Book Review — Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Title: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
Author: Edward Abbey
Format: Paperback
Published: 1968

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Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Paxson Woelber. Creative Commons licensed.

A colleague at work was shocked that I’d never heard of Edward Abbey, so she gave me a copy of Desert Solitaire. I read all but the last few pages and wrote most of a draft of this review before I looked him up in Wikipedia and discovered that Desert Solitaire is, “regarded as one of the finest nature narratives in American literature.” So now I feel ignorant, but at least this review is a genuine reaction to the book, not influenced by its reputation.

Desert Solitaire chronicles Abbey’s experiences as a seasonal ranger in Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park) in 1956-1957. “This is the most beautiful place on earth.” That’s the opening sentence of the first chapter, and Abbey spends the rest of the book showing the reader that beauty. His prose is as poetic and vivid as John Muir’s but with more snark and bite. Abbey was a philosopher, an environmental activist, and an anarchist; all three of those identities are on display here. He blends rhapsodic odes to the beauty of Utah’s canyonlands with misanthropic rants about the evils of cities, cars, development, tourists–and especially the Glen Canyon Dam, which was being built during his time at Arches and which he considered an abomination.

Even if you don’t share Abbey’s environmental views, Desert Solitaire is worth reading if you have any interest in the stark, stunning landscape of the Four Corners region (Confession: I live near there, so I’m biased. This region is breathtaking. You need to see it. Start packing.) Whether describing a cattle drive or the Colorado River rushing through narrow red rock canyons, Abbey immerses you in the otherworldly beauty of the canyonlands. He’s also one heck of a storyteller, regaling you with hair-raising tales of him doing extreme (and occasionally really stupid) things like sliding down waterfalls or hiking into The Maze (now part of Canyonlands National Park) with little more than a bottle of water and some trail mix.  My favorite chapter is also the longest: Abbey’s tale of rafting Glen Canyon, which was later flooded after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. I’ll never see Glen Canyon as he did, because much of it is at the bottom of Lake Powell, but at least I got to see it through his eyes and prose.

I’ll leave you with two passages from the book, which, taken together, will give you a sense of Abbey’s writing style. The first is from near the end of the book, as his time at Arches is coming to a close:

October. Rabbitbrush is in full bloom. The tumbleweeds on the move (that longing to be elsewhere, elsewhere), thousands of them rolling across the plains before the wind. Something like a yellow rash has broken out upon the mountainsides–the aspen forests in their autumn splendor. Sunsets each evening that test a man’s credulity–great gory improvisations in scarlet and gold that remind me of nothing so much as God’s own celestial pizza pies.

Now whenever I look at the aspens on the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks in fall, I’ll think of a yellow rash. Thanks, Mr. Abbey.

The second passage is from the end of the introduction:

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.

I disagree with Abbey on at least one point: I think you should hop in your car and get out here, and seeing this area from a car is better than not seeing it at all. But if you can’t get here–or you’ve been here and want to relive the experience–pick up a copy of Desert Solitaire and let Abbey be your cranky, crotchety, yet oh-so poetic guide.

Rating: 5/5 for people who enjoy nature writing; 3/5 for everyone else.

Book Review – Lexicon

TITLE: Lexicon
AUTHOR: Max Barry
FORMAT: Hardback
PUBLISHED: 2013

 

Poets.  No, not the type that string words together into iambic pentameter.  Worse.  These poets understand words and language in ways that laypeople do not.  They can talk to somebody for ten minutes and understand what their segment is and know what words need said to end them entirely.

Wil Parke is a man on the run, and he doesn’t know why.  He’s got total amnesia.  Hell, he isn’t even sure that Wil Parke is his real name.  Oh, and a poet has gone rogue and wants him dead.  So two men kidnap him from the airport and spend much of the book just trying to keep his sorry ass alive.

The book flips between two story lines – one starts with Emily Ruff, who is recruited in California and becomes a poet.  The other story line centers around Wil.  Who is he, how can they keep him alive, and why does somebody want him?

The two stories come together in two places about as different as they can be – Broken Hill, Australia, and Washington, DC.   I know I’m not doing a good job explaining this, but really, I don’t want to give things away too much, and I’m not smart enough anyway. Max Barry was a friggin’ genius with this story.

I loved the background about the poets and that setup, and a lot of the information they were sharing about words is true. So it made the book extra realistic.

That said, I saw how the two stories were going to come together about halfway to when they did.  I didn’t mind, and I still enjoyed the book, but I could see how that might upset some readers a little bit.  Still, I thought the book was strong enough that it didn’t matter.

