Annals of the Former World by John McPhee

This book:

John McPhee is a genius—nominally of literature, but seemingly of every other field he comes in contact with.  He writes about Alaskan wilderness, about oranges, about lifting bodies (yes, those are apparently a thing), about basketball, and about dozens of other topics. None of his works are cursory surveys of the field; he dives into every new subject with an expert’s enthusiasm and a man of literature’s grace.  Annals of the Former World is no different, and provides a beautiful 700 pages of stunning geology.

If you’ve never found geology fascinating, this is the book for you: this is more the story of how science comes into being; it’s about how new knowledge is created / discovered / co-constructed (choose a verb, depending on your own epistemological stance).  The entire volume is made up of five book-length essays that each focus on the geology and the geologists of different parts of the US’s I-80 corridor.  The geology itself provides only the skeleton of this story; the flesh is made up of the scientists who brought geology as a field to where it was as each sub-book was published (1981, 1983, 1986, 1993, and 1998).

A German professor of mine is an ardent fan of McPhee’s and knew that I hailed from the northwest corner of Wyoming, so he sent me in search of Rising from the Plains, the third essay of the set which focuses on Dr. David Love and Wyoming.  I devoured this rock-bottom account of Wyoming (see what I did there?) a few years ago, falling in love with McPhee’s careful construction of his house of words and his easy style in fleshing out the rooms (so many metaphors!).

Since I work in the summers at a peaceful visitor center that boasts a rather full library, including Annals of the Former World, I have spent my quiet hours at the desk poring through the rest of this book.  Do not ask me to quote the intricacies of geology that McPhee has laid bare, because although this is a literary work, it certainly does not present a watered-down version of its subject, and a lot of it was much more complex and detailed than I have room in my brain for.  Here is geology in all its human layers, and here is a master who knows how to weave it into a story.

9 out of 10.

Annals of the former world


Listening Point by Sigurd Olson

View from this book:

Many of my favorite quotes from The Earth Speaks were taken from Sigurd Olson’s works.  Since I had never heard of Sigurd Olson before, as soon as I finished The Earth Speaks, I naturally went straight to the Teton County Library (newly re-opened and looking more hodge-podge than ever) and checked out this gem of a book: Listening Point.   I took it up to one of the most beautiful places in Grand Teton National Park—so great, in fact, that I need to share this picture with you:

Holly Lake

Holly Lake: a 12-mi. 3000-ft. hike. I sat by the edge of the lake and devoured both it and the book.


The Book:

Listening Point is a beautiful, quietly stunning book that is akin to A Sand County Almanac and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Olson writes of the north woods of Minnesota, but also of the relationship of man and nature everywhere:

I must leave it as beautiful as I found it.  Nothing must ever happen there that might detract in the slightest from what it now had.  I would enjoy it and discover all that was to be found there  and learn as time went on that here perhaps was all I might ever hope to know.

As I sat there on the rock I realized that, in spite of the closeness of civilization and the changes that hemmed it in, this remnant of the old wilderness would speak to me of silence and solitude, of belonging and wonder and beauty.  Though the point was only a small part of the vastness reaching far to the arctic, from it I could survey the whole.  While it would be mine for only a short time, this glaciated shore with its twisted trees and caribou moss would grow into my life and into the lives of all who shared it with me.

I named this place Listening Point because only when one comes to listen, only when one is aware and still, can things be seen and heard.  Everyone has a listening-point somewhere.  It does not have to be in the north or close to the wilderness, but some place of quiet where the universe can be contemplated with awe.

9 out of 10.

Listening Point cover


King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett

View from this book:

Chillin’ in the Tetons, summer ’12, happily cracking open a book by one of my favorite authors of all time: Dorothy Dunnett.

The book:

I normally don’t write about re-reads here because, by the second time around, it’s too hard to capture the emotions of a first encounter with a book.  However, Dorothy Dunnett’s works are intricate enough to make each re-read surprising and enjoyable.  This is the second time I’ve read King Hereafter, a standalone book (as compared to her fabulous Lymond and Niccolò series), that combines all Dunnett’s gift for rich detail, plot twists, character development, and the re-creation of the historical worlds she has chosen.

In this particular book, our hero is Macbeth, fabled King of Scotland (whose story bears no resemblance to that of the sly and evil protagonist in The Scottish Play).  We travel to Scotland before it was known as Scotland, journeying through the Orkney Islands, Norway, Denmark, Germany, and Rome in the early 1000s.  There are hints of a Norman future for England, but as of yet, the world of Northern Europe is full of Norsemen and Irishmen, of factions that have all but been erased throughout history, and of men who go a-viking in dragon-prowed longships.

The characters in this book are superbly developed, and they seem to fit right in to their historical time. (What do I know about life in Scotland 1000 years ago? Nothing. This book, however, was pretty darn convincing, and I had no trouble imagining these characters being right at home in their designated era. There’s nothing more annoying in historical fiction than plucky hero(ine)s who have strangely modern sentiments when surrounded by their bumbling, “old-fashioned” counterparts.) Nobody bumbles in this book, and nobody suddenly spouts forth on The Rights of Man in an age where brutal, short lives were the norm.

As fascinated as I always am by Dunnett’s clever wordplay, I feel that her writing got too clever for me in this book.  She wrote the Lymond Chronicles first, and they still stand as some of my all-time favorite books.  King Hereafter came next, followed by the Niccolò series, and with each passing book, Dunnett’s writing grew more and more opaque.  King Hereafter paints a wonderfully rich picture of the turmoil in the northern part of the world at the turn of the last millennium, but it cost a lot of brain power to follow the serpentine plot twists and decipher the references to long-forgotten epic poems.  I could never quite be part of the story in King Hereafter as I could in the Lymond Chronicles, and the entire time I felt like I have to admire this glittering masterpiece from a distance.  For that, I have to knock a point off a Perfect 10, but this book truly is a magnum opus.  9 out of 10.

King Hereafter

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris

View from this book:

This was the perfect, beautiful book to read on Christmas Eve last year as I flew from Baja to LA, and from LA to Seattle.   I had one chapter left when we landed, so I dallied at the SEATAC luggage carousel for 15 minutes, drinking the book down to the last drop.

Saying goodbye to the lovely Isla Espíritu Santo, where we'd camped, kayaked, snorkeled, and hiked.

Saying goodbye to the lovely Isla Espíritu Santo, where we’d camped, kayaked, snorkeled, and hiked (and read!) during Christmas break, 2011.

The book:

A gem: it’s deep and full of twists, turns, and heartaches.  A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is told from the point of view of three women (daughter, mother, grandmother) who constantly misread and misunderstand each other, and who lead their lives without thinking of the hurt they cause each other.  As each woman’s perspective is revealed, the picture Dorris paints becomes even more nuanced, and the reader’s heart goes out to each of the women in turn.  Dorris writes poignantly about poverty and race in America and makes the reader question all sorts of assumptions.  One of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time.  9 out of 10.

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Snapshot of me reading:

Curled up in bed in my apartment in Spain, I discovered that classics are in the public domain, which means they’re available online in their totality as free ebooks.  Scrolling through hundreds of pages of Tess on my computer made me go cross-eyed, which made me never want to buy an ereader, but when the only bookstore in the area specializes in James Bond and outdated travel books, I’ll take what I can get.

The book:

Ah, drama! ah, England! ah, Tess and the plight of women!  A fantastic, fantastic book: the only annoying parts are Hardy’s asides about how Tess had been wronged, how Tess was an angel who wouldn’t dream of taking advantage of her situation, etc. etc., but eventually you come to realize that the asides are the genius of the entire book.  Hardy gives a clear commentary on the sexism and classism rampant in 19th Century England, with the compelling drama of Tess thrown in on the side.  An excellent read.  ALSO, watch the new(ish) BBC version and you will melt in Tess’s innocent eyes (see the actress on the book cover above – she looks much more innocent here than when she’s a Bond girl in that one about Bolivia) and drool over the evil Hans Matheson (Alec D’Uberville—the rich purported relation) and the equally-evil-but-purportedly-angelic Eddie Redmayne (not-so-subtly-named “Angel”).  9 out of 10 (helped out a little bit by my adoration of the geniuses at BBC).

Tess of the D'Urbervilles