Family legacies are hell to outrun, especially when violence is entwined in the ancestral DNA. This month a new batch of novels offer modern twists on the ancient themes of family, duty, revenge, and justice. The most anticipated is Peter Heller’s The Painter (Knopf, $25), the Outside contributing editor’s follow-up to his bestselling The Dog Stars. Jim Stegner, the title character, is a forty-something artist struggling to remake his life in the Colorado backcountry following the death of his teenage daughter.
Trouble finds him in the person of Dellwood Siminoe, a hunter who’s mean as a sack of razors. Conflict ensues, and Stegner soon finds himself with the added burdens of both the law and Siminoe’s vengeful kin, who have a habit of showing up drunk, angry, and armed at Stegner’s favorite fishing holes. The Painter isn’t the postapocalyptic revelation that The Dog Stars was, but Heller creates in Stegner a more flawed, reflective, and fully realized protagonist than the pining loner at the center of his first novel.
A son’s duty to his father forms the backbone of Louis Bayard’s novel Roosevelt’s Beast (Holt, $27), a fictional play on Theodore Roosevelt’s 1914 expedition down Brazil’s River of Doubt. This isn’t a full record of that journey (for that, see Candice Millard’s classic The River of Doubt) but a fanciful what-if that imagines T.R. and his son Kermit captured by the Cinta Larga, a real-life tribe that shadowed the expedition as it floated the river.
Bayard, bestselling author of historical thrillers like The School of Night and The Pale Blue Eye, hangs the novel on Kermit’s battle to become something more than his father’s valet, an elusive goal for a son who lacks Teddy’s tallyho bluster. “Of all the Roosevelt children,” Bayard writes, “he was the least likely to force himself on the world’s attention.” Beast tends to run a little too J.J. Abrams–ish for my taste, what with all the strange killings in the jungle. “We are in a strange land, Kermit,” says the old man. “Should we not be braced for strange outcomes?” But Bayard offers his readers a fun ride right to the end.
There’s no escaping family, duty, or violence when you’re a member of the Kings clan of Loosewood Island, the lobstering dynasty at the center of Alexi Zentner’s gripping second novel, The Lobster Kings (Norton, $27). The Kings have been pulling bugs out of the water around Loosewood since the 1720s, and they’ve always policed the grounds on their own. When young tweakers from the next town over start poaching their prey, Cordelia and her father, local big man Woody, must battle for Loosewood and their livelihood.
The struggle continues even as the family business comes under fire, with Cordelia rising as Woody’s power declines. By laying Shakespearean themes over the culturally rich New England lobster grounds, Zentner, a former newspaperman and climber, produces a deeply satisfying novel that reveals what is required by and given to those who inherit a family’s legacy.
Recently, the National Climate Assessment revealed myriad ways climate change is already altering our daily lives. And more recently, a NASA study revealed that a significant chunk of the Antarctic is in "irreversible retreat" and that the resulting sea-level rise during this century will force the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to revise upward its already daunting prediction of one to three feet. What do we do? Once we pick our jaws off the floor, most of us have little choice but to continue on with our day. Oh, and of course drive less, buy organic, and eschew plastic bags. If that hardly seems like it's enough, you're right. It's not.
We talked to Winston about what consumers really care about, how environmentalism is like the gay rights movement, and whether it's okay for clothier Patagonia to cash in on its good intensions.
OUTSIDE: You write in your book about how our increasingly connected world is forcing businesses to be "radically" transparent about the types of ingredients and manufacturing processes they use. Yet, when I go shopping I see a lot of overworked, harried people who seem to want to fill their carts and get on with their day. WINSTON: We've had 44 years of Earth Day, and the percentage of people who really changed what they buy, how they live, in a way that is really deeply based on the environment is very low. That said, studies show things are changing. One study found that 40 percent of consumers will buy better, lower-footprint products when given the choice.
For years people did not buy energy-efficient light bulbs because they cost more upfront. But, over the years, as Walmart, Home Depot, and others started really pushing compact florescent bulbs, people started buying them. Now they're selling LED blubs. They also cost more upfront, but over time people started to understand the larger picture: that if they use this more expensive bulb over a number of years it's actually not more expensive (thanks to energy savings).
Still, we have not seen a giant movement in American consumers. I think, to be kind, it's because we are busy and we can't know everything about every purchase we make. For some categories we pay attention, personal care products and food—things we put on our bodies and in our bodies. There is more attention paid to those products than, say, asking where the wood in our bookcase came from.
