Sunday, November 23, 2014

Book Review #2: Rifle Looney News

John Barsness and Eileen Clarke seem like such normal people that is hard to realize at first just how unusual their "lifestyle" is. They are ubiquitous in the hunting and gun magazines, more so than any other couple I have known (I dare say I have known many of the sporting couples of my time). John writes technological piece in vivid and comprehensible English. He writes exotic hunting pieces, many of them on the big game of Africa, Europe, and Alaska, that make you feel that even a poor man might get to do these things.

Best of all, he writes of a life of hunting in his native Montana. As he once said to me, in a manner not entirely satirical, "I am a third generation Montanan... academic." And though I believe that he ended up as I did studying biology, his first published material was a book of poetry. And his mentor in the woods and fields, before he met the old Lakota patriarch Ben Burshia, was the New York transplant Norm Strung.

Eileen's history is even less likely. She came from New York and studied literature at Missoula. She was also a vegetarian. Needless to say, she got over that. I don't think she and John ever eat any domestic meat ever, except possibly at restaurants. Furthermore, she has written some of the most important game cookbooks of our time, ones that can delight the sophisticate but explain everything to the rankest beginner. And she is this knowledgeable about everything. I think she is still the only published cook I know who puts enough fat in game sausage. 

They live the life of the hunt, also the title of one of John's books. They may be the only writers of our generation who have made a decent living entirely as freelance sporting and culinary writers. As publishing changed, they decided that the best way to present and sell their work was by taking ownership and control of all of it, and publishing their own books. You can judge their success by going to their "Rifles and Recipes" website. It's all there -- all the books and cookbooks they have written since they started, and links to other things of note.

Around five years ago, they also started publishing a quarterly online newsletter, Rifle Loony News. At eight dollars for the year, it may be the best bargain in outdoor writing yet. Its eight pages contain some of the best and clearest- headed technical prose on rifles around, presented without the constraints of length that make all magazine writing difficult; all the more so these days, as so-called editors, searching for advertising space, shrink content to 500 word "essays", captions, and bullet-point lists, all written by young staffers who would probably pay to be in print.

Generally John does most of the technicana, and Eileen the food. But don't miss Eileen's gun writing or either of their occasional story-telling. What it is exactly like is sitting down to a long fall dinner with both of them and somehow having a recording of what ensues. It's too bad we don't have an audio version, punctuated by Eileen's whoops of laughter, which stepson Jackson used to claim kept him awake at night, and John's dry interjections. He may have invented the genre of old-style outdoor writing we called "I knew an old dog who died". I also remember telling them about how I shot a blue grouse off a limb when I was first dating Libby, at her... request. I opined that women were more pragmatic hunters than men (and perhaps more enthusiastic; when they first visited me more than twenty five years ago, in Magdalena, Eileen mimed her stalk of what I believe was her first pronghorn through a northern Serengeti of everything from mule deer and bison to sandhill cranes, with  prickly pear sticking into her hands).

John looked at this wife and said "Pragmatic? The first seven sage grouse she shot had skid marks on their breasts." I believe that story is in there too.

So it's fun, for sure; a hunting life lived 365 days a year. It will make you a better cook, and tell you of new products that are really useful rather than just pushed by marketers. As for rifles: John probably has 80 rifles wandering in and out at a time, though I bet fewer than 10 make his permanent list. He shoots constantly, and while he is the gentlest and most genial of men, he will neither praise crap nor take another's opinion as truth without testing it for himself. If you read carefully, and are a typical modern hunter, he will save you a lot more than $8 a year while entertaining you in the process.

Rather than searching for quotes, I will give you Eileen's account of last year's first volume. "Year six started with Eileen's feature on brining wild birds and venison (yes, it's different from chicken and beef) and a to-die-for and easy-to-make Cookie Dough Truffles as well as John's reports on laser range finders, the CZ Model 452 .17Hornaday Rimfire Magnum, 'Guns I Don't Buy Anymore' and lots more."

John also has another new book out, Modern Hunting Optics. I've hardly had a chance to open it in the chaos of the last two weeks, but I will say that it is the most up to date and comprehensible account of that ever-changing subject that I have seen yet. John also can't resist debunking cliches. I always thought that the 25-yard sight-in worked, not that I actually did it. We who read more than do need John's writing to admonish us for intellectual laziness.

It has 200 soft-cover pages and goes for $25 postpaid. Rifle Loony has 264 pages and a color insert as well as black and white illos; it goes for $28.95, media rate shipping. Both are sold exclusively through or from Deep Creek Press, PO Box 579, Townsend, MT 57644; telephone 406-521-0273.

John with Selous buff and CZ .416 which he bought in NM and modified to be like Harry Selby's-- one of his keepers I think...


Lucas Machias said...

I like Barsness' writing. I don't read it now due to lack of opportunity but I miss it.

Chas Clifton said...

I think you should sponsor a cage match (Food Channel-type show) between the Barsnesses and Holly Heyser & Hank Shaw.