Tag Archives: survival

“A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska – The Story of Hannah Breece” edited by Jane Jacobs

I was on vacation (in Alaska) and had promised myself I wouldn’t buy gifts for family and friends – I was trying to travel light. But when I saw this book, I had to have it! Memoirs about Alaska’s early days are numerous, but this one stood out because of the identity of the editor. Jane Jacobs is identified on the book cover as author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Yes, that Jane Jacobs! A Google search of her name yields 22 million hits! Okay, it’s a pretty common name, but I’ll bet the majority refer to the “American-Canadian journalist, author and activist” smiling out at me from Wikipedia (but modestly absent from the book). Hannah Breece, sadly, is not listed in Wikipedia. I hope this is remedied soon.

How did Jacobs-the-activist end up editing this 193-page memoir? In a sense, she inherited the job. Hannah Breece was Jane Jacobs’ aunt. Late in Ms. Breece’s life, when she had retired to Oregon, acquaintances urged her to write about her experiences teaching in Alaska from 1904 to 1918. She asked friends and relatives to return her letters, and used them to assemble a memoir. It was not published. Jane Jacobs admits she was put off by the racism, sexism and colonialism detectable in her Aunt’s writing, though they were merely a reflection of the times.

Hannah Breece died in 1940, and Jane Jacobs published the memoir in 1995! She added detailed commentary that tremendously enhances the value of Ms. Breece’s record. Under the heading of “Puzzles, Tangles, Clarifications”, she addresses the social and political climate of Alaska, its relation to the rest of the US and numerous omissions in the memoir. (In fact, Ms. Breece had left out a great deal.) Jacobs offers seven brief essays clarifying various points. My favorite was #6, entitled “Miraculous Rescues”.

Make no mistake, Hannah Breece was very fortunate to have survived her time in the wilderness. Any newcomer to Alaska had to be smart, strong and LUCKY to deal with the hazards of climate, wildlife, topography and lack of government. Ms. Breece recounts two experiences that “should” have killed her, for which no “rational” explanation of her survival can be offered. Jacobs doesn’t back off from this complex territory. She assigns one experience (a near drowning) to the category of “intuition”. Before crossing a frozen bay, Ms. Breece felt “irrational” fear that was readily explainable after the fact. The second experience was more complex. Perhaps, suffering from hypothermia, Ms. Breece hallucinated. She was helped by a person who wasn’t there. In her dire need, did she remember someone strong and competent from her childhood?

Now that I’ve read it, I’ll pass this book along to the intended recipient. It’s a good thing he likes used books!

“The Cure for Catastrophe – How We Can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters” by Robert Muir-Wood

Published by Basic Books, 2016, 278 pages plus extensive documentation.

This book carried me across the shock of the election. I snagged it from the New Arrivals Shelf at Stockton. It is a fine example of one of my favorite genres, science for non-scientists.

One important thing I learned is that denial (as in Climate Change denial) is nothing new. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was “re-branded” into a fire. True, highly destructive fires broke out, but the source of trouble was an earthquake. The City of San Francisco did not want to study the fault on which it stands.

What catastrophes does Muir-Wood discuss? Fires, earthquakes (and associated tsunamis), hurricanes (and their storm surges), other types of floods, and drought. Makes you wonder how humankind has persisted. He leaves out tornados and the mysterious derecho.

The point of this book is that most casualties during floods, earthquakes, etc. result from poor decisions. Housing in flood plains. Skyscraper apartment houses build without reference to building codes or advanced engineering principles.

Muir-Wood throws EVERYTHING at the problem, especially (to my delight) literature and history. Writing about a series of storms, he wisecracks “Gabriel Garcia Marquez could not make this up!”

The day after I started reading “The Cure for Catastrophe”, I found two related articles in the New York Times (November 4, 2016). On page A4 “Italian Town Still ‘Broken’ by Quake Years Ago” and on page A15 “San Francisco Sues Over Sinking Skyscraper, Symbol of a Rush to Build”.

