Monday, November 6, 2017

Child of Steens Mountain

Child of Steens Mountain

I love to read about life in wild places in the past, and this book didn't disappoint.  Indeed, I enjoyed the perspective of a girl growing up as a different one than many of the books about eastern Oregon written by men.

Steens Mountain, if you've never heard of it, is one of the most remote areas in the United States, outside of Alaska.  Even in this day and age, it's a 2 hour drive from the area where the author's parents homesteaded to Burns, a small town of less than 3000 people.

Despite many modern innovations becoming available during her childhood in the 30ies and 40ies  - cars, airplanes, radios, and so on, the life Ms O'Keefe lived on the southern flank of Steens mountain in the 30ies was probably closer to that of Laura Ingalls Wilder of "Little House on the Prairie" than that we enjoy today, in many ways.  Stories of animals both wild and domestic abound, as well as the ever present sense of being very isolated and independent, as it wasn't likely for help to come quickly if you got in trouble.  On the other hand, she also talks about a deep sense of neighbors helping one another out, and the pleasure of other people's company when they were around.

This is not a lengthy book; it's simple and interesting, with a number of anecdotes woven in.    Rabid coyotes, rattlesnakes, freezing winters and hot summers, wandering sheepherders and an automobile more or less held together with bailing wire all make their appearances.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

The latest from Neal Stephenson, this feels like an apple that hasn't fallen far from the tree. Somehow familiar in that it mixes bits in the past with present day science fiction, it reminds me a bit of Cryptonimicon, one of my favorite books ever.  I wouldn't quite put Rise and Fall in that category, but it was certainly entertaining.  The central concept of the book is unique and interesting, even if perhaps it tugs a bit too much at the limits of the plausible, even for science fiction.

As is often the case with his books, the ending is not 100% satisfying, although it's not actually bad or depressing.

The fact that an eclipse plays a central role in the book made reading this book over the summer, around the time the big eclipse crossed central Oregon, that much more entertaining.

I'd give it a read - it's fun - if you like Stephenson's writing, but wouldn't put it among his best works.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man

Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man

First a hero in dime novels, and subsequently reviled as a killer of Native Americans, this book tries to look beyond both and describe Kit Carson as he actually was; a product of his time.

Going back in time, his family is described as Scots-Irish, a people used to rough justice carried out in person, and often retributive in nature, rather than carried out by the authorities.

Life on the frontier, where Carson grew up as his family migrated west, was similar.  The law was a somewhat distant concept.

This is a central theme of the book - how many of Carson's actions should be viewed in the light of the times he lived in.  Some are brutal from a modern viewpoint, but perhaps he should not be judged so harshly, the author states.

I wish the book had dealt more with Carson's travels throughout the west, and given more of a sense of place to his journeys, as that was my own interest in reading it.  In any age without automobiles, Carson traveled through a vast area of the country in a time when relatively few people of European extraction had been there.

An interesting look, in any event, at a figure who grew to be 'larger than life' despite being fairly modest and unassuming.  The leader of the mapping expedition Carson joined, John Fremont, was far more of a self-promoter.

The author's task is not made easier by the lack of much in the way of a written record from Carson himself.

A solid effort, but I'm not sure I'd recommend the book.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Miles from Nowhere: Tales from America's Contemporary Frontier

Miles from Nowhere: Tales from America's Contemporary Frontier

"The Frontier", once described as those places with less than 2 people per square mile, lives on in a large swath of the western United States.

This book follows the author as he travels to meet the inhabitants of the numerous counties in the western US that meet this definition.

Having spent most of the past 15 years in Europe, there's something I find fascinating about these places.  Indeed, most of the south-eastern quarter of my home state of Oregon is extremely sparsely populated, and earns a few mentions in the book.

The book talks about how the west was, and how it is now, and how it's changed, and how it may continue to change.

Most importantly, the author introduces us to a number of people who live in this part of the world, and gives us an idea of what makes them tick, who they are, and what they're doing "out there".

The book is nearly 20 years old at this point, but interestingly, many of the counties in question have continued to decline in population.

Recommended reading if you're curious about the kinds of places where the "road less traveled" leads.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Gold and Cattle Country

http://amzn.to/1OxqmQ5

Reading "Gold and Cattle Country" is like sitting down and listening to a lifetime of tales about how things were in the real "old west".  And what a lifetime it was!

Herman Oliver's father came to the US from the Azores as a stowaway, and ended up settling in Oregon's Grant County.  Herman Oliver was born in John Day Oregon in 1885, when horses were the main means of transportation, and died in 1970, after a man had walked on the moon for the first time.  He was a successful cattle rancher and banker, and later became involved in local and Oregon politics as a member of various committees.

