This is a quirky book filled with 12 short stories that catch one off guard. At least they caught me off guar...moreDry Fly Gospel By Terry Coffey
This is a quirky book filled with 12 short stories that catch one off guard. At least they caught me off guard. Granted, with the title it bears and a cover with a picture of a nun holding a fly rod and a wicker creel at her feet, it does lead one to believe that what comes under the cover won’t going to be your typical fishing yarns.
There are twelve stories, and they aren’t all about fly fishing (however, I think fly fishing makes an appearance in most of them). I believe each of these stories has been previously published, many of them in print form.
This slim volume of 92 pages is self-published. There are several errors that occur throughout the book, most of them are the things an editor would pick up. That’s one of the problems of self-publishing—it’s sometimes hard to catch your own errors, especially the larger the piece.
The title story, and first in the book, “Dry Fly Gospel,” starts like this:
“The following excerpts are taken from fragments of what many scholars believe is a fishing journal kept by John, who was the son of Zebedee and favorite disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.”
The story, at first glance, may strike a certain type of reader as a bit sacrilegious: Jesus as a fly fishing instructor and early practitioner of catch and release. However, I think Coffey maintains enough reverence for the sacred so that those who might instinctively shy away from such a story, will not take offense.
The second story, “The Jar of Worms,” features Cyrus, one of the 12 disciples, who tells the story in first person. He becomes enraged when Judas Iscariot, a bait fisherman (this made me crack up), interrupts a story being told by the Master, about dry fly fishing. Cyrus is upset because Jesus invites the bait fishing Judas to join them, Cyrus leaves Jesus, and Judas eventually fills his vacated spot, becoming one of the 12. Of course, Cyrus can’t help firing off a few parting comments about watching out for Iscariot since bait fishermen can’t be trusted.
The book contains a story about a medieval nun who believes she might have the opportunity to work on the Shroud of Turin, only to end up trying to decide if she wants to stay at the convent and remain a nun. One of the stories is about a Vietnam vet who meets Freud at a veterans’ hospital and ends up fishing with Freud, Shakespeare and Hemingway. Another story tells of a woman trying to come to terms with her cancer during a fly fishing excursion.
There is a story of a man in Peru who falls off his mountainside potato farm. One about a solo hike to a pond with a possible huge fish, or possibly a UFO incident. Another about a person who died and became a tree. And a couple of others.
I found most of the earlier stories to be more compelling reading and the last few were a bit, well, almost silly? There were enough interesting stories that I would recommend the book to anyone looking for something a bit eclectic.
The price, $12.95 plus shipping (about $16 total for me), seems a bit pricey for what you get. There is a Kindle edition for $4.95 that seems just about right. (Even if you don’t own a Kindle, you can get the Kindle reader for free so you can purchase books like this and read it on your computer.) (less)
Sometime within the past ten years or so I became interested in native fish. I have nothing against any species, I just like to see fish that are “sup...moreSometime within the past ten years or so I became interested in native fish. I have nothing against any species, I just like to see fish that are “supposed” to be in a watershed, in that watershed, not some other species occupying that water. This desire to find native species in their native range has taken my fishing buddy and me to some out-of-the-way little creeks—we’re talking about places in the middle of the desert 100 miles from the nearest town. Creeks whose widths are measured in inches, not feet. But it doesn’t seem to matter where we go, how far away from “civilization” we get, we still come across water stocked with non-native species. Many of these places were stocked long before motorized travel was possible. And I’ve wondered what possessed people to stock fish in such places.
Anders Halverson’s new book, An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World, answers that question for me. In a fascinating look at the social and political maneuverings of the late nineteenth century through the present, Anders’ meticulous research lays bare some interesting tidbits of the stocking policies of the United States.
One such gem is that the government was worried about the strength of the nation’s men: that they had “notoriously less hardihood and endurance than the generation which preceded [their:] own” (George Perkins Marsh, congressman and diplomat from the mid-1800’s). This description was given in a report by Marsh under the auspices of the Legislature of Vermont on the Artificial Propagation of Fish. He further stated that “the sports of the chase” (angling being one of them) was a way to increase the hardiness of the Americans. At this time, many waterways were already seeing a decline in fish numbers and the artificial propagation of fish was seen as a way to increase those numbers. With the urge to increase the robustness of its men, and the decline fish population the underpinnings were there for the introduction of non-native species.