So, what are the roles for consumers, versus government and business, in righting the ship? To deal with something as serious as climate change and to address resource scarcity, all three (consumers, government, and business) need to shift the way we live. Consider a region dealing with drought: everyone has to act and sometimes you hear about people reporting on their neighbors who wash their cars (in violation of water restrictions). You have to have a sense of the common good.
Unfortunately, I think we're in the midst of a pretty big pendulum swing away from common good, thanks to political partisanship and Libertarian every-man-for-himself ideology. I get that, but as much as you want to say every man is an island, it's just not true. You have to think about how you affect other people. I don’t think that's so radical.
These pivot points in society happen seemingly fast. Look at the gay rights movement. That happened seemingly very quickly in this country, but it was actually after decades of work. There is always a lead-up for many years and then some things (like discriminating based on sexual preference) become socially unacceptable. For another example, look at what happened with Clippers owner Don Sterling (and his remarks about African Americans). I think there is going to be a time when it's unacceptable to be a profligate user of natural resources or to be unaware of your impact or to habitually waste a lot of food. There will be increasing peer pressure not to do those things.
But I don’t rely on consumers to lead the charge. I think business and government need to work together to change the way we make energy, how we make products. That said, it would be a heck of a lot easier to get business and government to change if people made more noise and showed a clear preference in the things that they bought. Retailers care, but not as much as they would if consumers were walking in and clearly picking the greener stuff.
Patagonia, through its Worn Wear program and Eileen Fisher, through its Green Eileen stores, are buying clothes back from consumers and then reselling them. That really starts to subvert the retail paradigm. But in the end, consumers who sell their clothes back to those retailers get store credit… with which they have no choice but to buy more stuff. So at the end of the day, can retailers—even if they're super green standouts like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia—actually not be about consumerism? It's a profound question. I think a company can grow and sell more stuff if it is taking (market) share—if it is selling more at the expense of other companies that are making less sustainable stuff.
So if the Patagonias of the world are selling something that lasts longer, that is made of recycled content, can be recycled, and so on, you want them to grow. Yet the total pie of resource use has to be in control.
Another way to look at this is through the work of Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart and the Cradle to Cradle movement. If things can be made in such a way that they can be cycled, almost endlessly, while using renewable energy, then consumption is less and less the problem. If a company, by its existence, makes things better, then you want more of them. It's a [positive] abundance thing, rather than saying, 'Oh, population is a problem, every new person and every new product is a problem.' But obviously we're still a long, long way from that.
It is a fair question to ask can public companies lead this charge? By their nature they need to keep shoveling growth and that is a problem. The math does not work to grow forever. But I think a (private) company like Patagonia, they are a $600 million company. They could still grow a lot and be selling more and more stuff, because theirs' are better products that last longer (than their competition). That is not different than the way businesses have always worked. The best ones survive and the worst don't.
We're going to be 9 billion people (by 2050), we're going to need things—but clearly they need to be made differently. The power that we use to make them needs to be renewable. We need fundamental changes.
In the book I use the example of Kingfisher, a European home-improvement store, which has a goal of being net positive—they want to help people build homes that generate more energy than they use. Let's say you built a home and all the materials were recycled and/or local, and then home made more energy than it needed so that over time I actually netted out the energy it took to make. Don't you want more of those homes?
Climate is a big problem. Resources are a big problem. There isn’t an easy answer. People should take a hard look at their consumption habits, absolutely, but we still need things. No one is going to do well by telling everyone to just sit in a dark cave. But if, through our choices, things get better, then consumption isn't necessarily the problem.
The reliably volatile mashup of American hubris and untrammeled wilderness has kept adventure writers on the bestseller list for decades. As two excellent new nonfiction works by Outside contributors demonstrate, the formula is as bankable as ever. Peter Stark's Astoria: Astor and Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire ($27, Ecco) chronicles John Jacob Astor's plan to monopolize the global fur trade in 1810, when he launched an elaborate scheme that, Stark writes, "would probably dwarf even the largest mergers of our era." It all hinged on establishing a trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River, where Astor sent two expeditions: one by sea and the other overland, on the route established two years earlier by Lewis and Clark. Astor was a poor judge of leaders, and both parties were almost comically doomed from the beginning. "Americans love heroes and winners," writes Stark, explaining why the remarkable story has been lost to history. "In Astoria, there are few clear-cut winners and no unblemished heroes." Indeed. The seagoing vessel Tonquin, led by Captain Jonathan Thorn, was in a state of near mutiny for its entire voyage. Then a group of raiding Native Americans came aboard, and somebody lit a fuse, incinerating the vessel in a cloud of gunpowder sure to get Michael Bay's attention. The overland voyage, led by a Jersey boy named Wilson Price Hunt, hardly fared better. But with so much infighting, paranoia, double-crossing, madness, and starvation, the two expeditions supply plenty of action to fuel Stark's dueling narratives.
