ARCHES NATIONAL MONUMENT
A good friend of 50 years decided to move to Colorado sight unseen in 1972 after reading Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire in the course of a particularly bleak winter in an old Southeastern Pennsylvania farmhouse. He's never given a moment's thought to coming back East, while my visits and treks with him have been a constant in my own extensive travels throughout the American West, from the bottom of the Havasupai Canyon, which is a branch of another canyon called the Grand, to the 12,365 foot peak of Mt. Sopris.
Yet my last westward odyssey was much too long ago, and I never got around to picking up Desert Solitaire until this past summer when a big city friend read it in preparation for his first sojourn to the Southwest.
And so I finally read Desert Solitaire and was mind blown by its descriptive eloquence. Feeling homesick for a region where I had always left a piece of my heart, I moved on to another contemporary classic of the West, Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, and then yet another fine book that ties the whole megillah together, David Gessner's All the Wild That Remains.
Having read a non-fiction Abbey and a fiction Stegner, I finally moved on to The Monkey Wrench Gang, considered to be Abbey's best novel, and Stegner's biographical Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West.
The reason Abbey and Stegner are so important is that they were not merely environmental trailblazers. They correctly saw the story of the West, in Gessner's words, as it truly is:
We came upon this country of plenty and took everything we could get our hands on. We didn't care what got in our way: native people, geography, climate, logic, whatever. We rationalized this as a kind of brave, bold, can-do way of being, and in some cases it really was. But in many cases it was, and remains, about greed. In many cases we came as raiders, pure and simple, and raiders we remain.Absorbing myself in the West, which is to say Abbey and Stegner, had another purpose as well.
Most of my blogging through 2018 was on the Russia scandal, some 75 posts in all, and as reference for my nattering I read a bunch of books related to Russia's cybersabotage of the 2016 election that were about as far from the West as Moscow is from Mesa Verde. Dipping back into Desert Solitaire, which I read as one would sip from a bottle of fine cognac, was a welcome escape.
In any event, the following 25 books, among the three dozen or so that I read in 2018, make great holiday gifts. Most are available in paperback, or if your local lending library is a member of the Interlibrary Loan network, you can borrow a copy for the price of a little bit of shoe leather.
ALL THE WILD THAT REMAINS: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West (David Gessner, 2015) "We read Wallace Stegner for his virtues and Edward Abbey for his flaws," writes Gessner in this illuminating portrait of these two seminal figures, one boozy and wild and the other button-down and scholarly. Gessner adeptly wraps his homage around road trips to their childhood homes, and I came away appreciating all over again the deep love these two men had for the West and the prescience of their warnings about the consequences of development run amok.
AMERICAN HEIRESS: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patricia Hearst (Jeffrey Toobin, 2017) The 1974 kidnapping of Hearst foretold much of what would happen to American society, from the culture of celebrity to the news media and criminal justice system. Toobin masterfully weaves fascinating new details into an oft-told story and delivers an engrossing page turner that is chockablock with fresh insights, not the least of which is that Hearst "did not turn into a revolutionary. She turned into her mother."
AMERICAN KINGPIN: The Epic Hunt For the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road (Nick Bilton, 2017) In 2011, Ross Ulbricht, a 26-year-old libertarian computer programmer, launched the Silk Road, a free market Dark Web site where anyone could trade anything from drugs to forged passports to firearms. The Silk Road soon ballooned into a multi-billion dollar enterprise with Ulbricht as its kingpin. There followed a pursuit by the FBI and other federal agencies for a man they weren’t even sure existed. Bilton’s telling of his saga is fast paced and engrossing.
ANGLE OF REPOSE (Wallace Stegner, 1971) This Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece of a novel is ostensibly about retired history professor Lyman Ward and his long labors to write the biography of his grandmother, an elegant and headstrong artist and pioneer who, along with her engineer husband, journeyed through the West in the late 19th century. But this really is a story of self discovery and Ward/Stegner’s realization that the West has been forever changed while America has come of age around him.
BEYOND THE HUNDREDTH MERIDIAN: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (Wallace Stegner, 1953) John Wesley Powell was no mere prophet and this is no ordinary biography. Powell was a one-armed Civil War veteran and distinguished ethnologist and geologist who explored the Colorado River, Grand Canyon, and the Indian tribal homelands of the Southwest. He had a profound understanding of the region, warned of the dangers of economic exploitation and was ignored. Until he wasn’t, although by that time it was much too late.
