Category Archives: Books

“YOU ARE JUST TOO WORDY,” I say, to myself.

 

Being too wordy usually means throwing way too many many unnecessary words into one written piece. Like that. I suppose it could also mean always wanting to write—all those words you’ve absorbed over the years trying to get out? In my case, it appears to be both. Apparently I have too many adjectives and adverbs clogging my system and they escape onto every screen or page whenever there’s an opening. And then there’s the problem of nothing seeming real to me until I’ve written it down. Talking doesn’t help. I am not very articulate. Only writing eases the word bloat.

What to blame for this surfeit of words? Books of course; there are never too many to read or buy or touch or view or ponder or desire.

I have been writing a book. Or rather the first third of a book. Right now it’s being reviewed by my literary friends. Then it will go to a professional reviewer. After that, I’ll weep, edit excessively, and determinedly move on to write new chapters. Writing this seriously has been the most painful and pleasurable thing I’ve ever done. It took me well into my UCLA certificate program to gather the courage to approach this with earnest intent. I’ve finished the program…that old “I’m a writer” rubber is hitting the road. Wish me luck.

Meanwhile it is time to start blogging about my upcoming 2017 trips. From whence I derive the most joy. Blogging is brilliant, especially when fairly casual. Writing about travel, writing about books, sometimes about grandchildren and new recipes! In the future blogging about my history and my age. What could possibly be more fun than the latter? Blogging as I do it is ‘writing lite’, the best of all worlds if one is lazy and wordy.

This post is the first of a series about the reading I’m doing (or sadly, in some cases, just planning to do—but won’t) for my summer/fall 1) Road Trip and 2) Another Big Big Trip to the other side of the world…and farther.

At this point in time I’m in that stage when the outlines of the trips have been determined, and in the case of the international trip, the airline tickets purchased. That’s where my reading list is focused. It makes a great deal of difference to my engagement with and excitement about all of the places along the way if I have some knowledge of the history, geography, culture and customs. So I know the whats and whys and whereofs of all that’s about me. I’m not talking about scholarly research or needing in-depth knowledge—although I always mean to try for a little of that—I’m simply talking about a good history/adventure story/novel/murder mystery or two or three.

The countries to explore through words and in person: New Zealand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, India. Not so many really but of such world-impact that hundreds of books could not cover them. Particularly India, but also Southeast Asia’s Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. Nepal because I can. New Zealand because travel buddy, Teresa, who’ll go adventuring in Vietnam with me, lives there.

The Book Worm Chronicles start here:

I read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen last year. It is quite possibly the best book I’ve read in a very long time. He has two new books of essays out which I will order the minute I post this. Teresa, who was not born until some years after the Vietnam War ended, is as in love with The Sympathizer as I am—and as it should be. Without some knowledge of what’s gone before how should we consider ourselves responsible citizens? A rhetorical question of course with history nearly banished from all education.

Finished Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh last night. Delightful, especially since I plan to spend much of my 10 or so days in India on trains. It is great fun to read, although naming and riding on 80 trains for one short book got a little heavy on the naming angle, while I would have liked just a few more details about the various stops…still she accomplished a major task, the kind of thing I would like to do, and she’s a good writer and good person with whom to go train-about.

Enough for one post. I’ll return with many more books and my progress reports. If you have suggestions please let me know.

 

 

ALWAYS MORE WORDS

I’m taking a sabbatical from book club to make my second serious stab at writing a real book, one with its own ISBN number, one for which some amount of money will change hands. I tried this once before, but when my enthusiasm lagged and it became obvious that only about a third of what I was writing was any good, i.e. readable, I stopped—thinking that I had a lifetime to finish! So Marjorie, I say to myself, that deadline is soon upon me (well not soon-soon but you know what I mean) and if I’m ever to have my name associated with an ISBN number it had better be now. Sadly they don’t give graduate theses those magic numbers or I would already be so anointed.