InSavage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art($27, William Morrow), Carl Hoffman reexamines the final days of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller's 23-year-old son Michael, who was on an expedition to collect primitive art in New Guinea in 1961 when his catamaran capsized. Rockefeller disappeared while attempting a 12-mile swim to shore, leaving behind one of the modern era's great unsolved mysteries. Had he drowned? Was he eaten by sharks? Or was he consumed by the local Asmat, known cannibals who made their home in the region's labyrinth of coastal rivers?
The answer, according to Hoffman's exhaustive and utterly convincing research: (C) Cannibals. I'm not spoiling anything; Hoffman gives away this plot twist on page ten, describing Rockefeller's demise at the hands of a tribesman in jarring detail: "Fin made a deep cut from Michael's anus to his neck." Smart move. By dispatching with the gruesome ending early on, Hoffman makes room to unspool the more remarkable tale at the heart of the book: his own obsessive quest to discover the truth.
The journey starts in the Netherlands—New Guinea was in part a Dutch-colony—where Hoffman unearths documents that detail Asmat accounts of Rockefeller's killing at the hands of men from the village of Otsjanep. The reports were initially covered up by Dutch officials trying to avoid international scandal. He also reveals a motive: in 1958, a violent raid by Dutch government commander Max Lapré killed five Otsjanep villagers. In a culture where headhunting was the primary means for restoring spiritual balance, Rockefeller's killing four years later, writes Hoffman,"fit tightly and seamlessly into Asmat cultural logic."
To prove it, Hoffman needs a confession or physical evidence, so he heads to Otsja-nep in early 2012. His first trip is a disaster. When he brazenly offers $1,000—a fortune in Asmat—for Rockefeller's glasses, men come forward with "a pair of 1990s-style wrap-around sunglasses." Fortunately, he's his own toughest critic. "I'd been guilty of the same sins for which I was critical of Michael," Hoffman writes, "assuming I was so important that I could pepper them with questions and out would pour their deepest secrets." Humbled, he goes back home, learns their language, and returns nearly a year later to live among the locals and gain their trust. If I told you the stunning way that Rockefeller's fate was finally revealed, well, then I really would be spoiling the book.
Other strange physiological phenomena occur when the body is totally deprived of food, some that might be considered desirable, others not. The eyesight of one subject in a 1915 study improved dramatically on day 14 during a carefully monitored 31-day fast and was twice as acute at fast’s end as at the beginning. Others reported a peculiar lightness in their bearing. Heart rates can drop to 35 beats per minute. And there’s the nasty breath—breath that smells like a solvent such as acetone.
After abandoning their canoes, which had smashed among the waterfalls and rapids of a canyon, the 50-person Overland Party, led by Wilson Price Hunt, a young New Jersey businessman with no experience in the wilderness, split into two main groups in November, 1811. Trekking on foot, they followed the unknown river downstream toward what they hoped was the Pacific. Barren lava plains spread on both sides of the river gorge. With no game, and no fish appearing in their nets, they managed to trade with scattered bands of Shoshone Indians for a few dogs and horses. Consuming these—a group of 50 people trekking in winter could demolish the caloric equivalent of a large animal every few days, thus they traveled in two smaller groups—they chewed on bits of beaverskin and spare moccasins. Hunt stayed with the slower group, which included the family of the Indian interpreter, his pregnant wife, and their two toddler boys.
For a month, Hunt’s group struggled onward along the river. Then the river poured into a massive canyon—now known as Hell’s Canyon of the Snake River, the deepest canyon in North America. One snowy December day, as Hunt’s slow party struggled downstream over rocky outcrops, they spotted the other main party staggering back upstream on the opposite bank! This was the worst kind of news. Led by Scottish fur trader Ramsay Crooks, it had been stopped by the extreme depth and ruggedness of the canyon and the onset of winter’s deepening snows. Still worse, Crooks and his party verged on collapse from starvation and exhaustion due to the tremendous exertion and caloric needs.
