Polar Opposites: A Review of Two Frigid Books

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Ashley Shelby by Erica Hanna.

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By chance, I read two books about cold climates back-to-back. In some ways they are opposites, but in more ways they are similar, and both are good reads.

The reason why I am spending the fleeting Minnesota summer reading books about cold places is something you’ll have to ask my psychologist (if I had one). Maybe it’s just that it’s “safer” to read cold books during a warm summer. I certainly wouldn’t want to read them during the winter. It’s cold enough here then! That’s the best reason I’ve got for you.

The books are “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube” by Blair Braverman and “South Pole Station” by Ashley Shelby.

Ways the books are opposite: Braverman’s book is nonfiction – a memoir set in northern climes like Norway and Alaska. Shelby’s book is fiction and is set in Antarctica. So we have opposite genres and opposite geography.

Ways the book are similar: They are both written by Midwestern women. Braverman now lives in Wisconsin and Shelby lives in Minnesota. They’re also both about women who have put themselves into challenging situations, socially and physically.

Braverman, a California native, traveled to Norway as a high school exchange student, and later as a folk school student, and still later as a museum curator of sorts in an isolated town there. She also lived on a glacier in Alaska, offering dogsled rides as part of a tourist business.

She chose Norway in high school to pursue her love of cold places, but had a bad experience (well, several bad experiences) with her host family father that made her fear men and question her own mettle. To prove her mettle, she later enrolled in the folk school to learn how to train sled dogs and survive outdoors in the North.

She writes, “What I feared most was men, and what I feared for was my body, and yet my body wanted men, and there was no answer for any of it. No, that wasn’t right. There was an answer for some of it. And that answer, I felt certain, was somewhere in the north, if I would only go and find it.”

The folk school is a community unto itself where she must prove herself and earn the respect of her teachers and fellow students. She learns her crafts well enough to later on get the job in Alaska, which is another isolated community encapsulated by and encamped on a glacier. This is where the book gets its title – the workers refer to the glacier as the “ice cube” and newbies are welcomed to the hard and challenging life on the “goddamn ice cube.”

(As an aside, this reminds me of when I used to work on Isle Royale National Park, which is located on an island in the middle of Lake Superior. We referred to it as “The Rock.”)

It’s here she has her first relationship with a man, but when things start to get difficult between them, he retaliates emotionally and physically, and makes her living situation in the camp very uncomfortable.

Eventually, Braverman makes her way back to Norway again and helps out the keeper of a general store and local historical museum. Much of the book centers around conversations of the shop regulars, who gather for coffee. Even here, Braverman is isolated and feels she must prove her usefulness to the locals.

“South Pole Station” centers on the story of Cooper Gosling, an artist who earns a fellowship to spend time and paint at the South Pole. Like Braverman, Gosling and most of the other characters in “South Pole Station” put themselves in the situation because, as one character aptly states, “We’re all here because of some shit.”

They are fighting personal battles along with elemental battles. Gosling’s battle is with the suicide of her brother. When they were young, they both used to love reading about polar explorers and made up imaginary games centered around their exploits.

Gosling’s battle almost costs her her life when she walks out into the elements in a drunken stupor. But in the end, the polies all gather around her and help her pay homage to her brother at the bottom of the world in a most fitting way.

The author does a great job describing the various social cliques that develop at the South Pole. You have the beakers, who are the scientists, and the nailheads who are the maintenance crew, etc. Like Braverman in her situations, Gosling must earn her place in the social system and in the hearts of the other polies in order to survive.

The books are both interesting reads. I gave them 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. And although they are set at opposite ends of the world their major themes are eerily alike.

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Wisconsin Public Radio Interview – Holiday Reads

love-books-1Greetings! I had the privilege of being interviewed last week on the local Wisconsin Public Radio affiliate, along with Julie Gard, a poetry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, and Julie Buckles, the public relations person for Northland College in Ashland, Wis.

The show is hosted by Danielle Kaeding, now a full-fledged reporter for KUWS Radio (91.3 FM), who assisted me when she was but a college student and I had a radio show for work. Danielle hosts “Hear Me Out,” an hour-long show every Friday morning. She asked us what books we recommend for holiday gifts and holiday reading. (During all that spare time you have during holiday break – right!?)

In my role on the board of Lake Superior Writers (a local writers’ group), I always like to feature our member writers and other local authors when the topic of books comes up. And this interview was no exception. Between the three of us, we hit many of the most recent books produced locally. I only wish we would have had more time to highlight even more authors.

Our interview is featured in the first half-hour of the show. You can listen here.

Oh, and if you need a little romance during your holiday, don’t forget about my books.

Happy Reading!