It would be nice if I were taking a sabbatical from work instead of weekly reading seminars—or, as I fondly refer to it, the Literary Lawyers Book Club (the group actually has a most erudite name which I find hard to remember). Since my fellow readers are all lawyers I’m trying to fit in by taking a Coursera introductory law course from the University of Pennsylvania—memorizing key legal phrases; for example, if the subject of transsubstantivity comes up, I’ll be able to respond knowingly. Finally. I’ve wondered about that for years…

I do enjoy this club a lot…as described earlier it’s an eclectic mix of literary seminar, bookish salon without a hip dress-code, and weekly political gnashings of teeth. I’ve already been introduced to two most interesting writers, previously unread by me. Don DeLillo and Paul Beatty. These discoveries have been passed on, in the case of Underworld, to my engineer granddaughter who is interested in waste, with Beatty’s Sellout going to my techie grandson who loves to argue issues of race with his many-hued and very smart friends.

Today at book club: we agreed The Sellout is brilliant in its own narrow way; Bob offered up Easter chocolates; and my kind friends offered to read the partial manuscript of The Book I must produce by August before I submit it for review. That made me both grateful and nervous…inspired and frightened…challenged and exposed…what if they hate it? So, talking to myself again, I say there (old chap) write it so they cannot possibly hate it. Done.

 

I’m Watching You

The Americans and Pussy Riot and those scary Russians—who are our mortal enemies or best friends or…?

The Americans is practically the best show streaming in my humble opinion. Spy story extraordinaire—which some have also called a family drama—dad, mom and the two kids in a pleasant Washington DC suburb. You know the usual family dinners and arguments and getting the homework done. Oh yeah, and then just for a change of pace, there’s the sizzling sex, whizzing bullets, slashed throats; busy genitalia, graphic death all quick and dirty. What’s not to love? Everything your warm and cozy self has ever desired on screen. Besides all the pizza and movie nights, and the scenic sex and vivid violence, the politics of the cold war, the devious dealings on both sides, the mislaid morality whatever the flag, is mesmerizing—and, may I say, worthy of our renewed attention. The first four seasons of The Americans are streaming on Amazon and—good news—two more will be available in the couple of years ahead. Watch this, you’ll feel the little shivery shock you first noticed when House of Cards was brand new.

Moving on with Bad Russians, I mean the Good Russians, Pussy Riot at the KiMo.

Let’s see, Susanna and I drank more wine than we usually do so maybe it just seemed so of-the-present and powerful, and such an important acknowledgement of what happens just before it gets as bad as it can get. One of the young women who were jailed was here and told her story in Russian as her fellow Pussy Rioters performed a sort of punk rock dance and music show. A documentary of the whole incident was screened in the background. The two primary thoughts/facts/fears I came away with: how strong one can be when the need arises, and how we had damn well better pay attention because Putin’s Russia is what our buddies in the White House desire for America. A society of oligarchs playing with the world’s resources, and tamping down on enough liberties so that the people who object can be silenced.

Art in all of its forms is so incredibly absolutely important – which of course is why the Republicans have always been desperate to rid the US of that troublesome occupation/reality/product. Art tells imaginary and TRUE stories, the most dangerous thing that can happen in a dictatorship. So work for ridding the world of Republicans and their ilk wherever they are—and if you decide being a spy is the way to go, be sure your weapons and your body beautiful are up to the challenge.

 

And Films to Go Before I Sleep…

OscarLand is not for the faint of heart. I started this year determined to see every Oscar nominee available, host one last Oscar party and then end this not-very-old tradition because it is simply too exhausting. That’s still my goal but in terms of every available…maybe not. However as soon as I wrote that all of my obsessive-compulsive traits came into play and I am once again determined to persist…as we pushy broads are known to do… and see every single available nomination.

Two or three more movie posts and then this fine but unnecessary blog will be put to bed for the foreseeable future. Once again I have new blogging plans. Remember Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” which I used to love quoting but now with with-what’s-his-name in the white house it doesn’t seem as desirable to be inconsistent. On the other hand the Shyster isn’t at all inconsistent about having seriously stupid and or flawed positions on almost everything. Me though, I’m consistently conflicted about all of these inconsistencies of mine.

