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Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine and the Voices of New Orleans.
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By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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As I've mentioned in a few posts here and there, I've been slowly reading an ARC of Andrea Barrett's upcoming story collection Archangel. Her fans are going to adore this; it's everything you expect from Barrett and more - a truly fabulous set of stories. I love it.
The final story is "Archangel" and includes the main character from the earlier story "The Experiment", now all grown up and fighting in WWI. It's 1919 in "Archangel" and although the war is over, for these men it continues in Russia, where they are assigned to The Polar Bear Expedition and bizarrely, stuck in the Russian Civil War. I have never heard about this force which is pretty stunning as I heavily studied US military history in college (it was the main focus of my history degree) and I've read a ton on WWI. (It seems like I'm always finding out more of history that I've missed. So frustrating!)
Barrett does amazing stuff with the setting and characters and brings alive all the confusion and fear of this war-after-a-war where nobody has any idea what is going on. Because this is Barrett there is also a second character, a woman, who is an x-ray technician. The science history of x-rays blends into military history as if they were always meant to be, and readers fall in love with these two people so far from home and so uncertain as to why they are there and what will become of them in that miserable place.
You will read "Archangel" and hate war all over again. It's sublime - brittle and sharp and slices your heart. I ripped me apart a bit, this story, and the final paragraphs were worthy of a Wilfred Owen poem.
I can't wait until you all read this book - I just can't wait.
[Post pic: En route to Archangel, a group of 339th Infantry Regiment doughboys pose with their newly issued M1891 Mosin-Nagant rifles. From the Army Sustainment Bulletin.]
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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I don't talk much about my son here but he's eleven years old and while he loves a good story (I read all of the Harry Potter books to him several years ago), he is not always patient enough to read them. He prefers graphic novels and shorter nonfiction and so when I caught him up in bed, reading ahead in Elise Broach's Superstition Mountain books, I knew they were something special. He loves these two books and is d-y-i-n-g for the third to come out. I felt it was my duty (*grin*) to make sure everyone knew about them.
In every possible way Treasure on Superstition Mountain and Missing on Superstition Mountain are cut from the cloth of classic middle grade adventure. You have four likeable kids - three brothers and their spunky girl neighbor - the pensive, more bookish child is the narrator, the parents are all decent admirable folks who support these curious active children (while also being busy enough to let them disappear for awhile) and there is a huge mystery - HUGE - that demands to be solved.
In this case the story is all about the Lost Dutchman's Mine, a very real Arizona legend that Broach discusses in her excellent afterwords. The kids go hiking on Superstition Mountain (a real place), and through an accident discover something sinister. In search of clues about what they've found, the kids hit the library, which adds an unexpectedly creepy character to the story, and the cemetery, which gives us a slightly unhinged character, and to the historical society - where we find a hero! Huzzah! It's all very Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys/Trixie Belden at their best and the scary is just the right amount of scary to keep readers turning the page while not terrifying. My son loves that each chapter ends with you wanting more and even though both books end without cliffhangers, the main story arc clearly continues. Broach is great at pacing and think that is a big part of why these books succeed so much.
We have both titles in hardcover for as my son says, he "NEEDS' them and can't stand the thought of them falling apart at some point. The covers catch the eye of their audience (kids in action!) and the drawings in the text are quite good - though, surprisingly, my son has not relied upon them. The story keeps him moving forward, not the pictures.
I can't wait to see how Broach ends this trilogy. There are some bad guys, and a lot of questions but mostly I'm enjoying how the characters have evolved and grown to ask more questions and think more deeply about what they are finding and learning. Plus she has managed to work a library and ghost town into the narrative - how cool is that?
Highly recommend, of course!
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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.........go read her piece in the New York Times about choosing a preventative mastectomy. It's stunning and sobering and braver than anything I've read in a long long time. I'm tired of pink ribbons making us all feel better - we need to cure cancer and we need to do it now.
Breast cancer alone kills some 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization, mainly in low- and middle-income countries. It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live. The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.
I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.
A couple of weeks ago Alaska Dispatch ran a piece I wrote about these guys who are on this crazy madcap all-kinds-of-wonderful mission to save a B25 Mitchell bomber from a sandbar north of Fairbanks where is has been sitting for 50 years. They have founded a museum just so they can make this airplane the centerpiece of it and not only do they want to rebuild the plane, they want to fly it again.
This is the stuff that dreams are made of, folks. I find it inspiring that they can even dream this big.
Anyway, they've formed a Kickstarter to get $20,000 and if you can show them so financial or at least help spread the word, that would be excellent. It's worth clicking through to check out the video and see the plane; really wicked cool stuff.
In other Kickstarter news, these guys have developed a card game around Moby Dick that has to be seen to be believed. The Awl interviewed the creators and it's neat to see a literary obsession turned into tabletop play this way. I hope they get their funding because I'd really love to check out the game. (And take a look at those gorgeous cards!!!)
And I have a new column up at Bookslut, which includes books where someone really is out to get you. They are more adventure than horror though (well, except for the mutant bugs one - ha!). All fun, all recommended, of course.
And I have a new article up at Alaska Dispatch on the bush pilots of Wrangell St. Elias National Park that touches a bit on the bush pilot narrative and its long history (and continued impact on Alaska aviation).
What I'm working on now - reviews for July and August, and articles on the impact of sequestration on the Alaska aviation environment and a a flight school in Bethel aimed at Alaskan Native youth. And then there's some epic spring cleaning going on over here, but I image the same thing is going on in your house, too!
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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Every time I think I've read it all an author comes along and wham, I get reminded that yes, indeed, you can take an old story and make it new all over again. Dear readers, I give you Six-Gun Snow White, which is exactly what it sounds like -- a Western spin on the fairy tale classic. Catherynne Valente spins it in such a way that somehow you end up with visions in your head of Clint Eastwood, William Randolph Hearst, Coyote, the horrible mines where all those poor kids were enslaved in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Annie Oakley times seven. But the idea alone, even with all these elements, is not enough. What makes Six-Gun Snow White such an unforgettable read is the voice of the main character and the narrative that Valente drops her into.
First, be aware this is old-school Snow White, full of all kinds of pain and torment and born of a forced union between her Native American mother and wildly wealthy and powerful father, the arrogant "Mr. H." (This is where all of my Hearst suspicions kicked in.) After her mother's death in childbirth, our heroine leads a largely ignored childhood with a few highlights like shooting targets with the jewel-laden, silver-handled revolver her father gave her. Things take a sudden turn however with the dreaded arrival of the stepmother. This is when Snow White gets her name, for as the new Mrs. H. makes clear with her mixed-blood heritage, white is "the one thing I was not and could never be." Thus begins the torturing of Snow White and the nightmare that is life with an evil stepmother.
Eventually, Snow White runs away on the back of a horse named Charming, out for Indian Territory, for the story she has created of her mother's people, for a better life out there somewhere. A hired Pinkerton detective hunts her relentlessly, following the legend she leaves in her wake. Snow White gets harder on her own, she gets tough, she gets angry, she gets brutal. She survives. When she faces down the detective, she finds a place with seven friends and when her stepmother knocks on her door, well, Snow White follows the tale that has been written for her. I'll only say that the ending manages to be both unexpected and perfect, it's a gift of an ending, and for this reader, who grew up on Red River, The Searchers, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, this was the Snow White I have waited my whole damn life to find. With a gorgeous cover by Charles Vess, Six-Gun Snow White is the kind of literary shock that requires an immense talent.
Paul Crilley's The Lazarus Machine takes place in an alternate steampunk 1895 where Tesla-powered computers are everywhere and Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace are heroes of the day. Sebastian Tweed and his father make a living as spiritualists -- or rather his father pretends to talk to the dead while Sebastian uses technology to answer. In the opening chapters, Barnaby Tweed is kidnapped by the malevolent Professor Moriarty and his gang, and Sebastian sets off on a race to find his father and discover why Moriarty, back from apparent death on Reichenbach Falls, would want him in the first place. To get these answers he must work with budding journalist Octavia Nightingale, who is on her own search for a missing parent and shares Sebastian's interest in foiling Moriarty's (certainly nefarious) plans.
There is plenty of running around London for both Sebastian and Olivia as they call on friends to help pursue the Moriarty mystery to the highest levels of British government. Crilley does a grand job of ratcheting up the tension, especially when Sebastian has to break into a prison. What's especially appealing is the many strong supporting characters (particularly female) he has created, including not only Olivia but also young computer mastermind "Stepp Reckoner" and family friends Jenny and Carter (who present an excellent picture of marital bliss, albeit mixed with occasional larceny). The biggest win here, however, is found in the plot twists and turns, all of which are played out with witty elegance. Crilley really thought this one out, and his care with the plot should be deeply appreciated by the readers. There's comedy, a tiny hint of romance and smart banter. I think Crilley just might have done the near impossible here and accomplished a steampunk adventure that has equal appeal to teens of both genders. Now if Sebastian and Olivia can just stay alive as they continue their adventures into the dark underbelly of British politics, this could be a series with serious staying power.
Cherie Priest happily returns to her damaged "rotter" and gas-filled Seattle with her latest Clockwork Century title, The Inexplicables. I know it's hard to cheer the return of zombie-like cannibals, but I love this version of Seattle and the tough non-cannibal occupants who live there. Her protagonist, teen Rector Sherman, is an orphan who has aged out of charity care and is being shown the door as the story opens. Addicted to the area's drug of choice, sap, and haunted by his complicity in sending a friend into the dangerous walled city, he goes into Seattle seeking evidence of what happened to Zeke. He is fairly quickly nearly killed in an altercation with a hella-big monster and starts going through some serious detox.
Rescued by Zeke's friends and family, Rector finds himself, shockingly, making friends. They discover a plot to takeover Seattle, find the monster and his girlfriend, and also bump into a rotter or two. Through it all Rector struggles to stay clean and more importantly not just die from the effects of his years of drug abuse. While the action comes hard and fast, Priest still lays out a lot potential for future stories, not only with Rector and Zeke (not dead, as it turns out), but the former Confederate nurse Mercy Lynch who is missing a few friends of her own. In the Clockwork Century anything is possible and all of it, in one way or another, ties into the rest.
Like the previous entries in this series, The Inexplicables is fast-paced and populated with smart, capable characters who don't spend much time dithering when there is a job to do. Although monsters appear, these are not horror stories, and the blood and gore is kept to a minimum that complements rather than overwhelms the story. Teenage boys in particular should enjoy The Inexplicables, as Rector, Zeke, and their friend Houjin have the sort of high action adventures with some very real threats that will keep them on the edge of their seats. Rector is no prince, but he's very compelling, and following him as he struggles each and every moment to stay straight is the most powerful part of this exciting story.
