“Ree nearly fell but would not let it happen in front of the law.”

[from the stabenow.com vaults, February 28, 2011]

I’m sorry Winter’s Bone didn’t take home any Oscars last night. It is a wonderful film.

The book the film was adapted from, Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, is equally wonderful.

Ree Dolly’s father is due for a court hearing and he has signed over the family home as bond. Now he’s missing, and the cops tell his sixteen-year old daughter that their home is forfeit if he doesn’t show. Ree, sole support and care-giver of a mother who has slipped her leash on sanity and her two young brothers, sets out to find him among the meth dealers of the backwoods Ozarks. Every man and woman’s – and even the weather’s – hand is against her.

The characters live and breathe, as does the landscape, and the plot is only a cliche because it has worked every single time since Snidely Whiplash evicted Pauline. What moves me most is the language. Here are some samples.

When Ree first hears that Jessup has signed over her home against his court appearance:

Ree nearly fell but would not let it happen in front of the law. She heard thunder clapping between her ears and Beelzebub scratchin’ a fiddle. The boys and her and Mom would be dogs in the fields without this house. They would be dogs in the fields with Beelzebub scratchin’ out tunes and the boys’d have a hard hard shove toward unrelenting meanness and the roasting shed and she’d be stuck alongside them ’til steel door clanged shut and the flames rose. She’d never get away from her family as planned, off to the U.S. Army, where you got to travel with a gun and they made everybody help keep things clean. She’d never have only her own concerns to tote. She’d never have her own concerns.

There’s the stakes, in virtually biblical language, right there on page 15. Later, when we find out more about Ree’s mom, Woodrell writes of a woman we can only pity, never condemn:

Love and hate hold hands always so it made natural sense that they’d get confused by upset married folk in the wee hours once in a while and a nosebleed or a bruised breast might result. But it just seemed proof that a great foulness was afoot in the world when a no-strings roll in the hay with a stranger led to chipped teeth or cigarette burns on the wrist.

When Ree tells how Dollys are named, it sounds right out of Native culture in western Alaska, only a lot less hopeful and a lot more ominous:

…the great name of the Dollys was Milton, and at least two dozen Miltons moved about in Ree’s world. If you named a son Milton it was a decision that attempted to chart the life he’d live before he even stepped into it, for among Dollys the name carried expectations and history. Some names could rise to walk many paths in many directions, but Jessups, Arthurs, Haslams and Miltons were born to walk only the beaten Dolly path to the shadowed place, live and die in keeping with those bloodline customs fiercest held.

There is prose of that quality on every page of this lyrical little gem of a novel, and sixteen-year old Ree is one of the strongest and most admirable heroines I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. You should meet her, too.


So, you’re a Chicago hit man…

GangsterlandGangsterland by Tod Goldberg

So, you’re a Chicago hit man and you have to shoot your way out of a situation that leaves multiple government employees dead. You think you’re going to be taken out by your boss because of this mess you made, and instead, he ships you to Las Vegas and a change of profession. As in…a rabbi.

Continue reading


A Painting, A Lunar Module, and A Swamp

Today it’s the stories of a painting, a lunar module, and a swamp.

madamex1The first book is called Strapless by Deborah Davis. You’ve all seen the painting whether you know it or not, a voluptuous redhead in a black dress with a plunging neckline. It was Paris, where else, in the 1880s, the time known as La Belle Epoque, the beautiful era, a period of peace and prosperity in Western Europe, and a flourishing time for the arts. In Paris there dwelt two ex-patriate Americans, a young wife determined to use her beauty to become a leader of Parisian society, and a young painter determined to use her beauty to make his name in his profession.

She was Amelie Gautreau, he was John Singer Sargent, and the painting was “The Portrait of Madame X.” Displayed for the first time at the Paris Exhibition in 1884, it so scandalized Parisian society that it almost ruined him. It did ruin her.

Strapless is not only the story of a portrait, though, it is itself a portrait of a time and a place and the people who lived there. Opening the book is like stepping into a time machine. The portrait, which Singer had to buy back from the outraged husband, sat in Singer’s studio for thirty years, and now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. After reading this book, I had to go see it again.

apollo13Chariots for Apollo by Charles Pelligrino and Joshua Stoff is the story of the making of the lunar module, that section of the Apollo spaceship that landed on the moon, and it’s one of the best books ever written about the Apollo program. It begins with a brief history of man’s journey into space which includes social commentary, as in this passage on students in New York being instructed in nuclear holocaust avoidance: “…duck and cover…duck and cover…Who is laughing over there? Be quiet?…We must always remember that: no laughing during a nuclear holocaust…There, on the floor, at age eight, many children were beginning the believe that grown-ups were a little bit nuts. In a few years they would begin to say as much.”

