Wild

Let me start by saying, I really enjoyed ‘Wild’ and admire the way Cheryl Strayed shared her story. It’s not exactly exciting to spend months hiking a trail, but the author writes about her journey in a way that is as gripping as any novel without being overly melodramatic. I was a little wary before starting, with the shoe falling off the cliff, wondering if she was some ill-prepared novice on a suicide mission, but that is not the case at all, the thing about the shoe probably the only time she does use an anecdote for overly dramatic effect, and to sell a book, why not – it worked.

Cheryl Strayed considers herself a bit of a stray. She changed her name in the process of finalising her divorce, gaining an apt description for how she felt at the time and profiting from the otherwise sad demise of her marriage by being able to offload a hyphenated name she held no sentimentality for.

Born in 1968, clearly intelligent and showing she had potential from a young age, ironically – getting married at the age of 19 was something of a rebellious act. Nineteen, an age of youthful idealism, where if not wary, we risk being fooled into taking the intensity of our feelings seriously and wind up wed. Or am I being just a tad cynical?

It’s a classic coming of age theme, girl with an absent father finds a wonderful man – and Strayed’s first husband Paul is a remarkable individual, who accepts the amicable divorce which Strayed sought by instinct more than knowing, missing a part of herself that she was fast learning couldn’t be fulfilled by another.

Being near Tom and Doug at night kept me from having to say to myself I am not afraid whenever I heard a branch snap in the dark or the wind shook so fiercely it seemed something bad was going to happen. But I wasn’t out here to keep myself from having to say I am not afraid. I’d come, I realised, to stare that fear down, to stare everything down, really – all that I’d done to myself and all that had been done to me.

The death of her mother at 45, knocked her off her straight and wedded course setting her on a side road to self-destruction, though fortunately something inside, perhaps the ever-present loving spirit of her mother (and a few of her sensible genes) mapped out an escape route from her self-destructive self by planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

Despite the indulgent descent, she doesn’t come across as an addict, more a period of avoidance, indulging in destructive behaviour to avoid looking inward. This is a story of a woman heading towards a healing crisis, someone who needed to commit to a challenge in the extreme to provoke it.

The Pacific Crest Trail zigzags its way 2,650 kilometres from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington, crossing desert country, passing forestland, mountain terrain and volcanic lakes. Strayed started her hike in Mojave, California, bypassed a section of the Sierra Nevada mountain range due to exceptional snow condition (very sensible) and ended it at The Bridge of Gods in Oregon.

Crater Lake by MBessey, Wikipedia

Strayed articulates with honest clarity all that brought her to the wilderness and the experience of being there. Writing a journal as she travelled, makes the day by day account as fresh as if it were a recent trip, subsequent years clarify her view, now a 44-year-old woman and mother herself, she recounts her 26th year with the wisdom of hindsight.

As difficult and maddening as the trail could be, there was hardly a day that didn’t offer up some form of what was called trail magic in the PCT vernacular – the unexpected and sweet happenings that stand out in stark relief to the challenges of the trail.

Bridge of the Gods by Cacophony, Wikipedia

As she walked, she was surprised at how the demands of the physical challenge and overcoming them become her sole focus, how she’d imagined dealing with her grief and loss, with days and days of free thinking time was nothing like the reality. On the trail, lapses in attention were on occasion broken by a rattle, warning her of a coiled predator on the path. It wasn’t necessary to think her way towards resolution, but to stride it out fully present allowing nature to knit together the broken bits inside.

Nature is a glorious healer and reading about it second only to getting out there in it. This book is a testament to that and the moments when the author fully embraces it and is filled with the wonder and energy of the natural environment are a pleasure to share. She epitomizes the reward of those who first conceived the idea of a nature trail in the wilderness for the public to provide “a lasting curative and civilising value” and I only hope this book, not only gets widely read, but inspires many others to get out on a nature trail themselves.