The sense of listening to an "old timer's" stories is strong, as the book rambles a bit at times, but in a pleasant way.

The author dedicates some space to evidencing the differences between the real west he lived in, and "the west" of movies and TV, like most of eastern Oregon. Nonetheless, the book carries a sense of "west" that is not present in the mossy green valleys and slate gray skies of western Oregon; a west of ranches and gold mines and of raw, remote country.

This is reflected in the names, too:
Western Oregon, perhaps due to the mild and friendly climate that attracted home loving people, abounds in gentle names such as Amity, Glad Tidings, Freedom, Forest Grove, Goshen, Fernhill, Fairview, Enchanted Prairie, and the like.
Indeed, Western Oregon was mostly settled by people looking to farm, build churches and schools and communities, and otherwise create a peaceful, and somewhat dull existence compared to the "gold and cattle country" of eastern Oregon.  While it's hard to disagree with the motives of the former, it does not make for much in the way of stories.

At times the book rambles a bit too much, and goes into more detail than many might find interesting about actually running a cattle ranch, but those parts are brief and bearable.

A few anecdotes that jumped out:

Sheep had a reputation for being driven through areas and laying waste to the graze. An Irish sheepherder is allowed to graze his sheep in some wheat that otherwise would have gone to waste:
I said to the herder, "Pat, did you ever have your sheep in feed as good as this?" He answered, "Ounly in the moonlight."  A whole story of an era is wrapped up there.
Interestingly, the wild horses of Oregon were in high demand when they were still used by various military forces:
The U.S. cavalry and light artillery looked to Oregon for their choicest mounts. In the Boer War, the British bought many thousands of horses, and in the first World War, British, French and American officers could be seen inspecting horses at every eastern Oregon shipping station.
Some border on the "not very politically correct", but I guess that goes with the times:
Once, while judging the riding events at the Pendleton Roundup, I was sitting on my horse waiting for the next event, while the Indian women, in their finery, happened to be lined up in front of me. They were back to me and another judge was appraising them and their costumes for the title of "Indian Queen". An old Indian saw me, noticed the judge sign, hurried up and told me confidentially but emphatically, "You no judge squaw's behind! You judge 'em in front." 
The book is full of stories like these, and they give a real sense of what life was like, and how much things changed over the years.

Lastly, this quote struck me as something that makes as much sense now as it did then:

If asked for a single sentence of advice to anyone starting a ranch or any other business, I'd say, "Be constructive." Time spent in fighting neighbors, fighting the business people, fighting other organizations, is wasted. We improved the meadow, improved the breed, made our association stronger, built harmonious relations, made friends everywhere. The policy has made our lives smoother and has made it fun to live.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Heirs of Empire

Heirs of Empire

This book is not one with mind-bending new science fiction concepts - it's more of a "space opera" with a lot of cliches.  But it's a good, fun story, and the cliches are kind of mixed and matched with original bits and pieces into something that's new and - I thought - very entertaining.  There's some Star Wars there, some of the pirate movies I used to watch as a kid, some Dune, and it all works well because they are tried and true story elements that people have always liked.  Throw in some cool, futuristic tech, and a plot with lots of action, and it's a great book to read for enjoyment.

If you want hard science fiction, this isn't it, but if you want a very colorful, interesting world with action and adventure, it's a good book.  Indeed, the author leaves a lot of things unexplained, so I'm eagerly awaiting future installments set in the same world.

I enjoyed some of Evan Currie's earlier books too, but to me it felt like this one kicked it up a notch.  Given my tastes, I'd give it five stars.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Seveneves

Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors: I'd buy pretty much anything he writes.

This book was just not one I loved, though.

First of all, the first two thirds of the book is pretty depressing.  The entire population of the earth, outside of a few survivors in space, is wiped out in a massive fiery apocalypse when innumerable pieces of the moon come crashing down.  There is some interesting, and fairly detailed and realistic space science fiction regarding the survivors and how they cling to life in space , but the overall gloominess is aptly described by Cory Doctorow:
Stephenson builds up a sense of brutal inevitability, of humanity's insignificance in the cosmos that had me putting the book down for hours at a time, unable to read on (but my curiosity always overcame my sorrow). From: http://boingboing.net/2015/06/03/neal-stephensons-seveneves.html 
The final portion of the book, when humanity is rebuilding, is more positive in its outlook, and much more speculative science fiction.  It seemed too brief though, and leaves a lot of threads hanging.  Perhaps because the first part of the book didn't put me in a particularly positive frame of mind, I found myself more skeptical of some elements of the world Stephenson creates, and the events that lead to it and within it.

If you're already a Stephenson fan: you'll probably want to read it.
If not: read one of his other books like Cryptonimicon.