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In his remarkable memoir Attending Others, Brian Volck reflects on his career as a pediatrician, including stints at inner-city hospitals in the Midwest; several volunteer missions to Honduras; and years on the Navajo Reservation.

Through his practice, Volck has gained considerable wisdom—though he’s too humble to call it that. Attending Others is less a compendium of lessons learned than a gorgeous meditation on things that cannot be fully understood, such as the mysteries of the human condition. Volck focuses on how vulnerable we become through our bodies and our bonds with those we love, especially in the ties between parents and their children. His experiences with his own and other people’s children serve to perpetually reinforce what he calls “the first lesson of parenthood”: “You’re not in control.”

The memoir’s structure is indicative of its overall humility. After an opening scene at a Navajo wedding, Volck goes into the stories of two young patients who died while under his care: Brian in Cleveland, and Alice in Tuba City, Ariz. As he mulls over what he and the other medical professionals did when these children were brought into the emergency room, he shows us how a cure can elude even the most highly trained and conscientious healers.

“I don’t think about Brian as much as I once did,” Volck writes. “There are months now when I think I’ve forgotten him, but he’s never really gone. I carry his death like a pocket charm, laying it on the dresser at night with my wallet and keys. And if I ever do forget Brian, I remember Alice.”

Alice is a 2-year-old whose father brings her to the E.R. during the Navajo Nation Western Agency Fair. Alice’s father wants to drive her to a hospital in New Mexico, six hours away, thinking the care there would be better. But Volck dissuades the family from moving her, noting that he was “careful to avoid warnings about ‘what could happen if you don’t do as I say,’ which to traditional Navajo can sound as though the doctor wishes them harm.”

Alice’s pneumonia symptoms intensify, and eventually, she dies. Volck will never know if she would have made it safely to the other hospital, and if the doctors there would have detected something he didn’t. But despite his setbacks, Volck’s hard-won knowledge of Navajo culture eventually helped him become a better doctor to their community.

Volck writes, “Like many Anglo medical professionals, I learned from Navajo or Hopi babysitters the prime directive of Native hospitality: Always bring something.” Volck learns to be patient with Navajo social customs when he introduces a translator, instead of rushing the conversation toward the questions he wants answered. No matter how much he discovers about Navajo culture, though, Volck respects that he can never fully understand it or consider himself a part of it: “When I lived on the Navajo reservation, I knew no matter how long I stayed, I would always be a visitor from somewhere else. I also saw up close how sad and parasitic wannabes are, how protestations of oceanic tolerance never change who you are and where you come from. When I’m asked what I learned from my years on the reservation, I usually say, ‘That I’m not Indian; not even in a past life.’”

When Volck and his family decide to leave Arizona, people at the hospital ask why. “When I answered, ‘Because our kids need to see their grandparents more than once or twice a year,’ our Navajo and Hopi friends would almost invariably lean closer, touch my shoulder with feathery lightness, and grin, sometimes adding, ‘Looks like we actually taught you something.’”

Volck returns periodically for stints with the Indian Health Service whenever they need a doctor to fill in. Over the years, he notices changes—fewer young people learn to speak Navajo, for example, and “facilities had improved, staff expanded, and serious acute illnesses gave way to chronic conditions like childhood obesity and Type II diabetes.”

Volck illustrates the endless problems facing children in poverty—from malnutrition to accidents—yet he never loses sight of the grace that each encounter offers him. As he writes about one young patient: “Pay attention; here is a most special person.”

Volck’s writing is luminous, vigorous and sensory, inviting the reader into the scene. The love he has for his patients is clear, as is his irritation with bureaucracy and the more tedious aspects of his job. Attending Others is about the practice of medicine, but in a larger sense, it’s about being a human being, trying to navigate relationships and a career despite one’s particular flaws, and occasionally finding moments of connection and beauty that make all the frustrations worthwhile.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words

By Brian Volck

Cascade

222 pages, $25

Published in Literature

On Aug. 21, 2017, the moon will ride its elliptical orbit precisely between the Earth and the sun, plunging the land below into the crepuscule of a total solar eclipse.

Beginning at around 10 a.m. Pacific Time, the dark path of totality will sweep northwest to southeast across the United States, casting its eerie gloom upon Western towns such as Madras, Ore.; Rexburg, Idaho; and Casper, Wyo. The sky will turn violet; shadows will sharpen; pigeons will roost; and owls will take wing. Millions of umbraphiles—eclipse chasers—will crane their necks to witness more than two minutes of lunar ecstasy, transfixed by an occluded sun that science writer David Baron describes as “an ebony pupil surrounded by a pearly iris … the eye of the cosmos.”

Although partial solar eclipses and lunar eclipses are relatively common, total solar eclipses are rarer beasts: When totality last traversed the entire width of the continental U.S., Woodrow Wilson was struggling to negotiate an end to World War I. Baron, himself a devoted umbraphile—you might call him a lunatic—has pursued the phenomenon to Germany, Australia and the Faroe Islands. His new book, American Eclipse, chronicles an instance much closer to home: the shadow that sped from Montana to Texas in 1878, perhaps the most significant total solar eclipse in the country’s history.

For much of the 19th century, the young United States was a second-rate nation, scientifically speaking, shrouded by what one astronomer deemed a “period of apparent intellectual darkness.” The 1878 eclipse promised to lift that metaphorical blackness by supplying literal dusk: Under the moon-dimmed Rocky Mountain sky, American scientists would have the opportunity to seek new planets, study the sun’s outer atmosphere, and even deduce its chemical composition. Researchers leapt at the chance to help America “fulfill its responsibility as an enlightened member of the global scientific community”—and, in the process, gain personal glory.

