Author Archives: Rocky

Reading Alaska

I have a dear cousin who grew up in Cordova, Alaska which is a land-locked fishing village on Prince William Sound. Her father kidnapped her and her two sisters from their mother in Florida when she was just two and then he stashed all three sisters in an apartment in Cordova while he moved in with his girlfriend up the road. The oldest sister, who was then just 8 years old, was put in charge of caring for the two younger ones. The girls had an open account at the grocery store, bought and made their own food, kept up the apartment, and walked to school on their own, even during the treacherous winter months. Everyone in the village knew about their living situation but it was never questioned, even as the girls entertained themselves by firing guns from their deck, aiming at seagulls in flight.

Looking down on the Cordova Harbor from Ski Hill.

Over the years my cousin has enchanted me with ‘My Life in Alaska’ stories and I came to understand that Alaska had a culture like no other state. My desire to visit the modern frontier was always on a low-level burn but I never got around to learning much about the state other than what I gathered from my cousin’s stories. That is, not until I landed in the Anchorage airport in August. And it took just one look at the Chugach mountains looming through the gate windows to make me feel small and realize how unprepared I was for a visit.

“You can only make one mistake in Alaska”, my cousin had warned me. (The ‘otherwise’ part of that sentence hangs in the air and is unspoken, which makes a person imagine the worst, and that of course turns out to be the right way to think about it.)

I bought books in the airport about 10 minutes after landing and several more in Anchorage at a well-stocked local bookstore named Title Wave.

Here are a few of the Alaska books I read this summer:

 

Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A true story about innocence and madness on the Alaskan Frontier by Tom Izzia.

One review summarized this book as, Into the Wild meets Helter Skelter. That is not too far off.

This true story takes place in a remote outpost called McCarthy. It’s difficult to travel to McCarthy and there are only about 29 people to greet visitors when/if visitors finally get there. But if you want to understand how the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act impacted the local homesteaders’ mental state -which was likely, for many, already fairly disturbed- this is a good book to pick up.

But that’s not the main story here. Pilgrim’s Wilderness is about Papa Pilgrim, his wife, and their fifteen children who came to McCarthy to squat on land the government had brought under their control. Initially the 20 or so McCarthy residents felt that the Pilgrims were a shining example of homespun Christian life and welcomed the family into their community. There were also deeper conversations about continued community support as long as the clan could show they were able to fend for themselves through long winters. And the locals were true to their word, they supported the Pilgrim’s illegal behavior and squared off with the government for a while, backing the Pilgrim’s criminal actions, which included squatting and disturbing public land.

McCarthy, Alaska. Main Street.

But not a surprise, behind all the Pilgrim’s piety and old-timey singing there turned out to be a significant backstory that smelled of religious creepiness and led to a trail of unethical and criminal behavior in multiple states. Izzia is a crafty story teller and slowly reveals the early years of the Pilgrim’s weird and illegal actions while interspersing the present-day story of the escalating war with the Park Service.

Papa Pilgrim’s actions not only sparked multiple confrontations with the National Park Service but also divided McCarthy on the topic of where citizens’ rights end and where the government’s powers start. It is likely a similar topic would pop up if you talk to local Alaskans on a visit. And if it does, you’ll hear words like ‘over-reach’ and ‘my gun’ more than a few times.

As events escalated in McCarthy we also read about the abuse Papa Pilgrim’s children were enduring at home. Rescue was required.

Izzia had extensive access to Papa Pilgrim as he gathered material for this book and the story detail is enriched because of it. This is a page-turner and it clearly captures the ways in which some Alaskans interact with and talk about their land, the government, and one another.

The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hemert

When I finished reading this book, I was so inspired I wanted to take out on a real crazy adventure.

The Sun is a Compass begins as Van Hemert is finishing a graduate degree in ornithology. And as grad school can do, the day-to-day grind led her to reexamine her life choices. She wasn’t happy with lab work or her research or the prospect of living her professional life in academia.

