Tuesday, July 15, 2008

High Five in Nonfiction

Want to know my favorite nonfiction books? Want to know why I like 'em?

Check out the summer issue of JMWW, an exciting online literary journal published out of Baltimore by a writer who also happens to be a grad of Towson University's Professional Writing Program. Many thanks to Jen Michalski for running the site and inviting my contribution.

Featured books:
Hiroshima; The Heartless Stone; The Way to Rainy Mountain; The Year of Magical Thinking; Brothers and Keepers.


Fire up above

Something odd about hiking a mountain in the morning, then watching it burn in the evening. That's what happened a few days ago here in Missoula to many, many people, including me. For us, it was a hike Sheri and I took with friends Dave and Grace Kreulen, in from Michigan. We started to the south and east, in a place called Crazy Canyon, then walked until he we were on the front of Mount Sentinel, a grass-covered slope that sits and watches over the city of Missoula. We crossed the front of the mountain along a fire road to the famous white-washed, concrete M, and hiked down from there. All in all, about 2 1/2 hours to log 6 miles and some change.

While walking the fire road, I mentioned to our guests that in a few weeks people wouldn't be hiking Mount Sentinel anymore. Likely the city will close the mountain, I said, because the fire danger will be too high. These grasses dry out, and if you're up here when they're on fire it can be pretty spooky.

We parted for the afternoon, our friends back to their camper and us to our home. They arrived again for dinner around 7 p.m., and I met them at the door.

"The mountain's on fire!" said they.

And it was. We watched with binoculars as fire raced across the mountain, and sometimes just sat there and burned, as a helicopter flew over head dropping water, as men in yellow shirts dug trenches to stop that flames' advance, as the flame itself stopped when it reached the road we had hiked. A few acres less than 400 when it was done.

I wish I could say what strikes me about hiking a mountain, commenting on it burning, then watching it burn. I'm not sure, exactly. What I do know is that I'm disturbed by more than the coincidence of the events. The hike/burn/watch has something to do with the power we all had when we were children, the ability to imagine something, watch it happen, and then feel responsibility for it. "I wish Barry would break a bone" and then he does and you yourself broke the bone! Magical thinking. When the mountain burned, in a strange way, I felt suddenly tapped into a larger universe, even if I didn't understand it, even if I didn't believe in it. It existed despite me, and that's a little scary, a little exhilarating.

Read more about it at New West, my favorite Rocky Mountain news source.

And the war of 1812 was fought when?

And also, what group of people were kept from coming to the United States by the Chinese Exclusionary Act?

Toughies, yes? The title question is a joke. The opener to this blog entry is a joke, too, but only in the "sad facts of life" category. To wit:

A young friend reported yesterday about a history class he's taking in summer school. A debilitating sickness knocked him out of school last semester, and he needs to get American history credits that he'd dropped.

Turns out the summer history class is less about America's past than it is about passing. The course is self taught along these lines:

1. Read a chapter
2. Complete fill-in-the-blank exercises (while looking at the chapter for the answers)
3. In class, receive a study sheet with those same fill-in-the-blanks and the correct answers (in case you couldn't find them yourself); take a half hour to review
4. Take a sheet of notes as you study the correct fill-in-the-blank answers.
5. Take the test.

This is worse than memorization. And to believe it will fulfill credits in high school American history in any school district in America is a travesty. Moreover, the test itself is my newest "sad fact of life." You might ask, What was the first question on the very first test?

What group of people were kept from coming to the United States by the Chinese Exclusionary Act?

My young friend wrote the question on a separate sheet of paper so he wouldn't forget it. He's smart enough to know that this question, given its context, has more to teach him than the answer.