“H is for Hawk” Book Review: The Value of Animals Apart from Us

A northern goshawk. Image by Norbert Kenntner.

A northern goshawk. Image by Norbert Kenntner.


I gave this memoir five out of five stars on Goodreads not because I agreed with everything in it but because I found it thought provoking and well written. It’s the story of Helen Macdonald, an Englishwoman who is dealing with the death of her father.

To help her get through her grief, Macdonald decides to train one of the most difficult of hawks: the goshawk. She names hers Mabel. She contrasts her experience with that of Terence White, author of the childhood classic, “Sword in the Stone,” and an avid falconer who wrote about his experience in “The Goshawk.” I listened to the audio version of the CD, read by the author in her classic British accent.

So many things to say. Where to begin? To start, it’s ironic that Macdonald chose to deal with death by training an avian killing machine. It’s kind of like dealing with a job loss by helping other people get fired from their jobs over and over again. But this technique worked for Macdonald, who wanted solace by forming an attachment to an animal, and by coming closer to the wild.

However, by the middle of the book, I found myself thinking how unfair it was to burden the bird with the owner’s grief and mental health issues – both for Macdonald’s and White’s goshawks. I mean, they are birds, not people. They are separate beings, but both authors are so caught up in themselves they don’t see this. It’s a lesson I learned years ago from living in the wilderness, and something I suspect most people, who are used to having animals around as pets or for food, don’t have an opportunity to realize.

Macdonald’s attitude of animals being defined in the world by the meanings given to them by humans came to light in a section where she attended an art exhibit about California condors. She says, “I think about what wild animals are in our imaginations and how they are disappearing, not just from the wild but from people’s everyday lives – replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually, rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction . . . How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it if all it means is loss?”

My argument is you fight for endangered animals because they have value apart from us. It’s perhaps the ultimate hubris to think the world revolves around us and our meanings. Most wild animals don’t need us to survive. In fact, they would probably do much better if humans were out of the picture. And why did the condor nearly go extinct in the first place? From human actions (poaching lead poisoning, etc.) It seem so unfair for humans to cause these problems and then to complain that thinking about these animals is depressing. What’s really depressing is what we do to some animals.

Toward the end of the book Macdonald finally realizes that people are more fitting agents for emotional support than animals. While animals provide great solace, they are no substitute for a pair of human arms around you. And she realizes that animals have intrinsic value apart from humans.

She writes, “Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there – rocks and trees, stones and grass, all the things that crawl and run and fly – they are all things in themselves. We make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world.”

Right on. She says she learned with Mabel how to “feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.” She could have ended the book there and I would have been happy but she continued on with White’s story, which at times, overshadowed her own. I could have done without much of the detail of his story and the book would have been stronger for it. I also found myself getting tired near the end from hearing mini dramas about how she was always losing her hawk. But I still gave it five stars, so it these things must not have bothered me too much!

One thing I thought was funny was how, once Macdonald started using antidepressants, she described the hawk as looking much happier, too. I think this was when she was still caught up in the hawk being an extension of herself.

And I was happy to see that Macdonald delved into the “conversation of death” described in Barry Lopez’s book, “Of Wolves and Men.” This is an exchange that happens between wolves and their prey that either triggers a chase or diffuses the hunt. If you’ve read my novel “Eye of the Wolf,” you know that I delved into it, too.

As I was thinking about writing this review, I came across a quote from Henry Beston (“The Outermost House”) that sums up my philosophy and what I think Macdonald was trying to say with her memoir well:

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

Agree? Disagree? Am I some psycho loony? (Smirk.)

A Review of “The Goldfinch”

The Goldfinch“The Goldfinch” is an ambitious book, dealing with questions like: what is art? What is love? Is fate more due to relentless irony, divine providence, or a mix of the two? Just simple questions like that. (Smile.)

I found myself comparing this novel to “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” because they both have boy narrators who lost a parent to terrorism. In the case of Extremely Loud, it’s the World Trade Center crashes. In this book, it’s the bombing of an art museum. I like “The Goldfinch” better because the narrator isn’t as unreasonably anxious. He’s anxious yes, but in a calmer, more reasoned way, if that’s possible. And the timeline is more straightforward, which makes it easier to follow.

The story follows the life of Theodore Decker from age thirteen until his late twenties, exploring his longing for his dead mother, his relationship with his dead-beat father, adjustments (or lack thereof) to his new living conditions, and his attachment to a famous painting.

I liked how the author shows feelings of emotional displacement through descriptions of the characters’ surroundings – furnishings, food – and not only through human interactions. She incorporates a huge amount of detail, which makes the story real. Unless one is a writer, it’s hard to appreciate how difficult this is to do well. I also enjoyed the author’s fresh metaphors. There’s a reason “The Goldfinch” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year.

