Hill by Jean Giono, trans. by Paul Eprile

This slim French novel in a new translation pits humankind against the natural world in moody, lyrical prose.


Hill, Jean Giono’s first novel, won the Prix Brentano in 1929 and has been newly translated into English by Paul Eprile. Focused on the conflict between humans and nature in a tiny French village, the story’s imagery and atmosphere offer a thrilling, disturbing, visceral experience in an unassuming package.

A small Provençal hamlet known as the Bastides Blanches (the White Houses), or simply the Bastides, has been for some time slouching back toward a state of nature. In these crumbling houses now live four families comprising a dozen residents–plus one, a mute vagabond they call Gagou, “who throws off the reckoning.” The eldest resident, an old man named Janet, falls ill, takes to his bed, and here the troubles begin: an ill omen is noted, the town’s water supply runs dry, and the surrounding landscape takes on a sinister cast. Janet begins to speak in tongues, and “in the old man’s talk there are chasms where untold powers rumble.” The men of the village meet to strategize as the natural world encircling the Bastides advances.

Hill runs just over 100 pages, but its impact is powerful. Giono sketches his characters sparingly. The character of Gagou presents ominous questions that are left unanswered: Are his differences malevolent, or merely another force of nature? The individualities of human characters are not the point; instead, this story is about the shape of the world, the breadth and agency of nature independent of humankind. Eprile’s translation emphasizes language and a brooding tone. The result is a curious, intriguing novel of wind, earth, water and fire, both threatening and luminous.

This review originally ran in the April 12, 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 purple foams.

guest review: The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by John Vaillant, from Pops

Some of you will recall that I enjoyed John Vaillant’s The Jaguar’s Children. So I am of course interested in his creative nonfiction, as well. Here’s Pops to fill us in.

golden spruce

On its face, this is the true tale of a man who in 1997 secretly felled the genetically & culturally distinct Golden Spruce at the north end of Haida Gwaii – Queen Charlotte islands of British Columbia. But to disclose this shorthand version is not to spoil the narrative, for it only raises questions: Why was this such a compelling and violent act? Why did he do it? Can it be justified? Can we find wider meaning in the tragedy? And there are more.

Vaillant only gradually provides the tale’s factual skeleton, which reveals no satisfying answers in itself. More significantly, he offers us the chance to learn: about the Pacific northwest temperate rainforest that is so special on this earth; about the people who have inhabited the region for untold millennia, with an oral history linked to special places – and trees; about the waves of outsider “discoverers” that washed on meager shores to harvest the land’s natural riches; and about the logging sub-culture that, while professing its love of trees, is dependent on a timber economy that to this day acts to diminish the forest ecosystem while serving an insatiable global market.

It is only after five chapters of grounding that we first meet the disturbing – and disturbed – character, Grant Hadwin. Yet Vaillant continues to serve up nuance and insight as the narrative unfolds in bits and we wrestle with those questions. His tone suggests a colloquial & confident familiarity with facts – a reflection, no doubt, of both keen research and personal observation by this BC-based author. A fine storyteller, his voice is largely dispassionate and unsentimental, floating above temptations to judge or conclude. As literature is a human realm, one naturally expects telltales of an author’s values; here they are mere wisps – candid, balanced, welcome.

Where some details of Hadwin’s mystery are not known, Vaillant does not embellish or needlessly speculate. There are end notes, but few and spare. It is revealing that the story brings the author to mention Ted Kaczynski – but then also Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, Scarlet Pimpernel and others. While citing some authority on obvious questions of Hadwin’s mental state, these are not hyper-analyzed. This is refreshing candor consistent with Vaillant’s approach to our limits of understanding.

Indeed, uncertainty of both man & nature is part of our landscape in this saga, as is myth. We are drawn in and encouraged to embrace it. Both natural & human elements of the story’s terrain are informed by the depths of Haida thought and oral history. Vaillant deftly wrestles with the challenges involved, e.g. western “rational” thought ill-equipped for such murkiness; and the tenuous continuity of oral history in a culture nearly extinguished by disease and genocide. He notes: “Time and events are clearly elastic in this version of the story… It is exactly this willingness to host the implausible that makes the islands and their surroundings so extraordinary.”

Logging is treated to a similar reflective treatment, involving our conflicted history of rich benefits, wanton destruction and tragic social dependence. For not the first time, we must glance in a mirror: “in this world, a certain tolerance for moral and cognitive dissonance is necessary.” This account reminds us that, like other chronicles of exhausted natural resources, logging created a culture that also produces human victims, “expendable canaries in the coal mine of resource extraction,” with collective social consequences.

