April 2008

Baby Bison II
Photo by ailatan used under a Creative Commons license.

Dan O’Brien, Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch (Random House, 2001).
O’Brien had owned the Broken Heart Ranch, near Bear Butte in the Black Hills of South Dakota, for more than 20 years, though like many ranchers he has had to work other jobs to pay the bills. In 1998, recently divorced and disillusioned with the economics of cattle ranching, O’Brien impulsively decided to take thirteen buffalo calves from another rancher. Before long, he decided to switch completely from cattle to buffalo. Buffalo bring their own challenges. O’Brien had to re-fence his pastures, and learn to handle wilder animals. But they are much better suited to life on the Great Plains than cattle are. They’re also easier on the range — in particular, they don’t linger by water, like cattle do — a theme which fits with O’Brien own story of recovery.

Here’s a bio of O’Brien on the site of Wild Idea Buffalo Company, where you can also buy his buffalo meat. For more on his recent ventures, see this. Here is blog reaction from Raymond Pert, Gaia Gardener, and Jeff Reed. Listen to an interview with O’Brien on Minnesota Public Radio. Or listen to a piece about O’Brien and the book on NPR’s “Living on Earth.” The Guardian‘s Matthew Engel sees O’Brien’s herd of buffalo as part of a trend.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Pearl Harbor
Photo of the wreck of the U.S.S. Arizona by jasonpearce used under a Creative Commons license.

Gordon W. Prange, At Dawn We Slept (Penguin, 1982).
A magisterial and comprehensive account of the December 7, 1941, attack by the Japanese Navy on Pearl Harbor. Prange researched the events leading up to that day for decades before his death in 1980. There is much here about the events of 1941 which heightened the incipient conflict between the two countries and the thinking of key leaders on both sides. The tragedies and heroics of the fateful day are well told here also. This is the history by which other accounts of Pearl Harbor must be measured.

Here is Wikipedia’s page about Prange. Here is his obituary in The Des Moines Register. Here is a longer review by Gaddis Smith in The New York Times and a shorter review by him in Foreign Affairs. Mayo Mohs reviewed it in Time. More from Antoni Chmielowski and Michael Doubler. Here is an article in National Geographic about the wreck of the U.S.S. Arizona. With the right JSTOR affiliation, you can read Akira Iriye’s review in The Journal of American History, but I can’t.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

The Place
Photo of Buffalo by buffalorose used under a Creative Commons license.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, The Last Fine Time (Knopf, 1991).
In 1947, when he was 27 years old, Eddie Wenzek, Klinkenborg’s father-in-law, inherited a Polish tavern at 722 Sycamore Street, at the corner of Herman St. on the East Side of Buffalo, in a Polish-American neighborhood. His father had bought the place in 1922, and called it The Thomas Wenzek Restaurant. Eddie Wenzek renamed it “George and Eddie’s” and turned it into a swank nightspot which thrived in the years after World War II, but the good times did not last. In 1970, Wenzek sold the premises and moved to the suburbs. Klinkenborg’s book is a chronicle of the bar during those five decades, and a social history of Buffalo over that time.

Here is Wikipedia’s page about Klinkenborg. David has a picture of 722 Sycamore Street today, as well as a 1940 map. L.S. Klepp reviewed the book for Entertainment Weekly. Here is an anonymous review at eNotes. Carl Lennertz says it’s “one of the great books of all time.” Buffalo resident karen! didn’t like it. Nor did Mr. Muckle. Klinkenborg wrote about Buffalo and the Buffalo Bills in The New York Times in 1991.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Girl at water park
Photo by BarelyFitz used under a Creative Commons license.