Last year Eccles (from the Turning Over Small Stones blog) and I had a discussion about the terms “Fish and Game” and “Fish and Wildlife” as used in various agencies: Why were the terms “fish” and “game” separate? Shouldn’t it just be Game or Wildlife, as in "Utah Game" or "US Wildlife Service" since fish are a type of game and fish are a type of wildlife? Anders informs us that by the 1870s congress formed the United States Fish Commission to help tackle the problem of declining fish stocks, thus becoming the first governmental agency involved with animal husbandry in the US. At a later time, the “game” and “wildlife” were added as the agency expanded. So, in my mind at least, this solves the mystery.
How the rainbow trout became the darling of the US Fish Commission, and just about every other angling agency in the world, is an interesting tale that Anders starts in San Francisco in 1872 with Livingston Stone looking for spawning salmon. He eventually found the McCloud River and began propagating salmon. By 1879 they were looking for a place on the McCloud to begin propagating trout as well. And they did, with astounding success.
Besides the historical ventures Anders skillfully and delightfully takes the reader on, he also dissects the biology of the stocking programs, covering the hardiness of a stock that is constantly used for breeding to whirling disease. He discusses the loss of native species and the response (or lack of it) of individual state fish and game departments, how some of them have switched from stocking to conservation.
This brings up an interesting problem that many fish and game departments need to tackle: what is their responsibility when sportsmen (who pay for licenses whose money is then possibly used to bankroll conservation and restoration instead of stocking), clamor for more catchable fish?
Through all of these topics Anders uses a reporters zeal for facts (I’ve estimated over 250 sources listed in the bibliography) and detachment, thereby keeping an even keel on reporting the facts and not stepping on a soapbox to expound one particular side over another. Even with this professional detachment, there is a keen sense of understanding and compassion shown for the stories he tells. For, if nothing else (but there is a lot of “else”), the book is full of stories told with the storyteller’s art.
Full Disclosure: I have corresponded with Anders a few times by email. I was one of the first couple of anglers to join his new website (Angler’s Life List and Native Fish Network). And when he said he had a book available to be reviewed, I asked for a copy. I don’t have anything to profit from this review except getting a free book. Which I already have.(less)
Ted Leeson has been one of my favorite authors since his first book in 1994, The Habit of Rivers. That book contained essays concerning his trip throu...moreTed Leeson has been one of my favorite authors since his first book in 1994, The Habit of Rivers. That book contained essays concerning his trip throughout the western United States mostly fishing for native trout. Since then he has written a fair number of books on flies and fly tying. I rarely buy those types of books, preferring the literary over the practical (let’s not think what that might say about me), but it is his essays that I look forward to reading. Two years after his debut book he edited a volume of essays titled The Gift of Trout. That was a good book, but I was really looking forward to his next volume containing only his work. I had to wait eight years from The Habit of Rivers until publication of Jerusalem Creek, another exceptional book of essays centered in the Driftless area.
In those first two books, I found Leeson to be a bit more weighty…maybe “academic” is the word I’m looking for. I loved those books, but from what I remember, they seemed to be filled with lots of thought-provoking, introspective pieces. Maybe the word “serious” is what I’m thinking. Seven years after Jerusalem Creek, Leeson published Inventing Montana. This book contains the classic Leeson writing consisting of “academic” language, such as this sentence from Chapter 7, The Most of It: “Given its encumbrance with conditions and qualifications, many people might dismiss the question as invalid or meaningless to begin with.” But, unlike (to my memory at least) his other two volumes of essays, Inventing Montana has a lot more personal feel. I believe one of the reasons it does so is because of the humor he injects into most of the pieces. This is a welcome element to Leeson’s writing that I think makes this book his most reader-friendly volume yet.
His chapter titled, Local Semiotics, contains a side-splitting discussion among his friends when they happened upon the only open campsite, but it hand an ice scraper in the middle of the picnic table. They tossed around their theories on the plausibility of an ice scraper being used to hold a tent site in a Yellowstone campground (for those of you who visit the Park with any regularity, you’ll understand the importance of finding, and then holding, a campsite). Two of the party
“took up the question from a more or less epistemological standpoint: What constitutes value? How do we know value, and wherein does it reside? And for whom? Is value intrinsic.”
And of course, others in the group
“considered the scraper from the perspective of intentionality. Had it been left deliberately or accidentally? Was it a sign of something other than forgetfulness?”
A park ranger happened upon them in the middle of their conundrum, but refused to weigh in one way or the other.
Leeson has spent the last 20 or so years visiting Montana for about a month with a handful of friends. The group is an eclectic bunch, which creates the backdrop for many of the essays. These essays take place in a relatively small area, the Madison Valley. Focusing on such a small area, with a group of close friends, helps bring an intimacy to the book, an almost folksy feel to it. Such as his essay about Ennis.
