Category Archives: Books

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

I just finished a book that I am pretty excited about, “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles. I borrowed it from my wife whose book group is reading it later this year. I had seen it in bookstores, best seller lists, and book reviews but I couldn’t figure it out but I tried it anyway.

This is a book with many different plot threads involving a lot of different characters. Those books tend to drive me crazy because sometimes the characters are not sufficiently delineated enough to keep me from getting confused and also the different plot lines keep me confused as well. This novel is a like a story of stories. The characters are so strong that I had no problem keeping them separate in my mind and each of the plot lines was interesting in and of itself yet contributed to the overall progress of the book.

So this was one of the books that was a totally satisfying read and was sorry that I had finished it. I’ll be reading more books by Amor Towles. Check him out!

Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard

This is a book about trees and somewhat of a memoir of Suzanne Simard and it just blew me away. It starts with her as a student intern working for a logging company in Canada and she is trying to figure out why Fir tree seedlings planted in a former clear cut do not thrive as expected. Why not, they have no competition from other trees, lots of sunshine and water. What is missing? So she starts trying to find out. She designs experiments with help from people from her work and over time she finds out that the fir trees need birch trees. It turns out that to professional foresters birch trees are weeds. They rob the valuable firs of sunshine, nutrients, and water.

Simard eventually rediscovers that birch trees and fir trees are linked by a fungus, a mycorrhizal fungus, that links the roots of birch trees and fir trees and this fungus facilitates the transfer of water, carbon, and other nutrients between the trees based on the needs of the trees. A great part of the book is Simard’s description of the experiments she ran to prove all this. Experiments in the woods are hard. Lots of digging to install barriers to prevent this fungus from connecting certain trees. Lots of exposure to radioactive gases as some of the trees are fogged with isotopes of carbon to help with tracing. Exposure to powerful herbicides when vegetation needs to be killed as part of the experiment. And then the dreary following up measuring how the various trees are growing and then running the data analysis.

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And then presenting the data at conferences and trying to get published and getting the cold shoulder and outright hostility from the older, mainly male, foresters who reject her findings outright. It’s a story of perseverance as she slowly gets her message out and government agencies and logging companies start using her recommendation to make replanted forests grow faster and healthier, not just for the trees but for the whole ecosystem.

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She writes about birches and firs but the forests are interconnected by all sorts of fungi between all sorts of species. She also writes about mother trees who somehow recognize their offspring and provide these “sons and daughters” extra nutrition and help to survive. None of this is speculation, she has proof that it occurs.

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At the end she talks about salmon, grizzly bears, trees in the pacific coast of British Columbia. A major source of nitrogen it turns out in the trees on the coast, extending far inland, is from salmon. (How do they know that, because the isotope ratio for nitrogen in salmon is different from the native ratios in the soil). During the spawning season grizzly bears eat thousands of salmon and leave the carcasses to decompose. The evidence suggests that maybe the fungus network may be able to transmit the salmon nitrogen hundreds of miles underground. No proof yet, but stay tuned.

What makes the book special is not just the science but Simard talks about her own life and struggles with marriage, children, career, and health. She’s kind of my hero right now. Talk about somebody who has a passion for many things and does her best to carry forward.

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Tell you what though, I am looking at trees and fungus with whole new eyes. As I hike my favorite trails here in Oklahoma I am looking at the trees and fungus with new eyes. Simard focuses her story the mycorrhizal fungus but there are literally thousands of other fungi out there that form networks between trees and other trees, and shrubs, and grass and every other type of plant you can think of sending nutrients here there and everywhere depending on season and need. It’s all kind of mind boggling.

I don’t think we have heard the last from her.

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

This cover is bogus

I’ve been hearing about Zane Grey almost my whole life. A famous western writer who was active in the early 20th century wrote about the old west. I used to watch Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater when I was a kid. I have never read his books until this one “Riders of the Purple Sage” his best seller.

Forest Ranger on the Mogollon Rim, Arizona early 1960's
There is my Dad, the Forest Ranger, at the Mogollon Rim on the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. I think that is my brother at the far right. The dog is Dupe the cocker spaniel. I don’t know who the guy on left is.

