Confession of a Bookaholic: Tales of Explorers and Adventurers

I love me a good adventure story, I love the discovery and thrill of wandering among the new, forging paths unknown, and the grit and glory required for surviving under less-than-stellar circumstances in harsh conditions around the globe. Now, I am keenly aware that European explorers were not the first people to wander among most places on the planet; I know that the history I am most aware of has a serious twist towards the Euro-centric version. I loathe (white, male) explorers who claim they are the first discoverer of a location, while simultaneously making notes on the native people who live there, or local trackers who have helped their exploration party navigate rivers or mountains or dense jungles. Uh, they were there first, Sir. You didn’t “discover” anything that wasn’t already well-known by those populations.

This latest batch of books about explorers and discoverers was kind of a mixed bag; I loved two, and the rest were pretty marginal. I have listed a few recommendations at the end, however, that should tickle your fancy if you have any hankering for learning about some of the more remote or undisturbed places in the world.

In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick (5 stars). I *loved* Moby Dick, it somehow combined two loves–Darwinian natural history and 19th century exploration stories. This is the true story of the events Moby Dick was based on, but instead of chapters and chapters describing the brain, skeletal structure, and habits of spermacetti whales, Philbrick follows the crew of the sunk Essex as they make for land and safety in tiny little whale boats with skant provisions. Yep, loved that too. Just like I loved reading about Shackelton’s adventures across Antarctica and the frozen ocean to safety, and just like I loved reading about Fawcett’s adventures in the Amazon. Love, love, love.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham (5 stars). I read and loved this Newberry book when I was a kid, re-reading it made me realize how much this book affected my way of thinking. Nat Bowditch is a brilliant mathematician in 18th century Salem, Mass, who was indentured at age 12 as a bookkeeper instead of going to Harvard to study. He continues to study everything he can get his hands on, keeping notebooks of facts and numbers and sums, teaching himself Latin, algebra, astronomy, French, and navigation. In his early twenties he finally is released from his indenture and is finally free to do what he likes. He signs on as a clerk for a voyage and is on his way. Bowditch is unconventional, but he also teaches every crew he works with how to navigate using math and charts and numbers, how to take solar and lunar readings, and how to calculate latitude and longitude, in a time when most ships in the high seas do not have a single person who can do such calculations, let alone an entire crew. Bowditch also teaches himself languages for the ports he will be visiting and continues to learn everything he can, about people, history, business, everything. It was so fantastic to read this again!

Memoir of Nathaniel Bowditch, by Nathaniel Bowditch (2 stars). I really love Nat Bowditch as a human, intellectual, adventurer, and one of my childhood role models. However, this is not a book of his memoirs, he didn’t even write the vast majority of this book. This is the transcript of an extended eulogy that Bowditch’s son delivered one week after his father’s death. There is very little nuance, it is a collection of memories with a very nostalgic light, Nat Bowditch was an all around stand-up citizen of Salem, Mass., however he was not perfect, and these “memoirs” only paint him in the most flattering light. Which, given the timing of said speech, makes total sense. There are a few bits from Nat Bowditch’s journals and notebooks, a few favorite stories that were told over and over and part of family lore. Because this was originally published in the mid-1800’s I’m not going to harp too much on the memoirs-or-not point, but if you want more info on the father of modern navigation, read “Carry On, Mr. Bowditch” instead.

Lost City of the Incas, by Hiram Bingham (2 stars). Travelogue for Hiram Bingham who visited Machu Picchu in 1911 and spread information about the ruin’s existence to the Western world (note: I do not say he “discovered” it because, in fact, local native people were WELL AWARE of it’s existence when he arrived). This is interesting for being a travelogue for an white American well-to-do explorer in the early 1900’s complete with almost all of the assumptions and sentimental superiority that comes with it. Honestly, it was exasperating for me to read, yet again, how Bingham was “discovering” the ancient city of the Inca’s and projecting his own assumptions and prejudices on the ancient Inca and the modern descendants who lived among those ruins. Sigh. A better option is Turn Right at Machu Picchu, or Lost City of Z (the latter is not about Machu Picchu, but about South American exploration).