For those of you unfamiliar with Ennis, Montana, it is the quintessential cow town, with the added feature of being the quintessential fly fishing town as well (which is an odd dichotomy considering the occasional conflict between cattlemen and anglers). He points out that one thing among small towns is the inhabitants’ penchant for waving to passing automobiles. As a motorcyclist, I’ve grown accustomed to waving to other motorcyclists, but there is always a question of which motorcyclists do you wave to: only the ones riding the same type of bike? Ones with helmets? In town? At a stoplight? Leeson analyzes the problems associated with waving when your license plate clearly shows you are an outsider.
“Mindful of how visitors like myself invade the place each summer, I worry that initiating a wave might be perceived as the overeager ingratiations of a tourist on holiday. Such people presume to a familiarity that does not exist and may force a return wave in a kind of extorted intimacy that leaves the other driver feeling he’s been compelled to engage in a nonconsensual act.”
And of course, what would a Leeson book be without soaring paragraphs of magical prose?
“Some years bring as well, however, a season within this season, a smoldering, incandescent stretch of days when the mercury flirts with triple digits and a string of nights not much cooler—the depths of the dog days and the hottest part of the hottest part of the year….in the forge of each day, the sun hammers the landscape to the same hard and brittle sheet of earth.”
For those of you who might have tried Leeson before but didn’t quite get into it, give this one a try. For those who already enjoy Leeson, you’ll love the extra dimensions this book adds to his repertoire. (less)
Wetherell, at the age of 54, is on the cusp of late-middle-age (which, according to him, occurs at exactly age 55). In preparation for this momentous...moreWetherell, at the age of 54, is on the cusp of late-middle-age (which, according to him, occurs at exactly age 55). In preparation for this momentous occasion, he wants to return to Yellowstone, a place he first visited when he was 30.
Unlike many males, Wetherell didn’t experience a mid-life crisis in 40s, but the closer he gets to that line of demarcation he felt “nearer to black despair than ever before in [his:] 54 years of life. The future had closed solidly against [him:].” (p10) He had a rough previous year and felt “panicky” and like he was “emotionally flailing about.” (p3)
He felt he needed to get away, alone, to get a new perspective on his life—see where he’d been and where he was going. Yellowstone had a certain draw on him since his first visit, and as part of his search for personal meaning, he wanted to explore the “meaning of Yellowstone.” (p5) But he wasn’t sure how to explain this to his family, so he told them he was going on a solo fishing trip for three weeks to celebrate his 55 birthday.
Wetherell is a fly fisherman and does spend time fishing the Park. In fact, he starts by fishing it hard. After which he ponders the physical challenges of aging and the moral tests as well. Through this he decides that he would rather examine his inner softness instead, his “ability to open [him:]self to beauty and splendor and all those things hard fishing, hard drinking, hard screwing can rush you past.” (p21)
Although he fishes almost every day of his three weeks there, the remaining pages of this 166 page book reflect more upon that softness, looking at life lessons as he approaches late-middle-age. Much of the book revolves around aging, whether his own or his still-living father’s.
Wetherell also explores some of Yellowstone’s history, with 14 pages dedicated to his mental time travel back to the 1870 Washburn Expedition to Yellowstone. He says that if he could visit any time in history, that would be it—“the improvised, very amateur and yet tremendously important journey to the future park that was a unique combination of military campaign, Boy Scout outing, tourist excursion, and joint American epiphany.” He inserts himself into the narrative of this expedition as a full member, providing an interesting glimpse into this historical event with a contemporary’s knowledge.
I found this book to be an interesting blend of personal narrative, reflective prose, history, historical fiction and nature writing. The older I get, the more I appreciate those ahead of me on the time continuum sharing their struggles and cogitations about life’s experiences. Wetherell does a great job. (less)
There have been a couple of blog posts by various people (myself included) over the past year or so decrying what has been called either the X-games o...moreThere have been a couple of blog posts by various people (myself included) over the past year or so decrying what has been called either the X-games or extreme fly fishing approach among some of the “new breed” of anglers. Some books and especially DVDs seem to gravitate in that direction. There is plenty of debate as to whether fly fishing can indeed be an extreme sport--how extreme can one get in fly fishing?
But the issue isn’t whether the sport is “extreme,” it’s about the attitude a small segment of anglers brings to the sport--an in-your-face, braggadocio, “Outta my way, we’re gonna stick some pigs today!” mentality they bring to the water. It seems more about domination, about asserting their will over the elements and the fish: it’s about their conquests. (So as not to improperly malign any extreme sport or x-game participant, maybe we should call those with this mentality The Dominators, The Braggadocios, or possibly The Conquistadors.)
