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In my hometown of Mentor, Ohio, it seemed like everyone around town knew Joe Biel. He was a few years older than me, and was known for selling “zines” at punk shows in Cleveland.

Those zines eventually led to Biel starting Microcosm Publishing—an independent publishing and distribution company—in 1996; in 1999, Biel relocated to Portland, Ore.

On the 20th anniversary of his company, Biel has now released a book that’s quite personal—Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life and Business with Asperger’s.

During a recent phone interview from Portland, Biel discussed his upbringing in Ohio, and his discovery of punk rock.

“My family life was pretty bad as a kid. My dad was disabled, and my mom was really violent,” Biel said. “Between those things, when I found punk rock around 1992, it helped me find a moral compass and find a more productive use of my energy and my time. Then when I started zines a few years later, it was sort of my way of giving back to something that had been really meaningful to me.”

That punk-rock ethos has helped Microcosm thrive as an independent publishing and distribution company, even through the current downturn that publishing companies have endured. Biel said he was determined to start a publishing company.

“It’s a little bit tacky and cliché, but … (after) being born in the ’70s and growing up through the end of red scare, most of my neighbors’ dads were laid off and hired back for a lower wage,” Biel said. “It just felt like nothing meant anything. I felt like I should do something that was meaningful. … My values were more meaningful to me than financial goals or any other type of success.”

Biel’s relocation to Portland in 1999 came after what some would consider to be a tragic moment in one’s life. Biel made the best of the situation.

“I lived in a house, and it burned down in a fire,” he explained. “It was a totally liberating moment where I lost my stuff, and it was just totally freeing. I knew a bunch of people who wanted to move to Portland, and it seemed different. It was during a time when my friends were developing drug habits, having accidental kids or being totally screwball. Moving to Portland with a group of people didn’t seem like something I expected to last. That was all an accident.”

Microcosm Publishing features a variety of titles on everything from bicycles, to veganism, to social-justice advocacy.

“I think most books sell into people’s insecurities, self-hate and shame. We focus the most on trying to make people feel good about themselves and confident, and to create the change they want to see in the world,” Biel explained. “There are so many books out there that try to make you hate your body, (express) fundamental hatred, or just thrive on insecurities. It’s about being the you that you want to be.”

While Microcosm Publishing has done well, a nasty dispute between Biel and his now-ex-wife—which included accusations of Biel being emotionally abusive—led some to call for a boycott of Microcosm. Biel has also faced a series of health problems and as a diagnosis of Asperger’s, an autism spectrum disorder.

“I had been married in 2002, and I was divorced two years later. It had been a pretty bad relationship and I ended up in therapy,” Biel said. “… At one point, the therapist looked at me, and as I was leaving one day, I just casually mentioned that I could not see people’s emotions or facial expressions—anything to indicate there was something beyond the words they were saying. She just kind of looked at me and asked me, ‘Did you have childhood (brain) trauma?’ I was like, ‘What? What was that?’ She said I probably had Asperger’s. I learned about Asperger’s before, and I was pretty obsessed with it at the time, but I never thought it was something that affected me. I was eventually properly diagnosed.”

Biel said that he was comfortable letting the public have a look inside of his private life, his failures, his successes—and some of his funny experiences.

“By the time I was ready to embark on writing it, I pretty much knew who I was and how I felt about things. It was a pretty good litmus test, so I didn’t really get nervous about it,” he said. “I’ve been a public person for a long time now, so I’m used to not having much of a private life. For me, it was a little bit easier, and I learned the hard way that when I don’t talk about my life or myself, people tend to fill in the gaps in the most unflattering of ways. If I bottle that up and try to hold it in, it doesn’t work very well. It’s better for me to inform the narrative around myself. I feel like most of the things I’ve done are sort of embarrassing, but also a little bit funny, so there’s a value to it.”

Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life and Business with Asperger's

By Joe Biel


256 pages, $14.95

Published in Literature

The National Park Service’s 2016 centennial got off to a rocky start.

On Jan. 2, militants occupied Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in a sustained attack on the very legality of public land—the philosophical and political foundation upon which the national parks and other reserves (including wildlife refuges) are built.

Then in mid-January came the galling announcement that one of the system’s flagships, Yosemite, is changing the names of well-loved landmarks in response to a legal dispute with a concessions company that managed to trademark park imagery and institutions for its own marketing purposes.

Neither is the sort of publicity that the agency hoped to receive from this anniversary, which was supposed to re-ignite the enthusiasm of the American public in a yearlong campaign called “Find Your Park.”

More in line with the message, surely, are two well-timed new books.

