Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps

It sounds like a gimmick, and in some ways it is—though an effective one. Chris West has given us a brief, readable history of modern Britain, using the issue of postage stamps, one after another, to serve as signposts along the way. Perhaps five percent of the book involves stamps—how the images are chosen, how the design elements have changed. For the most part the text deals with what those choices and changes say about life in Britain at a particular point in time. West also cleverly spins tales off of other aspects of a given stamp.

For example, Chapter 3 focuses on an Irish postmark from 1848 on a Penny Red. The postmark gives West a point of entry into the famine that swept Ireland in 1846 after the arrival of potato blight from North America. Always on the outlook for balance and contrast, and seemingly in command of every detail of British history, West observes that at the time Ireland was a part of Britain and had 105 representatives in Parliament, who did nothing special to alleviate the plight of their constituents. But he reserves the bulk of his criticisms for Sir Charles Trevelyan, the government-appointed chief of famine relief, whom he describes as “ a man with a pig-headed conviction that the market was a solution for all social ills.” 

West maintains a conversational tone throughout the book, asking questions, raising issues, then offering solutions in a speculative rather than a conclusive spirit. To take another example from early in the book, a 5 Shilling Red gets him to talking about what he calls the mid-Victorian Wealth Machine, which was based on industrial production, cheap labor, and a competitive market that weeded out inferior or over-priced products. This machine brought generations of landless folks out of poverty, though it left others behind. Both of these economic developments, he notes, had been anticipated by Adam Smith a hundred years earlier.

Contra Adam Smith, West now brings Karl Marx into the discussion. “Marx can be criticized in lots of way,” he writes, “but in pointing out that the Wealth Machine didn’t automatically benefit everybody, he was surely right.” Good point. West continues: “This was a truth that some Victorians…didn’t understand; others understood but didn’t care; still others understood, cared but didn’t know what to do about it.”

Comparing the two visions of economic life, West notes that Marx depicts capitalism as based on nothing but ruthless greed, whereas Smith emphasizes not only competition but also sympathy and “moral sentiment.” 

Rather than enter into a detailed analysis of The Wealth of Nations and Das Kapital, (neither of which were widely read at the time), West suggests that we examine two books that many people did read and respond to, Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help and Dinah Craik’s John Halifax, Gentleman. A few pages (and a new stamp) on, we’re deep into a description of the career of Charles Dickens, who humanized the plight of the urban masses more effectively still.

West rambles easily from economics to literature, from the Opium Wars to a Royal Jubilee, often choosing a significant detail to illuminate a larger truth. Always on the lookout for balance (or a silver lining), he finds it even amid Britain’s rapacious imperialism on the Dark Continent of Africa. “British education has been, and  still is, valuable in the continent,” he writes. “Nelson Mandela studied first at a Wesleyan missionary school, then at Healdtown School (established by Methodists in 1845), then at Fort Hare University,  a world class campus set up by a mixture of  eminent blacks and liberal whites in 1916.”  

In the chapters on Tony Blair and New Labour West describes the arrival of “spin,” which at the time was applied to everything from the invasion of Iraq to the postal service itself:

“Even the postal service suffered at the hands of the spinners, undergoing a ₤2 million revamp of its image that lumbered it with a new and meaningless name, Consignia, which people said reminded them of a deodorant or a walk-on part in an opera.”

West judiciously points out that, matters of spin aside, New Labour also brought peace to North Ireland, more women into parliament, and a minimum wage.

Other topics that his stamp collection calls to mind include the Falkland’s War, the changing ethnicity of Britain’s population, the EU, soccer (World Cup champs 1966, and a stamp to prove it), the Sex Pistols, and Lady Diana. After a description of the outpouring of grief in the days immediately following Diana’s death in 1998, West writes:

“Looking back on those days, some commentators regard them as a national embarrassment, like a teenage diary suddenly found in the back of the drawer. But this totally misses the point: it may have been a bit over the top, but the tears were genuine; they were the tears of people who had spent their lives being told to bury their emotions and were now suddenly allowed to let them out. It was a substantial shift in the nation’s sensibility.”