I grew up in Zane Grey country, the Mogollon Rim country in Arizona. Home of desperadoes, cowboys, and outlaws way back when.

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The Zane Grey Cabin in Payson, Arizona.

So I was expecting some sort of outlaw, desperado, rustler, lawman type novel when I read my first Grey novel. And there is quite a bit of that along with some great description of the country of southern Utah. A land of hidden canyons, secret passages, and beautiful valleys. There were outlaws, rustlers, and heroic hard bitten cowboys. But I’ll tell the dirty little secret of this book.

It’s a Romance Novel!! Oh my gosh, these cowboys when they meet the women their hearts go all aflutter, falling in pure, innocent love for these various damsels in distress. Page after page after page. I was never more glad to finish a novel than this thing. There were some “good parts in it” horseback chases across the sage flats. Hard charging horses. All the shoot outs and action is “off camera” if you will. They are told about afterwards.

Other than that it reminds of way back when when I worked in an office where one of the secretary’s didn’t have much to do so she read romance novels all day long. So I’d come by and say, hey let me see that. So I’d take the book and standing there for a few seconds read aloud what page she had been reading and it was all about heaving bosoms, quivering thighs, breathless anticipation, and soaring love (that is about as far as it went in this lady’s books). That is Riders of the Purple Sage, romance for cowboys.

The women are not treated much better. They are described as simple, childlike, and weak.

So I give this book three stars out of five for historical and literary interest. Otherwise I was pretty disappointed.

“Later” by Stephen King

Book Cover for "Later" by Stephen King

“Later” is one of Stephen King’s old school thriller, horror, books kind of based on cheap paperbacks. King can spin a yarn better than anybody in my opinion. We start out with kind of cute little boy who has this thing where he can talk with the recently dead.

So it starts out kind of cute and fluffy and as the novel progresses, the cute becomes less, and things get strange and then they get scary and all the sudden the novel hangs a hard left and sprouts knives, axes, teeth, and chainsaws and I swear it turns again right back at the reader. All before we know what is happening.

And after the story’s climax, King drops something else on us. Not a horror, but something else, just as horrible.

I finished it with like, what just happened here?

I strongly recommend this book. I got my copy at the library.

“Leave Only Footprints” by Conor Knighton

My son gave me Conor Knighton’sLeave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park” for Fathers Day and I just finished reading it.

It’s a cool book. Knighton, a correspondent for CBS News, went to all our National Parks in one year in 2016. I think there were 59 National Parks in 2016 and it looks like we are at 64 now. He starts out on New Year’s Day on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park where the sun first shines on the contiguous USA and ends at Point Reyes National Park on New Year’s Eve which is the last place the sun sets (on that date) on the contiguous USA.

In between he travels to all the other parks and has a little bit to say on each one of them. It’s more than just a listing of highlights. He talks about why he is going on this journey (spoiler, he got dumped by a woman) and his experiences. I found out we have a lot of parks that I have never heard of that are hard to get to and are not very “wired” although given the book was based on his 2016 experiences.

He also has something to say about the Parks not being very diverse in terms of their racial diversity and what is being done about that.

This was a surprising book and I loved it. I highly recommend it.

Anne Hillerman’s “Stargazer”

Anne Hillerman's Stargazer - Book Cover

Stargazer is another detective novel by Anne Hillerman set on the Navajo Reservation. This one stars Bernadette Manuelito, a tribal policewoman, who gets involved in a murder case involving her old college roommate Maya and scientists doing research at the Very Large Array radio telescope (“That’s where Stargazer came from, get it.”) As in all the Hillerman books, Navajo tradition and the desert southwest are prominent in the story. Since Anne took over the series after her father Tony Hillerman died, she put more emphasis on the characters and the relationships between the characters. I kind of like that. Anne Hillerman has made the series her own.

I strongly recommend this book.

John Grisham – “A Time for Mercy”

John Grisham’s “A Time for Mercy” is a continuation of Grisham’s earlier “A Time to Kill” and “Sycamore Row.” The star is attorney Jake Brigance who is a little older and wiser, still trying to build his practice and suffering from his integrity and stubbornness. I am not going to reveal the plot of course but Jake gets stuck defending an undefensible youthful client on a charge of First Degree Murder. He’s also trying to win a slam dunk civil suit against a corporation.