A Thinking Person’s Guide to America’s National Parks is an almost painfully earnest re-assessment of the national park system at the century mark. Its 23 chapters dissect the parks—why, and for whom, they exist. The book reflects the evolution of the agency’s approach to conservation, recreation, inclusiveness, sustainability and other facets. Between Ulysses S. Grant’s creation of Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872, and Barack Obama’s designation in February of three new national monuments comprising 1.8 million acres of California desert, the National Park Service has expanded its horizons generally from the West to the East, from scenic to historic, from wilderness toward urban areas. “The national parks are the American experience expressed in place,” writes former director Denis Galvin in the foreword, and as our understanding of the contours of that experience expands, the agency’s mission grows with it. “Today we contemplate the effects of a changing climate against the benchmarks of these protected places,” Galvin writes. “The story and contributions of enslaved people, once invisible, are now told.”

The book’s academic and in-agency contributors strike a measured balance between celebration and constructive criticism. The critiques mostly revolve around the agency’s slowness to come to terms with America’s history of oppression and diversity. These brief essays show an agency eager to attract young people and what we’ll soon enough need to stop calling minorities—the demographic core of whatever future support the parks may enjoy.

Population is increasing faster than park attendance, even as the system grows to meet its audience. The challenge is significant, and no book, however gorgeously illustrated (this one has 300 glossy color photos), is likely to be the magnet that draws new visitors into the parks.

But for anyone already invested, A Thinking Person’s Guide makes an excellent armchair roadmap to the Park Service’s more than 400 sites and its many priorities and pursuits, which range from community farming partnerships within the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve on Whidbey Island, Wash., to the Kaibab Paiute Tribe’s leadership in preserving dark skies at Arizona’s Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. You might think of the book as an illustrated catalog of the nation’s grandest common holdings, and an eloquent (if indirect) defense of the principles and benefits of public land managed for public use.

The Wonder of It All, compiled by the nonprofit Yosemite Conservancy, takes a different approach, collecting 100 short anecdotes and testimonials to the parks’ transformative powers. They’re stories of first jobs, true love, encounters with bears and wolves and stars, and the sudden flare of a light in a child’s eyes.

The Wonder of It All demonstrates both the charms and flaws of anthologized amateur writing, but its stories exude a heartfelt passion that complements and sweetens the administrative efficiency of A Thinking Person’s Guide. Bob McConnell’s recollection of a night enjoying opera with veteran seasonal Yosemite ranger Carl Sharsmith, who died in 1994, offers an intimate portrait of one of the many indispensable volunteers who make the parks tick, while Rebecca Bailey learns that the less-than-flattering “green and gray” uniform is no deterrent to unsolicited male attention in “How to Talk to a ‘Girl Ranger.’” (“Respectfully” will do just fine, thank you.) Anybody who’s ever worn that iconic flat hat, or daydreamed of doing so, will likely enjoy these stories.

Both of these new books serve as invitations to the national parks—a reminder that it’s not enough to support the idea of the parks; we need to visit them in person and get to know them. As timeless and unassailable as they may seem, the parks are the tip of America’s public-lands iceberg, and if recent history shows anything, it’s that they require our constant protection.

Plenty of folks are fighting hard to find new ways to exploit our natural and scenic resources. For now, “We the People” have the stronger claim. We’d be remiss, and we’d be lessened, if we failed to exercise it.

The Wonder of It All: 100 Stories From the National Park Service

Edited by the Yosemite Conservancy

Yosemite Conservancy

320 pages, $18.95

A Thinking Person’s Guide to America’s National Parks

Edited by Robert Manning, Rolf Diamant, Nora Mitchell and David Harmon

George Braziller

300 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

In December 1951, a nuclear power plant outside Atomic City, Idaho, sent electricity through four 200-watt bulbs, in the first use of a nuclear plant for that purpose. The flickering lights were a promising sign for the high-desert community, situated next to the world’s largest concentration of reactors.

Less than 15 years and a couple of nuclear accidents later, the plant was decommissioned, leaving the town to wither into a historical footnote.

Photographer David T. Hanson uses Atomic City as one of many settings in his book Wilderness to Wasteland. In images made during the early and mid-’80s, Hanson captures large-scale energy and mining production sites and the “poisoned landscape” they left behind. Those scars, Hanson writes, will be industrialized society’s legacy. “Indeed, it seems likely that the most enduring monuments that Western civilization will leave for future generations will not be Stonehenge, the Pyramids of Giza, or the cathedral of Chartres,” he says, “but rather the hazardous remains of our industry and technology.”

High Country News talked with Hanson about what drove his project and what he observed about the relationship between humans and the landscapes they inhabit.

Why is it important to show what you call “terrain transformed by humans to serve their needs?”