Van Hemert grew up in Alaska with parents who were peak baggers and naturalists. So it makes sense that Van Hemert took a step back into her past idyllic environs to reflect on her future.

Van Hemert paddling part of her 4,000 mile trek.

Most of us who endured grad school had our break-down moments. Here’s what I did for mine: I stayed home and watched MTV for a week straight and smoked a lot of cigarettes. Here’s how Van Hemert handled her grad school breakdown: she and her husband Pat decided they would take a 4,000-mile trek from Washington state to northwest Alaska, traveling entirely under their own power.

Their adventure begins in sea-worthy rowboats that Pat built in the garage. The initial leg of Van Hemert’s grad school re-consideration started with a 1,200 mile row from Bellingham, Washington to Haines, Alaska. Then after the long row (and numerous close calls) they switched to skis and headed into the mountains between Alaska and the Yukon. In this leg they faced avalanches, lurking crevasses, and unstable weather. Then Van Hemert and Pat hiked and skied a few more thousand miles and used inflatable pack rafts when they needed to cross rivers and lakes.

This is an amazing story filled with close calls, life-impacting revelations, and up-close interactions with nature to a degree that few people will experience. Van Hemert is a great writer and she has a wonderful thrill-ride to share. It’s good to know she and Pat are still at it, the New York Times recently ran an article about the couple and their children who were all taking an Inside Passage sail.

Spoiler alert: Van Hemert did not pick academia.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone. Glacier outside of Cordova.

My cousin recommended this book as one of the few fiction books she feels accurately captures what it was like to grow up in Alaska in the late 20th century. Hannah has Alaska cred too, in the 1980’s her parents co-founded the Great Adventure Lodge in Sterling, Alaska.

The novel begins in 1974 when a Vietnam vet, Ernt Allbright, suffering from PTSD discovers he has inherited a cabin and 40 acres outside of Homer. The inheritance is good timing, Ernt is recently unemployed and not for the first time; he also can’t manage his drinking. Believing the inheritance is a good omen he moves his wife and young daughter, Leni, into the wilderness outside of Homer into a ramshackle cabin. This is done with a promise to his wife and daughter that he will ‘get better’. Sure.

Life doesn’t get better for Ernt, his drinking escalates, and he befriends Mad Earl who is the local white supremist. Mad Earl is not the influencer Ernt needed in his life but Ernt is incapable of appreciating the good people of the community. In the meantime, Ernt’s daughter, Leni, grows up in Alaska’s wild splendor – long before it was ruined by cruise ships and roads that lead to actual places- and she thrives as her father twists into alcoholic violence.

There is more to the book, like Hannah’s description of the caring and accepting community that helps the Allbrights prep for their first winter and then Hannah shows us the other side of that same community, the one that stands aloof as it witnesses Ernt’s increasing violence against his family. And there are eccentric and heroic Alaskan characters throughout the book, like the town rich guy who is prepping his land for tourism (despite Ernt’s and Mad Earl’s anger over the changes this enables) and the handsome son of the rich guy, who can’t help but notice the bright and capable Leni. And in the end, there is that ‘one mistake’ plus one more that my cousin warned about, which ruins Leni’s dreams.

I raced through this story. It is dramatic, filled with eccentrics, heroes and villains, there are tense and frightening set-ups, and loving descriptions of Alaska’s unmatched natural beauty. It reads a bit like a YA novel, but Alaska has that vibe as well. I trust my cousin on this one. If you want to get a feel for what it was like to grow up as a young girl in Alaska in the 1970’s and 80’s, this is the book to pick up.

 

 

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J writes…

Hello Rocky Scramblers

Remember me?  I’ve been absent from Rocky’s pages the last few months. I’ve been meaning to get back to you and so my first selection to tell you about is appropriately named Remember Me by Sophie Kinsella. Back in June, this book caught my eye because the cover had a light and readable look to it. Summer book reading often makes me think of page-flipping, so I took a looksee. The synopsis –  Twenty-eight-year-old Lexi finds herself in a hospital to learn she’s been in a coma. The last thing she remembers is a boyfriend nicknamed “Loser Dave,” and working as a low-end sales rep in New York. But when she awakes, her handsome and wildly rich husband (who is not Loser Dave) takes her home to their penthouse, and four years have passed. Whaaat?

