RALPH'S
Worthwhile Books
For the Fall
Being Twelve of the Best
Received by RALPH
Over the Past Months


In the Land
Of White Death

An Epic Story of Survival
In the Siberian Arctic

Valerian Albanov
(Random House)
In 1912, Valerian Albanov signed on to the Santa Anna, leaving from Murmansk, bound for Vladivostok, 7,000 miles to the east. The ship soon became ice-bound, and after a year being pulled hither-and-yon by the ice, Albanov, the leader, and ten others decided to build sledges and cross the frozen sea to the Franz Josef Archipelago to seek help. The writing may be on a level with The Worst Journey in the World and Endurance and Nansen's Fartherest North. The author has narrative ability, and some passages carry us masterfully into the depths of icy agony. It may have been the cold and the ice, or maybe it was the cold and ice of Albanov's imperious way that turned his companions so slothful and sullen. Nothing, except the usual arrogance of nobility, can explain his idiocy in subjecting them to unnecessary danger. But at the same time nothing can stop us from being pulled into his story.


The Boy in
The Lake

Eric Swanson
(St. Martins)
This novel takes us into the head of a boy who will grow up to be gay. In the process, it will show us (because boys often have to be ersatz-men) a boy who is not willing to be honest with that truth. He leads his then-lover Reis into a place where he will be brutalized and beaten. We learn what has led the two in such different directions --- one to gay acceptance (he works as a counsellor to other gays); the other to thievery, to living on the outside of the law, to prison. Swanson brings all this off because he is a fine writer --- his words flow like a summer day. It's the rare new writer --- this is his second novel --- for whom words come so easily to the cold clear lake: we get watch the characters going from gentleness and loving-kindness to cruelty and destruction.


Amphibians
The World of Frogs, Toads,
Salamanders and Newts

Richard Hofrichter, Editor
(Firefly Books)
Amphibians, is a treasure, a 264-page wonder with full color presentations of every conceivable four-legged slithery jumpy thing: frogs, toads, newts. The true worth of this volume, what one might call, quoting Shakespeare, The Jewel in the Forehead of the Toad, doesn't flow from the words, the maps, the evolutionary charts, the graphs, the complete list of species diversity and distribution --- but rather, from the skin shots: some two hundred colorful photographs that are almost good enough to eat, if you are into eating toads and frogs. Our favorite pics are the colorful redhead, the red-eyed tree frog, the tomato frog, and the Anura green frog: "When this frog's hind legs are grabbed, it opens its mouth and issues a sound similar to fighting tomcats." Yow!


Feasting,
Fasting
Anita Desai
(Mariner)
We can think of no other recent novel that gives one such a strong feel for the taste and smell of India --- the closed bourgeois life, particularly the entrapment of women in a semi-feudal state where their days and marriages and roles are all carefully blocked out for them. For 150 pages, Ms. Desai captures for us, the tight, controlled world of an Indian middle class family. Then, for a final 75 pages, she captures the tight, controlled world of an American middle class family. She limns these two disparate worlds with skill and insight and compassion.


Still Here
Embracing Aging,
Changing, and Dying

Ram Dass
(Riverhead)
In February, 1997, Ram Dass --- of Be Here Now fame --- had a stroke. He survived, and he's now in a wheelchair. We have here a master (and a master writer) now deeply involved in spirituality and disability. He still, as always, is giving us the opportunity to eavesdrop on his personal quest. He still addresses spirituality --- how we can find it, what to avoid --- but he speaks from a new perspective. There are tools, he tells us, to protect ourselves from the terrors of loneliness, old age, disability and dying. There are some parts of this book which will disturb his disabled peers, but there is no way we can deny his basic compassion. The chapters on loneliness, embarrassment, loss of role, and the depression of the aged are excellent.


Contempt
Alberto Moravia
(New York Review)
Like all of Moravia's novels, Contempt is a tale told with a spare elegance. Moltari is a poor screen writer, working for the producer Battista. Emilia, Moltari's wife cleans their rented apartment in such that he is convinced that they should have a house of their own. At the same time, he has a new job turning the Odyssey into a popular movie. Out of this simple story Moravia weaves a wondrous tale of elegant misunderstanding. It's the story of a man destroying love, his life, his happiness by being an endless, worrier, meddler and, worst of all, an intellectual. We've said before that Moravia is an anomaly: no other male writer in our experience knows how to plumb --- simply and wisely --- the heart of woman. Coupled with that is the gripping tale. When the moments of passion and madness arrive, as they must, they blow up into golden colors.


