In Pursuit of Birds: A Foray with Field Glasses and Sketchbook
by Ladislav Hanka ’75
Ladislav Hanka ’75 is no ordinary bird watcher. His ventures through former Soviet military zones in Eastern Europe pursuing birds sometimes led to his arrest. Some of his bird watching tales are sobering, others are hilarious. Those stories, and Lad’s visual art, are collected in his newest book: In Pursuit of Birds: A Foray with Field Glasses and Sketchbook. Lad earned his B.A. at K in biology. He holds a master’s degree in zoology (Colorado State University) and an M.F.A. in printmaking (Western Michigan University). In his new book, Lad has collected nearly 200 drawings and etchings created in 35 years of printmaking. His drawings are based on field studies and on specimens preserved for study in museums. With his own artistic renditions of raptors, warblers, sparrows, nuthatches, juncos, woodpeckers, flickers, owls, vultures and many other birds, Lad shares his love of them in line and in story. In his stories he expresses a respect for the bird as a bird, not as a symbol or metaphor, but for itself. He shares his philosophy of life: to move gently across the earth without disturbing its rhythms but becoming one with those rhythms, including those of birds. During a trip to Tibet, Lad discovered the practice there of “sky-burials.” “This is a way that people in a land that is frozen solid for much of the year and lacking in wood deal with their dead,” he explained. “Corpses that have accumulated through the winter are assembled in spring, when a trained priesthood administers last rights. They flense the cadavers of meat and crush the bones to meal. Vultures, habituated to the practice, home in from miles. The practice, known as jhator, literally means ‘giving alms to the birds.’”
Off the X
by Mark McDonald ’73
Near the climax of Off The X, Mark McDonald’s brutal, bleak yet highly readable book about violence and its costs, Colonel Magazine, the commander of a secret prison (and classified mission) near the present-day Iraqi-Jordanian border delivers to the the main character, Micah Ford, a forceful lecture on justification:
“There’s no why here. This drone stuff is the kind of ethically ambiguous shit that happens on a battlefield. Things go asymmetric and it just happens. We’ve all wrestled with it on this mission. You make policy in black and white, but you fight the battles in gray.”
How much cover should that gray give? is one of the key questions this book raises. Among that gray’s fruits: death, torture and the “this-drone-stuff” secret mission itself. The book, which McDonald, a prize-winning journalist, calls a “meld of fiction an journalism,” introduces those themes early and often. Chapter one opens in Arlington National Cemetery, at the double funeral of Micah’s father and fiancé, casualties of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. Chapter two reveals the background of his fiancé’s father, who served as an interrogator/torturer in the Shah of Iran’s Savak. Torture, its cover-up and the widening gyre of its degradation are a motif throughout the story. A more minor motif is the business and profit of war. Micah’s father is a former war hero and defense industry contractor.
The “gray” begets a lot of bloodshed and suffering, offered in sometimes excruciating detail. The author and some of his characters are erudite and literate. The journey in this book recalls Dante’s Inferno and Jerzy Kozinki’s The Painted Bird (another blend of fiction and fact, for which it has long been controversial to some). Level seven in Inferno is the circle for the violent:
“’When the violent soul
Uproots itself and leaves a corpse, Minos
Sends it to Level Seven. Protocol
Decrees that it not mitigate its loss
By choosing where if falls into the wood.
It falls where thrown by chance, and then, a grain
Of grief, it sprouts. Then, where a sapling stood,
There’s suddenly a savage tree, whose pain,
When harpies come to eat its leaves, must fine
A vocal outlet. Like the rest, one day
We’ll go to fetch the flesh we left behind,
But it will never clothe us in the way
It did, for Justice would be undermined
If one who robs himself should own once more
The thing he stole. So we will drag them here,
Those bodies, and the thing he was before
On each tree in this wood will hang, so near
Yet so far from its murderous soul.’”
In the end, two of the characters attempt and manage a deception to set at least one thing right, which saves a single life (or a few)—a person perhaps, or even likely, innocent of that for which he was incarcerated but nonetheless irreparably damaged. And even this needfully secret act of conscience comes at great risk to career, and maybe more. It’s a bleak vision, and an important book.