My first thought after finishing Timothy Bradley's Infestation was that I had just experienced a Holes mash-up with every single B monster movie that came out of the 1950s. I grew up watching those movies on Sunday mornings, so that is high praise, and for Bradley's target audience of young teen (or tween) boys, it should be all the persuasion they need to hear. Toss in a sympathetic protagonist in a miserable situation who bonds with a bunch of likable if slightly dangerous freaks and then must face down mutant killer bugs. This is everything your typical reluctant reader could want and it comes wrapped up in a plot that zips along convincingly and never forgets that character is what matters most.
Our hero Andy ends up at the Reclamation School for Boys in the New Mexico desert after a miserable foster care experience. The school is a for-profit institution and it makes money by keeping the boys there as long as possible, which isn't too tough as they are out in the middle of nowhere. With harsh rules and continuous punishment plus the prerequisite bullies, Andy is pretty sure he is in hell. Things only get weirder when his roommate takes him up through the ceiling tiles in their room to an abandoned portion of the compound, which dates back to its previous military ownership days. Barrels of chemicals fill the room, hinting at all sorts of nefarious purposes. Very quickly the plot blows up when Andy and seven other students are locked up alone in the isolated Block 6 as punishment. An earthquake-type event occurs and when the boys bust out they find a bloody mess. Plus mutant bugs.
The boys get their act together and don't waste a lot of time wondering about the necessary action of survival. Through the assistance of an adult they learn some of the science behind what the mutants, and Bradley smoothly fits in a little background about the environment and chemicals. Mostly though, this is just a big action-packed novel about killing the big uglies before they kill (and eat) you first. Very, very fun.
COOL READ: Chronicle Books is known for the excellent design that goes into their titles but they've really outdone themselves with The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science. Set up as a encyclopedia for the scientifically curious (teenage Einstein wannabes who live in bedrooms that look like Henry Jones, Jr.'s office will need it badly), each "question" is addressed in a double-page spread that includes a brief essay written a professor, librarian, engineer, or doctor alongside a full-page highly original illustration. The questions are eclectic, including "Can Evolution Outpace Climate Change?" "Why Do Placebos Work?" "Do Rogue Waves Exist?" and "Why Do Whales Sing?" and the color illustrations range from realistic to comedic to sometimes really, really strange. You will learn a lot, but mostly, this one is just damn cool to look at. I still want my bedroom to look like Henry Jones, Jr.'s office; the book fits right in with my plan.
For more than a decade, Michigan resident Patrick Mihalek has dreamed about recovering a B25 Mitchell bomber from a sandbar in the Tanana River. The so-called "Sandbar Mitchell" was forced down after an engine failure in 1969 when flying for the fire service. Mihalek, who has been obsessed with B25s "forever" and spent countless hours as a teenager on the Internet researching them, has put together a team of volunteers on a shoestring budget to recover this relic. They plan to be on the river from June 22 to July 2 to prepare the wreckage for transport to the Lower 48. Ultimately, it will be completely rebuilt and serve as the centerpiece in the new Warbirds of Glory Air Museum.
The Sandbar Mitchell was purchased as surplus at a rock-bottom price from the Air Force in the late 1950s. Its military service over, the new owner retrofit the aircraft for fire suppression. In 1969, while fighting a fire in Manley Hot Springs, it suffered a double-engine failure after takeoff from Fairbanks. The pilot successfully landed it on a sandbar in the Tanana north of town and the engines, propellers and instruments were quickly removed. The rest of the aircraft remained, however, as it was not worth the recovery cost. (B25s were so cheap then, it was uninsured.) Vandalized and damaged over the years, it served primarily as a highly recognized landmark, particularly for pilots. No one has made any notable attempt to recover the Sandbar Mitchell until now.
Mihalek has purchased the aircraft from the owner's family, obtaining its registration and also collecting the necessary permits for its salvage from the State of Alaska and Fort Wainwright. He already has the nose section of another B25, which he obtained years earlier, and plans to utilize as much of the Sandbar Mitchell as possible. "It is," he notes, "in much better condition than I imagined after being abandoned for so many years."
With partner Tim Trainor, who operates the Aeronca Aircraft History Museum out of his hangar in a residential airpark where the B25 will be restored, Mihalek is uniquely qualified to recover and rebuild the aircraft. He has a degree in aviation and is a licensed A&P mechanic. Both men see this effort as a valuable opportunity to reintroduce skilled trades to a younger generation. "People will be able to come by the hangar and see the work we are doing here," says Mihalek, "especially kids. It's important that they see why this work matters before the skills die off." The B25 has a natural appeal for any aircraft aficionado regardless of age, and Mihalek and Trainor seem determined to nurture that interest as they work to bring the Sandbar Mitchell back from the dead.
"There are only about 20 of these aircraft flying in the U.S. today," says Mihalek, which is a far cry from when they could be purchased for as little as $5,000 after the war. "It's just such a handsome aircraft; it's really something special." Close to taking a significant step toward achieving his lifelong dream, Mihalek can hardly contain his excitement. "We have a team of volunteers and we've gotten a lot of help from Alaskans. We're looking forward to heading out to the river and getting it ready to go."
The Sandbar Mitchell is not the first former military aircraft recovered from Alaska. In 2011 a team from the Champaign Aviation Museum in Ohio removed a B-17 that crashed north of Talkeenta in 1951 to use for parts and in 1996 professional aircraft salvor Gary Larkins and his group, called the "Air Pirates," removed a B-17 near Ruby that was later incorporated into the aircraft "My Gal Sal". It is now fully restored and on display at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
Without the support of a large established museum, Mihalek and Trainor are very dependent on volunteers and donations. They are still hoping for the donation of an airlift service to assist them in transporting large pieces of the plane to private land nearby that has been made available to them as a staging area. Without it, they will have to wait for winter to haul the larger pieces out on the ice. Regardless of how much more assistance comes through, however, Mihalek is determined to get the Sandbar Mitchell ready to go in June.
"Our goal is to get this aircraft back in airworthy condition and fly it again and the nose art will reflect its Alaskan name. This B25 is going to always be known as the Sandbar Mitchell," he says. "We'll never forget how much Alaska was a part of its history."
If you're interested in donating or volunteering, you can contact Patrick Mihalek by visiting the website devoted to the Sandbar Mitchell project. You can also read more about the project and see some photos of the legendary B25.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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There was a little chat about this one twitter the other day and I chimed in as it was already on my radar for January. Here's what Bellevue Literary Press has to say about it:
Welcome to Villa il Palmerino, the British enclave in rural Italy where Violet Paget, known to the world by her pen name and male persona, Vernon Lee, held court. In imagining the real life of this brilliant, lesbian polymath known for her chilling supernatural stories, Pritchard creates a multilayered tale in which the dead writer inhabits the heart and mind of her lonely, modern-day biographer.
Positing the art of biography as an act of resurrection and possession, this novel brings to life a vividly detailed, subtly erotic tale about secret loves and the fascinating artists and intellectuals--Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent, Henry James, Robert Browning, Bernard Berenson--who challenged and inspired each other during an age of repression.
More of Violet's bio is at the Vernon Lee wikipedia page
. (It's hard to find much about her online, part of why I'm pretty psyched about this novel.)
Someone I do not know made a trailer for MAP and posted it on You Tube! Here it is in all of its wonderfulness - I'm mighty impressed.
Adam Braver's Misfit manages to be a novel that is entirely about Marilyn Monroe while appealing far beyond any crass celebrity story type moniker. I came to it primarily because it is published by Tinhouse and after being quite gobsmacked by my love for Alexis Smith's Glaciers I really want to give something else by them a try. It helps that I have a certain affection for Monroe's work and also find her a Hollywood tragedy that seems to me is far more about being a woman of her time then a victim of the rich and famous. But none of that matters really because the moment I picked Misfit up and started reading it became a novel I could not put down and am still thinking about.
A lot of people have written about Marilyn Monroe but you need to set all of that aside when picking up Misfit. Braver frames the book around the last weekend of her life, when she traveled with Peter Lawford and Pat Kennedy to Frank Sinatra's resort up on Lake Tahoe. It's about her attempt to get away from an enormous amount of professional and personal stress and her deeply felt desire to rest.
The facts of the trip are true, the feelings expressed by Monroe are, of course, fiction. At Sinatra's lodge she fell to pieces and because everyone by then expected nothing less of her than that, no one thought to save her. She went home and she died. Whether the Lawfords or Sinatra wished they had done something more, whether any of them could have done something more, is really irrelevant. Braver is not looking to cast blame here. What he wants is to show how complicated this woman was, how little anyone truly knew her and how desperate she was to be free of....herself. In that respect she was so much like so many woman from her era that I have known that I quite forgot I was reading about a movie star. Sinatra could have been anyone, her friends represent everyone, Monroe's position could have been anything, her spouses were just like so many other husbands of their time. Misfit is about the woman we knew so little, not the famous star and even though Clark Gable and Dean Martin and so many other famous people are here, it is the sheer normal-ness of all their actions and reactions that will strike you deep and hard.
Braver moves back and forth in time, always returning to the lodge and that last weekend. He gives readers some of Monroe's tragic childhood, her discovery on an assembly line, her marriages and her serious study of acting. A lot of the book is taken with her role in the film Misfits (with Gable) and her final role in the unfinished film Something's Got To Give (with Martin). He gives readers a full picture of a complicated person but mostly he just shows you how damn hard it could be to be a woman, let alone a famous and talented one, in the 1950s. After reading Misfit it's clear to me that Marilyn Monroe really never had a damn chance and I hate that. But wow, do I ever love how Braver made me realize that truth and how incredibly beautiful his way of imparting it was.
I love this book; can't wait to read another one (Karen Shepherd's The Celestials is due out in June) from Tinhouse.
Monroe on the set of Somethings Got To Give.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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I think in this case, pictures are worth a thousand words, right? We have sold just over 100 books off the Powells wish list for Ballou Library and it is truly wonderful to see these titles unpacked with so much excitement. This is why we do the book fair - because we know how much the books are wanted and will be enjoyed.
In all honesty though, sometimes I feel as if I am nagging the entire internet with posts and tweets trying to cajole folks to spread the word and help us sellout. I wish it was easier; heck, I wish it was unnecessary. I wish that I didn't get emails from people disappointed that we were staying with the same school as years previous, that we had not found someplace "needier". I wish I did not have to explain why Ballou still needs our help and I wish I didn't get frustrated and even a little angry at how a school library in our nation's capitol that has not money for new books deserves lots of novels and science fiction and romance (even with vampires) and all of those other types of books that don't sound serious enough to some folks but are desperately wanted by teenagers everywhere.