Panekiri Bluff, Lake Waikaremoana

Personally, I can recommend the hike around Lake Waikaremoana, in the North Island of New Zealand, I walked this with my family (there were 7 of us) when I was 14 years old, it is extreme wilderness and I’ll never forget the very fit Peruvian we met on the first night who asked us where the nearest shop was! He became the 8th member of our group and could shuffle a pack of cards like magic. We finished the trail in 5 days and took our new friend whom we all loved home to work as a willing farm hand, he stayed a couple of months until a letter arrived from a girl and off he went to follow her as free spirits do.

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It was the thing that had compelled them to fight for the trail against all the odds and it was the thing that drove me and every other long-distance hiker onward on the most miserable days.

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Titanic Revisited Part II

There are so many untold tales and now 100 years on from the Titanic tragedy, stories continue to be retold and others narrated for the first time, linked to the events that unfolded in the wake of the tragedy. Not only do we read accounts of those who were on the boat, but the event is used in fiction, a convenient device for eliminating a character such as the loss of the cousin and heir in Julian Fellowes Downton Abbey series, this event triggering the inheritance crisis that is at the centre of this drama. I read that if all the characters from fictional novels were indeed on the Titanic, it would more than triple the number of passengers she carried and sink it for sure.

Christopher Ward’sAnd the Band Played On’ relates what happened after the sinking, the confusion and sometimes fictitious messages portrayed by the media, the arrival of the rescue ship SS Carpathia and the subsequent sailing and controversy surrounding the decisions made on-board the Mackay-Bennett, commissioned to return to the site to retrieve bodies. The author is the grandson of Jock Hume and Mary Costin; Jock was on the Titanic and his fiancé Mary awaited his return, three months pregnant with their first and only child.

The Daily Mirror assured its readers that all 2,209 passengers and crew on board the Titanic had been saved  and that ‘the hapless giant’ was being towed safely to New York.

Jock Hume was a 21-year-old Scottish violinist who had made many sailings across the Atlantic; it is believed he lied about his age as he first went to sea in 1905, when he was 14 years old. On the Titanic’s embarkation list, his age is given as 28. He stood on deck with the other members of the band and they played music until it was no longer possible, the band knowing that their act of altruism would likely be the death of them. It is a memory that many survivors recalled, those who were fortunate enough to be waiting in a lifeboat, watching the tragedy unfold before them to tunes that would forever haunt them.

Jock Hume & fiancé Mary Costin

When it was no longer possible to stand, they strapped their instruments to their chests and jumped into the freezing cold waters together. None of the band members survived, however two of their bodies were recovered, Band Master Wallace Hartley (his violin case still strapped to him) and Jock Hume. Hours after the Titanic sank, White Star Line commissioned the Mackay-Bennett to recover the bodies of victims. Of the 209 bodies they brought back, 150 were laid to rest at three Halifax cemeteries. Jock Hume was buried in the Fairview cemetery, a site where visitors still pay their respects today.

The book shares little of the lives of Jock and Mary and focuses more on Jock’s father Andrew Hume, who was also a violinist. He paints an ugly picture of Andrew Hume as a difficult father, a fraudulent businessman and profiteer of his son’s death who rejected Mary and made disturbing accusations against her and the unborn child.

Ward recounts the trial of Jock’s 18-year-old sister Kate who pulled a prank on her father and stepmother in the form of a letter informing them of enemy involvement in her sister’s death during WWI; this escalated into a national outrage and the risk of contravening a newly passed Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) which gave the government wide-ranging powers for the duration of the First World War. Anyone charged under the Act would face a military trial by court martial with a maximum sentence of death by hanging or firing squad.

Heroic Musicians of the Titanic

The account of well researched historical facts following the sinking of the Titanic, lend the story a credibility that kept me interested throughout the book. What left me somewhat bemused was the sense of judgement against the Grandfather Andrew Hume. True, he appears to have been less than the perfect father, but he was a successful and motivated businessman and musician, even if exaggeration and a few lies did assist him (doesn’t that continue today?). However, between these pages, there is little room for compassion for the man, we only see him in the most negative light, which I find a little sad in a story portrayed by his great-grandson. To lose a wife, a son and be subject to the murderous revenge of his daughter surely deserves an ounce of compassion, no matter how unscrupulous he was as a person.

