Book Review: ‘Refraction’ illuminates life in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

One thing I love about reading books is learning something I knew nothing about. Refraction: An Artic Memoir by Bruce Rettig did not disappoint.

In some ways Refraction is like a coming of age book. Isn’t that what college years are after all—a time to learn about so much more than what is delivered in a classroom.

For Rettig, part of his education and growth came during the four summers he spent in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, working for Arctic Marine Freighters, a division of Crowley Maritime. The company did work for oil companies.

It is his experiences during this time that fill the pages of his memoir.

It was as though I was transported to the desolate Artic outpost through Rettig’s words. I could feel the monotony of the industrial work, the depth of relationships, and visualize the desolate landscape through his words. His growth as a person is nearly palpable. As he learns about the area, this line of work and life so do readers.

The book kept getting better with each chapter. I kept wanting to know more, and Rettig was accommodating as his life’s story unfolded. Interwoven are the uncertainties that loomed because of the Cold War, as well as the challenges of being so far from family and friends, and questioning what he wanted to do after graduation. Interwoven in the stories are his questions about the environment, personal relationships and life in general.

“The personal connection forever changed how I viewed oil development in Alaska or anywhere else in the world. The words ‘Drill, baby, drill’ scorch my soul,” Rettig writes. After all, where he was working is the largest oil field in North America.

Many of the chapters start with a black and white photo that the Meyers resident took while in Alaska. They bring a stark a reality to the letters on the page.

Rettig started his Alaska work in 1982 as a grunt and finished his last season as one of the last to leave, doing a task in minus 40-degree weather.

As he said, “Living in such rugged territory is challenging and life-threatening.”

Tahoe residents will appreciate his references to the basin, while those with some history to the area will understand the significance to his mentioning MTBE and Shell Oil.

My main criticism is the title of the book. While it’s accurate and descriptive in a way, I’m not sure it is going to get someone to pick up the book. I hope I’m wrong because this is a book worth reading.

“Refraction” isn’t ready for the masses to consume. It is scheduled to be released Nov. 15 by Wayfarer Books, an Eco-Lit imprint of Homebound Publications. While it will be available online via large retailers, Rettig is a believer in buying locally and supporting independent bookstores.

Note: This book review first appeared in the Tahoe Mountain News.

Book review: Scary look at how religion is infiltrating U.S. politics

I kept shaking my head in disbelief. I knew the separation of church and state at the federal level has been eroding, but I never knew to the extent that it was deliberately taking place.

Jeff Sharlet in The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (HarperCollins Publishers, 2008) is a riveting, scary, educational, thought-provoking must read for anyone who cares about the future of the United States. I’m serious.

I realize this book came out 14 years ago, but it was only this summer that I learned about it from a friend. Wow, just, wow. It explains so much.

Sharlet takes readers on a journey to the beginning of this secret, not so secret group of powerful people in Washington—mostly older, white men—who essentially groom younger white men to follow their beliefs. It’s about influencing others in power—right up the president.

What do they believe? Jesus. They believe Jesus is telling them what to do, how to govern, how to legislate. Jesus is the reason to ban abortions. Jesus is the reason homosexuals should not marry.

They don’t quote much from the bible. In fact, they have stripped down the bible to a tiny book that is just about Jesus.

Sharlet’s book is terrifying.

The Family is the group behind the annual prayer breakfast, an event that has been attended by every president starting with Eisenhauer. Those gatherings are a who’s who of power.

After finishing the book I watched The Family, a five-episode Netflix series on the same topic. It brings the topic up-to-date until its release in 2019.

While the book talked about the global influence The Family has, the TV program brought this out more vividly. John Ensign, the former U.S. senator from Nevada, is prominent in the Netflix version of this story.

The book and series complement each other well, but are interesting alone. I recommend reading the book (it’s hard to get through, so take your time and set it down if you have to) and then watch the documentary.

It’s important we all know what is going on. What to do about it, well, I’m still mulling that over. Knowing who you are voting for is a start.

Book Review: Lindsey Vonn memoir a fast, interesting read

The public often only gets bits and pieces about what life is like for a professional athlete. This is fine. They are just people who have a very public job.

Lindsey Vonn’s job was professional skier. She was one of the best.

In her book My Story: Rise (HarperCollins, 2022) Vonn tells her story of learning to ski on a small mountain in Minnesota, how at age 9 she told her dad she wanted to be an Olympian and how her whole family was affected by this decision.

It’s one thing to have read about her injuries in newspaper articles, it was quite another to hear it in her words. I can’t imagine the pain that must linger.

Clearly, she is not the only athlete to undergo multiple surgeries to continue the sport they love. Nor is Vonn alone in having to call it quits because her body could not take any more abuse. She understands she had the best care and that her job was to get better. Unlike the weekend warriors who suffer injuries, we have to fit rehab in with the rest of life’s responsibilities. Still, the abuse a skier’s body endures even without injury is taxing.

Beyond the injuries, this book also delves into the sexism Vonn endured in the ski industry and outside of it. She talks about dealing with depression, and how so many people thought it would end her career if she spoke openly about it. It didn’t.