I had a couple of snobby reservations after reading the back-cover summary.  This book could be one of those that  makes light of brain injury (a serious subject) for the sake of a hokey plot.  Remember when Gilligan gets hit on the head with a coconut, loses his memory, and then regains it when he gets hit on the noggin with a second coconut. Hilarious.

And one more pause after a look at the inside cover…  Other works by Kinsella included a whole series of  “Shopaholic” books.  Reading snobbery was kicking in.

But why not take a look?

What I found was exactly what the fellow-author blurbs promised. A light and readable book. And while the plot may have been a bit of a stretch, the brain injury facts were fairly authentic. Kinsella takes the concept of retrospective amnesia, the loss of memories before an injury or onset of a disease, and gives it a writer’s stretch. It works.

After waking from her coma, Lexi discovers not only that she is married to a rich and amazing looking husband, she also discovered that she has worked her way up to a vice president position at her company. GREAT!  In addition, she discovers that in getting to where she is now, she alienated all of her friends. And one more thing… she may have been cheating on her husband with one of his colleagues.  NOT SO GREAT. And she is miserable. Readers, along with Lexi, spend the next couple hundred pages piecing together the four years she lost, hoping she can win back her friends, keep her job, and find true love. SPOILER ALERT – all looks promising in the end.

I’m not telling you you must read this. But if it was on a shelf at a beach house, you could do worse than to pick it up spend a few hours with it.

Continuing with a similar, yet more serious them, next I read the non-fiction Brain on Fire, My Month of Madness by Susanna Cahalan. At age 24, Cahalan was an up and coming reporter at the New York Post. She had worked there in some capacity since she had first earned an internship as a teenager.  Given the prestige of the paper, we read, as well as infer, that Cahalan is smart, driven, and successful.

Written first person by the author, the book opens with Cahalan’s memory of being in a hospital bed, agitated, and restrained. She recounts the days up until this point. She had been displaying conduct that wasn’t her norm, but not necessarily out of the question if one was having an “off day.” She was overly emotional. She was apathetic about starting projects. She was having jealous and paranoid thoughts about her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend.

Atypical behavior for her, but everyone has stressful stretches of life when they are not quite themselves.  Serious work burnout, a manic episode in a yet undiagnosed bipolar disorder, substance misuse/abuse, hormonal imbalance… all of these could cause a change in personality. And all of these possible causes were on the table.

But it turns out it was none of these and Cahalan’s behavior continues to take a nosedive. She has pieced together her story from medical records, interviews from friends and family, and her own journal. During these weeks she had short term memory loss, hallucinations,  paranoid thoughts, and panic.

Her case was so complicated it mystified expert after expert until finally a neurologist, Dr. Souhel Najjar, determined she had a rare encephalopathy brought on by an autoimmune deficiency. Had she never been diagnosed and treated for this, Cahalan would have continued to live on in a fog forever. The book ends with an account of the long recovery back to her normal self.

I always find books about the brain body connection interesting especially those about what happens when that connection goes haywire. If you are too, this might be a read for you.

And now for something completely different. I picked up a copy of Bibliophile, an Illustrated Miscellany by Jane Mount because I was attracted to the cute drawings on the cover. I ended up reading every word. The author/ illustrator compiles lis

A list from Bibliophile

ts of books in various categories from most read, favorites, sci-fi, self-help, cooking… and reading related lists such as cool libraries, notable independent bookstores, literary pets…and more. It is interesting, charming, and fun to tick off the books you’ve read. If you come across this one in your library or local bookstore, find a chair and plan to spend some time with it.

