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Book Reviews

By Anne Downey '95G

(Book titles are linked to online booksellers. Also check Dimond Library's online card catalog for these titles)
Reviewed in this issue:
The Last River
Under the Legislature of Stars
The Persistence of Empire

The Last River

The Last River
The Tragic Race for Shangri-la
By Todd Balf '83
Crown Publishers, 2000

The market for nonfiction adventure books hasn't been the same since the publication of Into Thin Air, and comparisons between Jon Krakauer's now-classic tale of scaling Mt. Everest and this new book by Todd Balf '83 are inevitable. First, Balf covers similar territory: he writes about the quest to run "the Everest of rivers," the Yarlung Tsangpo, in the Himalayas. And his description of the October 1998 expedition by an American whitewater team is reminiscent of Krakauer's book as well. We flow along with the current of the journey until the narrative eddies with accounts of previous expeditions, the mythology of the area, character analyses of the eight team members and deep pools of knowledge about whitewater paddling and its devotees.

It is quite a compelling story. The physical characteristics of the river are almost too dramatic to imagine. According to Balf, the river "plunges some 10,000 vertical feet, running beneath snow-capped Himalayan peaks, past verdant jungle ... through the Tsangpo Gorge, with its vast depth (three times that of the Grand Canyon) and its razor-thin width (its sheer, mossy walls, which rise as high as 2,000 feet, are a mere sixty feet apart in places). With a volume of 10,000 to 100,000 cubic feet per second . . . the river drops at a dizzying average rate of sixty-five feet per mile. In the gorgiest part of the gorge, the drop is close to three hundred feet per mile."

If it's hard to understand why anyone would want to put a boat in such a river, let alone get in it, Balf goes a long way toward explaining what he acknowledges is essentially unexplainable: "To one extent or another, all career river runners claim a devotional connection with water that isn't merely sporting. Who wouldn't want to move with the grace and purposefulness of running water? If the questing soul needs nourishment in places where the human feels speck-sized, where they are absolutely bowed before the free and cataclysmic beauty of nature, then a deep whitewater gorge is one of life's obvious destinations."

Grace and purposefulness aside, you will come up sputtering for air after reading this tale, and be thankful that the story is nourishment enough.

Under the Legislature of Stars

Under the Legislature of Stars
62 New Hampshire Poets
Edited by Rick Agran '91, Hildred Crill, Mark DeCarteret '93G, with an introduction by Maxine Kumin
Oyster River Press, 1999

"Here's a gathering of poems that's in progress, always working to get there," the editors write in their foreword. "A Yankee concoction, one part method, two parts risk, unwilling to proselytize or dispense too much wisdom, which is sometimes our way. But as anyone who's spent time here knows, locals usually have one foot planted while the other one dangles from the granite cliff airing out its toes."

There are many other wonderful postures in the collection as well. The strength of this gathering, which includes work by numerous UNH folk, is in the diverse experience of its contributors. The revealing biographies that close the collection are immensely entertaining. For example, "Andrew T. McCarter '94G keeps a notebook in New Hampshire. He studied notebookery in school. His job has nothing to do with his notebook, but his notebook has a thing or two to do with his job." Such well-known poets as Donald Hall and UNH professor of English Charles Simic are contributors; so is Melanie Walsh '98, whose first published poem, "inventory," is included.

It would be impossible and beside the point to draw wide-sweeping conclusions or make generalizations about what it is to be a poet and live in New Hampshire, or to be New Hampshire and live in poetry. It is enough to say that the book contains remedies for anything that might ail you, as in Jean Pedrick's "Simples":

Simple for sense of loss
In vanishing country
Drive in the rain till you
Find an old barn. Stand
In its lee, lay your cheek
On the silk of its skin.
Breathe in the dust, tin,
Leather, dung, sweet clover,
Feathers of old barns in rain.

The Persistence of Empire

The Persistence of Empire
British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution
By Eliga H. Gould
University of North Carolina Press, 2000

Associate professor of history Eliga Gould won the Jamestown Prize in 1993 for an earlier incarnation of this study, and it is an intriguing and complex subject, handled lucidly and with great enthusiasm.

Gould studies the political consciousness that ultimately allowed for the American Revolution, "a burgeoning desire for imperial self-sufficiency," as he calls it, and the "pursuit of empire." He begins with the fact that the war in America was supported by most British citizens, a point that historians have ignored in studying the climate that led to the Revolution. He then sets out to explain why they supported it, analyzing Whig identity in the mid-18th century, Britain's imperialistic strategy during the Seven Years' War, the development of a militia and an increased sense of a rather passive patriotism. Gould uses this information to show how Britain's sense of nationhood clashed with American ideas of independence.

There is a formidable amount of research underlying this study. Gould looked at nearly a thousand political pamphlets published in Britain between the early 1740s and the end of the Revolution, as well as newspaper and journal articles, speeches delivered in Parliament, satiric prints and cartoons, popular memoirs, drill manuals and political petitions. The depiction of nationhood that emerges from all this material is what is most fascinating about this book. Gould writes, "Most of the actual fighting in Britain's wars took place at sea or on foreign soil. As a result, it was perfectly acceptable for ordinary Britons to confine their involvement in military matters to sedentary activities like signing petitions, reading accounts of battles and campaigns in the press, and supporting the king's troops in coffeehouse debates and public discussions. . . . The British 'nation' represented an imagined community in the fullest sense of the word--an entity that inspired an increasingly strong allegiance among people throughout the English-speaking world but that asked remarkably little of them in return."

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