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did not finish: Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame by Conrad Kerber & Terry Kerber

major taylorI am deeply disappointed that this book didn’t turn out to be a good one, because its subject is deserving, and interesting, and near to my heart, and not nearly well-enough-known. “Major” Taylor was a track cycling superstar in the first decade of the 1900′s, when track cycling was new; in fact, bike racing and bicycles in general were in their infancy. He was unique not only in being one of the fastest men alive, but also because he was a black man in the Jim Crow era; this would have made even a quiet life (earning a livelihood, having a family) harder than some of us can appreciate, but it made a professional athletic career especially remarkable. As a track racer myself (retired now), I have a special interest in his story, so I was excited to get an advanced reader’s copy of this new biography.

I was going to try to pass this by, but my first hesitation came with this book’s subtitle. “The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame” – I don’t know, call me oversensitive, but I can’t help but feel that this is like saying “the black man and all the help he needed because he was black” – it’s a little derogatory, isn’t it? Would the subtitle have been worded in the same way if this were a book about a white man? I furrowed my brow but decided to give the authors some benefit of the doubt and prepared myself to enjoy their work.

Unfortunately, however, Kerber & Kerber’s deserving subject can’t compensate for their writing, which I’m sorry to say I found painfully poor. It felt that they were going to great efforts to use big words, superlatives, and complex sentence structures. I repeatedly found myself hung up on odd wording; for example, Jim Crow is a “stale” tradition? I don’t think it was the “staleness” that made institutionalized racism unbearable. Or it felt like they were trying too hard for drama: “a rider didn’t dare show signs of weakness or dearth of bravado for fear of his rivals swooping in for the kill.” The authors are happy to assert that a bicycle racer who died in 1896 “surely” said such-and-such to his wife when he saw her last; Taylor “surely” squeezed his eyes shut during a victory ceremony for his hero. They make peculiar statements, such as: “in those days before effective helmets, nearly every seasoned racer suffered physical injuries or saw his body wear out.” Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that even today seasoned racers commonly suffer injuries and the “wearing out” of our bodies! I, too, believe the bicycle is a wonderful thing; but when you state that it “uses energy more efficiently than a soaring eagle” I would love to hear which scientific test backs you up. I would think a soaring eagle is a pretty efficient machine; do you mean that a bicycle goes faster per human effort than a soaring eagle goes per eagle effort? Because I think soaring is pretty low-effort. And I found myself stopping several times to puzzle over the choice of an adverb or verb: a journalist “hollered” a line in print that didn’t seem especially remarkable, or Taylor “gushed” that he found himself sitting next to one of the biggest champions of the day.

I don’t know. Call me nit-picky, but all these little issues and strange wordings distracted me terribly from the life of Major Taylor, and made me doubt the reliability of the authors’ research. I tried to reassure myself that this must be the first biography of Major Taylor, and thus valuable, even if poorly written; but no, look at that, there are several.

I stopped reading at page 57, sorely disappointed. Do note that this is an advanced reader’s copy; possibly improvements will be made before publishing. But unless they rewrite the whole thing from the beginning, I would advise looking elsewhere for the remarkable story of Major Taylor’s athletic accomplishments.

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing

Laing’s poetic ruminations on the alcoholism of six authors will charm readers of travel writing, biography and literary criticism.

echo spring
Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring studies six authors whose lives meet at the juncture of creativity and alcoholism. While Laing (who walked along the river where Virginia Woolf killed herself for her previous book, To the River) acknowledges she had many alcoholic writers to choose from, the half dozen she selected justify and reward her nuanced attentions. Though F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams have been studied to the point of exhaustion, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and John Berryman have been less comprehensively examined.

Laing’s exploration of these extraordinary men’s lives has many facets. The Trip to Echo Spring, named for the bourbon favored by the maudlin Brick in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is partly literary criticism–and no lightweight in that department, showing serious attention to her subjects’ works. Meanwhile, the level of biographical detail reveals Laing’s interest in their intersections with one another in life as well as literature. There are hints of travelogue as well, as Laing crisscrosses North America to visit the crucial locations in these writers’ lives, from Hemingway’s Key West to Fitzgerald and Berryman’s St. Paul, Minn., to Port Angeles, Wash., where Raymond Carver finished his life.