Each of these stories can be understood better if analyzed from Muir-Wood’s point of view.

Why did this book help me shake off my post-election gloom? Because Muir-Wood is a super intelligent technological optimist. He can see a path forward to improved safety and health for all. He provides examples of people, cities and countries that are improving their catastrophe management. He invented the term “risk culture”, I think. And he was kind enough to forego use of the phrase “internet of things” until very late in his discussion. I haven’t quite integrated the IoT into my mental toolbox.

Read this book! And use it to demand good, science based public policy from our elected officials.

“Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why” by Laurence Gonzales

I read this book years ago, probably not long after it came out in 2003. I found it as I pursued my (literary) interest in mountains and climbing. (Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer is one of my top ten favorite books.)

Case histories make up the heart of this book. I guess we all read about disasters and wonder “Would I have been a survivor? Or a statistic?”

Gonzales treats survival as both an art and a science.

I decided to put my fictional hero Mark Watney (of The Martian) up against Gonzales’ list of survivor traits. How does Mark do?

First of all, Mark manages to believe that the “impossible” has happened. He survived a series of mischances that left him alone on Mars. (Denial wasn’t going to help.) He scores very high indeed on thinking and planning, and he was superbly trained. Humor is important, and Mark is an unapologetic wise guy.

What about play? Gonzales emphasizes the importance of having “stuff in your head”, like poetry, stories, mathematical problems or prayers. Mark is short on this, but in his high tech world, he raids his departed companions “entertainment” files, reading murder mysteries, listening to disco and watching re-runs of old TV shows.

What else? Gonzales emphasizes persistence, but doesn’t say that much about creativity. Watney was creative, and came up with the highly improbable intervention that led to the book’s happy ending.

Most important, I think, in Gonzales’ analysis, was that Watney did things even when they didn’t seem likely to work. Like growing potatoes. So I would say that Mark Watney rated about 60% or 70% against Gonzales ‘ list of survival supporting characteristics. But, hey, its fiction…

Who should read Deep Survival?

  • Anyone involved with or curious about emergency management.
  • Anyone who takes risks intentionally – like mountaineering or white water rafting.
  • All parents of teenaged boys – they are biologically programmed to take risks!

Gonzales has published another book entitled Surviving Survival – The Art and Science of Resilience. I plan to read it.

“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson

Published 2015. 861 pages.

SPECULATIVE FICTION is a wonderful thing! I loved this book! I liked it even better than the author’s Anathem, which I wrote about just after I began this blog (see June 27, 2013).

Science fiction is one way to describe this book, but it could also be called “social science” fiction. In particular, “anthropology fiction”. Emergence of new cultures! The clash of world views and values! And the anthropologist’s dream, contact with long isolated human groups.

Plot wise, this is fiction about disaster and survival. The plot astonished me several times. Stephenson plays around with all manner of archetypes and myths, including the Fall of Eve.

I love to read a book that makes me feel the author really enjoyed writing it. Stephenson has a goofy sense of humor. How else do you explain a character named Sonar Taxlaw? (It does make sense in the context.) He goes ahead and parodies contemporary public figures. POTUS Julia Bliss Flaherty = Hilary Clinton. Probably many other characters would be recognizable to readers more sophisticated than I.

In some ways, two thirds of the book is the set-up. If so inclined, Stephenson could have stretched this out longer than Game of Thrones.

There’s lots of biology in Seveneves, some of it fairly improbable. For example, some humans are capable of “epigenetic shifts”, that is, a change in which of their genes are expressed. Breeding humans that can swim long distances undersea and humans with intentionally “neanderthal” characteristics also seem unlikely. But it’s fiction, so why not go wild.

Stephenson invented (but did not develop) an entirely new social science called “Amistics”. It’s the study of how societies decide whether or not to adopt available new technology – honoring our plain living neighbors in Pennsylvania.

When an author creates so many characters, I have to wonder if there’s one with which he identifies. I’m betting on Tyuratum Lake, the canny bartender who sees and knows ALL.

