“Many years ago I was taught by stones, stones collected from south Texas and rocky Colorado, Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the sun-blazed cathedrals...more“Many years ago I was taught by stones, stones collected from south Texas and rocky Colorado, Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the sun-blazed cathedrals of Zion National Park, Wyoming's Big Horns and the plain-dressed woods of rural Indiana. A shaman's stone from South Dakota. Leopold's wilderness prophecies and a fall while climbing that taught me to sit still.”
That is how Kerry Temple sums up his lessons in “Back to Earth: A Backpacker's Journey into Self and Soul.” The book is a lyrical meditation on knowledge gained from nature, the solace Temple has found in long hikes and backwoods journeys. As the book begins, he's at a loss; his marriage his ended, and his path has become misdirected, diverted by the tiny, cumulative compromises of everyday life. In an effort to re-focus, Temple moves to an isolated cabin in South Bend, Indiana, one without radio or television or even a clock. There he contemplates, recollecting old journeys and talismans he has collected along the way, rocks that evoke scenery, beauty and lessons learned and forgotten.
The book is a seeker's tale, recounting a lifetime of hikes and, through time spent in nature, efforts to reconnect with a unifying purpose, a God seemingly stripped of his dogma. Temple steps steadily through old memories on the trail, moving patiently toward the transcendent experiences he seeks there. His hikes are varied—they take him to Wyoming and the Rockies, Lake Superior and the frozen Arctic. These are places where he walks in company, shivers in the hubris of youth.
As he looks back, Temple wonders how he led himself astray, how his sense of purpose eroded under obligation and ease. He explores his new surroundings, venturing into the stream bordering his cabin, listening to the shifts of the seasons. The book is open to the big ideas of natural philosophers—Leopold, Muir, Emerson—but remains grounded in their exploration. Temple faults our society for its emphasis on the immediate, but he faults himself as well, avoiding the tediousness of the scold.
“Our species has come a long way since timekeeping meant monitoring celestial migrations and contemplating the universe in all its twinkling wonder. Yet we seem less attuned and more bewildered. Perhaps, in asking how best to spend our time, we have forgotten how to ask, “Is this how I was to spend my life?” Progress is not absolute.”
At times, the book can seem overly nostalgic for a preferred past. In lauding the connection people once shared with nature, Temple can glide over over famine and disease, natural disaster and tribalism. At one point, he states, “It is significant, I think, that the deterioration of our species' psychological and spiritual health has coincided with its gradual separation from and exploitation of the earth.” I would quibble with that assumption of deterioration.
But “Back to Earth” is a rewarding read, humble and wise, full of stories that inspire longing for rucksacks and trails. Nature does hold something essential for us all; the book is persuasive there. We just need the time and space and solitude to discover that meaning for ourselves.
“What I remember, too, is Mac picking us up that first Sunday when we'd grown weary of too-short rides and paved highways. I remember his last name was McGowan and he said to call him Mac and he said do not worship nature for it is only the face of God, not God itself. And he took us for a drive and pointed us north, and in the meantime took us fishing and touring around, higher and higher, deeper and deeper into the woodsy mountains.”
“'I wouldn't call the Indian way “religion,” said Father Bill Callahan, a Jesuit priest I had met the day before at Red Cloud School in Pine Ridge. 'There is no dogma, no structure, no mimeograph machine.' 'It is spirituality. They believe in the sacredness of the created world and the spiritual idea of personal and family holiness.'”
“There are other places on the earth, many similar constructions, stones of various sizes, pyramids and etchings, altars and carved rock tablets linking the human species to the celestial machinations, indicating a need to discern, to correlate, to map somehow the mysterious and awesome power of creation, looking for a higher power's hand in it all, believing in the spirited intelligence that beckons from just beyond the horizon. We come and leave our offerings upon the landscape too—our own prayer feathers, medicine bundles and humble pouches of tobacco.”
“It has also occurred to me that these truths and hopes and good intentions are of little power if hey do not last, if they are not incorporated into the affairs of human interaction, if they are not brought along and shared, integrated into the lives of those around us. It is one thing to revel in the beauty and order of creation; it is another to find it here among the people, the many nations with whom I live.” (less)
“You can't fight me,” he sneers. “You don't have insurance anymore.” “I've got COBRA.”
That exchange, delivered during a mid-air melee, sums up the come...more“You can't fight me,” he sneers. “You don't have insurance anymore.” “I've got COBRA.”
That exchange, delivered during a mid-air melee, sums up the comedic blend of “Captain Freedom,” the new novel by G. Xavier Robillard. Secret lairs and teenage sidekicks share space with product endorsement deals and online archenemy-matching services. Heroics are evaluated by their impact on the comic-book company bottom line. And if you need to go back in time to spoil a nefarious plot, it's no problem to rent a run-down time machine from a skeezy Enterprise knock-off. (The release form contains a warning not to do anything to affect the course of history, but it also notes, “This rule is total bullshit, but you agree to it anyway, just as you agree to pay your work for any office supplies that you use for personal reasons.”)
