Feb 022014

With three weeks to lay about I’ve been in a reading frenzy due, in part, to a trial subscription with Oyster (the Netflix of books) which seems to work very nicely. They have a good selection of books though not everything you would find on Kindle or iBooks.

I found myself reading these with “Transition” in mind.

Widow Walk by Gerard LaSalle makes Pacific NW history sound a lot more interesting than it did when we were force-fed a tedious view of Washington State history back in high school day. In Widow Walk we’ve got a pioneer couple on Whidbey Island, mentions of Bellingham, the Lummis, reef net fishing, Victoria, San Juan Island, Roche Harbor and various locations in BC. It’s a fast moving tale that involves a couple of real historical figures, a psychotic Haida raider, a kidnapped five year old, a brave frontier woman and her equally brave young daughter, a clever NW Indian guide, various nefarious characters, a one-eyed grizzly bear and even George Pickett, soon to become famous at the Battle of Gettysburg. (I did not know that General Pickett was once married to an Indian maid). At one level it’s a tale of disaster preparedness with fierce Northern tribes making boat raids to capture booty and slaves. The pioneers have developed early warning systems which, unfortunately, don’t work in the case of this story. Government is little help and the protagonist must take it upon herself to solve the problem (with a tiny but important piece of help from Captain George Pickett). Self-reliance, grit and determination and some luck win out in the end. It’s a pretty good book and will be particularly interesting to dwellers on the Salish Sea which doesn’t often provide the background for many novels.

Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne starts out strong but loses its way in the end. It’s about an intentional community in Wales that has been in business for twenty years. At the time of the book most of the characters are trying to find a way out demonstrating, I suppose, how difficult it is for even a small community with  a similar philosophy and common goals to get along.  Wild Abandon is the story of this unraveling but goes off in directions that cause the story to lose its arc; sort of like the community itself. Good start; poor finish. Keeping people on track is a difficult thing to do.

Bolivar: American Liberator by Marie Arana is a wild and woolly history. There are some 2600+ volumes in the Library of Congress about Simon Bolivar. I’ve not read a one of them. In fact, even with a BA in history and some fifty years of additional reading since graduation, this is the first book I’ve ever read on South American history.

Let me tell you, it’s not a pretty picture: murder, torture, treachery,  beheadings, flayings, rampaging ex-slaves, rabid Indians, cruel Spaniards, psychotic Creoles. And, that’s on a good day. What a mess? And what a difficult story to tell.

Bolivar, of course, is the key figure, the central theme in South America’s break with Spain. Spain didn’t give up easy. But they finally did. One can argue that getting rid of Spain is about all that the Bolivarian revolution accomplished as South American politics remains chaotic and unstable with lots of dictators, despots and warlords. What a mean, cruel history. Novelist turned historian, Marie Arana does an admirable job of detailing Bolivar’s life.

Even despots/dictators/presidents for life have a hard time getting things done.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Enough has been written about this one. With all the hoopla about “Wild” and its amazing success as a memoir, I was worried that it might be the hiking version of Eat, Pray, Love and as wretched in its self-absorption. I couldn’t stand EPL and didn’t finish it. Wild, on the other hand, is a surprisingly good read. There is self-absorption, though it didn’t bore.

I came away from Wild thinking that if you want to get something done you just have to keep putting one foot ahead of another; keep moving forward.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Could be a description of what we face if we don’t get our act together. As a book it’s overrated but still quite readable. The post-apocalyptic genre is a good exercise for stretching the mind and getting motivated to be ready for an uncertain future.

And I’m halfway through Population: 485 by Michael Perry which might be the most relevant book to the subject at hand. It’s a memoir of a very small mid-western told told from the POV of a volunteer EMT/fireman. Disparate people with varied backgrounds pulling together to help each other.


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