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As regular readers may have noticed, I’m a big meat-eater. And though I don’t hunt anymore, I hunted as a kid in Texas. So I was interested in Steven Rinella’s new book Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter. (And since Rinella went to graduate school in Missoula, where I’m on good relations with the local weekly, I had a venue to review it.) It’s a good read, and an effective corrective to what you probably think of when you think of hunting adventures as told by hunters.

A tangential excerpt:

Too many hunters—Montana reader-hunters excepted, of course—are assholes. I’m thinking of the hunters I grew up with on deer leases in Texas, who use electronically timed corn feeders to train trophy bucks to arrive at their predetermined opening-day doom at 7 a.m. sharp. I’m thinking of the hunters I ran into in the wild and scenic lower canyons of the Rio Grande this spring, zipping up and down the remote river in a jet boat with a sawed-off aoudad sheep’s head strapped to the bow, leaving a glittering string of discarded Coors Light cans in their wake. I’ve never seen Rinella’s shows, but anyone who’s ever flipped through the low-budget hunting programs on a slow TV day will recognize the hyperventilating kill-thrill that characterizes hunting’s lowest common denominator. Giddy bloodlust may not be hunting’s driving evolutionary force, but it’s real, and it isn’t a character trait likely to draw many converts.

To hunting’s credit, and his own, Steven Rinella is not that asshole.

You can read the rest of the review here.

river redirect

Since I’ve traditionally posted river-running reports and photos here, for lack of a specifically better place to do so, thought I’d provide a pointer now that I’ve gotten around to creating a specifically better place to do so. It’s called The River Road, and it’s henceforth where I’ll be posting river trip pics. Over time, I’ll also be repurposing old river material from this and other blogs over at The River Road, until ultimately that site should have a comprehensive river-running archive for at least as far back as I can find stuff. Until then, consider it a work in progress.

Thanks for checking it out, and be in touch.

bt

On the 150th anniversary of the death of Henry David Thoreau (which was yesterday; I was fishing), Beacon Press asked me to write a little sumthin about about what Thoreau “meant to me as a writer.” Here’s what I came up with, or you can read it in context on Beacon’s blog, the Beacon Broadside, here.

I grew up the child of a first-generation middle-class family for whom a motorboat and a weekend place on a lake defined the lap of suburban luxury. My parents were just a generation removed from fishing for food and rural isolation as facts of life; to transform those memories of need into leisure marked their triumph over circumstance. They’d escaped. To prove it, they bought a place to escape to.

I’d never heard of Thoreau, but it was our Walden. Like Henry’s cabin, adjusted for interstates and dams, it was just north of town (Houston) on a reservoir (Lake Conroe). Curb to gate, we could drive there from home on the other side of the city in about as long as it took HDT to walk into Concord and bum a beer from Emerson. We called our place Hard Times, with the reflexive self-deprecation of insecure East Texas arrivistes.

At the other end of Lake Conroe was the only Walden I knew of: a lakefront development of condos clustered around a marina full of boats at the western end of what had once been the San Jacinto River. Walden had a golf course and tennis courts. Walden had a shop on a pier selling gasoline and life jackets and bait and polo shirts embroidered with the resort logo. Walden was the rich end of the lake. It was years before I read Thoreau’s Walden and understood the references and aspirations playing out at the rich end of the lake—and, acknowledged or not, at our end too.

What I remember of Walden is the occasional diamond clarity of its sentences, and Thoreau’s constitutional contrariness. I don’t remember his celebrations of nature so much as his condemnations of so-called civilization. To realize that developers were repackaging that contrary clarity as a hive of internal combustion, on a time-share basis no less, marked maybe my first real awareness, in retrospect, of the ways of the commercial world. They’d take a word that meant something—Walden—and turn it upside down. They’d try to fool you. They’d advertise one thing and sell you another. Your parents could do the same thing: Hard Times my ass…

Words can serve truth, or they can serve their speakers. That’s an awareness—call it a bias; fair enough—that I’ve carried through 20 years of journalism aimed, when I could see, at clarifying that which has been obfuscated. It’s a bias that informs Opportunity, Montana pretty deeply. As influences go, it’s indirect, but that’s the note Thoreau sings for me.