John Szarkowski, former director of photography at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, wrote about photographers addressing the contemporary landscape (as opposed to the idyllic, primeval American wilderness depicted by Ansel Adams and others): “We (must) turn our attention to the rest of the earth, that part in which we live, which is not yet devoid of life and beauty, and which we might still rescue as a place worth celebrating. This is perhaps what photographers have begun to do, starting with the intuition that one must begin with respectful attention to what remains alive, even if scarred and harshly used, and trusting that attention will grow into affection, and affection into a measure of competence, so that we might in time learn again to live not merely on the earth, but with it.”

With my photographs, I am asking people to take a look at the world that we’re creating, and reassess where we’re going in the name of Progress. Only if we look and understand can we realize that the time has come for a radical transformation—for a return to balance, sanity and sustainability.

How did you choose the locations of these images?

I chose a workable number of Superfund sites that I had selected from over 400,000 hazardous-waste sites throughout the U.S. The 67 sites I selected represented a cross-section of American geography and industrial waste activities, including 19th-century mines, smelters and wood-processing plants, landfills and illicit dumps, large petrochemical complexes, aerospace water-contamination sites, nuclear-weapons plants, and nerve gas disposal areas. The series includes real estate development in the Los Angeles basin, oil fields in Texas, abandoned mines throughout the West, chemical-weapons complexes and their disposal sites in Colorado and Utah, aerospace industries in California and Arizona, Wyoming’s abandoned Lucky Mac uranium mine, and the toxic Yankee Doodle tailings pond in Butte, Mont.

Do you think any of the “wastelands” humans have created can return to “wilderness?”

Certainly some of these “wastelands” will be reclaimed, but whether they will ever truly return to “wilderness” is hard to imagine. More importantly, it seems frightening yet strangely appropriate that the most enduring monuments America will leave for future generations will be the hazardous remains of our industry and technology. The temples of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations have survived a mere 500 years to 2,000 years; Native American Anasazi cave dwellings and pictographs date back only 1,000 years to 2,500 years. How much longer-lasting—and how tragic in consequence—will be the contemporary wasteland that has been created in the United States during the past 200 years, and especially the past 50?

Do you think the human relationship with the environment in the West should change?

As I traveled throughout the United States, I saw an entire landscape transformed by carelessness, greed, a utilitarian approach to nature and our environment, the systematic exploitation of natural resources, the notion of Manifest Destiny and the related idea that the “owners” of land have the right to do whatever they want to do to it. Clearly, our relationship with the environment must change and become more sustainable if we are going to survive.

Doyou find these “wasteland” landscapes beautiful, and why?

The writer Wendell Berry’s thoughts on my work best summarize my own feelings:

“It is unfortunately supposable that some people will account for these photographic images as ‘abstract art,’ or will see them as ‘beautiful shapes.’ But anybody who troubles to identify in these pictures the things that are readily identifiable (trees, buildings, roads, vehicles, etc.) will see that nothing in them is abstract, and that their common subject is a monstrous ugliness.

“The power of these photographs is in their terrifying, but undeniable, particularity. They are representations of bad art—if by art we mean the ways and products of human work. If some of these results look abstract—unidentifiable, or unlike anything we have seen before—that is because nobody foresaw, because nobody cared, what they would look like. They are the inevitable consequences of our habit of working without imagination and without affection. They prove that our large-scale industrial projects are at once experimental, in the sense that we do not know what their consequences will be, and definitive because of the virtual permanence of these same consequences. And what we can see in these vandalized and perhaps irreparable landscapes we are obliged to understand as symbolic of what we cannot see: the steady seeping of poison into our world and our bodies.”

This interview, which was edited for length and clarity, was originally published in High Country News.

Wilderness to Wasteland

By David T. Hanson

Taverner Press

192 pages, $55

Published in Literature

The Northern Rockies are America’s epic mountains, a bastion of grizzlies and other wildlife, and the awe-inspiring terrain that Lewis and Clark explored and chronicled two centuries ago. In Travels With Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck called Montana “a great splash of grandeur. The scale is huge but not overpowering. The land is rich with grass and color, and the mountains are the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda.”

It’s a landscape whose wild spirit draws backpackers, hunters and anglers—and that spirit appears on every page of Where Roads Will Never Reach: Wilderness and Its Visionaries in the Northern Rockies, Frederick Swanson’s history of wilderness-preservation in the region. The book is scrupulously footnoted, yet accessible to the general reader, with maps to show where the writer is taking us.

