THE BIG BURN: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27.
Fire and the Forest Service: It turns out that long before Smokey Bear, these two things were intrinsically linked. Timothy Egan takes what could be a deeply uninteresting topic — the formation of a government agency — and imbues it with drama as flames rage through millions of acres of newly created national forests in Idaho, Montana and Washington during the summer of 1910.
Egan weaves the birth of both the conservation movement and the national forest system into his narrative of the fire. He centers much of the story on three charismatic characters: Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. From Roosevelt challenging Pinchot to wrestling and boxing matches to Pinchot’s 20 year love affair with his dead fiancée and all three of the men’s attempts to save the West from robber barons and railroad magnates, Egan details the turmoil of turn-of the-century America’s politics.
Intertwined with politics and the roaring flames of “the big burn,” the book is also a suspenseful chronicle of the lives and deaths of the townspeople and homesteaders who lost their homes to the fires, and the immigrants, soldiers and rangers who fought the flames with not much more than shovels and desperation. — Camilla Mortensen
CHASING MOLECULES: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry by Elizabeth Grossman. Island Press, $26.95.
Most of the world relies on chemistry to increase food production, clean our homes, make containers unbreakable and render children’s pajamas inflammable. But until fairly recently, we had no idea how these chemicals were affecting our bodies and our environment. Many chemicals are known to interfere with physical and environmental health, yet most have never been fully tested for safety. Now, we not only have a much greater understanding of the impact of common household products, but we have the technology to begin designing alternatives.
Portland-based journalist Elizabeth Grossman has previously authored High Tech Trash, about hidden toxins in digital devices, and Watershed, an exposé of dams across America. Here, Grossman turns her investigative eye to the revolutionary science underway to bring the world safe, functional products that are free of hazardous materials.
Grossman examines the many synthetic chemicals people are exposed to everyday — chemicals used to make sippy cups, cookware, cosmetics, electronics and sunscreen — and how they travel through air- and waterways, contaminating ecosystems around the globe. In balanced, storytelling language that is based on fact — but never too technical for non-chemists — Grossman illuminates why green chemistry is so important. She interviews the founding fathers of green chemistry, including James Hutchison, a UO chemistry professor and recognized leader in the fields of green chemistry in academics and materials manufacturing.
The goal of green chemistry is products that are “benign by design,” products that are made from harmless ingredients and do no harm once in use. Grossman effectively reveals not only who is working to make this possible, but why it must become the new norm. — Vanessa Salvia
CITADEL OF THE SPIRIT: A Merging of Past and Present Oregon Voices and Stories edited by Matt Love. Nestucca Spit Press, $30.
Any good love song, amid its many declarations, contains an accusation. Citadel of the Spirit is a collection of writings about Oregon by Oregonians, past and present. Reprinted newspaper notices (“Meet on the Summit: A Public Call to Form a Mountaineering Club by the Mazamas,” 1894), essays, stories, constitutions, forgotten histories, sports articles: It’s all Oregon. It’s a love song, but editor Matt Love includes both the good news and the bad news.
The good: Oregon’s great!
The bad: The Klu Klux Klan was here.
Human beings are obsessed with place, the sense, purpose and understanding of it. Citadel of the Spirit is equal parts exuberance and questioning: What exactly is this place we call home?
While many of the pieces are along the lines of “Well, about a million years ago, when I was a kid,” pieces like “A Key to the Rains of Benton County” by Kathleen Dean Moore are genius. What is the proper classification for rain that “materializes out of thin air?” Bug spit. However, if you have rain that “falls through rain, the way fear falls through depression,” you’re looking at either “dirty weather” rain, a downpour or “Steelhead rain” depending on other indicators like this: Can you see the rain against the trees, or are the trees invisible thanks to all the rain?
Take it in small sips and in years. Skim it. Open it up at the middle. It’s a love song, so listen to it when you’re young and also when you’re old. It will mean different things. — Katie Wilson
THE FAR CORNER: Northwestern Views on Land, Life, and Literature by John Daniel. Counterpoint, $25.
The Far Corner is an homage to the Pacific Northwest, to the interconnectedness of nature and our place in it, to the discovery of self within that place and to the process of writing itself — how the linkage of ideas, of writing of self and place and history, breeds personal discovery just as surely as engaging with the environment and our natural senses does.
A collection of personal essays, some new and some written over the course of Daniel’s career, The Far Corner explores the scope and ecology of Oregon’s rivers, the history of the Blue and Klamath mountain ranges, our addiction to artificial light, the morality of clearcutting and the search for solitude, self and communion with place on a solitaire journey across Washington’s beaches. It delves into the history of Ken Kesey, whose acid-trip adventures inspired Daniel’s own foray into psychedelic drugs and whose writing greatly influenced him as a young man. And it speaks of the death of Daniel’s mother, the desperation and consequences of his family’s choice to put her through surgery at the end of her life. It speaks of “rootlessness” and “rootedness,” and advocates for both.
