Archive for the ‘adventure’ Tag

Riches and Losses   Leave a comment

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C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold can be read as either a question or an exclamation. It depends as much on the characters’ perspectives as the reader’s, which frequently changes but isn’t distracting.

Two siblings, Lucy age 12 and Sam age 11, of Chinese descent are left as orphans. Lucy’s pragmatic whereas Sam, their father’s favorite, is stubborn. Both are intelligent, but in different ways. The first thing they need to do is bury their Ba, something they must do with some semblance of tradition. Memories of him and their Ma, who is already gone, provide the family history: life as outcasts; how Ba and Ma met; Lucy’s passion for education; Sam’s disdain of the status quo; and more. So much more.

The plot unfolds as the Gold Rush has passed its heyday and railroad lines are being set across the west. Zhang’s writing is beautifully descriptive, not only of the northern California inland but the people inhabiting the harsh environment.

Lucy’s the focus of most of the story, although Sam, Ba and Ma are vividly brought to life. Yet, Zhang has crafted a family portrait full of flaws, loyalty, tradition and equal parts optimism and pessimism. Ba was born in California and was abandoned as a child. He’s Chinese, but doesn’t know the language – something he eventually learns from his wife.

Within this poignant adventure of Lucy and Sam on their own are issues of racism, sexual identity and the meaning of family.

How Much of These Hills is Gold
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2020
272 pages

Rugged Relationships   Leave a comment

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The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney has been on my nightstand for years; I’ve lost track of how many. I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner.

The author evokes the loneliness and bitter cold of Canada’s Northern Territory in the late 1860s. Alternating between the first person voice of Mrs. Ross and that of an omniscient narrator, the scene is set to unravel the mystery behind the brutal murder of a French trapper found in his cabin. Mrs. Ross is the first to discover the body and the first to wonder about the absence of her teenage son, Francis.

The small settlement, rich with gossip, lacks law enforcement, which results in the arrival of Hudson’s Bay Company representatives to investigate. An assortment of characters, from refined gentry to trappers and Indians, among others, figure into the story.

Family histories (and secrets), personal backgrounds, Native American relations with settlers, the stark landscape and unconditional love are given equal weight throughout the narrative. Although Mrs. Ross is the character with whom the reader becomes most familiar, her first name is never revealed. She does not believe Francis is capable of murder, and she has little faith that those searching for him will give him the benefit of innocent until proven guilty.

Thus, she sets out on her own search with the help of William Parker, a half-breed previously held custody on suspicion of his role in the murder.
Doubt and faith vie as the prominent sentiments in this fast-paced whodunit adventure.

The Tenderness of the Wolves
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2006
371 pages (plus summary and Discussion Points)

Wild Ride   1 comment

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I wasn’t aware of the 1983 Glen Canyon Dam crisis, nor of an effort to achieve the fastest ride through the Grand Canyon until reading The Emerald Mile. Keven Fedarko presents an engrossing, at times lyrical (and occasionally overwhelming) account of the events that led to three men hurtling down the Colorado River in a wooden boat.

Fedarko introduces a cast of characters from John Wesley Powell to park rangers, from boat builders to hydrologists, from river rats to tourists – among others. Historic, meteorological, hydrologic and recreational elements – again, to name a few – are all addressed. Fedarko’s writing is based on thorough research that serves the purpose of illustrating the myriad of components that made the river run possible while addressing aspects that threatened its fulfillment.

The author is a master of the backstory. His writing is much like the river he describes: full of excitement and the unknown, then calm. And, he apparently leaves no stone unturned. Although this is a work of fiction, it has the feel of a mystery: how is Kenton Gura, the man who captained the small, hand-built dory named the Emerald Mile, going to pull off the adventure of a lifetime? This same sense of intrigue is evident in the passages concerning the efforts to thwart a dam failure while dealing with the effects of a massive snow melt: the effect of El Nino.

This work makes me not only want to revisit the Grand Canyon, but also to tour the dams at either end.

The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in history Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon
Four Bookmarks
Scribner, 2013
415 pages (includes notes and index)

Microscopic and Grand   2 comments

“The Signature of All Things”

For a minute forget that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote Eat, Pray, Love. It may take a little longer, but the idea is to not let this dissuade you from reading The Signature of All Things. Gilbert’s novel is as different from her memoir as ice milk is from ice cream. The latter is much richer and nuanced; it’s worth every moment of guilty pleasure spent under its grip.

Gilbert transports the reader from London, across the seas (on multiple occasions), and to Tahiti and Amsterdam. Philadelphia provides the lengthiest setting where the brilliant, unattractive Alma Whitaker is introduced to the world: her birth is literally the first sentence of this epic narrative. In Gilbert’s words, Alma’s childhood “was not yet noble, nor was it particularly interesting …” Thus, the focus turns, albeit temporarily, to Alma’s father, Henry Whitaker.

Henry stole his way out of poverty. He didn’t just acquire wealth, he attained knowledge and became a leading botanist and businessman. Alma’s mother, a stoic and harsh parent intent on fortifying her daughter’s intellect, also possessed a great mind and interest in botany.

Through humor, interesting botanical descriptions and strong, insightful characters, Gilbert creates a story that not only spans continents, but also scientific ideas along with notions regarding love and relationships. The vivid imagery of the various landscapes is a bonus.

Alma is a passionate character rich in curiosity (and foibles). Yet, despite the limits placed on her gender, she explores life in miniscule proportions and unexpectedly reveals its grand scale.

The Signature of All Things
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Viking, 2013
499 pages