A River Runs Through It. By this I mean the novella, not the book, which contains two other essays of lesser quality. But then again the vast majority of books ever written are of lesser quality than Maclean’s masterpiece. I like so many things about this book: that my brother gave it to me when I was beginning to slip into trouble as a teenager; that it was the only book Maclean finished in his lifetime, as though only after the wisdom of seventy years had settled over him, only after he’d worked and worried his past like the river tumbles a rough stone smooth, only then could he put pen to paper and capture it true, and any attempt to have done so before then would’ve dishonored the story as fishing with bait dishonors both fish and man. Mentioning that this is the greatest story about fishing ever written is almost misleading: the book is about the tensions and love between siblings and family, about how moments of sadness and beauty descend in simple and magical ways, and how, in the end, these moments are all we have and yet are also somehow never quite enough. All this is delivered in prose as poignant, savorous, and stunningly crafted as any I’ve ever read.
If Maclean’s river was as much a metaphor as it was actual rippling water, the river in Candice Miller’s Teddy Roosevelt and the River of Doubt is literally black, choked with rapids, and inhabited by man-eating catfish. I’m recommending this book simply because sometimes in the depths of winter with a woodstove and a whiskey and a cat on the lap, we need to toss aside the lyric and allusive and meditative and immerse ourselves in a gripping yarn. This is such a story: part historical biography, part journalistic sleuth, part exploration narrative, part ecological primer on the harsh realities of the Amazon rainforest. It’s replete with adventure, death, poison arrows, an unmapped river, the legendary Brazilian explorer Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, and our bold 26th president starving, wracked by infection, and contemplating the lead release. This is a primer on how to construct whip smart, crackling nonfiction.
A different sort of story entirely is told in Ted Hughes’ Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. Hughes taps into a dark shamanic current with these poems, summoning forth Crow, a wretched and elemental Trickster, more than bird and more than human, who alternately embodies and attacks religion, science, war, humanism, media, and hope. Much of the book’s power lies in Crow’s ambivalence, his disjointed and unfinished character. The rest owes to Hughes wordplay: the poetry is raw, harsh, stark, and sharp as an obsidian blade; the collection as a whole is style and substance, witchcraft nihilism and punk rock duende. Hughes’Crow poems are rooted in oral tradition, folklore and mythology, and, like myth, they reveal and speak to something within the shadows of our psyche. Is it bleak? Yes. Apocalyptic? Yes. But every day I read the New York Times and see Crow “flying the black flag of himself” over the world.
(Note: It’s worth buying, or borrowing, Hughes 1,330 page Collected Poems to get all of his Crow poems, as I’m not sure all were included in Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow.)
Nathaniel Brodie served as an Agricultural Extension Agent in the Peace Corps (Paraguay), and has worked as a carpenter, farmer, journalist, and beekeeper. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon.