A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears by Bjorn Dihle

A lifelong Alaskan inspires awe with his beautifully written, expert portrait of the grizzly bear.

Bjorn Dihle was born and raised in the outdoors of Alaska, where he has worked for years as a brown (or grizzly) bear viewing guide. A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears is his lovely, thoughtful study on the relationship between humans and this evocative, storied species.

“There have been times I almost hated bears,” he writes. “Like most feelings of hostility, mine were rooted in fear. Yet, there is no place I love more than grizzly country, and no animal has intrigued and challenged me more than the bear.” Moving around in time, Dihle tells his own stories of encounters, from the first brown bear he ever saw–a carcass in a salmon stream when the author was four or five years old–through early trailside meetings and learning how to relate to bears, into his career seeking them out, especially on Alaska’s Admiralty Island. “There’s no way to make bears safe,” Dihle acknowledges, which is surely part of their appeal. But there are measures, such as Larry Aumiller’s “concept of habituation, which he defined as taking away the fight-or-flight response in a bear, that’s key for developing trust between our two species.”

A Shape in the Dark is an appealing, accessible memoir and a history of the interplay of bears and humans in the American West. Dihle intersperses his own and his friends’ bear encounters with those of Grizzly Adams and Teddy Roosevelt, outlining the evolution of attitudes and policy toward grizzlies. In considering the writings of John Muir and Aldo Leopold, he reviews the history of wilderness thinking beyond bears, with a ruminative style and personal perspective. He writes of famous and less famous maulings, the complexities of bear hunting, the role of grizzly bears in native cultures and the impact of climate change on Alaska and its greatest predator.

Dihle’s title hints at something elemental about our fears and the way he handles them: “After a while, much like our ancestors who’d built fires to keep away the monsters, I opened my laptop and stared at the lit-up screen, hoping the words would come.” As his subtitle suggests, Dihle deals with life and death in balanced proportions, portraying the deaths of bears and humans with similar reverence.

Quiet, meditative, wise, well informed, A Shape in the Dark is memoir, history and philosophy in one: “everything leaves a trail, whether it’s imprinted in the land, in the narratives we tell, or even in our blood.” Dihle’s love for his subject is contagious and beautifully conveyed.


This review originally ran in the February 4, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 wigeons.

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin

This superb, multifaceted book takes a close look at gay bars individually and as concept, in history and in the author’s life, tackling big questions with wisdom and grace.

Jeremy Atherton Lin brings a wise, wry voice to his masterful Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. This thoughtful study is part memoir, part research project, part travelogue and a large part classic essay-as-assay, seeking answers on the page. His subtitle indicates a wondering: Why did we go out? The answers are various; they change over time and of course are personal for Lin, but he progresses toward an understanding of what the gay bar really was, is and might be. “The question arises as to what distinguishes an enclave from a quarantine, and whether either is any longer necessary.” If gay no longer needs a bar, is this a victory, or a loss?

“A salon of effete dandies engaged in witty banter, a lair of brutes in black leather, a pathetic spot on the edge of town flying a lackluster rainbow flag for its sole denizen–one lonely hard drinker. Of course, a gay bar can be all these things and more.” Gay Bar is a personal history and a history in the traditional, researched sense: it relates Lin’s coming-of-age as well as a world of gay bars, from the scintillating to the sordid, dating back hundreds of years. Seven sections are devoted to locations–bars or neighborhoods–and represent epochs, both in Lin’s life and in the lifetime of the gay bar. Lin’s specific bars are located in London, Los Angeles and San Francisco, over the course of decades. He ranges through LGBTQ topics including protests, hate crimes, the gay rights movement, relationships with law enforcement, Stonewall and Harvey Milk, and gay-bar topics of sexual consent, music, booze, poppers and pills. Lin considers race, gender and class, and questions exploitation and appropriation. His broader subjects include community and identity, bar and nightlife culture, people’s relationships to place and more–this book has something for every reader.

Lin’s writing is consistently intriguing, descriptive and lovely: “the cranes and glassy high rises hover like chaperones.” As narrator he is by turns pensive, funny, self-deprecating, exasperated and reverent; he can be delightfully suggestive. “A pipe spilled chlorinated water. The brickwork had grown mossy down the length of its trajectory, like a viridescent trail-to-adventure on the building’s belly.” Gay Bar is enriched by the voices of others–thinkers in history, philosophy, literature and queer theory–but Lin never loses his own. This exploration is personal, deeply researched, smart and essential.


This review originally ran in the January 29, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 mirrors.