Vaillant’s generous background-telling is no mere regional history or delivery of anecdotes; it can be a gift for those willing to receive – an unusual opportunity to crawl inside forest richness, stretch for cultural understanding, examine our own heritage in new ways and view events from the eyes of others. And the accumulating awareness is not always comfortable, in the way that keen perception often is not: sometimes painfully intimate, sometimes achingly universal, often irresolute and incomplete.

Each chapter opens with a quotation. One is from William Blake: “A fool sees not the same tree as a wise man sees.”

In the end we must recognize this tale is about a tree, not a man. Our young civilization still has much to learn, in the limited time remaining to act; and it is often original cultures and nature’s wonder doing the teaching. In the context of deep time and an infinitely special place, this man’s story is brief and largely complete: he lived, he acted, and he is gone. But as both Haida cultural lore and our lauded science both suggest, the tree’s story reaches far back in time, is inescapably interwoven with the place, and stretches well into the future beyond our knowing.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Hour of Land by Terry Tempest Williams

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Terry Tempest Williams is as wonderful as ever. As I explore her work, I keep returning to her lesser-known Pieces of White Shell as my personal preference, but The Hour of Land is a new favorite.
hour of land
In these essays, she applies her wise, poetic eye to place, history, ecology, the future, and how we relate to one another, resulting of course in phenomenal writing. Naturally I turn to her chapter on Big Bend for today’s teaser, a single line I loved.

Ocotillo is a green withheld in winter.

Keep your eyes open for this treasure to come in June.

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

Mink River by Brian Doyle (audio)

mink riverMy second Brian Doyle novel (following Martin Marten, which was one of the best I read in 2015) was also outstanding. Mink River shares much of the subject matter and setting: it takes place in a rather larger small town on the Oregon coast, with a cast of delightful people and animals, all of whom make up a web and community of life and values in which human and nonhuman creatures carry equal weight. It covers an enormous swath of life experiences, truly profound in that sense, but also humble in its small physical scale: a few families and friends form the core of this novel, which is both quaint and all-encompassing.

Centrally, Worried Man and Cedar are the two members of the Department of Public Works in the fictional town of Neawanaka. Worried Man has a wife, Maplehead; a daughter, No Horses; an son-in-law, Owen; and a grandson, Daniel, whose hair forms three braids, of red and black and brown. Cedar does not know his personal history. He remembers nothing before the day Worried Man and Maplehead pulled him out of the river where he was drowning. They make a motley family circle, of which Cedar and Owen are as much a part as the other, blood relations. There is also a mean old man who beats his children, now just the younger two boys, as the elder boy and girl are adults who fish for a living. A young couple learning about each other. An upstanding policeman and his wife, who struggle to express their feelings for one another. The doctor; the old nun; and of course Moses, the crow, who the nun taught to speak and who is capable of carrying on quite complex philosophical discussions with his human friends. (Crows are very smart, you know.)

The family at the center provides a lovely blend of cultures – the indigenous Salish people represented by Worried Man and Maplehead, and the Irish, by Owen. Worried Man and his son-in-law each speak some of their people’s respective dying tongues, and both pay homage to what that represents; both make efforts to pass their knowledge along. Both cultures also offer a legacy of love of stories, which Daniel inherits. As Owen relates, while telling of his grandfather who survived the Hunger in Ireland:

You can eat stories if you have to. A good story is a very good thing to eat. If you have a true story and some good water, you’ll be all right, he would say…

Sometimes, he would tell stories about stories. The stories of children are green, he would say, and the stories of women are blue, and the stories of men are red…

You can eat an infinite number of stories. No one can ever eat too many stories.

A lovely quotation, and of course fitting for a novel about everything in life.

As well as these human cultures, like Martin Marten, this story addresses the bond between human and nonhuman cultures, as best embodied by Moses the philosopher-crow. Bears and birds and the river itself are given voices and agency, although not strictly personified: the bear is not a person at all, but a bear.

Doyle continues to exhibit spellbinding, lyrical language, and his sentences can flow and flow and flow on, as if they will eventually reach the sea. This book was very enjoyable to listen to, read by narrator David Drummond. It was a trade-off: probably I missed some nuance and detail in favor of that lovely sound. But I felt this was a worthwhile trade-off. Sound is one of Doyle’s great strengths – but so is story. He has it all. Loveable, complex, diverse characters, realistic setting, sweeping large plot, philosophy, and poetry, all in one. Absolutely recommended as ever.

Rating: 8 shared bottles of beer.