Conquests versus relationships. As soon as a fish is caught, isn’t that a conquest? Well, as soon as you “get the girl,” is *that* a conquest? It depends on the attitude of the one doing the getting, and what they want out of the experience--do they want a relationship or a conquest?
Scott Sadil brings us 12 stories about relationships, not conquests. Relationships between people who are dating, married, families, parent and child, teacher and student, faithful and unfaithful, and humans and nature. He seems to know the human condition concerning relationships as one having lived the life he writes about. Yet the characters in the book don’t bring Sadil’s knowledge with them to the stories, rather, they are searching to understand what they know about the experiences they’ve had.
Like Dori Cromwell in “Slate Blue.” She is a poet married to a successful businessman. Her first volume of poetry was published seven years previously, her husband thought that would be an end to any further desires to publish. Unknown to him, she harbored a desire to produce more work to show she wasn’t a one-hit-wonder. This unfulfilled need causes her to feel in a
...state of near numbness, her only feeling of late a gnawing sense of starvation, as if she is living off old toast and dried fruit--enough, maybe, to keep her alive, but she can feel parts of herself grown weak from malnutrition, her mind and heart atrophied at the edges...
Unlike many other fishing books, most of the main characters in these stories are not in, what most of the world considers, “the prime” of their life. These characters are often in their 50s and beyond. Some of them are grandparents. Some of them have been divorced. Most of them lead professional lives. They have experienced life and the relationships, whether flourishing or struggling, that come with a life lived.
One thing refreshing about the book is that these are not your Conquistador’s characters with sleek, toned bodies wildly dashing from one conquest to the next, but rather include the sagging, wrinkled bodies of those making deliberate decisions about what they want in life, such as Elliot Merrick in “Lake Albion,” while trying to court a single, retired gal “who sets his heart racing.”
It feels like a damn cliché: can’t get a fish, can’t get a date. At his age, however, he understands the perils of pressing on either front. He’s a patient man. You have to be.
Sadil is a high school teacher, and teachers and students make frequent appearances in the book. “Modest Perversions” is, I believe, the only non-fishing related story and the main characters are two female teachers and their male principal and their love triangle. This was one of my least favorite stories for reasons I can’t account for--maybe it is a little too soap opera-esque for me.
There is also a story that deals with the relationship, or supposed relationship, that strikes fear in the heart of every male teacher: that between a male teacher and a female student. In “The River Beulah,” Mr. Fairchild takes a job teaching at a high school because of its proximity to a river where he could fly fish “until his dying days.” (In my book, certainly a worthy criterion in choosing the location of one’s employment.) A girl student wants to learn to fish and Mr. Fairchild brings along a boy from school, who fly fishes, to make sure there are no accusations of impropriety. But the accusations are there anyhow. The story deals with how relationships, socioeconomic status and positions of trust must be navigated by newcomers in a small, rural community.
Father and son relationships are often tenuous. In real life a fly fishing father desires that his son(s) will take up the fly rod and join him on his fishing trips. Sadil explores two such relationships in “Chernobyl, Idaho,” where the older son doesn’t go on any fishing trips and the younger son, Patch, does, but, after a few token casts, is more interested in reading while his father fishes. In “Family Matters,” the same father and son characters appear and the father wonders about how people often feel compelled to do things with those they care about more out of duty to the person than love for the activity. Not referring to his sons, he muses,
There’s a reason, I conclude, that these same partnered, go-along individuals will almost always end up putting away their rods at some juncture, leaving the fishing--and all it requires--to the person in the relationship who cared about the sport in the first place. They quit for lack of love.
He then wonders about the desire, or not, that his sons have to fish.
One of the funniest stories is “Twenty Minutes More,” in which the husband wants to fish while he and his wife canoe. The wife finally gives him permission to fish, but he can only fish for a total of 20 minutes, divided up however the husband wants. This struck home for me, as that sounds exactly like something my wife would say.
I related to many of the characters in the stories because I have much in common with many of them or their circumstances since I’m entering middle age, I’m married, I have children, and all except one story prominently features fly fishing. But fishing isn’t the main aspect of the stories, it is usually just part of the action so Sadil can explore themes about relationships. These are not perfect relationships, nor does the character always “get the girl.” These are examined relationships that men or women readers can enjoy.
Sadil writes a tight story, with a good setting, good plots, interesting problems, and great characters with their own quirks and personalities. The stories don’t all end with resolutions neatly wrapped in bows, but often leave the reader to puzzle out for themselves what might happen next, but this is done subtly and doesn’t make the reader feel cheated out of a “proper” ending. (less)
I read lots of stories where the characters lead lives far removed from my experiences. They have problems I have never had and probably never will. Y...moreI read lots of stories where the characters lead lives far removed from my experiences. They have problems I have never had and probably never will. Yet I empathized with them at some level. How does an author do that?