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

I used to follow Allie Brosh’s blog, Hyperbole and a Half. (I always loved that name.) I did not read her first book, by the same name, but I love the blog. This is her second.

Solutions and Other Problems is brilliant. Brosh is so vulnerable, honest, willing to share, and hilarious. Her openness is disarming and I think healthy both for her and for her readers who are comforted by knowing that they’re not alone in their struggles. And some of what she has to share is raw and painful. But also, she makes me laugh harder than almost anything, ever. I mean I laughed until I cried, gasping, couldn’t breathe, peed on myself. I was oxygen-deprived; she nearly killed me, I laughed so hard. (The funniest bits, for me, are anything about pets, and the chapter about the car stereo system and the smartphone trying to boss her around.) I would love to be able to spend a few minutes every day laughing this hard. I guess I need to re-follow her blog.

This is a graphic work – as in graphic novel, but nonfiction. A graphic memoir-in-essays, if you will; it’s not linear, but a sampling of experiences that have been especially funny or painful or moving. Because she jumps around so much and generally gets a little silly (in all the best ways), I thought it was neatly appropriate that (as noted by a brief “Explanation” following chapter 1) Brosh’s chapters are numbered but there is no chapter four. “Because sometimes things don’t go like they should,” she explains, and because she’s exercising a little power here, and we should be grateful she didn’t take it further than she did. It’s a random little bit of ridiculousness; but it’s also expressive of the kind of fun and angst I think she excels at.

Brosh’s illustrations are also a little ridiculous, fanciful, hilarious, and distinctive. I love them. She explains the world as she experiences it, in part, through fictional monsters and fantasies. Her drawings capture the mystery and awkwardness of life in a way that feels precisely right. (And I think she has dogs down pat.) (The Oatmeal‘s pretty good at this too.)

At one point she notes,

Experiencing real loneliness for the first time is like realizing the only thing you’ve ever loved is your home planet after migrating to the moon.

and I think that’s just perfect. I recognize this feeling. I had to migrate to the moon to find out just how place mattered to me.

I find Allie Brosh’s work comforting, as well as so funny that it leaves me a little breathless and wrung out. I recommend her so strongly, and I guess I need to go back and find the first book now too. Thanks, Liz, for the recommendation.


Rating: 9 sneakponies.

Maximum Shelf: Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story: Remaking a Life From Scratch by Erin French

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 30, 2020.


Erin French grew up in rural Maine, in the outdoors and in her father’s diner, where she began helping out in the kitchen at age 12. After a few years at college, she returned home to Maine, and faced challenges including young single motherhood; a difficult marriage and more difficult divorce; opening and then losing her first small restaurant; addiction and recovery. Eventually French moved back to her hometown of Freedom, where she would start again with her wildly successful The Lost Kitchen. These travels, pitfalls and victories she recounts in Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch. Renovation and redemption–of spaces and of herself–are central to her story.

This memoir begins mid-scene, with the nine-months-pregnant narrator, age 21, on break from a 16-hour shift at the family diner. The opening showcases the detailed, richly sensory food writing that permeates these pages, then flashes back, to describe French first entering the diner at age five; observing her father’s love for his work, his drinking and his limited ability to show love for his family; working in the kitchen and dreaming of escape. Finding Freedom centers around food, from childhood in the diner to young motherhood, when French supported herself with a small business baking cakes, cookies and pies, working retail in a cooking supply store and for a catering company. French picks up skills and ideas along the way and builds confidence until she is able to open a supper club and then the first The Lost Kitchen on the Maine coast. By this time, she has also picked up a husband, Tom, who turns out to be a heavy drinker, controlling and eventually abusive. From her problems with depression and anxiety, and the excruciating hard work and long days of restaurant work, she picks up prescriptions for Xanax, Ambien, Klonopin and more. This chapter of French’s story ends in rehab, with Tom seizing custody of her child and shuttering The Lost Kitchen, including “every whisk, every spoon, every spatula, and knife.”

But the cook (French resists the title “chef,” having no culinary degree or formal training) is scrappy, hard-working and resourceful. She adopts a dog, moves into a cabin without electricity or running water, fights for custody of her son and gets back into the kitchen. She first converts a dilapidated Airstream into a food truck for roving outdoor fine dining events on farms, in orchards and fields. And then another opportunity shows itself: the old mill in Freedom is finally gutted and renovated into the perfect, romantic setting for a small but picturesque dining room. The Lost Kitchen is reborn. Within a few short seasons, its limited reservations must be filled by postal lottery, more than 20,000 postcards “pouring in as though it were the North Pole.”