This is a book full of wandering, meandering ideas, stories and histories, tangents and contradictions, a testament to the complexity of the author’s personal experience and the complexity of the subjects he writes about. Though seemingly disparate in subject, the essays succeed as a whole in conveying the interconnectedness, the wholeness of nature and experience. The Far Corner is at once personal and engaging, with language that evokes power, imagery and personal reflection. — Katie Kalk
THE FOOD OF A YOUNGER LAND: A Portrait of American Food — Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation’s Food Was Seasonal edited by Mark Kurlansky. Riverhead, $27.95.
Not a single McDonald’s burger appears in Mark Kurlansky’s new food history. A portrait of American food, as the book’s subtitle notes, before the national highway system, chain restaurants and frozen food altered the landscape forever, the work discusses local specialties and idiosyncratic dining habits across the nation in the years preceding WWII.
In the waning years of Eisenhower’s WPA, the Federal Writers Project offered support to unemployed writers to document America’s cherished food traditions. Originally titled America Eats!, the project was abandoned with the onset of the war, but not before writers — some as famous as Nelson Algren and Zora Neale Hurston — had submitted pieces on almost every state in the nation. Instead of refashioning the reports, Kurlansky, a historian known for his bestselling, sweeping histories of salt and codfish, edited the original collection, presenting the best essays in their rough, amusing, sometimes frightening glory. In this decision lies the real charm of his portrait.
Many of the pieces are simple: An essay on Maryland crabs, for example, offers a fine recipe for crab soup, and Texas unmasks a real chuck wagon dinner. We are helpfully provided a list of New York’s soda jerk slang. Hurston offers an whimsical view of a mythical Alabama town called “Diddy-Wah-Diddy,” where the roast chicken offers itself walking down Main Street. Her piece contrasts the racist depiction of African-Americans in other Southern pieces. Oregon, naturally, is well represented by an oral history of pioneer reunion dinners and a tirade on fancified mashed potatoes. Some things never change. — Jennifer Burns Levin
GRINGA: A Contradictory Girlhood by Melissa Hart. Seal Press, $16.95.
Gringa, a coming-of-age memoir written by UO writing instructor Melissa Hart, begins when Hart’s bohemian mother leaves her buttoned-up father for Patricia, the Latina school bus driver, taking Hart and her two younger siblings to the largely Hispanic beachside farming town of Oxnard.
Hart “went wild and barefoot” there before her father found them, declaring that it was “unnatural” for a child to be raised by two women. A judge agreed, and the children were returned to their workaholic father and his boring, predictable life in L.A., allowed to visit their mother only two weekends a month.
Hart seeks solace in her mother’s VW bus, musicals, writing and her growing infatuation with Latino food and culture. (Each chapter of Gringa ends with a simple recipe.) But though Hart longed to fit in, she was “the white girl;” her dark-skinned peers didn’t have much patience for her, and the family of her first Mexican boyfriend disapproved of her because she didn’t stay in the kitchen with the other women.
The ramifications of the custody agreement leave Hart trying to discover her identity in opposing worlds and worldviews. Gringa tells a touching story of a young girl caught between what she is and what she wants to be, what she wants and what she is “supposed” to want. Though Hart’s relationship with her mother is irrevocably changed, she eventually does find a path back to her, along with the freedom to live and love in her own way. — Vanessa Salvia
MANHOOD FOR AMATEURS: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon. Harper, $25.99.
The novels of Michael Chabon, from Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to newer work such as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, are concerned in large part with certain broad themes: family connection and obligation; confinement and escape; men walking the line between macho stereotype and sensitive Renaissance man. Besides possessing perhaps the single best book title of 2009, this second collection of Chabon’s nonfiction magazine essays covers much the same territory, in humorous and affecting fashion.
Chabon demonstrates his deftness at elevating even the most mundane real-life episodes — kids navigating their way home through a suburban neighborhood; the author’s daughter hitting puberty; trying to locate a diaper bag that doesn’t look effeminate — to yarns every bit as adventurous as anything fictional.
Most of the book’s metaphors project an organic quality, as when Chabon compares the quirks of a nuclear family dynamic to nerdish Doctor Who fandom; but the odd passage here and there does merit eye-roll for its self-importance: “Childhood is a branch of cartography.” And while some of the essays end abruptly, just as they’re building a head of steam, the book in total presents a grin-worthy meditation on what it means to be a man in America, incorporating sentiments to which members of that population will find themselves nodding along.
“Magic, at both ends of the spectrum,” Chabon writes, “is what happens in the basements of houses.” Sometimes we find it between the covers of books, as well. — Aaron Ragan-Fore
NAMING NATURE: The Clash Between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon. W.W. Norton, $27.95.