The common themes Laing finds in the cities and the bars where these men drank themselves into misery, death, and art include swimming, fluidity and the cleansing properties of sea and stream. She delves into the biology and psychology of of alcoholism, with several forays into Alcoholics Anonymous, and finally touches on her own upbringing as the child of alcoholics. While she focuses on the relationship between writing and drinking, another key part of her journey is personal–but her own history with drunks is only gradually revealed and never takes center stage.

These disparate elements come together elegantly in Laing’s quietly contemplative prose. She is sensitive to the struggles of these tortured men (among them several suicides) and deeply appreciative of their accomplishments, but also clear-headed about their shortcomings and their abusive treatment of others as well as themselves. A lovely piece of writing in its own right, The Trip to Echo Spring is a fine tribute to artists as well as a lament for their addiction.


This review originally ran in the November 20, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 bottles.

book beginnings on Friday: The Norman Maclean Reader

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

maclean

For this book beginning, we are treated to a previously unpublished chapter from Maclean’s abandoned book about George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn.

It was in the year – even in the season of year – marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn that Major Edward S. Luce retired as Superintendent of the Custer Battlefield National Monument. He and the Hill have long been closely connected.

Even in those few words, I recognize Maclean and his attention to detail and his interest. As I’ve just read in the introduction, Maclean’s obsession with the Mann Gulch Fire (see Young Men and Fire) is at least matched by his obsession with Custer; but his high standards and (argues the editor who wrote the introduction) his proximity to the subject caused him to leave this book behind.

I am super-extra-excited to have more Maclean to dig into. Let’s have it.

did not finish: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (audio)

bonhoefferI’ve gotten better at putting down books I’m not enjoying. As I keep repeating to myself & others, there are far too many excellent books in this world for me to ever read them all, so why would I spend my precious, limited reading time on less-than-excellent books? But I guess I’m still working on applying this same policy to audiobooks. They are fewer, and a little harder to get my hands on, so I find myself taking more chances with audiobooks. But somewhere between a third and halfway through Bonhoeffer, I gave up.

This is the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who lost a brother in World War I and was more prescient than many during Hitler’s rise to power. He was already involved in “the church,” but as Hitler’s government worked to take over the German church establishment, Bonhoeffer became even more active. I didn’t get this far, but apparently he also acted as a spy (for the anti-Nazi Abwehr), and was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

As a non-Christian, I thought I would be able to appreciate this as a work of history and biography. But I found myself too much irked by the unspoken premises: that Bonhoeffer, as a good Christian, was a good guy; that he could do no wrong; that the Christian church was inherently good. Christian readers of this book (who I can only assume are the majority, and its target audience) will naturally not be offended by these assumptions; but I am bothered by premises being treated as fact. Bonhoeffer comes off as a good and likeable man, and I may even miss him; but he’s presented as a totally good man, and I just can’t buy that about any human being. In other words, I don’t think Metaxas treats him objectively, and that tends to bother me a great deal in my reading. The religious bias, combined with copious quotations from the Bible, proved too much for me. In a shorter book, I would have hung in there: I made it 8-10 hours into its 22 hours! But I could go no farther.

I am happy to accept that Bonhoeffer was, on balance, a force for good against Hitler’s evil; but in a lengthy biography I would expect a little more objectivity, and would prefer a nonreligious starting point for study. I found his life interesting and would read another book about him. But not this one.


Rating: 2 sermons.

Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married by Nancy Rubin Stuart

Parallel profiles of two wives on opposite sides of the American Revolution.

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Margaret “Peggy” Shippen Arnold and Lucy Flucker Knox have traditionally been treated as historical footnotes in relation to their more famous husbands, Benedict Arnold and Henry Knox. Nancy Rubin Stuart (The Muse of the Revolution) remedies this neglect in Defiant Brides, a double biography that examines these two women as individuals as well as influential players in the American Revolution.

Peggy was a beautiful blonde belle of Philadelphia society, from a family that favored the British. Lucy was from a well-to-do, firmly Loyalist Boston family. The Shippens reluctantly admitted the political expediency of Peggy’s marriage to military hero Benedict Arnold; the Fluckers disowned Lucy for the sin of matrimony with patriot Henry Knox. Lucy supported her husband’s military and political careers in relative poverty and socialized with George and Martha Washington, even as she fretted over Knox’s long absences and missed the opulence of her youth. Peggy staunchly championed her husband through his treason and banishment and their subsequent financial difficulties in England and Canada; her part in Arnold’s betrayal at West Point, and her own possible role as a spy, remain controversial.