I’m no expert on British history, but it seems to me West seldom, if ever, “misses the point.” Indeed, he has wrapped aspects of economic, social, and political history into a pleasing narrative, carried along by an undercurrent of that same benevolence he finds in many aspects of British life and history. The intrusion of philatelic detail, far from serving as a prop or a distraction, helps to keep the narrative light and also reminds us that if we’re sitting with a stamp album on our lap in the midst of a decent life, it’s due to the efforts of several generations of communitarian effort… including those of the postal service.

 “Stamps tell stories,” West writes in the foreword. “They speak to us across generations – if only we’d stop squeezing them into albums and worrying about their catalog value, and just listen to their voices instead.”

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Brief History of History - Colin Wells

A Brief History of History is a strange and pleasant book. Strange, perhaps, because it’s so pleasant. I mean, lots of people enjoy reading works of history—biographies, dramatic tales of war and social revolution, cozy examinations of the spice trade or the decline of rural life, mind-blowing narratives of the development of astrophysics, nostalgic examinations of the Fifties, and even histories of salt, the mandolin, and the concept of zero. But very few, I think, take more than a passing interest in the history of history.

The subject is made difficult from the get-go by the word “history” itself. We use it to refer to the past, but we also use it to describe the things we say about the past. I might equally well say I’m studying the history of the Crusades (i.e. studying its past) or that I’m writing a history of the Crusades (i.e. I’m sharing with you my take on its past). 

When we study the history of history, what we’re doing it examining the history of the various things that have been said about the past. It’s a triple regress, and I suspect few readers beyond a thin layer of academics would be interested in entering into such a fun house. (Perhaps the only thing worse would be the history of historiography: the history of the various things that have been said about the things that have been said about the past.)

But it’s to the general reader rather than the scholarly community that the author, Colin Wells, has addressed himself here. Bravo! Scholars will find the work breezy and uncritical (not quite fairly). The general reader will find it fascinating, up to a point. I was reminded more than once while reading it of another minor classic, The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold Schonberg. 

Wells is good at keeping a narrative afloat.

But here the major problem of his work presents itself. With Schonberg, we can listen to a Mozart symphony or a Wagner opera, and then read up on all the scuttlebutt surrounding the man who wrote it. (In fact, having written that sentence, I just put Mozart’s 40th Symphony on the turntable. Ah, sublime!) When we’re reading about Einhard or Guicciardini, on the other hand, or Bayle or Champollion, the question we ask ourselves time and again is, “Who the hell is that?”

This can be a problem. And if Wells happens to hit on a historian we’ve heard of—Herodotus say, or Burckhardt—our first thought may be, “Damn, I’ve always wanted to read him. I think I’ll go do that now.” Good-bye Wells.

I had that thought more than once while reading A Brief History of History. Thucydides remains a gap in my education, though I have The Landmark Thucydides right here on the shelf. Also Bede.  And Herder.

Well, there is no end to the list of the great historians I’ve never read. And Wells doesn’t shy away from bringing out not only obscure (to us) historians, but also compilations of historical fragments that no one outside the academic community has heard of. 

He seems to be especially strong on Byzantine historiography—an era closer to a black hole than anything Stephen Hawking has ever met up with face-to-face. (And yet A Brief History of Time sold millions!)

The discerning reader may have come to suspect that I myself fall somewhere between the scholar and the “general reader.” I’m no scholar, yet I do have Hume’s six-volume History of England close at hand and also Phillippe de Commynes two-volume Memoirs, an eye-witness account of the history of Burgundy in the later years of the fifteenth century. 

Wells doesn’t mention Commynes. I forgive him. Because what he has done is bring out how fascinating it can be to read histories written in times closer to the events being described than the ones we have access to today.

Undergirding any history of history is a definition of history, and Wells finds his in the first sentence of the first history ever written—The Persian Wars by Herodotus. He dwells on the fact that Herodotus, after explaining that he wanted to preserve the past from oblivion, also wanted to explain why things happened.   

