Job Hazard

One of reading’s delights is that one will discover a Great Book. Great Books are defined by the individual, not the mob, and each person’s Great Book List will vary by personal idiosyncrasy.  I’m listing books as I find them, and will probably, at some point, add my All Time Favorites, books some of you have taken on, including Waterlog by Roger Deakin, Sea Room by Adam Nicolson, and Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg. Perhaps I’ll even explore here some books that set my way of thinking, and which may be awfully personally eccentric like Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism, William McNeill’s Plagues and People, or William Ruddiman’s Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum.

However, one of reading’s job hazards is that one finds a Personally Great Book, reads it with relish, and then it ends. I hate it when that happens.

My latest disappointed-it-ended book is actually two books and a “long-form” piece, all by Alexandra Fuller. Her first book, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, details her upbringing in then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe during the 1970’s Civil War with an absolutely crazed and wild mother driving her to school with an Uzi sticking out the jeep window; her second, Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, is a prequel exploring her insanely bizarre mother’s upbringing in Colonial Kenya; and the long-form piece Falling, the story of her husband’s nearly fatal horse accident and their subsequent divorce (Alexandra’s not the horse’s).

I loved Alexandra’s writing, and the ways her stories overlapped mine: crazy mother, crazed upbringing; horses; the outdoors; being far from doctors, cities, and other people; a British family background (are all ex-pat British mothers crazy?); the importance of place. Parts of the books were jaw-dropping astonishing, and parts laugh-out-loud funny. I was so sad they ended—reading them was like inhabiting a world. Luckily, unlike Roger Deakin, Alexandra is still alive and we can hope she publishes more.

A few quotes:

The land itself, of course, was careless of its name. It still is. You can call it what you like, fight all the wars you want in its name. Change its name altogether if you like. The land is still unblinking under the African sky. It will absorb white man’s blood and the blood of African men, it will absorb blood from slaughtered cattle and the blood from a woman’s birthing with equal thirst. It doesn’t care.” Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

fuller
Alexandra Fuller’s mother with her best friend, Steven Foster.

This is the Tree of Forgetfulness. All the headmen here plant one of these trees in the village. They say ancestors stay inside it. If there is some sickness or if you are troubled by spirits, then you sit under the Tree of Forgetfulness and your ancestors will assist you with whatever is wrong.’” Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness

And I love, love, love a Katherine Mansfield quote she uses:
The mind I love must have wild places:
a tangled orchard where damsons drop in heavy grass,
an overgrown little wood,
a chance of a snake or two,
a pool that nobody has fathomed the depths of,
and paths threaded with flowers planted by the mind.”

You can find Alexandra’s “long-form” composition, Falling, on Byliner at http://www.byliner.com.

I Read

robyn

A lot. Years ago I deliniated a time every day to stop everything else and read. I decided that, at 9 p.m., unless engrossed in something endlessly fascinating, I’d head to the arms of my current read. And I’ve been faithful.

The problem is no matter how much I read I’ve discovered a good book is hard to find. I rarely leave them, but I recently walked out on one mid-paragraph. I could stand it no longer! I even flung it across the room, and it by a celebrated author! So here’s only my second post on a really good book I truly loved. It is the only book I’ve ever read that, as soon as I finished, I wanted to begin again.

In 1977 a young woman in her 20s, Robyn Davidson, led and rode her four camels from Alice Springs, Austrailia west to the ocean. National Geographic funded her (a whopping $4000), and she wrote a story for them published in 1978. It took her nine months to travel the 1,700 miles. Although it wasn’t her original intent, she wrote a book on the trip called Tracks.robyn 2

I know you’re thinking, “Oh, well, of course you liked it. You tried something similar. But I probably won’t find it interesting.” Okay, fair enough.  I admit I found her mixed feelings about the trip extremely validating, and her experiences similar–even though my trip was short lived. But the book is very well written, engaging, and NOT WOOWOO! I have become tired of writers involking god or spirituality or some outside power as explanation of certain states. I found Robyn’s take on such experiences refreshing. Here’s a sample:

“…I now had enough to provide a structure in which I could learn to learn. A new plant would appear and I would recognize it immediately because I could perceive its association with other plants and animals in the over all pattern, its place. I would recognize and know the plant without naming it or studying it away from its environment. What was once a thng that merely existed became something that everything else acted upon and had a relationship with and vice versa. In picking up a rock I could no longer simply say, ‘This is a rock,’ I could now say, ‘This is part of a net,’ or closer, ‘This, which everything acts upon, acts.’ When this way of thinking became ordinary for me, I too became lost in the net and the boundaires of myself stretched out for ever. In the beginning I had known at some level that this could happen. It had frightened me then. I had seen it as a chaotic principle and I fought it tooth and nail. I had given myself the structures of habit and routine with which to fortify myself and these were very necessary at the time. Because if you are fragmented and uncertain it is terrifying to find the boundaries of yourself melt. Survival in a desert, then requires that you lose this fragmentation, and fast. It is not a mystical experience, or rather, it is dangerous to attach these sorts of words to it. They are too hackneyed and prone to misinterpretation. It is something that happens, that’s all. Cause and effect.”