The musical merits are better discussed over cigarettes and cough syrup, but arguing Van Zandt’s greatness isn’t Atkinson’s goal here. Neither is biography. Nor is I’ll Be Here in the Morning the place for the uninitiated to start. That would be 2004’s Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, or Live at the Old Quarter. This book is a little more like a public wake.

Read the rest of my review of Brian Atkinson’s I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Towns Van Zandt in the April issue of the Texas Observer.

freedom, at last

I took the occasion of my recent cross-country move, by truck, to listen to the audibles version of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I’m slow, but I usually get there.

And I admit, I’ve come to enjoy the time-passing qualities of audiobooks, though I require long spans to enjoy them. It’s not reading, I know, but I can’t read and drive at the same time, and I hardly ever seem to have the kind of sustained cross-country-style downtime to read at that length anymore anyhow. I rate listening to audibles better than reading on a phone and worse than reading a book, with compensatory allowances for particularly good reader/actors.

Ian Frazier, for instance, should not read his own stuff. Ian Frazier should pay someone to read it for him. Also, if you’re doing audible, suck it up and wait out the highest-quality download time. The shorter ones echo, and nobody can listen to 18 hours of echoey Ian Frazier, no matter how good Travels in Siberia is.

As for Freedom, I’m starting to wish that Jonathan Feanzen would stop trying so hard to cram the entirety of the contemporary American experience up one family’s butt. Plus, I’m trying to get into birding, and Walter Berglund’s example isn’t helping.

just one more hit

I’m sorry to say that I, like apparently everybody else, too rarely go into actual bookstores anymore, primarily because I’m cheap and lazy. The exception is used bookstores, which are a different game in terms of supporting authors and publishing, which, as an aspiring participant, I really ought to do.

It’s only going to get worse now that my girlfriend got me a Kindle Fire for an early Christmas present. I’m not likely to read a lot of books e-style, what between free streams of old Arrested Development episodes and perpetual solitaire, but I’ll read a few, and they’ll inevitably whittle into my already sparse bookstoring.

Anyhow, given all that, I felt a little self-applied glow of unearned righteousness just before Christmas when I did patronize a bookstore, the excellent Shakespeare & Co. here in Missoula, to get a gift for my granny in Texas. She’s become a great reader in her elder years, and also something of an unlikely liberal, and had mentioned an interest in presidential biographies. I bought her H.W. Brand’s Franklin Roosevelt biography Traitor to his Class, which I thought she might like, not least since she grew up poor during the Great Depression and knew Roosevelt from afar as an almost perpetual presidential presence. (She’s loving the book, come to find out — probably the best-received gift I’ve ever gotten her).

Meanwhile, I’m in a great bookstore, filled with Christmas spirit and self-congratulation, and so I can hardly help but buy something for myself, especially since I’ve temporarily convinced myself that I’m god’s gift to local economies and the future of the book, a one-man hospice helper at the bedside of a dying industry, holding hands and cooing encouragement. Hell, I deserve a new book all my own…

I picked Abraham Verghese’s The Tennis Partner, despite having a preference against paperbacks and a hatred of those little P.S. book club addenda that all the bestsellers have these days. Whatever, it was cheapish, I’d heard good things about Verghese, and I had seven hours of flying ahead of me. And I’ve been obsessing over tennis since early summer when I took it up again after a 25-year absence spawned by a semi-distinguished high school career.