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (2 stars). I really wanted to like this, to appreciate it, to find literary value. But mostly I was just annoyed and bored and ready for the colonial imperialism to be done with; the oft-repeated concept of white Europeans venturing into a native “savage” population and making all sorts of judgements is just…it drives me nuts. I understand that for their time, and blah blah blah. Did not enjoy.

Other Recommended Titles, In No Particular Order:

The Lost City of Z, by David Grann. Percy Fawcett, a British explorer obsessed with the Amazon, went missing in the 1920’s searching for his mythical City of Z; the rumors and stories around his adventures and time with Amazonian tribes persist, decades after his presumed death. A modern writer tries to retrace the trail and find some answers.

South: The Story of Shackelton’s Last Expedition, by Ernest Shackelton. A detailed first-person account of Shackleton’s attempt to cross Antarctica with teams of people and sled dogs. Fascinating. Also, lots of ice.

1421: The Year China Discovered America, by Gavin Menzies. Fascinating history of world navigation from a non-Euro perspective; a massive Chinese fleet set out to sail and map the world in the early 1400’s, this is their story. (Menzies, a bit of an eccentric, claims that one of those maps was brought to Italy across the Silk Road by Marco Polo, and eventually made it’s way to the Spanish court of Isabella and Ferdinand, the new patrons of Columbus).

 

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Confessions of a Bookaholic: Henrik Ibsen plays

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Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright, spent his career picking apart stodgy Victorian values to examine the seedy underbelly, actual relationships, and human behaviors that flourished as real-life counter-points to the hyper-moral, Christian, patriarchy-based social facade. He writes about feminism, the degradation of women, the differences between religion and morality, the benefits and drawbacks of a nationally mandated version of Christianity; he writes about sex and STDs, incest, marriage and adultery, and almost all of his works have suicide and/or madness in them. Most plays written during Ibsen’s lifetime (he published from 1849-1899) followed a fairly standard story arc involving a (male) hero-protagonist faced with insurmountable odds and a tidy, happy ending with a moral lesson and true love’s kiss. Ibsen challenged this format and introduced complex characters fighting with a lot of sticky moral questions that fall squarely into a large gray area where nothing is so easy as black or white. He delves into the realities that lurk behind the Victorian veneer, and while many of his plays are over 150 years old, there is so much of his content that feels completely fresh and current to modern sensibilities. Basically, Ibsen is a Norwegian-speaking Shakespeare. Dah, he’s such a fantastic writer with a tremendous grasp of human nature!

I know reading plays can be an acquired taste, it is not the same as reading a novel (something almost every review of J.K. Rowling’s A Cursed Child mentions). In reading a play you, the reader, have to imagine far more than you would in a book as you only have dialogue to work with (and a few minimal stage directions or visual descriptions). Reading a play and being fully immersed in the world of the playwright, understanding the emotions behind dialogue without much (if any) omniscient narration is a learned skill. If you’ve ever watched a (well designed/performed) play you probably completely understood the story and characters and their motivations, right? Playwrights intend their work to be heard, not read, and it makes a huge difference in understanding for most people. If you can find an audio version to listen to while you read, that may help (I listened to a few through Librivox, but the actors are kind of a crap shoot). If you haven’t read an Ibsen play before–or any play before–I’d recommend starting with one of these first two: A Doll’s House, or Hedda Gabler.

A Doll’s House: Probably Ibsen’s most famous play, first published in 1879 it portrays the tragedy of a Victorian (patriarchal) marriage and the ridiculous role it leaves for women who are fully capable in the outside “man’s” world. Nora has good business sense; her husband does not. Nora has strong opinions on relationships and money and marriage that mirror feminists several generations later; her husband does not. The options that are open for her and super limited and in order for her to help her husband at all she must be super subversive and secretive and possibly even veer into illegal-for-Victorians territory, you know, so her incompetent husband doesn’t lose face in public. This is perhaps the first play in the western theatrical canon that addresses gender roles and how they can be damaging for men AND women.