The Rarest Bird in the World: The Search for the Nechisar Nightjar by Vernon R. L. Head

A master birdwatcher lyrically describes his quest for the first scientific sighting of a little-known species.

rarest bird

“Searching enquiringly, steeped in a willingness to learn, we felt a connection with biodiversity and an appreciation of species.” This recurring concept of inquiry, combined with a sense of wonder, dominates Vernon R.L. Head’s poetic musings in The Rarest Bird in the World: The Search for the Nechisar Nightjar. A conservationist and lifelong birdwatcher, Head was entranced by the findings of a 1990 scientific expedition to the Nechisar plains in Africa’s Great Rift Valley: among many specimens, the team collected a single wing of a bird that turned out to be unknown to science. After some discussion within the ornithological community–can a species be defined by a single body part?–it was named the Nechisar Nightjar, Caprimulgus solala (“solala” meaning “only wing”). “The new species was announced, and birdwatchers like me began to dream.”

Decades later, Head and three elite birdwatching buddies trek to the Plains of Nechisar in Ethiopia to search for this elusive, prized, nearly mythical creature. In an awestruck tone, he describes their journey, interweaving the story of the 1990 discovery, reflections on humanity’s place in the natural world, memories of other birds, and thoughts on taxonomy and naming. Head is appreciative of metaphor and playful with words: he coins the collective “an incantation of ibises,” calls Addis Ababa “a eucalyptopolis,” sees a cliff of striated rock as a “shelf of books to the past.” This fanciful mood defines much of the book, although Head does turn somber in contemplating the future of many rare birds. After slower paced sections, as in recalling the birdwatchers he travels with, the adrenaline increases as they draw closer to meeting the Nechisar Nightjar.

Head’s story of birdwatching and its relationship to conservation is also a meditation on extinction and an ode to the natural world. He is unafraid of wandering within these subjects, and his passion for this work is clear: “Each name [on a birdwatcher’s list] is a story of an interaction, a time of connection with the pristine, a collection of memories, an understanding of our place in the system of natural things, and a hope for the future of that place.” The skills involved in spotting rare species approaches magic, even as it references science. This combination of reverence and scientific history is attractive as both a work of literature and an illumination. The Rarest Bird in the World is an alluring view into birdwatching and multiple rarities.

This review originally ran in the February 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 eyeshines.

Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts

It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.

sea of cortezIn a word, Steinbeck is as wonderful as ever. (I don’t have an idea of how strong a role Ricketts played in the writing of their shared story.) This unique work, a blend of travelogue, science writing, humor and wide-ranging philosophy, has all the Steinbeck voice and attitude that we love.

Steinbeck, as we know, was a prolific novelist, attached to the central California coast. Ed Ricketts was a marine biologist, and the model for the character Doc in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. They were good friends. In 1940, they chartered a fishing boat called The Western Flyer to take them from Monterey, California, down around the tip of Baja California, and up and down the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California), on a scientific collecting trip. With a small crew and a large (but not large enough) supply of collecting equipment, they toured the coast, visiting small settlements and making notes on local culture, fishing for their meals, drinking more than a little beer, and collecting. The littoral zone they examined yielded enormous numbers of creatures: crabs and fishes, anemones and sea cucumbers and sea hares and shellfish and snails and starfish, on and on.

This is a fat book. My copy of Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research runs 598 pages. But the narrative or journal part forms only half that (and, as it turns out, is contained in The Log From the Sea of Cortez at 320 pages). The second half of the book is composed of “A Note on Preparing Specimens”; photographs, drawings and charts, of select collected species; and an “Annotated Phyletic Catalogue” (plus references, abbreviations, glossary, index). I confess I read only the narrative, and the introduction to the “Annotated Phyletic Catalogue”; browsing the catalogue itself told me that it was hundreds of pages of descriptions of littoral sea creatures, a significant contribution to science but not something I needed to spend my time on.

This is in part why, as the back-of-book blurb puts it, “Sea of Cortez is one of those rare books that are all things to all readers… science to the scientist, philosophy to the philosopher, and to the average man” (ahem, woman) “an adventure in living and thinking.” There is plenty of good science in this book, including much in the narrative itself, which the authors make accessible and interesting; I didn’t need the list version. I purposefully bought the long, full copy of this book, when it turns out I could have gone with just The Log.

The philosophy referred to in that blurb is no small thing. My only struggle was a chapter of about 20 pages arguing the merits of teleological versus non-teleological thinking, which I found fairly mind-numbing in its abstraction, and about 17 pages too long. Other philosophical musings are more enjoyable, as in discussing the habit of both people and other animals of getting “soft” when the going is too easy, or our yearning for the magic and mystery of the unknown: “Men really need sea-monsters in their personal oceans.” There is a common question, in our world, of whether people still living more “primitive” lives – in this case, Mexican Indians whose chief concerns are food and shelter – are happier than more “civilized” people who worry over

tremendous projects, great drives, the fantastic production of goods that can’t be sold, the clutter of possessions which enslave whole populations with debt, the worry and neuroses that go into the rearing and educating of neurotic children who find no place for themselves in this complicated world…,

etc. This question is as well stated here as anywhere, and sensitively approached, I think, which is to say not entirely answered. After much musing on political concepts and the meaning of life, Steinbeck-Ricketts returns to the immediate question at hand: “our own interest lay in relationships of animal to animal.”