Verghese is foremost a physician, and the book is a memoir of his tennis-based friendship with a former low-level touring pro-turned-medical student who also happens to be a recovering addict. The book isn’t about tennis per se, though it does have some insightful writing about the sport as played at the club-enthusiast level. Mostly, though, the tennis is there as the setting that brings the two men together, and as an occasional metaphor for the back and forths of a fledgling friendship and the relapse/recovery cycle of addiction and treatment. To wit: winning a point in tennis is usually a matter of getting the ball back over the net just one more time than your opponent does.

This was good and even instructive reading for me, since I tend to try to hit winners, and I also tend to lose. Then again, I didn’t really take tennis up again to win so much as to get my ass out of a chair for a few hours a week. When I got back from Christmas in Atlanta, which I spent with family, and where I received a new racket and new court shoes as gifts, I made a date to play doubles with a couple of guys I’ve enjoyed getting to know on the  court over the past few months. One of them is a lawyer who used to work in El Paso, Texas, where Verghese’s story takes place. I asked if he’d read it.

“Oh yeah,” he said. He’d often played with ol’ Abe, a great guy, doing real well. I’d had a hard time telling from the book how competent a player Verghese was, wondering, of course, if I could take him. My lawyer friend said he was a solid 4.0 player, would fit right into the foursome we had on court.

Yeah, I figured. I could take him.

three days on the devils

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Devils River, Texas, October 2011. My first paying job to combine paddling, picture-taking, and writing. More like this, please.

Oh, and since this is ostensibly about books, here’s Devils River, Treacherous Twin to the Pecos, 1535-1900, by Patrick Dearen, which I fortuitously found at the TCU Press booth while browsing the Texas Book Festival in Austin on my post-river layover.

Note the lack of apostrophe, accuracy confirmed by the United States Geographical Service’s Geographic Names Information System, keepers of river names. Multiple devils, none of them claiming dominion. Curious, that.

death and taxes

My new review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is just out in the Texas Observer‘s June 27 Books Issue.

It’s as if David Foster Wallace, a generation’s leading literary light, has reinvented himself in a parallel world. Not the feckless wastoid fiddling with fiction, but an anonymous David Wallace knuckled down to the genuinely heroic work of number-crunching. As one character tells another in one of The Pale King’s many veiled summations, “Sometimes what’s important is dull. Sometimes it’s work. Sometimes the important things aren’t works of art for your entertainment…” Preparing taxes, on the other hand, matters, “one of the places where a man’s civic sense gets revealed in the starkest sorts of terms …” America’s civic sense is “… adolescent—that is, ambivalent in its twin desire for both authoritarian structure and the end of parental hegemony.” We want all the entitlements of citizenship, but we don’t want to pay our taxes.

You can READ THE WHOLE THING HERE.

the origins of alt

Got a new review out today in the Texas Observer‘s latest biannual books issue. It’s on John MacMillian’s Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media — a subject near and dear to my heart as a longtime fan of the former and contributor to the latter. Here’s a sample of the review:

SOME PEOPLE REMEMBER EXACTLY what they were doing when Pearl Harbor was bombed or their whereabouts when JFK was shot. I remember reading my first alternative newspaper.

It was 1985, and it was called Public News—a gritty little shoestring tabloid, now defunct, that helped anchor and define Houston’s pre-gentrified Montrose neighborhood as a quasi-bohemian lodestar for those of us stuck in the suburbs. A high-school friend brought it back from a record-buying expedition, and inside its ink-smeared pages we gained our first gleanings of concepts like intentional community, participatory democracy and an aesthetic avant-garde.

Just kidding. We learned there was a band called the Butthole Surfers and that a porny art flick was screening that weekend at the University of Houston’s Clear Lake campus, an easy bike ride from our homes…

You can READ THE WHOLE THING HERE.

 

writing about pictures

Five Decades: A Retrospective, by William Allard, foreword by William Kittredge, Focal Point, National Geographic.