Man Booker Prize Longlist

Originally known as the Booker, it used to have just one criterion – that the prize would be for ‘the best novel in the opinion of the judges’. That remains one of the criteria and we know there have been some off years, it is a unique award, not what you would call popular fiction, it is what the organisers refer to as quality fiction to attract ‘the intelligent general audience’ – sounds a little book snobbish to me, but then  judging book prizes is subjective and often sparks a great debate and sometimes even bad behaviour.

The aim of today’s prize is said to be to promote the finest in literary fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.

Last year’s winner was Julian Barne’s Sense of an Endingwhich I admit that I have not read yet, Barnes’ being a novelist I’ve started and stopped a couple of times, but will persevere and read before too long.

As an aside, I saw recently that the 2002 winner Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is being made into a film, directed by Ang Lee and today the film trailer has come out and it looks promising indeed.

And so, the Man Booker long list, announced by the judges today, from 147 submitted, the 12 novels are:

Nicola Barker, The Yips

Ned Beauman, The Teleportation Accident

André Brink, Philida

Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists

Michael Frayn, Skios

Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Deborah Levy, Swimming Home

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse

Will Self, Umbrella

Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis

Sam Thompson, Communion Town

Life of Pi

Six novels will be shortlisted and announced on 11 September and the winner on 16 October 2012.

So have you read any on the list yet, any predictions for the shortlist?

Happy Reading!

Titanic Revisited Part I

The significance of the Titanic continues to intrigue, or I should say has begun to intrigue me more since a visit to Belfast, Northern Ireland, the city in which it was built, a city which itself grew on the back of the growing shipyards and connected industries associated with it. Between 1851 and 1901 the city’s population increased from 87,000 to 350,000 and was the fastest growing city in the British Empire during that time.

Abandoned shipyards

From the top floor of the apartment in the Titanic Quarter where we stayed, I looked down on a vast, empty space, a maze of square and rectangular footprints of buildings and thoroughfares, once a labyrinth of busyness, that filled with the more than 30,000 men and women who would cross the bridge and walk or cycle down Dee St to work.

I contemplate that wasteland with its perpendicular lines; the skyline still dominated by two tall, bright yellow Harland & Wolff gantry cranes, a symbol which continues to salute the past, and I try to imagine the hive of activity that it once was.

Turning the last pages of Walter Lord’s ‘A Night to Remember’ I read in the end chapter Facts About the Titanic that she was launched at the Belfast shipyards of Harland and Wolff on 31 May 1911. The date rings a bell and I look in my diary and see that my daughter and I arrived in Belfast on 31 May 2012, exactly 101 years on from that auspicious date.

Julian Fellowes, creator of the series Downton Abbey and the film Titanic asks in the foreword why this tragedy still haunts us, as it does and certainly the opening of the significant Titanic Belfast museum is a testament to that. He suggests:

Maybe it is because the ship seemed, even then, to represent that proud, pre-war world in miniature, from the industrialists and peeresses and millionaires and Broadway producers who sat around the vast staterooms in first class, to the Irish and German and Scandinavian immigrants packed into third, carrying with them all they possessed, on their way to a new life in America….And as they headed for destruction, so did the larger world they represented, which would soon hit its own iceberg in the shape of the First World War.

Ist Class cabin on board Titanic

Walter Lord’s book is really just that, a factual account of what happened interspersed with the comments to create a narrative of various passengers and crew throughout the two to three-hour ordeal, from the moment of impact when the ship sideswiped an iceberg, until the Carpathia arrived in dock at New York and the truth about how few survived from the more than 2,200 who had been on board when she set out was revealed. He shares the reflections of many people from all classes, providing an overview of the atmosphere and a brief introduction to the individuals thrown together in this catastrophe.