Rattling on without having had a wine or two it isn’t so much fun and I hardly ever drink wine anymore…must be all these movies making me crazy.

So where was I? Since the last post I’ve seen hundreds of films including Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Captain Fantastic, Florence Foster Jenkins, Life, Animated, and The Salesman. My favorite of the lot was Lion and/or The Salesman; least favorite La La Land.

Let me talk about Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, Florence Foster Jenkins, and Captain Fantastic together because they all represent classic western, feel good or Swiss Family Robinson standards. They are also all either excellent or very close.

Hell or High Water—traditional western, whose predecessors I watched for hundreds of hours at the Royal Theater in Northome, Minnesota. I loved them primarily for the horses galloping over the range land, in pursuit of or chased by the bad guys—now it’s all ratty cars or ragged trucks, not quite the same. Jeff Bridges almost makes up for all of those missing horses though.

Hidden Figures—feel-good movie and true story with important history. About smart smart women who happened to be black subjected to the fragile egos of the white guys surrounding them at NASA. They persisted and resisted in their slyly respectful ways, always with dignity and all the humor they could muster. Octavia Spencer should be a shoo-in for Actress in a supporting role.

Florence Foster Jenkins—another more traditional feel-good flick, and another true story. Opera singer who can’t sing, heart of gold, and so forth and so on. I liked it and of course Meryl (this nomination is for best actress) is always wonderful although Natalie Portman needs the Oscar for this one. Haven’t seen Loving yet so my mind could change.

Captain Fantastic—feel-good, Swiss Family Robinson version. Not even a little bit true story, but far-fetched as it is, it’s most entertaining. The nomination here is for  Viggo Mortensen, interesting looking guy and, I’m told, a great actor, but I think I’m going to vote for Andrew or Denzel for best actor after I’ve seen Hacksaw Ridge and Fences.

Life, Animated is a solid documentary, and a good primer for a beginning understanding of autism. It’s not great…13th is great, but it’s definitely worth seeing. On Netflix or Amazon, I forget.

About Lion and The Salesman. I love them both. A lot. Lion is another true story and we get to meet those really involved in the end, a trend I’m coming to enjoy. Lion also has Dev Patel so how could it not be fine, but nominated for a supporting role which is quite odd since he is certainly the main character in this epic search movie. Long story short, small boy gets lost, is transported thousands of kilometers from his home, survives on the street, is adopted by a loving Australian couple, grows up, searches for and finds his mother. It’s dubbed a survival tale which fits as well as my putting it in some sort of travel category. And Dev Patel should probably get Actor in a supporting role…or should Ali, or Bridges, or Hedges. Everyone in this category is brilliant…although haven’t seen (or heard of until now) Nocturnal Animals.

The Salesman is Iran’s contribution in the foreign film category. A tale of suspense. Wait that’s not quite right. I scanned several reviews trying to figure out where The Salesman was filmed. Here’s what one says: Some descriptions of “The Salesman” call it a thriller, suggesting a Hollywood-style suspense film. It’s not. It’s a psychological and moral drama about how one man’s anger and damaged self-image drive him to the brink of destroying the very thing he ostensibly most wants to protect: his marriage. I couldn’t find out where it was filmed but I’m hoping it was Tehran because part of the reason I like foreign films is because they’re a glimpse of another time and place. There are many excellent reviews of this and the director Asghar Farhadi’s other work. It’s in the top four or five of my favorites for this year I think.

Okay then. La La Land. I’m a fan of Los Angeles and this is a nice sightseeing trip around a city that never gets credit for being as interesting as it is. Also Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are really really good looking. One son loves this movie and one granddaughter hates it. Call them if you want to know more.

 

PLACES…I Have Known

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I finished two books week before last; they appeared to be quite different at first but upon further consideration, and for purposes of including them in the same review, I’ll focus on their commonality which is, for me, that they are both about places I love—the Bay Area and the North of the World. It seems, again…for me, that all stories wind up being as much about the places in which they occur as about the occurrences themselves.

