Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"Off The Grid" Reads

Whenever I feel my mind becoming cloudy with stress, frustration and the like, nothing seems to make me better faster than stepping away from all my "modern conveniences" (ie. tv, internet, cell phone, etc) and just sitting outside with a quiet kind of book and my dog or taking said dog for a long strolling walk. The answer always seems to be in the quiet of the woods around me. I do love living in the mountains! :-) Whereever I settle throughout my life, there better be at least one good rock formation somewhere nearby! These books today, one a nonfiction account of a real life person, one a novel, feature people letting go of modern technology (either by choice or out of necessity) and letting the land guide them as it did for our earliest ancestors.


"Alaska is not the best site in the world for eremitic experiences or peace-love theatrics." 
~~ writer Edward Hoagland

You may recognize Krakauer's name from his book, INTO THIN AIR, exploring the details behind the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster that killed 8 people. Krakauer, a mountain climber himself (and one of the survivors of the Mt. Everest disaster), was first asked to do a newspaper piece on the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless, a young Emory University graduate who in 1992 decide in a very Tolstoyan fashion to renounce worldly possessions and embrace the wilds of Alaska for a few months. McCandless, a history and anthropology major, loved authors who wrote of the raw beauty and life lessons found in the extreme elements of nature, away from modern technologies. He wanted to see if he could live in the manner written about by his idols such as Tolstoy, Jack London, Nikolay Gogol. He gave away his savings, left his wealthy Virginian family and friends and  drove off in his Datsun B210. When that car gave out, he hitchhiked the rest of the way to Alaska (meeting a number of interesting characters along the way) before entered the Alaskan wild with a pack filled with little more than the most basic articles of clothing, a stock of rice, his favorite books and a camera. Four months after McCandless entered Denali National Park, his decomposing body was found in an abandoned bus by hikers going through the area who were alarmed by the foul odor in the air.

This book is Krakauer's exploration of what McCandless might have gone through, who he really was, and what might have gone wrong that lead to his untimely death. When McCandless' body was found, it was too far gone to identify a certain date/time of death, but the coroner reported that the 67 lb body was completely void of any subcutaneous fat so initially it was assumed starvation was the culprit. Krakauer proves that there's a good deal more to the story than that. Many speculated on the complexities of McCandless, throwing out theories that he struggled with Napoleon and Oedipus complexes, among other ideas. 

McCandless was smallish, with the hard, stringy physique of an itinerant laborer. There was something arresting about the youngster's eyes. Dark and emotive, they suggested a trace of exotic blood in his heritage -- Greek, maybe, or Chippewa -- and conveyed a vulnerability that made Westerberg want to take the kid under his wing. He had the kind of sensitive good looks that women made a big fuss over, Westerberg imagined. His face had a strange elasticity. It would be slack and expressionless one minute, only to twist suddenly into a gaping, oversize grin that distorted his features and exposed a mouthful of horsy teeth. He was nearsighted and wore steel-rimmed glasses. He looked hungry. "You could tell right away that Alex was intelligent," Westerberg reflects..."He read a lot. Used a lot of big words. I think maybe part of what got him into trouble was that he did too much thinking. Sometimes he tried too hard to make sense of the world, to figure out why people were bad to each other so often. A couple of times I tried to tell him it was a mistake to get too deep into that kind of stuff, but Alex got stuck on things. He always had to know the absolute right answer before he could go on to the next thing.  ~~ Wayne Westerberg was a man who periodically gave McCandless work in Carthage.  

I'll admit when I first started reading, I had a preconceived notion of McCandless as a stubborn dumbass who lost his life being some pouty rich kid with something to prove. By the book's end, I hadn't completely lost that opinion -- I still don't understand the hero-worship this guy got. I don't understand why he blatantly refused items he needed from people wanting to help him. Why didn't he take at least enough money to cover basic expenses until he got to Alaska? I still say some of his decisions weren't too bright. He was still at the age where stubborn pride can strongly override common sense. Then again, Krakauer showed me that maybe at the end McCandless realized that himself, but too late. So by the end, I felt more pity and sadness at the waste of a life cut too short than I did harsh judgement. I found some irony in the fact that prior to this fatal trip, McCandless donated his remaining savings to OXFAM, an organization dedicated to eradicating world hunger, and yet McCandless ends up dying of starvation himself. I do admire his dedication to pursuing the life he wanted rather than what people expected of him, as I think everyone should. I just wonder at  some of his reasoning in parts of his story. I respect what he did but I still think he went in with an overly idolized view of what such an excursion would be like. Krakauer points out that one of McCandless' major idols (and one of my own favorite writers), Jack London, was famous for his nature-themed works but only spent one winter of his life in the extreme Northern areas featured in his novels and in reality ended up commiting suicide in California at the age of 40, after becoming an obese alcoholic. After the death of McCandless, there were comparisons made between him and the protagonist of London's short story, "To Build A Fire". 

