Sunday, June 07, 2020

From Peter the Great to the Appalachian Trail and Outdoors

Life is complex.

And I’m desperately behind on too many books . . . perhaps as many as 100 in the queue of the last months, 70-80 read.


I’ll jump in with brief notes here to try to get me caught up.  I wish these reviews said more – and I wish I captured more from the books to share.  I remind myself – the main intention of these book reviews is to simply remember titles/authors and essential “great book” or “not worth it” categories from my life.

Let’s start with a fun, trivial book – that seems aimed at children and yet used words with a depth of vocabulary that simply made it a fun tale.  The Phantom Tollbooth Paperback by Norton Juster.

From the publisher: “With almost 4 million copies sold more than 50 years after its original publication, generations of readers have now journeyed with Milo to the Lands Beyond in this beloved classic. Enriched by Jules Feiffer’s splendid illustrations, the wit, wisdom, and wordplay of Norton Juster’s offbeat fantasy are as beguiling as ever.”

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

The book is summarized in the sub-title, and easily discerned in the opening pages.  And yet, with story after story and narratives from science to sports, Epstein documents how persons with a range of interests and a large capacity for thinking “outside the box” in one domain allows them to be problems solves and connectors for things that otherwise may have never been discovered/understood.  A great book.

For me, this book was a disappointment.  Perhaps that has to do with how it was sold to me.  I learned from the book and enjoyed some of the aspects of trying to understand black slave experience – and of course, the characters in the story and their way of being with others did cause me to think in fresh ways about slavery, white domination, and patterns and hope and even imaginations about freedom.  I do have trouble, personally, with books/characters that wander too imaginatively (dreams/apparitions/ghosts).  I recognize dreams may be more formative for others and may have tangible meaning in their lives.  I’m too rooted in the “now” and what I can touch and feel to wander too deeply into dreams/imagination/deceased ancestors as guides to “get” books or characters whose lives are shaped by these ways to discern the world.

The story follows the life of Hiram Walker, with his savant like memory, as he tries to discern his way to freedom and make his way to freedom.

I’ve had a long history with the Appalachian Trail.  For many years I wanted to hike the AT – or sections of it.  In fact, to this day, I’d still like to hike sections of it.  Somehow, compared with many, I’m not at all motivated by starting at the “start” of some arbitrary race/trail/journey to get to the equally arbitrary “end.”  The Pacific Crest Trail fits this, too.  The mythic boundary of Mexico and Canada are nothing more than national “lines in the sand.”  Someday, though, I’d love to hike many of the gorgeous sections of either of these trails – or others. 

I was scheduled to be in Yosemite for 75 days in the summer of 2020.  Sadly, SARS-CoV-2 squashed that – and I won’t narrate here the pain/dislocation/grief that brings and brought to my life.  Alas.

In preparation for hiking I had planned, I read quite a few trail books.

This was an enjoyable tale.  Nothing profound. It fits precisely the publishers description:

Emma Gatewood told her family she was going on a walk and left her small Ohio hometown with a change of clothes and less than $200. The next anybody heard from her, this genteel, farm-reared, 67-year-old great-grandmother had walked 800 miles along the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail. And in September 1955, atop Maine's Mount Katahdin, she sang the first verse of "America, the Beautiful" and proclaimed, "I said I'll do it, and I've done it." Grandma Gatewood, as the reporters called her, became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone, as well as the first person - man or woman - to walk it twice and three times. The public attention she brought to the little-known footpath was unprecedented. Her vocal criticism of the lousy, difficult stretches led to bolstered maintenance, and very likely saved the trail from extinction.”

I read several short stories from Barry Lopez in several collected tales.  A few of them were captivating, though none of them was particularly moving.  The topic of his explorations – aboriginal or indigenous persons, and land use, hiking, “the wild” are issues of interest to me.  No single story was individually remarkable. 

About this book, one reviewer wrote: “I believe Barry Lopez is one of the best writers in the business today. Whether he's canoeing in the high arctic or talking to rodeo bull riders, his essays are poetry.”  I simply didn’t feel that moved, to be honest.  I was mostly “bored” by the book.  Not sure how/where my disconnect is/was compared to other readers.

The statements of the publisher for the “about” this book should place this book squarely within interests that are dear to me.  And others love Lopez.  I was unmoved. The publisher on this writes: The acclaimed National Book Award winner gives us a collection of spellbinding new essays that, read together, form a jigsaw-puzzle portrait of an extraordinary man. . . . Here is far-flung travel (the beauty of remote Hokkaido Island, the over-explored Galápagos, enigmatic Bonaire); a naturalist's contention (Why does our society inevitably strip political power from people with intimate knowledge of the land small-scale farmers, Native Americans, Eskimos, cowboys?); and pure adventure (a dizzying series of around-the-world journeys with air freight everything from penguins to pianos). And here, too, are seven exquisite memory pieces hauntingly lyrical yet unsentimental recollections that represent Lopez's most personal work to date, and which will be read as classics of the personal essay for years to come. In writing about nature and people from around the world, by exploring the questions of our age, and, above all, by sharing a new openness about himself, Barry Lopez gives us a book that is at once vastly erudite yet intimate: a magically written and provocative work by a major American writer at the top of his form."

From the publisher: “Moving from fable and historical fiction to contemporary realism, this book of stories from Barry Lopez is erotic and wise, full of irresistible characters doing things they shouldn't do for reasons that are mysterious and irreducible.”  

I found the stories unmoving, to be honest.  I guess I “resisted” the characters, ha.

I loved this book.  Due to the need to return the book to the library, I did not have time to read it in its entirety (928 pages! !)  I found myself skimming over numbers of pages and sections – and yet fully engaged in other areas and arenas of Peter’s childhood, youth, early life and development of his reign. 

I lived in Moscow and Kiev in the summers of 1992 and 1993.  Those experiences shaped my life.  The size and scope of the countries/region amazed me then and still do.  I learned so much in this book and I’m sure have so much more to learn – about the culture(s) of persons from the region, practices, treatment of others, marriage alliances, and perhaps as much as anything that I had not known, Peter’s interest in maritime matters.  Loved this book.

From the publisher: “Against the monumental canvas of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe and Russia unfolds the magnificent story of Peter the Great, crowned co-tsar at the age of ten. The acclaimed author of Catherine the Great, Robert K. Massie delves deep into the life of this captivating historical figure, chronicling the pivotal events that shaped a boy into a legend—including his “incognito” travels in Europe, his unquenchable curiosity about Western ways, his obsession with the sea and establishment of the stupendous Russian navy, his creation of an unbeatable army, his transformation of Russia, and his relationships with those he loved most: Catherine, the robust yet gentle peasant, his loving mistress, wife, and successor; and Menshikov, the charming, bold, unscrupulous prince who rose to wealth and power through Peter’s friendship. Impetuous and stubborn, generous and cruel, tender and unforgiving, a man of enormous energy and complexity, Peter the Great is brought fully to life.”

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