Taxonomy: The science, or perhaps the art, of scientific classification. Carl Linnaeus got things rolling in the 1700s, and Charles Darwin and others took up the cause. And of course though the dead white guys get the credit for “starting” the whole thing, people all over the world have been creating folk taxonomies for everything around them for centuries before and after Linnaeus.
Carol Kaesuk Yoon, a science writer for The New York Times, takes taxonomy on and makes it fascinating for the non-scientist. From the early writings of Linneaus to contemporary DNA discoveries, Yoon explores not just how humans have tried to make order out the world (and sometimes failed) but why.
Yoon writes not only of taxonomies; she also ventures into philosophical discussions of the impact of how we name and calls for a return to an interest in all things taxonomic in order to understand not only nature, but human nature. — Camilla Mortensen
NOTES FROM NO MAN’S LAND: American Essays by Eula Biss. Graywolf Press, $15.
Eula Biss takes her commas and verbs and writes a book to make your mother cry. These are essays about America and Americans, cities and cityscapes, race and racism. Stop. As one reviewer says, quoted on the back of the book, “I know what you’re thinking.” You think you’ve heard this story. You hate this story.
What Biss is going to reveal is the complexity of The Story because there is no one, single story. There are always two (sides to a coin) or five or a million. A history of the telephone in the United States is also a history of violence, of lynching and its brutality. There are many uses for a telephone pole. The first ones were burned. Others have become trees again. A story about Biss’ time as a reporter is a story about the news we’re never told. Iowa becomes America and America becomes the world and we have all forgotten the world.
Because you are reading many stories while you think you are reading one, the essays fly by. It is a book to make you angry, to make you sad, to make you think. Mostly this book is necessary and beautiful — nouns go heel-toe, and sentences dance a jig. It should be read, for the history you know and the history you have been told differently. It should also be re-read, argued over and stained with all your friends’ fingerprints. — Katie Wilson
REFUSING WAR, AFFIRMING PEACE: A History of Civilian Public Service at Cascade Locks by Jeffrey Kovac. OSU Press, $21.95.
The history of a conscientious objector camp, this OSU Press book starts with a couple of strikes: Kovac isn’t an historian (he’s a chemistry professor), and his father-in-law is one of the more important members of the camp. That leads to a few problems. The author assumes more knowledge on the part of readers about the various war resistant Christian groups than anyone outside of those groups could understand, and the narrative lacks a sense of character. What reasons do the men’s churches, and then men themselves, give for their desire not to participate either directly in the war or in any war effort? How did the socialist objectors get along with, for instance, the Mennonite objectors? Who knows?
Kovac never quite gets inside the heads of the men at Cascade Locks (Civilian Public Service camp #21), though he does recount some of their poems, plays, education efforts and experiences through old newsletters, letters and memos. The men of CPS #21 stood up to Executive Order 9066 and roused support from other camps to resist the removal of Japanese American COs from the work camps to places like Tule Lake or Manzanar, so it was somewhat unique. This book appears to be a first gesture in a mostly untold story of those who didn’t see WWII as “a good war.” Perhaps historians or literary nonfiction writers can now take the reins and bring to more vibrant life the rich inner thinking of men who resisted the call to serve the gods of war. — Suzi Steffen
SACRED MOUNTAIN: EVEREST by Christine Taylor-Butler. Lee & Low Books, $19.95.
Some in the EW office have been rolling their eyes at the cover of this book, but it’s a fantastic piece of nonfiction for any kid interested in Mount Everest or any adult who’s not an expert already. Taylor-Butler writes about mountaineering, Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary’s success story and women on the summit, but she also focuses on the lives of the Sherpas who live near the mountain and the other mountains near it (one of which is so sacred that no human is allowed on it). Early British climbers treated the Sherpas quite badly; further press reports ignored them; but, Taylor-Butler shows, the people of the area were able to reclaim the mountain they call Chomolungma.
Her respect for the people who live in Nepal (and Tibet) combines with information about their lives and religious practices. A revealing timeline shows that people have grown ever more obsessive and perhaps foolhardy about the climb — 1988: “First person to paraglide from the summit!” 2001: “First person to descend from the summit on a snowboard!” — but Taylor-Butler writes about the risks as well, not to mention the trash left behind by careless climbers and the changes in the mountain climate wrought by massive tourism and climate change. Still, the book concludes with a modicum of hope. If you know a girl or boy remotely interested in glaciers, mountaineering, Tibet, Nepal or the Sherpa people, Sacred Mountain would be a most appropriate gift. — Suzi Steffen
STITCHES: A Memoir by David Small. W.W. Norton, $24.95. Finalist, National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
David Small’s graphic novel memoir caused a bit of a stir when it was nominated for the National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature category despite not being published as a young adult book. What the NBA clearly needs is a graphic novel category, and books like Stitches make the case for this far better than any review could. Small — a longtime children’s book illustrator with a Caldecott Medal and Honor under his belt — here explores his own childhood, which was so unhappy that young David’s particular means of expressing himself was not, as he tells it, through art, but through frequent illness, which his doctor father treated with extensive X-rays. When he was 14, David went into the hospital to have what he was told was a cyst on his neck removed. When he woke up, he was missing one of his vocal cords. It was years before he found out what really happened.