One of the significant complexities which the Titanic represented, was the separation of the classes, the architectural blueprints clearly show the delineation between 1st, 2nd and 3rd class and the museum today exhibits perfect replicas of the rooms they inhabited, complete with holograms of talking passengers. This distinction also carried through to influence the evacuation of passengers, with 1st class women and children given priority, no children from 1st or 2nd class were lost, while 53 children in 3rd class were lost (23 saved).

Titanic Belfast Museum

Even as the Mackay-Bennett returned to the scene to retrieve bodies, similar principles were applied. There were too many bodies to cope with, so many were buried at sea, arbitrary measures were used to try to decide which bodies should be kept, those with tattoos were identified was 3rd class citizens and given a prompt sea burial. At the time it wasn’t criticized, but the sinking of the Titanic could be said to have been a turning point in this respect, it was the end of the Edwardian era, just before the outbreak of World War I and many things would change in the period that followed from a social perspective.

Looking at that period from 1900 to 1912, I noted that there were many exciting and exhilarating firsts, the Wright brothers first flight in 1903, the NY subway opening in 1904, the first European country to give women the vote in 1906 (Finland), and the first electric washing machine released in 1907. Ford introduced the Model T in 1908 and electricity was becoming more widespread.

Titanic Quarter

By contrast, in the years that followed the Titanic, personal income tax was introduced in the US in 1913, World War I started in 1914 which propelled women into roles they had never considered before and equality between the classes and the sexes began its long path towards some kind of rebalance.

Now that I have the context of the ‘Night to Remember’, I have started to read ‘And the band Played On’ an account written by Christopher Ward, grandson of the 21 year-old violinist Jock Hume, who together with the other band members of the Titanic, kept playing until the ship disappeared.

Buzzard

Friday Fictioneers is the brainchild of Madison Woods who posts a photo prompt each Friday to inspire followers to write a piece of flash fiction. After observing Rich participate I decided before I read his work, to see if anything was lurking in the depths of my imagination that wanted out, and Voila here it is, slightly longer at 150 words, but I’m ok with that.

    

A Man’s Best Friend

What’s she called?
Buzzard.

Buzzard? As in bird?
Yeh mate, Buzzard.

Bit strange for a dog don’t you think?

If I thought it was strange I’d have called her Bud, wouldn’t I?

Yeh, I guess.
Come on then, you gonna give me a hand or not. You get the front and take it slow down them stairs, I got the back. And no chat, I don’t want nosy neighbours asking stuff ‘ll give us more to do.

The two men lifted the long rectangular box off the table and walked towards the front door of the near empty apartment. Descending the stairs, they kept the deadweight container level until they got outside then slid it into the back of the waiting yute.

But where did you get Buzzard from?

Easy, wasn’t it. Last thing I saw before I picked up the body. That and the dog. So you gonna drive or me?

Prodigal Summer

Animal nature, human nature, bugs and insects, forest life, their dependence and interdependence, habits good and bad and how the balance is affected when death, destruction or any kind of change is introduced; how species adapt, how human beings cope – or don’t – all of this we find in the juxtaposition of creatures assembled from the thoughtful poetic pen of Barbara Kingsolver in Prodigal Summer as she weaves three stories variously referred to in three alternating chapter titles, Predators, Moth Love and Old Chestnuts.

It may be due to the sound of the cicadas screeching outside while I read, or the richness of Kingsolver’s prose, but this book exudes the heat of summer and its associated sensations. It places you deep in the forest on the mountainside, heightening all the senses and bringing attention to every sound and movement, witness to the presence of all manner of wildlife pulsing just beyond what the eye can see.

Predators – Essentially the story revolves around three female characters, Deanna, the wildlife biologist living in a forest cabin working as her kind of conservationist, destabilised by the presence of a young hunter in her territory and her preoccupation with guarding a young coyote family that have returned to the forest wilderness.