Stuart’s thoughtful research and consideration brings each woman forward into her own spotlight, reflecting on the flaws and strengths that Peggy and Lucy brought to their marriages and to the events of their time. Defiant Brides is an effortless read and a fresh perspective on the American Revolution, featuring two women who defied their parents to marry into a conflict that shaped a nation.


This review originally ran in the April 23, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 degrees of loyalty.

What The World’s Strongest Librarian is Reading

Following up on my review of Josh Hanagarne’s new book, The World’s Strongest Librarian, and my interview of the man himself: this section didn’t get printed in Shelf Awareness but I thought my readers might be interested. I certainly was! For one thing, The Black Count is on my list.

So, from our interview conversation: What the World’ Strongest Librarian is Reading.


Josh says, “I read a book almost every day. Because I can’t sleep. It’s really hard for me to go to sleep with the tics, so that’s one of the silver linings, that I get to read so much. I shouldn’t say I read a book every day, but I finish a book almost every day. I read everything from juvenile books to big giant books that I’ll finish after eight days of reading.”

What good books have you read lately?

Truth in Advertising by John Kenney. It has never been this fun to be cynical. Kenney was an insider in advertising and copyrighting in New York, and it is just the most brutal look at the superficial world of advertising, and the storytelling – I really want everybody to go read it.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss is about Alexander Dumas’ father, who was the basis for The Count of Monte Cristo. He was a black man during the Napoleonic campaigns, and he rose to great power in a time when the world and the military were definitely ruled by whites. He winds up being imprisoned for something like 20 years, and the whole time he’s in prison his jailer is trying to poison him. Then it turns into this incredible story, if anything more swashbuckling and gigantic than The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s a crash course in the Napoleonic campaigns that doesn’t feel like a history book. It’s just a wonderful book, the wildest adventure story.

I have been rereading Mark Twain, which I always am.

I just read a University Press book, Conversations with David Foster Wallace, that was quite good. Very theory-intensive, which I don’t enjoy so much anymore, but really good since I’m a fan of Wallace’s.

I just read The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr again.

And, The Twits by Roald Dahl. I just read that with Max. Max is finally old enough to want Roald Dahl. And that has made me happier than anything.”


See more of Josh’s book reviews and related and unrelated writings at his blog, The World’s Strongest Librarian.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Josh Hanagarne

Following yesterday’s review of Josh Hanagarne’s new book, The World’s Strongest Librarian, here’s my interview with the man himself.


Josh Hanagarne: The World’s Strongest Librarian Writes

Josh Hanagarne is from Moab, Utah, and lives with his wife, Janette, and son, Max, in Salt Lake City, where he works at the beautiful main branch of the SLC Public Library. His memoir, The World’s Strongest Librarian, touches on the bizarrely various pieces of his life: his struggles with Tourette Syndrome; his journey to becoming a husband and a father; his love affair with books and libraries that would eventually lead to a career; an obsession with the gym that became a penchant for tearing phone books and full decks of cards; and a less-than-smooth lifelong relationship with the Mormon Church, where he still finds family and friends but less faith than he once held.

worldsstrongest

Your book includes a lot of personal and painful history that belongs not only to you but to your wife and family as well. What was the process for sharing those personal details?

It was hard. During the first draft I didn’t think too much about how people were going to react. When I started going through on the second draft, I started showing things to Janette or to my mom and asking, is this accurate? Is this something you’re okay with having in here? Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. Whenever anybody was mildly uncomfortable with something, I just took it out–nothing of real consequence. I guess when you write a memoir, you choose which periods of your life you’re going to represent, and then you choose which episodes best represent those periods. If you’re a normal person, sometimes that means you’ll look good and sometimes it means you’ll look bad. So that wasn’t fun, but it was honest, I think, without being tedious and self-flagellating.

I’ve always used humor kind of in self-defense, because I knew if I could make people laugh I could make them focus on something other than my tics. I think this book is kind of sad, and I think a lot of humor is rooted in something sad. I believe Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain both talked towards the ends of their lives about having various forms of irony fatigue, because humor was mainly a self-defensive tool for them. I think in any book where you get to pick and choose what you put in, the sadder stuff’s going to get sadder, and the funny stuff’s probably going to get funnier.