The spaces French occupies are lovingly built and restored. The first The Lost Kitchen is housed in a former bank building, a three-story gothic flatiron she describes in tender, glowing terms: “One by one I folded back the old wooden shutters and flung open the tall windows, letting light into spaces that had been dark for so long…. The place was dripping with character, with its hardwood floors, high ceilings, thick period molding, and doors with frosted glass and heavy hardware.” Its owners choose to take a chance on renting to French after a personal meeting and homemade meal. This process repeats with The Lost Kitchen’s reincarnation in Freedom: “The quiet rumors had been spreading around town about the old mill’s restoration, the same way they had about me.” In between, French must clean out and redecorate the cabin she lives in post-rehab on her parents’ land, and the Airstream trailer she uses to get on her cooking feet again. As the book closes, she has just purchased an old fixer-upper farmhouse “the color of strawberries.”

French excels in describing her passion for cooking and for pleasing people via food; she’s at her best detailing the foods themselves, and her mouth-watering writing is the heart of this memoir: “Hard-boiled quail eggs as bar snacks that you could peel-n-eat and dunk in a dust of celery salt.” “Fresh-from-the-fryer nutmeg-laced doughnuts.” “Fried chicken. Served cold, crispy, and juicy…. We could just hold it up in the air as the boat screamed through the waves to catch a bit of salty breeze before devouring it to the bone.”

Cooking and baking, flower arranging, the fine art of plating and the writing of this memoir contribute to a profile of a woman driven to create beauty even out of pain. The narrator’s voice is vulnerable, her trauma is real and visceral but, by the end, this is a delicious, feel-good redemption tale.


Rating: 6 nasturtiums.

Come back Friday for my interview with French.

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, illustrated by Fumi Nakamura

World of Wonders is a lovely, thoughtful series of meditations, charmingly illustrated, with love and awe on every page but never shying away from the prickliness of life.

Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Oceanic) stuns with her nonfiction debut, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, delightfully illustrated by Fumi Nakamura. These essays explore the natural world and the human experience, finding parallels, meaning and beauty in the intersections.

“A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun,” Nezhukumatathil begins. This is an apt and representative line: place-specific, beautifully phrased, with reference to some of the identities these essays will explore. They are mostly titled for the plants and creatures they center–peacock, comb jelly, narwhal, dancing frog–with a few exceptions, such as the expressively named “Questions While Searching for Birds with My Half-White Sons, Aged Six and Nine, National Audubon Bird Count Day in Oxford, MS.” The red-spotted newt and dragon fruit that title their respective essays receive Nezhukumatathil’s attentive study and yes, wonder, but the author’s own experience is always a second thread. She brings a poet’s ear for language and an eye for commonality and metaphor, both reverent of the natural world and specific in her personal story.

Fireflies, touch-me-nots and flamingoes offer her a way to talk about being a brown girl in a white man’s world, growing up in the era of Stranger Danger and feeling disjointed between continents. A young Aimee is asked to draw an animal for a class assignment in Phoenix, Ariz. She responds with a resplendent peacock, India’s national bird, but is chastised and asked for an American bird. Her bald eagle wins a prize but causes her shame. Fumi Nakamura’s accompanying illustrations are whimsical and warm–who doesn’t love an axolotl’s smile?–and sweetly complement Nezhukumatathil’s prose.

World of Wonders offers a series of brief naturalist lessons, but is perhaps at its best in drawing connections, as between the axolotl’s smile and what to do “if a white girl tries to tell you what your brown skin can and cannot wear for makeup.” When it goes boom, “the cassowary is still trying to tell us something.” “And just like the potoo, who is rewarded for her stillness by having her lunch practically fly right to her mouth–perhaps you could try a little tranquility, find a little tenderness in your quiet. Who knows what feathered gifts await?” Wisdom, wonder and beauty make this slim collection one to treasure.


This review originally ran in the August 11, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 pale berries growing in spite of the dark.

The Happily Ever After: A Memoir of an Unlikely Romance Novelist by Avi Steinberg

A romantically challenged writer treats the romance novel as career aspiration and life coach, with endearing and revealing results.