Hedda Gabler:  Hedda is in an unhappy marriage with a man she doesn’t love and feels trapped and thwarted in the rest of her aspirations.Hedda doesn’t want to be a mother–the obvious/only next step for someone in her position–and she doesn’t particularly want to be a wife, quiet and docile and domestic is not her jam. She tries to explain this to her husband, to a friend, to her ex-lover, to a doctor, to the household staff, but no one seems to grasp that she cannot and will not shoe-horn herself into the mold that is expected of her. Hedda is often called the female Hamlet, she has such a complex and meaty role!

Ghosts: This is a psychological thriller that boldly discusses marriage infidelity, venereal disease, and assisted suicide. Yes, and it was published in 1881 when NONE of those things were openly discussed. Helen Alving is tortured by the memories of her late husband’s many infidelities, yet as a Good Victorian Woman she feels she must honor him in every way possible, to help him save face in their community. She wants her son to return home from his travels to help her establish a new family order, one without ties to her dead husband, one where she hopes she will be free. What she does not expect is that her son, Oswald, has his own horrifying legacy from his father: his syphilis is not a result of his Parisian free love, but was inherited directly from his philandering father, and it is quickly killing him. Fun fact: Once upon a time I took home a state theater medal for a scene from Ghosts; I was Helen Alving, my bff was Oswald in the scene is where Oswald asks for his mother to administer enough drugs to kill him if the syphilis eats too much of his brain and he becomes a syphilis vegetable. Not an easy scene for a couple of 18 year olds!

Enemy of the People: This! Published in 1882 this play is still so relevant. We’re talking water in Flint, Michigan, and the GOP and current Presidential election brouhaha, and environmental damage being covered up by a ruling (but stupid) majority; this play has all of that. A popular tourist attraction in a small town, the baths, is actually poisoning people, the concerned doctor-scientist who discovers this wants to rally the town to his cause, close down the baths and correct the issue. He takes to the media (newspaper) to argue his case, and is completely shut down by his brother, the Mayor, and the rest of the “concerned” town citizens who do not want the baths closed because they will all lose revenue in their respective businesses if the tourists stay away. Does ANY of this sound remotely current? Yes. Yes it does. Ibsen is brilliant, and there are so many quotes that are spot-on in our current political and environmental landscape.

Rosmerscholm: Not my favorite Ibsen, it explores similar themes of his other plays: the role of women, morality vs Christianity, and–as always–there is a lot of talk of suicide.

Master Builder: Somewhat autobiographical, Ibsen writes about an architect who believes he has sort-of magical powers, if he dreams something up, it comes to pass. He has built his career on the destruction of his wife’s family/ancestral home, something she has never gotten over. And then this teenage vixen comes along to try and destroy the architect, and she does good work. Not my favorite, and it didn’t have great reviews when it was first performed, but it is interesting how much of Ibsen’s life is in this particular play.

Emperor and Galilean: Huge, sweeping epic on the fight between Christianity and paganism in ancient Rome (AD 351). The Roman Emperor, Julian, is trying to rule his vast land holdings; the followers of Christ (the Galilean of the title) are trying to maintain Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire. The clash between church and state, Christian and other, intellectuals and faith, it’s all there. A recent re-translation by Ben Powers cuts this 7-hour play down to 3.5 hours (both performance time) and modernizes the language a bit, it is easier to understand than the original behemoth.

More info on Henrik Ibsen.

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Confessions of a Bookaholic: Book reviews about red rock country

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This year I decided to write my book reviews a little differently instead of focusing on what I read chronologically, I want to group similar books together by topic and write about them that way.