You’ve included Dewey classification numbers under each chapter heading. Do you think this resonates with the general population, or mostly just librarians?

I don’t know. I think most people, even if they don’t get it, will probably be intrigued. Some people have pointed out that they don’t all work out exactly the way capital-”L” Librarians think they should, to which I will just say, the numbers do exactly what I want them to do. I think it’s eye-catching. I didn’t necessarily think of it as being gimmicky, because it really does tie in thematically with each chapter. What I really like about it is that you can kind of see what’s coming and yet sometimes not have any clue how one thing will lead to the next.

Tell us about the process of writing this book: When did you write? Were you still working at the library?

This is probably going to disappoint a lot of aspiring writers who put off writing until they have hours of free time every day, but I don’t think I ever sat down and wrote for more than 15 minutes at a time. I just can’t; the tics won’t let me. I wrote whenever I could. I’d guess I rarely wrote more than half an hour total in a day. I do write really fast. I found out that, at least now, I’m the sort of writer who has to make a gigantic mess and then clean it up, because if I start trying to anticipate all the editorial questions on the fly, I just freeze up and I don’t get anything done. So I wrote a lot more to get to this book than I probably could have, if I were another writer. I wrote the first draft totally on my own and then I sent it to my editor, and things had just been going so well that I kind of assumed, yeah, my first draft is surely anyone else’s fourth or fifth. Then my editor sent it back and said, you’ve got to get rid of 120 pages. We can’t even talk yet. Fix this. Which was a great lesson to learn, and not an easy one. But editing was really kind of fun, because Megan [Newman] is really the right editor for me. I think it took three total drafts between us, but about eight on my part. I learned that it takes a hideous amount of work to appear spontaneous. But it was a lot of fun. The shortest way to answer your question is: I wrote every day, I only wrote for a few minutes at a time, and I just kept going. A big part of it is being willing to show up.

Was the writing process cathartic for you?

If this book hadn’t come about, I think I’d probably still be going through the motions in church, trying not to make waves. The ideas I’ve gotten from church have everything to do with my relationship to my body, and the explanations I thought I owed for my life. In writing the book, I realized, I’m actually going to have to deal with this. So I got into the sticky situation of writing a book about how much I love my family and yet gently distancing myself from the church, knowing that that would be painful for my family. That was the biggest catharsis: realizing that I was going to have to deal with that shift in faith. Spending so much time thinking about that, and trying to word it correctly, is what taught me what I actually do think about it all.

Would you say that you had a message or even a cause to communicate with this book, related to Tourette’s, or libraries, or anything else?

I’m not much of a crusader. But when I go speak to groups of people with disabilities, or their parents, or special educators, the reaction I get is so humbling and overwhelming. If people I speak to are actually getting out of this story what they tell me they are, I knew I really needed to do this book as well as I can. So that it can go be me in all the places I can’t be. There’s definitely no downside to spreading the word about Tourette’s. This story seems to inspire some people without me ever needing to claim I can inspire anyone. As far as libraries, obviously this whole book is my love letter to books and libraries. That’s not necessarily what I intended, but for me to write about myself honestly, that’s the only thing that could have happened.

What do you most want people to know about you that’s not in your book?

To entertain my son occasionally in the morning when I put my pants on, I will hold them up at about waist height and I will try to jump into my pants. So I jump all the way up in the air and tuck my knees in and if I do it right, my feet come through the pants and I’m dressed. And if it goes wrong it goes really badly wrong. And about one of every 10 times I can put my pants on this way. Once in a while. You know, one out of 10 might be optimistic.


This interview originally ran on April 9, 2013 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

My editor recently asked me if I’d like to put together my first Maximum Shelf for them, and said she had just the book in mind for me: The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family, by Josh Hanagarne. (My father found this a hilarious expression of what my editor thinks of me. I’ll let you work that one out. I haven’t.) I was thrilled; and I loved the book. Because this would make for an extra long blog post, I’ve split the Max Shelf issue into two posts for you, so please enjoy my review today and my interview with the gracious & funny Josh tomorrow.


worldsstrongest

Josh Hanagarne, blogger at The World’s Strongest Librarian, “might be the only person whose first three-hundred-pound bench press was accompanied by the Recorded Books production of Don Quixote.” This is just one of his remarkable singularities. A gentle giant who tears phone books for fun, at 6’7″ he tends to catch the eye at the Salt Lake City Public Library, even when his Tourette Syndrome is not acting up. His memoir explores these contradictions and oddities, and his remarkable journey from idyllic childhood to painfully jerky young adulthood to a contented family and work life.