When you love a place, you want to save it—not just for yourself, but for others. You cherish memories of a backpacking trip into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area or a horse-packing trip into the great complex of the Bob Marshall, Great Bear and Scapegoat wilderness areas. We’re talking big landscapes here—more than 7.4 million acres preserved in 17 wilderness areas.

Such preservation does not come unbidden, like a wind across the plains. It reflects hard work by people who passionately love a favorite wild landscape. This is the story Swanson sets out to tell, by getting into the hearts of those people, interviewing many who were there at the creation.

Swanson begins with a full disclosure: “My heart is, and always has been with the preservationists.” I plead guilty here, too, for I had a role in some of the successes recorded in this book. But my role was minor; the preservation of wilderness areas requires—requires—that the local congressional delegation be behind any proposals for them to succeed. That can only happen when there is broad grassroots support.

And that, in turn, means support not so much from environmental groups, but from the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker—and the hardware dealer: Cecil Garland, for example, a thickly accented North Carolina native who owned a store in Lincoln, Mont. Hearing that the Forest Service planned to log his favorite hunting area, Garland just said, “Nope.” As the ink dried on the 1972 law establishing the 256,647-acre Scapegoat Wilderness, the regional forester groused: “Why should a sporting goods and hardware dealer in Lincoln, Mont., designate the boundaries? If lines are to be drawn, we should be drawing them.”

Wrong. The 1964 Wilderness Act, which chartered our national program of preserving the wildest, most natural portions of our national forest and other federal lands, gave that boundary-drawing authority to Congress. But it took devoted, hard-working volunteers to motivate their elected officials to push wilderness-protection bills through Congress, with the help of legislative giants like Sens. Frank Church, D-Idaho, and Lee Metcalf, D-Mont.

This is the heart of Swanson’s story, and here, he makes a unique contribution, by introducing us to unlikely heroes like Doris Milner, a housewife from Hamilton, Mont., who noticed trees marked for logging in the wild country where she and her family loved to camp. When asked why she got involved, she seemed puzzled by the question: “I just got mad!” And she got her senators involved. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the law, adding Milner’s magical place to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area.

Among those who worked with Sen. Church on the huge River of No Return Wilderness Area were his longtime Idaho camping cronies, led by Ted Trueblood, an editor ofField and Stream. Environment groups joined in and national lobbyists provided advice, but the real power lay with the Cecils, Dorises, and their like across the country.

Well into the 1970s, the leadership of the U.S. Forest Service was on the wrong side of the wilderness. In part, this reflects the agency’s deference to its corporate logging clientele, and in part, a strong dislike to giving up its discretion over the lands under its care—in this case, the decision regarding which should be protected as wilderness, and what boundaries might be folded back to accommodate roads into wild country.

But a balance has been struck in the Northern Rockies. Wilderness has done well, without destroying the region’s economy. After long struggles, a sustainable timber industry is emerging. “A century hence,” Swanson writes, “the Northern Rockies could be a place where generations of loggers still work in the woods, passing along their knowledge of good practices; where families can drive to and camp by peaceful lakes and clear, undammed streams; where agricultural lands fill verdant valleys.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Where Roads Will Never Reach: Wilderness and Its Visionaries in the Northern Rockies

By Frederick H. Swanson

University of Utah

376 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

Whither the U.S. Forest Service?

Jim Furnish, whose 34-year career with the agency culminated in one of the most important public-lands protection measures in the nation’s history, has grappled with this question throughout much of his life.

In his engaging new memoir,Toward a Natural Forest, Furnish outlines how the Forest Service transitioned from a can-do operation with a clear mission—getting out the cut—to an agency striving, and largely failing, to find new reasons to justify its existence.

He also chronicles his own transformation, from gung-ho young forester to passionate advocate for responsible environmental stewardship.

Furnish portrays an agency that grew increasingly at odds with public sentiment during the 1970s and 1980s, as it outstripped the ecological limits of the land it managed. But those in charge insisted on staying the course. The Forest Service sold more timber in 1989—a year racked with litigation and controversy—than in any other year in the agency’s history.

Furnish recalls the reaction of Bob Devlin, former director of timber management for the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest region, when he was asked about a statement by Chief Dale Robertson that “clear-cutting is not an appropriate practice in scenic mountainous areas.”

“Devlin kind of laughed dismissively,” Furnish writes, “as though curing me of my naiveté, and said, ‘Those are just policies. They’re not really binding.’”

The crash came in 1991, with Judge William Dwyer’s decision to protect the northern spotted owl by curtailing logging.

Furnish went on to serve as supervisor of Oregon’s Siuslaw National Forest, where he led a transformation from massive logging to restoration work.

In 1999, then-Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck made Furnish his deputy chief. Furnish helped implement President Clinton’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which protected 58 million acres of national forests.

