- Ian Frazier on Steaming to the North, a new book of photographs that “provides another of the poignant rear-view-mirror visions of ourselves and our environment in which Americans specialize.” The book charts the journey of “the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear, a 198-foot, reinforced-hull vessel powered by both steam and sail.” The Bear patrolled the seas of Alaska circa 1886, when it was a new American territory. These photos of it were “rediscovered in the 1970s under a porch in New Hampshire.”
- Cicero may have been a master orator—but no rhetoric could rescue his lame advice for how to spend your twilight years. “He comes over as a humorless and self-satisfied bore when he writes that ‘the fruit of old age is the remembering and amassing of fine accomplishments’ … Besides being unduly platitudinous, it makes generally for unhappy reading … Apart from sitting on the sofa thinking smugly about all your great achievements, Cicero recommends taking up agriculture.”
- Last week we featured Ron Arad’s crushed cars. Now there’s a video that demonstrates how he crushes them, exactly. (Spoiler: it involves force.)
- Geoff Dyer on Raymond Williams, “a hero of the 1968 generation”: “Williams’s legacy and influence, which had once seemed assured, have gradually shrunk … it is necessary to do two things that might appear contradictory: to concede that, with the exception of Border Country, the fiction to which he devoted so much energy was dull; and to free the rest of his work from the once-modish tundra of cultural studies, let alone the pack ice of theory. Perhaps then he will be read with the same passion and adoration that still attends the discovery of John Berger.”
- On the intellectual character (or lack thereof) of conspiracy theorists: “The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the U.S. legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal … this is fundamentally a question of the way they are.”
Growing up in Tonga with her grandmother, Kato Ha’unga loved books. She explains, “That was the only thing to expose me beyond the beach to the world outside of Tonga.” After moving to Anchorage, Alaska, for college, Ha’unga started sending books home. But after the 2009 tsunami destroyed the family’s library, she decided to rebuild on a larger scale.
With help from range of organizations, including much of the University of Alaska Anchorage community, Senator Lisa Murkowski, and the U. S. Navy, Ha’unga has made great headway in opening what will be Tonga’s first public library, Northern Lights Library in the Ha‘apai Group. A location has been secured, fifty thousand books donated, and shipping costs covered. Says she, “Grandma never left the island. Through books, me and Grandma could travel. She can see the Eiffel Tower. She sees the Northern Lights of Alaska.”
I would like to take you up on your offer for free advice. Could you, as arbiters of high taste and culture, please settle a disagreement that occurred between me and my husband this morning?
He just purchased a very nice Western-style shirt by Ralph Lauren that is clearly salmon-hued (or coral). We agree on this much. The point of disagreement comes when I lazily refer to salmon as pink. He contends that salmon is much more closely related to orange. I contend that salmon/orange/pink all derive from the primary color red and so can also be thought of as pink.
Might you have any unbiased, quasi-official information in your arsenal to settle this marital spat? Our cocktail hour this evening depends on it.
Suzanne (Austin, Texas)
For starters, why does your husband object to pink in the first place? As he doubtless knows, the association of pink with femininity is a relatively modern phenomenon, and in any case, it’s the one color that can truly be said to flatter all complexions.
Those watching the pre-Oscars red carpet this past Sunday will recall that Michelle Williams’s Louis Vuitton gown spawned exactly such a discourse. (Tim Gunn, to my mind, settled the debate when he came down on the side of “coral.”) It’s a largely arbitrary determination, at the end of the day.
Since salmon is so often twinned with the word pink, I feel safe in asserting that it is, indeed, on that color spectrum. (Although the actual flesh of the fish varies greatly in hue.) However, when you claim that orange is a shade of pink, well, you’ve lost me: it’s a different color. So I think you both score points here.
(All that said, in my experience, whenever a man gets defensive about a garment’s color and trots out “Nantucket red” or “salmon,” we’re dealing with pink.)
I am heading off to the last frontier (Alaska) from the crowded metropolis of New York. What books would you recommend to enhance my journey?
When I was young, my grandfather gave me a copy of Margaret Murie’s Two in the Far North, an account of growing up in the Alaskan wilderness. I loved it. It’s an evocative portrait of a very different time in the state, and interesting in that the author and her husband went on to found the Wilderness Society. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union may bear little resemblance to anything you encounter in the actual last frontier, but it’s a good read. And a friend in Juneau recommends James Michener’s Alaska, Into the Wild, and, if you’re a mystery fan, any of Dana Stabenow’s books. (Jack London goes without saying!) Read More
David Vann’s Caribou Island is my favorite novel of the past few years. I read it last summer for possible excerpt in The Paris Review. It’s the story, set against the striking landscape of the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, of Irene and Gary, whose thirty-year marriage is collapsing. The story is disturbing; I read it quickly, consumed. I loved the book so much that I was reluctant to see that an excerpt wasn’t working. The story was so powerful as a whole—it was irreducible. I recently had the chance to talk to Vann.
You alternate between characters’ points of view, and between their stories. How did the shape of the book come about?
None of it was planned. I was writing seven days a week, a few pages every day, and those were where the chapters ended. It really was such a blind process writing the book. I didn’t know each day what the characters would do or say; I didn’t know when a chapter would end; I didn’t know what the next chapter would be or where it was headed. And so with each chapter, I felt like it had come to where it closed, and then each time, luckily, there was some clear sense of where to go next.
How long did the book take to write?
Five and a half months.
I started it fourteen years ago when I finished Legend of a Suicide, and I only got forty-eight pages in, and then I just couldn’t figure out how to write a longer arc. I didn’t know whose story it was or where it was supposed to focus, so I put it away. That’s when I went to sea and became a captain and wrote A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea. I couldn’t get Legend of a Suicide published, so I pouted for a while and didn’t write for five and a half years. Not writing was partly pouting and partly because I was stuck. I couldn’t figure out how to do a novel. And I felt like my brain wouldn’t do a longer arc. But in January 2009, I was walking on Skilak Lake, walking out across the frozen lake toward Caribou Island, and I felt like I could see all of it. It seemed really clear that Irene had to be the focus, she had to be the main character right from the start, and that the story had to begin really late, and that their marriage would already be in trouble. The whole thing would feel like the final sequence in that way. I think that was why it was easy to get from chapter to chapter and why they’re fairly short and quick, as if they’re really all the final sequence.