Stephen Lyons

Americans love to hear good fish stories. We expect the angler to exaggerate his skills, along with the almost insurmountable weather conditions and, most importantly, the size of the elusive finned beast. Romantic notions of the great outdoors and philosophical ruminations must also be included in the tale, because as any weekend warrior will admit fishing is a sport of chance, and the odds do not favor the human species.

Ian Frazier expertly follows the above narrative recipe in The Fish's Eye, and the result is a delicious concoction of humorous, often self-deprecating essays that cover more than 20 years of chasing the Big One. Frazier, author of On the Rez, hauls his pole and tackle box to a few unlikely fishing holes for some unusual observations. There is New York City's Harlem Meer, for instance, where even the most amateur handler of bait can catch key rings, plastic globes and the arm of a doll. While fishing in the urban riparian areas of the East Coast for striped bass a fish that can top the scales at 60 pounds or more Frazier makes perhaps the only striper-New Yorker comparison in modern literature. Coming from his expert pen, this could be the start of an entirely new canon. “Striped bass are in many respects the perfect New York fish,” he writes. “They go well with the look of downtown. They are, for starters, pinstriped; the lines along their sides are black fading to light cobalt blue at the edges. The dime-size silver scales look newly minted, and there is an urban glint to the eye and a mobility to the wide predator jaw. If they could talk, they would talk fast.” Many bait and bullet publications proffer advice on how to survive a blizzard with only a postage stamp and a fountain pen. “I wish I had down-to-earth wisdom like that to impart,” Frazier says, “but when I search my knowledge, all that comes to mind is advice that would cause me to run and hide after I gave it.” He is too modest. Through these easy-flowing essays, Frazier shows us that all the wisdom we will ever need to know is within a short walk of the nearest river. Stephen J. Lyons writes from Monticello, Illinois.

Americans love to hear good fish stories. We expect the angler to exaggerate his skills, along with the almost insurmountable weather conditions and, most importantly, the size of the elusive finned beast. Romantic notions of the great outdoors and philosophical ruminations must also be included in the tale, because as any weekend warrior will admit […]

No doubt about it: Allen Long inhaled. Running bales of high-quality marijuana from secret runways in Colombian jungles to the public university campuses of 1970s America, Long, the consummate hustler and riverboat gambler, lived the high life of a dope smuggler. He indulged nonstop, not only in the drugs he dealt, but also in wealth, women and toys.

In Loaded, author Robert Sabbag follows Long into the heart of the marijuana trade at a time when "smuggling aircraft were beginning to stack up over the Guajira [a coastal region in Colombia] like commercial flights over JFK." Sabbag, author of Snowblind an inside look at the cocaine trade recounts Long's high-wire act in an exciting, page-turning adventure, complete with a cast of characters that few fiction writers could conjure. The brawny JD Reed has "arms the size of railroad ties, long brown hair, combed like that of a renegade cavalryman, and eyes as resolute as Manifest Destiny." When he wasn't setting up portable runway lights in northeast California to help land planeloads of pot, Reed liked to tear big city phone books in half with his massive hands.

If only Long had stopped after the first half-dozen successful dope runs and bought some land or stock with his wealth. Instead, he scored and consumed cocaine by the ounce and invested $3.5 million in a final, winner-take-all marijuana buy. To move 60,000 pounds of Colombia's Santa Marta Gold, Long and his partners employed a 170-foot ocean freighter, a DC-4 plane, a Sikorsky helicopter, a 5,000-gallon fuel truck and a few tractor-trailers. What happened next to Long is what eventually happens to all smugglers if they're lucky.

Sabbag's book is not an indictment of drug smuggling but rather an appealing behind-the-scenes look at a more innocent time in America's infamous drug history. Crack wasn't on the scene yet, nor were methamphetamine labs. The South American cartels hadn't declared war on their own citizens, and all business was based on a post-1960s culture of a shared bong.

Still, whenever your work takes you to dimly lit warehouses, and the people you work with pay you with suitcases of cash or a bullet to the brain, it's usually time to go straight.

Stephen J. Lyons writes from Monticello, Illinois.

 

No doubt about it: Allen Long inhaled. Running bales of high-quality marijuana from secret runways in Colombian jungles to the public university campuses of 1970s America, Long, the consummate hustler and riverboat gambler, lived the high life of a dope smuggler. He indulged nonstop, not only in the drugs he dealt, but also in wealth, […]

Imagine the daunting task of trying to establish a set of international conservation measures for 15 different migrating crane species, 11 of which are endangered. Wildlife officials, ornithologists and concerned citizens from five continents are currently trying to do just that, setting aside language and political differences to protect the magnificent birds that are the subject of myth, superstition and poetry.