Grisham is at his best as he builds up the back story on both cases slowly. Toward the last his courtroom narratives kept me reading for hours. I’m not going to reveal the ending of course but lets just say it is oddly satisfying.

“The Pot Thief Who Studied the Woman at Otowi Crossing” by J. Michael Orenduff

Book Cover

This is a fun mystery novel, the ninth in a series, by J. Michael Orenduff. The books feature Hubie Schuze who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico and makes his living by illegally digging up ancient Native American pots on public lands and selling them. He also supplements that income by copying such pots and selling them to unsuspecting tourists. Despite all that he seems like a nice guy. A nice guy who seems to know a lot of people who get murdered. Not that he does any of that though but he is under suspicion a lot and so has to try and solve murders himself to clear himself.

This latest murder is a puzzler. An unidentified man is killed on his way to Schuze’s shop. Thing is he shares DNA with Schuze and although the man’s death was captured on video, the police have no idea how he was killed or who did it.

So yes, solving the murder and figuring out who victim was is fun but even more fun is following Schuze’s moves as he goes to the solution. We learn about academic politics at the University of New Mexico, how a woman seduced him by teaching him how to iron clothes. He’s on a first name basis with the lead homicide detective. He consults his family, he drinks margaritas at happy hour. It takes him a while but he finally gets it.

There is lots of New Mexican culture and background in these books. I’ve read all of them and am looking forward to another.

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder

Jessica Bruder, a journalist, wrote Nomadland, a book about the (almost) hidden army of people who have decided for one reason or another to abandon permanent homes in favor of a life on the road. They don’t have real estate, they have “wheel estate.” they are not homeless, they are “houseless.” Many of them made this choice to follow a dream that doesn’t entail a house, maintenance, insurance, rent, and all the rest. I know a few of those people. Others made the choice because staying in a house or apartment did not add up. The type of arithmetic when you take your income and subtract food, medicine, insurance, other bills, and you don’t have enough for rent. They did it out of necessity. They are being squeezed out by the high cost of housing.

Where do they live? Many live in RV’s, new and old, travel trailers, truck campers. Some even live in their cars. Where do they park their vehicles? In RV parks, and on BLM and Forest Service land in the west. Walmart parking lots are popular, in commercial areas where their rigs blend in, public parks. Anywhere they are allowed to, and a few places where they are not. There are apps that guide them to free camping spots.

What do they do for money? Some live off their savings or in whatever jobs they can find. Thousands work for Amazon during the peak pre-Christmas season at their gigantic fulfillment centers. Amazon has a name for them, they are the Camperforce. Amazon loves them because of their work ethic and willingness to work for not very much money. Others work seasonally as camp hosts for National and State forests. They work the sugar beet harvest. All sorts of things.

Where do they go when they are not working. Thousands head to Quartzsite in southern Arizona where they boondock in the public lands surrounding town. The meet up in groups, learn the tricks and rules of the road from each other and enjoy the warm winters.

The author Jessica Bruder spent three years and researching this lifestyle. She even got her own van in order to embed even closer with them. You can tell she kind of fell in love with the lifestyle and the people. She tells the story with great empathy and insight.

I loved this book. And hey a movie is coming out starring Frances McDormand.

“The Sentinel” by Lee Child and Andrew Child

The Sentinel

I just finished The Sentinel by Lee Child and Andrew Child. It’s another Jack Reacher story. Lee Child has written a bunch of books featuring Reacher, an ex-Army MP officer who is big and tough and travels around the country and runs into many bad guys harming good people. This is another one of those books and this one falls flat on its face. I am not going to tell you the plot, but there is not a whole lot of action in this book. It’s mainly narrative and dialog. Boring narrative and boring dialog.

I hate to say it but maybe the book falls short because it has two authors. Lee Child collaborated with his younger brother Andrew Child on this book. Apparently this is the first book of a four book deal struck with the two authors. I’ve never really enjoyed fiction with two or more authors. This was a quick read and I am glad that I did not buy it. Thank goodness for our libraries!!

Anyway, that is how I feel.

The Sentinel by Lee Child

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


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