Captain Freedom is the kind of guy who'd steal all of the office supplies he could get his hands on, even as he saves Cleveland in the process. The book approaches his life as a gag-a-minute memoir, using its oblivious slacker hero to bring to life as many superhero gags as possible, from remote tropical islands that host volcanic bases to the perils of the hero's weakness (in this case, soy).
Robillard offer an Inside-Hollywood style appraisal of the superhero game, spending time with each of the institutions that shape a young crimefighter. Captain Freedom learns his craft at the Vineyard School for Excellentness. Sidekicks have to pass the CAPE (Criminal Abatement Preparatory Exam) before they can patrol the streets. A bureaucratic body, the Comics Code Authority, holds hearings to ensure that heroes measure up to the standards of their calling. And the coveted International Justice Prize, issued by the Hall of Justice in Norway, represents the pinnacle of any hero's career.
The book has a lot of fun exploring the absurdities of its setting, offering a lighter tone than other novels in the hero-humor genre, such as Austin Grossman's “Soon I Will Be Invincible” or Robert Mayer's classic “Superfolks.” “Captain Freedom” isn't as tightly plotted as these offerings, but it's more happy to roam its surroundings in search of laughs, sending the Captain to Mars, Area 51 and, in one of the book's funniest sections, rehab.
There are some problems. The memoir framework seems forced in early chapters, and promising themes can be dropped when succeeding chapters move onto entirely different subjects. The book begins to drift at the end, rushing through a “chosen one” scenario and Captain Freedom's abortive career in politics. But even in the soft spots, Robillard keeps the jokes coming, making “Captain Freedom” a fun, breezy read, especially for fans of the genre.
“Oh, I'll get proof.” His determined tone makes me suspect he'll embark on a lifelong quest to bring about my downfall. But I doubt it; he never took the Lifetime Vendetta elective.
I miss the crazy old coot. My life coach, Lionel, thinks that I'm still craving the Chief's approval. But that's shrink talk. I'm just bummed that he never got to know how awesome I am.
I never should have dated Lightspeed. You never combine business and pleasure. I know that. It's like shitting where you eat. And then eating it.
The bouncer, Lt. Bill Smoker, has been working the velvet rope and chain-link fence for years. The job has taken its toll: there are only so many times you can say not to a space dragon without worrying that you're becoming racist. (less)
The Education of a Comics Artist, a collection of short essays and interviews edited by Michael Dooley and Steven Heller, offers a fascinating look in...moreThe Education of a Comics Artist, a collection of short essays and interviews edited by Michael Dooley and Steven Heller, offers a fascinating look into the methods and motivations of some of the top practitioners of visual storytelling. The book presents an amazing lineup of contributors—Jim Steranko, David Mack, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, Kim Deitch and many more legends in the field—weighing in on disciplines ranging from editorial cartoons to comic strips, Archie Andrews to alt comics.
Every section is insightful, with creators reflecting on the influences and insights that inform their work. Some articles are accompanied by black-and-white illustrations, but text is the main focus, with artists elaborating on the creative process that results in ink on paper.
Later portions of the book examine the conceptual framework that surrounds visual storytelling, with articles and interviews on teaching, understanding and—oh yeah—making money from comics. The thoughts on display are diverse, lively and occasionally contradictory, making for a rewarding view into how comics of all types are created.(less)
Pox American follows the smallpox epidemic that spread through North America from 1775-1782, tracing its impact on the Revolutionary War and Native Am...morePox American follows the smallpox epidemic that spread through North America from 1775-1782, tracing its impact on the Revolutionary War and Native American and Colonial society. Historian Elizabeth Fenn is meticulous in chronicling the devastation, using firsthand accounts and surviving records to sketch out the death and fear that followed the disease.
The impact of smallpox on the Revolutionary War occupies much of the book. Epidemiologically, the Americans were at a disadvantage. Smallpox was endemic in Europe, and British soldiers were much more likely to have been exposed to the disease, gaining immunity. This vulnerability led to serious losses during the revolutionary army’s invasion of Canada, as smallpox weakened and killed susceptible soldiers.
George Washington struggled with the decision of whether to inoculate his soldiers. Under the imperfect technique of the time, inoculation was a draining affair, confining inoculees to sickbeds. The process also potentially increased the risks of transmission, as inoculees were contagious during the dormant period that followed inoculation. Fenn skillfully uses this dilemma to build tension in a historic account.
In the post-Revolutionary period, Fenn focuses on the impact of smallpox on Native American populations throughout the continent, offering repeated accounts of decimated villages and devastated cultures. Native peoples were more vulnerable to the disease, and the successive accounts of loss are heart-rending.
The book is thorough and engaging but can be technical in its presentation of history. The larger themes of the Revolutionary War aren’t fleshed out. The author, it seems, is confident that readers will remember battles and developments they may not have encountered since elementary school. But the book is compelling in advancing its central theme: the outsized impact of this continent-wide epidemic.(less)