Following a divorce, Avi Steinberg (Running the Books; The Lost Book of Mormon) enters the realm of the romance novel, hoping to learn how to write a few commercially successful books and, perhaps more importantly, to solve his own real-life romantic challenges. In his quest, Steinberg hangs out with readers, authors, publishers and cover model CJ Hollenbach (so much more than “Ohio’s Response to Fabio”), attends conferences, joins a writing group and eventually lands a multibook contract under the pen name Dana Becker. These adventures he documents in The Happily Ever After: A Memoir of an Unlikely Romance Novelist.

Part personal memoir, part travelogue and part social and literary criticism, The Happily Ever After questions the societal tendency to look down on romance novels (and to apologize for reading them), examines romance’s domination of the commercial book market, reconsiders classics and the author’s own life through a romance lens, and explores the numerous subgenres of this much-loved and much-reviled field. Steinberg makes observations about gender roles and identities not only within romance novels but throughout American society. “The sentimental tropes of romance are so deeply embedded in our culture, we take them for granted,” making his comments relevant for everyone.

Entering as a romance newbie, Steinberg learns (and outlines for readers) the rules of the genre, including the necessity for “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending,” or Happily Ever After (HEA, in Romancelandia parlance). He concludes that “romance is America’s national literature: not because it is universally read or admired but because it is universally obsessed over,” and that Scheherazade was a romance author–bound to the whims of her audience, delivering rapidly and on demand.

Appropriately, Steinberg’s memoir has a generally upbeat cast, even during low points and through the narrator’s struggles with sincere emotions (“you go for a laugh when you could say something real,” one of his writing groupmates tells him; he calls himself “a depressed person who is an optimist at heart”). Also appropriately, the book concludes with the author’s own romance and bona fide HEA.

By no means is this memoir just for fans of the romance genre, although those readers will of course be tickled by his appreciative study. Steinberg’s personal story will suit any reader curious about the book industry, or who simply appreciates quirky personalities. Aspiring writers may find tips and tricks of special interest, but this is no how-to; rather, it’s an endearingly candid exploration of books, subculture and love itself.


This review originally ran in the July 24, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 aliases.

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

A former U.S. Poet Laureate remembers her mother, and wrestles with her brutal murder, in compelling and feeling style.

Natasha Trethewey, two-term United States Poet Laureate, forges a serious, poignant work of remembrance with Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir. Trethewey’s mother, Gwen, is the focus of this book: the daughter’s memories and what she’s forgotten, and, pointedly, the mother’s murder at the hands of her second ex-husband. The murder took place just off Memorial Drive in Atlanta, Ga.; the aptly named thoroughfare runs from downtown to Stone Mountain, monument to the Confederacy, “a lasting metaphor for the white mind of the South.”

Trethewey is the daughter of an African American mother and a white Canadian father. Their marriage was illegal; she was born just before the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case that struck down laws banning interracial marriage. Memorial Drive begins with her upbringing in Mississippi with her doting extended maternal family, necessarily recounting her early understanding of race and racism. This happy period ends abruptly with mother and daughter’s move to Atlanta, when Trethewey’s parents divorce. Atlanta has its strengths, such as a vibrant African American community, but very quickly, Gwen meets the man who will become her second husband. From the beginning, Joel is a sinister figure. Twelve years later, 19-year-old Trethewey returns to Atlanta from college to clean out her mother’s apartment after Joel brutally murders Gwen.

While this central event is harrowing, Memorial Drive does not focus only there. Trethewey ruminates on memory and forgetfulness, and recalls her developing love for and skill with metaphor, language, writing. Back home in Mississippi, her great-aunt “would appear each day at the back door, singing my name through the screen, her upturned palm holding out toward me three underripe figs… she was teaching me the figurative power of objects, their meaningful juxtapositions.” During the painful retelling of her stepfather’s physical abuse of her mother, Trethewey resorts to the second person, a whole chapter delivered to her younger herself. Concluding: “Look at you. Even now you think you can write yourself away from that girl you were, distance yourself in the second person, as if you weren’t the one to whom any of this happened.” Memories of her mother often appear as images, offering symbolic interpretations of the 12-year gap left by trauma. While Trethewey does pursue forensic exploration (transcripts of recorded phone calls between Gwen and Joel, as well as a visit to a psychic), this memoir is more introspection than true-crime investigation. And it is gracefully and gorgeously rendered, as befits a poet of Trethewey’s stature.

Trethewey declines to offer a neat conclusion, but she succeeds in making meaning from pain. Memorial Drive is loving and elegiac, disturbing and incisive.


This review originally ran in the June 18, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 lost records.

Curious Atoms: A History with Physics by Susanne Paola Antonetta

Full disclosure: the author was a professor and mentor of mine at Western Washington University.