Mormon Country, by Wallace Stegner (5 stars). Stegner spent a lot of time in Utah during his formative years, and his grasp of Mormon culture and idiosyncrasies while still respecting their faith is, frankly, refreshing. This was published in the early 1940’s and while there have been some big changes in many aspects of Mormon culture since then as the LDS church has grown exponentially, some of the idiosyncrasies are now just bigger issues, and some have disappeared completely.

In addition to describing the people and culture of Utah, however, Stegner spends many chapters discussing the land, the settlement (small agricultural towns based on community and irrigation, not the stand-alone ranches of the Midwest), the working with the natural resources instead of exploiting them (Mormons did not mine, despite settling in mineral and oil rich country), history of native tribes and people, history of battles (actual and political) with the federal government in the early days of the Utah Territory, Spanish explorers, Butch Cassidy’s outlaws, legends and stories from the Colorado Strip, dinosaur hunters, and the “colonizing” Mormons who settled from Idaho to Mexico, from the Rockies to the Sierra and even outposts at San Francisco, San Bernadino, and San Diego, California.

Mostly, this book just made me homesick. Stegner’s descriptions of the wildest places of the Wasatch mountains and south-eastern Utah’s red rock country made me long desperately for home. Stegner’s predictions for Utah have almost all come true, which was really interesting to read about.

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Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, by Wallace Stegner (4 stars). The high desert, red rock canyon country of south-east Utah was the last part of the contiguous United States to be mapped, and with good reason. That country is harsh, blistering, and difficult to navigate by foot, horse, boat, or, frankly, jeep. Terry Tempest Williams says Utah has “a spine like a stegosaurus” and I think that’s quite apt. Powell is the first (white) explorer to attempt this country and try to map the rivers and mountains and plateaus. This book is that history and follows Powell’s political career for several decades as he tries to convince Congress and the public, so hot for the Homestead Act, that agricultural farming just will not work in vast areas of the arid, desert West. He failed, and it wasn’t until decades later that the US Government started to understand his points. The subsequent water war that has lasted and heightened in the last 15 or 20 years was predicted by Powell over 150 years ago, he knew exactly what would happen to the lands of the West if farming and ranching were left unchecked and the water resources were not protected.

The most exciting part of this book is the first 150 pages where Powell and a small group of adventurers run the Green River from Wyoming down through the Uintas and eastern Utah, finally meeting up with the Grand/Colorado River and continuing on through southeast Utah and northern Arizona, running the Grand Canyon, and ending up in the tip of Nevada. His descriptions are fantastic and, in many ways, a love letter to the red rock country I hold so dear. The rest of the book is more political and details the history of homesteading and immigration through the western United States, bits of the wars and treaties and decimation of the Native American tribes, and a lot of congressional arguments and acts and vetoes that led to the “opening” and settlement of the West. Stegner wrote this in the 1950’s and it is fascinating how much still holds true 75 years later on the fight for water and other sustaining resources in the hot desert mesas and mountains.

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High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never, by Barbara Kingsolver (4 stars). When I picked this book up I thought it would be include essays about Kingsolver’s life in Arizona, experiences in and around Tucson. It does not. The essays are well written and thought invoking, but only one or two has any direct ties to living in an arid desert. Just shows you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover. Kingsolver discusses politics, environment protection, family, travel, and many of her own childhood experiences. Excellent read.

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, by Terry Tempest Williams (4 stars). This book is part environmental treatise, and part family history. While I sometimes did not identify with the connection Tempest Williams feels to the women in her family, I certainly felt in my bones her love for the Salt Lake valley and the Great Salt Lake herself (yes, the lake is a woman). Tempest Williams is a gifted storyteller and writes beautiful, poetic descriptions full of emotion and feeling.

Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, by Terry Tempest Williams (3 stars). This collection of essays about red rock and canyon country was a little hit and miss. Some of them I *loved* and re-read immediately. Other essays didn’t really affect me much, or even made me angry; but, in most ways, this book is a series of love letters to the wild, rocky country I call home.

