Books: The Way Home

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, February 1999

Books: The Way Home
By James Zug


Out of the Woods, by Chris Offutt (Simon & Schuster, $21). The characters in Chris Offutt's stories have Appalachia on their minds. Most are half-dazed losers wandering across the country in some state of disrepair, doing time as taxidermists, boxers, and marksmen before crashing into bad dreams of missing home. "This is not what I had in mind when I left Kentucky," one of them says. "Sometimes I don't think I've done anything to leave my mark in this world. I'm the kind of person the world leaves a mark on." This is Offutt's second book of short stories. His brief but already distinguished career began with the collection Kentucky Straight in 1992, and since then he has published a memoir and an impressive first novel, 1997's The Good Brother. The new book confirms his mastery of short fiction about rural lives rendered with laconic intensity. Offutt is a mean hand at pithy sentences ("The hollow was glazed by mist like crystal."), hard-edged dialogue ("You know why I wear a wedding ring?" "No." "To remind me not to sleep with married men."), and the lean portrayal of masculine vices like impulsive violence and compulsive restlessness. "My family had been in the hills for two hundred years and I was the first to leave," explains the narrator of "Tough People," the final story. "Now I was pretty much ruined for going back. I started walking." Out of the Woods is a collection to put on the shelf next to Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.
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Green Shingles: At the Edge of Chesapeake Bay, by Peter Svenson (Faber and Faber/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24). By his own admission, Peter Svenson will never be a bona fide naturalist. "I'm too interested in unnatural things," writes the artist and memoirist, who is as transfixed by jets and merchant ships as he is by the spectacular weather and bird life along Maryland's rural Eastern Shore. Svenson's last book, Battlefield: Farming a Civil War Battleground (1993), was a National Book Award nominee; here, he offers a rambling meditation on the spectacles that unfold at the intersection of maritime wilderness and human history. From a house atop Mitchell's Bluff, Svenson looks out on the blue-gray waters of Chesapeake Bay and chronicles the changing faces of the 3,237-square-mile body of water. Through the same binoculars he uses to follow the migration of snow geese, Svenson keeps a tally of passing tankers and monitors the array of natural and human effluvia on the sand beneath his cliff: twigs and bark, broken toys and bald tires and rubber sandals. The beach, he writes, is "a prime indicator, a detection strip. The hydrocarbons, the storm trash, the eroding bluff, the American way of life — it's all a read-out, a bellwether of the regional, if not global, environment." Though the future he envisions is far from cheerful — in the course of several cranky paragraphs he laments the invasion of the toxic microbe Pfiesteria, the intrusion of speedboats, and the diminishing oyster harvests — Svenson makes a case for sinking roots, exploring dichotomies, and celebrating the pleasures of an "edge-dwelling" existence.
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Waiting To Fly: My Escapades with the Penguins of Antarctica, by Ron Naveen (William Morrow, $26). Amateur marine biologist Naveen's fixation is penguins. He dreams about them. He dreams he is one. These reveries began 16 years ago, he tells us, when he saw his first wild penguin — a swaggering, knee-high chinstrap with a low-pitched growl and a quarrelsome look in its eye — on the icy tuff of Antarctica's Deception Island. He soon forsook a career as a lawyer for the National Marine Fisheries Service in favor of a life dedicated to studying the flightless birds. Activities like egg-counting, censusing, and gluing tracking devices onto penguins' backs have their risks, the author relates: "Penguins can't beat their wings as quickly as hummingbirds, of course, but they can get in more licks and combinations than Muhammad Ali in his prime — with both flippers blazing." Naveen is an enthusiastic if wildly uneven stylist; still, his love for these "upright packages of feathers, fat, and muscle" is contagious. As he schools himself in penguin etiquette and worries about the impact of global warming on native Adélies, chinstraps, and gentoos, readers will find themselves rooting for the birds and envying this besotted field researcher.
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Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife, by Richard Conniff (Henry Holt, $25). "Nature gives me the creeps," writes Conniff, "and the more I learn the creepier and more wonderful it gets." The emphasis in this essay collection is on the wonderful, for Conniff is fascinated by the virtuoso attributes of some of the most maligned animals on earth and by the idiosyncrasies of those foolish enough to interact with them. Investigating the reality behind what he dubs our "healthy terror" of wildlife, Conniff travels across the globe to meet biologists, animal trainers, hobbyists, and hunters, as well as bats, sharks, and armor-plated snapping turtles. On a jungle island off Panama, he informs us that three-toed sloths "harbor nine species of moths, four species of beetles, six species of ticks, and other assorted mites" in their matted fur. And during a visit to the annual meeting of the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association, the author cheerfully notes that a plague of 544 tons of mice is said to have infested an entire Australian town in 1917. Conniff is a practitioner of the very best natural-history writing — the kind that generously conveys scientific fact while dazzling readers with a stream of well-shaped anecdotes and thrilling detail.
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Photographs by Clay Ellis

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