Just look at that girl with Redshirts - pretty darn happy, don't you think?
The spring book fair formerly ended yesterday but I'm going to leave the list open for just a little while longer. I can't help but think that seeing these pictures might prompt a few folks to buy a book or two or let some folks know about the book fair who might have missed the initial Guys Lit Wire post. I do hope everyone will share these pictures far and wide though - it's pretty cool to see how excited teenagers can be about the gift of books, isn't it? They make me feel hopeful in a thousand different ways; hopeful and pretty damn happy.
In 1997, a Cessna 208 operated by Hageland Aviation Services crashed in the frozen Arctic Ocean about three miles north of Wainwright. The pilot and all four passengers perished. In its final report, the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) found the probable cause was the pilot's "intentional VFR (visual flight rules) flight into instrument meteorological conditions and his failure to maintain altitude/clearance from terrain." The weather was listed as a contributing factor, but the official narrative suggests another factor came into play.
The pilot, who was based in Barrow, contacted flight service 11 times the day of the crash, asking about weather conditions for his intended destination of Wainwright. Each time he was assured that the ceiling and visibility were low and VFR flight wasn't recommended. Each time he called back, he hoped for an improved report. Each time he was disappointed. On one phone call he complained, "Shoot... (as) soon as I call the passengers the darned stuff comes down."
Eventually, almost 12 hours after his first call at 8:19 that morning, the flight departed. Thirty-five minutes later, while trying to return to Barrow after an unsuccessful landing attempt, it crashed.
The question of just how badly his passengers wanted to get to the village and what influence they had on the pilot is a valid one. Passenger pressure has long been a source of concern for the NTSB when investigating Alaska aviation accidents. Studies in both 1980 and 1995 found that passenger attitude toward flying in Alaska was "problematic" and an effort was launched in 2002 to try and transform passenger ideas about flying.
For those who work in the industry, passenger attitudes about cancelled or delayed flights is a common complaint. While it might seem counterintuitive to ask a pilot to fly in the face of prohibitive mechanical or weather conditions, anyone who has ever stood in an airport when a major airline cancels is well aware of how quickly passengers will flock to the competition in hopes of finding a spot on one of their aircraft. Among major airlines, however, passengers only speak to customer service; pilots are protected from direct contact and strict company rules insulate them from influence. Likewise, air ambulance pilots are never supposed to be made aware of a patient's condition and even the Coast Guard has "bingo" - or point of no return -- fuel when they must turn back from a rescue, regardless of the operation's status. Policies that maintain separation between passengers and pilots keep flight decisions as impersonal as possible and based upon solely objective reasons. The bottom line is that passenger concerns should carry no weight in a pilot's decisions.
Unfortunately in Alaska, such a wall is impossible, especially in rural locations. Everybody stands on the ramp together. Everybody stands around the counter together. Everybody has phoned ahead to family and friends and checked on the weather. Everybody has an opinion and often they are impossible to ignore, even if they lead to danger.
Knife-wielding passenger wanted to fly
Several years ago, one of my co-workers at a Fairbanks-based commuter airline was chased around his single-engine plane in Galena by an enraged passenger wielding a knife. Even though the plane had a flat tire, the passenger still wanted to be taken home to Kaltag. Quick.
Another pilot once told me about his harrowing ordeal on a commuter flight out of Bethel. When he was unable to get into a nearby village and decided to turn back, one of the passengers in his Cessna 207 pulled a gun and held it to his head. Fortunately, the other passengers were saner and persuaded enraged passenger to let their pilot live and get them back down on to the ground. The pilot never pressed charges, or even told his boss about the incident.
These are extreme examples of course, but passengers pressing pilots about changes to flight status, especially in villages, are a routine concern.
Alaskans relish the state's history of pilots willing to go the extra mile under extreme conditions, and occasionally encourage such behavior. But the rules are not different in Alaska -- nor should they be. And while it is not common to see passenger pressure mentioned in an accident report, most pilots who directly interact with passengers experience it eventually. This is the sort of pressure that is difficult to prove, although its pervasiveness in the Alaskan aviation environment cannot be denied.
In 1997, when NTSB investigators interviewed the pilot's wife, who worked with him at Hageland's in Barrow, and his station manager, both said he might have felt pressured by his passengers to fly. It could not be proven, of course, and was irrelevant to the accident's final cause. As is all too common, regardless of outside influences, the ultimate explanation for the crash was, again, pilot error.
In 1936, fresh off a sometimes-harrowing (by his own account) traverse of the St. Elias Mountains, mountaineer Bradford Washburn was funded by the National Geographic Society to lead a photographic expedition over Mount McKinley. The National Geographic Society-Pan American Airways Mt. McKinley Flight Expedition was planned in April after it became clear photos from the mountain itself were unsatisfactory for climbers and scientists who wished to explore the peak.
"Rising to such an altitude and in almost complete isolation," wrote Washburn in a 1938 article for National Geographic Magazine, "it is virtually impossible to find a spot from which a truly undistorted view of its whole mass may be obtained."
Washburn was determined to use, if at all possible, a multi-engine aircraft for the flights and a partnership with Pan American facilitated this selection. Based out of Fairbanks, the Lockheed Elektra flown by S.E. Robbins, who had previously landed on McKinley as part of the Allen Carpé Cosmic Ray Expedition in 1932, also included Robert Gleason as a radio operator. This brought a level of safety to the trips that Washburn felt was lacking in his St. Elias experience.
The primary piece of photography equipment was a large Fairchild K-6 aerial camera on loan from the leader of the National Geographic's Stratosphere Expeditions Division. There were also light filters, two DeVry movie cameras and film magazines for the aerial camera, which were loaned by the Institute of Geographic Exploration. The crew carried oxygen onboard, necessary for all work above 15,000 feet.
The three men and Washburn's assistant (a distant relative named Lincoln Washburn) departed Fairbanks on July 12. Initially flying in a Fairchild 71, they circled the mountain to make sure the summit was clear above the lower layers of fog. After gaining visibility at 10,000 feet, "the peak rose, clear and distinct, into the deep-blue sky..." They radioed to Fairbanks for the Electra to be prepared and returned to gather their gear.
The passenger door had been removed from the Electra and Washburn sat on an old gas can while a rope tied to the cabin floor allowed him to lean out the doorway to better frame his shots. This was Washburn's first experience seeing the mountain this closely from the air and he was awestruck, writing:
Every side except that which cascades down the Muldrow Glacier is guarded by an almost vertical cliff of rock or ice. The walls to the south, at the head of the Ruth Glacier, are the most stunning of all, dropping in a dizzying series of avalanche-swept crags and gullies for 10,000 feet to the almost-flat glacier surface.
Most impressive from the standpoint of sheer greatness, however, was the famous northwest wall. From the summit of the north peak, whose altitude is well over 19,000 feet, this side of McKinley drops in a terrific slope of glittering ice and rock -- one unbroken, stupendous cliff -- to the plains of the Kantishna, 17,000 feet below.
Robbins made a complete circle of both McKinley and Mount Foraker, maintaining a constant altitude of 15,000 feet. Washburn continuously snapped photos while Lincoln Washburn operated the movie cameras. As they rounded the western precipices a second time, Robbins climbed to 17,000 feet, steadily increasing in altitude until at 12:45 p.m. they reached 20,020 feet. This was the third circuit of the summit and by then they were less than a mile from the south peak and directly over the north. Washburn recalled there was virtually no wind, a particular "piece of good fortune." But the temperature inside the open aircraft was rather uncomfortable, at 14 degrees below zero.
They returned to Fairbanks that afternoon and were unable to depart again for several days due to overcast skis in Fairbanks and a storm in the Alaska Range. On July 16, however, they took off at 9 a.m. and in 3 1/2 hours of flying obtained images of the two unphotographed sides of the mountain. The next day they flew northeast and used infrared film and a red filter to capture McKinley from a distance. Smoke from forest fires hindered their plans somewhat, but Washburn was able to obtain some shots of the peak from Fort Yukon, 295 miles away and both McKinley and Foraker from over the Chatanika Valley.
In the end, the expedition was responsible for some of the most iconic and significant photos ever taken of Mount McKinley ever taken, including a spread of two photographs showing the route the Stuck-Karstens Expedition took to successfully summit in 1913. (It also included a note pointing out where in 1932 the Lindley-Liek Expedition recovered an expedition themometer left by Hudson Stuck. The thermometer had recorded a temperature colder than 100 degrees below zero.)
"The work," Washburn later wrote, "[was] successfully completed in less than a quarter of the time that we had expected it would take." Everything came together perfectly-- the weather was good, the equipment performed flawlessly and the choice of aircraft and pilot allowed Washburn to accomplish his goals fairly easily. There is, in fact, almost no record of Robbins from the entire expedition. He controlled the aircraft so professionally -- and maintenance was such a non-issue -- that Washburn was able to worry about everything else and aviation simply got him to where he needed to be to make historic photographs.
The National Geographic Society-Pan American Airways Mt. McKinley Flight Expedition effectively proved that aerial photography was crucial to understanding the world's peaks and, just as importantly, that airplanes were up to the challenge of showing climbers the highest points on the earth. Now they just had to prove themselves capable of physically getting back on the mountain, and making takeoffs and landings commonplace on Denali.
Fairbanks residents are anticipating the return of their most iconic aviation artifact to Fairbanks International Airport this fall. The 1923 Curtiss Jenny flown by aviation legends Ben Eielson and Joe Crosson was removed when the terminal was expanded and it settled into a lengthy refurbishment under the care of the Pioneer Air Museum and Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), FAI chapter -- Chapter 1129. Coordinated by member Roger Weggel, an airframe and powerplant (A&P) instructor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Jenny has been taken apart and reassembled with great care. But Weggel is quick to point out this isn't a new plane.
This Jenny will never be museum quality. Rather, the Eielson/Crosson aircraft sports evidence of work done by all the men who took care of the aircraft the past 90 years, including highly regarded Alaska mechanics Jim Hutchinson and Frank Reynolds.
The Jenny was purchased as a surplus vehicle from the U.S. military in 1923 by city leaders. According to Jean Potter's "The Flying North", published in 1945, pioneer banker Dick Wood put up most of the money. It arrived in crates on July 1 with its 90-horsepower OX-5 engine and had its first flight only three days later with Wood onboard and Eielson flying. "Someone HAD to go," News-Miner editor W.F. Thompson wrote later, "so Dick decided it might as well be him. It was disturbing however, he continued, "(to see) two of the best men in town, everybody's friends, settin' one behind the other in a rig not much wider than a canoe..." Thankfully, the flight was successful, and on the wings of the Jenny, commercial aviation came to Alaska.
