Monthly Archives: October 2010

Literature: Before You Suffocate…

Title: Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self // Author: Danielle Evans // Publisher: Riverhead/Penguin // Pub. Date: September, 2010

Danielle Evans’s debut story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is another of the books I carried with me on my recent car/shuttle/plane trip from the U.S. to McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Like most people, I choose to read books for random reasons at times. Sure, my reading list sticks to some basic themes (nature, outdoors, travel, environment, biography, nonfiction), but then I deviate from these when I like a book’s cover or the book’s author, or when something about its blurb grabs at me. To be honest, I found myself curious about this book when I read its title…and then more interested when I saw that it was a debut story collection authored by a young female writer. I chose to read Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned last year for similar, random reasons, and that book really wowed me, so maybe I approached Evans’s book hoping it would do the same. Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self didn’t wow me like Tower’s book, but it’s certainly an impressive literary debut.

All of the stories in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self capture some aspect of what it’s like to be young and African-American or of mixed race in the modern world. And while most of them focus on the experience of a female character, their plots move in a variety of ways and take surprising turns, morphing into stories that are shocking or tragic or just plain honest in the end. In each of these stories, Evans gives her readers something that extends well beyond the entertainment value of a story well told, and she emerges as a smart, funny and strong new voice in fiction. Final word: The range of this collection might feel a bit limited to some, but Evans does great justice to her characters and her readers in telling the stories of these people who keep on living despite the gulf that exists between who they are and who they want to be.

To read my less spastic review of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, click here for the more fully formal version of it on the Contemporary Literature website.

Oh, and click here to see what I wrote on “Down and Out” about Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.

Photo credit: Riverhead/Penguin

Landscape: McMurdo’s Last Sunsets

When it’s summertime in Antarctica, the sun doesn’t set. And since tomorrow night will be the last official sunset, I guess it will officially be summer, summer, summertime here at McMurdo Station.

The last few weeks of sunsets have been pretty spectacular, and I’ll be sad to see them go. Since the sun has been dipping just below the horizon for a few hours each night, the sky gets splashed with these lovely salmons, pinks, and reds. And when there are clouds in the sky, the color contrast can be pretty amazing.

I took these photos about two weeks ago as I walked from a building on one edge of town back to my dorm room on the other edge of town. Mount Discovery, in the top photo, is one of the most beautiful stand-alone peaks that we can see across the McMurdo Ice Shelf, just about 20 miles grid southwest from town.

The middle photo, of course, is of my most-loved Royal Society Range. I’ll never get tired of staring across the ice shelf at that one…but I must admit that I’ll be sad to know that I won’t see it in this kind of color for the rest of the summer. Finally…even the beat-down McMurdo Station with its power lines strung out all of the place looks like a nice place to be in this kind of light.

Life: McMurdo Station Town Tour

Current location: McMurdo Station, Antarctica

Yesterday’s Extremes:
Max temp: 14°F
Min temp: 0°F
Peak wind: 33 knots
Lowest wind chill: -26°F

McMurdo Station, Antarctica is a small enough settlement that it just about all fits into one photograph taken from a ridge on the nearby Hut Point Peninsula. I took the above photograph in January a few years ago (there’s still snow on the hills and roads right now). I agree—it’s hard to imagine what a place such as this might look like. But think of a cross between a beat-down college campus and a frozen cargo yard surrounded by some spectacular snowy peaks, and you’ll come close.

Since a lot of building goes on at McMurdo during the summer season, materials seem to be strewn everywhere outside so that equipment can move it easily. Carpenters build structures in remote field camps that will keep scientists safe during their busy research season, and then they’re brought back to town for the winter.

The dorms (mine pictured above) are covered in corrugated sheetmetal and faded (or peeling) paint. Actually, most buildings on station conform to this sad architectural style, including Building 155 (below, blue), which is a combination dorm-galley-office building and McMurdo’s hub. Buildings often get called by their numbers alone—155, for example—but some dorms are more desirable to live in, such as the equally sad structures that have good views of the mountains and frozen sea.

Sure, there are a few buildings that deviate from the norm, such as the all-wood Chapel of the Snows. Catholic and Protestant church services are offered here, along with yoga in the evenings, morning stretching, AA, and other discussion groups that seek to explore answers to questions such as “What’s the difference between religion and spirituality?”

Scientists and contract workers, alike, must share their dorm rooms with at least one other person. The population is expected to near 1,300 people this year, which is causing a serious housing crunch. First-year workers are in bunks with five people to a room, so I’m feeling lucky to have a double room.