A friend raised the issue of whether this type of literature is socially unhealthy because it leads people to believe we can irresponsibly trash the earth and then leave for space. This argument has been around for decades – nothing new. We all need to be responsible about how we choose to live. And we all need some escape literature! So why dump this guilt trip on Neal Stephenson in particular?

I enjoyed this book so much I burned through it in a week. I recommend it to anyone with a taste for Sci Fi or fantasy.

“The Voyage of the Narwhal – A Novel” by Andrea Barrett

Published in 1998, 394 pages, Norton paperback edition.

I can’t believe how much I liked this book! It’s one of the best novels I read since Cold Mountain.

(Digression… Why was I predisposed to read this book? My Father’s World War II military service included spending two winters in Point Barrow. Alaska, prospecting for north slope oil. Barrow was a tiny, isolated community and the Navy (Construction Battalion) unit was left more or less on its own for the cold, dark months. Dad came home with an interest in the arctic exploration, and read everything our public library provided about the polar explorers and their journeys. If Dad was alive, I would send him a copy of this wonderful story!

The other thing that hooked me was theword  “narwhal” in the title. The narwahl is a beautiful creature, much less studied than the whale or dolphin. It’s single tusk may be the source of the unicorn legends…)

The plot exceeded my expectations, which were of a standard adventure/survival tale. The 1850s was a period of exploration and public excitement about distant places. An expedition leaves from Philadelphia, hoping to find a missing explorer and fill in some blank places on the emerging map of the far North.

What makes this book work so well? The characters are well conceived and idiosyncratic. The author does not give too much away. I suppose I knew there had to be a “bad guy”, but who it was and what acts he would commit were not signaled in advance. The plot surprised me (more than once), and there was a subtle arc of retribution that I barely caught on my first reading.

Yesterday I glanced at the New York Times (April 1, 2016) and found a review of another novel about the far North, with emphasis on whaling rather than exploration. The North Water by Ian McGuire sounds too gory for me, and possibly too laden with literary references. But I realize this is only one reviewer’s opinion, so I may grab this if I find it on the “new arrivals” shelf at the library.

Meanwhile, I plan to read more by Andrea Barrett.

The Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte Mysteries by Arthur Upfield

I’ve been on a re-reading jag, and this series, published between 1930 and 1963, was a pleasure to revisit. If you are a mystery fan, check out Arthur Upfield. His novels will also appeal to those who love

  • Anthropology
  • Geography/geology/ecology
  • Travel (Australia)

The books I re-read were

  • The Mountains Have a Secret
  • Sinister Stones
  • The Bushman Who Came Back

What is a man named Napoleon Bonaparte doing in Australia? Upfield’s detective hero is (in the words of his time), a half breed, son of an aboriginal woman and a European father, raised and educated to take full advantage of the wisdom of two highly divergent cultures. The capstone of his education was a three year period when he “went bush”, living off the land and becoming an initiated member of his mother’s tribe.

The interactions between these two cultures sets the framework for Upfield’s plots. The stunning, strange Australian landscape provides the background. And Upfield creates wonderful, eccentric characters.

Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte always gets his man. (If he created a female criminal, I’ve missed her.) Along the way, he breaks rules, takes chances and uses mysterious aboriginal wisdom.

If you want to get happily and completely lost in a book, try Upfield. But I’m warning you, the urge to max out your credit card and travel to Australia RIGHT NOW may be overwhelming!

“The Martian: A Novel” by Andy Weir

This breezy, fast paced tale qualifies as “science fiction with the emphasis on science”. Andy Weir obviously had fun writing it. The protagonist, Mark Watney, is a cheerful wise guy. Finding himself abandoned on Mars due to a series of improbable events, he manages to stay alive, presenting NASA with a terrible problem. Can they rescue him? First they have to establish communication. The next problem is food. Watney starts to grow potatoes in the “habitat” intended to shelter the aborted scientific mission. I won’t give you more details, because the entertainment value of this book IS the details. This is a great book for when you need distraction. I enjoyed it while traveling, and look forward to whatever else Weir has up his sleeve.