Curious Atoms is an essay chapbook, 50-some pages in length, dealing with physics and the author’s own life experiences: part memoir and part science, told by a serious reader of physics but with no formal training in the hard sciences (as far as I can tell). “A History with Physics” feels like an apt subtitle.

There is a certain density to this subject matter. For one thing, admittedly I neither much understand nor much care about the theoretical physics discussed here; I had to let it go by, try to meet it where I found it and move on. But it didn’t hinder my appreciation for the writing, because a great writer can carry us through any subject. (Although I might have gotten more out of this had I been more comfortable with quantum whatnots.) The physics might challenge you as it did me. The personal material is heavy in a different way; Antonetta delves into her experience with bipolar disorder, with mental health and treatment, stigma, medication, and more. She’s also a deeply intelligent and well-read narrator, ranging widely. It’s not an easy read in a few ways, but a rewarding one. I love that wide-ranging headiness, and I loved feeling like I could hear the voice again of a woman I got to hear speak in a classroom a few days a week – that was a real privilege.

Here are a few lovely, thought-provoking, representative lines.

To bring to the lyric the mind and body that I have, and speak from the lyric soul, I cannot. I’m not sure what of mine can be called mine, body or mind; the lyric, with textbook definition of “the personal emotions and thoughts of a single speaker,” wants a warm hand, not mineral. I am not an individual, quite, but a chemo-dual.

That “our bodies of difference,” as Stephen Kuusisto writes, “offer crucial ways of knowing” I do believe. I can only give the cellular knowing of my chemical history, with the punctuation of what I suppose I really am, unmixed: hysteria under the bed, glitter. I can talk about 1970s psychiatry, the time I first encountered as a girl patients preyed on sexually, the awful, always visible electroshock machine, used as treatment and threat, its aftermath a gelled amnesia. I do not think, however, that such memoirizing would get to the question.

Gifted memoirist writes that memoirizing is not the solution. Note the interest in the idea of dualism or multiplicity, as in the multiverse, as in bipolar, as in the highs and lows of minds and lives.

Better still – I apologize that this review is half quoted text, but David Lazar’s brief introduction is too perfect to pass up. I think he describes the collection perfectly, and I couldn’t agree with his final statement more.

Susanne Paola Antonetta’s essays are full of erudition and stunning self-appraisals, hair-pin turns between metaphysics and splintered pieces of autobiography, dark energy and light asides, tossed off like hand grenades. These essays are sculpted – I’m tempted to say forged (so necessary is each sentence, even each word one feels). Yet in the midst of work so exorbitantly cooked, the raw springs of the felt occasion drive the essayist through her thought-projects. I loved being in the company of this mind.

You can view the entire chapbook here, and you really should.


Rating: 8 sides.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (audio)

Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is lovely, painful, and important. It opens with three epigraphs, and the first, by Harriet Tubman, provides Ward’s title.

We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.

This memoir focuses on the deaths of five young men, close friends and relatives of the author, including her brother. One suicide, one murder, two car wrecks, and one death by drugs. Roger, Demond, C.J., Ronald, Joshua. Ward profiles each, tracks a life and a death and the consequences for those who loved him. In shining her light on these five individuals, she also examines race and racism, gender, poverty, and the historical patterns that contribute to deaths like these. Most centrally, racism. (See footnote re: caste.)

Ward introduces her topic and the five young men, briefly, then handles them one by one in reverse death order, from Ronald back to her brother Joshua. In between, sections titled “We Are Born,” “We Are Wounded, “We Are Watching,” etc., track the experiences of Ward and her family, growing up the eldest of her mother’s four children, in chronological order. In this way, two threads of her story meet when the backwards-moving and forwards-moving chronologies intersect with Joshua’s death, hit by a drunk driver in a hit-and-run for which the driver – a white man – would receive a sentence of just five years.

Men We Reaped is a personal memoir of Ward’s own life, as well as a profile of five individuals and their social and family circles. It is also an examination and social critique of race, gender, and class, within the United States and within the historic Deep South. Ward was raised in and around DeLisle, Mississippi, near Gulfport-Biloxi. It’s a particular place, of the old Confederacy, divided by race even as its inhabitants recognize that this is a false division; poverty-stricken, it provides few opportunities for its young people, especially young black men. Ward offers her reader the history of this place as well as of her own family, hearkening to the town’s former name: “I want to impart something of its wild roots, its early savagery. Calling it Wolf Town hints at the wildness at the heart of it.” That this range of subjects is so neatly woven into Ward’s intriguing narrative structure – those forward- and backward-moving chronologies that meet in the middle – results in an extraordinary piece of literary work. Ward’s points about social structures and prejudice are intelligently made, her personal stories are deeply moving, and her craft is admirable. Her writing is lovely and expressive. I am deeply impressed.

