I do not have as much time for reading as I would like, but here are books I have recently read and recommend:
Montana on my mind
- Fall Back Down When I Die by Joe Wilkins (Little, Brown and Company 2019)
Much as his poetic writing evokes the “hard snow glister[ing] beneath the sun,” Joe Wilkins’ masterful debut novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, is as ragged, raw, and sharp-edged as the Bull Mountains of eastern Montana. Like the northern sun exposing bleached bones in a drought-dried coulee, this book exposes people of firmly held convictions and tough-as-leather circumstances, juxtaposed as can be, for the reader to ponder, absorb, grin along or cry with, and shake a fist at. An overwhelming sense of place, poetic, tragic, lovely. Goddamn… this book is a must read.
- The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on the Big Dry by Joe Wilkins (Counterpoint 2012).
This fantastic new memoir by my friend and fellow Montanan, award winning poet and author Joe Wilkins, tells the truth, unvarnished, swept raw by fierce prairie winds and battered by hail storms. He’s laid his soul bare through these stories, beating back the Big Dry drought with courage and clarity. Joe’s words remind me of the terrific beauty of our shared native state, which is big enough to encompass all the truths of our mothers and fathers and grandparents, and the mythic stoicism of the self-reliant farmers, ranchers, and homesteaders of our past and present. The Mountain and the Fathers is a brilliant Big Sky book by a truly gifted author.
- How to Cook a Crocodile: A Memoir with Recipes by Bonnie Lee Black (Peace Corps Writers 2011)
Ever wonder how to serve up a hot plate of wonderful memories along with some spicy blackened tilapia, or how to survive a scalding injury in the tropical humidity while still finding time to share a delicious banana beignet recipe? If so, Bonnie Lee Black’s delightful, insightful, and at times mouthwatering memoir is for you. Detailing her time in the Peace Corps in Lastourville, Gabon, with a cup of humor, heaping amounts of grace, and dashes of excitement, patience, perseverance, and the courage to reinvent herself, How to Cook a Crocodile is a master chef’s bag of tricks and a wonderful story of self-discovery.
- Adventures in Gabon: Peace Corps Stories from the African Rainforest by Darcy Munson Meijer, editor (Peace Corps Writers 2011)
From snippets of letters home, to self-reflective essays and superb drawings, this collection of stories spans the history of Peace Corps Gabon, and sheds light on the varied experiences of service in this fascinating country. Darcy Munson Meijer, who has edited the Friends of Gabon newsletter for years, has pulled together an excellent collection of poems, stories, sketches, and insights that leave one with a fabulous glimpse into Peace Corps life, service, and adjustment to a new world. Thanks are due to the many volunteers who have shared their personal triumphs, frustrations, and memories through Ms. Munson Meijer’s deft editorial hands. Adventures in Gabon is truly that; a terrific collection of adventures!
- No Mercy: A Journey to the Heart of the Congo by Redmond O’Hanlon (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1996)
Redmond O’Hanlon’s vivid depiction of his journey into the heart of the Republic of Congo holds nothing back. His descriptions of wildlife (both seen and imagined) and birdlife are exquisite; his traveling companions are shown with all of their talents and foibles, each full of doubt and dreams, hopes and fears. His portrayal of local belief in sorcery, in fate, and in life so accurately reflects my own experiences in Gabon it almost seems we lived with the same people. No Mercy pulls back the veils that shroud the Congo to share with us one man’s incredible adventure into a remarkable area of the world–not in a high-minded, slightly censored manner, but in a straight forward, no-holds-barred narrative that drips with realism, humor (self-deprecating at times), and a jaded sort of wonder.
- The Last Great Ape: A Journey Through Africa and a Fight for the Heart of the Continent by Ofir Drori and David McDannald (Pegasus Books 2012)
With an impressive, stubborn tenacity, The Last Great Ape: A Journey Through Africa and a Fight for the Heart of the Continent recounts not just a creation story, but the ongoing re-creation story of its narrator and protagonist, Ofir Drori, as he travels from one heart-pounding adventure to the next. Along with his co-author, David McDannald, Drori masterfully describes his search for self and the causes he can put his indeterminable passion toward making better. With a wonderfully woven style of self-reflection and an impassioned plea toward activism, this book touches on the pulse of the cultures and ecosystems of an incredible continent. Drori’s quest to inspire local communities toward justice and rule of law, to combat corruption and the decimation of chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants, and the forests they live in, should serve to light the fire under any would-be (or once-was) activist, conservationist, and community advocate. The Last Great Ape should be required reading for any wildlife enthusiast, environmental law advocate, and international development practitioner.