Vonn also delves into what the U.S. Ski Team is all about—and it’s not always flattering. She admits to how she could have been a better teammate.

She reveals how she would prepare for competition, how she practically memorized the race course so when she was on it there would be no surprises.

As a memoir, this is clearly Vonn’s story of her life. It’s a story worth knowing. This is an easy read and definitely an interesting one.

Sleeping with Strangers to be in bookstores this fall

In Sleeping with Strangers: An Airbnb Host’s Life in Lake Tahoe and Mexico I pull back the covers on what happens when I invited Airbnb guests into my homes in South Lake Tahoe, California, and Todos Santos, Mexico.

This latest book of mine will be available at local bookstores in fall 2022. If not in stock, they can be ordered. The book will be available at the same time online at Bookshop, IndieBound, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. The book will be available in paperback and as an ebook.

This adventure started as a way to pay the mortgage in Tahoe, then morphed into an opportunity to live rent free in Baja California Sur. Unexpected adventures involved the police, taking a hammer to the guest room door, and coping with the furnace dying on New Year’s Day when the outside temperature was literally freezing. Some guests were like friends, while others would never be welcomed back. No matter the category, I tried to enthrall all guests with tales about these two incredible outdoor meccas so they could create their own lifetime memories.

AJ the dog played co-host on this adventure, sizing up those with the suitcases, questioning men in flip flops, and easily making friends with those who would slip her human food.

Read what the Tahoe Mountain News has to say about my latest book.

Book mark this page to know when there will be signings.

Book Review: ‘Eating to Extinction’ exposes threat to food system

It’s not very often that a depressing book can hold my interest word, after word, after word. Such was the case with Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022).

This book by Dan Saladino was first published in Great Britain in 2021 by Jonathan Cape.

This was not easy reading or listening as the case was for me. To begin with, it’s long—464 pages. The subject matter is serious. Put the word “extinction” in a title of a non-fiction book and you know it is going to be important.

Saladino makes a convincing case for why we all—as in the entire world—need to care about the homogenization of our foods. Growing the same strands of wheat everywhere, raising the same pigs, limiting the varietal of grapes for wine—none of this is good.

It’s diversity in our foods—be it plant or animal—that is best. Partly, it’s about keeping the culture of an area alive by growing what is native to the land—not what is most commercially viable.

In the simplest terms, most of us know we should eat fruits and vegetables grown as close to our homes as possible. Doing this means we are eating what is truly in season. The problem in the U.S. and so many other places is we can find pretty much whatever we want year-round. We’ve changed the definition of growing seasons, we’ve changed expectations, and we have altered the flavor of foods in a bad way.

Corporations are providing our food, not traditional farmers. That in turn means the food tastes all the same. They have replaced native grains with something easier and more profitable to grow.

As Saladino points out, “The source of much of the world’s food―seeds―is mostly in the control of just four corporations. Ninety-five percent of milk consumed in the United States comes from a single breed of cow. Half of all the world’s cheese is made with bacteria or enzymes made by one company. And one in four beers drunk around the world is the product of one brewer.”

Saladino interviewed a ton of sources. After all, he is food journalist for the BBC. Some of the people he speaks with are fighting to keep their food cultures alive or to at least revive them. They are the heroes of the book.

The author takes us across the globe to learn about different foods, what is being done, what more needs to be done, and explains why we should care.

To me, this is one of those must-reads for everyone. It’s that important.

Book Review: ‘The Rosie Project’ shines light on love

Every day people essentially fill out questionnaires to find a significant other via various online dating sites. Don Tillman took it to an extreme.

The genetics professor was on a quest to find a wife so he developed a survey of sorts to give perspective mates. It’s one thing to put on paper what you might like in a person, or ask questions in such a way to eliminate the traits you don’t want, but this method does not account for chemistry, for the fun you may have with someone, or how a person brings out your best. Above all, it doesn’t take love into consideration.

Graeme Simsion weaves a delightful tale in The Rosie Project (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

I was a bit skeptical when I started listening to it. I wondered how it got onto my list of books to read. I mostly add books to my never-ending list based on recommendations from friends/family and actual book reviews, not reader reviews. This method has served me well because it has gotten me interested in genres I would not always naturally gravitate toward.

The Rosie Project is one of those books that had I read the jacket or back cover in a book store or online I would have passed on it. To begin with, seldom am I in the fiction section. That’s why it’s good I listen to others; because my instincts are not always spot on.

I like romantic comedies as a movie genre, but don’t usually consider them for my books. I will have to going forward.

This book will make for a great summer read. Fast, entertaining, thoughtful, deeper than I expected, and above all it’s hopeful. Maybe it was the latter that struck me the most, especially at a time when it seemed like so much around me was chaotic. This book was the perfect escape I needed.

Book Review: ‘Nomadland’ so much better than the movie

It’s not often I have the preconceived notion I am not going to like a book. Why read it, right? Well, because I might be wrong. Such was the case with Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017).

My apprehension going in was I had seen the movie that premiered in 2020. Even though it won best picture at the Academy Awards, I didn’t like the film. I did, however, see how Frances McDormand won for best actress and best director.

