Interestingly, it is also a history of the 1959 Cape Town to Cairo Airstream caravan. All of these parts are skillfully told with a dazzling array of archival images that make this book quite beautiful. If you want to learn more about the trend of mobile living in America definitely take a look at Home on the Road: The Motor Home in America by Roger White for a wider angle view of this phenomenon.

cellphoneThe Cellphone: The History and Technology of the Gadget That Changed the World by Guy Klemens
It is now a cliché to have a film demonstrate to the audience that it is ‘from the 80s’ by having a character whip out a cellphone the size of a loaf of bread. But this book goes way beyond that image to tell the history of the cellphone, which actually dates back to the 1940s. While a fun book, this title is definitely heavy on the technology of the cellphone with detailed discussions of concepts such as bandwidth and analog vs. digital so don’t feel guilty about skimming a chapter or two.

Digital Retrodigitalretro by Gordon Laing
This book tells the story of the formative years of the personal computer, 1975-1988, through the machines themselves. Each model is lovingly documented, photographed and provided with a detailed backstory. This was a frenetic period for the personal computer, with big corporations going head to head with eccentric professors, amateur inventors and kids working out of their garages. Definitely check this book out and visit the thrilling days of yesteryear when we were bowled over by the fact that the Commodore 64 had 64KB of RAM and BASIC was considered the programming language of the future.

theyugoThe Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History by Jason Vuic
You tend to think of history as a record of the ‘winners’ but as this book points out, epic failure can be instructive as well. Hailing from the former Yugoslavia, and riding a very brief wave of popularity in the mid1980s primarily due to a price tag under $4000, the Yugo turned out to be one of the most flawed cars ever built. The tale of how it even got to the commercial market in the first place, with the help of an overeager U.S. State Department and a Detroit auto industry reluctant to build cheap subcompact cars, is fascinating and instructive stuff.

jetpackdreamsJetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (but Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was by Mac Montandon
This is the story of one man’s quest to answer the burning, to some, question: Why can’t we all have our own working Jetpack? Popular culture, think Buck Rogers or Boba Fett, has been promising us one for a long time now. It turns out that prototypes were actually developed in the 1960s but funding quickly dried up so the Jetpack is now the province of a dedicated band of aficionados. The author travels the country to seek out these dedicated few to see if any of us will be able to commute to work via Jetpack in our lifetimes.

So if you are planning a foray into historical nonfiction, why not avoid the big picture and focus on the small stuff? The Devil is in the details after all.

Command and Control

commandandcontrolIs it possible to be nostalgic about the threat of global thermonuclear war? I found myself asking that rather odd question recently as I read Command and Control by Eric Schlosser. From the cover art to the alphabet soup of cold war acronyms (NORAD, SIOP, SAC, and who could forget MAD) I found Schlosser’s tome triggering memories that were an odd mix of fondness coupled with dread: classmates and adults freaking out over the TV movie The Day After, Sting’s concern about the Russians fondness for their children, basking in the electronic glow of irradiated cities while playing Missile Command at the video arcade.

As I kept reading, however, my feelings of nostalgia soon gave way to an amazement at how little I knew about the most destructive weapons ever created and the protocols, or lack thereof, in place to ensure that they only go off when they are supposed to. While Command and Control definitely contains a lot of fascinating Cold War history and strategy, its main focus is on how the U.S. government has attempted to safely maintain the many nuclear weapons on our soil and throughout the world since their creation in 1945. When you consider that just one ‘accident’ could wipe out a city, it gives you pause. Let’s just say that the facts are not conducive to worry-free days and restful sleep.

To increase the tension, Schlosser intertwines his general history of the safety of nuclear weapons with the story of a specific incident: the ominous sounding ‘Damascus Accident.’  On September 18th, 1980, during a routine maintenance check of a Titan II missile silo in rural Arkansas, a seemingly mundane thing happened: a socket from a socket wrench came loose. Unfortunately this socket careened off the missile and created a hole that began spewing out rocket fuel. The thought of the unfortunate maintenance worker who dropped the socket says it all: ‘Oh man, this is not good.’ The author then provides a minute by minute tension-filled account of events that is layered throughout the book. It is a clever writing device that not only keeps you reading, but puts a human face to the policy makers’ use of terms such as ‘acceptable risk.’

