Inventing Niagara

“Did you know they drained Niagara once?”

The question popped up during one of my earliest trips to the famous falls — a bit of history, some trivia, as I walked the winding paths near its edge with my future husband. Spencer grew up 85 miles south of the cataract. There aren’t too many folks in Western New York who can’t tell you something about Niagara.

It wasn’t my very first visit. That came in 2004, when I was traveling around the Buffalo area with my parents and sister before the start of another school year. I’ve always been a waterfall fan — a waterfall nut, you might say. And my first glimpse of the Horseshoe Falls, from the landscaped paths on the Canadian side, certainly inspired awe. Taking the ubiquitous Maid of the Mist voyage to the base of Horseshoe Falls, I remember looking up and seeing nothing but violently falling water. We were close to disaster … but safe from it, too. Exhilarating.

I thought of this early trip so often while reading Ginger Strand’s Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power and Lies (Simon & Schuster, 2008). Shaped — for good or for ill — by the land and people around it … creating myths, perpetuating others. A site of commerce, conflict and connection for centuries.

Americans call Niagara Falls a natural wonder, but the Falls aren’t very natural anymore. In fact, they are a study in artifice. Water diverted, riverbed reshaped, brink stabilized and landscape redesigned, the Falls are more a monument to man’s meddling than to nature’s strength.

Held up as an example of something real, they are hemmed in with fakery — waxworks, haunted houses, IMAX films and ersatz Indian tales. A symbol of American manifest destiny, they are shared politely with Canada. Emblem of nature’s power, they are completely human-controlled. Archetype of natural beauty, they belie an ugly environmental legacy still bubbling up from below. On every level, Niagara Falls is a monument to how America falsifies nature, reshaping its contours and redirecting its force while claiming to submit to its will.

Publisher description

The first time I saw Niagara, I felt overwhelmed by the urge to photograph it. Today I would pull out my iPhone, experimenting with panoramas, positioning my kids by a rainbow … but 17 years ago, my blocky cell phone and its tiny camera was OK for 10-cent text messages and not much else. I had to remember that first falls experience the old-fashioned way: living in the moment. (Thankfully, my mom had her own ever-present lens to document our adventures.)

The falls are a memorable experience. As Strand beautifully illustrates throughout Inventing Niagara, being there is a physical thing. It’s loud. It’s wet. It’s windy. Things I despise in any other scenario … but, you know, I’m willing to overlook all kinds of discomforts for the sake of waterfalls. Hence that sticky poncho above! And bobbing around on the Maid of the Mist’s open deck feels treacherous … but it’s a sanitized fear. The illusion of danger is part of the fun.

Inventing Niagara examines many aspects of the falls’ history, both real and mythical — everything from Seneca history as keepers of the Western Door to the region’s role in the Underground Railroad. These were all new stories to me, and inspired lots of on-the-side googling to explore more. French tightrope walker Charles Blondin, who understood “the appeal of the morbid to the masses,” using his famed aerial walks as a metaphor for slavery before emancipation? This is some pretty fascinating stuff.

The romance and Hollywood-inspired section was great fun, too. Honestly, I had no idea Niagara featured in so many aspects of pop culture. Marilyn Monroe’s longest walk in cinema offered a different “view” at Niagara in the 1950s, and of course there’s the long history of the falls as a honeymoon capital of yesteryear. (Also, ever wondered how Viagra got its name?)

Of course, it’s not all misty fun. Strand gives equal attention to the environmental impacts on the region in the name of progress: the sad and criminal history of Love Canal, the genesis of the EPA’s Superfund program; power plants and the harnessing of the falls’ power; construction of a soulless parkway straight through town. Dead malls and vacant storefronts in the shadow of landfills. The juxtaposition of the American and Canadian towns, sharing a name … staring each other down from opposite the gorge. If you’ve ever wondered why there is such a stark difference between nations, you’ll definitely learn that and then some here.

What I loved most about Ginger Strand’s accounting of Niagara is her obvious love for the place. I thought the author’s voice featured perfectly within the narrative. It was like going on a road trip with an entertaining but slightly-obsessive friend, who uses the drive to tell you every fun fact about her latest obsession. (Privately … you’re just glad it isn’t drugs.)