Westerners know Baron from his first book, The Beast in the Garden, which documented—some would say sensationalized—a series of cougar attacks in Colorado. In American Eclipse, the fiercest beasts are the scientists competing to document the astronomical anomaly. Baron introduces us to James Craig Watson, an astronomer with a Jupiter-sized ego who’s convinced that the eclipse will help him discover an unseen hypothetical planet called Vulcan. We meet Cleveland Abbe, a meteorologist, known charmingly as “Old Probabilities,” who persists in eclipse-watching at Pikes Peak despite a near-fatal case of high-altitude cerebral edema. And then there’s a young inventor named Thomas Edison, eager “to demonstrate that he was a scientist and no mere tinkerer” by measuring the heat of the sun’s corona with a zany (and ultimately failed) invention called the tasimeter.

Amid all this scientific machismo, the book’s most sympathetic character is Maria Mitchell, an astronomer and suffragette intent on demonstrating the equal abilities of women. At the time, certain pseudo-academics posited that “higher education caused a girl’s body—especially her reproductive organs—to atrophy.” To debunk this repugnant theory, Mitchell dispatched a cohort of “lady astronomers” to Colorado to study the eclipse and provide “a kind of political theater, promoting social change.” Mitchell’s mission succeeded—one newspaper called her squad “a conspicuous example of the power and grasp of the feminine intellect”—though the sexual-harassment scandals that roil modern astronomy prove that true equality still eludes the field.

American Eclipse’s most vivid character, though, is the fledgling West itself. In 1878, the region lingered in a kind of limbo: civilized enough that you could journey to Wyoming in a railcar hung with chandeliers, wild enough that your train stood a considerable risk of being boarded and cleaned out by bandits. The citizens of burgeoning Denver—a town that “aspired to elegance, even enlightenment”—were particularly desperate to prove their city’s worth to snooty East Coast scientists. As one local boasted to a visiting Englishman, “Sir, Colorado can beat the world in eclipses as in everything else.”

While modern astronomers no longer require eclipses to study the heavens, this year’s event will still inspire an epic pilgrimage. An eclipse festival in Oregon expects 30,000 visitors, and some Jackson hotels have been booked for three years.

We live with our eyes cast downward, fixed upon hand-sized screens; this year’s American eclipse offers a chance to lift our gaze to a universe far grander and stranger than the circumscribed worlds we cradle in our palms. “These rare and unearthly events … suspend human affairs and draw people out of their quotidian existence,” Baron writes. We may comprehend our solar system vastly better than we did in 1878, but our capacity for awe remains, fortunately, undiminished.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News

American Eclipse: A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World

By David Baron

W.W. Norton and Company

352 pages, $27.95

Published in Literature

Listen up, water-loving Westerners: We’ve got a problem—a trout problem.

For decades, anglers have fetishized these silvery stream-dwellers, maniacally pursuing rainbows, browns and brookies to the neglect of other underwater life. Every year, obliging fish managers pump America’s waterways full of millions of hatchery-born trout, diluting gene pools and overwhelming native species. We fishermen consider ourselves enlightened stewards, but our trout myopia reveals our true self-centeredness.

And let’s not even get started on bass.

Fortunately, there are plenty more fish in the sea—to say nothing of rivers, creeks and lakes. For anyone seeking a deeper understanding of what lies beneath the surface of Western waterways, Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West offers a lively primer to the region’s aquatic biodiversity.

Over the course of 11 chapters, Mark Spitzer, a writing professor at the University of Central Arkansas and a certified angling addict, travels the country seeking the kinds of experiences that you’re unlikely to find valorized in the pages of Field and Stream: ice-fishing for burbot in Utah’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir, bounty-hunting for pikeminnow in the Columbia River in Washington, snagging paddlefish in Missouri. (Spitzer has a decidedly liberal geographic definition of the West.) “Give me your wretched, your maligned, your demonized—this has always been my motto,” he writes.

Spitzer’s shtick is to love the unlovely, to venerate the homely stalwarts that make up in resilience what they lack in conventional beauty. This is a writer whose master’s thesis was a novel about a “misunderstood, man-eating catfish,” and whose first two nonfiction books profiled the alligator gar, a gargantuan primitive fish with a crocodilian smile. You might think that a lifetime of scribbling about gruesome freshwater monsters would have scratched that particular itch, yet Spitzer’s ardor for the ugly remains powerful. He rhapsodizes about the razorback sucker, a “quasi-Quasimodo with an elongated horsey head”; the paddlefish and its “crazy flat spatulated nose”; and the way American eels swim together in “spermy formation.” Granted, not all the fish he targets truly deserve the grotesque label: You get the distinct feeling that he includes a chapter on muskellunge—a sleek, tiger-striped predator that’s gorgeous by anyone’s definition—simply because he yearns to catch one.

Just as Spitzer revels in homely fish, he delights in less-than-scenic landscapes, especially ones dominated by human activity. He does his best fishing in reservoirs, below dams and along what he dubs the Industrial Edge, “ecotones of smokestacks and cinderblocks and rusty pipes and climbing ivies,” where the built and natural environments collide. On Oregon’s Willamette River, across the channel from railroad tracks and homeless camps, he lands dinosaur-like sturgeon, ancient fish that were swimming Western rivers back when hominids were just a glint in evolution’s eye.

Spitzer has a soft spot for invasive species, too. After netting non-native carp, he opines, perhaps optimistically, “that we can strike a balance with non-indigenous species and incorporate them into our cultures.” Slathered in teriyaki sauce and curry paste, he discovers, carp and hideous snakehead fish aren’t half bad. If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.