The American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst is a well-told tale of Hearst’s revolutionary years, her home territory of San Francisco, California and, to some degree, the whole U.S. during the mid-Seventies. Jeffry Toobin is a great documentarian, building his stories around big events or institutions that define and are defined by the times and places where the actions and moods of the country as a whole are playing out. This story of California in the 70s doesn’t disappoint.

In contrast, 60 Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home by Malachy Tallack is a lyrical, almost dreamy, travelogue that invites us along as the author contemplates the meaning of home on an improbable journey around the world at the 60th parallel. Tallack is a fine writer and all the ingredients for a great piece of travel literature are here—personal reflection and story, physical description laced with history from places along the 60th parallel. In fact the idea of 60 Degrees North is just so intriguing, and the author and his surroundings so interesting, that the ending let me down just a little. It seemed like he was a little tired of the whole project by the time he reached Scandinavia. Nevertheless it was a fine journey….

I loved traveling to the Bay Area and around the 60th parallel with Toobin and Tallack; they’re all places I’ve experienced on a deeper or slighter scale. I lived in San Francisco from 1989-1992, more than ten years after the days of the  pseudo-revolutionary activities of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), but the sense of San Francisco as a place where everyone somehow ‘fit’ and where possibilities for the human condition to improve was still strong. It’s a place of richly potent layers of the belief that all things are possible—from laughing and rebuilding in the cracked face of the big quakes to gold-rushing dreams to the summer of love to Berkeley marching and Alice Waters bringing the farm to the table.

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 I moved to San Francisco just before the big earthquake of ’89, and the Mission was homeless/artist/refugee/gay heaven and Silicon Valley in Mountain View seemed quite a ways out of town. I took BART everywhere, frequently visiting dancers or potential donors connected somehow with the small black-box theater I was managing so I knew something of the small towns around the area. In other words, as the goofy SLAers drove from hideout to hideout I could visualize those streets and neighborhoods! Of course the random bombings and Berkeley in its radical heyday were in the past but, in my time there, the biggest anti-Iraqi war, anti-Bush peace march of which I know took place and I marched as a volunteer of Global Exchange, directed at that time by Medea Benjamin, one of my woman-warrior heroines. When I go back now to hang out with my granddaughter that rich Bay Area history is ever present and it all still looks familiar and I’m so happy to have been part of it all even for a little while.

Being introduced to Patty Hearst and the characters in her story including her fellow SLA pals or her lawyer F. Lee Bailey (a real jerk) by Jeffrey Toobin was fascinating but I certainly did not come away feeling either warm and fuzzy, admiring, appalled or much of anything for her or any of them. I always sort of admire the rebels whoever they are but there wasn’t a lot about the SLA to admire. They were mostly insecure misfits, rebels without a coherent cause. Patty did what she did and now raises show dogs. Damn, I wanted my revolutionaries to be more substantial than that. All in all a great account of a time and place.

It was one of those lovely ‘sick’ days when I finished these books, switching back and forth between the bed and the couch and between books, which took me from San Francisco to traveling the 60th parallel with Malachy Tallack—and what a great name he has!  Tallack begins in Shetland, the home he loves very deeply and yet feels compelled to escape…and does over the years for a variety of reason…personal searching longing reasons. Shetland lies directly on the 60th parallel, signifying the edge of the serious north and, it turns out, for Tallack offering a logical path around the world…always in search of home but also always exploring the world as experienced along a distinct line separating hardy northerners from the rest of the human race.

Reading travel/adventure literature is like being along on an intimate journey with the author, from the cranky brilliance of Theroux to the thoughtful historiography of Frazier. I am completely enamored of these guys and so many others; not quite so much so with Malachy Tallack. I’ve been trying to figure this out because I love this book and I do like Tallack but I never felt I knew him well enough to be sure he would be one of those perfect companions who shares exactly the right amount of information and degree of closeness you want for the road.