Like most movies that are adapted from a book, it is just a sliver of what is between the covers and rarely does the pages justice.

Author Jessica Bruder delves so much deeper into the lives of the people who are houseless—not homeless. There is a difference. These people have chosen to live in vehicles of all kinds for all sorts of reasons.

What Bruder doesn’t do is romanticize about what life on the road is like. Hers was a multi-year research project that included living and working among those she then wrote about.

It certainly gave me a better understanding of what life full time in a vehicle would be like, especially when you have to keep working. The horror stories of working at some of these places makes me never want to work at Amazon or pick sugar beets.

This isn’t a travel book about going to national parks and being on vacation without an end date. Many of the people in Nomadland had good paying jobs, owned real estate and then the Great Recession hit. They adopted a transient lifestyle to survive.

I became so interested in some of the “characters” that I would love for Bruder to write a sequel or perhaps a book focusing on just a few of the “stars” in Nomadland.

Book Review: ‘Lost on Planet China’ entertains

Entertaining—yes, educational—yes, informative—yes, captivating—much of the time, irreverent—definitely, unconventional—assuredly.

Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation (Broadway Books, 2008) is not going to be a book everyone is going to enjoy. Of course a universally liked book probably doesn’t even exist.

Maarten Troost, a native of The Netherlands who was bored living in Sacramento, went to China on the premise to see if that country might be a suitable landing spot for his family.

Readers are taken on an enlightening journey through China. Much of what he shared assuredly would not have changed in the last 14 years, and at the same time so much has in the world. Don’t even think about the pandemic. Think about how much more of a player China is in the world today.

This book is relevant as a travelogue. Having spent a couple weeks in China in 2011, I found what he had to say to be entertaining and spot on in many ways. Troost, though, had to figure out menus on his own; which included cattle penis with garlic. My dining adventures were much better because of being with my Mandarin speaking niece who lived in Beijing.

For anyone who has an inkling of interest in China, this will be entertaining. For anyone who likes stories of travel you may never take, this may be of interest.

Book Review: Captivating true story of female code breaker

Page after page I was learning something new. I love books like this.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies (HarperCollins, 2017) by Jason Fagone is riveting.

It’s a story about a woman in the United States whose story had not been told until five years ago. Another woman written out of the history books.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman was the top code breaker in World War II. She also had a significant role in the first world war and with drug smuggling rings. In the second war she was intercepting Nazi radio traffic in ways that helped the Allied armies.

Her husband, William Friedman, was in the same line of work. He is the one who got the public glory.

Theirs was an interesting story in how they met and got into this line of work, as well as their life during and after the wars. Both working in secret, they could not come home at the end of the day to share what they were working on.

But most fascinating was the work itself. This book is as much about the Friedmans as it is the history of code breaking. It’s mind-boggling to think about the work they did without the aid of computers.

It’s also a history lesson about the evolution of agencies that today we seem to take for granted, like the FBI, CIA and NSA.

J. Edgar Hoover in many ways is the villain in the story, which probably doesn’t surprise too many people.

A big surprise for me, though, was South America’s involvement in World War II, in particular the allegiance to Germany by so many of the countries.

I highly recommend this book.

Celebrating statewide writing award

Awards always feed the ego. They also make the long hours of hard, sometimes tedious, work worthwhile. When the award comes from your peers it’s even more special.

Such is the case with having just been awarded first place for Enterprise News Story in the California Journalism Awards which is sponsored by the California News Publishers Association. This particular category was judged by journalists outside of the state.

A few things made it even more special. One, I didn’t know any of my stories had been entered in the contest. Two, it’s a story I wrote as a freelancer, so for the publication to include it with staff submissions made me feel really good. Three, doing a little research about this year’s awards made me realize CNPA has evolved—and that’s a good thing. The N used to stand for newspaper; while now it is news, which is more inclusive. CNPA also used to not allow digital publications in its membership nor did it have an awards category for online news sites. It was also an impediment to allowing online only news organizations to publish legal ads, which is a cash cow for print publications. I don’t know where its policy on legals is today, but once upon a time it mattered a great deal in my life.

Back to the award.

The story was published in the North Bay Business Journal in September. (The awards are for stories written in calendar year 2021.) The article talks about the growing demand for vegetarian and vegan food in grocery stores and how the dairy industry in particular is not thrilled.

CNPA’s criteria for an enterprise news story is it must be: a proactive story or series that is not directly based on a news event and that covers a topic or issue in a new and creative way. Coverage should be comprehensive and enlightening, while demonstrating effort and difficulty; quality of writing; selection of material, balanced reporting; local appeal; photography, graphics and headlines. Awards are handed out based on whether the publication is a weekly or daily and then its circulation size.

This is what the judges said about my story: “Beautiful, explanatory journalism that reveals to readers facts they may have not known. This should make people look at grocery store food aisles in a whole new way.”

There is no money associated with the award. No one ever writes for monetary gain.

Even after all these years, I’m still idealistic about the purpose of quality news sites such at the North Bay Business Journal. I’m proud to be associated with such a publication and humbled to have my work submitted for an award.

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