In the years that followed, the Jenny was involved -- like every other early aircraft -- in numerous incidents and accidents.
Eielson, who may be best known for flying the first airplane across the Arctic Ocean, soon began flying a Liberty-powered De Havilland for the postal service, and by the time of his death in a Hamilton Metalplane in 1929, the Jenny had likely seen several other pilots. Crosson, the pilot who made the first landing on Mount McKinley in 1932, flew it soon after arriving in 1926 (he related a story to Jean Potter about flipping it on landing when flying a miner 70 miles to a claim on the Upper Chena). At some point in this period, Weggel is certain that Crosson became the aircraft's owner, and in 1931 was responsible for an engine change to the more powerful Hispano-Suiza, which is on it today. This was a common conversion at the time as the OX-5 was widely acknowledged not to be strong enough.
Over the next 10 years, the Jenny was flown by unknown pilots, although the technology was rapidly outpacing it. Jean Potter saw the Jenny in the company of Fairbanks mechanic/carpenter Frank Reynolds while researching The Flying North in early 1940s. She later wrote:
He took me once to the shed behind the college powerhouse where Eielson's old Jenny is stored.
"There it is," he told me, turning a flashlight into the gloom. "There's Ben's first ship. We wish we had room to show it better."
It hung from the rafters, the narrow, tapering fuselage, with the flimsy wings tied ignominiously along its sides. The engine was gone. The paint was scratched and peeling. Reynolds looked as proud as if he were displaying a Superfortress.
"I've helped him take her up many times," he said. "Two or three fellows would hold hands, you know, and the one on the end would reach out and spin the prop. Sometimes took a whole hour to get him going. 'Contact,' Ben'd say, 'switch off. Contact, switch off.' We'd have to pour ether in the gas. She was stubborn, that engine."
The Jenny's original wings were lost long ago, likely in a fire at Weeks Field when undergoing maintenance during the Crosson phase of its ownership. When the aircraft was cleaned up by some airmen and displayed for Eielson Air Force Base's 10th anniversary in 1953, a set of wings that were stored with it from a Swallow TP were attached in their place. The Swallow was a biplane manufactured in Wichita by a company that employed such future aviation stars as Walter Beech (Beechcraft) and Lloyd Stearman (Stearman Aircraft). After the military celebration the Jenny was placed back in storage at the university with the Swallow wings attached. There it remained for decades. (The engine was back with the aircraft at this time so must have been in use elsewhere during Potter's earlier visit.)
It is clear that as much as Weggel and his crew know about the Jenny, there is a lot they never knew:
• How it came to be at UAF, and why it was stored there for so long?
• Is its ownership by the Museum of the North due less to provenance than an assumed responsibility brought by years of having the aircraft under university control?
When the decision to refurbish it was presented to the EAA, however, none of that mattered. "The decision was unanimous to fix it," says Weggel, and so the group of volunteers got to work raising money ($22,000 to date, with a portion still in the bank) and bringing back to life this vital piece of the city's past.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum provided original plans for the Curtiss Jenny, but it took nearly a year and a half before they could be located and forwarded to Fairbanks. The package included five 35-millimeter microfiche films that dated to the First World War when the Jennys were designed and built. The Eielson/Crosson Jenny likely was manufactured in California at the end of the war, although no one can be certain. The propeller (not the original) is marked "War Department" and was made for the OX-5. For Weggel that is good enough. The prop is period correct, along with the engine and fuselage. However, the wings would have to be made from scratch.
Every Wednesday for years a rotating group of EAA members and UAF students met and worked on the Jenny. They soon discovered evidence of work done in years past and made a decision to respect such alterations and let them stand whenever possible. "We left old repairs and modifications to areas of the fuselage, the landing gear and elsewhere" Weggel said. "We didn't want the aircraft to be factory new; we want it to carry the mark of what it was part of and how it was taken care of by so many different people over the years. We want it to look like the plane that it was in Alaska."
Remarkably, the Jenny has been restored to air-worthy condition, although due to its rarity and value (perhaps more than $400,000), it will never fly. But soon enough, it will be back on display for all to see with bright yellow and light blue paint. When that happens, Weggel and his crew will be able to turn their attention to a new project, a hoped-for restoration shop at the Air Museum in Pioneer Park and a build focusing on those Swallow wings. "They came off a plane Crosson flew," says Weggel, "and we believe it was also flown by Sam White, the first flying game warden in Alaska."
It's another big project but as the group has proven, it's up to the task. The legacies of Ben Eielson and Joe Crosson are safe with the Fairbanks aviation community.
"It's entire flying life, this aircraft never left Alaska," says Weggel. "It has always belonged here, to us." And so the Jenny remains, in the place that knows her best and with an aviation community delighted to celebrate all she represents.
Nick Flynn's The Reenactments is like no other book I have read. The situation is utterly unique; Flynn wrote a book (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City) about meeting his father for the first time in years when he walked into the homeless shelter where Flynn was working. He has also written book partly about his mother's suicide years earlier and his own slow fall into depression and addiction. Then, Flynn sold a screenplay based on his books and Being Flynn, starring Julianne Moore as his mother and Robert De Niro as his father, is the movie made from that screenplay. The Reenactments is Flynn's book about watching the film be made, so a memoir of a filmed memoir which sounds ridiculous and misses the point entirely.
Nick Flynn's mother tried more than once to kill herself and then, sitting in a dining table chair and using her handgun, she got the job done. Here's Flynn on the chair and other objects from her final moments he can not let go:
A white wooden chair with its back blown out, the last piece of furniture my mother's body would touch. I never fix the chair, I can't, it becomes a stool, I carry it with me from apartment to apartment, for ten years. It ends up holding a jade plant my mother had given me in high school-what have I done, what have I ever done but make these images mine?
This is not a work of grief however, it's about the surreal nature of seeing some of the worst parts of your life portrayed in front of you by other people. It's about Flynn's ongoing struggle to accept who his father is and the many ways in which he failed his family. It's also about his mother and how he can not let her go even though she chose to leave him. It's about memory, and learning to keep your memories close while also not letting them crush you.
The Reenactments is about survival but not in a manufactured way. It's not about challenging yourself to survive some climb or hike or swim or race. It's about walking home and there she is and she's dead. Or sitting at work and looking up and there he is and he's homeless. It's about surviving your family; surviving who you are. It's really like nothing else I've ever read and I can't help but wonder if writing this book helped Flynn, or if it is just what he has to do now; if the writing is the only way he can survive.
I should note that the structure is unusual - short chapters split into single page entries that forms a chronology. It moves easily back and forth in time but focuses primarily on the movie making and interactions with his father. Flynn was at work on a book (or article) about the Glass Flowers at Harvard and their creation weaves in and out of narrative as well. Having seen them (amazing) I can attest to what he says here - you don't believe they are real the first time you pore over the cases; you can't imagine something like them could truly be man-made. I love what he writes about the flowers.
I have not read any of Flynn's poetry yet but I plan to now. He cuts to the heart of the matter so effectively; I'm sure even when he is not this personal his words are still intense and beautiful.
SF Gate review of The Reenactments
What I'm Reading:
Still reading Pain, Parties, Work: Syliva Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder. I had to set it aside while I'm researching some articles on aviation topics as this is for a fall column (like Sept). But I'm hoping to get back to it this weekend.
A Box of Photographs by Roger Grenier. A short NF title on the author's own family photographs as well as the cultural history of photography. It's rather compulsively readable for me as I continue to go through thousands (!) of family photos. Plus, the pics inside are really quite charming.
Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dweller by Kirsten Miller. I was thinking of this for July but I think it will fit better in August as an adventure-type column. It's Kiki and crew and it's all the goodness of girl detectives with BONUS international intrigue this time. Just fun for MG readers.
The End of Night by Paul Bogard. For Booklist - a cultural history of artificial city lights which sounds dull but is really quite interesting. I'm learning a lot!
What I'm Reviewing:
September Girls by Bennett Madison. More on this in the next month or so, but it is one of my favorite reads thus far this year. A modern and dark/brittle take on the mermaid legend. It's for older teens (lots of cussing) and it's perfectly for older teens - exactly as a 17 year old boy would think as romance looms large and his family seems to be teetering on the brink and nothing - nothing at all - makes sense. The family bits really impressed me; there is a lot more coming-of-age going on here than any paranormal romance. Fantastic.
What I'm writing:
A bunch of stuff going up at Alaska Dispatch in coming days. I'm writing an article over the next few days about some guys recovering a B-25 off a sandbar outside of Fairbanks and a couple of other shortish pieces about some fly-ins this spring and summer. I've got some long pieces in the early planning stages - and I found a killer copy of American Alpine Journal from 1959 (!!!) with a history of the naming of several of Alaska's most famous peaks. It is so perfect to an article I am working on about the first climber to die on Denali which is also for my next book (much expanded). What a score. I do love well organized used bookstores!
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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Guys Lit Wire
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And we are back!
As longtime readers know, this time of year over at Guys Lit Wire we get hard at work to help librarian Melissa Jackson at Ballou Sr High School in Washington DC fill her school's shelves. From our previous efforts, starting in 2011, we have helped Ballou move from a library that had less than one book for each of its 1,185 students to a ratio now of FIVE books per student. While this is all kinds of wonderful and something we are quite proud to be part of, the American Library Association advocates eleven books for each student. Ballou is still operating at a serious literary deficit and so we are staying with them until they are busting that minimum standard and knee deep in all the reading these students could ever want or need.
The most exciting news for Ballou is that a new structure is in the works for the school and should be completed by January 2015. As the existing building dates to the late 1950s and is in disrepair, to say the project is overdue would be a vast understatement. But while the new Ballou is going to be a great and wonderful thing, it is not the answer to all its students' problems. The bright and shiny 2015 Library and Media Center will be 5,800 square feet of awesomeness but there is no money in the budget - nothing from the DC public school system - to actually provide books for its shelves.
Wrap your head around that fact for a moment, please. The library space will be grand, the library contents...not so much.
The main problem for Ballou's library, the thing Melissa Jackson is constantly working on, is getting new books. Her students want what all teen readers want - popular and newly released titles that speak to them. Specifically, the Ballou teens are asking for science fiction, romance, fantasy, graphic novels, historical fiction, thrillers and realistic fiction.
Sound like basically every other teen you know?
So while there are plenty of congratulations all around to DC for building the new school, the walls and windows will do nothing to actually get books into the hands of these kids who happen to be smack in the middle of one of the most challenging environments in the country. On the city's most recent standardized tests, only 22 percent of Ballou 10th-graders were proficient in math, and just 18 percent were proficient in reading. To improve their lives, we need to make books an easily accessible part of their school experience and, just as important, we need to make sure these are books that will get them excited about reading.