The pride of the engineers who built the ten lunar modules shines through on every page, and their pride is fully justified when the ill-fated mission of Apollo 13 cannibalizes the lunar module to get home. Written with insider knowledge and wry humor, Chariots for Apollo also offers up life lessons like, “Never, never tap a fully loaded rocket with a screwdriver.” In 1960, sixty rocket scientists died in Russia when someone did.

evergladesThe Swamp by Michael Grunwald is a history of how first we dried out the Everglades and are now desperately trying to wet it down again to a reasonable facsimile of its former self. Grunwald has a gift for simile (“It had the panoramic sweep of a desert, except flooded, or a tundra, except melted, or a wheat field, except wild.”) and a good reporter’s nose for the political boondoggling, pork bellying and backroom dealing that form the Everglades’ prime crops, including what really happened in Florida in the 2000 election. Grunwald is an advocate for restoration, no doubt, but his eye is clear, his pen is sharp and he takes no prisoners. He’s not very nice to the Army Corps of Engineers, either, which, since I’m from Seldovia, makes me like him all the more.


The pursuit of public policy contrary to self-interest. Or why governments keep shooting themselves in the foot.

The March of Folly: From Troy to VietnamThe March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W. Tuchman

A book which informed my entire world view. In it, Tuchman posits the existance of folly, or the pursuit of public policy contrary to self-interest–in other words, why nations keep shooting themselves in the foot. She uses the Trojans taking the Greek horse inside the walls of Troy as her template, and then goes on to talk about how the Renaissance popes caused the Reformation, how the British lost America, and how the US lost in Vietnam. A lively, engaging prose style with more than a hint of “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

View all my reviews


“Listen, my children, and you shall hear…”

Interesting essay on Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride.” “Before Longfellow published those lines, Revere was never known for his ride, and Longfellow got almost every detail of what happened in 1775 wrong,” writes Harvard professor Jill Lepore. “But Longfellow didn’t care: he was writing as much about the coming war as about the one that had come before. “Paul Revere’s Ride” is less a poem about the Revolutionary War than about the impending Civil War — and about the conflict over slavery that caused it. That meaning, though, has been almost entirely forgotten.

A passionate abolitionist, Longfellow “secretly spent money he earned from his best-selling poems, like “The Song of Hiawatha,” to buy slaves their freedom.” “Paul Revere’s Ride” was published December 19, 1860, the same day South Carolina seceded from the Union.

Of the Library of America’s 2000 edition of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “Though he may never regain his onetime prestige, Longfellow at his best was more fun, smarter, deeper, and a better craftsman than readers nowadays imagine; this hefty volume may finally let them know.


I’ve been around salmon all my life.

King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of SalmonKing of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon by David R. Montgomery

I was raised in a commercial fishing community. I spent most of five years of my childhood on a fish tender. I live on the Kenai Peninsula and for the past seven Septembers I’ve fished for silvers in the Kenai River. (One year for a brief, magical moment I had a king on. It was like hooking onto a bolt of lightning.) Like everyone else on the Kenai I fight the traffic the last two weeks of July when dipnetting season is open. My cousin Hank is a commercial fisherman in Cordova. There have been five kinds of salmon in abundance all around me all of my life.

In this book, David Montgomery says that that abundance could all end in my lifetime. The Atlantic salmon is already down for the count, in Europe and in Canada and the northeastern United States. Almost exactly the same cycle is in evidence on the Pacific Northwest. “Our modern salmon crisis is a strikingly faithful retelling of the fall of Atlantic salmon in Europe, Montgomery writes, “and again later in eastern North America.” Today, the salmon runs of California are all but extinct with the runs in Oregon and Washington too close behind.

Factors influencing salmon abundance, Montgomery writes, are often generalized into four H’s: harvest, hydropower (dams), habitat, and hatcheries. Often overlooked is a fifth H: history. Learning from the past is important for public policy, particularly if policies have objectives such as the protection of rate and endangered species, or if policy failure irreversibly leads to extinction…It is sobering to think that salmon could take the worst nature could throw at them for millions of years–from floods to volcanic eruptions–but that little more than a century of exposure to the side effects of Western civilization could drive them to the edge of extinction.

By harvest Montgomery means overfishing. Right now in Cook Inlet commercial setnetters are fighting with sports fishermen over the king salmon run up the Kenai River, which run has dropped to the point that king sportsfishing has been banned on the river for the last two years. In the meantime out in the Gulf of Alaska and in the Bering Sea fish processors are dragging up the bottom of the north Pacific Ocean, where those kings go to feed before coming home again to spawn the next generation. Those processors are fishing for pollock. Kings are just bycatch to them.

By hydropower he means dams. There are over 70,000 dams in North America, including the ones on the Columbia and Snake Rivers which killed their salmon runs. Right now the state of Alaska wants to build a 735-foot dam on the Susitna River. The dam backers say that Devil’s Canyon, downstream of the proposed dam, acts as a natural impediment to salmon migration. Does it? Are there no salmon runs upriver of the dam site? The dam, when built, could furnish almost half the needed power to railbelt Alaskans. Do we just cross our fingers and build the dam and hope for the best?