And McDonald writes very well. A description of a military hospital ward:
“Some of the men go on and on about how they got wounded, trying out different versions, getting their delivery down, getting their stories straight for the folks back home. The smaller the wound, the bigger the story. Hurt guys wash in, healed guys wash out, and everybody speaks some version of MIL–military idiot language, not unlike the dopey chatter of a second baseman to his pitcher. MIL-speak adjectives are essentially these: unbelievable, awesome and fuckin’. And then you had your three go-to adverbs: absolutely, totally and fuckin’.
“What did they talk about? Sports, sex, money, music, Obama, vee-hicles, the way things were so political back home, how their entire fucked-up lives were going to be different when they got back. Wives. Old girlfriends. Jobs. Booze. Changing their MOS. Their dicks. (Oh, they talked a lot about their dicks.) How fucked up their officers were. They dreamed up Top 10 lists. They played Who’d You Rather? The usual. It was the American id, unsheathed.”
And one more: an army medical officer recalls a meeting with a soldier whose wounds she’d previously treated:
“’So I ran into him a couple days later at Home Depot,’ she said. ’I needed some paint and I was checking out the color samples. Fan decks, they call them. You know, 10,000 freakin’ colors. Anyway, this guy was in the aisle just staring at this color sample in his hand, staring down at one of those little cards, and he was bawling and starting to hyperventilate. He went to his knees and his whole body was shaking. It was a real panic attack. I reminded him who I was and that he should take really deep breaths and that I would stay with him. He looked right at me–but it was more like he was looking through me–and he said he had killed a kid in Ramadi, shot the kid in the face, and this was the color of the little boy’s brains. That card, he was saying, it was the same color, and it had brought everything right back to him. ’I did terrible things,’ he said. I stayed with him for a couple minutes and he collected himself. I never saw him again. The card said ’Dutch Boy B13-2, Family Tree.’ That was the name of the color. I’ll never forget that. Some wounds, I think, are never going to heal. Maybe some of them aren’t meant to heal.’”
At the end of the book come the “Acknowledgements.” Usually this reader ignores such sections, but in this case, the “Acknowledgements” are worth a careful reading.
The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic
by Ginger Strand ’87
Say Vonnegut and most everyone fills in the blank: Kurt. But there was another Vonnegut, and when Bernard built silver-iodide generators and seeded clouds to create rain, he was the brother the government began watching. If the military could control the weather, well, that could be the next super weapon.
In her new book, The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic, author Ginger Strand ’87 explores the relationship between the two brothers and how each struggled with matters of morals and ethics involving their work.
Bernard Vonnegut was a leading scientist in a research lab at General Electric in mid-1950’s Schenectady, New York. His younger brother, Kurt, worked in GE’s public relations department, often writing press releases about the scientific discoveries Bernard had made in the lab. When one of Bernard’s discoveries had the potential to change weather, the military took notice. The Army oversaw Bernard’s work, calling it Project Cirrus, and the brothers shared perspectives on science being used to harm rather than benefit humankind. For Kurt, these were the themes that worked their way into his many novels.
“That, for me, was the interesting story that emerged in my research,” Strand says. “During their time working together at GE, they began to exchange ideas and talk about the ethical dilemmas Bernard as a scientist was facing. This was the era after the development of the nuclear bomb. There was a lot of talk about scientists and their responsibility for the use of their inventions.”
When Kurt Vonnegut wrote about what he saw going on at GE, his work was classified as science fiction. Strand says he found that baffling. To his understanding, he was writing social satire.
“During the day, Kurt would write peppy press releases about GE, but at night and on weekends, he would go home and write short stories,” Strand says.
Success, whether wanted or in some respects unwanted, came to Bernard for his work in the laboratory, but for Kurt, in literature, it did not come easily. He collected hundreds of rejection letters. He struggled to learn to write well. He often felt himself in the shadow of his brother’s genius, although neither brother let that get in the way of their close relationship. Eventually, Kurt would produce 14 novels, three short story collections, five plays, five non-fiction books, and become known as a literary icon.