Occasionally, the author turns the lens inward, to the grotesqueries of his own life. Spitzer makes passing reference to an acrimonious divorce, the death of his mother and, finally, a winsome new partner. In one passage, landing a 6-foot-long gar in Texas soothes his bitterness about the dissolution of his marriage, providing a redemptive connection to “that youthful capacity for wondering and marveling at what this world has to offer.” During such moments, you can glimpse the contours of a more personal—and emotionally richer—book lurking just beneath the surface: a fisherman’s version of Wild, with, say, the Missouri River standing in for the Pacific Crest Trail. Spitzer angles half the rivers in the West, but he never satisfyingly plumbs his own depths.

What Beautifully Grotesque Fish lacks in soul-searching, though, it makes up in soul: It’s a paean to the ignored, an homage to the uncelebrated. It’s about embracing the nature we have, whatever it looks like, wherever it swims. (There’s also plenty of technical advice for fishermen hoping to duplicate Spitzer’s quirky exploits: The best lure on which to catch pikeminnow, we learn, is “either a rubber tube or a grub” deployed using a “plunking action.”)

In the end, Spitzer’s book offers a fishing manifesto for a human-dominated planet—call it “Angling in the Anthropocene.” May trout have company in our hearts, and on our lines.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West

By Mark Spitzer

University of Nebraska/Bison Press

232 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

If a city’s planners are savvy, they’ll adapt to the ebb and flow of natural resources with entrepreneurial vision.

When the logging industry collapsed in Oakridge, Ore., the town reinvented itself as a haven for mountain bikers. Downtown Tacoma, Wash.—once shattered by depression and crime—now revolves around the Museum of Glass made famous by artist Dale Chihuly, who was born in the city.

Monterey, Calif., represents one of the most successful examples of the resuscitation of a struggling city. The rough-and-tumble fish-processing town made famous by John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row is all but unrecognizable today as a glitzy tourist destination—a transformation that Lindsay Hatton explores in her debut novel, Monterey Bay. In a story that begins in 1940 and concludes in 1998, she chronicles the process of gentrification and its various losses and gains, both economic and social.

Her aged protagonist, Margot Fiske, looks back on the Cannery Row of her youth: “And here in the weeds and ice plants, in the rusty metal that smells salty in the sun and bloody in the fog, she dreams of everything that has slipped away.”

Hatton’s story begins when the 15-year-old Margot arrives in Monterey at the start of World War II with her father, an entrepreneur who specializes in “industrial transformations.” He purchases the largest cannery in town, with intentions that his daughter believes to be nefarious, and he orders her to assist an influential marine biologist with his tidepool collections.

The biologist in question, Ed Ricketts, plays a pivotal role in both Steinbeck and Hatton’s books. “He dug himself into Cannery Row to an extent not even he suspected. He became the fountain of philosophy and science and art,” Steinbeck writes of the real-life Ricketts, an expert on intertidal ecology. His lab and marine-biology supply house on the Row hosted salon-style debates with the likes of writer Henry Miller, mythologist Joseph Campbell and composer John Cage.

In Hatton’s book, Ricketts functions primarily as Margot’s love interest. He stitches up her head wound after a fall and then proceeds to seduce her on the single bed in his lab.

But he also becomes the inspiration for Margot’s later coming of age as an environmental entrepreneur. When her father dies, leaving her the old cannery along with his fortune, the adult Margot decides to transform it into the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “If she gave enough of herself, this town would love her even more than it loved its own children,” Hatton writes, hinting that Margot built the aquarium largely in homage to Ricketts, who died in 1948.

In Cannery Row, Steinbeck portrayed the region in all its dingy, scrappy charm. Hatton blends Steinbeck’s nostalgia with a contemporary sensibility regarding her city, examining its quirks as astutely as Ricketts once studied marine life under his microscope. In her novel, Cannery Row itself becomes a protagonist, by turns vibrant and lethargic, with its seedy practicality struggling over decades to flower into international renown.

Those who know their Steinbeck will imagine the author fleeing Cannery Row long before construction workers raised the steel supporting beams and acrylic viewing walls of the aquarium. He had no love for gentrification, and he’d likely view the avant-garde landmark with sardonic horror. But Hatton embraces the city’s transformation with her own protagonist’s enthusiasm, a business sense enlivened by the author’s own experiences as an aquarium volunteer. In the end, she inspires us to look beyond the four-star hotels and restaurants and spas that now line Cannery Row to the reason the landmark exists at all—the vast stretch of the Pacific it overlooks, still glorious despite all the many changes.

“At first, she thinks it’s sickness; the ocean is sore and inflamed and lumpy with pus,” she writes of her protagonist. “But then there’s an unexpected blast of vitality—reds and purples—which is when she knows it isn’t sickness. It’s squid. A huge, vibrant shoal of them, a kaleidoscopic swarm squirming and flashing, tentacles weaving as they rise toward the light.”

In Hatton’s novel, the changes that befall one’s hometown are never simply good or bad; rather, they are just inevitable. To survive them, Westerners will have to learn to find wonder where they can — and to roll with the tides.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Monterey Bay

By Lindsay Hatton

Penguin

320 pages, $16

Published in Literature

First things first: Coyote. When you read the word, how many syllables do you hear? Your answer, according to Dan Flores, author of Coyote America, may be “immediately diagnostic of a whole range of belief systems and values.”

The ki-YOH-tee versus ki-yote divide is one of the best indicators of a person’s coyote politics, a nearly hard-and-fast way that we subconsciously identify ourselves: as defenders of the species in the case of the former, or as a manager, shooter and/or trapper in the latter.

In Coyote America, Flores occasionally assumes the mantle of the coyote’s head of public relations, demonstrating how the species, once “dead last in public appeal — behind rattlesnakes, skunks, vultures, rats, and cockroaches,” overcame its stigma as a “varmint” to become a darling among the very people who most infrequently encounter it—modern-day urbanites. More often, though, Flores is content to serve as a guide to the species, relaying the coyote’s complicated natural, cultural, political and mythological histories. It is why Flores describes his book as, “in most respects, a coyote biography.”

