This Adventurous LIfe – Part 1
I’m the world’s most unadventurous soul. I get dizzy standing on the first step of a ladder. I fall over on a perfectly flat surface. I don’t know left from right (that’s actually not a joke – I DON’T know left from right unless I have to think about it and apparently most people know it just naturally, sigh).
But over the last little while I’ve become addicted to books of real life adventure. Perhaps because I AM so unadventurous! I stand in awe of the people who put themselves at serious risk to discover things, whether about the physical world or about the inner world of their souls. Of course, inevitably, the best books in this intrepid genre illuminate both.
So I thought over the next couple of months, I’d share a few books I particularly enjoyed about people pushing the boundaries, both physical and spiritual.
My first pick, Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper by Peter Hill is a bit of an unsung classic – at least I’ve never met anyone else who’s read it. It’s a book I’ve had sitting on my bookcase for about 10 years since a friend gave it to me as a birthday present. Silly me to wait so long! It’s wonderful! It details the months the author spent as a lighthouse keeper on the west coast of Scotland in 1973, just as the old manned lighthouses became mechanized. The descriptions of the wild, spectacular coastal scenery are great and you’ll fall in love with many of the characters, but the strongest impression is one of sadness that a whole way of life is disappearing under our eyes. A lovely book.
My next book is also a classic and recognized as one. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing was published to immediate acclaim in 1959. I’m a bit of a sucker for accounts of polar exploration – the environment is just so unforgiving and fascinating. And I’ve long had a great admiration for Sir Ernest Shackleton who faced a situation that would have meant disaster for most people and came out on top. When Shackleton and his party are stranded in the Antarctic ice in 1912, death seems certain, but through courage, brilliance, luck, faith and, yes, endurance, they all get out alive.
This account of the real-life adventure will keep you on the edge of your seat. As part of his research, Lansing was able to interview people who had actually been part of Shackleton’s expedition so you really feel like you’re getting a true account of these astonishing events. Just as an aside, if you ever get a chance to see the Frank Hurley photos from the expedition, don’t miss them. They’re among the most haunting images I’ve ever seen – Frank Hurley was an Aussie on the Endurance and the State Library of NSW has an archive of his work. Brilliant stuff.
My next book is definitely of the voyage of the body is a voyage of soul kind of story. Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed kept me absolutely mesmerized from first page to last, one of my favorite reads of the year. I think what sets this story apart from many others is the beauty of the writing and the uncompromising honesty of what Strayed says. She doesn’t try to make you like her – which means you end up liking her anyway.
After her beloved mother’s death, Strayed goes into a vicious downward spiral of drugs and self-destruction. Her grief is so all-encompassing, it nearly ends up killing her. On a seeming whim and without any hiking experience, she sets out to walk to 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest trail from California into Oregon.The people she meets are fascinating (mostly!), the scenery sounds amazing, but it’s watching her find her courage and new hope as she struggles on step after step that makes this book outstanding. This is one I’m sure I’ll read again. And if you get the chance, make sure you check out Strayed’s collection of advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things. The beautiful writing and stark honesty work equally well when she’s helping damaged people to make sense of their lives.
The last of this first installment for what promises to be a series is The Brendan Voyage: Across the Atlantic in a Leather Boat by Tim Severin, which is a very recent read. I’ve been aware of the book since it was published in the 1970s but only got around to buying it when it turned up as a Kindle daily deal in September. Tim Severin decides to test the veracity of the 6th century chronicle, The Voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator, who apparently crossed the Atlantic in a leather boat and returned to tell the tale. Everybody thinks he’s completely off his rocker (Tim, not Brendan), but through many trials and tribulations, he succeeds and reaches America to a hero’s welcome. This book has it all – brave mariners, wild seas, suspense, danger, courage, lovely writing. And some unforgettable set pieces like the moment when the Brendan sails between cliffs on the Faroes and the sky fills with birds or their encounters with whales. Truly jaw-dropping stuff and highly recommended.
Come back next month for part 2!