29 January 2005

6. Stiff by Mary Roach

This was an interesting book about a topic I hadn't really given a lot of thought to: what happens to you after you die? 300 pages, pretty informative, funny at times, and thought-provoking.

Each chapter explains a path that your body can take, or could have taken had we lived in a different age: anatomy lab, victim of grave robbery for some anatomist's experiments, organ donation, taken to a Tennessee university where they study body decay (they basically dump the bodies on the side of a hill and see what happens to them) for police departments, cremation, used in ballistic tests, car crash tests, airplane tests, cannibalized, and even used as compost.

The writing is funny at times (I almost said "lively."), and the author can't resist a few good (and a few bad) puns. Right up my alley.

While I was reading the book I was thinking about what I want for my dead body. Right at the end of the last chapter Roach talks to a funeral director who makes the pitch that the survivors should decide what is going to happen to the body because they are the ones who have to live with the consequences. Say I tell my wife and kids I want to be cremated and scattered, but they want to bury me and visit my grave - a conflict they are going to feel bad about forever, no matter what course they take. It's a good point, but I still want to have a say.

Donate my useful organs, cremate the rest, and scatter them in some large body of water. BUT, if that proves to painful for the survivors, then whatever. I just don't think getting buried, whole, in some gaudy, expensive box is a good use of time or real estate.

I recommend it if you need a nonfiction that will teach you something totally not normal.

26 January 2005

5. Old School by Tobias Wolff

This was a pretty good book. Another fast read, again just under 200 pages.

The story is about a kid, an all boys boarding school, the craft of writing, and the teachers.

The writing was at times funny, descriptive without being laborious, and brisk. I got into the main character, though I kept making comparisons to Holden Caufield. I guess that that was inevitable. And I'm sure Wolff thought of it too.

Apparently, from the fake stamp on the cover of the book, it was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award. Fancy digs.

I wasn't moved though, and I wasn't surprised by anything that happened in the book. Whether that is from good characterization, or something else, I don't know. The two plots, on throughout the book, and the other sort of springing up in the last chapter/section, brought the theme together neatly. Almost too neatly. Wolff doesn't tell us, he shows us, but even what he is showing us is sort of, I don't know, not so brilliant and sparkling.

I've not seen the movie or read the book "This Boy's Life" (also written by Wolff) and I'm not that inspired to. I will read "In Pharoah's Army" about Wolff's days in Vietnam, though. Maybe it will be as good as Time O'Brien's "The Things They Carried." I like Wolff's style and will give it another go, just didn't fall in love with this book.

25 January 2005

4. Alone Through the Roaring Forties by Vito Dumas

A fast little book (just under 200 pages) about an Argentinian cattle farmer who goes around the world in a 31' sailboat.

Vito Dumas was a farmer, rancher, and landsman who had a passion for long distance solo sailing. He decided to go around the world, around the 40th parallel, nicknamed the Roaring Forties because of the ferocious winds that come from the South Pole. He sets off during the middle/end of WW2, supplied by the goodness of his fellow townsmen. He was not very well prepared, at one point stuffing his sealskin coat with old newspapers to stay warm.

The writing is a little redundant, day after day of pounding waves and strong wind. In the hands of a better writer I would say he was doing it on purpose, trying to get the reader to see the repetitive nature of being at sea.

That's not to say there aren't moments of inspired writing. He is introspective and does go to sea for the solitude and peace it brings, despite the dangerous weather.

" What set me off, to throw off all my normal life and tempt fate? Was it to show that I was not lost after all, that dreamers repelled by their inward vision still lived, that romance somehow managed to survive? The young need examples; maybe, without being too self-conscious, I could provide one. I was torn between two alternatives: to stay, to lunch at a given hour, to wait for someone, to receive guests, read newspapers, and tattle with friends outside working hours: the clock would go on telling the hours and I should be one of those creatures chained to the treadmill of today and tomorrow. Or else - more generous perhaps even more altruistic - to respond to that appeal which John Masefield expressed so well in 'Sea Fever.'"

Some of the gaps in the story are a little annoying. He complains about scuvry setting in when he is 65 days at sea, how his teeth are getting loose and his gums bleeding, but as his stretch at sea lasts another month, what happens to the scurvy? His arm gets infected and he considers amputation, but gives himself a few shots of antibiotic and takes to the rack. All better!?

He does accomplish conquering the Impossible Route, though, as he calls it. And he accomplishes a few firsts of recorded sailing. He is the first to sail nonstop 7400 miles from South Africa to New Zealand alone. He's also the first to sail around the dreaded and stormy Cape Horn alone and survive. (Slocum did it too, as did some dude named Al Hansen, but Slocum took an inside route that went through the Straits of Magellan. Hansen went outside the straits, but was killed just after rounding the Cape.)

Some of the situations and his reactions are comical. At one point one of the lines controlling the spinnaker snapped and he says, "the sheet parted so I decided to take down the sail."

The book does share some of the tone and theme of Thoreau's commentary in "Walden." Like Thoreau, he says that if you want to get somewhere it's best to go alone, that waiting for others means not going. Like Thoreau he writes about opening your eyes and trying to appreciate the nature that surrounds us. He also writes about how important work is for clearing the mind:

"It is said that solitude is best shared with another. These seas offer joys to anyone who is capable of loving and understanding nature. Are there not people who can spend hours watching the rain as it falls? I once read somewhere that three things could never be boring: passing clouds, dancing flames, and running water. They are not the only ones. I should add in the first place, work."