That’s all.

Ya Never Know

Click on the image to reach Stephan’s blog

It always amazes me when something I’ve written sends a postcard home. This week, I found two such postcards rattling about in my empty post box. Writing is an odd craft, done in silence and alone. Once one shepherds a piece out the door, one rarely or more likely, never hears from it again. It’s an amazement then, when words lying flat in a closed book, suddenly, when the spine is cracked, pierce a neuron in another brain far removed in time and space. Somewhere, another mind is sparked, and a new creation leapfrogs into being. I am deeply honored to have even the slightest influence on these new creations.

An excerpt from Stephan Legault’s latest book’s acknowledgements: “I wish to thank Greer Chesher for introducing me both to the ecology of the American Southwest, and to the mystery genre, when I worked for her as a volunteer at Grand Canyon National Park in 1993–94. Greer also read early drafts of my never-to-be-published attempts at fiction and gently pointed out that these stories would benefit from a plot.”

That really cracked me up. I did say that, and Stephan actually took my advice! I read the book though it isn’t available until September (I got to be the Lone Blurber!). And it’s good! It has a complex plot that keeps you turning pages. Be sure to get a copy when it comes out–especially if you like the desert southwest. Here’s my blurb:

In The Slickrock Paradox, the mysterious Southwest is much more than setting; the desert’s fully drawn character holds its own with the book’s compelling personalities and captivating story. The realistic plot makes the book timely—such nefarious undertakings could be, and are, happening  just beyond our knowing. Greer K. Chesher, Author, Heart of the Desert Wild: Grand Staircase—Escalante National Monument, winner of the Utah Book Award for Nonfiction

and an excerpt from Steph’s blog about the book:

Countdown to release of The Slickrock Paradox

In a few short months The Slickrock Paradox will be released by TouchWood Editions. Set in the American Southwest, Slickrock tells the story of Silas Pearson, an English professor searching for his missing wife among canyon country’s monuments, grottos, and reefs. Penelope vanished more than three years before while working on a clandestine conservation project to protect what she called “Ed Abbey Country.” She went backpacking near Moab, Utah, and never returned. Now Silas is searching every corner of the great American desert trying to find her. When he discovers a body in a remote corner of Arches National Park he thinks his search is over, but it’s only just begun.

The Slickrock Paradox is the first in a series of novels inspired by the iconic landscape of the Arches, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, and Escalante regions of Utah and Arizona, as well as my life-long love of the hard-boiled writing of Edward Abbey. Black Sun Descending and The Same River Twice will be published in 2014 and 2015.

More on my second postcard in the next post.

A Book Worth Swallowing Whole–The Joy of Cannibalism

Click on the image to go to the University of Michigan’s LSA Magazine’s article on cannibalism.

“In the first hours there was nothing, no fear or sadness, no sense of the passage of time, not even the glimmer of a thought or a memory, just a black and perfect silence.”

Recently, perusing my university’s alumni magazine (The University of Michigan’s LSA Magazine) I was amused to find, amid The Food Issue’s expected articles on famous chefs, farmer’s markets, food research, and the neuroscience of eating—all concerning U of M students, alumni, and professors—an article on a professor researching cannibalism (click on the image above to go to the original article). Two things drew me head first into the article, 1) the editor’s twisted sense of humor, which I readily applaud, and 2) the article’s iconic photograph (below).

 

On December 23, 1972, the last of 16 survivors from Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 were rescued in the Andes Mountains. Their ordeal and subsequent cannibalism were the basis for the 1993 movie Alive.