Hanagarne had a happy childhood, beloved by his mother, an incorrigible prankster and devout Mormon, and his devoted, irreverent bear of a father. He grew up in libraries, a passionate bookworm disturbed only by the tics that began in first grade but would go undiagnosed until high school (although his father suspected Tourette’s from the beginning). By young adulthood, they were not only embarrassing but violent and debilitating. He would eventually suffer a hernia from the force of his involuntary shouting tics, and his larger movements resulted in injury to himself and chaos in his immediate surroundings. After high school he spent years trying numerous cures, in and out of college, working various jobs and struggling with depression. Lifting weights at the gym stilled the tics somewhat, and for a while he got regular Botox injections in his vocal cords to quiet the shouts and whoops. During that time he met and married a lovely Mormon folklorist named Janette. For the first eight months of marriage, he couldn’t speak to her above a whisper.

Although deeply in love, the atmosphere of Josh and Janette’s story early in their marriage remains clouded. For years they try to get pregnant. Janette suffers two miscarriages and they are harshly rejected by the Mormon Church as adoptive parents. Josh continues to tussle with Tourette’s. For a short time, he finds a position as assistant special educator quite satisfying, not least because his tics become unremarkable in a room full of special needs. But he soon leaves that job, because he seeks challenge: crucially, he aspires to overcome Tourette’s, to beat his tics into submission. Pondering what might present the greatest challenge to a man who can’t keep quiet, Josh is drawn to the quietest place he knows, a place that has always offered succor and delight. He gets a job as a clerk in the library and begins a master’s program in library science. And a key piece of marital bliss is finally achieved when Janette delivers a healthy baby boy named Max.

Josh continues to battle Tourette’s in the gym, discovers kettlebell lifting along the way, and makes a new friend in Adam Glass, a former Air Force tech sergeant and strongman: he bends wrenches and horseshoes and tears decks of cards and phone books. Josh’s story takes an inspiring turn as the twitchy librarian and the foul-mouthed strongman gradually develop a friendship; as Adam helps Josh build strength, together they also begin to understand and subdue the tics. He finds Adam a little strange, and the explanation for his social awkwardness is also what makes him the perfect mentor for overcoming Tourette’s: Adam is autistic.

The adult Josh Hanagarne who relates his story is content and stable, happily married, thrilled to be a father to four-year-old Max, and working full-time at the Salt Lake City Public Library. As he relates his stranger-than-fiction story, he intersperses present-day anecdotes from a workplace that he wryly notes is rife with strange and occasionally smelly patrons and events. He muses eloquently and powerfully about the role of libraries in society, and their future possibilities. Throughout his life and this book, Josh struggles with his Mormon faith, as he sets off on the expected mission and faces myriad challenges in school, work, marriage and parenthood. In telling a story about family, church and Tourette Syndrome, he always circles back to libraries and to books, in many charming literary references. And always central to Josh’s story is his love of family. From his loving parents and exceptionally close siblings through the clear delight Josh finds in marriage and fatherhood, he stresses the inestimable gift of a loving family.

Josh’s memoir is thoughtful, heartfelt, often hilarious– and unsparingly honest. He is not proud of every moment in his own past, but he shares nonetheless. The image of the man today who wrote this book and who works in a large branch of a public library in a large city is that of a serious yet funny, mature, loving family man, and this image is only partly at odds with the earlier, less secure young man we come to know in these pages. The younger Josh was unsure and unstable, and the author is more comfortable in his own skin. But both have tics, and stories to tell.


This review originally ran on April 9, 2013 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 minutes of calm.

Tomorrow: I interview The World’s Strongest Librarian.

book beginnings on Friday: The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

worldsstrongest

I have discovered a strange and wonderful new book: a memoir by a Mormon strongman librarian with Tourette’s Syndrome.

Today the library was hot, humid, and smelly. It was like working inside a giant pair of glass underpants without any leg holes to escape through. The building moved. It breathed. It seethed with bodies and thoughts moving in and out of people’s heads. Mostly out.