Toward the end, I started getting impatient with Theo’s inarticulateness and inability to function. And when he does function, it’s like he’s outside of himself. He’s so inactive, it’s like he’s the opposite of a protagonist. He just stands there saying, “Ummm… ahh…” and things happen to him.  Theo’s Russian friend Boris takes over as protagonist at this point, and I ended up with a fondness for him despite his bad influence on Theo. I learned more about drinking and drugs than I ever wanted to know. Also, the author has the Russian soul down.

Some readers complain that the ending paragraphs aren’t worth all the angst in the previous parts of the book, but I don’t agree. The ending starts several chapters before the last chapter. I was listening to it on CD, so I’m not entirely sure of the organization of the book, but to me, the summation starts with Theo’s “coming clean” discussion with his mentor Hobie (I love Hobie!) and continues through the remainder of the novel. I thought it was cohesive and worth the wait. In fact, it was so worth the wait that I incurred my first library fine in recent memory so that I could complete the story. So beware: “The Goldfinch” is a bad influence – it could encourage you to incur library fines without remorse for the rest of your days.

“Zenith City” Offers a Broader Understanding of Duluth

Zenith_City-210“Zenith City” is a collection of stories by former Duluthian Michael Fedo (cousin of former Duluth Mayor John Fedo). The memoir chronicles his time growing up in Duluth, Minn., in the 1950s and 60s.

I enjoyed reading the book. I recognized Fedo’s references to the city’s inferiority complex (which is turning around, now, thank you, with Duluth being named things like Best Outdoors City, etc.), and Fedo’s references to Duluthians’ relationship with their hills, KDAL Radio, dear old Denfeld High, the Flame Restaurant, and the Pickwick.

However, in many instances, Fedo writes about a Duluth with which I am unfamiliar — one where relatives live next door (my parents were the northernmost transplants of their central- and southern-Minnesota families), where the vices and haunts of downtown were nearby (I grew up in more distant Piedmont Heights), and where folk music was popular (I was born about 15 years too late for that).

But that’s all right. The descriptions gave me a better understanding of the place where I live. I especially enjoyed his reminiscences about Don LaFontaine, the famous movie trailer voiceover actor (think, “In a world where….”), his encounter with Louis Armstrong, and with Bob Dylan’s mother. And because of my exposure to this book, I now intend to read “Babbitt” by Sinclair Lewis, who lived in Duluth for a time. (Also because my home economics-major mother once made and served him dinner when she was working in college for a family who entertained him.)

I noticed two punctuation errors: one where closing quotation marks are missing, another where a sentence ends with both a period and a comma. This surprised me since I’ve come to expect better from the University of Minnesota Press. I don’t know if it’s a sign of their quality slipping or of my editorial eye getting sharper with experience.

The only other thing that gave me pause was the repetition among the stories. For instance, we hear that Fedo worked at the local college radio station at least four times throughout, but I suppose this is an artifact of the book being a compilation of stories that were written for other publications. Just be aware it’s not a seamless memoir written in a singular effort.

Earlier this year, I went to an event by Fedo at Duluth Public Library. He read from many of the stories, and afterwards, he and his wife were generous with their time for a discussion with me, a newbie novelist. They were a class act. I highly recommend this book, even to non-Duluthians.

Making Mosses Sexy (The Signature of All Things – Book Review)

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I picked up this book because I like Elizabeth Gilbert’s nonfiction (I’ve read “The Last American Man,” “Eat, Pray, Love,” and “Committed”). I haven’t read any of her novels, so I wanted to see what she could do with fiction. Also, I wanted to see how/whether she could make botany interesting. Caution: this review contains spoilers, so if you don’t want to know how the novel ends, it’s best to stop reading now.

The story follows the life of Alma Whittaker, a scientifically inclined child born into a wealthy American family in the 1800s. Alma’s life is so lonely and sterile in the first part of the novel that I began to wonder why I was continuing to read. Finally, when she meets a botanical artist, Ambrose, things look up for her. Gilbert does an admirable job taking readers along with Alma’s joy and hopes/fears at this point, so that when they come crashing down, so do readers’ hearts. I liked how Alma dealt with life’s disappointments by grinding them under her boot heel. That’s a philosophy worth emulating.

Midway through the novel, when Alma is casting about for things to occupy her time, I found myself asking – why doesn’t she try to help someone else for a change? That thought doesn’t come to her at that point and she turns instead to a solitary life of studying mosses. I was thankful to see altruistic motivation finally come to her after her father dies.

