Book of the Month:
Backcast, by Lou Ureneck
This deeply moving memoir explores two uncharted territories: the wilderness of Alaska, specifically the Kanektok River in the southwestern part of the state, and the wilderness of Parenthood, specifically the region where a recently divorced father and his teenage son try to find new ways to understand each other. I have never been to Alaska, but I've been wandering the land of Parenthood for two decades now, and Ureneck presents a clear-eyed portrait of its tundras and torrents, valleys and peaks. This makes me trust and appreciate all the more his keenly detailed evocations of Alaska.
Like the Kanektok River, Ureneck's narrative races along, braiding memories of his own fatherless upbringing and failed attempts to become the father he never had with his account of a poorly planned one-week post-graduation rafting trip with his son in the unforgiving wild. Ureneck's powers of perception and analysis have been stripped raw by life, and his writing is spare and sinewy; the prose resonates with authenticity on every page, whether he is talking about the misery of awaking in a soaking-wet sleeping bag or in a disintegrating marriage.
The Alaskan wilderness leaps to life in its gritty reality—fast-rushing rivers, misty rolling hills, bears "the size of church doors," relentless rainfalls, eddies roiling with fat salmon and char—just as the tenuous terrain between father and son leaps to life too. Anger and hurt thread through this book—but so do taut stretches of beauty, wonder, and redemption in the riches of life in the wild.
By the end of the journey, this fraying camping and fishing pilgrimage has become a metaphor for something far greater: a desperate attempt to fix the heart of this father-son relationship in the larger heart of Alaska. To Ureneck's credit, his humble, honest odyssey touches and transforms the Alaska in us all.
Short List: My Books-to-Read
Frank Delaney's second historical novel about Ireland, titled Tipperary.
The Wandering Ghost, a military mystery thriller from Martin Limn set in Korea around the DMZ.
Farewell, Shanghai, Angel Wagenstein's novel of European Jewish émigrés and refugees in Shanghai during WWII.
End Games, Michael Dibdin's 11th and final Italy-based Aurelio Zen mystery, this one set in Calabria.
New Book Roundups
Kathleen Flinn guides us with humor through the culinary terra incognita of Paris's famous Cordon Bleu cooking school in her memoir The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. Michael Krondl follows the spice trail during his explorations of Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam in The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Spice Cities. Australian chef Greg Malouf enjoys a glass of crisp white wine in the Bekaa Valley and other surprising as well as traditional food-centered experiences in Lebanon and Syria in the handsome coffee table/cookbook Saha: A Chef's Journey Through Lebanon and Syria.
In Christopher Hope's extraordinary novel My Mother's Lovers, narrator Alex Healey tries to get out of South Africa—but he can't get South Africa out of himself, anymore than he can refuse the last request of his mother, a large-living aviatrix and huntress who roamed the continent from Cape Town to Cairo. Also set in South Africa, Anne Landsman's novel The Rowing Lesson has Betsy Klein journeying back to the continent to visit her dying father, a Jewish doctor beloved by both his black and white patients.
One Last Thing: India in Words and Pictures
My introduction to India was a summer vacation during a two-year teaching sojourn in Japan. I flew directly from orderly, personal-space-obsessed Tokyo to Calcutta. Yes, the phrase for that would be "culture shock." But over the course of two weeks journeying from cool Darjeeling in the north to tropical Trivandrum in the south, something about India got under my skin: the raw energy of the place, the dignity amid the chaos, the serious approach to spirituality and sensuality. So it was with delight that I dived into Paul Theroux's new fictional trilogy, The Elephanta Suite. Loosely linked in plot—characters from one story reappear as asides in another—each of the three illuminating novellas revolves around Americans who have journeyed to India on a quest. Against three distinctly different backdrops, from a seemingly tranquil New Age retreat to the seamy underbelly of Mumbai to the Americanized sheen of Electronics City, Theroux transports us into the heart of the country, and illuminates the Indian panorama—and paradox—with a piercing light. A lot less thought-provoking, but tempting nevertheless, is the new glossy coffee table book from Rizzoli, India Sublime: Princely Palace Hotels of Rajasthan. As I write, I'm picturing myself in that empty pool at Jaipur's Rambagh Palace on page 46....