To me, this beginning establishes the author’s voice, which will be evocative as well as irreverent. One of Hanagarne’s strengths is that he communicates often serious content with a wry twist that sometimes had me giggle out loud. Aside from which, the opening setting of this book is a library, and I am a sucker for that, as I bet are some of you.

I’m sorry to tell you that this book won’t be out until May! But be sure to look out for it then.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Jumping Fire: A Smokejumper’s Memoir of Fighting Wildfire by Murray A. Taylor

jumpingfire

I was not aware of smokejumping as a career until I read Phil Connors’s Fire Season a few years ago, but I was fascinated. Further, when I read Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm in 2012, I learned (in the author’s interview at the end of my audio edition) that he had originally conceived a book that would contain chapters on each of a number of highly hazardous jobs. These were to include smokejumpers as well as the swordfishermen that ended up starring in his highly regarded book.

I believe it was my friend Don who recommended this book when I raved about Fire Season. [Thanks, Don!] Jumping Fire is a memoir by the oldest smokejumper ever to work the job (at least when this book is published – I cannot swear that his record still holds, but it seems to). As the name indicates, smokejumpers are wilderness firefighters who reach their dangerous destinations in dangerous fashion: parachuting out of aircraft adapted for the purpose. Taylor was 56 when he retired after an especially hot season in 2000.

I took one overwhelming early impression from this book: these smokejumpers are crazy! We’re talking about people jumping out of airplanes into forest fires! The ways in which they can die or be maimed are myriad on their way to the ground; and assuming they get there safely, they then have to fight a forest fire and, sometimes, hike back out again. Frequently they remain onsite for days, sometimes weeks, fighting fires around the clock on very little sleep and often with few rations (food & water have to be parachuted in, as well). They breathe smoke, suffer burns, dodge falling flaming trees, steer around rocks and trees and rivers upon their descents from the clouds. On the other hand, when not jumping or fighting fires, there’s a lot of waiting: “Bob Quillin [a fellow smokejumper] once described smokejumping as ‘prolonged periods of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror.’” (I found that cute.) On top of which, the training is insane: “former marines who have become smokejumpers all agree that Alaska rookie training is tougher than anything they saw in boot camp.” So they have to really want to do this job. I am awed. I think they are nuts, without question. But it’s nice to know there are men (and women, too) out there willing to do such a crazy job. I can’t understand you, Taylor, but I take my hat off.

Taylor has rather many tales to relate of danger, injury, death and tragedy to relate; I had to close the book several times to stare into space and absorb the difficult moments. By all means, this lip-biting adrenaline rush is one of the admirable qualities of the book. But Taylor is also quite the romantic, and his love affair with a much younger woman occupies a number of pages, while his pining for her occupies still more. The firefighting/jumping remains at center stage, never fear; but there is a thread of wistful romance woven in. One is almost reminded of Abbey’s somewhat unfortunate Black Sun, although I hate to say such a thing. Taylor is rather more tasteful and less fantastic in his love affair, which is after all (if we believe him, and I have no reason not to) real. Page space is also devoted to a certain amount of (very natural) musing on human life and the wisdom of doing this hazardous work, when smokejumpers have wives and children at home who suffer when they are hurt or killed, and as Taylor ages and his knees complain about all those hard contacts with the ground. Or, on the challenges of the job:

Jumpers rarely speak openly about how they handle extreme fatigue, but when they do, they joke about it and claim to be the weakest in the bunch. At such times I just keep my mouth shut. For me, it’s always the same. Beyond the fatigue comes the sorrow and with the sorrow comes the loneliness. At the hour of my greatest exhaustion, I am lonely, emotionally frail, and at a loss to do much about it. No matter who claims to be the weakest, in the deep, dark pit of my soul, I know that it is me.

I found this a poignant consideration of his own weakness; but he also seems to acknowledge the universality of feeling inadequate, which is sort of a comment on humanity. And, of course, there’s no shortage of macho avoidance of such confessions.

Jumping Fire is the story of an absolutely fantastic, absolutely real occupation that very few of us will ever see face to face, and it is exhilarating and fascinating as such. But Taylor is also a fine writer, and contemplations of natural beauty and the tension between seeking comfort and seeking thrill and hardship are a great strength of this book, as well. I found it riveting, enjoyable, and thoughtful – recommended.


Rating: 8 racing hearts.
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