Tallack’s route around the 60th takes him from Shetland to Greenland to Canada to Alaska to St. Petersburg, backtracking to Finland, Sweden and Norway, and finally, ‘home’ again to Shetland. Even though I kept wanting some undefined ‘more’, the language almost more than made up for whatever might be missing. Tallack does have a way with the descriptive phrase. “Silvery lakes appeared, then were gone – rumours among the trees.” “…just the air fussing among the branches.” “Mount Redoubt, fifty miles away, towered above its neighbours, a scarf of cloud wrapped around its middle.” But I wanted some of the mundane as well, how did he get from here to there, how was he financing his trip, how long did it take…just a little more of the infrastructure, please.

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It’s a beautiful engaging haunting-in-a-way book. I was right there for the wanderlust of it all, enjoying every bit of the poetic and personal ramblings of the author. Perhaps the ‘more’ is just that I wanted big stories about virtually each mile of the way. An impossible task of course without unlimited money, time, patience. There are after all big wonderful rich stories documenting practically every mile of any one of Tallack’s stops along the way including Maple Leaf Rag: Travels Across Canada by Stephen Brook; or doubling down in Russia, specifically Siberia with Travel in Siberia by Ian Frazier and Midnight in Siberia by David Green. Greenland: The End of the World which I’ve talked about recently offers a view of the southern tip of Greenland where the 60th parallel crosses—and I just visited.

The truth is 60 Degrees North is a wonderful read, enlightening, entertaining, and enjoyable enough to make me whine about there not being another thousand pages of it. Better yet I want to go on that same journey. I absolutely love the idea of following lines of longitude and latitude around the world. If I won millions in a lottery tomorrow I could still do that…if I hurried.

 

KILLERS

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What to read while traveling is not such an easy choice. Completely frivolous versus serious fiction or non-fiction related to regional destinations? For my round-the-world venture last year the central theme was Russia and the trans-Siberian trains so I opted for the serious side, downloading volumes of important Russian literature and Robert Massie’s Peter the Great. Imagine how they bloated the insides of my tiny Nook? And how’d that work out for me…fairly well actually. While the greatest of Russian novels are still tucked unread into that pretty little tablet, I spent quite a few hours on Peter the Great, enough to see him into battles with those dastardly Swedes. Reading and pondering Russia’s rich and formidable history while gazing at the passing taiga was truly a lazily-invigorating intellectual experience. But that was then…. I do fully intend to finish Peter the Great this winter on Albuquerque’s one snowy weekend.

This year in the north, it was mostly a different story.  I started at the very light end of things with Six and a Half Deadly Sins by Colin Cotterill, the latest in a series of light and lively detective novels about a retired Laotian coroner, quite perfect for a small read by the light of the midnight sun on a skimpily-mattressed bunk bed at the end of a long day in Greenland’s rocky hills.

Having begun One of Us: the Story of a Massacre in Norway—and its Aftermath by Asne Seierstad before I left I couldn’t stay away from it too long. Started back again on the flight from Greenland and didn’t put it down until we reached Neset Camping. What a fine and brilliantly-researched and written book about a monster of the first order. Anders Breivik, a psychologically-damaged (possibly with a combination of personality disorders, including narcissistic [just like Trump], borderline and antisocial)  and very smart, with an unstable family life and unlimited time on the internet-of-all-that’s-good-and-bad, slaughtered 77 people, most of them young kids at summer youth camp. Seierstad probes deeply into his life, his character, his upbringing, his place in Norwegian society as well as exploring the social and political world in which this horrendous human being was brought into being. What a thorough and tantalizing character study Seierstad has written—rivals the best of the best of true crime literature and social/psychological non-fiction…think Capote.

I absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in how mental illness, societal structures and access to weapons and the internet come together to create the kind of mass killings with which we are growing increasingly familiar.

The truth is I stopped reading just as Breivik is heading into Oslo to begin his killing spree. I was in Norway, visiting family, and spending a few days at the most peaceful of all places, Neset Camping, the spot where my dad was born. I could not bear to read of the horror of the day, having come to know a few of the victims through Seierstad’s beautiful and intimate profiles of some who lost their lives that day. I will go back to the book in the next few days as it’s too important and too well-told of a story not to read to the end.