By habitat, Montgomery is talking about the degradation of the rivers and streams to which salmon return each year. We’ve been clearing these waterways of the deadfall that protect the gravel spawning beds, we’ve been straightening out waterways to make them more convenient for travel and shipping, and we’ve been developing riverbanks for suburban homes and golf courses which comes with a whole host of problems, not least of which is the grass fertilizer that runs off into and toxifies the spawning habitat (a big problem in Hawaii, too, ask anyone who has ever flown into the islands after a big storm and seen the brown runoff encircling the shores). Montgomery writes

In the end, the degree to which society is willing to give space back to rivers will define the degree to which rivers can recover.

How willing are we? Good question, and one we should spend some time answering, but mostly all we do is fight with each other, commercial fisherman against sports fisherman, developer against preservationist.

Particularly on controversial issues [writes Montgomery] any consensus that satisfies all stakeholders will ultimately sell out the salmon. So reliance on local control and voluntary measures needs to be guided by an overriding strategy that is guaranteed and enforced by a higher authority.

Ask the Kenai River Sportsfishing Association and the United Cook Inlet Drift Association how that’s been working out for them. These people can’t even talk to each other without raising their voices, and in the meantime more kings vanish from the river every year.

Hatcheries? Don’t work. Artificially created runs do not repopulate themselves, and in the meantime they’re competing with natural runs for food and weakening the natural salmon by interbreeding with them. (They also don’t taste near as good.)

“Salmon, writes Montgomery

…are resilient, robust animals that can rapidly colonize new environments. They are more like weeds than like a sensitive bird that can only nest in a special type of tree that occurs in a particular type of forest in a couple of places on earth. Even so, we are managing to drive them to the verge of extinction across much of their range.

In the 1960s, Lowell Wakefield single-handedly started the king crab fishing industry in the Gulf of Alaska. Then, the king crab season started on August 1st and ended on May 31st. I know, as a teenager I worked for pocket money at Wakefield’s in Seldovia. In the 1980s the king crab stocks crashed due to overfishing. Now, the king crab season is ten days in October, or however long it takes to meet their quota. I used to eat king crab fresh out of the water one or two times a week in season. Today, I haven’t seen anything but frozen in years.

It’s too late for the Atlantic salmon, Montgomery says. It’s almost too late for the salmon runs of the western United States. Nevertheless, he says, we should try to save them.

I only wish we would.

View all my reviews


Cowboys on Surfboards

Cowboys on surfboards. That’s my thumbnail for Don Winslow’s The Gentlemen’s Hour, the second of two novels featuring San Diego surfer slash private investigator Boone Daniels (the first is The Dawn Patrol).

I put “surfer” first for a reason. Boone’s the California version of an Alaskan bush pilot. No matter what his day job is, brain surgeon, governor, master mechanic, when you ask him what he is, his first response is always “Pilot.”

For Boone, the PI business just keeps him in board wax. This time around there’s a lot going on in his day job, starting with working for the defense of the worthless little skinhead who killed the god of the beach, Kelly Kuhio, which does not endear Boone to his early morning board buddies, aka the Dawn Patrol. There is the stricken husband hiring Boone to tail his adulterous wife, and the inopportune appearance of Cruz Inglesias, head of one of the biggest and most vicious drug cartels operating on the border. There are distressingly flat seas and disastrous sinkholes and blond bombshell receptionists and crooked records clerks and even crookeder real estate developers and coitus interruptus and coitus finally efficere. Winslow is just one of the best plotting authors around (see The Death and Life of Bobby Z if you don’t believe me) and however improbably, all of these plot strands are gathered together and knotted securely in an epic fistfight, on a beach, naturally.

But what I really love about this novel is the voice. Here’s Boone setting the scene in the first chapter and, not coincidentally, snapshotting the plot as well:

…Like water, earth is always moving. You can’t necessarily see it, you might not feel it, but it’s happening anyway. Beneath our feet, tectonic plates are shifting, faults are widening, quakes are tuning up to rock and roll…Face it — whether we know it or not, we’re all always surfing.

Here’s Boone talking about surfers going all Robert Ardrey over their beach:

It’s not that they’re just taking his water, it’s that they’re taking his life. Without that Rockpile break, what he is is a drywaller, a roofer, a karate instructor in a strip mall. With that break, he’s a surfer, a Rockpile surfer, and it means something.

Here’s Boone channeling Skink on real estate developers:

Generally speaking, Boone would have every real estate developer in Southern California put on a bus and driven over the cliff, if it wouldn’t kill the bus driver. If he can find a bus-driving real estate developer, though, it’s on.

Here’s Boone shopping for electronic snoopers for a case:

He already has the camera — it came with the basic Private Investigator Starter Kit along with the cynicism, a manual of one-liners, and a saxophone soundtrack.

Yeah, okay, you’ve met this detective before, starting with Sam Spade right up through Spenser, smart, tough, outwardly cynical, inwardly romantic, always irresistible to the ladies. Boone is your average, everyday, ordinary knight of the woeful countenance. But nothing says if it’s done right you don’t want to watch him tilt at another windmill.

The day after I finished The Gentlemen’s Hour, I picked it up again and reread the ending, just for that epic joust on the beach. It was, indeed, macking.

Whatever the hell that means.