“These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.” (trans. Rawlinson)

Wells notes that “to put on record” interpolates a verb that doesn’t exist in the original. He translates the final clause “and especially the reason why they went to war against each other.” Thus history’s purpose, according to Herodotus, was to preserve the glory of the past, but also to explain it. Hence the subtitle of Wells’s book is: Great Historians and the Epic Quest to Explain the Past.

Yes, but does the past really need to be explained? Do the motives of human activity ever really change? Power, domesticity, expression, love, pleasure, stability, survival, vengeance, and that quality above all others—benevolence. People love to read history because they love to make contact with superhuman examples of those things. Depending on their temperament, they may read Helter Skelter or a biography of Winston Churchill.

Wells makes a very good narrative out of a disparate and challenging collection of thinkers. A Brief History of History is a book I'm sure I could read once a year with profit. Characters such as Bruni, Dilthey, Tacitus, Procopius demand our attention, and Wells does a good job of explaining why. But there are more than a few passages in which his attempt to be breezy ends up sounding trite. For example, of the Italian poet Petrarch he writes:

Before Petrarch, people looked at the past and saw an age of pagan superstition that had been succeeded by the light of Christian revelation. Petrarch flipped this idea like a pancake: The enlightenment of ancient Greece and Rome was followed by an age of ignorant superstition in which ancient knowledge disappeared and culture decayed.

Wells seems to approve of Petrarch’s re-ordering of history, which is also a re-ordering of values. But is it sound? This is an important point, precisely the kind of issue that Wells tends to ignore. Are Christian values worthless? Are there vast stretches of time that contributed nothing to civilization?

Casting around for a richer interpretation of the relation between historical eras, I opened Benedetto Croce’s History: Theory and Practice (1913) and came upon the following passage:

…historical thought knows nothing of returns, but knows that the Middle Ages preserved antiquity deep in its heart and the Renaissance preserved the Middle Ages. And what is “humanism” but a renewed formula of that “humanity” of which the ancient world knew little or nothing, and which Christianity and the Middle Ages had so profoundly felt? What is the word ‘renaissance’ or ‘renewal’ but a metaphor taken from the language of religion? And setting aside the word, is not the conception of humanism perhaps the affirmation of a spiritual and universal value, and in so far as it is that, altogether foreign, as we know, to the mind of antiquity…  

These reflection are of a different order altogether from the ones we find in Wells’s book. They’re rooted in a command not only of historiography, but also of metaphysics, and Wells simply doesn’t possess such a background.

Yet A Brief History of History is a remarkable book all the same.The entertaining tales harbor subtleties of interpretation and judgment that Wells seldom lingers to defend. For example: "History has co-opted the ferocious post-modernists, who set themselves to drain it of meaning but only ended by presenting it with a new set of powerful tools."

The historians he choses to highlight from recent times--Natalie Zemon Davis, Peter Brown, Emmanuel Ladurie,Carlo Ginzburg--are an odd lot, none of whom carry name recognition on the order of Macaulay, Voltaire, de las Cases, or Julius Caesar. Yet I cannot help pulling my copy of Ginzburg's essay collection, Wooden Eyes:Nine Reflections on Distance, from the shelf to give it another look.

I am tempted to call Wells's effort a Quixotic one. He has read more, and knows far more about the history of history than you or I ever will. Yet he considers it worthwhile to call up names unknown to us, examine eras in history we've never given a thought to, attempting to tell the story in terms we can understand. As if we might be interested. And indeed, he does make it interesting.

At one point he writes, and it's true: "If historians downed pens right now, we could still never catch up on our reading."

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Roy Hargrove Quintet

The Roy Hargrove Quintet is a gift to people like me who long for straight ahead jazz full of energy and surprise, feeling and fun, unabashed tenderness and riotous noise. We’re the folks who grew up on Davis/Shorter, perhaps, but find ourselves listening more often these days to Baker/Getz or Harrell/Woods. There’s a lot to be said for modal jazz, but nothing tickles the brain or the heart like someone—better yet, and entire quintet—that really knows how to play the changes.