Sacred Roads
Adventures from
The Pilgrimage Trail

Nicholas Shrady
(Harper/San Francisco)
Nicholas Shrady went on several pilgrimages --- and not the ones where you sign up with World Holy Travel and pay $4500 and jet into Israel for a few days with six dozen others of the Sun City set, staying at the Jerusalem Hilton and being hurried through the Stations of the Cross. Rather he went, on foot, as a pilgrim. His lively descriptions and acute blend of questioning and faith makes this one of the best travel guides we've come across, especially his descriptions of the upper reaches of the Ganges and Jerusalem. We are left with the feeling that Shrady is a true seeker --- there has to be a certain humility in the pursuit of the holy. He wastes little of our time with stories outside of his journey or personal history, but, rather, proves himself an indefatigable traveller, a fit companion for all pilgrims --- funny, skeptical of cant, opinionated, yet open to all that a holy journey can reveal to him, and to us.


The Black Room
At Longwood

Napoleon's Exile
On Saint Helena

Jean-Paul Kauffmann
Translated by Patricia Clancy
(Four Walls, Eight Windows)
Napoleon, for the last six years of his life, was confined to a tiny house on a tiny rock in the south Atlantic --- St. Helena. This is where our author goes to create this work. In the hands of a lesser craftsman, this could be a lunky show-off literary exercise, but Kauffmann has a fine eye, an excellent ear for phrasing, intertwining the present and the past, building an odd double helix of time and history and thoughts and smells. Having been a hostage himself in one of those Middle East tangles, the author knows the meaning of isolation and hopelessness. He has immersed himself in the last days of Napoleon giving us a work plump with interesting facts. It is a delicate touching on key moments that reveal the past to the present. Napoleon turns out to be thrice caught: captured by the English, entrapped by his melancholia, and here, described by a writer who turns exile into a study of the claustrophobic past and the claustrophobic present. The people of the island form a chorus, for they are in their own exile, both physical and mental.


The Grand Canyon
And the Southwest
Ansel Adams
(Little Brown)
Editor Andrea Stillman gives us seventy Ansel Adams photographs here --- people, valleys, deserts, cactus, trees, cliff palaces and churches --- including those of the Mission San Xavier del Bac in Tucson, the Santuario de Chimayo, New Mexico, the New Church in Taos Pueblo, and the Saint Francis Church in Taos. All great photography must make us wish that we could dive into it, to hear and see and feel for ourselves what's going on. With nothing but an ancient 8x10 or 16x20 view camera and black-and-white stock, visually recording none but the most simple scenes, Adams has created heart-stopping photographic drama. The editor has included excerpts from his letters and writings. "I feel as if I had lived a whole life in this country, so perfectly does it seem to fit me."


Living in the
Light of Death
On the Art of
Being Truly Alive

David Guy
(Shambhala)
It's not dying that creates the fear. Rather, it's the idea of dying: "When death actually comes it will be a moment like this one, an experience like any other, which we will try to stay awake for," the author tells us. Rosenberg teaches meditation in Massachusetts. As part of this, he guides his students in "death awareness." The messages he has for us are simple and direct, and this is probably one of the most easily accessible how-to-do-it books: how to deal with pain, how to deal with illness, how to deal with one's own upcoming death sometime in the next moment; sometime in the next hundred years.


The Secret
Knowledge of Water
Discovering the Essence of
The American Desert

Craig Childs
(Sasquatch)
Craig Childs' specialty is water where you and I would expect none, in the middle of the high desert country of the American west. One of his tasks is to map water holes, but his descriptions of his various journeys through the Sonoran desert, up into the Grand Canyon and over into Utah are less those of a scientist and more of a poet. If the writing in his other titles is as rich as this, he will end up taking over the world of naturalist letters. The words he strings together are so lyrical that we found ourselves comparing him to that naturalist of the air, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.


Children of a
Vanished World
Photographs of
Roman Vishniac

Mara Vishniac Kohn and
Miriam Hartman Flacks, Editors
(University of California)
The photographer Roman Vishniac traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, making photographs of ghetto life between 1935 and 1938. Out of the sixteen thousand photographs that Vishniac took, seventy have been selected for this volume. On the pages facing the photos are Jewish children's songs, poems, and rhymes, given in the original Yiddish with translations by Miriam Flacks. A work like this becomes high art not only because of the intimacy of the photographs --- stark black-and-white images, exquisite composition --- but, too, from our knowledge of history, the coming disaster. It becomes even more poignant with the songs and poems and children's rhymes that appear on every page, songs filled with unbearable irony, like the lullaby, "Oy, vi bin ikh, kinderlekh, mekane aykh atsind,"

    Play on, dearest little ones,
    For spring has come a-new,
    For spring has come a-new,
    Oh, my dearest little ones,
    Oh how I envy you.
    Oh, my dearest little ones,
    Oh how I envy you.
    Revel, revel, little ones,
    Now, while you're still young,
    For from the spring-time to the winter,
    Is only an eye-blink long.


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