The author, who retired in 2002, implores “my beloved Forest Service” to embrace a new mission, one that allows for modest timber production but recognizes the many other goods, tangible and intangible, provided by national forests.

“We tried the ‘timber is king’ approach,” Furnish concludes, “and it failed.”

He knows what “primary values” should replace that approach: providing clean water and air, high-quality fish and wildlife habitat and abundant recreation opportunities. That, Furnish says, is a mission that would make the agency proud.

This review was originally published in High Country News.

Toward a Natural Forest: The Forest Service in Transition

By Jim Furnish

Oregon State University

224 pages, $19.95

Published in Literature

Though the super El Niño bearing down on California may help alleviate the state’s crippling drought, even a good drenching won’t wash away four dry years.

For nearly a half-decade, the watery foundation that underpins so many California institutions—almonds and salmon, weed and dairy, the Salton Sea and Los Angeles itself—has wobbled under the weight of mismanagement, our national hunger for fresh produce and climate change. As the writer Lauren Markham put it: “California is a great, slick hustler at the card table, bluffing a myth of plenty while holding tight the fan of truth: We are now, and have been for the entirety of modern history, running out of water.”

The drought has inspired plenty of great journalism, but some truths only literature can reveal. Enter Claire Vaye Watkins’ new novel, Gold Fame Citrus, which captures the moment at which California’s bluff has been called. Set in a drought-stricken near future, Gold Fame Citrus tracks a feckless young couple, Luz and Ray, who squat in the ruined home of a vanished starlet, drinking syrupy ration cola and paying exorbitant prices for black-market blueberries. Beyond the crumbling walls, nature lies in chaos; Luz is treated to “scorpions coming up through the drain, a pair of mummified frogs in the waterless fountain, a coyote carcass going wicker in the ravine.” At least there’s no traffic on the 101.

The plot takes off when Luz and Ray adopt a creepy child and try to get out of Dodge. Yet the real pleasure lies not in the What, but in the surreal Where. The landscape has come to be dominated by a “vast tooth-colored superdune in the forgotten crook of the wasted West,” its height rivaling Denali, that marches across the state with malevolent purpose. The desiccated wasteland is purportedly inhabited by a newly evolved menagerie: incandescent bats, land eels and sand krill. Mutant mole people roam nuclear waste disposal sites.

Watkins’ evocation of the drought, and society’s feeble attempts to ameliorate it, unspools with chilling authenticity. In Gold Fame Citrus’ afflicted future, engineers drag glaciers down from Alaska, erect vast retaining walls to repel airborne sand, drill “three thousand feet into the unyielding earth, praying for aquifer but deliver(ing) only hot brine.” Los Angeles, a thirsty Kraken, builds “new aqueducts, deeper aqueducts, aqueducts stretching to the watersheds of Idaho, Washington, Montana, aqueducts veining the West, half a million miles of palatial half-pipe left of the hundredth meridian.”

If that sounds improbably grandiose, consider that this fictional plan is only half as loony as some of the real-world ideas California has entertained. Hell, consider the Central Valley Project.

Gold Fame Citrus is the latest addition to a nascent genre dubbed “cli-fi”: science fiction, often dystopian, that confronts the environmental and social impacts of climate change. The cli-fi canon is diverse and growing, from Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, a delicate study of an errant flock of monarch butterflies, to Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, an actuarial thriller (seriously) about consulting firms that profit off storms. The pantheon grows with each passing year: 2015 saw the publication of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife alongside the release of the latest iteration of Mad Max, disaster porn set in the deserts of Australia.

As The New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz has observed, weather no longer serves as backdrop to our stories; increasingly, it is the story.

Climate change certainly provides fertile ground for literature. Its worst symptoms—floods, fires, die-offs, insect plagues—are so cataclysmic, they make the Old Testament look banal. You can hardly blame a novelist or screenwriter for using those phantasmagoric hazards as plot devices. Think, for example, of Interstellar, which conjures a Dust Bowl redux as an excuse to launch Matthew McConaughey into space.

Yet climate change is fundamentally a public policy problem, and thus the most valuable cli-fi not only transports and terrifies; it illuminates and instructs. As Bill Chameides, former dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, put it, “The thing that makes dystopian fiction so intriguing, at least to me… is the social science aspect—the author’s vision of how humanity chooses to organize and cope in the post-apocalyptic world.”

And that’s precisely why Gold Fame Citrus is so necessary. In Watkins’ novel, climate change is not merely a backdrop against which to stage Mad Max-ish post-apocalyptic hijinks. Rather, how people “organize and cope,” to use Chameides’ words, is the driving question in Watkins’ novel. This is literature not only as humble escape, but as chilling meditation on pending social havoc.