So, you know the drill - a wish list has been created at Powells books that has been vetted by both Melissa and her student literary leaders. We continue to partner with Powells because they do a killer job of getting the books out fast, they offer lots of sale titles (be sure and watch for those) and their "Standard" used copies a pretty much like new. Plus, we are supporting a bricks and mortar store in the fine city of Portland, Oregon which is nice way connecting both sides of the country in one outstanding literary effort.
Yeah, we love Powells.
Our 2013 Wish List for Ballou, (here's the link if you want to embed it in a post: http://bit.ly/GLWBookFair), has a lot of manga, urban fiction, poetry, paranormal titles and a boatload of big sellers. (Margo Lanagan, Ellen Hopkins, Sherman Alexie, Cassandra Clare, Paolo Bacigalupi and Walter Dean Myers are all front and center.) As a fan of nonfiction I'm delighted to see books like Courage Has No Color, The Elements, How to Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Science Denial and The Pregnancy Project on the list and there is also a healthy collection of adult crossover titles like Here, Bullet, (Brian Turner) The Grey Album (Kevin Young) and The Intuitionist (by Colson Whitehead). There is also a lot of urban fiction, as requested by the students, and since Melissa is working with a reading population that varies in literacy levels from 5th grade to college prep, we have liberally mined the resources of the ALA Quick Picks list to discover books with older teen appeal but manageable reading levels.
You can check out the list, make your selections for the school and please know while we prefer new it is perfectly fine to purchase used copies of a book (more bang for your buck). But check and make sure the book is in "standard" used condition and not "student owned" (you will have to click on the title and leave the wish list to check this). The "student owned" copies are very cheap for a reason - they are written in and thus not a good choice for this effort.
Once you have made your selections head to "checkout" and you will be prompted to inform Powells if the books were indeed bought from the wishlist. This lets the store know to mark them as "purchased" on the list. After that you need to provide your credit card info and also fill in the shipping address. (If you have already done this in the past the info will be saved to your Powells account.) Here is where the books are going to:
Melissa Jackson, LIBRARIAN
Ballou Senior High School
3401 Fourth Street SE
Washington DC 20032
It's very important that you get Melissa's name and title in there - she is not the only Jackson (or Melissa) at the school and we want to make sure the books get to the library.
After that you pay for the books and you're done! Please head back over here when you get a chance and leave a comment letting us know who you are, where you're from and what you bought. Also be sure to follow @BallouLibrary on twitter where Melissa will be updating on books as they arrive and student reactions. You can also let her know what you have ordered via twitter - I'm sure she will be delighted to let the kids know what's coming their way.
As always, the crew at GLW and especially me personally, thank you from the bottom of our hearts for helping us in this effort. The book fair is one of the best examples of what we all believe in - getting as many books as possible into the hands of kids who need them. Books matter so much - actual physical books that can be checked out and shared and read dozens of times over by kids for whom owning an e-reader is a distant dream. The Book Fair for Ballou is all about letting kids in a tough spot know that someone out here, someone they will never meet, wants them to read great books and is willing to put forward some of their own hard-earned dollars to make that happen. This level of caring is a powerful thing folks, and it can change the world in significant ways.
Buy a book, send a tweet, post on your blog or at facebook. Spread the word for Ballou and never doubt how much your help is appreciated. And now, enjoy a few recent pictures from the Ballou Library facebook page showing just how much this library is appreciated!
Toriko! Vol 2 is on the list! (And we would be happy to add many more in the series... :)
Chess Club getting serious in the library
Annual African American "Read In"
Women's History Month celebration
In 1932, Allen Carpé, a research engineer with Bell Laboratories in New York who was also an accomplished mountaineer, received a grant to collaborate with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arthur Compton on investigating cosmic rays in Alaska. Compton was organizing expeditions to measure the rays in locations around the world, and Carpé was tasked with putting together a group that would test their measurements at 11,000 feet on Muldrow Glacier, which sits on the flanks of Alaska's Mount McKinley. To give his climb a greater chance of success, Carpé decided to do something unheard of at the time and contacted aviation companies in Alaska to discuss the viability of landing on the glacier.
In 1930, Matt Nieminen and mechanic Cecil Higgins flew over the summit of McKinley and in 1931 Robbie Robbins flew two climbers to the 15,000-foot level so they could photograph a potential climbing route. As all of them were with Fairbanks-based Alaskan Airways, it made sense that this would be the air carrier of choice for Carpé.
Joe Crosson, hired by the Fairbanks Airplane Company in 1926, is the pilot who flew the first commercial flight to Barrow in 1927 and two years later found the wreckage of Ben Eielson's Hamilton aircraft in Siberia. He said he could land on McKinley. As operations manager of Alaskan Airways, Crosson was in a perfect position to coordinate the aviation portion of the expedition. Carpé arranged with another group of climbers, the Lindley-Liek party who were making an attempt on the summit, to haul 800 pounds of scientific gear up by dogsled. In April he, Edward Beckwith and Theodore Koven met Crosson in Nenana to attempt their flight to the glacier.
Writing later in the "American Alpine Journal," Beckwith described the meeting:
The plane finally landed on the river and I secured good movies of Crosson greeting Carpé and Koven. He was a strong-looking Alaskan, weighing over 200 pounds, and seemed unconcerned at the prospect of attempting to land on the untried slopes of McKinley.
The plane was an enclosed, single-motore, Fairchild monoplane of 450 horsepower. With all baggage on board, we were in such close quarters that there was hardly room to use my movie camera.
Crosson had explained previously that landing at 11,000 feet was impossible due to the excessive ground speed needed at that altitude for takeoff (more than 100 mph, he believed). Instead, they aimed for a suitable landing site at 6,000 feet. As Beckwith recalled, Crosson made several passes over the glacier and then, after discussion with Carpé, dropped down with "no difficulty whatever on about the middle of the glacier." They determined the altitude was slightly above 6,000 feet (though it has also been reported as low as 5,600 feet). "Carpé was delighted and shook hands with Crosson, who took it much as a matter of course and lit a cigar before leaving the plane."
The plan was for Crosson to leave the party on the glacier where they would set up main camp and begin planning their hikes to various spots to conduct measurements. Crosson was to return to Nenana and await the arrival of the other two members of their party, who were traveling by ship to Seward and then taking the train north. Clouds quickly descended upon the group as they unloaded the aircraft, however, and the wind picked up. Crosson taxied for some time before he reached the necessary 70 mph to gain altitude and the scientists saw him lift off in the distance. When he did not circle back overhead they became concerned however and Carpé and Koven skied off to check that he had not crashed. The men found no sign of the aircraft but a few hours later, as they set up camp, Crosson appeared. He had hiked several miles in snowshoes after leaving the plane when he was unable to gain enough altitude to clear the ridge. He was, according to Beckwith, "the same as usual -- calm and matter-of-course." The aborted takeoff was a bit tricky however, as local newspapers later reported:
Crosson got the plane up to 300 feet once but a downdraft of wind forced him down to the glacier. The plane came down gently and as it did so another blast of wind started to lift it.
From then on, the flier's efforts were devoted to holding the ship down. He finally succeeded in doing so and by dint of hard work was able to fold back the wings, which removed the danger of the plane being blown about.
Crosson trudged back to the camp and spent the night there. By next morning the wind had blown down and he took off at 7:45.
Beckwith accompanied Crosson to Nenana so they could pick up the other two members and some more supplies in a second aircraft. The return trip to Denali required they all fly out on wheels however and then stop over on Birch Lake for skis. The thawing Tanana River could no longer be trusted, although Beckwith was able to record a novel Alaska event, witnessed the award of the Alaska Ice Pool, which paid out $60,000 that year when the ice went out 11 a.m. May 1.
On May 3, Crosson flew Nicholas Spadevecchia and Percy Olton, (who had never been in an aircraft before) in the Fairchild, while Beckwith traveled in a Stearman with pilot Jerry Jones. Upon reaching the main Muldrow Glacier camp they found a note from Carpé informing them the two scientists were up at the 11,000-foot level in a satellite camp. Beckwith and Crosson took off again and dropped supplies to the men, one of whom waved from the tents. It was the last time either was seen alive.
In the days that followed, Beckwith became ill and by May 10 his condition was serious. Spadevecchia set out that day for Stony Creek, 35 miles away, with enough food for six days. He believed a ranger's tent and telephone was there. Two days later the Liek-Lindley party arrived at the lower Muldrow camp with terrible news. On their return from the summit they had found the body of Theodore Koven about 100 yards from a crevasse. They chose not to investigate the crevasse itself due to the risk and also, sadly, because even if Allan Carpé was still alive they would not have been able to help him. Koven's body was wrapped and left in a marked spot for later recovery. As Beckwith awaited transport off the mountain, it was clear the Cosmic Ray Expedition was over.
Sea of mud takeoff
The Liek-Lindley climbers reached the ranger station and reported the deaths of Carpé and Koven and Beckwith's illness. Crosson was in Barrow with a film crew on a charter for MGM, so on May 16 Jerry Jones was tasked with flying the rescue mission. Birch Lake was no longer frozen but skis were necessary on the glacier. Somebody came up with the novel idea to have the Fairbanks Fire Department flood the dirt runway at Weeks Field and create a sea of mud for takeoff. As later reported in the News-Miner, Jones and his Stearman "slid over the mud until 10 feet from dry ground, when Jones lifted the plane sharply." Within a short time he was touching down on the Muldrow Glacier, where he packed up Beckwith and returned him to town. Olton stayed behind in case Spadevecchia, who had not been heard from for nearly a week, returned.
In the following days a hunt began for the missing scientist, organized by Beckwith in Fairbanks, who'd recovered from his illness. Thankfully, Spadevecchia returned to the camp on his own but after Robbie Robbins broke an axle on the Stearman on his May 19 landing, it was decided there would be no more flights in the immediate future to the mountain. Parts were dropped to Robbins who flew out alone, at the lightest weight possible. Olton and Spadevecchia safely hiked out in the company of two rangers who arrived on foot having been dispatched days earlier. In the coming months members of the Parker-Browne Expedition recovered Koven's body and also the two men's personal effects (including Allen Carpé's expedition diary), their cameras, and four film packs, which produced impressive photographs of Denali. Their cosmic ray measurements proved to be significant and as Beckwith noted, "the scientific objective of the expedition was therefore partly carried out."
Ultimately, the 1932 expedition resulted in six successful landings on Mount McKinley, (three by Crosson, two by Jones and one by Robbins), proving that the aircraft's time in mountaineering had arrived. But the loss of two men of science, the first fatalities on the mountain, make it an unforgettable episode in Alaska history. Allen Carpé and Theodore Koven were trying to understand more about our world, and sought knowledge, not glory, on Denali.
