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We are knee deep in post-visit clean-up and get back into the routine around here. Here are some books I've been meaning to write about:

James Tabor's Forever on the Mountain is not a book about why men climb mountains but about why seven of them did not come down from one particular climb in 1967. He's incredibly meticulous about what went wrong before and during the climb and also, interestingly, gives a lot of attention to what happened afterwards - to why no rescue was ever initiated, and how the survivors viewed the whole debacle. Part of why I wanted to read this was due to Don Sheldon, a legendary AK bush pilot, who was involved with the Nat Park Service in the days after the lost seven were last heard from. Sheldon was the king of Mt McKinley (which is pretty much universally called Denali in AK) and he knew that mountain, and its weather, incredibly well. He did the bulk of his famous flying in the 50s and 60s (he died in the early 70s from cancer) so I didn't actually write about him in my thesis. (I concentrated on the early pilots for the historical sections.) Sheldon was also very unique in AK flying - he flew charters and most of them were for climbers on the mountain. It's pretty hard to compare what he did to anyone else because few pilots have ever done anything like him. He also did his flying at a time when the rules were different, so even though there are certainly companies flying that area today, they aren't flying it like Sheldon or using the kind of equipment he did.

The problem for Tabor is that Sheldon is dead and so even though he played a part in the events, he can't explain why he did things the way he did. To the survivors and a group of rescue climbers it seemed that Sheldon did not do enough and was almost cavalier about the whole thing and I can see their point of view, but they didn't have to deal with that mountain all the time. In other words, the climbers show up for their once in a lifetime moment while Don Sheldon is doing the job 7 days a week, 365 days a year. We used to see the same thing on the job when customers would make demands of us that seemed extraordinary because to them it was an extraordinary circumstance while to us it was yet another day at the job. No one would ever refuse a mercy flight, but it must be especially hard on Denali when you know that the climbers put themselves in that situation. So how far do you go to save them? How far is far enough?

For most people, I don't think it's ever far enough unless you save everybody and then of course it kind of looks easy - and so when it happens next time (and it will always happen again) everyone expects you to do it again. And they get real pissed when you won't, believe me. All of this plays into a chapter I'm working on right now about the different kinds of pilots I've known - brave, scared, foolish, precise, and on and on. I really wish Sheldon could have commented on the whole thing because I'd love to know what he thought.

Combining a book where you know that more than half of the characters are going to die with a Liz Hand mystery/drama set in Maine during late autumn is pretty much a recipe for some seriously bleak reading. I'm not done with Generation Loss yet but it has so deeply impressed me even though the entire time I've been thinking how much I do not like the main character, Cass. I don't hate her and I don't fear her (this isn't a serial killer novel) but Cass does things that you just wish she wouldn't do. She's self destructive and rude and somehow manages to be narcissistic while also not giving a damn about what she looks like or what other people think about her. Hand has done this in pretty much everything I've ever read by her - created characters that confound my expectations, royally tick me off more than once and still are so damn compelling that I can't stop reading. She's just so good when it comes to writing. That seems like a really lame thing to say about a writer but it's true. I don't know how Generation Loss is going to end but I want to know because she has managed to make me care about Cass in spite of who Cass is and what she does.

How the hell does a writer accomplish that sort of trick?

On top of this I've been slowly putting together a column for this spring on dog stories - both fiction and nonfiction titles that are about dogs or include dogs predominantly in the storyline. Originally I was going to do a broader animal stories column but I ended up with four dog books and little else, so I decided to focus my attention there. (Of course this might change in the next two months, but that's how it's looking right now.) Here's a book that seriously caught my eye from the latest Booklist and I hope to include it:

Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain by Martha Sherrill. One day in 1944, in the midst of World War II Japan, with people suffering and starving around him, Morie Sawataishi heard something troubling. The country people of Akita Prefecture were killing their dogs and selling their pelts to the military in order to line the winter coats of officers. The Akita dog, already dwindling in numbers as it fell out of favor, neared extinction. When an acquaintance offered him a puppy, Morie could not resist buying her and later purchased a male for breeding after he was able to verify the existence of only 16 other Akita dogs. Sherrill tells the story not only of the salvation of an ancient breed of dog but also of the complicated man who loved them and of his Tokyo-born wife, who had to learn country ways and how to love dogs. Throughout the book, the changes in postwar Japan are woven into the narrative, along with tales of Morie's Akitas.

I had no idea that Akitas were ever endangered and the more I thought about it, I've never considered any modern dog breed to face extinction. The UK Kennel Club has a list of vulnerable breeds however and it is surprisingly lengthy. I've always been a champion of the mutt (one is sitting on my feet right now) but I think I just took for granted that dogs didn't face the kind of difficulties that wild animals deal with. Yet they are disappearing as well and many will likely be unappreciated until the very end.

Echoes of the passenger pigeon yet again.


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