Scientists who do their work in McMurdo Station have offices in the Crary Science Lab, which is a state-of-the-art building that has cool industrial-freezer-style doorknobs and stilts in key spots that prevent accumulation of drifting snow.

My workspace in the station’s communications center is in one of the faded sheetmetal buildings described earlier (pictured above, with fellow radio operator smiling). When the wind blows really hard, it shakes stuff around in this windowless room. Cold puffs of air gust in through whatever cracks they can find, so we have to keep a space heater going on stormy days—or do sit-ups to stay warm. McMurdo Station is not one of the most architecturally attractive places, but it’s funky and innovative and always inspired.

Literature: Homegrown Books

Title: River House // Author: Sarahlee Lawrence // Publisher: Tin House Books // October 2010 // 272 p.

Title: Atchafalaya Houseboat // Author: Gwen Roland // Publisher: LSU Press // 2006 // 161 p.

In the midst of these travels, I’ve been reading books about settling down. As someone who dreams about living in an off-the-grid cabin in the woods, I’m naturally drawn to nonfiction books that explore outdoor living or alternative living arrangements. So when I saw Sarahlee Lawrence’s River House on a prepub list for this month, I asked for a copy. And when a friend suggested I take her copy of Gwen Roland’s Atchafalaya Houseboat to read on the plane, I gladly accepted the extra weight in my carry-on.

River House is the story of a young woman’s quest to build a house by hand on her family’s ranch near Terrebonne, Oregon. By age twenty-one, Sarahlee Lawrence had rafted some of the world’s most gnarly rivers, and she was an accomplished river guide. But despite her far-flung adventures, she started longing to have a home, one that she’d build herself in a community where she wanted to remain. River House beautifully explores the idea that staying put can be just as much of a wild ride as kayaking Class V.

Likewise, Atchafalaya Houseboat tells a story of constructing and settling into a self-designed living space. In the early 1970s, Gwen Carpenter Roland and Calvin Voisin decided to turn a slave-built structure into a houseboat and tow it deep into the waters of Bloody Bayou. Roland’s story is supplemented with photographs by C.C. Lockwood, who shared their story with National Geographic readers, bringing them all a bit of unexpected fame.

If you’re into exploring the idea of settling down in a creative way, both of these books will be an encouragement. Final Word: These books are both quick, easy reads, but while each has its beautiful and insightful moments, neither is a literary standout. I’d recommend them primarily to those already interested in the topic and to those who’d like to explore it perhaps for the first time.

Photo Credit: Tin House Books (2010).

Landscape: Antarctica by Air

Despite two more flight delays (and two more days spent at Christchurch’s lovely restaurants and cafes), we finally got a good weather window for landing at McMurdo. I layered on all of my Extreme Cold Weather gear along with other United States Antarctic Program members and boarded the (borrowed) Australian Antarctic Program’s airbus A319 for a super-scenic flight.

The whole flight on this kind of plane takes about four and a half hours. Not too far south from Christchurch, the ocean starts to freeze. First, the ice veils the water in a thin, crackly crust that looks as fragile as an egg shell. It thickens to a solid white surface whose cracks reveal the water hidden below. Wouldn’t want to fall into one of these cracks…even from the plane, they look like they’d be big enough to swallow a semi:

I keep glancing out the window for the first sight of land. This far south in the southern hemisphere, this means I see first Antarctica’s Victorialand peaks rocketing up from the coast, all frozen and beautiful, reminding me what it is about this continent I love most: its untouched places, and the reminder that these places are still out there, somewhere.

As we get closer to McMurdo, everyone’s sprawled across the seats to see where we’ll be living and working for the next five months: Ross Island, Antarctica—home of McMurdo Station and hub of the United States Antarctic Program.

We know we’re close when we see steam rising from Mount Erebus, the southermost active volcano that dominates the Ross Island skyline. At 12,448 feet, Erebus puffs white clouds into the sky and displays some pretty gnarly crevasses in the area around its base:

We continue our descent towards a runway called Pegasus Field on the McMurdo Ice Shelf. As we swing around to land, we catch a quick glimpse of McMurdo Station, a ramshackle settlement tucked into the safety of Ross Island’s (grid) western edge:

And then just before we touch down, I see what I will look at every time I walk outside for the next five months: The Royal Society Range:

I don’t know exactly what makes these peaks so special to me, but I’ve always thought that their power has something to do with the distance. The ice shelf separates the coast of Antarctica from Ross Island, so when I look at them, I’m feel far away. A person can get comfortable anywhere, but these peaks remind me that even when I’m super happy at McMurdo, this place is nowhere near a home.