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Orion Reading Lists

Joni Tevis’s Bookshelf

December 17, 2009

Alaska
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I started reading this during the summer, while on a research trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. After a long day of paddling the Canning River, it was such a pleasure to curl up in the tent and read a little Brothers K by the light of a 2 a.m. sun. I’m close to the end now; the trial’s about to start. Suspense!

Plants of the Western Boreal Forest and Aspen Parkland, Johnson, Kershaw, MacKinnon, and Pojar. Another Refuge read. I bought it for its sections on mosses (seep-swamp, dung, peatland) and lichens (club, leaf, crust and hair), but its explanations of grasses and sedges are wonderful too. Clear photographs made this book worth its weight in my backpack, and now that I’m back home, the lively notes make me hungry for field work.

Seasons of Life and Land: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Subhankar Banerjee. Incredible photos and thoughtful essays about the vast swath of land some call “America’s Serengeti.” I’m saving up for a return trip in my Bush Pilot Fund, but in the meantime, this book of photojournalism reminds me of how mind-blowing that place is.

Tanaina Plantlore/Dena’ina K’et’una, Priscilla Russell Kari. This useful book shows how closely plants, fungi, and lichen are linked with Native lifeways in central Alaska. Practical reading for anyone who wants to learn how to “read” that landscape more closely.

Carl Donohue, blogger, http://skolaiimages.com/journal/.  A friend and fellow devotee of the Refuge, Donohue lives the good life up in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. He’s an amazing photographer and an insanely knowledgeable and competent guide. I check his blog to see what autumn’s looking like in the boreal forest—and to find out if he’s managed to snag any good wolf photos yet.

Teaching
Swallow the Ocean, Laura M. Flynn. I just finished teaching this fine memoir to my nonfiction workshop. My students responded to Flynn’s deft scene-making, integrated research, and depictions of place. And every time I reread this book, it rewards me with new particulars to admire. Truly a keeper.

The Next American Essay, John D’Agata, editor. Another book I’m teaching in my nonfiction forms workshop. Where else can you find essays to fit themes like “Fable,” “Improv,” and “Unusual Shapes”? I want my students to know how to write personal essays, memoir, and lyric essays—and to look at shapes from their daily lives (football games, pop song lyrics, debates) and use those shapes in service of their material. This anthology helps them see the wide range of what’s possible in the essay form.

History
Blood Ties and Brown Liquor, Sean Hill. The Winchester Monologues and Night-Sea, Rachel Moritz. Lately I’ve been in the mood for poetry that harnesses the power of voice and historical specifics, and these three books accomplish that, exploring African-American life in Milllegeville, Georgia through the persona of Silas Wright; the mythos surrounding Sarah Winchester, heiress to the gun fortune; and the public/private lives, and griefs, of Abraham Lincoln. I love all three of these books. Emphatic reminders of the variety and vitality in contemporary American poetry.

The Men and the Mills: A History of the Southern Textile Industry. Mildred Gwin Andrews. I’m working on an essay about work and place in three kinds of Appalachian factories: glass, steel/screw machines, and textile mills. I live in upstate South Carolina, an area that historically had a lot of textile mills, but most of them closed ten to twenty years ago. This book gives context for what once defined this area economically.

Addictive & Amazing
The Bible. King James Version. Always on my nightstand. I’ve been rereading James lately—succinct, practical, wise. Maybe the long haul of Brothers Karamazov is to blame, but I’ve been enjoying the counterpoint of short books, like the minor (so-called) prophets Habakkuk, farmer Amos, and Hosea, with Gomer his heartbreaking wife.
The Truant Lover, Juliet Patterson. Patterson’s work is rich with compression, power, and a precision I’d like to steal for myself. These poems are a lodestone I return to again and again. They make me want to get back to Lake Superior’s North Shore, with its cobbles, spruces, and dark blue water.

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather. Once I finish The Brothers Karamazov, I’m going on a Cather jag. I read Death Comes for the Archbishop not long ago, and I only wish I’d read it sooner. I’ve taught My Antonia for years, and it’s still fresh and surprising to me; I think I’d avoided Death Comes because of its title. But now I think the title is the counterbalance to the rest of the book, a picaresque history of the title character as he lives out his life in New Mexico. Moving prose.

Moby-Dick, Herman Melville. One of my all-time favorites. Scientific information! Immersion journalism! Vivid images! Weighty monologues! The scene where Starbuck tries to convince Ahab to turn back to old Nantucket, and the captain almost, almost relents—it gets me every time. As Cather says of Antonia, I say of Moby—it’s “a rich mine of life.” And well-suited for dinner party read-alongs.


Joni Tevis is the author of The Wet Collection (Milkweed Editions), a book of lyric essays exploring connections between natural history, ancient texts, and family myths. She teaches literature and creative writing at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

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