Meanwhile in Oslo, walking by…no I mean into…a bookstore I found a book I had overlooked entirely—The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year. I started it immediately after putting One of Us down and just finished a few nights ago after getting home. It has plenty of killers, fictionalized it’s true, but at least as believable and probably as close to non-fiction as we care to go when probing the inner workings of the Vietnam War. It is a mystery, a comic novel in some ways, and a novel of places and times with which the author has intimate knowledge. I believe this may be as true of an account of the end of the war in Vietnam, the immediate aftermath, and some of the cast of Vietnamese and American characters as I’ll ever read.

I didn’t quite know where to go with The Sympathizer originally. It is immediately obvious it is smartly written and an original. It took me just a little while to accept it as a fine novel with comic interweavings; it took me a little longer to believe it’s a crime novel which some reviewers call it—and I’m not sure I still get that although there’s no shortage of crime of the greatest variety. Actually, contemplating it with just a few days hindsight, I believe it’s a brilliant novel full of truths about war and peace; Southeast Asians in their homeland and in America; the American brand of war-making; and basic human nature. And all the time you’re reading you just know you’re getting a straighter story (underlying the fictional comedy of death and destruction) than any of us would care to admit. I’m going on line right now to order the non-fiction companion, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. For more about the author, go to

http://vietnguyen.info/author-viet-thanh-nguyen

 

GREENLAND, CHAPTER FIVE: ALMOST TIME TO GO

To be shared on BOOK blog also.

TIME AND PLACE

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“Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

 “Join the army, travel the world, meet interesting people and kill them.” — anti-war slogan from Vietnam war era.

 Those quotes pretty much describe my state of mind today which might best be labeled as confused and melancholy—even though in just one week I’m off for a month of travel. The Brexit vote pretty much confirmed that focusing on one’s own patch of earth, big or small; UK or US, doesn’t create ‘broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things’ —rather it breeds xenophobia. The second quote just reflects what happens next.

That’s a very big digression I suppose from claiming this is chapter five about Greenland or rather more of the books I’ve read about Greenland. Hard, this week, not…

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GREENLAND, CHAPTER FOUR: A Boys’ VERY Long Night Out

Reblogging to BOOK blog, “Platform of Words.”

TIME AND PLACE

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How could nice regular guys from Denmark and Togo relate their tales of Arctic adventure without a hint, at the very least, of braggadocio coloring the pictures? They couldn’t. So throw in quite a bit of booze, even more sex, lots of skinning and dismembering and eating of dried seal intestines and frozen blubber? And then there are grueling dog sled journeys; the constant danger of death, dismemberment, and being frozen solid. Add bravery and love and humor and you have a couple of very good books.

I spent time trying to describe the beauty and lyricism of Ehrlich’s writing in This Cold Heaven and also how brilliantly Joanna Kavenna in The Ice Museum offers up gripping otherworldly portraits of Greenland. Now I’ll introduce you to a couple of manly men out there in the cold world, whose approach is maybe a little different.

Peter Freuchen Peter Freuchen

First Peter Freuchen

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GREENLAND, CHAPTER THREE: “This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland”

I am trying to reblog these pieces to BOOK blog, “Platform of Words.” Can’t seem to quite make it work. Here goes again.

TIME AND PLACE

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From the preface of The Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich:

…I was on hands and knees on a lateral moraine caressing alpine fescue and sniffing dwarf harbells while icebergs, big as warehouses, drifted by. Glistening white, they were the photographic negatives of Greenland’s black mountain fringe. (p. xi)

It took me awhile to read This Cold Heaven, mostly because it is too beautiful to read quickly. I sat here at my desk for awhile trying to figure out how I wanted to describe Ehrlich’s writing. Then I googled her and now have stolen a perfect descriptive sentence from Wikipedia. “Her characteristic style of merging intense, vivid factual observations of nature with a wryly mystical personal voice is evident….”

Ehrlich is described as a travel writer, poet and essayist; she’s from Wyoming and began most of her Greenland travels after spending two years recovering from being struck by lightning…

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