Alaskan Airways enabled them to achieve their goals much more quickly. The Cosmic Ray Expedition proved the days of the 19th century explorer were clearly over. The skies were now the answer to achieving the difficult, with opportunities that looked limitless.
For more information see Edward Beckwith's article: "The Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, 1932" in American Alpine Journal 2 (1933) and Dirk Tordoff's article "Airplanes on Denali" in the Fall 1994 issue of Alaska History.
What I'm reading
The Reenactments by Nick Flynn. This is pretty amazing. It's a memoir of the period when Flynn's book Another Bullshit Night in Suck City was being made into a movie starting Robert De Niro (called Being Flynn - here is Roger Ebert's review). The chapters are only a few pages long and each page has only a paragraph or two on it. So it's not a cohesive narrative - more a bunch of memories, thoughts, flights of fancy, all grounded in what Flynn was experiencing as the movie was made. (Since it includes Julianne Moore portraying his mother who killed herself with a gun, the experience was pretty intense.) I'm just loving it - very thoughtful reading.
The Pink Sari Revolution by Amana Fontanella-Khan. For Booklist, this is incredibly timely. It's a topic that never gets easy to read about though.
September Girls by Bennett Madison. Just barely began this one but it's a beach read with mysterious beautiful girls (mermaids?) and Bennett...well, he's a writer who never lets me down. I'm looking to include it in my July column.
The Last Full Measure by Jack Campbell. I had to set this alt history set during the 1860s down as I had a pile of Booklist titles to get through. But I'm thinking now I will include it in either my August or September columns. It's really fun.
Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder. Also just barely started this one but I'm thinking my September column. I find Plath endlessly interesting, less for how she died then the struggle of how she lived. It just wasn't easy to be a woman in that time (she's just a few years older than my mother) and to be a creative, passionate one - so tough. I'm looking forward to reading this.
What I'm Reviewing:
Just started my July column with Below by Meg McKinlay. I have an endless fascination with landscapes that are altered by intentional flooding for damns. I don't know why but the choice to bury someplace under water - it really gives me pause. In Below, which is a great young teen mystery/coming-of-age, McKinlay has nicely woven the story of a girl trying to come into her own with a look at how history is remembered and how facts can be manipulated. Plus there's a nifty mystery. It's a nice little read and In enjoyed it.
What I'm writing
My latest piece in my series on aviation on Mt McKinley is up at Alaska Dispatch, this time on the first aircraft landing in 1932. (More on this later as it involves one of my all time favorite bush pilots, Joe Crosson.) Now I'm reading on Bradford Washburn so I can have that piece ready to next week to my editors. But I'm also reading more about Allen Carpe, the expedition leader from 1932 who was lost in a crevasse. He was a very interesting man - completely in the vein of the 19th century scientist/explorer. I'm hoping to find enough about him to write some more because I'm just not ready to let him go yet. I'll keep you posted on how the research goes.
I've been thinking lately about Jemmy Button.
In 1830 the man who became known as Jemmy Button was taken, in apparent retaliation, with three other Fuegian people from Tierra del Fuego by Capt Robert Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle after one of the ship's launch boats was taken. They returned to Britain with the ship where one of them passed away from smallpox. In 1831 when the Beagle departed on another voyage (this time with Charles Darwin onboard), Fitzroy made the decision to take the three Fugians back home. It was not a warm welcome at first - at all - but eventually, after some difficult times, Jemmy and his friends were apparently integrated back into the village. The missionary that accompanied them was not so lucky (he demanded to leave with the Beagle when it stopped back by, apparently the grand plan to convert the whole village did not work out) but Jemmy Button is an example of a native who left his home and albeit quite painfully, found his way back. I knew his story but because of Andrea Barrett, I've been thinking about him a lot lately.
I have been reading a lot of Andrea Barrett these days. Her sense of history is what I'm trying to tap into and the way she blends science so effectively into her stories (and novels). It's her attention to detail that is really appealing to me as I try to find the right balance of detail in my own current (nonfiction) work on AK. In her short story "Soroche", (from Ship Fever), Barrett writes about a woman, Zaga, who moved away from her family's social and economic classes after she married. When her husband dies and she gives away/loses the fortune he left her, she struggles to integrate back into the people she left behind. Sometimes, it doesn't have to be miles to make the distance great.
Zaga remembers a conversation she had years before with a doctor about Jemmy Button. There was one exchange in particular she recalled:
Think of that. Jemmy Button: captured, exiled, re-educated; then returned, abused by his family, finally re-accepted. Was he happy? Or was he saying that as a way to spite his captors? Darwin never knew.
Barrett wants the reader to question if Zaga is happy - if she was happy in the strange new world with her husband (who she loved) and if she will be happy now, with her family who distrusts her because she left. Can you go that far away and still be who you are - still be who you think you are even when you go back home?
I think about that a lot.
Templar Books has a picture book due out in a couple of months, called Jemmy Button , written by Alix Barzelay with illustrations by Jennifer Uman and Valerio Vidali. It is gorgeous to look at and the illustrators (who collaborated across the ocean without a common language) have done an outstanding job of showing Jemmy as someone apart in England, even when he is in the midst of a crowd. Barzelay's text tells the basic story although she spares young readers the drama of his return. "The island had remained the same," she writes, "as had the forest and the sky and the ocean." For young readers this is the Jemmy they want to know but it is of course not the whole story. The island had not changed but Jemmy had, he had become someone named Jemmy Button after all, and returning home was not as easy as walking on the same soil again.
Alaska is pretty far from the rest of the world; returning home from there isn't so easy either. So yeah, thinking a lot about Jemmy Button and Tierra del Fuego lately, while writing about Russ Merrill and more in Alaska.
[Interior shot from Jemmy Button after he arrives in London.]
One hundred years ago this month, Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper, Robert G. Tatum, John Fredson, and Esaias George departed Nenana for what would become, after a herculean effort, the first successful full ascent of Mount McKinley -- just three years after the Sourdough Expedition reached the slightly lower north summit.
After more than a year of planning and logistical problems, Stuck and his party departed Nenana on March 17 with two sleds and 14 dogs. They reached Diamond City, a gold camp 90 miles away in the Kantishna area, six days later and took possession there of the ton and a half of supplies that had been delivered by boat the previous fall. From Diamond City, they began, as Stuck later wrote in "The Ascent of Denali," the real work of moving the supplies 50 miles to the base of the mountain.
"Here the relaying began, stuff being taken ahead and cached at some midway point, then another load taken right through a day's march, and then a return made to bring up the cache. In this way we moved steadily though slowly across rolling country and upon the surface of a large lake to the McKinley Fork of the Kantishna, which drains the Muldrow Glacier, down that stream to its junction with the Clearwater Fork of the same, and up that fork, through its canyons, to the last spruce timber on it banks, and there we made a camp in an exceedingly pretty spot."
They would not summit until June 7, more than two and half months after they began their journey. The Stuck-Karstens Expedition was in every way unprecedented and unparalleled. It proved that attaining the summit was possible, but also that it would require a level of commitment that was truly staggering.
In the years that followed, there was little activity on the mountain. International attention was on Everest and the race to "conquer" the highest peak on earth (which culminated in the tragedy of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine's deaths in 1924). Just getting to McKinley was difficult enough and the weather dissuaded many climbers. In 1930 Matt Nieminen and his mechanic Cecil Higgins generated interest when they flew over the summit at 20,320 feet in an Alaska Airways Fairchild Model 71 monoplane. This made the possibility of utilizing aircraft in expedition planning irresistible, and very soon a new wave of scientists and explorers began making plans.
In 1932 Joe Crosson, Alaska Airways' chief pilot, became the first to land on Denali when he touched down on Muldrow Glacier near 5,700-foot McGonagall Pass. A year earlier, Crosson had flown a cinematographer with Fox-Movietone News over the summit as he took the first-ever photos of McKinley from the air. The 1932 Allen Carpe "Cosmic Ray" Expedition saw Crosson make more than one landing on the mountain but the expedition is also notable for one of the first tragedies there, which the aircraft could not prevent.
The National Geographic Society organized a photographic expedition in 1936 that was designed around a series of flights over both McKinley and its sister, 17,402-foot Mount Foraker. This expedition is notable not only for the photos, which remain some of the most iconic ever taken, but also the introduction of the late Bradford Washburn to McKinley lore. The relationship of Washburn, pioneeer mountaineer, cartographer, photographer with the mountain would continue for the rest of his life and result in gathering a wealth of information on the mountain as well as long-term relationships with some of Alaska's most-famous pilots.
In the week-long 1936 Mount McKinley Flight Expedition, Pan American Airways was chartered and S.E. Robbins flew a Lockheed Electra out of Fairbanks on the trip. The aircraft's cabin door was removed so Washburn could point an oversized Fairchild K-6 aerial camera at his subject, and ultimately he collected a series of prints that are still used by climbers. (They look spectacular in the July 1938 issue of National Geographic.) Without the perspective allowed by the aircraft, exploration on the mountain would have been held back for years, if not decades.
Washburn returned to Alaska several times in the years that followed (most notably in 1947, when he saw the U.S. Air Force landed a C-45, the first and only landing of a twin-engine aircraft on the mountain). His most famous trip was in 1951 when he undertook topographic work on what was then the little-explored West Buttress, which previously had been declared unclimbable. That expedition was partly sponsored by the University of Alaska and included the cooperation of UAF president, Terry Moore, who provided air support with his new 135-horsepower Piper Super Cub. Moore's aircraft included a new innovation, retractable skis, which he had helped design. In June, Moore made multiple trips, dropping team members on Kahiltna Glacier at the 7,400-foot elevation. Washburn could not believe the ease with which their drop-off was accomplished, writing later in National Geographic, "An hour before I had been 40 miles away at Chelatna Lake; now here I was a third of the way up Mount McKinley!"
A month later, Moore would evacuate them from the 10,100 foot level after their research was completed and the group had successfully scaled the West Buttress. The route has since become the shortest, safest and most popular route to the summit. "We had proved," wrote Washburn, "that airplanes loaded or unloaded, could land and take off halfway up that side of the peak."
Also in the summer of 1951, Washburn had one of the most significant meetings in Alaska climbing history when he hired Don Sheldon to fly him to the base of Ruth Glacier. In the years that followed, Sheldon would become the most famous pilot to navigate the Denali region, at one point landing at the unheard of level of 14,600 feet while on a 1960 rescue mission. He would also become the pilot Washburn turned to again and again as he surveyed McKinley.