Tales about Old Man Coyote have proliferated in Native America, most likely since the days of the ancestral Clovis people, ensuring the canid’s status as perhaps the continent’s most charismatic species. Flores examines the animist religions of “Coyotism” that arose during the Neolithic Revolution, a time marked by the domestication of plants and animals, including the coyote. Ultimately, however, the coyote’s revered status among humans is probably due to one very unique ecological coincidence: We are the only two mammalian species to have distributed ourselves so completely across the North American continent, making us “Darwinian mirrors” of each other. And because coyotes are truly “American originals”—they evolved not in the Old World, but here on this continent—they also remind us, as Flores says, “that we are new and barely real here.”

This fact hasn’t stopped humans from attempting to eradicate coyotes. In the chapters “A War on Wild Things” and “The Archpredator of Our Time,” Flores delves into how coyotes came to be regarded as a “parasite on civilization.” It was rare for Western settlers to agree wholeheartedly on anything, and yet they soon arrived at a common consensus—that coyotes and wolves were a scourge that endangered range life. This resulted in the establishment of bounties (at the time, a generous $1 per scalp) across most plains and desert states. It didn’t take long for Congress to adopt an even more radical eradication program in 1931 that targeted both predators along with “other animals injurious to agriculture and animal husbandry.”

Flores calls this “species cleansing,” a term he deliberately links to fascist rhetoric and episodes of genocide. Yet the campaign to clobber the coyote faced significant opposition. Flores suggests that the discourse between federal policymakers and scientists began to resemble a “predator-prey dialectic” itself, a parallel to what was happening between hunters and coyotes. This is around the time the famed environmentalist Aldo Leopold “had come to realize that a predator-free ‘paradise’ contained a fatal non sequitur.”

National parks and “scientist saviors” fought to preserve the species. But that’s not the whole story. Ultimately, coyotes took matters into their own paws. As it turns out, Canis latrans is nearly indestructible. With the help of computer simulations, biologists discovered a rare adaptive breeding mechanism that helps ensure the species’ survival, despite the odds: In the wake of population-control measures, female coyotes tend to birth even larger litters with more surviving pups.

Flores’ overview of environmental legal protection is more than a timeline; it’s a drama of its own, full of political villainy along with the occasional victory lap. Flores is eager to recognize the coyote’s cultural champions, from Walt Disney to Edward Abbey, whose tone in his writing about the coyote sometimes verges on the gloating, a trademark “thumb in the eye of Western ranching.”

Still, though, with 500,000 coyotes killed every year—about one per minute—the “varmint” stigma clearly persists. A photograph on Page 185 taken by Kevin Bixby depicts at least 15 coyote corpses in the New Mexican desert following a coyote-hunting contest. Thus, it’s no wonder coyotes have taken to our cities. From New York City to Denver to Los Angeles—and nearly every other major metropolis in the United States—the spike in urban coyote populations indicates yet another phase of the canid’s unique adaptability.

Of course, seeing a coyote in the city also presents humans with an opportunity to adapt. “To confront a predator,” Flores writes, “is to stand before the dual-faced god from our deep past,” to be reminded of “bright teeth.” Americans who want to be “re-wilded” and re-connected to nature (a distinct craving posited by evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff) now need look no further than the packs that are forming—and even thriving—in our own city centers.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Coyote America

By Dan Flores

Basic Books

288 pages, $27.50

Published in Literature

Dozens of nonfiction books have delved into the history of nuclear facilities in the West and the Manhattan Project, detailing the Department of War’s secret acquisition of land in Los Alamos, the rapid emigration of eminent scientists, and their feverish work to build the atomic bomb. But when it comes to the human drama behind the science, several writers have turned to fiction, and women’s perspectives, to tell the story.

TaraShea Nesbit’s poised 2014 novel The Wives of Los Alamos delivers the details of life in the top-secret town through the incantatory collective first-person voice of the scientists’ wives. In Nora Gallagher’s elegant 2007 novel Changing Light, set in 1945 Los Alamos, a female painter befriends a scientist injured in a radiation accident who can’t disclose any details of his work.

Now, Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, draws on her personal history to spin a compelling tale of an intelligent woman whose dreams are deferred in service to her husband’s nuclear work. Church’s father was a research chemist recruited to the Manhattan Project. Her mother, a biologist, followed him to Los Alamos, where Church grew up.

Church tells the story of Meridian Wallace, an ambitious young woman who aims to earn her doctorate in ornithology, but is derailed by love and its consequences. Meridian earns a scholarship to the University of Chicago in 1941, and soon attracts Alden Whetstone, a physics professor whom she describes as “a wholly intellectual creature barely cognizant of the physical world and its requirements. I felt myself longing to soar along with him in the realm of pure ideas, of complete and total academic isolation.” They marry before he relocates to Los Alamos for the war effort; she eventually follows, and her plans to pursue a Ph.D. at Cornell crumble.

Church tracks Meridian for decades, as Alden turns into a controlling, antisocial fussbudget, and she languishes, neglected and unfulfilled, studying the local crow population in a desultory way. Meridian struggles toward self-actualization, gradually at first and then in a headlong rush when in 1970 she meets a handsome Vietnam vet, fresh from the commune, with long hair and love beads. The Atomic Weight of Love is a mid-life coming-of-age tale, set in an era when women had to wait a long time before they could put themselves first—if they ever could.