DESERT SOLITAIRE: A Season in the Wilderness (Edward Abbey, 1968) Abbey’s masterpiece, a sort of contemporary Walden, is a deeply felt collection of vignettes about life in the wildernesses of the Southwest. It also is a philosophical treatise on the desert, which as Abbey points out, has been largely ignored by deep thinkers who have mused at great length on the mountains and the sea. But most of all, Desert Solitaire is a warning that development in the service of industry and tourism is destroying America’s precious wilderness lands.
EMPIRE EXPRESS: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (David Hayward Bain, 1999) I seldom read books a second time, but I dove back into this epic some 12 years after my initial foray with relish. Bain masterfully tells three stories: The epic engineering feat of joining a vast nation with twin ribbons and steel, the ceaseless labors of the Chinese, Irish and others who did the real work, and the deep corruption of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific corporate overseers who made that happen.
THE ENGLISH PEOPLE AND THEIR HISTORY (Robert Tombs, 2014) Do we really need another door stop of a book on the history of England? Perhaps not, but these 1,000 pages are a gem of narrative storytelling that focuses on the moral complexities of the oldest nation-state in continuous existence. This goes a long way to understanding the virtues and ambiguities of these sometimes maddeningly complex people, and although Brexit was just around the corner when it was published, that profound development suddenly made sense, as well as why there will always be an England.
THE ETERNAL NAZI: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Doctor Aribert Heim (Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet, 2014) Dr. Aribert Heim worked at the Mauthausen concentration camp for only a few months, but left a horrifying legacy. When he disappeared after World War II, some Germans were unwilling to let him go unpunished, including police investigator Alfred Aedtner, who with help from legendary Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, pursued him to the streets of a working-class neighborhood in the Egyptian capital.
THE HEART OF EVERYTHING THAT IS: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend (Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, 2013) Red Cloud, who at the height of his powers could claim control of one-fifth of the contiguous U.S. and the loyalty of thousands of fierce fighters, was the only American Indian to defeat the U.S. Army in a war, forcing the government to sue for peace on his terms. Drury and Clavin restore the Sioux chief to his rightful place in history, but in the end his story is wrenchingly -- if predictably -- tragic.
HENRY DAVID THOREAU: A Life (Laura Dassow Walls, 2017) There was much more to Thoreau than living at Walden Pond. Trouble is, most of it was eminently disinteresting, although he could at times be mischievous and occasionally downright cantankerous. Walls has managed to overcome Thoreau’s seeming two dimensionality through extensive scholarship and elegant writing in this most readable biography of the Concord naturalist and radical abolitionist through deftly describing the arc of his life in the context of a still young America morphing from agrarian to industrial.
HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence (Michael Pollan, 2018) The little-known early history of psychedelic research is told to insightful effect here, but the greatest contribution of this fine book is how a new generation of researchers using LSD and other psychedelics are rediscovering the largely unmapped frontier in our understanding of the mind, the self, and out place in the world. (Click HERE for a full review.)
HOW TO TAME A FOX (AND BUILD A DOG) (Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut, 2017) Beginning in 1959 in remote Siberia, geneticists Dmitri Belyaev and co-author Trut began an improbable experiment to turn wild silver foxes into creatures as docile and friendly as a dog. Did their extraordinary attempt to compress thousands of years of evolution into a few decades work? Were the foxes able to bond with their scientist masters? The answer lies within the pages of this small, utterly fascinating and charming book.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE SWORD: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire (Tom Holland, 2012) Those who can rewrite the past are better able to control the future. That broad if vague maxim propels this history of the birth of Islam out of the crucible of the Arab empire. "Something manifestly God-stamped would have to be fashioned: in short, a religion," writes Holland in describing how the Arabs carved out a vast dominion practically overnight, a civilization that not only endures but has a profound and sometimes violent bearing on the contemporary world.
JUNGLE OF STONE: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood (William Carlsen, 2016) American diplomat Stephens and British artist Catherwood were an unlikely pair, but electrified by reports of great ruins hidden in the unmapped jungles of Central America they set out to find and explore them, in the process becoming the fathers of archaeology in the Americas as they meticulously uncovered the astonishing lost civilization of the Maya, a story beautifully and expertly told by Carlsen.
KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (David Grann, 2017) When oil was discovered on Osage tribal lands in Oklahoma in the 1920s, dirt farmers became millionaires overnight. But they soon began dying — an execution-style shooting here, a poisoning there, a fatal fire somewhere else. This is the gripping story of how one of the first FBI agents got to the bottom of the crime spree, which unlike other famous crimes of the era, has faded into obscurity despite the unspeakable atrocities committed on these peaceful people.
THE LOST CITY OF Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (David Grann, 2005) Like Killers of the Flower Moon, this book is narrative nonfiction at its best, the gripping story of the legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared in the Amazon jungle in search of the city of a fabled civilization he called “Z.” Fawcett never returned, nor did some of the explorers and rescue parties who came after him. But Grann, through his sheer doggedness, provides something of a surprising and satisfying ending to this epic tale.
McTEAGUE (Frank Norris, 1899) If you’re looking for a bummer of a tale, this gem is it. The under-appreciated Norris tells the story of a poor dentist scraping by in San Francisco, and his wife Trina, whose modest lottery winning sets in motion a shocking chain of events. The seamy side of American urban existence at the end of the 19th century is conveyed with power and graphic intensity reminiscent of Jack London and is especially insightful for those of us who have lived in and love San Francisco. McTeague is a must-read and truly Great American Novel.
A MAN IN FULL (Tom Wolfe, 1998) We lost a literary giant in Wolfe this year, and for my money this was his most realized novel. Protagonist Charles Croker was once a college football star but is now a late-middle-aged owner of an Atlanta conglomerate whose outsize ego and staggering debt load has at last caught up with him. A continent away, Conrad Hensley, an idealistic young father, is laid off from his job at a Croker warehouse and sets out on a collision course with Charlie. Wolfe's insights into contemporary America remain raw, hilarious and fresh.
THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG (Edward Abbey, 1975) Former Green Beret George Hayduke returns from war with a new mission — fighting the powers that are destroying his beloved Southwest. This ecoterrorism saga, which follows Hayduke and his fellow saboteurs as they take on the strip miners, clear-cutters and dam and bridge builders threatening the natural habitat, is a hoot. But even if The Monkey Wrench Gang launched an environmental movement, the laughs sometimes get in the way of the message. That movement has moved on, so this book also feels a bit dated.
PACK OF TWO: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs (Carolyn Knapp, 1998) The author of a book about people and dogs has to be damned good — both as observer and writer — to win my praise as someone who is deeply devoted to and knowledgeable about the interactions between my tribe and my dogs' tribe. Knapp succeeds, sometime barely because I tired of reading about the lifetime of insecuries and neuroses she was unable to shed even after she stopped drinking. But I am damning with faint praise and do not mean to. Hers is a great book.
THE ROAD TO XANADU (Orson Welles, Volume 1) (Simon Callow, 1997) This portrait of Welles from his prodigious childhood through the triumph of his all-black Macbeth, the notorious broadcast of War of the Worlds to the making of Citizen Kane is masterful. But as geniuses go, the legendary actor-director of the finally released The Other Side of the Wind was not merely a flawed genius and egomaniacal myth maker, he was an outright liar. Callow is unsparing in contrasting Welles’s brilliance with his fraudster self.
17 CARNATIONS: The Royals, The Nazis and the Biggest Cover-Up in History (Andrew Morton, 2015) The hit Netflix series "The Crown" has revived questions about whether the feckless Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor, and his American wife, Wallis Simpson, were Nazi sympathizers. Morton's conclusion is that they most certainly were. Morton tells the story of the wayward Windsor, which included Hitler’s plot to make him a puppet king, and the extraordinary lengths the royal family went to in trying to hide the truth, with a deft and steady hand.
THE SUSPICIONS OF MR. WICHER (Kate Summerscale, 2008) When three-year-old Saville Kent was found at the bottom of a privy with his throat slit in 1860, the gruesome crime horrified England and led to a national obsession with detectives and the nascent science of forensics while ironically destroying the career of Scotland Yard’s Jonathan Wicher, at the time the greatest gumshoe of them all. This narrative, with its numerous plot twists and blind alleys, is beautifully constructed, while astute readers will delight in solving the murder mystery themselves.
THIS WORLD OR ANY OTHER WORLD (Dan Leo, 2018) Much has happened in the temporal world in the 18 months since publication of Leo's other wordly Railroad Train to Heaven, but it's still a Saturday night in August 1963 in the quaint seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey. Volume One concluded with Arnold ascending the stairs of his maiden aunts’ guest house to the second-floor loo, and Volume Two begins as he comes back downstairs. Only Jesus, who makes an encore appearance, knows what will happen next. (Click HERE for a full review.)