Ginger Strand is the author of three previous books, including Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate. She has written for a wide variety of publications, including Harper’s Magazine, This Land, The Believer, Tin House, The New York Times, and Orion, where she is a contributing editor.
De Zwaan: The True Story of America’s Authentic Dutch Windmill
by Alisa Crawford ’91
Move over, Chaucer! Kalamazoo College has its own “The Miller’s Tale,” that of Alisa Crawford ’91, who recently won the state history award from the Historical Society of Michigan for her book De Zwaan: The True Story of America’s Authentic Dutch Windmill. Alisa is the resident miller at the De Zwaan windmill, which is located in Holland, Michigan. Achieving qualifications for that job was no “run of the mill” effort; nor was piecing together the origins and history of the mill she operates and loves. After many years learning to speak Dutch, study, apprenticeship and testing, Alisa became a Dutch-certified miller. Then after more testing, she was admitted to an elite Dutch guild of professional grain millers. Through that process, she came to know a number of mill historians in The Netherlands. Together they dug through dusty archives there, interviewed people connected to the De Zwaan mill, and crawled through the windmill searching for archaeological clues.
“At the time of its purchase,” notes Alisa, “authorities in The Netherlands thought it had been built in 1761 in the Zaan region in North Holland to make hemp rope, but then clues began trickling in that made that impossible.” Without giving away the end of the book, Alisa says of the mill that now stands on Windmill Island in Holland: “De Zwaan began its career far from North Holland and does not have a ‘purebred pedigree’, as originally presumed.” She indicates that it was assembled from the parts of several mills much later than 1761. However, that lineage, she writes in the book, “is what makes De Zwaan unequivocally authentic. Windmills were and continue to be working machines. When they break, they are repaired. When they become outmoded, they are re-purposed. When the parts wear out, they are replaced.”
Alisa received the award at the State History conference held in Saginaw. In her acceptance speech she noted, “I like to say I’m a miller by trade, an historian by degree, and now an author by award, and I thank the Historical Society of Michigan for that honor.” Her book is available on Windmill Island in Holland, at local retailers and online at In-Depth Editions.
by Andrew Mozina
On a musical instrument, contrary motion refers to a melodic motion in which one series of notes rises in pitch while opposing notes descend. In his debut novel, Contrary Motion, English professor Andy Mozina moves his 38-year-old character, Matthew Grzbc, in opposite directions in most every aspect of his life.
As a harpist living in Chicago, Matthew hopes to land a chair position in a symphony orchestra—but his every day has him playing on demand to dying patients at a hospice and to the sounds of chewing at hotel brunches. As a just-divorced man, he dates a woman with whom he suffers erectile dysfunction—even while he can’t stop lusting for his ex-wife who is about to become engaged to another man. He’s a devoted and attentive father to his six-year-old daughter—but the girl teeters on the verge of a breakdown after witnessing her father “in flagrante delicto” with her mother while Mom’s boyfriend is out of the house. Adding drama, Matthew’s father suffers a fatal heart attack while listening to a relaxing meditation CD—leaving his son questioning his sanity as well as his mortality.
When a longed-for audition for a harpist in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra opens career possibilities for Matthew (if only his harp would stop buzzing and twanging), he is pulled once again in opposing directions. To audition or not to audition? And, should he be offered the chair, to move or not to move away from his girlfriend, his ex-wife, his daughter, his life in Chicago?
Matthew’s saving grace, the glue to keep his life from splitting down the middle with all that contrary motion, is his sense of humor. It’s hard not to root for the guy between chuckles. He is as perfectly imperfect as are we all on those days when we take an honest look in the mirror. He is riddled with anxiety when most of his fears are never realized. By end of novel, all that anxiety becomes a tad exhausting—get it right, Matt! Do it, dude!—and then he does that, too, hitting the perfect note, humanly well.
Andy Mozina has taught English at Kalamazoo College since 1999. He is the author of the short story collections, The Women Were Leaving the Men, which won the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, and Quality Snacks, a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Prize. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, and he has received special citations in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, and New Stories from the Midwest. Mozina is also the author of a book of literary criticism called Joseph Conrad and the Art of Sacrifice.