The nail that Gold Fame Citrus hits most squarely on the head is its treatment of refugees. Like Children of Men, another dystopian work that grapples with large-scale human migration, Gold is not optimistic about our ability to compassionately manage the displaced. The refugees fleeing California, slapped with the dehumanizing label “Mojavs,” are forced into makeshift underground detainment centers, packed into labor camps, and barred from relocating to the moist paradise of Washington. Bureau of Land Management officers patrol the desert, locking up wanderers like stray dogs.

If this sounds familiar, well, that’s the point. This country is currently hot with anti-immigrant fever, and while it’s easy to blame Donald Trump, culpability may lie with even larger forces: The Syrians now seeking sanctuary in some Western states were likely dislocated in part by climate change. A study published in March 2015 found that Syria’s conflict was exacerbated by the catastrophic drought that destroyed agriculture in that country’s breadbasket. “Severe droughts such as the recent one,” wrote author Colin Kelley, “were two to three times more likely to occur under the effects of climate change than in its absence.”

As other  refugees inevitably follow Syria’s, global warming will test not only the integrity of our infrastructure but the bounds of our humanity. And that’s where fiction proves its value: It activates our empathy by forcing us to inhabit an unfamiliar skin—the skin, say, of a refugee.

That skin may not remain unfamiliar for long. Sooner or later, this country will have its own migrants, fleeing from drowning communities in Alaska, wildfire-scorched towns around Western states, and eventually, perhaps, drought-ravaged California. Gold Fame Citrus exists to show us how—and how not—to treat the climate refugees to come, as well as the ones already knocking at our doors.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Gold Fame Citrus

By Claire Vaye Watkins


352 pages, $27.95

Published in Literature

When 26-year-old Megan Kimble became intrigued by the idea of unprocessed eating, she wasn’t entirely sure what the term meant. After all, she writes, nearly all food is processed by the time we eat it—chopped, sautéed, fermented or folded into batter—“and often it is the better for it.”

But she also knew that some of our food is too processed, organic or not—and so she set out to discover where, exactly, the line should be drawn.

It took her a whole year. Her debut book, Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Food, documents Kimble’s shifting definitions, as she grinds wheat berries into flour, brews mead in a bucket, harvests salt from the ocean, and tries her hand at slaughtering sheep. Along the way, she explores all kinds of topics—from the preservatives that give industrially produced food a longer shelf life, to the planned obsolescence of our food gadgets; from the tension between convenience and consequences, to the power of dollars spent locally.

What sets Unprocessed apart from the last decade’s rash of books about the shortcomings of our food system is Kimble’s status as a broke, busy graduate student living in arid Tucson, Ariz., on an income of less than $20,000 a year. In a cheerful, clear voice, she admits her struggles and compromises. Her garden plot, for example, is largely a failure. Like many members of her generation, her social life unfolds largely in restaurants and bars, and the book smartly tackles how to navigate mostly processed menus, what makes alcohol processed (or not), and how a commitment to eating real food can either intersect or clash with the desire to be a part of community. “If I didn’t … engage in the messiness, of eating out and eating with another, then even if I ate perfectly unprocessed, I wouldn’t have really lived unprocessed,” Kimble writes. “Abstain though we try, today’s world is one of moderation. Of trying and failing, and then trying and half-succeeding.”

The book is full of fresh insights about the way communities are tied to food systems. Eating processed food, Kimble discovers, is a natural consequence of our move-wherever-the-jobs-exist economy. Yet she questions the tendency to “(outsource) to others those key activities that define the day-to-day. … What is life if not the day to day? ... The tasks we have decided to label mundane … are (those that) accumulate into relationships and memories.”

Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food

By Megan Kimble

William Morrow

352 pages, $15.99

Published in Literature

I wrote this book for three reasons:

I wrote this book to show the dangers of using silicone injections so that no one else has to suffer injury or even death. If I can prevent one person from using these, I’ll feel that it was worth writing.

I wrote it to show how tragic Joi’s life was because of her vulnerability and fragile self-image and how it changed when she found someone who loved her for who she was, a gentle and sweet woman.

I wrote it to show the love that can exist between two human beings, regardless of sexual orientation. Joi loved men the majority of her life. She was “straight.” When we met, we connected as soulmates with a love that evolved into an all-encompassing committed relationship. This is not just a lesbian story. It is a love story.