In  the article, Dr. Peggy McCracken discusses famous cannibalism cases including the Donner Party, Jeffrey Dahmer, and, if you were alive in 1972 you will remember, the famous Andes crash of the plane carrying the Uruguayan rugby team. Sixteen of the original 55 or so passengers and crew survived two-and-a-half months in frigid, impossible conditions by consuming those who didn’t survive. The story was made into a book and movie (Alive!); the rescue was a world-wide astonishment. I was 18 at the time, and wanted to read the book, but never got around to it. When I saw the article and photo, I felt it was time. I quickly downloaded to my Kindle the only book listed on Amazon, and am I lucky I did. The book, Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home, by Nando Parrado and Vince Rause, was published only recently, in 2006, and is by a survivor (Parrado) and New York Times writer (Rause). It is an amazing book. Although Alive! documented what happened, Parrado relates, in incredibly compelling prose, how he survived, how he thought and felt during the ordeal, and how now, as a 60-year-old man, he feels about what happened almost 40 years ago.

I have never felt as present in a book as I did in this one. Parrado makes you feel the horror, the day-to-day terror, the hunger, thirst, and desperate COLD. The excruciatingly slow passage of time, coupled with continuing deaths from injuries sustained in the crash, and the realization rescue is not coming is enough to drive people insane, but due to the men’s caring for each other, it doesn’t happen. Finally, after two months, Parrado and a companion scrabble and claw their way through the snow-packed Andes and down a river-filled canyon to find a lone horseman heading cattle. He hears their story and takes off—leaving them to wonder where he’s gone—until rescue appears 12 hours later. The shepherd—an elderly man–had ridden ten hours straight to the nearest outpost.

Parrado tells the story of his last day of “real” food: one chocolate-covered peanut. The day he received it he slowly sucks off the chocolate. The next day he divides the peanut in half along the seam and eats half. The last day, he eats the second half. Can you spell e-m-c-i-a-t-i-o-n? I can’t.

The story of the crash and its aftermath would be story enough, but appended to book’s end is Parrado’s story of redemption. The real value of this book is Parrado’s realization that his story is important, that how he reclaims his life after the horror of watching people die rather miserable deaths—and then eating them—is actually valuable to other people. After all, what could be more despicable than eating human flesh? More traumatizing than a plane crash on the frozen tundra? More physically, spiritually, and mentally exhausting than surviving day-to-day at 12,000 feet crammed into a very small space with screaming, dying people; dead bodies; and the same smelly, starving, oxygen-deprived people for almost three months? How about backing out of your driveway and accidently running over and killing your own child? When a woman to whom this happened and who heard Parrado’s talk tells him how his sharing has saved her, he comes to know that everyone has “their own personal Andes,” and that his story has meaning. To quote Parrado, “The story chills them but also encourages them, because they see that even in the face of the cruelest kind of suffering, and against all odds, an ordinary person can endure.”

A few quotes from the book:

“That claustrophobic frustration gnawed at me until, like a man buried alive, I began to panic. Every moment that passed was filled with a visceral fear, as if the earth beneath my feet were a ticking bomb that might explode at any second; as if I stood blindfolded before a firing squad, waiting to feel the bullets slam into my chest. This terrifying sense of vulnerability—the certainty that doom was only moments away—never rested. It filled every moment of my time on the mountain. It became the backdrop for every thought and conversation. And it produced in me a manic urge to flee. I fought this fear the best I could, trying to calm myself and think clearly, but there were moments when animal instinct threatened to overcome reason, and it would take all my strength to keep from bolting off blindly into the cordillera.”

“All the things that had made Marcelo such a great leader—his confidence, his decisiveness, his unshakable faith in his own beliefs and decisions—now prevented him from adjusting to the blow and finding a new balance.”

There are rules and realities that will not change to suit your needs.”

“I did feel something larger than myself, something in the mountains and the glaciers and the glowing sky that, in rare moments, reassured me, and made me feel that the world was orderly and loving and good. If this was God, it was not God as a being or a spirit or some omnipotent, superhuman mind. It was not a God who would choose to save us or abandon us, or change in any way. It was simply a silence, a wholeness, an awe-inspiring simplicity. It seemed to reach me through my own feelings of love, and I have often thought that when we feel what we call love, we are really feeling our connection to this awesome presence. I feel this presence still when my mind quiets and I really pay attention. I don’t pretend to understand what it is or what it wants from me. I don’t want to understand these things. I have no interest in any God who can be understood, who speaks to us in one holy book or another, and who tinkers with our lives according to some divine plan, as if we were characters in a play. How can I make sense of a God who sets one religion above the rest, who answers one prayer and ignores another, who sends sixteen young men home and leaves twenty-nine others dead on a mountain?”

Fantastic book, insightful writer, compelling story. Read it and weep.