- The Emperor and the Elephants: A Peace Corps Volunteer’s Story of Life During the Late 1970s in the Central African Empire by Richard Carroll (Peace Corps Writers 2016)
From idealistic, but on-the-ground realism of a twenty-something Peace Corps volunteer, to the added context of experienced hindsight, Dr. Carroll’s The Emperor and the Elephants provides fascinating reflections on his many years in Central Africa working for conservation, wildlife, and protected area development and management. With challenges of language, remoteness, cultural differences, and the political machinations outside the gambit of any conservation worker, the history of Central African environmental protection is highlighted by heroic efforts of local and foreign advocates. Dr. Carroll’s prose brings out the beauty – raw and up-close – of these efforts and this place. I was fortunate to be able to work with Richard in the 2000s in Gabon, not too far from where he worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Republic. His analysis and descriptions were as valid for me during my Peace Corps and WWF years, as they were for him decades earlier. I highly recommend The Emperor and the Elephants for its clear-eyed, yet passionate and hopeful, call to understand the world and the conservation imperative of working with local advocates to protect important landscapes and wildlife.
- The Bicycle Diaries: My 21,000-Mile Ride for the Climate by David Kroodsma (RFC Press 2014)
Fill up your tires, make sure your pedals, gears, and brakes are in excellent working condition and prepare for an insightful, at times humorous, and educational ride as David Kroodsma embarks on a life changing journey from California to the southern tip of the South America. Traveling by bicycle, exploring rural roads and bustling cities, Kroodsma embarks on a mission to raise the profile of the climate crisis in nearly every country in the Americas. Along the way, he discovers the challenges and triumphs of community and culture, of struggling farmers and wealthy engineers, and an evolution in his own way of thinking. His story, full of vivid descriptions of the people he meets and their environmental and cultural contexts, is peppered with just the right amount of climate- and economic-related facts to assist with the narrative of his mission. The Bicycle Diaries is more than a personal adventure story; it is an excellent peak into how tackling the challenge of climate change requires an integrated look at addressing poverty, education, climate, and global interconnectedness. In an age of planes, trains, and automobiles, Kroodsma helps demonstrate why the bicycle deserves to take a much more prominent role in all of our lives.
- Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds by Miyoko Chu (Walker Books 2006)
A typical morning walk to work for me includes a search of the skies and gazing into treetops to see which feathered beings are singing, feeding, flying, or frolicking that day. Sacramento, California is within the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds, including many species of songbirds. On a (relatively) wintery day in December, I spent part of the day not birdwatching, but finishing a wonderfully written book about the natural and scientific history of songbird migrations through the year (and years). Miyoko Chu’s Songbird Journeys recounts how we have come to learn about songbirds and their migrations, whether through rigorous first-hand analysis, accidental scientific discoveries, or sheer passionate birding conservation work. Chu’s writing is researched and deep, while keeping the reader engaged and wanting more. As she writes, “[w]hen migratory birds cross our paths, they compel us to stop and marvel at their beauty, their fluid lives in four seasons and distant places, and the ecological intricacies they require to survive.” When I walk to work tomorrow morning under waxy-berry-sporting trees, because of this book, I will better understand why there are so many beautiful yellow-rumped warblers in Sacramento in December – unlike most other birds, this warbler species is able to digest the waxy berries. I highly recommend this book to birdwatchers, conservationists, science enthusiasts, and anyone who has marveled at the song and flight of the many birds that surround us.
- Slain Wood: Papermaking and its Environmental Consequences in the American South by William Boyd (Johns Hopkins University Press 2015)
Expertly weaving together a meticulously studied analysis of industrial processes, ecological processes, economics, labor, race, geography, politics, law, and emerging science and environmental awareness, William Boyd’s treatise on the pulp and paper industry in the South of the United States provides an understandable, comprehensive history of the dynamics at play in shaping and reshaping land and region. Slain Wood paints a compelling picture of the complex array of factors that resulted in this continuing industrial force of the South. Boyd’s methods and writing highlight the need for incorporating multiple areas of study and research – we must look through economic, ecological, social, and political lenses to see the full picture, understand problems, and develop more lasting solutions. For students of history, of environmental externalities, of methodological research, and for anyone looking to learn as they read, I highly recommend this book.