Hargrove strutted lithely on stage at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis Tuesday night a little after seven in a dapper suit, designer sunglasses, and a Mohawk. Quincy Phillips (at the drums) wore a summery plaid sport coat with thin yellow stripes and a roadster cap. Sullivan Fortner slouched behind the piano in a bulky purple-and-gray sweater, looking like his mom had just told him to clean out his room…and he was still trying to decide if he had to do it. Meanwhile, ever-bemused Justin Robinson, with a flowing beard and an alto sax hanging from his neck, could have passed for a kindly rabbi in a Woody Allen flick. (Ameen Saleem was largely invisible behind his stand-up bass.)

The band started to play…and they played, and they played. As one number came to a close, the unit would launch immediately into another one, oblivious to the eruption of hearty applause. The harmonies were tight, the solos intermittently inspired and never too long. Bassist Saleem’s solos were rubbery and perhaps over-miked but also joyous, and he sustained the momentum of the evening admirably, while Phillips’s moments in the spotlight were crisp and never thundered off into deep space.

Hargrove and Robinson moved around on the stage from front to back, side to side as their cohorts strutted their stuff, adding riffs here and there (more for the band than the audience) and returning to center stage for the wrap-up. 

Some of the tunes were familiar to me from recent albums, though I couldn’t tell you which was which. “Invitation,” “Salima’s Dance,” “Strasburg/St. Denis,” “The Stinger.” Hargrove's solos were often fragmentary and meditative rather than blistering. Robinson let rip with a succession of incandescent and modally based solos that were slightly at odds with the band’s otherwise harmonic approach, though they added a welcome element of frenzy to the evening. The same could be said of Fortner’s often jumpy and occasionally almost arhythmic soloing, though in the course of the evening the young pianist demonstrated he could offer a sound to fit any musical situation.

Hargrove sang one mournful tune, “Never Let me Go,”  and the impact of the human voice was all the greater because no one had being saying anything much from up on stage. He brought some humor to the phrasing, and  later in the show, along those same lines, he also entered into a rhythm-game with Phillips, matching the drummer’s beats on a hand-held plastic box.

In a short, mediocre set, such an interlude can be one further source of irritation. In the context of a long, ebullient set like the one we heard Tuesday night, it’s an added element of fun.

 Hargrove is a small, wiry man, almost dwarfed by the flugelhorn he pulls out from time to time. But the musical energy flowing through him is a force of nature, and in interviews he makes it clear how deep his knowledge of jazz runs.

I saw another aspect of that elemental force midway through the second set, when Hargrove, after finishing a solo, walked off stage through the curtain and reappeared at another door a few steps from my table. Standing in the dark against the wall, he proceeded to do an energetic dance with himself, somewhere between a watusi and a frugg, with a few 180-degree turns in a very small space. He was having fun and he just couldn’t stop. A moment later he reappeared on stage, horn in hand, ready for a reprise of the tune.
Hargrove was asked in an interview once what playing in a big band had brought to his sense of music. His reply:

“... It creates some kind of humility. It’s very needed. Excuse me, but a lot of times, especially now, when I got to the jam sessions, people are so ego! ... We’ll play an F-blues, and everybody with an instrument will get up and play, and it goes on for three hours. Each musician will play 100 choruses. There’s no humility there. Big bands, large ensembles create an environment where you don’t have to play for two hours and stretch out. Everybody can’t be John Coltrane! Sometimes you can just play half a chorus. Charlie Parker will play a half chorus and blow your mind! There’s something to be said about being able to trim it down—say less but have it have more meaning.”

We listened to Roy’s quintet for three hours, and it was all music. Stretching boundaries? Pushing the envelope? Not really. Just thoughtful, high-energy music. And a whole lot of fun.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Twelve Steps to Bayfield

Trying to make the most of a cool gray weekend, we hopped in the car and headed for Bayfield. The freeway drive was extraordinary, due largely to the frost on the willow bushes in the swamps. We took a slight detour to Jay Cooke State Park to see the new swing bridge and look out over the magnificent river.