She’s a strong, detailed, lyrical writer with a talent for drawing you immediately into a scene and making you feel at home. Strand isn’t analyzing Niagara with a calculated, dispassionate eye; she’s generating the full picture, accounting for its warts and sparkle in equal measure.

While Niagara’s “natural wonder” is now under human control, there remains an otherworldliness to it. It’s still beautiful.

As humans, we just have to decide the degree to which we’re willing to make believe.

I learned so much in Inventing Niagara — and paying attention to the man behind the curtain does nothing to diminish its power. If anything, my interest is stronger now, knowing just how many people have converged in their attempts to admire, own, tame, promote, or protect this thundering strip of land.

I think it ultimately comes back to that very human desire to utter three words — words echoed in the carvings often found on wooden park handrails, encased in lovers’ hearts on redwoods, scribbled into theme-park ride waiting areas … from sea to shining sea.

I was here.

Book chat: ‘The Ramblers’ by Aidan Donnelley Rowley

The RamblersAs readers, we’re all looking for that magic.

The spark. The recognition. The connection. Whatever the special ingredient is that pulls us close, that makes it impossible to let go of a story and its characters . . . well, Aidan Donnelley Rowley’s The Ramblers has it.

I’ve been an ardent fan of Rowley’s since Life After Yes, her 2010 debut, and followed the progress of The Ramblers through the author’s Instagram feed. When I learned her sophomore novel was ready to be released in the wild? Er, I might have shrieked a bit. And then it arrived, I petted it, and we got down to business.

Set over the course of one autumn week in New York City, The Ramblers tells the stories of Clio Marsh and Smith Anderson — longtime best friends both set adrift by lovers, family and circumstances, clinging to each other through life’s changes before finally realizing they’re ready to inch into whatever comes next.

Smith and Clio are flawed. They’re struggling. Leaving her roots with a mentally ill mother and distant father, Clio is now a successful ornithologist who also leads bird walks through Central Park in New York City. Smith is Clio’s college cohort, a life organizer — a fixer — who grew up in a blue-blood family . . . but her advantages come with many costs.

Clio is in love with Henry, a hotelier who desperately wants her to move forward — and in — with him; Smith is still smarting from the cataclysmic break-up of her engagement to a doctor her father didn’t deem “suitable.” Clio believes it’s time to confront her grief at her mother’s recent death, but it’s actually her life — their shared lives, disrupted and distorted — that she’s mourning. And Smith has to learn how to snap the gilded strings her parents wrapped around her wrists . . . just in time to attend her younger sister’s wedding.

Here’s the thing about Rowley: her writing is gorgeous, lyrical, intentional. Each word is carefully selected; nothing is left to chance. This could come across as stilted, even condescending — but it doesn’t. The result is a novel of fully-formed characters that endear and irritate. They make an impression.

Described in the publisher copy as a “love letter to New York City,” the setting certainly has a starring role in this story. I knew nothing about the Ramble before diving in, but found myself picturing it beautifully as we moved along. I actually didn’t do any research until after I’d finished; I wanted to save my own mental pictures. They were pretty accurate, it turns out: the Ramble is a 36-acre “‘wild garden'” within Central Park where more than 40 species of birds perch year-round.

Clio’s occupation — and preoccupation — with birds was unique, interesting and never overdone. It’s her choice to lead birdwatching groups through the Ramble that brings her to Henry, crying quietly on a bench — a man who is also a little broken, a little scuffed . . . and the perfect match for her.

This is a love story, but it is not a love story. Though it could get steamy, even sexy, this is really a modern story of two women choosing to unshackle themselves from the past — and prior selves. There is growth, and when you finish? You feel like you’ve really gone somewhere. You’ve arrived.

Recently-separated Tate’s storyline was, in my opinion, the least interesting of the three — but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy getting to know him and how his life would come to intersect, however briefly, with Smith’s.