Tayari Jones, Leaving Atlanta (Grand Central Publishing, 2003).
As part of her “50 States of Literature” series at the Columbia Spectator, Melanie Jones recommends this novel set during 1979-80, when 29 black children were killed in Atlanta. The story is narrated by three children who

struggle to comprehend their classmates’ disappearances while dealing with the everyday, from divorce and first crushes to unraveling what grown-ups mean by “the truth.” . . . Using [their] poignant innocence, Jones conveys the depth to which atrocity shaped and shook her community. At the forefront of the civil rights movement, Atlanta was dubbed “the city too busy to hate,” and children grew up with little knowledge of the lynchings Jim Crow imprinted into most of the South’s history. Georgia was mythically portrayed as “the red clay” that clung to “inexpensive canvas sneakers” and storms of “growling thunder and purple zigzag lightning” that left the ground cold and hard as pottery. But when fears of “the man snatching you” enter the recess lexicon, that magical world is forever changed. . . . Jones’ novel is bittersweet-an evocation of childhood in her hometown and a reminder of how easily a community can be changed by hate.

Google Book Search has an excerpt and more. The publisher also offers an excerpt. Jones’ site has a bio. Also, she blogs. Here’s an article about Jones and the book. Here are reviews from Melissa Morgan (bookreporter.com), Kam Aures (Mostly Fiction), VeTalle Fusilier (Black Issues Book Review), Thumper, Ladylee, Kate Carter (Online Athens), Claire Light, Dolen, and Teej. Frederick Smith recommends it and other Atlanta reads. Here is a brief interview with Jones and a Spelman College literary journal, and here is one with Gene Edwards (.pdf). On Scott Esposito’s blog, Jones writes about being pigeonholed as a “southern writer” or a “black writer.” She addressed related issues in this article in The Believer and in this piece at Maud Newton’s blog about bookstores’ shelving practics.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Sunrise on the Prairie
Photo by JBAT used under a Creative Commons license.

Teresa Jordan, Riding the White Horse Home (Vintage, 1994).
Jordan was in the last of four generations of her family to live and work on a cattle ranch in Iron Mountain, Wyoming, not far from Cheyenne and Laramie. After her grandfather died, her family was forced to sell the place, and while Jordan explains what drove things to that point, she also regrets losing her connection to the land. Small towns throughout the rural West are slowly depopulating as people like Jordan who grew up in them find careers and lives in the cities. Jordan’s memoir tries to capture and come to terms with the life she lost — the land, the work, the relationships with horses and cattle. This is also a memoir of her family, most poignantly of her mother, who died when Jordan was twenty.

Jordan’s site has a bio and plenty more about her work. Monica Bretherton wrote about the book. And in 1991, Jordan gave the keynote address to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, with some material which later appeared in the book.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

International Flora Montréal 2006
Photo of Montreal by used under a Creative Commons license.

Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers (Vintage, 1993).
In his piece on Montreal for the Salon Literary Guide to the World, David Mezmozgis writes:

The novel is structured around a scholarly and erotic fixation with the virgin Algonquin saint, Catherine Tekakwitha, whose name graces Montreal’s central thoroughfare, the rue Ste. Catherine — now home to hookers, strip clubs and gleaming franchise stores. Cohen’s novel, like Montreal, is a mixture of the sacred and the profane, where a fanciful description of Montreal’s first Mass . . . is followed by a graphic description of a fabled Mohawk sex cure. There is much in the book about the Indians who lived along the primeval shores of the St. Lawrence (the Onandagas, Hurons, Mohawks and Abenaki) — their allegiances, their conflicts, their mating customs, and their preferred methods of killing and torturing missionaries. All of it is lovingly rendered and some of it even appears to be true. Cohen’s plot also incorporates the separatist fervor that gripped Quebec in the 1960s and that, to a great extent, grips it to this day. Montreal, of course, has always been the sole object of contention. Canadians would have bid adieu to Quebec a long time ago if the separatists weren’t so adamant about taking Montreal with them. Neither side, naturally, can bear to part with a city that stays open all night, whose cafes are brimming with action, and where the drinking age is 18. . . .

I am unfamiliar with Leonard Cohen, but it seems that people either love him or hate him.

