Books: Lives and Times

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, January 1999

Books: Lives and Times
By James Zug

Crazy Horse, by Larry McMurtry (Penguin, $20). With doorstop-size biographies the rage, a compact alternative is arriving in the form of the new Penguin Life series, which promises Garry Wills on St. Augustine, Carol Shields on Jane Austen, and Jane Smiley on Charles Dickens — all in slim volumes that readers can polish off in an evening. The series gets off to an auspicious start with Larry McMurtry's remarkably vivid 160-page sprint through the life of the elusive Sioux warrior Crazy Horse. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove has bushwhacked through "a mesquite thicket of opinion, dense with guessing, theory, and speculation" in the process of producing a book that may be exactly proportionate to the known facts about his subject. McMurtry succeeds admirably in portraying Crazy Horse not as the charismatic leader of popular myth but as the solitary, rambling horse raider and chronic loner that he was — a product of the nomadic hunting culture into which he was born and "a kind of Zelig" who kept popping up at crucial, unexpected moments. Even as a teenager nicknamed Curly, Crazy Horse rejected the sun dance and other traditional rituals for a life of far-ranging travels across the "great grassland steppe" of the Plains, "under one of the most generous skies in the world." It becomes inevitable that their fierce autonomy would draw Crazy Horse and his people into a fight to the death with Custer's fast-encroaching military machine. Though the fearless Sioux had his share of triumphs — most notably in 1876, as a charismatic general on the smoke-and-dust-choked battlefield at Little Bighorn — he was a member of a dying breed destined for simultaneous extinction and immortalization. "By an accident of fate," McMurtry concludes, "the man and the way of life died together: little wonder that he came to be a symbol of Sioux freedom, Sioux courage, and Sioux dignity."
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The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool, by Thomas A. P. van Leeuwen (MIT Press, $40). Human beings are not meant to swim. Our strokes are inefficient, and we drown easily. What's more, argues Dutch architecture professor Thomas van Leeuwen in this social history of the venerable cement pond, "only one animal that swims at all is less efficient at it: the mink." Despite our aquatic shortcomings, the swimming pool has become one of the most ubiquitous man-made replicas of the natural world. By combining considerations of architecture and popular culture, van Leeuwen earns a place on the shelf next to a new crop of quasi-academic books about singular topics — snow, lawns, the beach, and the like. True to his genre, van Leeuwen leaves no epoch unexplored, charting the evolution of the artificial watering hole from the Tiber River of ancient Rome and the baths of 18th-century Europe to the sleekest of today's in-ground pools. More than 200 photographs and blueprints enhance his text: We see scantily-clad celebrities paddling canoes in their Hollywood natatoriums and, in the latest twist, seals and otters transforming southern California backyard pools into miniature marine habitats. Van Leeuwen's enthusiasm for his subject is infectious — enough to compel any reader to plunge into the nearest piece of chlorinated heaven.
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Mr. Darwin's Shooter, by Roger McDonald (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25). Historical personae come and go with the changing zeitgeist, but Charles Darwin is always with us. Capitalizing on this perennial fascination is Australian novelist Roger McDonald, who takes an incidental figure in the life of the scientist and spins a richly imagined period piece about the conundrums of discovery. McDonald scoured Darwin's diaries for details about his protagonist, marksman Syms Covington, who was 15 when he sailed on the H.M.S. Beagle in 1832. For seven years, Covington serves at Darwin's side, bagging finches in the Galápagos and dispatching owls in Argentina. While plying his cruel trade, this "meticulous plunderer" becomes a skilled naturalist and a witness to the discovery of evolution. In alternating sections, McDonald narrates the adventures aboard the Beagle and jumps forward 20 years to Sydney, where Covington is brooding on his past ("what a lugubrious aching misfit he felt, an enemy of nature"), filled with doubts raised by the just-published Origin of Species. McDonald deftly explores the uneasy balance between science and belief, a dynamic expressed poignantly in Covington's urge "to make his confession — that he was once an accomplice to a great murder. That the murder may not have yet been entirely done, and he lacked the wit to know how proved it was."
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New and Recent Books by Our Contributors
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The Immaculate Invasion, by Bob Shacochis, is a stirring account of the 1994 American military intervention in Haiti (Viking, $28).

Into Thin Air: The Illustrated Edition, by Jon Krakauer. The author is donating all royalties to the Everest '96 Memorial Fund (Villard, $40).

The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean, takes readers on a tour of the exotic world of plant smugglers (Random House, $25).

The Mangrove Coast, by Randy Wayne White, shadows Doc Ford on his latest adventure (Putnam, $23).

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, by Philip Gourevitch, is a chilling chronicle of the Rwandan civil war (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25).

Postcards from the Ledge, by Greg Child, collects his humorous climbing essays about noisome tent mates and botched bivouacs (The Mountaineers, $23).

In the Shadow of Kilimanjaro, by Rick Ridgeway, is an engaging narrative of a 310-mile trek from the roof of Africa to the Indian Ocean (Henry Holt, $28).

Afterwards, You're a Genius, by Chip Brown, is an important, provocative exploration of the subtleties of healing and the limits of modern medicine (Riverhead/Putnam, $25).

Photographs by Clay Ellis

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