Max Barry is good about making you care about his characters, so even though you’re expecting xyz, you still want to see how it plays out.

Very happy with this one.  I give it 5/5.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Idolaters of Cthulhu Edited by H. David Blalock

Title: The Idolaters of Cthulhu

Authors/Creators: H. P. Lovecraft, DJ Tyrer, Amanda Hard, Matthew Wilson, James Victor, Herika R. Raymer, Shenoa Carroll-Bradd, Robert J. Krog, E. dane Anderson, Gregory L. Norris, Michael Krog, H. David Blalock, Jonathan Dubey, Robin Wyatt Dunn, Ben STeward, Tyree Campbell, Harding McFadden, Brian Fatah Steele, Clark Ashton Smith. Edited by H. David Blalock

Format: Trade Paperback, Alban Lake Publishing

Published: 2015

idolatersofcthulhu

This…will be an odd review to read, probably. So, with that in mind, read this in its entirety.

This is a book I will never read again.  It left me with intense emotional feelings, even though the intent was simply to tell stories out of a popular mythos, and the feelings it left me with weren’t ones that I’d want to revisit. And that has nothing to do with the fact that this mythos isn’t one I tend to read anyway, at least tales written so true to the mythos as these were.

Having said that, this is a book any fan of genre fiction, horror tales, intense emotional rollercoasters through reading, and particularly ALL Lovecraft fans should read.  At least once.  Guaranteed.

The tentpole of the anthology, created by editor H. David Blalock, is captured in the title. Although a ton of work exists set in the world of Cthulhu, both written by Lovecraft and countless others, very few pieces are written solely from the perspective of those who might worship the giant bipedal squid and the other Ancient Ones in his gruesome pantheon.   Blalock, using both historical pieces by Lovecraft and Smith, as well as utilizing brand new tales from a plethora of authors, puts together a collection that not only takes readers deep into the twisted minds of those who pledge their life and fealty to monstrous gods, but also connects readers to these poor souls.  Several stories in the book will cause readers to see people they know in the doomed lead characters, and scarily enough, even see themselves.

There are several very strong tales in this book and only one or two that I feel could have been better.  The strongest by far for me was Sentry by Herika R. Raymer.  Now, I’ll admit, this is probably because it is the one story in the book that leans more to what I prefer to read, which is a hero attempting to stand against the unstoppable foe.  But there’s more to why this one is the best in the book.  Raymer presents a character who has given his life to his mission and even before the conclusion of the story, the reader understands just how much of a sacrifice, how much loss this individual has experienced.  This tale is very intense on an emotional level and perhaps is the best mirror in the entire collection for readers to look into.

This book is definitely a Five for me on the Book In The Bag scale.  Anytime a written work can elicit a variety of strong responses, from revelation to revulsion, in a reader, then it is something everyone should read. Even if I will only ever read it once.

 

Book Review – Elephants Never Forget! by Anushka Ravishankar

Title: Elephants Never Forget!
Author: 
Anushka Ravishankar
Illustrator: 
Christiane Pieper
Format: 
Hardcover
Written: 
2007
Published: 
2007

A rollicking adventure story takes one little elephant through terrifying thunderstorms and tiger attacks, isolation, and even an existential crisis, as he learns what really shapes his identity. After running away and joining a herd of buffalo, a little elephant finds his place despite his differences. He stays on with the herd, and is appreciated for who he is and what his differences can bring to the group. When he crosses paths with a herd of other elephants, he is torn about where he belongs, and finds himself making a difficult choice. The text bounces, and swirls across the page, full of onomatopoeias and impact words. Beautifully, but starkly illustrated with elaborate woodcut-style prints in black, white, and a medium grey-blue, this book has a lot of cohesive symbolism. Am I this? Or am I that? Could I be something in the middle? The illustration style not only reinforces that concept, it dances and plays around those boundaries.

I love books that give children credit for having complex inner experiences, and this one definitely does that. There is plenty here to interest younger children, like bold images and big words, but I think this book would be best for children just starting school, when social divisions begin to occur, and some children struggle to find their place in a new little society. This book reinforces the idea that your friends, and your experiences with them, help to shape you as a person, but that ultimately, you are the arbiter of who you decide to be. and you don’t have to be who the rest of the world might think you are. Growing up as an Army brat and frequent transplant, I would’ve gotten a lot out of this book’s message during my own childhood.

I would recommend this book for a library trip, and certainly for K-3 classrooms and read-a-louds, but I don’t think it’s a book that kids will pull out for themselves or get the most out of without guidance from adults. For that reason I’m giving it 4/5.

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