100sunsAnother hallmark of this work is the author’s balanced approach to the topic. It would have been easy, given the subject matter, to depict many of the historical characters as two-dimensional heroes or villains. Instead the author presents fully fleshed out individuals with complex motivations. Good examples of this are the many scientists and administrators who developed the atomic bomb during World War II.  As a scientific achievement, the creation of the atom bomb was truly amazing and Schlosser doesn’t shy away from that fact. You begin to see the project through the scientists’ eyes as they puzzle and experiment to bring a seemingly impossible thing, the splitting of the atom, to life. Conversely, you also share their horror when they realize the sheer destructive power of their achievement and what it means for the world.

Ultimately, this book is an exploration of a series of questions that should be easy to answer: What is the strategic purpose of possessing nuclear weapons? Are the ones we posses safe? Where are they located? Who actually controls them and what are their targets? Before reading this fascinating work, I would have assumed it was my ignorance and default generational apathy that led me to be clueless. Now I find it hard to disagree with the conclusion of the author that:

Secrecy is essential to the command and control of nuclear weapons. Their technology is the opposite of open-source software. The latest warhead designs can’t be freely shared on the Internet, improved through anonymous collaboration, and productively used without legal constraints. In the years since Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the design specifications of American nuclear weapons have been “born secret.” They are not classified by government officials; they’re classified as soon as they exist. And intense secrecy has long surrounded the proposed uses and deployments of nuclear weapons. It is intended to keep valuable information away from America’s enemies. But an absence of public scrutiny has often made nuclear weapons more dangerous and more likely to cause a disaster.

Pleasant dreams.

Timothy Egan and Nancy Pearl at the Library!

EganPearl

I hope you know that you’re invited to a free public literary event with Timothy Egan and Nancy Pearl on Saturday, April 6th at 7 PM at the Everett Performing Arts Center. This should be a great evening for lovers of both history and literature. Timothy Egan will read from his latest book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, and then will be interviewed by legendary librarian Nancy Pearl, who is herself the author of Book Lust and its sequels and is a regular NPR commentator on books. There will be books and also wine available for purchase.  Sounds perfect!

Timothy Egan writes for the New York Times and we are lucky to have him in our backyard and yes, I do consider Seattle to be Everett’s backyard. In addition to his journalism, he has written a slew of non-fiction books which are mostly set in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s a quick rundown.

indexLet’s go chronologically through Egan’s books and start with The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest.  Atop Mount Rainier, Egan checked the map to see which glacier would best feed his grandfather’s ashes down into streams where the man loved to fish. A minor glacier called Winthrop looked best, and that’s where the ashes went. Egan’s research led to the writings of Theodore Winthrop who spent three months exploring Oregon and Washington in 1853. Egan retraced Winthrop’s route and we get fascinating comparisons between what the two men saw roughly 150 years apart. It is a great travel history of the Pacific Northwest and I highly recommend it as fascinating reading.

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Breaking Blue is the true-crime story of a Sheriff who worked through 54 years of police cover-ups and solved the oldest open murder case in the country. It is the chilling story of the abuses of the Spokane police department during the Great Depression. Egan unravels the story in engrossing detail, illuminating a host of horrible acts committed by the cops in that city, including robbery, murder and extorting sex from Dust Bowl refugees.

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Wild Seattle: A Celebration of the Natural Areas In and Around the City is a celebration of the wild lands, parks, preserves, and wildlife of the greater Seattle area and features more than 130 superb color images by renowned nature photographers. Egan wrote the engaging text for this beautiful coffee table book.

indexLasso the Wind is a look at the eleven states “on the sunset side of the 100th meridian” that Egan regards as the true West. Fishing rod and notebook in hand, he travels by car and foot, horseback and raft, through a region struggling to find its future direction under both the weight of the “Old West” and the commercial threats of the present. He covers the story of what he calls the New West in essays that choose a localized story. The stories are often about a controversy or a change that is happening in the area. Skip around and read an essay or two as time allows and you’ll be rewarded with funny and incisive writing.

indexMy first introduction to Egan’s writing came when I read the popular The Worst Hard Time which chronicles the hardships of those who endured the horrible dust storms of the Great Plains during the depression. Egan follows a half-dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region as they went from sod huts to new framed houses to huddling in basements with the windows sealed by damp sheets in a futile effort to keep the dust out. Read this book to understand the devestation that these massive dust storms had on the high plains.

