Friday, January 17, 2014

Reading in the Year of the Book (Year 2: 2014 a.k.a. The Year of Traveling)

The Survival of the Bark Canoe - John McPhee

    All parties in the trip remarked that Thoreua's Maine Woods should act as a rough guide to the 5 man birch bark canoe jaunt through the Allaghash Wilderness in Northern Maine.  In all of my years living in Maine I never made it much farther north than Kingfield. For this I have some regret. McPhee's descriptions of the woods and streams and impossible lakes are inspiring and his details of the interpersonal relationships on the trip help to keep the story grounded in the muck, wind, and rain of the north woods. The book follows the talent of young birch bark canoe builder Henri Vallaincourt from New Hampshire. Henri's skills are impressive and his dedication to his craft obviously greatly pleases the author. McPhee does a great job balancing his criticisms of "boutique explorer" culture with his party's own shortcomings as 1970's explorers. They may have hand built bark canoes instead of aluminum or plastic but their culinary habits are often freeze dried. Luckily McPhee is not afraid to grab freshwater clams on the Allaghash and indulge. I want to go camping now.



The Broken Road - Patrick Leigh Fermor


The final part of the trilogy! Written at an amazing time in world history when nations were floating between the world wars with many of the 18th and 17th century traditions in their last throes. In The Broken Road Fermor revels and rides through central and eastern Europe making new friends and expanding conversations on language, culture, and conquest history. What sets this book apart, however, is the tang of regret and sadness. Fermor seems incapable of omitting reflections on the fate of many of the individuals in his travels as they are propelled into the second world war. The deaths, suicides, and losses show the cost of the war on Europe's intellectual promise. I understand more why Fermor worked so long to finish the trilogy. Even here the narrative breaks off without ever reaching Constantinople. As an addendum, the editors included 20 year old Fermor's original journals from a trip to Mount Athos in Greece. Fermor fell completely in love with Greece and it is sweet and inspiring to see into his first journey in the landscape among the monasteries and footpaths.

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