The Longest Night, the propulsive, nuanced debut by Andria Williams, similarly feels like the book this author was born to write. Williams’ husband is an active-duty naval officer, currently stationed in Colorado, and she conveys the interpersonal tensions of life in the military, both on the base and in town, with apt detail. The story begins in 1959, when Paul and Nat Collier move with their two young daughters to Idaho Falls, where Paul has been stationed to work on a clunky nuclear reactor. Even if readers know that this was the site in 1961 of America’s only fatal nuclear reactor meltdown, the suspense of The Longest Night only intensifies as it creeps toward that event.

Paul observes shoddy maintenance and incompetent leadership at the reactor, but keeps Nat in the dark so as not to worry her—white lies that soon become a symptom of their fraying marriage. Stress builds as Paul clashes with his lecherous and drunken superior officer. Meanwhile, Nat feels marooned without a car and judged by gossipy military wives in a town where “someone’s garbage can lid laying to the side and not securely clamped on the can: That was an event.” When Paul is deployed to Antarctica as a consequence of an impetuous mistake, Nat welcomes the friendship of a courteous local car repairman.

Williams has a knack for crafting taut scenes that increase tension, reveal character and entertain—the reckless dive that displays a young mother’s spirit and the strains in her marriage, the disastrous dinner party hosted by “one of those women … whose calculating mind was always at work on others of her sex, detecting their weaknesses like a mine-sniffing German shepherd,” and the small-town diner where there’s a “dinginess to the place, grime in every crevice, a sense of not quite caring.”

Williams writes with rich psychological insight into all her characters, who evolve and surprise, even the beastliest and youngest. Nat’s children, like Shakespeare’s fools, regularly pipe up with information that reveals the truth adults are trained to conceal.

These two novels focus on the kind of capable women drawn to the West by nuclear installations, only to find their potential squelched due to the mid-20th century’s primary focus on the work of men. As these women simmer and yearn, and the ’60s and ’70s dawn, we see their personal lives become as volatile as reactors.

You could fill a shelf with books set in the nuclear West. These two debut novels prove that the formidable power of nuclear facilities, the flawed humans who run them, and questions about the morality of these experiments continue to make for gripping drama.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The Longest Night

By Andria Williams

Random House

400 pages, $27

The Atomic Weight of Love

By Elizabeth J. Church

Algonquin

352 pages, $15.95

Published in Literature

For Mark Sundeen, the search began with a guilty meat snack.

After two decades of bumming around the country—first as a outdoorsman stringing together jobs in the rural West, and later as a city-bound freelancer and “money-lung … whose sole purpose was to inhale dollars, transform them into pleasure, then exhale a stream of carbon into the air, feces into the sewer, and plastic containers into the landfill”—Sundeen settled in Missoula, Mont., seeking a simpler existence.

He got engaged to a woman with similar values, bike-commuted 14 miles daily, lived on garden feasts that took hours to concoct, and left the sink cluttered with wholesome dirt clods.

In a world where human appetites obliterate entire ecosystems, Sundeen recognized that what we choose to consume has moral implications. But one night while grocery shopping, faced with the $6.50 price tag on organic butter, he broke—and headed instead for the much-cheaper stuff in the conventional food aisles. There, he succumbed to a greasy breast of fried chicken, no doubt factory-raised on monoculture grain and cruelly caged with a throng of its brethren. Then, he wiped his sins away with a moist towelette and pedaled home. 

It’s a wry encapsulation of a conundrum that those who aspire to sustainability face: We carve out sacrifices here and there—Drive less! Recycle! Install solar!—until they interfere with other desires. In search of a clearer path, Sundeen, author of The Man Who Quit Money, sets out to find people who have gone far beyond what most of us consider “good enough.”

The result is The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America, a gorgeous new book that provides a contemporary twist on Wendell Berry’s 1977 classic The Unsettling of America. Where Berry argues that industrial agribusiness and modern capitalism have distanced people from the land and each other, with catastrophic consequences for the environment and communities, Sundeen explores a movement toward radical simplicity meant to solve those ills, digging deep into peculiarly American strains of utopianism and telling the stories of three couples trying to live out their ideals in wildly different places.

Olivia Hubert, a black horticulturalist, and Greg Willerer, a white former teacher with roots in the anarchist punk scene, create a tiny urban farm, hoping to localize and humanize Detroit’s inner-city food system—part of a bigger ambition to build a more-just version of a city bludgeoned by industrial collapse, racism and poverty. There is Ethan Hughes, who led a cross-country, bike-driven “superhero” expedition to do good, and his wife, Sarah Wilcox, a classically trained soprano, who created a car-free, electricity-free intentional community in Missouri that engages in nonviolent activism. Finally, we meet Luci Brieger and Steve Elliott, who founded a successful small organic farm not far from Missoula, and catalyzed a vibrant local food scene across western Montana.

The book is part memoir—chronicling Sundeen’s own new marriage and quest for a better life—part interwoven biography, and part social history. But though Sundeen finds beauty in each of the couples’ lives, he doesn’t flatten them into human Instagrams, “the soft-focus shots of sun-dappled mason jars and fresh-picked pears” that tug at the hearts of the rest of us cubicle-bound hordes. Hubert and Willerer must run off armed intruders from the crackhouse across the street instead of merely grappling with gophers as other farmers do. Hughes and Wilcox grow weary of the infighting so common in intentional communities and grope to maintain momentum when few of their peers are willing to commit to the enterprise for more than a summer. And Brieger and Elliott watch their dream enter mainstream society as yet another piece of the corporate machine: mega-organic agriculture that plants sprawling monocultures and sends plastic-sealed produce thousands of miles, driving right over the environmental and community benefits of the small, diversified farms that the couple built their own lives around.