In Duluth we stopped at the Northern Waters fish shop to pick up a couple of Sitka Sushi sandwiches, which we ate at a picnic table looking out over the frigid lake.

Birdwatching being what it was, we also took an interest in these juvenile ring-billed gulls.

The highway along the south shore of Lake Superior was as pastoral and lovely as ever.

Bayfield itself was pretty dead, though we spotted a juvenile and an adult loon in one of the little harbors on the south side of town.

We also stopped at Bodine's Fish Warehouse to pick up some fresh herring. (We didn't buy all of it.)

It rained on Saturday so we made our way to the Big Waters Film festival in nearby Washburn. The theatre there holds 120 people. Here you see director George Desort,,who spent eighty days kayaking solo across most of the lakes on Isle Royale.

On the way back to Bayfield we hiked out the Houghton Falls

... and on to the big lake.

I don't have time to describe the spicy Mexican stew we made or elaborate on the exploring, the reading, or the saunas. But I will mention that on the way back to Minneapolis we took a shortcut on County road C south of Superior and ran into some nice clumps of winterberry.

Flocks of snow buntings were everywhere on the highways near the big lake. I'm sure we saw a thousand birds all told, though they were all in flight, dashing off into the woods at our approach. By the time they get to Alaska and the Yukon, spring will be right around the corner.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Apee ow-uuur (Happy Hour) at Salut

I am suspicious of French-American restaurants, imagining the food to be overpriced and the furniture over-padded, but that’s largely an unconfirmed prejudice, considering I rarely go into them. Hence the “imagining.” The Happy Hour at Salut on Grand Avenue in St. Paul turned out to be a most pleasant surprise. 

The location was perfect, what with people coming in from all directions—Mahtomedi, Prior Lake, Edina, Linden Hills, Mac-Groveland, and Golden Valley. We were given a long table in front of the oyster bar and soon discovered we were being served by a front-line waitress with a wry sense of fun.

Friends arrived one by one and soon the long table was full. We discussed the upcoming election only briefly—we were all voting in different municipalities. We learned that Gayle’s downstairs neighbor—a nun—had fallen off a ladder and was now in the hospital. Appetizers arrived. French fries with bĂ©arnaise sauce ($3), sliders, little pizzas, a bucket of moules, a croquet-Madame that Renee made short work of. Little loaves of bread were brought to the table gratis, and when Jeff accidently knocked over an order of fries our waitress hurried to bring us another one, though we had no trouble finishing off the first one before she got back with the  replacement.

I was listening to two conversations simultaneously, both focused on Europe. Why? I guess because Jeff and Fran recently got back from Croatia, Renee and Michel were in France this summer, and Tim spent three weeks in Macedonia this summer, too. He and Carol have been to Croatia quite a few times, dating back to the Tito era and were curious to find out how the country has changed since becoming an independent state with a currency pegged to the euro. Meanwhile, Renee was describing how France has changed since her days in Paris long ago. Her husband, Michel (home with the kids), was more surprised than she was by how unFrench parts of the country now seemed, compared to back when he was hanging out in Lyon.
I haven’t been abroad for a decade, but that didn’t keep me from remarking on a book I saw recently about the decline of French cooking…and culture.

“I think they may be talking about the three-star restaurants,” Carol suggested.

“No, I’m quite sure the book was about eating and cooking habits generally,” I replied. “But I’ve never actually seen the book. I read a review.”

Then I had to make a further qualification. “I saw the review, but I didn’t actually read the review. I read the headline and the photo caption on the review.”

“Well, my mother was French,” Jeff said, “And she was a very good cook. I’m not sure if she was a French cook.”

“We never ate out when we were in France,” Carol said. “We were broke.”

“I remember a meal we had,” I said. “We were kayaking down the Tarn River, after which we stopped for lunch at a little restaurant on the river bank, out in the country. A three-course meal for $7. That was amazing.”