That’s all for now scramblers. I’ll try not let it be too long before I check in again. Until then, Happy Reading.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

J writes…

Hello Rocky Scramblers

Remember me?  I’ve been absent from Rocky’s pages the last few months. I’ve been meaning to get back to you and so my first selection to tell you about is appropriately named Remember Me by Sophie Kinsella. Back in June, this book caught my eye because the cover had a light and readable look to it. Summer book reading often makes me think of page-flipping, so I took a looksee. The synopsis –  Twenty-eight-year-old Lexi finds herself in a hospital to learn she’s been in a coma. The last thing she remembers is a boyfriend nicknamed “Loser Dave,” and working as a low-end sales rep in New York. But when she awakes, her handsome and wildly rich husband (who is not Loser Dave) takes her home to their penthouse, and four years have passed. Whaaat?

I had a couple of snobby reservations after reading the back-cover summary.  This book could be one of those that  makes light of brain injury (a serious subject) for the sake of a hokey plot.  Remember when Gilligan gets hit on the head with a coconut, loses his memory, and then regains it when he gets hit on the noggin with a second coconut. Hilarious.

And one more pause after a look at the inside cover…  Other works by Kinsella included a whole series of  “Shopaholic” books.  Reading snobbery was kicking in.

But why not take a look?

What I found was exactly what the fellow-author blurbs promised. A light and readable book. And while the plot may have been a bit of a stretch, the brain injury facts were fairly authentic. Kinsella takes the concept of retrospective amnesia, the loss of memories before an injury or onset of a disease, and gives it a writer’s stretch. It works.

After waking from her coma, Lexi discovers not only that she is married to a rich and amazing looking husband, she also discovered that she has worked her way up to a vice president position at her company. GREAT!  In addition, she discovers that in getting to where she is now, she alienated all of her friends. And one more thing… she may have been cheating on her husband with one of his colleagues.  NOT SO GREAT. And she is miserable. Readers, along with Lexi, spend the next couple hundred pages piecing together the four years she lost, hoping she can win back her friends, keep her job, and find true love. SPOILER ALERT – all looks promising in the end.

I’m not telling you you must read this. But if it was on a shelf at a beach house, you could do worse than to pick it up spend a few hours with it.

Continuing with a similar, yet more serious them, next I read the non-fiction Brain on Fire, My Month of Madness by Susanna Cahalan. At age 24, Cahalan was an up and coming reporter at the New York Post. She had worked there in some capacity since she had first earned an internship as a teenager.  Given the prestige of the paper, we read, as well as infer, that Cahalan is smart, driven, and successful.

Written first person by the author, the book opens with Cahalan’s memory of being in a hospital bed, agitated, and restrained. She recounts the days up until this point. She had been displaying conduct that wasn’t her norm, but not necessarily out of the question if one was having an “off day.” She was overly emotional. She was apathetic about starting projects. She was having jealous and paranoid thoughts about her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend.

Atypical behavior for her, but everyone has stressful stretches of life when they are not quite themselves.  Serious work burnout, a manic episode in a yet undiagnosed bipolar disorder, substance misuse/abuse, hormonal imbalance… all of these could cause a change in personality. And all of these possible causes were on the table.

But it turns out it was none of these and Cahalan’s behavior continues to take a nosedive. She has pieced together her story from medical records, interviews from friends and family, and her own journal. During these weeks she had short term memory loss, hallucinations,  paranoid thoughts, and panic.

Her case was so complicated it mystified expert after expert until finally a neurologist, Dr. Souhel Najjar, determined she had a rare encephalopathy brought on by an autoimmune deficiency. Had she never been diagnosed and treated for this, Cahalan would have continued to live on in a fog forever. The book ends with an account of the long recovery back to her normal self.

I always find books about the brain body connection interesting especially those about what happens when that connection goes haywire. If you are too, this might be a read for you.