This audio narration by Cherise Boothe felt right to me; I appreciated the pacing and weight and pronunciations of place names. (There are so many ways to say “New Orleans.”) As I’ve struggled to write this review – often more difficult the more I appreciate a book – I’ve missed having access to a text copy for reference, but the experience of the audiobook was excellent, so that format is recommended but having the print copy alongside would be ideal.

Everyone should read this book.


Rating: 8 holes in the ground.

I listened to this book while reading Isabel Wilkerson’s forthcoming Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, also a stellar and deeply important book. As Wilkerson illustrates, these forces are the work of caste and casteism. I chose to stay with the term of racism for this review, as it’s the one Ward uses and I think it’s an accurate term, but please see also Wilkerson’s arguments.

Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan

This book came recommended by one of my favorite faithful readers here at the blog, so I’m sorry to say I’m not an unqualified fan.

Adrift is a memoir of survival. Steven Callahan is a lifelong sailor, and from boyhood had wanted to sail across the Atlantic, which he eventually managed to do in his late twenties in a 21-foot sailboat of his own design and build. Her name is Napoleon Solo, and with a friend, Callahan sails her from New England to old England. Here the friend flies home and Callahan putters south with another short-term crew member; they part at the Spanish island of Tenerife. Callahan sets out alone for Antigua, and it is in this second attempted Atlantic crossing that things go wrong. The subtitle gives the briefest summary. Callahan spends the 76 days in an inflatable raft with few and meager tools, whose accelerating failures require increasingly creative solutions, even as the man’s body and mind self-cannibalize and break down.

For one thing, this book is interesting in that it is both suspenseful and riveting, and spoiled from the beginning: that Callahan got to write the book (never mind that subtitle) gives away the ending. In fact, the subtitle’s specificity gives away yet more. As I read the log, I see we’re in day 41 and know we’re nowhere near done. I was nevertheless absorbed by the story. It’s hard to say to what extent I enjoyed this read; I was often frustrated, but always reluctant to close the book and walk away.

I think I might have been more able to enjoy the story if I’d better understood the practical aspects of it. Sometimes Callahan throws out terms or processes unconcernedly that are meaningless to me. Sometimes he tries to explain but entirely passes me by – which may be as much on me as it is on him; certainly I don’t know my way around a boat, and mechanical intelligence is not a strength of mine. He includes some diagrams and step-by-step explications that so entirely passed me by that I started skipping them, as trying and failing to understand only irritated me. That said, giving up on the details still left me able to follow the life-and-death struggle.

Callahan conceives of himself as operating in three parts: physical, emotional, and rational. Especially as he starts to really lose it (with fatigue, starvation and dehydration, frustration, sleep deprivation, and the general crazy-making of his situation), these parts become a chorus of arguing voices in his head. There is a philosophical, if not meta-physical, thread to the story: will to live versus peace with death, and how people suffer and work through experiences like this. I suspect such a story is one of the hardest things to write, to communicate such profundities… and so if I say he didn’t do an entirely convincing job of it, I mean that as mild criticism. Certainly I’ve never lived through anything like this, nor tried to write it, and I can’t imagine I’d do any better.

The story was undoubtedly compelling. I didn’t want to stop reading. And yet I felt a certain impatience, too. It’s strange to say, but the events of these 76 days, while they included much variation, were also much of the same over and over. Much minutia of patching holes and reconfiguring a speargun, but on the other hand, just the ocean: “that torn blue desert,” he calls it, with dorados and flying fish and triggerfish and calm weather or angry weather, hot days and cold nights. Possibly this could have been done in fewer than 238 pages to better effect. (That’s a major decision to be made with a book like this: degree of detail; pacing.) Maybe I’m not the ideal reader of this book, or not at the ideal time. When I think about survival-in-nature stories, I think of Krakauer first, of course; Into Thin Air remains the pinnacle for me, in memory, with Into the Wild a close second. (Both of these, apparently, pre-blog. And what would I think of them if I reread them now?) Stories this elemental must be among the hardest to get right. Isn’t this kind of survival narrative the definition of ineffable?

Interesting in its own ways, and demands to be finished (no question of a did-not-finish here), but not something I loved reading.


Rating: 7 eyes.
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