Chapter 5 • Go-Go

I had told some of the girls at the Studio Club that I’d been trying to find work. One of them worked occasionally as a go-go dancer in a nightclub, but had plans one evening and wondered if I’d like to fill in for her. When I said that I didn’t have a costume, she offered to let me wear hers, a hot little red bikini covered with sequins. We wore the same size, which was really fortunate for me. I already had the white cowboy boots so my ensemble was complete. She gave me all the information I needed and I was ready to go-go.

It was 1969. Joi and I had spoken daily since the last day we shot Bigfoot. Our conversations were light and fun and revolved around when we would next get together. The moment I found out about my dancing gig, I called and asked her if she’d like to come and keep me company. She said that she’d love to and might bring her friend, Sid Caesar.

During our conversation, Joi told me that she and Stan were legally separated, but remained the best of friends. He reminded her of the dearest man in her life—her grampy, Ray Shupe, who had helped raise her. When Ray died a few years before, it left a terrible void in her life. Stan had been a good friend, was there when she needed him, but was a terrible husband. She said she’d explain more later and left it at that.

This helped to fill in the blanks. I started to understand her better and could tell she was hurting deeply. I hoped I might be able to help by being a good friend to her.

I was so excited that Joi would be coming to my big debut as a go-go dancer. I arrived at the nightclub and spoke to the manager, asking him to reserve a place at the base of the stage for Joi and her guest.

I was on an elevated platform in go-go style, dancing and swaying to the music when Joi walked in the room. She was dressed like a movie star, wearing her full-length blonde mink coat that matched the color of her hair. She was dazzling—and alone. She sat at my feet and watched my every move. I’ll never forget when “My Girl” by the Temptations started to play—our eyes met and I danced for her and only her.

After the set, I sat down at her table. She looked at me with a concerned expression and said, “You don’t belong here. C’mon.” She didn’t have to say another word. Still in costume, I smiled and followed her back to her place.

Joi was living in a lovely high-rise on La Cienega and Fountain in West Hollywood, just down the hill from Sunset Boulevard and the Playboy Club. She lived alone on the fourth floor in a spacious and elegantly decorated one-bedroom apartment with a nice den/TV room. A fireplace with electric logs was in the center of the living room, controlled by a switch on the wall, and she turned it on as we entered the room. The flames lit up the room, and her apartment became cozy and warm. She made us coffee and a salad, and, while we sat on the sofa chatting and eating, time passed so slowly it seemed we were in a time warp.

I had hoped for a moment like this … time alone with her in a setting exactly like this ... and had fantasized many times how this might play out. I knew I would not do anything to jeopardize our friendship nor make any moves that would ruin something so wonderful in my life. She didn’t know I was attracted to women, and I had not said one word about it. I had decided I would keep my thoughts and feelings to myself, because I couldn’t bear to lose this magic or to have her think less of me. And since I had no way of knowing how she’d react if she knew, I would just have to love her from afar.

Chapter 6 • Falling in Love

We spent the evening talking as if we’d known each other for a hundred years. The more we spoke, the closer we sat to one another. She would reach out and touch my arm or gently brush her hand against my face. Her life had been filled with many men and brief affairs, and she expressed how sad and alone she had felt for too many years.

Joi had been involved with Sid Caesar for a while, and before him it was Frank Sinatra. She had really liked Frank, but said he was quite troubled. The time they spent together was interrupted by his sadness at the loss of one of his friends. He would cry, and his depression destroyed any intimacy they had. That was the end of their affair.

The relationship with Sid, who was married, was a dead-end street. She knew he was a temporary suitor and realized exactly what it was about—sex for him and a momentary end to loneliness for her.

She told me about the creeps and the scum in Hollywood—the producers and directors who demanded favors for work in a film. The casting couch was alive and well, and she was one of its beautiful victims. Talking about her experiences made her start to cry—she had been holding in the pain for too many years. I held her close and she sobbed for hours.

Time passed and she was finally comforted. She felt safe and, at this moment, she knew she was loved.

Finally, though no words were spoken, she took my hand and we lay down, side by side, in front of the fire. There was silence and peace between us when she slowly raised herself and, resting on her elbow, looked down at me with those beautiful green eyes. My heart started to pound and then, unexpectedly and with a passion I had never known, she kissed me!

Joi kissed me with an intensity that almost stopped my breath. She seemed as surprised as I was and told me she had never felt this way about a woman before. Her kisses were like lightning in a thunderstorm. She took me by the hand and led me to her room. Wanting nothing more than to make her happy, I took her in my arms. Thus began a night I had dreamed of from the first time I saw her.

The morning light awakened me, and at first I thought it must have all been a dream. But there, beside me, she lay. She was sleeping like an angel with our bodies just barely touching. She began to wake and, as her eyes slowly opened, she looked deeply into mine and smiled a smile that I’ll never forget.