At one point two plates of sliced cucumbers topped with salmon mousse appeared. A few minutes later our waitress came by with a Happy Hour last call, and began to inquire about dinner. She got no takers, though we were curious all the same to hear about the Julia Child Monday Special.

“This week we’re doing boeuf bourguignon,” she grinned enthusiastically, “Chunks of beef in a red wine sauce—“

“And don’t forget the pearl onions,” someone chimed in.

“Oh, yes, and the bacon and peas…” It did sound good.

All of this French talk reminded Gayle that she’d been reading Shadows on the Rock, a Willa Cather book set in Quebec two or three centuries ago.

“Lots of Roman Catholic paraphernalia in that one, as I recall,” I said.  

“It is a little slow,” she admitted.

“They’re all slow,” Carol said, “though I did like My Antonia.”

Death Comes for the Archbishop,” Tim said.

The Professor’s House,” Gayle added. “Anything in the Southwest.”

“Well, you know what Cather says about Balzac and Flaubert,” I remarked, apropos of nothing beyond the restaurant atmosphere and general bonhomie of the occasion. Then I couldn’t remember the line. “How does it go? ‘If you haven’t read Balzac at twenty, you haven’t lived. But if you’re still reading him at forty, you’ve lived in vain.’ Something like that.”

Two desserts, split among eight people, and then it was time for the check. Our waitress had been so kind as to itemize orders by chair, but we’d been sharing things liberally and settled on a $20-per-person contribution, with adjustments for late-comers, and a huge tip on top. Then out into the night.

As chance would have it, I had Alsatian soprano Anne Azema’s recording The Unicorn in the CD player—haunting medieval French Songs with harp/rebec accompaniment. Perfect for a lovely drive home across the river and up the parkway in the dark.
This morning I looked up the Cather quote: It comes from the essay in the collection Not Under Forty in which she makes the acquaintance of Flaubert’s niece. “It is scarcely exaggeration to say that if one is not a little mad about Balzac at twenty, one will never live; and if at forty one can still take Rastignac and Lucien de RubemprĂ© at Balzac’s own estimate, one has lived in vain.”

I wasn’t too far off. Can you imagine anyone making a remark like that today?

I also looked up the book about French cooking I’d been referring to. It’s called Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France. I ordered a cheap used copy. Here’s an excerpt from one review:

This is not the type of opinion writing wherein the French are simply bashed. Steinberger provides the regulatory detail, changes in French eating and drinking habits, and political and social background to convincingly show why French cuisine has collapsed - and it is a collapse. By way of example: France is the 2nd largest market in the world for McDonalds, the country has lost close to 200,000 restaurants, French wine consumption is down 50% since the 60's, and the living standard has declined precipitously.

At the political root of all this is the Mitterand regime. In response to the global economic issues of the 70s and 80s, France chose a socialist government, which proceeded, naturally, to dramatically increase spending, entitlements, and regulation. Steinberger doesn't write as an anti-socialist. I read him as politically neutral in this book. But the globalization context he provides makes it clear that France's actions were a disaster for French agricultural life - and the cuisine and wine about which he writes.

Yes, we’ve got to preserve those traditions! We’ve got to get to work!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Last Hunter - Will Weaver

I’m the type of guy who enjoys tooling around the back roads of rural Minnesota (and Wisconsin) not looking for anything in particular beyond landscapes and vegetation, farms and streams, quaint villages, migrating birds, explosions of winterberry, moody bogs, and luminescent spirals of pale green moss on the trunks of maple trees.

I’m curious to know what might be found in Yucatan (Houston County) or Meadowlands (northeast of Floodwood) or Argyle. (Well, I guess everyone knows where Argyle is.)

And it’s my good fortune that Hilary also likes such excursions. She’s usually got the highway map and the Vincent Atlas open in her lap, helping me find the way into the heart of the country, and back.

You can’t spend much time roaming the countryside, however, without beginning to ask yourself what really goes on out there. I grew up in a school district (Mahtomedi) that had town kids and farm kids, and it was pretty obvious they lived in two different universes. We would complain about having to mow the lawn or take out the garbage once a week; they would often have hours of chores to do after school every day.

