Lake & Island Notes                       April 2015

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Featured Title

Falling in Love
by Donna Leon

Twenty-five years and twenty-four books ago, Donna Leon - a New Englander of Irish descent who spent over 25 years living in Venice, Italy - stumbled virtually by accident into her enormously successful and prolific career of crime writing. A casual conversation between friends sparked an idea to eliminate a much-despised conductor in the grand La Fenice opera house in Venice. Leon, by way of a joke and with no background whatsoever in fiction writing, offered to create a plausible scenario for this murder, and the wildly popular Brunetti series was born. Donna Leon is an unapologetic elitist. As one reviewer noted “the audience she aims at (as she cheerfully admits) is educated, civilized, well-read, morally alert, and intellectually curious.” Nevertheless her characters are warm, accessible, full of life and very engaging. The social and political issues she tackles are real human problems that face not just Venice, but many urban areas worldwide. Her writing style is open and inviting. Sometimes the mystery is front and center; often it’s the totality of the story and her characters that is engrossing even if the mystery is easy to solve. Her latest novel, Falling in Love, tends toward the latter. It brings us back to La Fenice and the diva featured in Leon’s first book, this time as a victim of a stalker, rather than a suspect. The mystery is fairly easy to unravel but her characters shine with their usual radiance and her chronicle of obsessive love and its torturous consequences is absorbing.

Featured Title

A Boy and a Jaguar   

by Alan Rabinowitz

Winner of the 2015 Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award for Children! Alan loves animals, but the great cat house at the Bronx Zoo makes him sad. Why are they all alone in empty cages? Are they being punished? More than anything, he wants to be their champion—their voice—but he stutters uncontrollably.

Except when he talks to animals…

Then he is fluent.

Follow the life of the man Time Magazine calls, "the Indiana Jones of wildlife conservation"as he searches for his voice and fulfills a promise to speak for animals, and people, who cannot speak for themselves. This real-life story with tender illustrations by Catia Chien explores truths not defined by the spoken word.

Featured Title

Eyes Wide Open

by Paul Fleischman

Winner of the 2015 Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award for Young Readers! Prompted by the disturbingly regular sight of dead bees on his driveway, Paul Fleischman has done our beleaguered planet a kindness: He’s inspected its environmental ills and given the next generation some analytical tools to sort through them. SONWA committee member Jan Penn believes this book leads young readers “to explore human motivations, influences, and barriers in the decision making process and matters of societal and cultural bias impacting environmental headlines.” Fleischman effectively offers teens an environmental wake-up call and a tool kit for decoding the stream of conflicting information confronting them.
Water takes up a lot of the oxygen in our discourse these days. Droughts from California to Syria portend new dustbowls. Bangkok and Mexico City subside into the holes that were once their lakes. Island nations from Kiribati to the Maldives begin to sink beneath rising waters. Industrial and agricultural pollution threaten water quality from Des Moines to the Ganges. Urban water supplies from Katmandu to Lima dry up as glaciers rapidly recede. The frequency of large floods from Fargo to Dhaka rises dramatically.
Taking note of these crises, Northland College (our treasured jewel of the Arts and Sciences here in the northwoods) has created, with aid of a $10 million endowment, the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation. Its goal according to Peter Annin, founding co-director of the Center, “is to shed light on research, innovations, solutions and policies around the many and evolving issues related to water.”  Annin, author of Great Lakes Water Wars (see below), comes to Northland from his post as Managing Director of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative. He is joined by co-director Dr. Randy Lehr whose work focuses on the linkage of science and policy to support the sustainable use of freshwater. Lehr will teach and oversee the development of science and applied research programs at the Center. Much of the Center’s activities will take place at Forest Lodge, the 900-acre former Griggs family compound on Lake Namakagon near Cable, Wisconsin.
Needless to say, there is a literature developing in response to the rising interest and concern for the tandem problems of too much and too little water. Among recent books you might try: The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman; Unquenchable and Water Follies by Robert Glennon; and, Cadillac Desert (not recent, but maybe the best there is!) by Marc Reisner
In another Northland College note, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute has just announced the 2015 winners of its prestigious annual awards honoring the best nature writing published in 2014. In the adult category the winner is Gary Ferguson, author of The Carry Home - an evocative reflection on his journey to fulfill his wife’s dying wish to scatter her ashes in the five remote locations they loved and shared together. Eyes Wide Open by Paul Fleischman - offering teens an environmental wake-up call and a tool kit for decoding the stream of conflicting information confronting them - is the winner in the young adult category. The children’s winner is A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz that recounts his experience of growing up with a severe stutter and feeling connected to caged animals in the Bronx Zoo, who like him do not have a voice. You might also want to make note of Northland's summer programs for high school students.  