Below: Film Adaptation of London's "To Build A Fire"
made in 1969, narrated by Orson Welles
(I remember watching this movie in a jr high English class 
when we were studying London and being seriously creeped out!)

I also checked out Sean Penn's film adaptation of Krakauer's book. Knowing very little about McCandless prior to reading the book, I found the film pretty believable, as far as interpreting the life of a man there is so little information about in general. You can view photos of the real McCandless here. Emile Hirsch was amazing as McCandless, particularly in the final scene. 

Below: Into The Wild Movie Trailer

King Of The Road (a favorite song of Christopher McCandless)
Such a good tune!


Into The Forest is Jean Hegland's story of two teenage sisters, Eva (18) and Nell (17) living with their parents in a blissful, nurturing environment at the edge of the woods. Their parents have a beautiful home where the girls were born and raised, where their mother grew red tulips and their father tinkered with "treasures" found at the local junkyard.  But bit by bit, that happy environment, where Eva and Nell were homeschooled and encouraged to pursue their personal interests, started to crumble. Their mother becomes ill and passes away just before nearby society falls away into dystopian chaos. The joys they once relished, Eva's desire to be a professional ballet dancer, Nell's goal to be accepted to Harvard, all seem like distant, virtually unattainable dreams yet it's those dreams they cling to to keep them going during the darkest days. 

Le Sommeil (Mother & Child Napping) 1842 by Alphonse Eugene Felix Lecadre

I know she loved us, though she left us mainly alone. She wasn't a talker like my father, and her love came in the form of quick hugs and cookies and a sort of a distant interest, an indulgent neglect. She lived deeply in the center of her life, and she expected Eva and me to do the same. I think she saw little need to act as companion or playmate to us. You're your own person, she would say whenever either of us came to her lonely or bored in the middle of the day, You'll figure it out. And she would give us a warm, firm smile and turn back to her loom... Our mother used to say that Father had an infinite capacity for entertainment, though now I wonder if it weren't just an infinite capacity for loving her, because after she was gone that all changed. When she died, his life seemed to collapse like a singular black hole, creating the density the encyclopedia calls singularity, a force from which nothing can escape, a negativity that devours even light.

I thought this book looked at the "what if" question in such a way that it was entertaining and moving but wasn't dragged out to the point where I would tune out as a reader (something I normally run into with end-of-days type novels). The population dwindles down via Old West days illnesses (I'm guessing the idea is that if gas shortages start up, vaccines can't be transported so diseases we believe eradicated become a threat again) such as cholera, measles, ptomaine (commonly from food poisoning / spoiled food) and giardia (an infection of the small intestine commonly caused by contaminated water).

a large source of tension /conflict
 throughout most of the novel

 I loved the differences between Nell and Eva though I wondered why two girls growing up so close to the woods would take so long to realize there might be answers to their problems within the very trees that sheltered them! In time, it's Nell's love of books that saves her and her sister, teaching them how to find food and medicine from nature, as well as providing Nell with a source of mental escape from the hellish monotony she finds her reality to be:

Siddhartha, M Is For Murder, The Hobbit, The Golden Notebook, Tess Of The D'Urbervilles, Catch-22, The Martian Chronicles, Adam Bede. While I was reading a novel, I was immersed, awash in the story it told, and everything else was an interruption. I could read for hours at a stretch, and any distraction -- a question, a meal, the coming of darkness -- made me bristle with impatience. 
Hey, that's me all over! :-D Which is why I had a hard time accepting the decision Eva and Nell come to at the end. I won't give it away, I'll just say it would have been hard, maybe impossible for me to make to go the route they did in the end!

"I'll love you however I can"  ~~ Eli to Nell 
(my reaction being "okaaay, what's that suppose to mean??")

I will warn you that there is one "ick" scene between the sisters that will probably have you exclaiming "WHAT THE??" like I did. All I'll say is when you get around the part where Nell starts to hurt her back working outside, brace yourself... there's a weird development coming up. Think V.C. Andrews weird lol. Aside from that, I was really into this story, though I did feel like the characters could have been developed a bit more (ie. the relationship between Eli and Nell or the relationship between Nell and Eva's parents). I feel a little guilty saying that though, after reading that Heglund takes an average of 5 years to write each of her books. :-X

Anyone that says only sunshine brings happiness has never danced in the rain. 

...she danced a dance that sloughed off ballet like an outgrown skin and left the dancer fresh and joyous and courageous. She danced with a new body that had sown seeds, gathered acorns, given birth. With new and unnamed movements, she danced the dance of herself, now wild, now tender, now lumbering, now leaping. Over the rough earth she danced... "I wonder why anyone would want to walk on water -- when they could dance on earth."

I cut out some of that passage so I wouldn't have a bunch of spoilers there, but that passage seemed just perfect to end this post on :-)