In the forward to the book "Wager With the Wind: The Don Sheldon Story," Washburn wrote: "To mountaineers he has been the catalyst, which made possible their great pioneer ascents on the forbidding virgin walls of McKinley, Huntington, Deborah, Hunter and Logan." The Sheldon-Washburn expeditions would write new chapters in the Denali story and be hallmarks of the mountain's climbing future, which continues to rely heavily upon aircraft and air-taxi services.
As we celebrate the achievements of the Stuck-Karstens Expedition it is important to note that it was never duplicated because the use of the aircraft so completely transformed the McKinley climbing experience. And while there have been many great achievements -- and tragedies -- on the mountain since 1913, none of them can compare to what those six men accomplished 100 years ago -- simply because, quite frankly, none of them have had to.
Rachel Sa's The Lewton Experiment jumped out at me from the catalog as a girl detective/girl reporter mash-up that takes place in a town that has been mysteriously devastated by a nearby Big Box store. Our heroine is seventeen-year old Sherri who has landed a job as a reporter for the newspaper at the small tourist town of Lewton where her aunt and uncle own and operate a B&B. It is a little odd that she got the job - it seems hard to believe a teenager would be this lucky, but Sherri is too delighted to care. Then she steps off the bus to discover a boarded up downtown and desolate streets. Lewton is just about dead and everybody - even her family - just wants to talk about Shopwells.
(We can call it Walmart, if you want.)
Sherri finds a lot of weird really fast, starting with her uncle, who works at Shopwells and is not at all himself and her aunt who seems to be compulsively shopping for things she does not need. The newspaper isn't interested in covering the negative impact Shopwells has on the town and no one is interested in explaining how last year's summer reporter went from writing about Shopwells was doing to the economy to working for them. Sherri decides to go into the belly of the beast and investigate the store which is where things get all tense and also very funny.
Sherri is a great character; she doesn't waste a lot of time wondering what to do or second guessing her instincts. It's obvious that something is seriously wrong (made all the more clear as the few remaining stores seem to close up overnight), and when she finds herself succumbing to a store-induced euphoria and shopping with abandon, she knows enough to be really freaked out the next day. I liked how she followed clues and broken into offices and went looking into file cabinets and computer files and archives. I liked how she wouldn't let go of the story and I liked how through it all Ra tossed out some really silly moments (what everyone ends up buying is hysterical) and her villains be a bit cartoony. But....and this is a big but....there's one dying romance and one budding one in this book and neither does a thing to help the story. In fact, having Sherri juggle boys in the midst of a criminal investigation just got in the way of the plot and really ruined all the goodwill that I felt for the novel.
When she arrives in Lewton, Sherri and her boyfriend Michael back home are on the ropes. They exchange several phone calls throughout the book, all of which slow down the plot, until Michael conveniently shares that he has spent some time with another girl. This gives Sherri the out she was looking for to break up with Michael without being a bad person, something that would have been necessary if Michael never existed in the first place.
The local guy, the one Sherri wants to date but can't because of Michael, is Ben who works at a diner in in Lewton and becomes involved in her investigations. Ben is smart, a little dubious of all of Sherri's rather wild assertions but game to jump onboard and get to the bottom of things. The two end up on the road tracking down someone on the inside at Shopwells who might have some information when they end up staying at a hotel (separate rooms). After barely exchanging a kiss, having no discussion of dating or anything meaningful at all, Sherri wanders into Ben's room, say's "who needs sleep anyway" and pulls Ben down to the bed.
Cut scene. Hours later the chase for information begins again.
Ben existed, until that moment, primarily as a buddy for Sherri so she wasn't the only sane person in town. He was becoming a potential love interest with only a few pages left in the book, it seemed unlikely. Then boom - there's sex (apparently), the nefarious plot gets uncovered, all is revealed and they end up kissing again in Ben's apartment. This is apparently because Sherri could not be happily ever after without a boy, any boy, even a boy she barely met and slept with for no good reason.
I can't believe I'm saying this but the sex scene that occurs only 100% in this book has to be one of the more gratuitous sex scenes I've come across in a book in ages.
What I think - and I have no idea if this is true - is that either the author or editors thought romance was critical to the success of The Lewton Experiment. However, none of them wanted that romance to be too graphic so it is barely here, dropped in every few chapters and while it exists, won't get the book banned (for sure). But being unnecessary, it is distracting and clunky. What could have been a cute young teen mystery ended up being a roundly unsuccessful YA- wannabe.
First, the new issue of Bookslut is up and includes my column on biographies (and biographical essays) for teens. Lots of good stuff in there on Yoko Ono, the Carter Family, the Brontes (talk about tragic!), some good scientists trying to save the wild horse population, and more. All highly recommended, of course.
For aviation types, I have a short post up at Alaska Dispatch on new flight time standards in the wake of the Colgan Air Crash in 2009.
Also, King Lear in Gwich'in!!!! This is so made of awesome I don't know where to begin.
And now, what I read recently and can't stop thinking about:
I am a big fan of magazines and long form journalism in general. I highly recommend Garden & Gun, Orion, Smithsonian and National Geographic, all fabulous in different ways. But my heart belongs very much to Yankee, a magazine my father subscribed to forever (really) and always reminds me of my Rhode Island side of the family. (An item on my dream writing list is to be published in Yankee.)
In the current issue, Howard Mansfield has two pieces, "My Roots Are Deeper Than Your Pockets" and "I Will Not Leave: Eminent Domain in Ascuteny, Vermont". Both deal with sense of place, with the attachment to and affection for the land and both are quintessential Mansfield. I've been a fan of his for a very long time - for the exceedingly authentic New England flavor to his writing and for the eloquence in which he captures the lives of people he meets and places he visits. Here's a bit of "I Will Not Leave" about Romaine Tenney and his tragic battle in the 1960s not to have to sell his farm due to progress:
Romaine's story stands as a regret. Romaine stands as the lost and the last; he's the lost authentic life, the unrecoverable past. He's as vanished as the road under our wheels at 65mph. We know that "all is change"--yet we don't know that. It's the truth we don't want to acknowledge. We want Romaine to be there on his farm forever. He is the Vermont we want to believe in. As his niece Gerri wrote, "He not only ... represented what Vermont stood for, but also unwittingly took so many of us to task to do the same." We want the old life, accessible, and we want the new things. Why do we have to give up one for the other? Regret is the literature of progress.
I return to Mansfield's collection Bones of the Earth every couple of years. It is a lesson in the best way to capture sense of place in your writing and quite enjoyable, interesting writing to boot. (It's an obvious win for New Englanders but anyone interested in historical preservation is going to like it.)
I was quite pleased to see these Yankee pieces online - it's a chance for folks new to Mansfield to get a taste of his writing (and also to get fired up about the struggle to keep your land). Mansfield is a writer who is criminally overlooked in my opinion; anything I can do to shine a light on his work is time well spent.
More on all of Mansfield's books at his website; he has a new title, Dwelling in Possibility, due out this fall.
What I'm reading:
Below by Meg McKinlay (for the July column). I am still working with an outdoors/summer theme for July but it's turning into something water-related. Below is a perfect example - it looked like an offbeat title about a ghost town that was submerged in the creation of a manmade lake but with all the swimming going on, I'm thinking July just might end up being about swimsuit related reading. (This is how themes are developed in case you were wondering.)
The Last Full Measure by Jack Campbell (not sure where this will be reviewed). A novella set in alternate mid-nineteenth century history where southern politicians control the military and a politician from Illinois is imprisoned while a crew of West Point grads with names like Winfield Scott and Lewis Armistead and James Longstreet join forces with a professor from Bowdoin College named Joshua Chamberlain to break him out. It's just - smart and cool and fun. I never get tired of playing with history.
Wild Ones by Joe Mooallem (for Booklist). All I can say is that I'm already depressed about starving polar bears. Next chapters are on butterflies. God help me.
What I'm Reviewing:
Rocket Girl by George Morgan (for Booklist). Very timely after the whole NYT rocket scientist obit dramarama. All I can say is that it was really really hard to be a woman into rocketry in the 1950s.
Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things by Kathryn Burak (for September column) (maybe August). Partly a mystery, partly coming-of-age, some slight romance that becomes more significant but mostly a book about grief and confusion and family. Also, Emily Dickinson (always a good thing). The big thing about this title is not so much the story (which is great) but how it is written (which is incredibly subtle and elegant and unique). I am now a big fan of this author.
What I'm writing:
I have several emails out for some aviation articles; It's always hard to be patient and wait to hear from folks. (Why can't the world wait for my phone calls??!!) I'm also reading National Geographic articles by Bradford Washburn in the 1930s and 1950s for two upcoming articles on climbing Mt McKinley. There is nothing that beats going back to the source, plus I love paging through old Geographics - talk about getting a deep peak at the world as it was. Awesome.
And an essay on climbing/flying/mountain-y stuff. Who knows if it will work for where I plan to send it, but it fits the theme and it is what I know. Plus, it's an excuse to read about climbing/flying/mountain-y stuff and that NEVER gets old!
Book designer Emily Gregory has put together a really fine look at typography in the Little Book of Lettering. This one was a surprise for me - typography doesn't exactly leap out at as something that would be deemed page-worthy to a person who is not in the design field. But seeing it here, in all its full color glory, it becomes hard to look away if you care the slightest bit about art. (And if you like books and appreciate their design then you'll really love this.)
The book is put together really well - brief biographies of designers, some examples of their work and split into three sections as "Digitally Drawn Lettering", "Hand-draw and Illustrated Lettering" and "Three-dimensional Lettering". Readers get a little taste of the work of a ton of artists while also learning a bit about how they do it and gaining a healthy list of people to follow-up with. (Gregory has compiled websites in a contributors' list at the end.)
Little Book of Lettering is an easy choice for anyone interested in art but it has a unique appeal that should transcend the obvious. I want the work of so many of these people to grace my own walls - really truly fabulous stuff here!
A sample of what's inside - this one by Yulia Brodskaya
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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I was lucky enough to have a copy of The Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone pressed into my hands a few months ago at ALA Midwinter. This collection of global voices is truly a unique title, a book on war that manages to include multiple ages, perspectives, and conflicts. Editor J.L. Powers has done an amazing job of collecting an array of individual narratives to dive into. Some will resonate more than others, but collectively they provide a powerful example of the lingering impact of war on the lives of children and teenagers. What so impressed me is that the children come from such diverse backgrounds; they are soldiers and civilians, from families who fled war or the children of those who fought in it. In ways big and small, subtle and obvious, their lives have been touched by combat and the message they share is serious stuff: you don't get over this, not completely, not ever. You just learn to live with what you know and somehow not let it destroy you.