She shares her environment with a snake, another predator and a metaphor for man, the snake is natural to the habitat and will expose Deanna for what she really is – not just a qualified biologist tending nature, keeping man and his hunting instinct out – but a woman with a suppressed but natural maternal instinct, depicted by her attachment to a family of chickadees. When the fledglings fall prematurely out of the nest, she puts them back, justifying her intervention in nature’s way, trying to alter the otherwise harsh survival odds nature has given the little birds, more in their favour. She succeeds in keeping them all alive, only to discover on her return from a walk, four telling bulges in the coil of the sleeping black serpent.

When the snake finally leaves she feels something shift inside her body – relief, it felt like, enormous and settled, like a pile of stones on a steep slope suddenly shifting and tumbling slightly into the angle of repose.

Moth Love by Nusio21

Moth Love – Lusa is a bug scientist, now local farmer’s wife, though still perceived as an outsider with her mixed cultural background and continued use of her foreign sounding maiden name. She is trying to adapt to her new role and changed circumstances while staying true to her beliefs and recognising her not so traditional, but well-founded knowledge and approach to farming.

In the summer after … Lusa discovered lawn-mower therapy. The engine’s vibrations roaring through her body and its thunderous noise in her ears seemed to bully all human language from her head, chasing away the complexities of regret and recrimination. It was a blessing to ride over the grass for an hour or two as a speechless thing, floating through a universe of vibratory sensation. By accident, she had found her way to the mind-set of an insect.

Chestnuts

Old Chestnuts – The third character(s) are the elderly and persistent Nannie Rawley and her equally aged, cantankerous, fixed in his ideas neighbour, the widower Garnett. They trade insults and unappreciated advice across their boundaries, but can’t seem to keep away from each other despite their polar opposite views.

Halal Goat

Not that it detracted from the reading of the book, but I did ponder the similarity in conviction of the three female characters, it is not clear whether or not they know each other for much of the book, but with such similar attitudes in their various fields, in a real community I would have expected them to have discovered each other and had some kind of interaction or at least knowledge of each other from the beginning. Sometimes this is a deliberate tactic by the writer to keep the connections between people vague until the end, to shape some kind of revelation. It just seemed like a bit of a coincidence that three such characters living in a traditional farming community had such little awareness of each other.

As much a study of nature, as a story of that which passes between these characters during this one summer, Prodigal Summer is indulgence of the satisfying, learned kind; it is compelling reading and a lesson in the wonder, beauty and balance of nature and humanity.

City of Love

The immense and almighty Notre Dame de Paris

I have been busy retracing the many steps of the monuments of Paris these past few days, so not much time for reading, although I did manage to finish Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent ‘Prodigal Summer’ which I will write more of soon and following on from this glorious visit to Paris, I am now immersed in Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ keeping me in Paris for a few more days yet, albeit the 1920’s.

If you need any more proof that Paris is indeed the city of love, check out this superb photo I took of that beautiful feminine monument ‘La Tour Eiffel’, is that not a beautiful heart shining down on the population?

We took an evening stroll up to the Sacre Cœur cathedral, two minutes from where we were staying.  In fact I was babysitting that evening while friends from New Zealand were at a Bruce Springsteen concert, I have to say it was the best night looking after 3 children ever, practicing french phrases during dinner and an impressive after dinner promenade to one of the city’s marvels.

Here is a detail from one of the tower walls of L’Arc de Triomphe. I love the dramatic detail of the sculptures and wall friezes.

Despite the beautiful blue skies you see, it did indeed rain every day I was in Paris, it reminded me a little of New Zealand, that rain, sun, rain, sun, beautiful green trees.

However, something that only Paris can offer, her history of monarchs, uprisings, revolutions and battles and 60,000 square metres of art works in one museum alone and then there’s the people watching, all chairs facing the street for the best view, it’s amazing what you observe and overhear during the downing of une noisette (small coffee with a dash of milk).

Now back in Aix-en-Provence where the temperatures are consistently hot and as I got out of the car, I am greeted by the incessant noise of the cicadas, who have long announced the debut of summer and witnessed the emergence of one of these gigantic insects from its chrysalis on the wall right next to me, the moment before he too joined that eternal cacophony of sound reminiscent of the season.

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Au revoir Paris, je reviens bientôt.