The characters are weird, stubborn and strong, and Sundeen provides a nuanced picture of their beliefs, underpinned by both religious and social justice movements and influences ranging from Berry and Thomas Jefferson to the Quakers, Booker T. Washington, the Nation of Islam, Tolstoy and Gandhi. Importantly, Sundeen also acknowledges that the “renunciation of privilege” can become “just another means of exercising it.”

In the end, nobody finds revelatory answers, and yet all persist despite obstacles. And Sundeen himself recognizes that his own role is not to be a pioneer of simple living, but to be what he already is: a writer. The book seems to suggest that the true recipe for revolution is not utopianism, per se, but the emotional foundations from which its practitioners strive. In other words, to live right, one must find true purpose, work hard in its service and do the best good she can.

This review first appeared in High Country News.

The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America

By Mark Sundeen

Riverhead

324 pages, $26

Published in Literature

“The grass is dry and golden,

waves scour the headlands,

and the sea churns around me …”

When Teow Lim Goh first walked through the old immigration barracks on Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, she was waiting to learn her U.S. immigration status.

It was 2010, and Goh, a poet, had received a coveted H-1B visa, which allowed her to stay and work in the U.S. She had emigrated from Singapore, attended college in Michigan, and had been put into a lottery system for the visa. While her circumstances were much different than those of the Chinese immigrants who passed through Angel Island from 1910 to 1940, as she walked the island’s paths and looked out over the same ocean vista, she felt that she shared their feelings of hope and uncertainty.

From that visit came Goh’s first book, Islanders, a collection of fictional poems.

Called the “Ellis Island of the West,” the Angel Island Immigration Center processed Russians, Germans, Koreans, Indians, Japanese and Mexicans for entry into the U.S., but it was the Chinese who had the longest detention periods there and bore the brunt of institutionalized racism. It was during long periods of captivity on the island that they painted or carved poems in Chinese into the walls.

“It was a way to pass time and process their experiences,” Goh said in an interview.

The immigration center closed shortly after a fire burned down the women’s barracks in 1940. While the men’s barracks is marked with at least 135 poems, any poetry that the women might have scrawled there was turned to ash.

In Islanders, Goh attempts to fill that hole in history with words of her own. Written from the perspective of early Chinese immigrants and others, Goh’s poems are based on historical accounts. These would-be Americans faced a future full of uncertainty and the bureaucratic tangles of an emerging immigration system.

Goh eschews the rhyming structure of traditional Chinese poetry, and instead writes in free verse. Her sparse lines take on various perspectives: an immigrant, an immigration official or an American citizen.

“How much injustice do we have to abide by in order to survive?” Goh said. “Those are the questions I attempted to ask with those poems.”

Those questions have come to the fore since Donald Trump’s election. Trump attempted a temporary travel ban for seven Muslim majority countries (which was recently tweaked to six countries after legal troubles). The Trump administration has also rolled out a plan for enhanced immigration enforcement, including a border wall.

“Trump tapped into a sentiment that was already there,” Goh told me recently. “It did not start with him, but he articulated it. He was willing to breach standards of decorum to say aloud what a lot of people had been thinking.”

Islanders is a testament to the early roots of such sentiment. The Angel Island Immigration Center was the result of anti-immigrant laws passed in the late 1800s, particularly the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first of its kind in the U.S. It put limits on immigration based on race and class, keeping out any Chinese who were not merchants, teachers, clergy or diplomats. Unaccompanied women were assumed to be prostitutes and turned back, as was any immigrant without enough money, deemed “likely to become a public charge.” Judy Yung, an Angel Island historian, calls the law “the end of free immigration and the beginning of restrictive immigration.” The Chinese Exclusion Act set the tone for a number of other acts focused on banning specific races from immigrating.

Goh explores the outlooks of diverse individuals in her poems, separated into five sections. She delivers the voices of American workers at the immigration center, who became part of a system that separated families for months or longer and drove some immigrants to suicide. She delves into San Francisco’s 1877 Chinatown riots, where anti-Chinese anger, fueled by a downturn in jobs, led to violence against Chinese immigrants, who often worked for the railroads or mining companies.

An integral part to the story of Angel Island were the “paper sons,” who Goh also writes about. After San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake demolished immigration records, many Chinese men claimed legal residency, a claim that was hard to refute. This brought an increase in boys and young men who claimed to be the sons of Chinese residents of the U.S. Related only on paper, they came to be called “paper sons.” To uncover them, U.S. officials would interrogate newcomers for weeks, asking the layouts of their villages, the number of steps at their front doors, and other questions about their “families.” The wives of paper sons faced a double test, as they had to attest to who they were, as well as to the fictional past of their husbands. Any son, paper or real, who couldn’t pass the tests was sent back. If an immigrant appealed, he or she faced the prospect of life in cramped wooden barracks from six months to a year, as their case was resolved.

Goh’s book is an ode to people caught in an unfair system. Her poems are a mournful byproduct of imprisonment, though she says the lessons the islanders’ stories hold have gone largely unnoticed.

“The one thing I learned while researching this book is we don’t learn from history,” said Goh, who is now a U.S. citizen living in Colorado. “The history is there. We’ve been through this, but we’re still going through the same questions.”

Anna V. Smith is an editorial fellow at High Country News, where this review first appeared.

Islanders

By Teow Lim Goh

Conundrum

90 pages, $14.99

Published in Literature

It’s been 30 years since Marc Reisner’s landmark history of Western water, Cadillac Desert, was first published. The book’s dire tone set the pattern for much subsequent water writing. Longtime Albuquerque Journal reporter John Fleck calls it the “narrative of crisis”—an apocalyptic storyline about the West perpetually teetering on the brink of running dry.

When the book’s second edition was released in 1993, on the heels of a particularly dry string of years in California, Reisner saw fit to characterize the drought as a “punishment meted out to an impudent culture by an indignant God.”