Other Reading Recommendations:

Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

The Anthropology of Turquoise, by Ellen Meloy

 

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Confessions of a Bookaholic: Feminism, volume 1

The more I read and hear about the war on women, the more I actively seek out additional information. The more I seek, the more I find, and the more I realize that once seen I cannot unsee the vast tentacles of patriarchy that are underlying so much of the society in which we live.

Now, there are a LOT of things I could talk about when I talk about feminism, but I want to specifically discuss the idea that “boys will be boys” and “men can’t help themselves”…particularly when it comes to degrading, assaulting, harassing, or otherwise abusing women. Men can help it. Their “animal” nature can be “trained” and curbed. You can train a dog to drop a juicy steak and leave it, untouched. You can train a dog to sit still and stay put while an in-heat dog is nearby. The dog may not like that command or that training, but they will do it. AND, if those dogs do not response properly to that training, they are castrated and kept in a cage, away from other dogs. So, don’t tell me that men cannot keep their thoughts and hands to themselves. Don’t tell me that it’s impossible for them to overcome their base instincts. Don’t tell me that they “can’t help it.” If a German Shepherd can “leave it alone”, any dude can. And frankly, men who are unable to keep their ego and penis in check should be castrated and kept far from society, to reduce their opportunities for harm. Oh, that doesn’t seem fair? THEN STOP COMPARING YOURSELVES TO ANIMALS! I know, I am preaching to a mostly female choir of fellow feminists here, the two or three men who read my blog are–from what I can tell–already feminists in their own right. Or at least they are well on their way.

I think there is a lot of fear and misinformation about what it means to be a feminist. I do not hate men. I do not think women are better than men. I do not think one must put men down in order to champion women. If you think feminism means any of those things, you don’t understand the point of feminism. Feminism as a social movement benefits women as much as it benefits men. The super-macho manliness that is advocated for across the media, advertising, and throughout society would be eliminated if feminism was more prominent. That “macho-man” bullshit is actually misogyny, relabeled, most of the time, and it is dangerous for men and women.

We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie (4 stars). “Gender matters everywhere in the world…we should begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how we start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently.” This is a very quick read, or you can listen to the Ted Talk, and I think every American should hear what Adichie has to say.

The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir (4 stars). This book took me forever to read, it is super dense and the sentences and paragraphs are all packed with information and psychology and history and science. I’d read a little, think a lot, read some more, think some more. I kept a pen and highlighter with me and will probably go back and review some of my notes on the regular. de Beauvoir has so much insight and history and thought on key issues to being human, man or woman, and to being a feminist, fighting for equal rights for all humans.

My Life On The Road, by Gloria Steinem (3 stars). More than a feminist treatise, this book reads as an autobiographical travelogue. Granted, Steinem’s travels were mostly centered around politics and rallies for equality for women and equal rights, so it does have a lot of typical Steinem in it, but I didn’t really feel hit over the head with her particular brand of feminism. I do appreciate that she covered feminist issues for more than a middle-class or upper-middle-class white American woman; she focuses a lot of women of color, tribal women, poor women, lesbian and transgender women and the particular issues they face are all covered. Steinem highlights other groups with little vignettes and chapters that almost read like independent essays or short stories. You can read the New York Times review here.

Bad Feminist, by Roxanne Gay (3 stars). An essay collection, a few of these absolutely hit home for me, and a large chunk (mostly in the first half) were a lot harder for me to get in to. When Gay is writing what feels like a blog-post response to a piece of media she read or watched I lost interest pretty quickly, I want to read the original thing she read first, I felt like she didn’t explain enough about it for her critique or review of it to be successful for me as a reader. When she writes as a response to a major event covered by the news it was a lot easier for me to get through the piece because I had enough background to understand her jumps and lines of thought. The last half of this book is FAR better than the first (for me, except for the introduction, the first half was maybe 2.5 stars, the second half was easily 4, hence a 3-star rating).