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What we're reading...

The Narrow Road to
the Deep North

by Richard Flanagan

One of the truly monstrous episodes of WWII was the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway – the so-called “Death Railway” or just “The Line” – by inmates of a Japanese prison camp and Asian slave laborers. The workers were beaten, often to death, and were riddled with malaria, cholera, beriberi, ulcers, and fever. This provides the setting for an exquisitely lyrical novel of savagery, s
urvival, and love. The characters, especially the camp surgeon Dorrigo Evans and the camp’s senior officer Major Nakamura, are drawn with Haiku-like precision. In fact, the novel’s title is taken from the work of the same name by the great Haiku poet Basho. This book took the Man Booker Prize for 2014. Excellent!
The Carry Home
by Gary Ferguson

Shortly before her death, Jane Ferguson told her husband that, if she were to die before him, he should scatter her ashes in five wilderness locations that had been intimate parts of their life together. In this moving chronicle Gary Ferguson fulfills that promise. His act of “carry home” is told in tones of bereavement and celebration of their twenty-five years together in the natural world. His previous books, including Walking Down the Wild and Shouting at the Sky are in a more traditional mode of nature writing. This one is more personal and evocative of not only our connection to nature, but our connection to each other. “At first, the journeys broke my heart,” he writes. “Later they helped me to piece it together again.”  Winner of the 2015 Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute’s Nature Writing Award.
Great Lakes Water Wars
by Peter Annin

Since just 1960, Central Asia’s Aral Sea, formerly the world’s 4th largest lake, has lost 90 percent of its surface area and 75 percent of its volume – all the result of human diversions and interventions! Is that the fate of our Great Lakes? The Great Lakes Basin holds some six quadrillion gallons (5000 cubic miles!) of fresh water and represents about 20 percent of all the fresh surface water on the earth. Former Newsweek correspondent and new co-director of Northland College’s Center for Fresh Water Innovation, Annin writes the definitive and accessible account of the issues related to the growing competition for the water resources of the Great Lakes. By extrapolation it is the account of the global crisis. Published in 2006, the book is due for a dusting-off and updating in the coming couple of years, but don’t wait for that, read it now!
Diary of a Citizen Scientist
by Sherman Apt Russell

A top candidate for the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, this book is an eye-opener into the citizen scientist movement. Seemingly out-of-nowhere hundreds of thousands of volunteers are reshaping how scientific research is done. They are accumulating millions of data points beyond the reach of formal scientists – on weather, wildlife migration, cosmic mapping, new species, etc. – and sharing them with laboratory and other partners. Russell recounts her year-long quest to fill in a “blank spot on the map of tiger beetles.”  She ranges along the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico – butterfly net in hand – observing, studying and reporting on the red-bellied Tiger Beetle to her scientist colleagues. And, it’s new, interesting, and important stuff! Along the way she brings to life the emergence and reach of citizen scientists like her who are engaged in this fascinating development. Nicely written, too.

Final Thoughts...

Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month, held every April, is the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets celebrating poetry’s vital place in our culture.

While we may be experiencing snow flurries at the moment, Spring is in the air, and we'd like to share a short poem by the British Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, entitled Spring:

Spring's pardon comes, a sweetening of the air,
the light made fairer by an hour, time
as forgiveness, granted in the murmured colouring
of flowers, rain's mantra of reprieve, reprieve, reprieve.

The lovers waking in the lightening rooms believe
that something holds them, as they hold themselves,
within a kind of grace, a soft embrace, an absolution
from their stolen hours, their necessary lies. And this is wise:

to know that music's gold is carried in the frayed purse
of a bird, to pick affection's herb, to see the sun and moon
half-rhyme their light across the vacant, papery sky.
Trees, in their blossoms, young queens, flounce for clemency.

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