Thanks to books like Cadillac Desert, Fleck writes, “I grew up with the expectation of catastrophe.” Yet in his own reporting, Fleck, who recently became director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, discovered a very different story.

“Far from the punishment of an indignant God,” he writes, “I found instead a remarkable adaptability.”

Fleck’s new book, Water Is for Fighting Over … and Other Myths About Water in the West, chronicles the remarkable and often-overlooked adaptive capacity of the farmers and millions of urbanites who depend on the Colorado River. He highlights several irrigation districts and cities that have substantially reduced water use while enjoying higher farm incomes and supporting bigger populations, despite more than a decade and a half of serious drought.

The most fascinating parts of the book focus on river politics. One of Fleck’s great insights is that the Colorado is essentially a decentralized system where “no one has their hand on the tap.” The fundamental challenge is “problem-solving in a river basin where water crosses borders, where it must be shared, but where no one is in charge.”

The book draws its title from the old saw—often misattributed to Mark Twain and endlessly reiterated—that whiskey is for drinking but water is for fighting over. This is the primary “myth” Fleck takes on. The ferocity of Colorado River politics has been likened to the Middle East conflict, but as Fleck notes, a surprising spirit of collaboration has arisen on the Colorado over the last two decades.

Rather than fighting, he writes, the river’s water bosses have crafted a series of agreements that have increased water-use flexibility and buffered some of the effects of extreme drought. The members of the “network,” as Fleck puts it, are able to do that because they have a deeply rooted distrust of the vagaries of court, and have “come to the shared conclusion that arguing over legal interpretation is the wrong path.”

Indeed, the network’s members haven’t taken each other to court since 1952. But in arguing that collaboration is the great untold story, Fleck overlooks one of the most fascinating aspects of the Colorado’s recent history: the aggressive brinkmanship that also drives its politics.

Far from being averse to fighting, some members of the network—most famously Pat Mulroy, the former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority—have actively used the threat of litigation to force counterparts to compromise and cooperate. That coercive pressure is the antagonistic yang to the cooperative yin. And therein lies the great paradox of the 21st-century Colorado River: The credible threat of legal assault, artfully deployed, has provided the anvil against which many of these cooperative agreements have been hammered out.

In fact, it was just such a provocation that ultimately catalyzed the agreements that Fleck lauds. In 2004, as the drought worsened, some water managers began telegraphing meticulously coded threats to each other over disputed interpretations of critical parts of the law of the river. The network effectively stood at the brink of legal war. Not long ago, John Entsminger, who worked as a lawyer for Mulroy at the time and is a prominent figure in Fleck’s story, told me: “It was unclear at that point whether we were going to negotiate, or whether we were headed toward the U.S. Supreme Court.”

It wasn’t a fight, but the plausible prospect of a fight, that forced water managers out of their entrenched positions to begin developing the series of agreements that, they hope, will keep us one step ahead of climate change and the still-deepening drought.

These days, the network’s members don’t like to talk about this coercive element in river politics. That’s largely because after their acrimony in 2004 spilled into public, they made a pact to keep their differences out of the media. But in spite of the apparent outbreak of peace, the water bosses continue to prepare for the possibility of war.

The story that Fleck tells is a hopeful one, and a very important one—but it’s not quite the whole story. Two and a half years ago, Entsminger replaced Pat Mulroy as the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Entsminger is far more conciliatory than Mulroy. Yet in a candid moment not long after he took charge, he acknowledged to me that, sometimes, water really is for fighting over. Those who think otherwise do so at their own peril.

“We don’t want to fight,” Entsminger said. “But if we fight, we want to win.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Water Is for Fighting Over ... and Other Myths about Water in the West

By John Fleck

Island Press

264 pages, $30

Published in Literature

It’s clear that many pop-culture fanatics like for the legacies of their heroes to be scrubbed and romanticized. For proof, you needn’t look much further than most biopics and TV shows about the entertainment business, in which character flaws may occasionally factor in, but are typically eclipsed by brilliance.

Cultural consumers of this revisionist mind who wish to learn about the rise of California rap should view Straight Outta Compton, the candy-coated 2015 big-screen dramatization of the saga behind N.W.A., hip-hop’s first explosive Los Angeles export. However, those who crave the dirty details—no matter how horrendous, despite how some characterizations may impact one’s feelings for beloved classics—will prefer to digest Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap. Authored and intensely researched by former LA Weekly music editor Ben Westhoff, the volume is as eloquently written as it is immensely raw in content. To borrow one from Ice Cube, it’s a “no Vaseline” sort of affair.

In a recent chat about his latest effort, Westhoff couldn’t recall the precise nature of his original pitch to publishers. He knew that he was rolling into familiar and even well-charted territory, but he also knew that although contributions like Have Gun Will Travel, Ronin Ro’s 1999 book subtitled The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records, delve into various cracks in the often-inaccurate popular narrative, there was still a mess of information buried in participants of varying significance.

Add in the extraordinary social unrest and the crack epidemic from which West Coast hip-hop was in large part born, as well as the unwieldy conspiracy theories that cloud almost any discussion of the subgenre—especially around the deaths of Eazy-E and Tupac—and Westhoff saw an opportunity to weave together puzzle pieces and fill gaps left by the legions who have mined similar spaces and begun to trim some of the taller tales.

Of course, reality is crazier than fiction, and it’s impossible to turn more than a couple of pages in Original Gangstas without shaking one’s head in amazement at the insanity of daily life at N.W.A.’s Ruthless Records—from the number of children and artists Eazy and Dre fathered to the Nation of Islam’s bizarre attempt to cure the former’s AIDS before his death in 1995 (a happening reported here in detail for the first time). While Westhoff started researching before he had a focus, the through-line eventually became obvious: Dr. Dre, born Andre Young, whose career as a party-rocking teenage DJ—and then later as the leading architect behind an evolving West Coast sound and the region’s chief rap impresario—transformed countless heavyweight careers.