Small’s book combs through his family’s past, tracing lines of unhappiness that seem to come to swollen points in his unhappy parents, their faces often unreadabe behind glasses drawn as blank white lenses. His black-and-white illustrations are beautiful and bleak, reality framed in outlined panels, dreams and nightmare swirling across the page, unbound. Stitches is the product of a child’s pain and an adult’s understanding of the world; Small is clear-eyed and sympathetic, intuitive and angry, and his images are so innate, so of a piece with his carefully parsed words, that they seem to seep off the page and into the reader’s head. States of mind are caught in fervent lines; threat and sadness and comfort settle in a dark shadow across a parent’s face. Small’s story is full of pain, but his book is full of freedom, an outstanding example of the power of art and expression to evoke change. — Molly Templeton
TALL MAN: The Death of Doomadgee by Chloe Hooper. Scribner, $24.
In 2004, novelist Chloe Hooper (A Child’s Book of True Crime) was asked by a lawyer to write about the case of Cameron Doomadgee. The lawyer, Andrew Boe, was working pro bono on the case: Forty minutes after being arrested, Doomadgee, an Aboriginal man, was dead in his cell. His injuries included broken ribs and a liver nearly split in two. The cops said he tripped over a step.
Hooper’s wrenching, eloquent book is the result of three years of research, interviews and travel. It’s the story of one incident, one man’s death and another man’s trial, but it is also a bracing look at the institutional racism that is the legacy of white Australia’s treatment of the country’s native people. Hooper traces clear lines from the past treatment of Aborigines to the current existence of the people of Palm Island, whose lives are too often soaked in alcohol and marked by violence.
In measured, thoughtful prose, she also tries to understand Chris Hurley, the white police offer charged in Doomadgee’s death, who spent much of his career working in poor Aboriginal communities. Hurley refused to talk to Hooper, who spends a good deal of time with the Doomadgee family. Some will see this as bias, but the stories of men like Cameron Doomadgee are too rarely heard, and Hooper, though she clearly sympathizes with Doomadgee’s family, never paints Hurley as a monster, or as unquestionably guilty. Her compassion seems near boundless. Tall Man — the title of which references both an Aborigine myth and Hurley’s considerable height — is is gripping, outstanding and infuriating, a terrible story told incredibly well. — Molly Templeton
TEARS IN THE DARKNESS: The Story of the Bataan Death March by Michael & Elizabeth M. Norman. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30.
As fine an example of literary journalism and historical reconstruction as a bestseller like Devil in the White City, the Normans’ Tears in the Darkness vividly recreates one of the many horror stories of the War in the Pacific. Despite my grandfather’s service as a medic in the Philippines, I never knew much more than the name of the Bataan Death March. But the Normans, using one solider from Montana as their guide, recreate it all — starting with the battle that led to the march, in which at least 20,000 of the 75,000 Filipino and U.S. soldiers died. One who survived was Ben Steele, and his memories and sketches give narrative shape to the book.
The Normans’ impeccable research, however, also leads them to tell the story from many points of view: Japanese soldiers, including several who took part in an infamous bayonet massacre (some willing; some at threat of their own lives); high-ranking officers on both sides; other U.S. soldiers; Filipino soldiers and the Filipino civilians who witnessed the ragtag, underfed, dehydrated, beaten men as they walked their long road to yet more deprivation, yet less food, yet more hard work. Steele ended the war as a POW working in a slave-labor coal mine in Japan, and the story of the prisoners’ transport to the Axis country is just as much a tale of woe as the horrors (for both sides) of fighting in an unforgiving jungle. The narrative drives right up to the final chapters, which flash by too quickly and don’t flesh out the repercussions of Steele’s or other soldiers’ captivity.
Several valuable if depressing chapters concern the desire for vigilante justice that drove war crimes trials of some Japanese generals after surrender. General Douglas MacArthur certainly doesn’t escape this book unscathed. What’s driven home through demonstration is that a country that ignores the Geneva Protocols does so at its peril. A deeply moving, relentlessly compelling story of poor preparation, poor execution and poor planning (on the U.S. side) that led to disaster for thousands of men and women, Tears in the Darkness stands as the finest book I read in 2009. — Suzi Steffen