So how does Gilbert make botany interesting? She combines it with a life story, sex, and spiritualism. Gilbert uses Alma’s situation to explore the dichotomies between science and the soul, and how a woman can endure a lifetime of sexual frustration, yet still function in the everyday household and business duties required of her.

I want to share a quote from the story that particularly resonated with me: “These are two things I have always observed to be in singular accord: super-celestial thoughts and subterranean conduct.” I have found this to be true, as well. Think of all the televangelists and others in positions of authority who have been brought down by sexual scandals. But I am meandering…

One thing that bothered me is that when Alma was in Tahiti, she did not even think of showing a drawing of the mysterious Tahitian boy to someone. She did mention there were some facial drawings of him that weren’t lewd. Showing one to someone she trusted, like the reverend or the ‘wild boys,’ would have saved her a lot of time trekking around the island. She could have said she found it in Ambrose’s things and was wondering who his friend was. Gilbert didn’t even have Alma consider showing someone a drawing, which bothered me and seemed unrealistic (even for fiction!)

Another thing that bothered me that one of Alma’s major goals in life was to give a man a blowjob. I mean, seriously?! The feminist in me is just so affronted by that. Alma’s character is already so intelligent, capable and self-sacrificing. I would have been much more comfortable if her goal in life was to have a man give HER oral sex. (Smirk.)

The dust jacket description says that events take place at a galloping pace. I wouldn’t say this is true. The pace is more like that of a pachyderm than a horse. Both Alma and her father are so deliberate in their speech and actions that all sides of an issue are explored before action is taken. This is hardly galloping. But the good side of this is that you come to know the characters intimately.

I ended up wanting SOMETHING good to happen for Alma – better than performing a blowjob on a lovely male Tahitian in a cave (which is not bad, but still….) Near the end, there’s another glimmer of hope when she develops her own theory of natural selection. But does she publish it? No. Like the aforementioned slow-moving pachyderm, she has to investigate all sides of her theory, which takes time. She’s not satisfied that it provides the answer to everything everyone would ever want to know about how the world works, so she lets the document sit in a valise under her couch, until it’s too late and Darwin beats her to the punch.

In a Hollywood ending, Alma would have published her theory to great fame and finally be recognized. But since this is not a Hollywood book, it ends with Alma being satisfied that just one person recognizes her for what she is. This was a good ending for the circumstances, and refreshing in some ways, but it’s much too realistic. If I wanted to realism, I would just plod along in my own daily fight for survival and grinding of life’s disappointments under my boot heels. I read to escape or to see characters overcome obstacles and succeed. However, Gilbert did manage to make mosses interesting.

Overall, I give it a mixed review. There’s no question that Gilbert knows her mosses and how the scientific mind works. Her character development is outstanding as is her insight into the human condition. I just had problems with certain aspects of the story that didn’t fit my personal escapist needs.

I am Finally Killing a Mockingbird

MockingbirdI may be one of the only semi-literate people who have not read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I can’t even use the excuse that it’s because I live at the end of the world in Duluth, because the book was promoted as a community read a few years ago.

I’m in the process of rectifying this oversight. I like to listen to books on CD from the local library during my commute to work, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” is my most recent choice. Before reading the description on the back cover of the CD case, I knew vaguely that the novel was about a white southern lawyer who defends a black man; that it was written by the no-speech-giving and friend-to-Truman-Capote Harper Lee; that it was turned into a movie starring Gregory Peck; and that Bruce Willis and Demi Moore named one of their daughters after a character in it.

What finally attracted me to listen to the CD is that the story is told through the eyes of a child, and a precociously literate girl child at that. I am a sucker for unusual narrators. I’ve listened to about half of it by now, and I am coming to understand its classic appeal. Although the beginning is rather murky — you don’t really know why you’re reading (listening to) it because it doesn’t spoon feed the themes like authors do for readers now — if you give it a chance, you’ll notice it addresses all sorts of social issues.

Instead of being praised for her skills and sent on to a higher grade, the precociously literate girl (Scout) is made to feel bad that she can read by her insecure teacher. There’s sexual role modeling: Scout is under pressure to act more like a “lady” even though she’s only in early elementary school. There’s discrimination in the form of gender and color. A creepy neighborhood house and family stands testament to the damage that being overly religious can cause. And I haven’t even gotten to the trial part of the book yet.

If I were to dare to criticize the story (and I dare, for I am about as ladylike as Scout), I would say that sometimes the words used by Scout are too advanced for her age, even given that she’s literate. But the tone is spot-on as are the topics. The story also unintentionally provides a scathing commentary on the status of our communities today, where neighbors barely know each other or their histories.

It’s a great story. Go kill a mockingbird if you haven’t already.