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The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday, illus. by Al Momaday

I was first told these stories by my father when I was a child. I do not know how long they had existed before I heard them. They seem to proceed from a place of origin as old as the earth.

A short book, recommended to me by Kim Dana Kupperman as a way of considering an oral tradition. N. Scott Momaday is a Kiowa Indian, born in Oklahoma but raised on reservations in the southwest. He travels home to Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma to visit his grandmother’s grave, and this book reflects his journey as well as the original one the Kiowas made, from Yellowstone through the Black Hills, and south to the Wichita Mountains. This book is a record of the legends, the orally passed-down traditional narrative of a tribe and a culture now passed on. It is told in three voices. The first is the ancestral voice of the oral tradition (“the voice of my father,” Al Momaday, who also illustrates the book); the second, a historical commentary; and the third, Momaday’s own voice “of personal reminiscence.” Each short section separates these voices from each other visually:

It is a spare, slim book, under 100 pages and with lots of white space as in the spread above, and with illustrations to space things out further. It is therefore just a sketching (no pun intended) of a history, and somehow this feels right, since as Momaday points out, “the golden age of the Kiowas had been short-lived, ninety or a hundred years, say, from about 1740. The culture would persist for a while in decline, until about 1875, but then it would be gone…” His ability to piece these stories together is a rare one, and the record is necessarily scanty. But the scraps that we do have here are wise and hold a certain dignity.

They also hold a sense of place. I loved lines like, “Houses are like sentinels in the plain, old keepers of the weather watch.” It somehow makes sense to me that Momaday would have so much to say about a place he feels tied to without actually inhabiting; that it’s an ancestral belonging.

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.

In terms of the oral tradition, I noticed that the storytelling style in those parts was simple, and often involved shifts that we are unaccustomed to in the written stories; but when read aloud, they sound more like the way we still tell stories today. “Bad women are thrown away. Once there was a handsome young man…”

Simply told, easy to read, but thoughtful and thought-provoking, and a way into stories that we don’t have much access to. As Momaday writes himself in the preface to this edition, twenty-five years after the first: “One should not be surprised, I suppose, that it has remained vital, and immediate, for that is the nature of story. And this is particularly true of the oral tradition, which exists in a dimension of timelessness.”


Rating: 7 black-eared horses.

Breathe (2017)

Breathe is a lovely movie. If not the finest accomplishment of the art form, it was a very enjoyable, positive, uplifting story; and if that sounds sentimental, then guilty as charged, what do you want from me, I’m human. I appreciated knowing that it was a true story because I loved the background (nodding to the necessity for ADA legislation, for instance) of looking for hints of today in this version of yesterday. Disability rights matter to me. In the selfish way that our own experiences shape our concerns in the world, I have a bad knee; I had knee surgery some years ago and needed special accommodations a time or two, and my frustrations in meeting even my simple, and temporary, needs gave me a greater appreciation for the much bigger concerns of more profoundly and permanently challenged people.

This is a rather sentimental story, with a love story forming at least part of its heart. Robin and Diana meet and fall in love, and they marry around the time that he falls ill with a fever that ends in his total paralysis by polio: “you can’t even breathe for yourself.” He becomes depressed in the hospital (and who can blame him?!) but she won’t “let” him die, insists that he pursue his life anyway, and they have to break him out of the hospital against the wishes of its administration, in an era when polio patients were apparently, according to this film, basically imprisoned. What follows is a family of friends making their own way: building him a wheelchair that incorporates his breathing apparatus, dealing with the obvious calamity of the breathing apparatus failing, and gradually freeing him to travel the world. They attend a disability conference in Germany where they have to literally break the doorway out of a hotel room to fit his chair in (this is where I see promises of ADA). He lives a longer and fuller life than anyone thought possible, frees some of his co-polio-sufferers from the hospital/prison system, and dies at home with his family with him–in an assisted suicide, by the way, thereby touching on another medical-ethics hot button.

This film absolutely deals in emotions, and gets a wee bit saccharine; but it felt really good, I learned some things, and it was, well, sweet. I had a perfectly nice time watching this movie and I cried at the end and then felt better again. There are worse ways to spend an evening.


Rating: objectively, 7, but I give 8 dusty Spanish roads for emotional impact.

Maximum Shelf: Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India by Kief Hillsbery

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.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 22, 2017.


Kief Hillsbery grew up with the legend of his great-grandfather’s great-uncle Nigel, who had “gone out to India” and never returned to his family’s home in Coventry, England. According to the many stories, he’d left the British East India Company abruptly and gone to live in Kathmandu; he’d been killed by a tiger; he’d been involved with shady dealings regarding a famous diamond. From childhood, Hillsbery always had “a clear sense that [the family] disapproved of Nigel and the vague notion that there was more to his story.”

In Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, Hillsbery describes his decades-long, on-and-off exploration into Nigel’s life and death. It is an absorbing story, told with an eye for suspense and the odd, engrossing detail. Nigel’s story does not lack for weird and glittery hints; it takes a deft hand to explore them with interest and not sensationalism, but Hillsbery is up to the task. His lovely descriptions bring to life a country that is worlds of difference from Nigel’s English home. Sagar Island offers “houses like palaces, rising in their shining stucco masses from flowerbeds filled with imported English blooms on the undulating riverbank, their verandas spacious, their pillars lofty, their profiles Athenian.” Hillsbery is astonished to find a rhododendron forest just where his family’s stories placed one. “India,” he writes, “is full of surprises.”

Nigel set out for Calcutta in 1841 as a 20-year-old clerk for the East India Company. In 1975, Hillsbery was himself 20, headed for a college year abroad in Nepal, when his mother gifted him a sheaf of papers: all that remained of Uncle Nigel’s letters home, most incomplete and in various stages of decay. She wanted her son to be the first in the family to track down Nigel’s grave and pay his respects. The young man figured he would visit a cemetery or two and do his duty. But in fact he would embark upon years of research and travel through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Alternating chapters detail the author’s own travels and Nigel’s, the latter re-created using personal correspondence and official records from the 1840s. Necessarily, Empire Made also delves into British and Indian politics, and the nuanced racial and class-based prejudices and pressures that characterized the British East India Company for centuries. The background history that contextualizes this story can be convoluted, but Hillsbery wrestles this “historical quicksand” gamely, and his digressions enrich the sense of strange wonderment that characterizes this historical investigation. Readers will come away with a general sense of British-Indian relations, while focusing on the mystery of Nigel’s fate.

Hillsbery’s narrative neatly braids the threads of the two protagonists’ parallel travels. Nigel Halleck’s family background and education links into the narrator’s interest in mountaineering, and in Nepalese culture and language. With a distant idea about the enigma of a lost great-uncle, the young Hillsbery takes one and then another detour from his own travels to investigate a cemetery, a shrine, a memorial. He listens to the tales told by locals “with Chaucerian relish” of past visitors, and he learns to check Nigel’s letters as he travels, searching for references to each stop along his own way so that he can follow leads as they arise. This research on the move begins to yield new information, if only in hints.

Over the years and miles, Hillsbery uncovers a theory that Nigel was a deep-cover British secret agent; that he was connected to an important family, the Saddozais, by his close friendship with the Afghan prince Sa’adat ul-Mulk; that he was involved in some under-the-table dealings with the famous Koh-i-noor diamond. But beyond these dramatic stories, Hillsbery finds quieter details that link his own life story more closely to Nigel’s than he could have ever expected.

Empire Made nears its end when Hillsbery visits a seeress. Stumped by Nigel’s unexplained movements and his inexplicable retreat to a Hindu palace in Kathmandu, he submits to a friend’s recommendation to supernatural assistance: “Her rates were reasonable, and I could always write about it.” This woman’s cryptic statements, and Hillsbery’s later realizations about two pieces of information he’d uncovered, eventually help him to reach certain conclusions about Nigel’s life. These conclusions are not supernatural, but worldly. In the end, this epic story of travel, research, family mystery and centuries-long colonial effort ends with uncertainty; but Hillsbery’s voice in closing does find satisfaction in what he’s learned.


Rating: 7 rhododendrons.

Come back Friday for my interview with Kief Hillsbery.

Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters by Charles Fréger

A rich collection of photography explores the Japanese mythology that both celebrates and protects longstanding traditions.

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Yokainoshima is a lushly beautiful collection by photographer Charles Fréger (Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage), with commentary by experts on his Japanese subjects. Yōkai are “spirits, ghosts and other monsters,” or, literally, “bewitching apparitions.” On Yokainoshima, the “island of monsters,” and in Japanese culture, these gods and ghosts emphasize links to other worlds, in which humans are not the only inhabitants.

The bulk of Yokainoshima is filled with nearly 200 glossy color images of masked and costumed performers representing specific yōkai in grassy fields, beaches, forests and snowfields. Standing alone, these powerful, vibrant photographs offer stories and evoke emotions. Descriptions of the depicted characters, groups and customs (located at the back of the book) elucidate the mysteries offered by the images: seasonal rites requesting fertility, abundance and protection. Short essays portray a culture defined by its spirits, monsters and connections, enriching Fréger’s striking visual art.


This review originally ran in the November 22, 2016 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: 8 pieces of straw.

A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura by Eileen Markey

One of the four churchwomen murdered in 1980 El Salvador is honored with a detailed biography.

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In 1980, four United States churchwomen in El Salvador were raped and murdered by members of the U.S.-trained National Guard, calling into question U.S. support for the right-wing military dictatorship and leading to several high-level and international investigations. The four were treated as symbols and martyrs; journalist Eileen Markey wanted to make them individuals again. A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura pursues that goal by examining the life of Maura Clarke.