In That Mad Game, we meet Phillip Cole Manor, who writes of fighting in Vietnam at the age of eighteen; Qais Akbar Omar, who grew up under the Taliban in Aghanistan; and Alia Yunis, who spent many of her childhood years in Beirut during the civil war. There is also Xiaomei Lucas, who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution; Innocent Bisanabo, who fled wars across sub-Saharan Africa; and Rebecca Henderson, who recounts the lives of four teenagers forced to flee Burma. There are essays on Iraq, Iran, South Africa, Cambodia, El Salvador, and Bosnia. Every page is another history lesson, every paragraph another stark reminder of the price we pay for losing peace. "In the Middle East, the advent of war is as unpredictable as the rain," writes Yunis. "Each year the rain is needed desperately, but often it doesn't come. However there is never a drought when it comes to war. Every generation has its war or -- quite often -- wars."
It's easy to recommend That Mad Game to classrooms, but I read this book more to understand and empathize than to learn facts. Jerry Mathes writes of growing up with his father, who was away at Vietnam when he was just a baby, and shows how war can permeate a household and taint those who never know its pain firsthand. "...I realized that I lived among war's flotsam: fatigues, dress blues, rank and unit patches, ribbons, brass insignia, medals that hung on a plaque... Some sacred relics I showed my friends and pretended to know the meaning of what stories these things told." For all that he is mired in his father's war, however, Mathes cannot understand it and he cannot understand what became of his father there. "I have often wondered who the young man was in the photo on the beach or the groom in his uniform before he learned the language of war," he writes. And the reader is drawn into that wondering, into questioning who this man might have been if he had not become "intimate with suffering."
There are more than a dozen biographies in That Mad Game, memories shared, emotional scrapbooks revealed and, as in David Griffith's closing essay "Symphony No. 1 (In Memoriam, Dresden, 1945"), questions are asked that can never be answered. If we are lucky, we will never know what the contributors to Powers's collection have revealed. We will only have their record to better know what it was like; we will only have their sorrow to help us understand. Highly recommended.
One of the more surprising biographies to come my way recently is Frank Young and David Lasky's graphic novel The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song. Weighing in at just under 200 pages and including a CD of Carter Family recordings from a radio show in 1939, this full color history takes readers from A.P. Carter's childhood to his marriage to Sarah, the development of a trio with her cousin Maybelle (who later married A.P.'s brother) and the group's hard rise to country music fame in the late 1930s. We're talking hardcore, powerful, overlooked American history here, and it is in such a lovely package and so compelling to read, that I think it has the potential to be a real treasure to those lucky enough to find it. (In other words, this is the perfect gift for any music lover or American history geek.)
The Carters collected their songs largely from their Appalachian neighbors, as A.P. traveled the highways and byways looking for anyone who had a tune to share. Later accompanied by friend Lesley Riddle, A.P. would transcribe lyrics while Riddle, who could learn melodies by ear after only one listen, would memorize the tunes. With work by Sarah and Maybelle, whose unique guitar style had a lasting effect on American music, the old songs received new life with many later becoming famous. ("Will the Circle Be Unbroken" is likely the most recognized today.) Young and Lasky detail this process, especially the conflict A.P. felt over receiving full credit as writer of so many songs acquired from others, and the many times in which others, especially Riddle were ignored.
The full color illustrations are realistic and touching, with a great deal of attention paid to facial expressions that often tell the story without a single word. The authors handle all of the personal elements of the Carter story -- especially the breakup of A.P. and Sarah's marriage while the group continued to perform and record -- with a deft touch and the final pages are bittersweet in their intensity. The Carter Family is part of our national story, but it is rare that their significance is fully appreciated outside the most ardent of country music circles. Young and Lasky have done a wonderful job of making the family's contribution appealing to a wider audience and The Carter Family is a unique tribute that just might make this American treasure relevant in a new way to the twenty-first century.
Count me as one of those people who thought she knew plenty about Yoko Ono. While I'm beyond blaming her for The Beatles' breakup, I saw Yoko as offbeat artist, John Lennon's muse-lover-wife-loyal widow and... well, that was pretty much it. My total lack of knowledge about her life has made the revelations in Nell Beram and Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky's biography Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies all that much more engrossing, and I invite people who think they know her story to dive into this one ASAP.
Ono grew up during World War II in Japan. She had parents who were alternately authoritarian and disconnected (sometimes both at the same time), and she insisted on making an artistic life for herself with absolutely no idea how to do it. She just jumped into the world she wanted to live in. Along the way, she married three times, had a child who was later abducted and hidden by her ex-husband, thus removed from her life for decades, and she fell madly in love with one of the most dynamic men of the twentieth century. Simply put, Yoko Ono was one of the most unorthodox anti-Disney princesses ever who made her own happily-ever-after happen. The tragic ending to her great love affair is the stuff of pop culture legend, and an international sorrow. But she is far more than just the wife of a Beatle, as Beram and Boriss-Krimsky prove; Yoko Ono is really something special.
The authors take readers through Ono's life in chronological order, giving teens a firm view of how her worldview was shaped by the events of her chaotic (and almost unbelievable) childhood. They provide dozens of outstanding photographs, including many of her artwork and performance art pieces. There are also excerpts of her written work, discussions of her influences, and, of course, an in depth look at her relationship with Lennon. Budding artists are going to find much to admire about her commitment to creating art -- the art that mattered to her and defied all expectation and convention -- but readers who dream about something more for themselves than they have been raised to expect will identify with Ono's journey. The authors have done an outstanding job of making their subject highly relatable; Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies is really a title to check out for assignment or pleasure.
Catherine Reef follows her impressive biography of Jane Austen (Jane Austen: A Life Revealed) with what has to be one of the saddest family stories ever recorded, The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. I'll start by saying there were actually two other Bronte older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. The fact that no one has ever heard of them or their books, is because they died in short succession from tuberculosis when they were only ten and eleven years old. The girls became ill while attending the sort of boarding school that is right out of Dickens (or Jane Eyre). Both Emily and Charlotte, who also attended the school became ill as well, although once their sisters died, their widowed father decided that getting them home sooner rather than later was a good idea. Too bad it only took two dead daughters to realize how horrible the place was.
In the years after their return home, the Bronte sisters, with younger sister Anne and brother Branwell, who succumbed to alcoholism, drug addiction, and tuberculosis when he was thirty-one, spent an enormous amount of time creating poems, stories, and, in Branwell's case, paintings. At one time or another, they all continued to receive formal education and worked, primarily as tutors or governesses. Reef shows how they left home to make money, and yet always returned, usually because they could not stand their employers (who all sound abominable). The Brontes loved the moorland where they grew up and pined for it in letters; home for these siblings was certainly where their hearts were.
As she writes about the writing lives of the three surviving sisters, Reef shows the sources of their novels, all of which were based firmly in their living and teaching experiences. The heavily romantic aspects seem to have hinted at their secret dreams, longings they harbored that were never fulfilled. Reef also does an excellent job of showing how difficult it was for the Bronte sisters to be taken seriously once their feminine identities were revealed; clearly they were right to use male pseudonyms to publish their books.
They had very difficult lives. Anne and Emily died young as well, and poor Charlotte, who finally married a kind and decent, albeit unexciting, man, died before the death of her first child. So while they live forever in their books, it's pretty hard for me to not to see their biography as anything other than a first class tragedy. I remember struggling through Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre as a teenager (I never finished the latter, I'm afraid), but never once giving the authors a second thought. Reef yet again shows that a deeper appreciation for the authors will only deepen appreciation for the works themselves. I know it will be hard for me to think of either book without remember how much the authors suffered to make their art.
Kay Frydenborg brings a timely contribution to the always wonderful Scientists in the Field series with Wild Horse Scientists. Focused on the Assateague Island National Seashore and the horses made famous in the Marguerite Henry's classic Misty of Chincoteague, the text takes a long look at the efforts to save the horses there (and also in Montana) from the burden of overpopulation. In careful, precise language and the series' trademark stellar photographs, Wild Horse Scientists follows the work of Ron Keiper and Jay Kirkpatrick, whose entire careers have been devoted to working with wild horses. This is nothing less than an effort to keep wild animals wild and safe; something that humans we struggle with more and more as the twenty-first century redraws the map of human and animal interaction.
The Assateague Island National Seashore is split between Maryland and Virginia and suffers from aggressive weather that includes everything from bitter winters to summer bugs right out of a horror movie. The horses on the Virginia side are famous for their annual fundraiser swim across the channel to the mainland known as the "pony penning." The horses receive biannual veterinary care, and then older foals are auctioned off. Frydenborg focuses on the Maryland horses and the innovative contraception program in practice there that has been ninety-five-percent effective at keeping birth rates down and allowing the horses to remain wild. Keiper and Kirkpatrick have spent decades monitoring the Assateague horses and developing the perfect chemical cocktail that could be "shot" into the females via dart gun. As of 2011, the same method is being used with the Pryor Mountain wild horses in Montana. In fact, it was a promise to help those horses that drew Kirkpatrick to the isolated population in Assateague, which allowed him to work out a successful method of contraception with little interference from outside influences.
What I love about the Scientists in the Field series is that each of these books teaches me about people doing things I never imagined, pursuing careers in the field that are exciting, important, and immensely satisfying. Kirkpatrick and Keiper have done valuable critical work that will likely be responsible for changing the manner in which we deal with the wild horse population in America. This is something that needs to be handled sooner rather than later, and Frydenborg shows how the dedication of a group of tenacious scientists really can make a huge difference. Be sure to keep your eyes out for reports on the wild horse population and the effectiveness of contraception on the long-term health of the herds.
COOL READ: While I have come across several good cookbooks for teens, the new sports nutrition title Feeding the Young Athlete by Cynthia Lair and Scott Murdoch is an unexpected twist on the "what to eat" genre. In a muted palette with a faded design that evokes lockers and denim, Feeding the Young Athlete is inviting without being overbearing -- no glossy magazine pages or vapid advice columns here. Don't confuse the serious approach with dull, however; the authors know their audience is busy and don't bother piling on the text. There are recipes, meal plans, discussions about hydration, snacking, and sugar ("The calories in highly sugared products are empty, or naked"), and a ton of solid advice on what to eat, when to eat it, and why.
At only 140 pages, it's pretty impressive how much information is packed in here and all of it is relevant. Lair and Murdoch have managed to put together a guide that treats athletes like the serious teens they are and is intent upon making them stronger, smarter, and better at what they want to do. Coaches should use it, parents should read it, and teenage athletes should keep it in their backpacks, on their passenger seats, and beside their beds. There are a ton of magazines out there that will tell you how to get in shape but Feeding The Young Athlete is the only guide I've seen that understand the uniqueness of the teenaged body. This is important, and it's well done. Kudos all around.