One way is by creating characters that have traits and behaviors that the reader admires or relates to. Even when a character has weaknesses or problems, if the reader admires some of their traits, they will cheer for them to succeed, forgive them when they make mistakes and cry for them when things turn sour.
Andy, the main character in the book Northwest of Normal, has few traits I found admirable. In fact, I can only think of one: he loves the place he lives, Ipsyniho, Oregon, a bohemian, backwoods town.
After a major setback with his girlfriend, who decides to marry his best friend, Andy runs away from something he should have cleared the air with these two, which sets the stage for his return after 14 months so that he can resolve this problem. But somehow the place and people he loves have dramatically changed. And more importantly, he doesn’t have the guts to face his problems in a reasonable manner.
The author makes the attempt to have Andy seem like he’s really struggling to do what’s right, but he just comes across as a whining, irresponsible juvenile (even though he’s in his 30’s, I think). I just never really got to the point that I cared much about Andy or whether he solved his problems or not.
By page 60 I’d come up with a list of potential themes I thought the book might explore over the remaining pages:
relationships friendship betrayal family place growing up facing consequences
These are some pretty big themes, and for a book of only 234 pages, it would be hard to adequately cover all of them in sufficient depth to do each theme justice. More about that in a minute.
As Andy works through problems related to these themes, since he doesn’t really have any traits I found admirable, I just can’t “cheer,” “forgive” or “cry” over his choices. I just want to give him a dope slap and tell him to grow up. I understand that sometimes an author actually creates a character like this and that is an acceptable way to portray a character. But then there has to be something in the rest of the book where the character changes, or events are such that you understand why the author created such a character.
But the anticlimax just seemed too rushed to really resolve this problem with the main character. I especially found the resolutions to the problems relating to the themes to be rushed. Once the climax was reached, the resolutions to Andy’s problems seemed to come in rapid succession based on a checklist the author had: “OK, Andy has this problem, let’s take care of it in these 6 pages. Done. Next problem in the following 8 pages. Check.” and so on until he covered them all. It was dissatisfying to me.
The best thing the book probably has going for it is its portrayal of the guide’s life, some aspects of steelheading and life in parts of Oregon. Since I have no experience with any of those three things, I can only assume that Larison does an adequate job of portraying these aspects since he has personal experience in all three areas. I especially thought he did a great job with the psyche and lingo of guides and their clients.
Another aspect of the writing that bothered me was that it seemed at times that the characters participated in events, as if this were an informational piece about what a place or people might be like. However, events alone don’t make a story. How those events affect the characters and how the characters react to them and how the reader reacts to the characters are all important considerations as well. And those connections just didn’t happen for me.
I also noticed in a few spots where it seemed the characters were a little unnatural, in fact a bit didactic, as if certain background information was needed by the reader so the author provided it in the form of one of the characters speaking about it.
Pot makes a frequent appearance in the book. By about page 100 I made this note: “I’m not sure of the purpose of all the pot. If it was left out of the story, would it change the story?” In other words, I was wondering what the point of all the pot smoking was for. Come to find out, it is an important part of the plot. As a side note, there is a group called NORML: The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. I’m wondering if there was a deliberate play on words with the title since Oregon does have rich history with marijuana.
I’m always a bit leery of writing negative reviews for fear of wondering if I know what the heck I’m talking about. And this book gave me extra pause for a couple of reasons. One is that Larison teaches writing at Oregon State University. One would certainly think that a university writing teacher would have the skills to pull off a novel. And another concern was that the back cover of the book contains praise from the following three people: David James Duncan (I’m a big fan), Tom Bie (editor of The Drake fly fishing mag) and Ted Leeson (I’m a huge fan of his writing) who says that this is a “...skillfully told story...” A bit of disclosure: Ted Leeson teaches English at Oregon State University.
Who in the world am I to disagree with these fly fishing and writing luminaries? That’s the thing about reviews, everybody’s experience is different. In the end, I can just give my impressions. Each person has to make their own choice as to whether they will read the book.
For those of you who are steelheaders, guides or anglers who frequent Oregon's Willamette area, you will probably like this book more than those who don't fit at least one of those categories. If your fiction tastes are simple—you like quick, easy reads with simple characters and plot—you might like this too.
A last note: Being Larison’s first novel, I’m hoping that he continues to write fly fishing fiction and continues to improve because I do think he has some potential to be a much better fiction author. I think removing some of the themes could have helped solve some of the main problems I had with the book (or making it longer to do each theme justice).(less)