Other feminist titles I would recommend, in no particular order:

A Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mary Wollstonecraft

The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan

Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks

Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn

This year I decided to write my book reviews a little differently instead of focusing on what I read chronologically, I want to group similar books together by topic and write about them that way. I have a hefty shelf on Goodreads devoted to feminist writings, you should check it out.

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Confessions of a Bookaholic: Creativity and Writing

I seem to go through phases of high creative output and then these doldrum-y weeks where I don’t want to do anything but lie on my fainting couch, watching Netflix and eating frozen M&Ms. Granted, lately some of that lazing about may possibly be due to several weeks of go-go-go and temperatures many many degrees higher than I ever agreed to.

However, I have missed writing, I’ve not painted in months, and the extent of my creative ventures have involved mastering sunscreen application techniques. In the last few weeks I’ve read (ok, listened to) two books about creativity…and it seems the biggest lessons I need to learn are 1) it doesn’t have to be perfect or even important; 2) do something creative every day, anything.  I often feel crushed by my own internal need to create (write, paint, conjure) something AMAZING…when, truly, I just need to do something, to get into a habit of doing and then let the repetition and practice hone my skill and the dedicated space for doing to provide a platform for inspiration.

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Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull & Amy Wallace (5 stars). I loved the idea that failure is not actually failure, it’s just part of the process of creating, it’s part of refining an idea, or a story, or a piece of art. It’s not a negative, it’s an essential stepping stone for moving forward. I think parts of this book are very workplace or manager-style specific, but I also think there is a lot to learn as a creative-type, or a creative-wannabe-type, on how the process is not usually a BLAM of inspiration and, 10 minutes later, a perfect finished product. It is a PROCESS with a lot of back and forth and revising and more revising. It’s work to create something, and it’s okay if not every single decision you make in that process is, ultimately, one that leads to your finished product. It’s all part of the process.

I’m not sure if it is because my whole life feels like it’s in a state of flux–workplace things included–but I responded SO WELL to this book, the ideas and principles Catmull talks about for success, and all the little factoids and stories about his time in digital animation.

Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert (4 stars). Many years ago I read and loathed “Eat, Pray, Love” and while I maintained Gilbert was a great writer, I really really hated that book. So, I was pretty hesitant to pick this one up, however I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. Gilbert’s ideas on what to do with creativity, how to not think of your creative outputs as your babies, or unchangeable, or needing to be perfect are things I have struggled with of late. I love to write, but I want it all to be brilliant and witty, and the truth is, I am not 100% brilliant or witty, there are a LOT of parts of me that I can express creatively that have nothing to do with brilliance or wit, and THAT IS OKAY, HARRIET, IT’S OKAY TO BE A LITTLE VULNERABLE SOMETIMES. I love to paint, but I often get bogged down in not having the skill to express on paper or canvas what I see in my mind’s eye, and THAT’S OKAY! IT’S OKAY TO BE AN AMATEUR, HARRIET! So….clearly I have some internal things that I need to work on when it comes to creativity and writing and expression, and I also need to remember that this space, in particular, is not for a shiny finished product. This little corner of the internet is for me, in all my unfinished and work-in-progress glory. That is why I made this space in the first place, for the process.

Overall, there were a few parts I think some parts of Big Magic that were a little too hippy-dippy for me, a little too woo-woo, and even a little too Elizabeth Gilbert, but, I really enjoyed her take on the creative process and it has already inspired some additional creative ventures of my own, so in that respect, this book is a success! In may ways this book reminded me of Gretchin Rubin’s book on habits, and Anne Lamott’s book on writing.

Other Books That Inspire Me:

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott (4 stars).

Writing About Your Life, by William Zinsser (5 stars).

Instead of grouping book reviews by month or quarter, I’ve decided to group them by topic instead because that seems to be how I read them anyway. What are you reading lately?

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