I never set foot on a farm during my adolescence, however; a teenage party at Mary Jacobson’s orchard was about as close as I got, and it was dark the whole time. Nor was I envious of those who were carted off to join Jim Rudeen on his uncle’s farm for a week in the summer. They invariably came back worn out from all the work they’d had to do.

I recently spent two weeks in a less-than-glamorous corner of north central Minnesota, and I put a thousand extra miles on the car during that time. I saw a lot of interesting countryside yet came away with the same nagging question: What really goes on out there?

A few days later a very good answer fell into my lap by chance, in the form of an economical little book, The Last Hunter, by Will Weaver. Weaver is well-known to most Minnesotans who read, what with “A Gravestone Made of Wheat” and Red Earth, White Earth to his credit. He was raised on a dairy farm outside of Park Rapids.

The Last Hunter is ostensibly about deer hunting. In fact, if offers a very good portrait of what it’s like to grow up in rural Minnesota, how four brother manage to farm in the same vicinity, how the generations interact, how kids grow into hunting under the guidance of their elders, what it feels like to lose touch with the land, and how hard it is to come back to it.

Weaver left the farm and caught the literature bug as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. He describes the atmosphere of rebellion on campus, the looming war in Vietnam, the scramble for deferments. (I was at the U at the same time and remember having a lengthy discussion with someone in my Robert Frost class about splitting wood. Will, was that you?)

In those days Weaver’s ties to the farm mostly took the form of frozen packages of venison, pheasant, grouse, and walleye that he’d retrieve during monthly trips back home. He used these to woo his later-to-be-wife Rose, but lived in dread of the moment he’d have to bring Rose herself home to Park Rapids, thus shattering his persona of a Shakespeare-quoting aesthete.

She knew I was from a farm—but I was not ready to share the real details of farm life. My old-world dairy barn with its wooden stanchions. The rank smell of calf pens. The dark winter mountain of ma­nure. The frozen deer blood that lingered all winter on the tailgate of my father's pickup. The cold garage hung with frozen fox and coyotes. The carcasses of skinned beaver and mink and raccoons that we tossed into the hayloft as win­ter food for the barn cats; the clattering, dried skeletons I removed in spring with a pitchfork. The sick cow that had to be dragged, bellowing, from the barn by rope and tractor, then shot. Hunting and blood trails and butchering and farm accidents—all of this I held back from her.

The visit goes well enough, but Weaver’s career path soon takes him (and Rose) far from Minnesota—all the way to wooded hills above Santa Cruz, California. The success of his novel Red Earth, White Earth further alienates him from the countryside he once called home. Tribal leaders from the White Earth reservation and the AIM movement say they’re out to get him, while local farmers are equally upset, claiming that he’s portrayed them as a bunch of rednecks.

But Weaver does eventually return to Northern Minnesota, and to the hunting he loves. In later chapters he deftly interweaves a narrative of his futile attempts to get his children to hunt with references to his father's declining health and changing farming methods in the region. With a French fry factory in Park Rapids and a potato chip factory in Perham, farmers shift their focus increasingly to capital-intensive potato farming, and huge irrigation rigs spring up across a landscape hitherto largely dedicated to pastures.

I’m not a hunter myself, though I love tromping through the woods in any season. Weaver’s description of his family hunting (and trapping) traditions offers a corrective to the common stereotype of drunken maniacs who’ve been baiting their chosen “prey” for months. In the Weaver family, drinking and hunting didn’t go together. And the hunting was part of the larger effort of a rural family to exploit the “fat of the land,” a phrase that, to Weaver’s father, referred to “anything that could be gleaned, picked, fished, or hunted—and put to good use for the family.”

Using deer hunting as a thread allows Weaver to cast light on many aspects of family and work life in a region where the north woods gives way to farms and ranches, without becoming unduly dramatic or confessional. It’s a beautiful and subtle portrait, like a faint star we see more clearly because we’re not looking directly at it.