And now for something completely different. I picked up a copy of Bibliophile, an Illustrated Miscellany by Jane Mount because I was attracted to the cute drawings on the cover. I ended up reading every word. The author/ illustrator compiles lists of books in various categories from most read, favorites, sci-fi, self-help, cooking… and reading related lists such as cool libraries, notable independent bookstores, literary

A list from Bibliophile

pets…and more. It is interesting, charming, and fun to tick off the books you’ve read. If you come across this one in your library or local bookstore, find a chair and plan to spend some time with it.

That’s all for now scramblers. I’ll try not let it be too long before I check in again. Until then, Happy Reading.

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J thinks Night Film by Marisha Pessl is cake…with icing.Unknown-1The Cake: Night Film is a super entertaining story that kept me turning the pages the entire week I spent reading it. It distracted me from all competing little chores like Christmas baking and work.

The plot focuses on an enigmatic filmmaker named Stanislas Cordova. In his films, Cordova explores the realm of human nature: good and bad, dark and light, insane and sinister… and so on. The characters in his movies often live, exist, and act where one human attribute ends and its darker counterpart begins. The filmmaker and his films are controversial, shrouded in rumors and fantastic stories. The film sets are believed to be cursed due to a seemingly inordinate number of serious mishaps that take place during filming. His actors, after appearing in his films, tend to drop out of mainstream society and never discuss their experiences on the sets in public. Cordova himself gives no interviews and lives in seclusion with lawyers and people to protect him and his privacy. In fact, rumors about him include every imaginable conspiracy from the question of his actual existence, to the suggestion that he is a criminal of unimaginable evil. (The parallels between Cordova and actual filmmakers, both current and past, makes great fodder for conversation.) Cordova has a cult following of people who refer to themselves as Cordovites. They host underground nighttime viewings of his movies communicated to other Cordovites and fans with a secret graffiti code marked on doors of abandoned warehouses and other clandestine venues. Cordovites run secret websites devoted to scrutinizing every bit of information available on the man and his work.

Cordova is the center of the plot, however, the principal character in the story is Scott McGrath.  McGrath is a journalist who was known for his fearless and sometimes savage reporting. At his peak, no topic was too taboo for McGrath, no bit of evidence out of reach. That is, until he went after Cordova.  McGrath decided to write an expose’ on the filmmaker following the arrest of a serial child-killer. The murderer had admitted to copying scenes he’d seen in a Cordova movie.  McGrath planned to reveal Cordova as the puppeteer behind all the darkness and mystery associated with his films and his reputation. Cordova and his lawyers fought back with a ferocious defamation suit winning most of McGrath’s wealth and capital, costing him his job, his credibility as an objective journalist, and finally his marriage.

Night Film begins with the apparent suicide of Cordova’s 24-year-old daughter and Cordovite conspiracy theories running wild.  McGrath, a man with nothing to lose finding his adversary in the news again, plunges in. He is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of Cordova once and for all.

You know I don’t like to give away secrets, Scramblers. So I will just tell you to prepare to twist and turn, swivel, wriggle, contort, and spin.  You’ll encounter truths and illusions, white lies and black magic. You’ll get a little bit of a super-hero flavor from McGrath, but nothing that made me roll my eyes too much. It’s fiction. It’s supposed to suspend the imagination. Throughout the book, Pessl will drop references and likenesses to films and actors both real fiction, giving the reader a pleasant nod of recognition when stumbled upon.

The Icing: There are pictures. There are photographs. There are reports, receipts, notes on scraps of paper, website threads…and so on. This brilliant device just makes the book incredibly fun and engaging. Like Encyclopedia Brown for adults. I read it in book form, but apparently, if you read it in e-form you can download a “Decoder app” to get extra content with images and audio secrets.

I don’t think you should wait for a special occasion to treat yourself to this one, but if your nightstand is overflowing, Night Film would be a great book to have for the long days of winter to come. It’s nice and long. Maybe if you stick your nose in it in mid February, you’ll look up to find some spring sun on the way in March.

Happy reading!

 

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