So it’s certainly only coincidence that a month or so back, I was in Missoula hanging out with Al and Ginger and watching a fledgling Missoula rollerderby team get trounced by a much more experienced team from Spokane, I think, which reminded me of one of my favorite all-time phrases, which is the Spokanification of Missoula, all of which was lots of fledgling fun, when Al introduced me briefly to a guy named Bill Allard, who quite enjoys the Kettlehouse, and who was hanging around looking like Ernest Hemingway’s idea of a photographer.

And then a week later, my editor at the Missoula Independent asked out of the blue if I’d review a new book I didn’t know Allard, who I didn’t otherwise know, had out. I remembered the name then, but didn’t remember that I already have one of his books, Portraits of America, presently stored away in a box somewhere. I’d found it in an Ann Arbor usedbook store and picked it up out of curiosity and looked at it quite a lot last year without the name quite embedding. The foreword to that book had been written, I’d also forgotten, by Thomas McGuane. Whose name may in fact have generated my original curiosity. About whom I tried hard to be thoughtful in my last review for the Indy. With the result that Tom McGuane took public offense in his online comment on the story, reproduced in its entirety below:

A friend of mine who claims I always get my worst reviews in Missoula which he describes as “a pleasant town fifteen minutes from Montana”, sent me this harsh view of my life and work. It does appear that I am in bad trouble both artistically and personally. For those readers who think the literary world ends with the Missoula Independent, I attach these positive notices in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. -Tom McGuane
www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/arti…

latimes.com/2010/oct/31/entertainment/la-c…

nytimes.com/2010/10/24/books/review/Meloy-…

And of course I’m all like OMG, Tom McGuane read my review, and then I’m like, well, crap.

I said yes to the Allard, and it came in the mail, and I spent some quality time with it, and I talk on the phone to Allard about it, and you can READ THE ESSAY-TYPE RESULT  HERE.

Allard's "Eduardo Ramos with his dead sheep, Puno, Peru, 1981." Copyright William Allard I assume. Apologies for the craptacular lo-res web file. (His photos look much better in larger format, obviously, but big good-looking images are Allard's bread and butter, and one hesitates to just appropriate that on a blog, electronic displays and photographic authorship being what they are. So: the postage stamp, just to give you the barest idea.

Alternately, you could scan the excerpt below:

Allard refers to himself at various times as a street-shooter (his primary self-identification), a documentarian, and a photojournalist, and maybe as a result of his range, there’s really no instantly identifiable Allard style. An Allard photo is fully about its subject, even if what the subject is may be open to interpretation. For instance, there’s a picture on page 59, “Calving time, Padlock ranch, Montana, 1975,” that any idiot could tell you is a profile portrait of a horse standing in a storm. It looks to me like the most accurate visual representation of the verb “snow” I’ve seen.

He frames portraits and landscapes, almost-abstractions and pure color. His “streets” over the course of a career have included Paris catwalks, Hutterite living rooms, Nevada chuckwagons, Peruvian slaughterhouses, Brazilian brothels and Indian sewers. You can find echoes in Allard’s work of Robert Frank (if he’d shot The Americans in color), and street-shooting pioneer Henri Cartier-Bresson (a 1967 tableau of boys playing ball in France). A few of his photos could be passingly confused for the work of contemporaries like Peter Brown (a luminous Winifred, Mont., homestead), or Annie Leibovitz (the uncannily illuminated Wyoming range detective Ed Cantrell). But none of the occasional touchstones is much to the point.

His photos are about what they’re of. The self-portrait they imply shows a photographer with an eye open to any possibility of color, character and composition that might wander through his view. A picture with the cool formal rigor of “Minor league spring training, Phoenix, Arizona, 1990” has little in common with the warm grainy blur of Allard’s prostitute portraits, which have little in common with the grin on bandleader Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s face as he finishes a set in Memphis. What they do have in common is that Allard was there, open and equal to the moment. Sitting in a French cafe watching the girls smoke or tromping through cornstubble with Iowa birdhunters, Allard, more than anything else, is receptive.