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We actually listened to The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America while we were driving to Idaho, the site of the largest forest fire in America. It is an outstanding, highly readable history of the Great Fire of 1910 that burned 3.2 million acres in and around the Bitterroot National Forest in Idaho and Montana. Egan moves deftly between the immediacy of the fire and the experiences of people caught up in it, and the powerful business and political interests whose actions both contributed to, and were affected by, the disaster. In the end this book serves as a history not only of the biggest U.S. fire of the 20th century, but also as an examination of the national politics of the first dozen years of the century, and of the origins of the U.S. Forest Service.

And now we come to Egan’s most recent book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. This biography of the famous photographer starts in Seattle and follows him through his obsessive quest to document all of the tribes of North America that were still intact. Curtis’ 20 volume The North American Indian was published between 1907 and 1930. We are all familiar with Curtis’ famous photographs. This book chronicles all of the sacrifices that Curtis made for his obsession. He was thirty-two years old in 1900 when he gave up his marriage, family and successful career in Seattle to pursue his great project. At once an incredible adventure and a fascinating biographical portrait, Egan’s book tells the remarkable untold story behind Curtis’ photographs, following him throughout Indian country from desert to rainforest as he struggled to document the stories and rituals of more than eighty tribes.

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Even with the backing of Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan, it took tremendous effort (six years alone to convince the Hopi to allow him into their Snake Dance ceremony). The undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate. He would die penniless and unknown in Hollywood just a few years after publishing the last of his twenty volumes. But the charming rogue with the grade-school education had fulfilled his promise—his great adventure succeeded in creating one of America’s most stunning cultural achievements. I downloaded this book from the library and listened to it while painting our basement over the course of a rainy week-end. I always think of Curtis when passing through the basement. Wouldn’t it be appropriate to hang a few (reproduced) Curtis photos there?

I hope to see you April 6th when the Everett Public Library brings this accomplished author to town!

Leslie

Eating Dirt

eatingdirtSilviculture. The word makes me think of mining, or maybe something to do with manufacturing metal. Surprisingly, it refers to the cultivation of forest trees, or as Wikipedia tells us:

Silviculture is the practice of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests to meet diverse needs and values. The name comes from the Latin silvi- (forest) + culture (as in growing).

Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill takes us into the world of the people on the ground floor of silviculture, the ones who re-plant the forests after logging companies cut them down. Their life-style is foreign to most of us, but fascinating.

Perhaps this isn’t the best time of year to talk about a book that details a life of working outdoors in the Pacific Northwest, but since I’m sure you’ll be inside while reading, I’ll go ahead. Gill’s writing is lyrical and not at all dry as dirt. Though Gill does state that dirt tastes like sand mixed with cold butter at one point. The book details a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, with people working outdoors in all but the harshest weather of winter. If you spend much time outdoors here, you will recognize the feeling of water drip, drip, dripping down the back of your neck.

Much like nomadic herdsmen, Gill and her co-workers consider themselves a tribe mostly separated from the rest of society. They are the workers in the background that we don’t even suspect exist, but who are essential to our lifestyles. They allow us to harvest the planet’s natural resources without worrying about replenishment. Yet they are as unsentimental about it as a farmer is about butchering cattle. Their jobs are never going to be mechanized or done by anything other than human hands.

Gill recounts the time spent waiting for the planting season to begin, which we would consider free time but to planters seems just like waiting. Then the planting season begins and it becomes their whole life. With a job that is outdoors, completely isolated (horrors!-even out of cell phone range in an emergency), and seemingly monotonous, your mind is completely free to wander and notice details. The whole world belongs only to you, and you are the only human living in it. The work is endlessly variable in that the terrain and your surroundings are always changing, yet the end product is constant. This job is the very definition of long-term investing, since most of the trees planted by these workers will not be available for harvest until close to the planters’ retirements.

We learn about the history of the logging of our forests, and when the realization hit that it couldn’t go on forever without re-planting. We also learn about the day-to day events that define their characters. One chapter tells of being stationed in a small town where the townspeople give them the stink-eye look of ‘It’s them again!’. As the author describes it:

We look hungrily deranged, like crazy gypsies descended from the mountain to pick through the dumpsters for chicken bones

This book didn’t make me love going out into the rain, but it made me appreciate our environment and the people who work out in it. Thanks to their hard work, hillsides and forest will no longer look like a barren and desolate landscape out of a post-apocalyptic movie (and we won’t, hopefully, have zombies any time soon).

Kathy