Information, Answers & Reviews

All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West

This is a hard book to categorize. Is it a dual biography? A history of a region? An environmental paean to a place? A literary memoir of the West? A road book to both grand and despoiled places?

It’s all of the above and more. Gessner began the book as a tribute to two western writers who have inspired him: Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. Gessner went to grad school in Colorado and fell in love with the southwest. Abbey and Stegner became his heroes and teachers, although not literally—he learned through their writing.

He compares the more revolutionary-seeming Abbey who broke laws (trashed earth-moving machines to stop development and threatened to blow up dams) with the more straight-laced Stegner.

Circling the Sun

Miwanzo is the Swahili word for “beginnings.”  In this fascinating fictional biography, this word could stand for so many things: Beryl Clutterbuck’s family arriving in Africa from England when she was a child of four; the young girl establishing a close emotional bond with the local native families, known as Kipsigis; the first time she trained a thoroughbred on her own; and the first time she piloted a plane.

What an exciting life Beryl led. Beryl was one of those women who pushed against the boundaries of convention to fully partake in life.

She became the first female licensed racehorse trainer in Africa and the horses under her care won many races. She became an early bush pilot in Africa and the first woman aviator to fly across the Atlantic from east to west.

Station Eleven

There sure are a lot of books about the End of the World these days; Dystopian novels have been very popular in our rapidly changing present and uncertain future. I would consider this one "literary" fiction, in the sense that the novel isn't really about the genre, but rather uses it as a device that focuses more on its descriptive language and sense of place. This book is set specifically in the Toronto/Great Lakes area as it evokes a sense of wonder about our civilization in its retrospective loss of everything. The story weaves back and forth between several characters before, during, and after an outbreak of "The Georgia Flu" (the Eastern European kind). As any good, modern plague story, airplane travel is quickly identified as the initial means of pandemic. This is not a fast paced, action-driven story (as most of the dystopias I have read), but rather revels in its lack of immediacy. There is no reason to rush, because we have been exposed to the outcome; there is no longer any hustle and bustle of the modern world.

The book jacket suggests this is a cross between Cormac McCarthy and Joan Didion. I can see those inspirations in the author's writing, but it really isn't as blunt or lyrical as either of those great writers. Yet, seeing the comparison in itself is a compliment to the thoughtfulness put into the characters. The story is a bit too disjointed to every really care enough about any particular person, for me, but its detailed authorial observations kept me intrigued throughout (like how gasoline can "go bad" after a certain amount of time or the simple lack of something like a newspaper, in a world without electricity, can break down all institutional communication). The book is less suicide-inducing than The Road and less grief-stricken than The Year of Magical Thinking, but worth a read if you want a well-reviewed book from last year that no longer has a holds waiting list.

The Black Snow

Irish writer Paul Lynch begins his second novel with a vivid barn burning scene--one of the most powerful novel openers I’ve read in a long time. It starts out calm, some farmhands working quietly in a field, the farm owner’s wife, Eskra, baking, until the scent of smoke and a dark cloud rising suggest that something is very wrong.

The farmer, Barnabas Kane, races to the barn with a loyal worker, and Barnabas presses inside and nudges Matthew Peoples inside also. They try to rescue the fifty seven cattle that are banging their stalls in a frenzy of fear. A friend rescues the farmer, but the other man never gets out, nor do most of the cattle.

The book shows the aftermath of that fire.  For months, the house stinks of smoke: the towels, the sheets, even the wallpaper. In one scene, Barnabas rips down curtains, slashes the wallpaper, even tears his clothes off after recognizing their smoky smell. Eskra comes home and believes he has lost his mind.

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