The day passed as we kissed and cuddled and made love and laughed. By the end of it, we were both spent … physically and emotionally. It had been heaven on Earth, and two souls had merged into one. Looking back, I realize this was when we fell totally in love. That date, Feb. 17, 1969, became our official anniversary.

For more information, visit Below: Alexis Hunter, in a modern photo, with Jimmie Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Kate Porter.

Published in Literature

“Every story might seem unique and particular, but is actually recurring, in conversation with others,” observes a man in Oregon-born writer Benjamin Percy’s third novel. “We’re all characters caught in a cycle of ruin and renewal.”

What if a global flu pandemic resulted in nuclear war? The Dead Lands begins 150 years after such a catastrophe occurred, at a time when the people living inside a walled enclave known as the Sanctuary, formerly the site of St. Louis, have finally begun to wonder whether anyone else exists in the land that used to be America.

When a strange young woman named Gawea appears on horseback at the Sanctuary’s gates—speaking of a lush green land across the country in Oregon, where a kind of civilization has managed not just to survive, but, apparently, thrive—the Sanctuary’s loathsome dictator orders her execution. But others—including a bold woman named Mina Clark, a security agent for the Sanctuary, and an antisocial man named Lewis Meriwether, who runs a museum of the past—decide to save Gawea and set out Westward across the American wasteland.

Percy, who made his name as an award-winning writer of literary fiction, has recently incorporated more elements of science fiction, fantasy and horror into his writing. (His last novel, Red Moon, concerned werewolves.) The Dead Lands features some of Percy’s finest work to date; it is a tale that doesn’t skimp on rich characters, language and setting, complete with a suspenseful, anything-might-happen plot. Percy’s prose has grown more subtle and beautiful, full of evocative descriptions. Describing Gawea, for example, he writes: “The girl appears so thin, like a piece of wood somebody whittled and gave up on.”

Percy has always set his fiction in the West, and here, he plays with the notion of what heading Westward means to the American spirit, even when the landscape is no longer recognizable. “They are the same,” Percy writes about two characters seeking to upend the standard order in this post-apocalyptic world, “both refusing to acknowledge that they live in a place where fantasies must be discarded.” Even readers who lean toward realism ought to welcome Percy’s turn toward fantasy. The Dead Lands shows what can happen when a talented, disciplined writer gives his imagination free rein.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Dead Lands

By Benjamin Percy

Grand Central

416 pages, $26

Published in Literature

William T. Vollmann’s striking new novel, The Dying Grass, chronicles the shameful events of the Nez Perce War of 1877, when the United States Army tried to prevent several bands of Native Americans from fleeing to Canada after miners and settlers encroached on tribal lands in the Northwest, in blatant violation of an earlier treaty.

Much of the tale—and it’s a long one, north of 1,200 pages—is told from the perspective of Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, who led the campaign.

Howard personifies a troublesome wrinkle in American history: the near-simultaneous fights to emancipate slaves and obliterate Native Americans. Unlike many of his fellow bluecoats, Howard was fiercely opposed to slavery; in fact, he founded Howard University, a black college, in Washington, D.C., in 1867.

Vollmann uses Howard’s memoirs to create internal dialogues that show him wrestling with the injustice of American Indian policy. Howard was acutely aware of the fact that settlers were willfully encroaching on treaty land in the Wallowa Valley. He sees his government as terrorizing the Nez Perce people: “He feels for them, of course. He disapproves not only of our national Indian policy, but also of Wallowa’s heedless seizures.”

Yet he still leads the campaign against the Nez Perce and several other Indian tribes. Why? Howard himself struggles with the question: He’s a soldier; he needs the money; he’s proud to serve his country. When all else fails, he reasons that “Washington has given instructions, and there must be an end.”

Howard is a tragic figure whose self-deception becomes painfully obvious as the long march carries on. In him, Vollmann finds a clear historical allegory for America at large—a nation keenly aware of its principles even as it fails to live up to them.

Vollmann is notorious for writing tomes that are overly long, but something must be said for the book’s word-to-word beauty. He has a tendency to fall into near-verse when describing a scene. Early in the novel, he flashes forward to his own visit to Chief Joseph’s grave on the Colville Indian Reservation near Nesplelem, Wash., where the surviving members of Joseph’s band were eventually placed, years after their surrender. Standing in the cemetery, Vollman forms something like a High Plains haiku from a simple inscription on another gravestone:

My precious little girl

Haylee Roxanne

June 5 2004

Oct 6 2004

“— my heart is good;

my heart is grass;

graves in the gravel and golden grass.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War

By William T. Vollmann


1,376 pages, $55

Published in Literature