Fans of thoughtful fiction, lush New York settings and lyrical writing will find much to adore in The Ramblers. There is much more I could discuss, but it’s a novel best enjoyed on its own merits. And after adoring Rowley’s first work so much? Well, it was more than worth the wait.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher/TLC Book Tours for critical consideration

Wordless Wednesday: Panama Rocks, New York

Visiting Panama Rocks Scenic Park in Chautauqua County, New York — “an enchanting world of towering rocks, deep crevices and passageways, cool, cavernous dens, and small caves.” Formations are 300 million-year-old quartz conglomerate sedimentary rock, according to their website, and extend “about a half a mile and read upwards of 60 feet tall — one of the largest of its kind in the world.”

Yeah — it was pretty cool. And considerably cooler than the heatwave happening elsewhere in Western New York! Thanks to my boyfriend’s awesome parents for the excursion. I’m just grateful I didn’t face-plant after tripping on countless gnarly roots.

For more Wordless Wednesday, visit here!

Book review: ‘Sad Desk Salad’ by Jessica Grose

When Alex Lyons lands a gig writing snark-tastic posts for Chick Habit, a Jezebel-like website geared toward women, she’s delighted — especially since the job doesn’t require her to leave her tattered couch in New York City. The 25-year-old writer may have loftier goals, sure — ones that would take her beyond commenting on a celebrity’s erratic behavior. But for the moment, Chick Habit fills her need for a steady paycheck and allows her to stay in a place she loves with Peter, her supportive boyfriend. There’s time to branch out later.

Or so she thinks. As Alex learns Chick Habit may be bought out and a new hater website — Breaking the Chick Habit, designed to sully the reputations of CH’s core writers — launches, Alex feels intense pressure from the higher-ups to rake in the page views. A website’s stats are its lifeblood, after all, and the CH women are in competition for the most controversial (i.e. viral) stories.

After a shocking video lands in Alex’s inbox, our narrator must decide whether to publish a story that could potentially destroy a young woman’s life and career — or push forward in her own interest, darn the repercussions. But when her digital world collides with her real one, the consequences could be extreme.

Jessica Grose’s Sad Desk Salad is a fast-paced peek behind the world of online superstardom. Grose herself is a former editor at Jezebel, one of my favorite ways to spend my lunch hour while eating my own “sad desk salad,” so I was really looking forward to a peek behind the HTML, if you will. (Bad blogger joke  — sorry!) With its frenetic energy, witty dialogue and snappy characters, Sad Desk Salad was a fun way to spend an afternoon. And a clear reminder I could never make it in New York.

Narrator Alex is quick to draw readers into her world. The story spans a single week, and this glimpse at the complicated and fast-paced world of online journalism — or online gossip, depending on your perspective — was eye-opening. But for all the snark and attitude, the book also raises interesting questions about the ethics of sharing (and oversharing) in our digital age. Though no easy answer exists, it gave me something to chew on.

For readers interested in online publishing, blogging and our American celebrity culture, Sad Desk Salad is a quick read — and a fun one. Though no character outside Alex really gets beyond two-dimensional status, I felt connected with our narrator and hoped she would emerge relatively unscathed. (And shed the disgusting eyelet muumuu she dons for half the book. Ick.) I wished we could have gotten to know Molly, an aspiring editor from the Midwest, a little better — especially as she felt the most stereotypically bouncy and “New York, gee golly, YAY!” of the cast. Still, everyone served a purpose.

Fans of “The Devil Wears Prada” and avid readers of Jezebel, among other sites, will likely find much to enjoy in Sad Desk Salad. I whipped through it at lightning speed and wouldn’t hesitate to pick up Grose’s next book.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062188348 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Fresh from the country

Oh hey, y’all — sorry for the impromptu break there!

I haven’t fallen into the caverns of Panama Rocks, though I felt like maybe I could have on our recent trip. Spence and I are fresh from a trip to visit his family in Western New York, and I’m feeling refreshed and country-fied!

That sounds like country fried. Maybe country-fried steak. Mmmm.

So I’ve been working on puzzles, reading (I finished Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South for the read-along! Post coming soon), visiting, crocheting, photographing and generally hanging out. Reality comes crashing back on Wednesday as I return to the office, but it was nice to get away for a bit. Definitely came at a good time.

If I owe you an email or other correspondence, I promise it will be on its way! Going to give myself a few days to get my brain back in gear, and then I’m sure the normal Meg will be back to typing and buying way too much nail polish on eBay in no time. If I know myself at all, anyway.