It almost goes without saying that descriptions are lovely and filled with sensory detail that make one want to see this land this sea, or return there.

The sweet smell of the land blew out to us on a warm wind, a smell of sand verbena and grass and mangrove. It is so quickly forgotten, this land smell. We know it so well on shore that the nose forgets it, but after a few days at sea the odor memory pattern is lost so that the first land smell strikes a powerful emotional nostalgia, very sharp and strangely dear.

On a personal note, I was delighted to find reference to places I have been: Loreto, Mulege (where they did not stop, because of the infamous malaria), Coronado Island.

I suspect, as I have before, that Steinbeck is at his best when describing parties. No one has ever written so convincingly, lovingly, entertainingly about people drinking together. And he does it with a sort of formal tone, so that we see his eyes twinkling at us over his real meaning, as when he’s told of an earlier collector who left “large families” of his offspring behind in local communities – “a whole tribe of them” – and the voice of Steinbeck-and-Ricketts notes, “We honor this man for all his activities. He at least was one who literally did proliferate in all directions.” A delightful passage beginning “There is nothing more doleful than a little cantina…” is a perfect capsule tale, that I will reread with pleasure, and if he lets me, read out loud to Husband. See also the party when The Western Flyer leaves the dock in Monterey.

Steinbeck-Ricketts’s discussion of the nature of diplomacy, as their little party prepared to sail into Mexico in a time of international tensions, employs this same tone of formal language poorly disguising sparkling satire. I never loved Steinbeck so much. In this spirit, in praise of clarity, comes a discussion in chapter 10 (March 18’s entry) of the common dullness of scientific writings. “We have not known a single great scientist who could not discourse freely and interestingly with a child.” And so here is Sea of Cortez, a perfect example of a non-dull piece of science writing. Who says creative nonfiction is a new invention?

I have trouble attributing the loveable qualities of this book to one man, or two. It seems obvious on cursory glance that one man is the writer and the other the scientist, but what do I really know of their shared writing process? Ricketts had to have been a fun and full personality, in part because Steinbeck would have required it, I think, and in part because Doc was. There are several anecdotes told in which “one of us” does something or the other, and we are left to wonder.

Perhaps the authors’ best quality is the overall tone of wonder and playful humor in observing the everyday. I especially enjoyed the ongoing joke of the Sea Cow, a motor attached to a little skiff used to leave the boat and go collecting. The Sea Cow is personified as a being with a malevolent will of its own, determined to thwart: it works on beautiful, sunny days for short distances (“in a word, on days when it would have been a pleasure to row”) but never in bad weather, over long distances, or after dark. The Sea Cow figures as a large personality throughout the book.

Their scientific knowledge is not boundless, and they are honest about this fact. Their purpose in this collecting expedition is to collect, that scientists may then study. When encountering a strange islet: “It is nearly all questions, but perhaps someone reading this may know the answers and tell us.” Acknowledgment of what is not known or understood is so rare, and refreshing.

As the back-of-book blurb (quoted above) indicates, this book is many wonderful things in one package, and that package of Steinbeck design: what more could we ask? A delightful true story of travel, of Mexico, of the wonder of really looking around at one’s world, of camaraderie, of joie de vivre. Recommended, of course.

Rating: 8 Sally Lightfoots.

Teaser Tuesdays: Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

I love Steinbeck. I know we just saw this one in a book beginning, but there is more to love. Check out this paragraph.

sea of cortez

The safety-valve of all speculation is: It might be so. And as long as that might remains, a variable deeply understood, then speculation does not easily become dogma, but remains the fluid creative thing it might be. Thus, a valid painter, letting color and line, observed, sift into this eyes, up the nerve trunks, and mix well with his experience before it flows down his hand to the canvas, has made his painting say, “It might be so.” Perhaps his critic, being not so honest and not so wise, will say, “It is not so. The picture is damned.” If this critic could say, “It is not so with me, but that might be because my mind and experience are not identical with those of the painter,” that critic would be the better critic for it, just as that painter is a better painter for knowing he himself is in the pigment.

I think this is a lovely echo (better than the original) of a post I wrote just the other day. And I appreciate the insertion of this idea about critics, since I consider myself one: that we need to recall our place, acknowledge that my impression is only my own. I hope I remember to do that.


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