Markey follows Maura from a close-knit Irish Catholic family in Rockaway, N.Y., to a Maryknoll convent at 19 in 1950, part of a staunchly anti-communist Catholic Church. Maura served in the Bronx, and then for 17 years in Nicaragua, where she was horrified by poverty and want. She gradually experienced a massive transformation of worldview, eventually becoming an outspoken activist, even as Markey outlines a parallel if gentler shift at the Church’s highest levels. When assigned to El Salvador, Maura worked a few short months before her murder.

A Radical Faith is not an objective inquiry: it assumes that Maura had few flaws and that missionary work in cultures abroad is good work. Markey nevertheless powerfully establishes Maura as an individual, and animates the story of her death. Her work brings an extraordinary level of detail, from Maura’s own journals and correspondence as well as redacted government documents, to a decades-old crime with higher-level instigators who have not been brought to justice. Though not impartial, A Radical Faith is a carefully researched and flattering portrait, moving and evocative.


This review originally ran in the November 18, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 flights.

Brewing Revolution: Pioneering the Craft Beer Movement by Frank Appleton

This personal history of Canada’s craft beer movement, from a distinctive and accomplished participant, amuses as well as instructs.

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Books on craft beer and the craft beer movement abound, and readers may feel underwhelmed at the prospect of another. But Frank Appleton’s memoir, Brewing Revolution: Pioneering the Craft Beer Movement, is different. For one, his focus is on British Columbia, rather than the much-discussed scene in the United States. And Appleton’s unapologetic, lively personality communicates a story both personal and national, even global, in scope. Brewing Revolution also expands into an impassioned indictment of mass-market adjunct lagers, as well as a manual for the next generation of brewers.

Appleton, a native of Manchester, England, applied his studies in microbiology to food science and later, after immigrating to Vancouver, B.C., to brewing. His science background, appetite for innovation and uncompromising insistence on quality in food and drink led him through an unplanned but inspired career. He began in one of Canada’s “Big Three” brewing conglomerates, where he developed a scorn for adjunct ingredients (or “added junk”) like corn, rice and corn syrup, where traditional, quality brews use only malted grains like barley.

Retiring in frustration to a cabin in the woods, he learns that an article he’d written comparing adjunct lagers with “tasteless white bread and the universal cardboard hamburger,” and calling for a do-it-yourself response, has drawn the attention of an ambitious pub owner. From there, Appleton’s career as a consultant begins. After helping to open the first craft brewery in Canada–which required lobbying for a change in legislation–he consults on the design and launches of dozens of new breweries in Canada, several in the United States and one in France. Along the way, he trains new brewers, invents new equipment and creatively tackles problems in brewing-related architecture, physics, sanitation, welding, human resources and more.

While Appleton is occasionally acerbic in railing against brewing practices and certain former employers, he stops short of bitterness. This distinctive voice may be off-putting for some, but his readers will likely share his disdain for adjuncts and his passion for the details of malt, hops, yeast and water. Enjoying the irreverence of Appleton’s fervent campaigning, craft beer fans will find his character amusing, quirky and sympathetic.

Brewing Revolution tells the story of a country’s craft beer movement and of the author’s life work, but it doesn’t stop there. In his enthusiasm, Appleton can’t help but offer troubleshooting advice for ambitious brewers, and a healthy review of brewing techniques, including the niceties of equipment, yeast cultivation and malting. Humorous asides include Appleton’s dodging of U.S. customs agents and his exasperation with the hired help in Lyon, France. As a history of a movement and a personal memoir brimming with zeal, Brewing Revolution is educational, entertaining and, perhaps most of all, thirst-inducing.


This review originally ran in the November 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 liters.

Gamechangers: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History by Molly Schiot

This photographic survey of trailblazing female athletes through history celebrates a diverse range of inspirational talents.

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Molly Schiot created the Instagram account @theunsungheroines to celebrate pioneering female athletes the world has scarcely heard of. Game Changers expands that concept: a collection of historic photos Schiot found in libraries and archives, paired with short narratives of a page or less, tell the stories of groundbreaking and little-known female athletes.

The women featured here include some better-known names like Kathrine Switzer, Wilma Rudolph, Billie Jean King and Nadia Comăneci. These are joined by early mountaineer Annie Smith Peck, powerboat racer Betty Cook, judo champion (and mother to Ronda Rousey) AnnMaria De Mars, the “Sea Women” of the Korean island of Jeju and many more: boxers, billiard players, swimmers, skateboarders, players of team sports, Olympians, referees and umpires, sports journalists, coaches and policy makers (for example, the legislators behind Title IX). While women from the United States dominate these pages, every continent is represented except Antarctica. Women of color and those of non-binary genders are given special consideration as well. Among the strange and wonderful, don’t miss the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail’s entire length in one season: she was 67 years old at the time.

These stories are brief but breathtaking. Not only athletes, these women were often activists and advocates as well as accomplished in business and the arts. Their photographs, naturally, speak volumes on their own. To be read in small pieces or cover-to-cover, Game Changers is an obviously indispensable choice for athletes, fans, parents or anyone else stirred by courage, talent and determination.


This review originally ran in the October 28, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 balls.
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