With a guiding light on Dre, Westhoff says that his approach was notably different from the one he took with Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop. Whereas that book reads more like a travelogue (and hearkens to the cult immersive NOLA rap scene dispatch Tricksta by Nick Cohn) than, say, Brian Coleman’s comprehensive Check the Technique series, which lets the artists do most of the talking directly, Original Gangstas reads like classic investigative magazine journalism and stands alongside Check the Technique, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang, and The Big Payback by Dan Charnas as a standard-bearer sure to age like a Dre track.

With the responsibility of turning an investigative eye on Ruthless Records and Death Row—the latter the comparably infamous imprint of iconic criminal boss Suge Knight, that fostered the massive careers of Snoop Dogg and Tupac—came the duty of attending to a series of unfortunate domestic assaults which took place throughout the halcyon years. It’s not a stretch to say that beating women is a major plotline in any story involving Dre; such behavior was so normalized among N.W.A. members, in fact, that one is left to question the intentions of the Straight Outta Compton screenwriters, or of any other biographer who masks these black eyes. One account by Westhoff, of a beating Dre gave then-TV host Dee Barnes at a club in West Hollywood, stands out among the most despicable: “He grabbed me by my hair, picked me up and started slamming me into a brick wall,” said Barnes, who is nearly a foot shorter than Dre and weighed about half as much. Dre’s bodyguard held back the crowd, she added in a statement. According to eyewitness accounts, Dre began kicking her and tried to push her down a flight of stairs. She fled to the bathroom, but Dre followed her in and began beating her more. (N.W.A. promoter) Doug Young said the room full of spectators watched and did nothing.”

In these respects, Original Gangstas is a grueling read—even for those who may be vaguely familiar with parts of the domestic side of this story, and especially for anyone who grew up hanging pictures of these guys on their walls, an experience that I personally share with Westhoff. (The Minnesota-bred author notes this in brief throughout the book, using his own impressions as a way to show the far-reaching impact of Compton rap.) But while atrocious acts against women—their victims almost always were women, one might acknowledge, as N.W.A.’s security handled the male threats—turn up on page after page, Westhoff doesn’t let those acts hijack the narrative. And why should they? This is, after all, the dirty version. Extensive scars considered, Dre himself should probably be happy with the book, since it proves him to be among the realest MCs ever, at least in that he apparently meant in earnest and delivered on the threats he issued against women on record.

As a critical addition to existing accounts of these episodes, Original Gangstas is a reliable and accessible historical document, from Westhoff’s diligence in finding sources who were difficult to track down—though N.W.A.’s former business manager, the recently deceased Jerry Heller, was subsequently ambushed by the paparazzi likes of TMZ, Westhoff believes theirs was Heller’s last substantial interview; as he writes, in their short time together in October 2014, the mogul was “alternatively calm and heated,” oscillating “between saying he doesn’t care what anyone says about him, and vehemently denying various allegations”—to his interviews with others who were more amenable, like J-Dee of Da Lench Mob, who is currently serving a substantial sentence for murder in the California Men’s Colony. In our chat, Westhoff said that coverage from Vibe magazine was particularly thorough, though he made sure to note that the publication, for reasons satisfactory or otherwise, drew criticism from some corners for fueling the violence that erupted between warring rap factions. Even with these many living documents to pluck from and fact-check, Westhoff managed to produce a seriously compelling page-turner. Never too far from his early music-critic roots, the author clearly knows his shit, which is more than can be said for most people writing about rap for national audiences. From his description of the frenzy over the 1988 release of Straight Outta Compton: “The album’s most memorable songs feature an assault of abrasive textures, marching drums, sample fragments, and break beats mined from Roadium swap meets. Straight Outta Compton’s bombastic sound matches its rhetoric. To hear it as a child of poverty was to nod in affirmation; to hear it as a person of privilege was to gasp in horror.”

On an important side note, underground heads should be happy to know that Westhoff, a longtime music scribe who has covered many facets of the genre, appropriately notes intersections between rap honchos and the subterranean element around them—from the involvement of Cube’s cousin Del tha Funkee Homosapien (his preferred spelling back then) with Da Lench Mob to the parallel rise of the Good Life Cafe and an alternative rhyme scene in Greater Los Angeles. That’s in addition to a range of cameos from peripheral players like DJ David Faustino (yes, Bud from Married With Children) to rappers who emerged as household names outside the Ruthless fold—like Everlast, whose former girlfriend, white female MC Tairrie B, Dre once punched in the face “the way a guy would hit another guy,” according to one witness.

Westhoff, who began working on Original Gangstas before Straight Outta Compton was announced, said that he and his publisher debated rushing up their drop date to align with the biopic. In the end, it wasn’t feasible, or, as the author now acknowledges, anywhere close to necessary. A proper published biographical account claws much closer to the core of any topic than could any feature film, and in this case, the difference isn’t simply in the errors and omissions of the N.W.A. flick, like having the group visit the White House (in reality, Eazy attended a George H.W. Bush fundraiser at a DC hotel), or showing them being arrested for performing “Fuck tha Police” in Detroit (they weren’t). Rather, in his intricate profile of these seminal gang-related performers, we are treated to the ugly truth. Considering that California gangsta rap, before all of the hype, was commonly called “reality rap” by its originators, there should be no higher aspiration for those attempting to document the backstory.

This piece originally appeared in DigBoston. Below: Author Ben Westhoff. Photo by Jay Senter Grey.

Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap

By Ben Westhoff

Hachette

432 pages, $28

Published in Literature

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