Hunt had a small boat crafted from a horsehide and brought Crooks and a voyageur, Le Clerc, across the river from the starving party on the opposite bank. Crooks told him there was no way forward down the canyon on foot or boat. Hunt knew he now had to retreat upstream in hopes of finding Shoshone villages and food. They were at least ten days or two weeks away. Even after Hunt fed Crooks and Le Clerc the last of his horsemeat, however, they were still too weak to walk and became feebler with every moment. Hunt, loyal to a fault, trying to lead by consensus, wanted to stay with the dying men. Crooks was his friend and partner. But the 20 other members of his party, the voyageurs especially, harangued him to abandon Crooks and Le Clerc and retreat as hastily as possibly to the Shoshone villages and the hope of distant food.
“They said that we would all die from starvation,” wrote Hunt in his journal, “and urged me by all means to go on.”
The process had now begun for everyone.
The human body has a special mechanism to deal with starvation in these dangerous circumstances. A fascinating account on the physiology of human fasting can be found on the website derangedphysiology.com. Drawing on the classic 1970 study “Starvation in Man” by George F. Cahill, the website tells us that the human body, even when starving, wants to continue to feed nutrients to the brain, despite all else. The starving human body also tries to hold onto a certain reserve of ready energy for “fight or flight” or other emergencies.
Normally, the fuel driving our bodies is glucose (a simple sugar) and glycogen (glucose transformed and stored in the muscles). We constantly drain this fuel supply to power our muscle movements and metabolism. We refill this fuel supply through eating.
But under fasting conditions—starvation—the body makes a peculiar switch. The muscles and heart stop using up all the ready fuel—glucose and glycogen—saving some of it for emergencies, and start to draw on fuel made from the breakdown of the body’s fat reserves and what’s called “ketone metabolism.”
“The glycogen reserves in humans never get completely depleted,” according to the website. “There is at all times a hepatic [liver] reserve, waiting to mobilize and rescue the organism from some sort of horrible situation.”
But the brain has to function, too, in order to save the starving human from “some horrible situation.” The human body is remarkable among animals in that the human brain can function with alternative energy supplies to glucose. Some of the body’s fats are converted to what’s known as “ketone bodies,” which, only in humans, have the ability to enter the brain and power it. (The human brain of a 150-pound male requires about 325 calories a day, or the equivalent of about one-and-a-half energy bars, to keep the lights on.) Thus by switching over to alternative energy supplies like ketone bodies, the brain, too, helps save the body’s glucose reserves (as well as the body’s muscle mass) for emergency “fight or flight” situations like a kind of human rocket fuel.
The “acetone breath” of starvation or fasting comes from the metabolism of these ketone bodies into byproducts like acetone, which is then dissipated through urine and through exhalation from the lungs.
Eventually, however, as the fats are used up, the body will begin to break down its own proteins—its muscles and tissues—and convert them to fuel. (None of the physiology of starvation or fasting that I’ve read explains the deep voices such as Franklin’s, but I wonder if it has something to do with the proteins of the vocal cords breaking down. Maybe a reader will know the answer.)
“An organism which is consuming its own protein is truly struggling,” according to derangedphysiology.com. “That said, if your [human] organism is struggling it has some 6kg or so of protein to get through before it dies.”
Ramsay Crooks and the voyageur Le Clerc had clearly entered this protein-consuming phase of starvation, and had finally used up whatever rocket-fuel reserves they had possessed.
Hunt, deeply conflicted, profoundly troubled—were his loyalties to his good but dying men, or to his leadership of the group as a whole?—finally abandoned the starving pair in the canyon depths. But he didn’t forsake them entirely. He left them two beaverskins to chew on, and promised that as soon as he found food, he would send it back to feed them.
You can call Sophie Helenek many things: a recovering investment banker, the youngest French woman to climb Mount Everest, and—as of 2013—a mother. But having her daughter wasn't going to terminate Helenek's six-year love affair with climbing. We caught up with Helenek via email to talk about staying active during pregnancy, exploring with babies, and her book series written for infants.
How did you make the decision to start a family? I was a mountain climber on my way to realizing my goal of climbing the 14 highest peaks in the world. Being pregnant came as a wonderful surprise, which I embraced from day one. I switched gears to enjoy the wonder of motherhood. Raising our baby girl is now our new Everest.