Cohen’s site has this bio. Suzanne Snider writes about Cohen’s career. This seems to be a comprehensive fan site. And here’s a forum for his fans. Reactions seem to be love or hate, without much in between. Here is Eric Mader-Lin. Desmond Pacey is a fan. Editor Eric is not. Chris McLaren has audio files of Cohen reading passages from the book in 1966. Here are 70 things you may not know about Cohen. Here is an academic paper by Nicole Markotic on the influence of telephones in the book. The CBC’s digital archives lets you watch the mixed reactions the book received on publication in 1966.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Snow in Copenhagen
Photo of Copenhagen by Siebuhr used under a Creative Commons license.

Peter Høeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Delta, 1995).

A small boy falls from the roof of Smilla Qaavigaaq Jasperson’s Copenhagen apartment building. An expert on the properties of snow and ice, she looks at the footprints and realizes that the boy ran to his death. She determines to find out who was chasing him, leading to no end of complications. Smilla is half-Danish and half-Greenlander, and the action in this thriller involves both countries. Høeg’s third novel was the first to be translated from Danish, and is more literary than most genre fiction. Also published (in the UK) as Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. Julia Ormond played Smilla in the 1997 movie, which did not get good reviews.

A flurry of reviews from Robert Nathan (The New York Times), Bridget, MagdaDH (and others), Danny Yee, Gnomey G, Isabella, John Regehr, Will, and Dave Knadler. It’s Tyler Cowen’s favorite Danish novel. And Wilson found an interesting receipt in his copy. Here is a scholarly article by Annalies van Hees called “Fiction and Reality in Smilla’s Sense of Snow.”

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Photo of Buenos Aires by asleeponasunbeam used under a Creative Commons license.

Julio Cortázar, The Winners (NYRB, 1999).
In Buenos Aires, a motley collection of people find that they have won the state lottery, the prize being a luxury cruise to an unknown destination. At sea, things go awry for this ship of fools. The passengers are informed that a disease has broken out and that they must be quarantined. Adrift together, strangers become friends and adversaries, and share confidences and misunderstandings. Some are readier than others to accept the conditions in which they find themselves. Cortázar is lauded as one of the foremost Argentine writers of the twentieth century; this was his first novel to be published.

Here is a useful biography of Cortazar from a Finnish site. Here is another bio, from Salem Press, and yet another. Here are posts from Darby M. Dixon III and Jen.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Shades of Blue
Photo of Mount Baker and Puget Sound by sea turtle used under a Creative Commons license.

David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars (Vintage, 1995).
Set in the 1950s on San Piedro Island, Washington, likely a fictionalized version of Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, where Guterson lives. (The minority view is that San Piedro Island is based on the San Juan Islands.) On an island where most of the residents are strawberry farmers or fishermen, Ishmael Chambers is the sole journalist for the local paper. He covers the murder trial of a high-school classmate accused of killing another classmate over land. Hanging over the trial and the book are white islanders’ prejudice towards Japanese-Americans and the wartime internment of the latter a decade earlier. The novel combines elements of mystery, courtroom drama, romance, and history.

The Guelph Public Library provides a brief synopsis. Another site has an excerpt. Ellen Kanner interviewed Guterson. Here is a profile of Guterson after the novel’s success. Here are reviews and posts by verbivore, Megan, Marie, Margaret S. Hrezo, Shantanu Dutta, Paula, Will Stuivenga, and Orrin J. Judd, who is not a fan. The book is discussed in this essay on Northwest writing and regional identity, posted by the Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest at the University of Washington. If you prefer, here is a sort of video review.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Photo of S.A. by Georgie Sharp used under a Creative Commons license.

Tony Horwitz, One for the Road (Vintage, 1999).
Having married an Australian woman and moved to Sydney, Horwitz wanted to see his adopted land. So he hitchhiked 7,000 miles around Australia, from Sydney to Darwin by way of Ayers Rock and Perth, to mention only a few of his best-known stops. As one might imagine, there’s much more of the road and the bush here than there is of the cities where most Australians live. He didn’t visit Victoria or Tasmania, but he did see a lot of the outback. (No categories for the places he passed through, since he moved so fast.)

The book doesn’t have much of a presence on the interwebs, but this article by Martin Kich discusses it at some length, after a lengthy discussion of the travel genre. Also, Hank Shiffman recommends it.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

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