In The Birds of Heaven, Peter Matthiessen, author of more than two dozen books of fiction and nonfiction, including the National Book Award winner The Snow Leopard, gives a first-hand report of the small but dedicated worldwide effort to protect cranes. In Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia and North America, the author accompanies conservationists as they search, count and tag species that have been known to migrate 3,100 miles across 20,000-foot mountains. Resting and nesting areas include dangerous air spaces, like war-torn Afghanistan, where, the author noted in 1993, "the recent emergence of well-armed tribesmen of the Taliban, who doubtless shoot at cranes, has not improved things. But not all the news is bad. Bhutan's Royal Society for the Protection of Nature has outlawed crane hunting and imposed a life imprisonment sentence for violators. Tireless work by "craniac George Archibald, who wrote the book's Preface and is the co-director of the International Crane Foundation, has led to the signing of a joint pact by Russia and China a tenuous but promising first step in creating key wildlife reserves for cranes in those and perhaps other neighboring countries. In Mongolia, Matthiessen receives a warning from the country's premier ornithologist, Dr. Ayurzaryun Bold. "We hope you are tough enough to make this journey, Bold says. In The Birds of Heaven, Matthiessen proves once again that he is indeed tough enough, allowing readers to benefit from his tireless reportage, his decades of wildlife study and his deft prose.

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart: Writings on Daughters and Journeys (Washington State University Press).

 

Imagine the daunting task of trying to establish a set of international conservation measures for 15 different migrating crane species, 11 of which are endangered. Wildlife officials, ornithologists and concerned citizens from five continents are currently trying to do just that, setting aside language and political differences to protect the magnificent birds that are the […]

Envy comes easy when reading Diane Ackerman's description of her extensive flower garden in upstate New York. Her new book Cultivating Delight a florid and wide-ranging narrative that captures backyard surprises and nature's biodiversity covers one full season in the life of her garden, from spring's sensual eruption to winter's hibernation.

Ackerman's rich prose is a bridge to a world of discovery. I plan my garden as I wish I could plan my life, with islands of surprise, color, and scent, she writes. Like a trumpet vine, her widespread and insatiable interests climb in every direction. With her garden as a departure point, she uses mythology, natural history, current science, poetry and even some good old-fashioned folklore to build a narrative that is a tribute to nature. Among the subjects covered are bird migration, squirrel habits, a brief social history of bread baking, the number of new insect species discovered each year (5,000) and how to calculate the outdoor temperature by listening to crickets.

The author of more than a dozen books, including the bestseller A Natural History of the Senses, Ackerman has a passion for roses that borders on obsession. (No wonder she cannot stop at 120 rose bushes.) Deep in winter, when the snow often falls like gunshot, she tries to remember the smell of a favorite rose, Abraham Darby. What was it exactly? Candied lemon peel, apple, cinnamon, and chocolates. This delicious olfactory memory is just one of many tender moments in which the author taps the reader in the heart.

Ackerman may focus her efforts on planting, watering, caring for and even deadheading penstamon, campanula, asters, daylilies and hundreds of other types of flowers (detailed in a useful addendum that includes light conditions for each species), but she knows gardens are also important doors to our dimming wild natures. Our gardens bring an untamed world to our thresholds with the arrival of songbirds, small mammals, deer, snakes, frogs and insects. What will become of the wild that lives in us, our own private wilderness? Ackerman asks, even as she acknowledges that humans are better at transforming nature than at understanding it. The answer, she concludes, is in the commonality we all share with the fauna and flora that lie just beyond that arbitrary border between house and garden. As Ackerman proves convincingly in Cultivating Delight, we just have to pay attention.

Stephen J. Lyons writes from Monticello, Illinois.

 

Envy comes easy when reading Diane Ackerman's description of her extensive flower garden in upstate New York. Her new book Cultivating Delight a florid and wide-ranging narrative that captures backyard surprises and nature's biodiversity covers one full season in the life of her garden, from spring's sensual eruption to winter's hibernation. Ackerman's rich prose is […]

In today's national political scene, citizens are merely props in a carefully choreographed dramatic narrative that resembles a Hollywood movie set more than it does an American democracy. Joan Didion's Political Fictions, a collection of essays previously published in The New York Review of Books, proves this thesis with stiletto-sharp prose and ample sources to sway even the most skeptical reader. Didion, the author of five novels and five nonfiction books, walks readers through the various sets, starting with the 1988 presidential election and ending with the 2000 election. The actors, designers, directors and writers of these various campaigns are the nation's permanent professional political class Washington D.C., insiders who create, disseminate and then argue the storyline among themselves. The public is dragged along for the ride, but if their viewpoints differ too sharply from those of the pundits and politicians, they are condemned as proof of America's declining morality. Neither Democrats nor Republicans make it through Political Fictions unscathed. Didion tells us what we already suspected: the two parties have merged into a hybrid containing elements of sloppy journalism, power-hungry attorneys, mediocre candidates and a nostalgic yearning for an America that last existed in the 1950s, if it ever existed at all. While carefully and intelligently outlining the co-opting of the political process by the rich, the powerful and the new compassionate conservatives, Didion does not blame non-voting citizens. Rather than describing them as apathetic, the term the press loves to use, she presents chilling research that suggests today's non-voter has less education, less money and less voice in the political process than those who do cast ballots. When faced with the reality of voting i.e., money buys access and access buys votes the majority of the public has simply given up.

If one ever needed a compelling reason to become involved in the political process, Political Fictions will provide that impetus. Didion stays clear of shrill ideology, and her attention to detail continues to place her among this country's best interpreters of current events.

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart, a single father's memoir.

 

In today's national political scene, citizens are merely props in a carefully choreographed dramatic narrative that resembles a Hollywood movie set more than it does an American democracy. Joan Didion's Political Fictions, a collection of essays previously published in The New York Review of Books, proves this thesis with stiletto-sharp prose and ample sources to […]

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