review by Caroline Cook
I find it hard to resist a good nonfiction adventure story, whether the place is somewhere I’ve been or dreamed about going (or somewhere I’d only like to go from the comfort of my armchair). The Emerald Mile, however, is much more than just the story of a record-breaking speed run on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It is at once natural history, human history, and a detailed lesson on large-scale hydroelectric dams and the science and politics that come with them. You could say that the two major characters in this book are the wild Colorado River and the Glen Canyon Dam that subdued it. And the supporting players are the river guides on one side, and the dam operators on the other, who are utterly opposed to each other and yet inextricably linked.
In fact, the speed run itself, undertaken by three seasoned river guides in a wooden dory, during the summer of 1983, when the Colorado swelled to incredible volume after an exceptionally wet El Niño winter, takes up only a small, but thrilling, portion of the book. Fedarko takes us all the way back to the first human inhabitants and later first European visitors of the Grand Canyon. He details John Wesley Powell’s pioneering and dangerous trip down the Colorado, which sets the stage for all the river runners who follow in his footsteps. We learn about the history of boating through the canyon, from the first wooden dories to later inflatable and motorized rafts filled to the brim with tourists. Fedarko writes about the two great dams that enclosed the river on either side of the Grand Canyon, Hoover and Glen Canyon, and the subsequent flooding of Glen Canyon that many view as a great tragedy. On the other side, we learn about the science and inner workings of the dams, which can get a little dry at times, but is nonetheless an indispensable part of this story.
As the dam operators struggled under unprecedented emergency conditions to control the flow of the Colorado as it threatened to bring Lake Powell above the top of the dam, chaos was breaking loose downstream in the Grand Canyon as the many boat trips already in progress battled dangerous conditions on the water with rapids utterly transformed by the high water. And in the middle of it all, three river guides quietly launched a legendary wooden dory called The Emerald Mile into the water at Lees Ferry, prepared to run the entire course of the canyon in a matter of mere hours.
I found this book fascinating and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River.
I like to read fiction that takes place in a similar location to my vacation destination, so I did a quick Internet search for “quirky 1960s beach novel.” But Google got it wrong this time, very wrong. The book’s main story takes place in a little fishing village in Italy in 1962. Not once does any character in this book bask on the beach.
One of the main characters, Dee Moray, is an actress in the blockbuster movie, Cleopatra, with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. She winds up stranded in the tiny fishing village of Vergogna, (which means “shame” in English), where there are no phones or even roads. But Beautiful Ruins is not just about the starlet and the village. It’s one of those epic stories that follow the intertwining lives of characters from their teens to their seventies and, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the story gets “unstuck in time.” From chapter to chapter, readers are transported from the fishing village to modern-day Hollywood, a 2008 Scottish rock festival, a 1970s Idaho theater, World War II Italy, and finally present-day Vergogna.
Like a Renaissance artist, Walter paints his subjects with rich depth and fine emotional detail. He knows how to “write tight.” Every word and phrase counts, and great metaphors fill the pages. He describes the sleazy movie producer, Michael Deane, like this: “I was what they called Trouble. Capital T. Envious boys routinely took swings. Girls slapped. Schools spit me out like a bad oyster.”
Walter also examines broad concepts with elaborate sentences. He says of Pasquale, the owner of the Hotel Adequate View: “He believed he could spot an American anywhere by that quality—that openness, that stubborn belief in possibility, a quality that, in his estimation, even the youngest Italians lacked. Perhaps it was the difference in age between the countries—America with its expansive youth, building all those drive-in movie theaters and cowboy restaurants; Italians living in endless contraction, in the artifacts of generations, in the bones of empires.”
Some books entertain, others educate, and great ones change your life. Beautiful Ruins does all three.
Christopher Moore is one of those writers who doesn’t appeal to everyone, but if you appreciate off-the-wall humor, quirky characters, and a healthy dose of profanity, then he might be your guy (and in fact, his twitter handle is @theAuthorGuy).
Secondhand Souls is the sequel to his best-selling A Dirty Job, the story of a group of San Francisco Death Merchants who have been charged with collecting the souls of the newly departed, keeping them in objects dear to them known as soul vessels, and then selling them to the next person who needs the soul. Of course, the denizens of the Underworld are after the souls to give them the power to assume control of the world. In Dirty Job, the good guys win, and the evil ones are destroyed. Or are they?
In Secondhand Souls, the same characters appear, but a new evil is threatening the existence of the city of San Francisco. The Morrigan, a trio of Celtic war goddesses, have come back in the company of a new bad guy dressed in yellow who drives a 1950 Buick Roadmaster fastback with a white top. In the meantime, the souls of the dead are disappearing, only to be found hanging around the Golden Gate Bridge. The Death Merchants spring into action to end the threat, and in typical Moore fashion, things get a little crazy in the City by the Bay. The book is populated with Squirrel People, hellhounds, cops, a Buddhist nun, a ten-year-old Luminatus, and the homeless Emperor of San Francisco with his two dog sidekicks, Lazarus and Bummer. I would swear I’ve encountered some of them in my wanderings around San Francisco.
While you can read Moore’s books in a couple of sittings and be highly entertained, it’s worth it to slow down and look for the deeper discourses on life and, in the case of Secondhand Souls, death. Moore is also a creative genius – in Secondhand Souls, he weaves in three short stories about a doomed love affair, Friends of Dorothy, and a baseball player. And as an added bonus, the dust jacket glows in the dark.
Moore does a good job of providing backstory from Dirty Job without stopping the action in Secondhand Souls, but to get the complete experience, read the two of them together.