How did you stay active and fit during your pregnancy? I had lots energy when I was pregnant. I enjoyed climbing Mount Washington (the highest peak in New Hampshire), Mount Madison, and Mount Mansfield (the highest peak in Vermont). The panoramic view at the top of Mount Mansfield was outstanding. I could see the Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks at my left and at my right. I could see Mount Washington with its top in the clouds. As I entered in the third trimester, my doctor strongly recommended me to walk instead of trek. So I switched to kayaking. My belly was relatively small, so kayaking on smooth water while watching birds was very relaxing.
Has it been difficult to get back into shape since having the baby? When the winter was over, I went walking at a local park next to the river. I was alone at first, then I met some other moms, and I started building a walking/running mom group. I met them three times a week. It was great because we were sharing our stories, our struggles, and our good times with our babies.
When the weather was too hot for our babies, the mom groups stopped. But I stayed active; I did some landscaping on our property while my daughter was napping, and I water-skied in the evening with my husband. During the winter, I ice climbed and skied.
I did not struggle or fight to get back in shape. I enjoy being active, as well sharing the outside activities with my daughter. I think it is excellent for her to be outside when the weather allows it.
Describe the process of writing your books. It was an emotional roller coaster. You go all over the map. I started confidently, drafting a few things, but then I hit the wall. I had doubted and questioned myself: Is it any good? What am I doing? Then I was able to put myself together, had a second breath, and kept writing. Hit the wall again, and I almost gave up. But I stayed strong. With lots of courage and resilience, I finished and published My First Book series, which includes four books: Fruits, Sky Wonders, Shapes, and Musical Instruments.
My inspiration was my daughter. When she was a small baby, I showed her an M.C. Escher book. She seemed to like the black and white spiral drawings. When I say "like," I understand you don't really know what is going on in an infant's head, but I could tell that something happened. I was surprised and started reading about how babies' eyes work, what they see, and why.
At birth, babies are very nearsighted; that is why they are interested in bold black and white shapes and high contrast patterns. Eager to learn more, I read bunch of studies on speech development, child temperament, and babies' milestones. Gathering all this information, I developed and designed My First Books series from a baby's perspective. I wanted to write an engaging book that promotes bonding and supports an infant's developmental growth milestones: vision, memory, speech, and social skills.
They are not just picture books or bedtime stories but rather activity books conceived to stimulate a baby's senses.
Here how it works:
At first, a baby will enjoy simple illustrations with black-and-white and high-contrast patterns designed especially for the very young to focus on.
As babies gets older, their brains learn to distinguish bright primary colors and will start identifying the illustrations with the words you read, which triggers their memory process.
Each picture is accompanied by a simple word that babies will love repeating and which helps their speech development.
The last pages show all the illustrations together, which also helps the baby's memory process.
My First Book series offers a special feature for toddlers, as they can write on the book with a white board pen, wipe it, and write again!
How do you incorporate books into parenting? My daughter absolutely loves books. She enjoys being read to or just playing with them. Her favorite game is flipping pages one by one. Books seem soothing for her.
I incorporate several type books into my parenting: nighttime stories, which are mainly soft pastel drawing books that are calming; nursery rhyme books, which are more wordy and playful; and activity baby board books like My First Book series, which are placed with all other toys.
My First Book books can be a great medium to bond and interact with a baby, as well as being perceived by the baby as an accessible toy to play with or without an adult. Babies enjoy turning My First Book pages, which are extra thick, easy to grab, and they are captivated by the illustrations.
Reading is essential in your baby's development. For instance, reading aloud to a baby stimulates developing senses and builds listening and memory skills that can help a baby grow up to be a reader. Reading aloud to a child:
Promotes listening skills
Increases the number of vocabulary words babies hear
Develops attention span and memory
Helps babies learn to understand the meanings of words
Promotes bonding and calmness for both baby and parent
Instills the love of books and learning
As an adult, what books do you enjoy? I'm reading mainly French novels that my mom send me. They are my connection to my French. I'm also magazine savvy. I am currently subscribed to a dozen of magazines from American Scientist to Climbing to Fast Company to Time.
Do you encourage your daughter to lead an active, adventurous life? My daughter is one year old. She is a very happy baby and nothing seems to bother her. She is content with herself, which makes life very easy for us. I let her explore, and warn her when it is dangerous. Being kind but firm seems to be the key.