Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

<em>Out Stealing Horses</em>, <em>Oil!</em>, and <em>John Muir</em>

By Stephen Tollefson

I love to force books down people’s throats, but rarely accept others' recommendations.  I prefer to get my books by wandering around Moe’s or seeing a reference somewhere that sounds interesting.  However, the first book I want to recommend was given to me, and I read it because I felt I had to. I’m glad I did.

Far and away the most satisfying book I read this year is Out Stealing Horses, by the Norwegian Per Petterson (Graywolf Press, 2007). Spare and complex in a way that American novels aren’t, this is the story of Trond, a 60ish man who decides to leave Olso and return to the place he spent a summer as a child. Because it’s always understated, one might be misled into thinking it’s about small things, a pastoral about age and longing. But Trond’s youth coincided with the German occupation of Norway: his father was somehow involved, and one day just left the family and never returned. There’s a lot going on here—and in the end, this is a moving and deeply thoughtful book. The line “we can decide when it hurts” reverberates throughout. The closest books in tone and feeling are Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River.

In a completely different vein, I am currently pushing everyone I know to read Oil! by Upton Sinclair.  I don’t understand why his other books are still so prominent and this one isn’t.  Focused on an oil baron and his son in Southern California in the 20s, this is a big, sprawling book.  Unlike Sinclair’s The Jungle, this one is not unrelentingly sad. And it’s packed with everything from strikes to starlets to shenanigans in politics. A fascinating window into that time and place.  I am concerned that Oil! might get confused with the movie There Will be Blood, which was loosely based on the book. I’ve not seen the whole movie, but from what I’ve read and seen, the movie takes only the general plot of the book. The father is no crazed-looking Daniel Day-Lewis screaming “My son, my son!”

Just one more. I’ve always avoided John Muir because the photos of him made me think that his prose would be stuffy, Victorian, boring stuff.  (After all, he doesn’t look like a swinging kind of guy—admit it).  But I decided I had to try. So I read The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, published in 1913, and was more than pleasantly surprised.  He’s a fine writer, often amusing, and always interesting.  And reading the book turned Muir, for me, from a one-dimensional figure into a fascinating person.  I’m now onto his books about the Sierras.