Overall I'm glad I read the book, it adds to the collected lore I have about circumnavigation and solo sailing.

24 January 2005

3. Last of the Mohicans by JF Cooper

Great book. I can't say that enthusiastically enough. It was written in 1826 and is about the French & Indian Wars. It is the second book of the "Leatherstocking Tales" of which there are five books. I have already read the first, the Deerslayer. The main characters from that are in this as well.

In Deerslayer, the main characters, Deerslayer/Hawkeye and Chingachgook get into a jam at Lake Otswego. In LotM, a jam comes to them. After getting out of the first jam of the book (stumbling across an ambush set for someone else), they, like any good adventurers, shift priorities and accompany the daughters of an English commander to Ft William Henry. After the fort is given up to the French the daughters are kidnapped by Mingo Indians and taken up near Canada way. The heroes track the daughters and attempt a rescue.

Deerslayer, or Hawkeye, is a white man who "has no cross" and has lived among the Delaware his whole life. His best friend and running mate is Chingachgook, a chief of the Delaware. Not in the first book, but along for the ride in the second is Chingachook's son Uncas. He is the last of the Mohicans because Chingachgook has no other kids and the Delaware have been split up and dilluted by colonial empire-making.

If I didn't know better I would think the book was serialized. Each chapter ratchets up the action and intensity. The battle scenes are well described and fast paced. Not once does Cooper tell you what the characters are like, letting you see from their actions and the reactions of the other characters.

I have not seen the movie since it was in theatres, though fan favorite Madeleine Stowe is in it, and I think that since the book was so delicious I will skip seeing the movie again. Plus, the Mingo and Delaware tribes will probably be played very badly by white actors with bad accents and broken English.

20 January 2005

2. The Final Frontiersman

The second finished book of '05. This one was pretty good. Longer than "Into the Wild," but about a similar subject - the Alaskan outback. "The Final Frontiersman" is about Heimo Korth, a guy who grew up in woodsy Wisconsin and then moved to Alaska.

He does it in stages, failing at first, but slowly keeping at it, gaining skills, wisdom, and friends. Eventually he figures it all out. He does have a few close calls in the beginning, though, nearly killing himself a couple of times. I also wonder if McCandless read this book would he have died in Alaska? This book also illuminates just how much of a joke it was that McCandless thought he was in rugged Alaska. Korth lives above the Arctic Circle, and as they say in the book about 500 times, his closest neighbor is 50 miles away..

The book is not about how a white man does it (look at him go!), ignoring that people have lived above the Arctic Circle for millions of years. It does show pretty good evidence that the US gov't has conspired, by design or by accident, to deprive people the opportunity of "living off the land." In Alaska alone there are various abutting agencies and bureaucarcies who control 100% of the land. None of them allow someone to just simply set up trapping lines or build a cabin. People do it, but they are considered trespassers and have few rights to stay. Amazing. So even if one of the Eskimo or Savoonga islanders wanted to go back to their tribal places, unless they had a cabin before 1974, they are out of luck.

Another interesting part is how both political parties, environmentalists, and pro-oil folks are ruining the Arctic wilderness for types like Heimo Korth. The Republicans want to have no people so they can drill. The Democrats don't want drilling, but want to keep people out to "protect" the animals. Korth traps and hunts sensibly. If he doesn't then he dies. Or at the least, profoundly impacts his life if he overtraps, leaving fewer animals to breed and hunt themselves.

The food descriptions made me want to try some more exotic meats: caribou, bear, moose, beaver tail, etc...

The writing was pretty good, but parts seemed to bog down (or freeze?). I don't really care for psychobabble (Korth moved to the Arctic Circle to get away from an abusive dad). James Campbell, the writer, does steer clear of a lot of Romantic writing about the rugged outdoors. Yes, the Northern Lights are beautiful, but if you are out checking them you better have a shotgun so a bear doesn't kill you. The river is beautiful, but if your canoe tips over, you better get a fire started immediately.

And there are some far-fetched parts of the book where I began to think the Alaskans tried to pull the wool over Campbell's eyes. For example, he talks about "ice bears," bears who wake up early, hungry, and root around looking for whatever food they can find. To help keep themselves warm before spring comes, they roll around in the rivers and the snow until a coat of ice builds up on their fur. The exagerration came when Campbell said, "Worse yet, the ice bears are impervious to bullets."

I recommend it if you are into books about people who live outside the normal definitions, if you wonder what it would be like to live for months at a time with temps very below zero, or you have a hankering for Alaska.

17 January 2005

on books

He who resorts to the easy novel, because he is languid, does no better than if he took a nap. The front aspect of great thoughts can only be enjoyed by those who stand on the side whence they arrive. Books, not which afford us a cowering enjoyment, but in which each thought is of unusual daring; such as an idle man cannot read, and a timid one would not be entertained by, which even make us dangerous to existing institutions,--such call I good books.

Thoreau - from "A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers"

1. Into the Wild

The first book of 2005 completed. I thought it was good. I liked that Krakauer let me make many of my own conclusions about why McCandless died, and about the theories that were floating around Alaska.

I had been meaning to read this book for a long time and it's finally an itch scratched. It also led me to another book called, "The Final Frontiersman" about this dude Heimo Korth who lives above the Arctic Circle year round. He's also in Alaska, but many of his trap lines are close enough to Canada that he crosses the border to take a leak on the Canadian side. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Started 7 Jan - finished 8 Jan.