More Five Sentence Reviews: The Radium Girls, Ongoingness, and The Janus Stone

I hope everyone is having a good week so far. It’s August! It’s hot. I just saw the new Mission Impossible movie yesterday and it’s terrific! Non-stop action. I’m currently reading books 16 and 17 from my 20 Books of Summer list, taking my time especially with George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline because it’s dark. Very good, but dark. And, in this current political hellscape,  I can only deal with so much dark at once. Plus I’m still trying to savor short story collections rather than blazing through them quickly. But I’ve got a stack of overdue reviews, so here is another batch of Five Sentence Reviews.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore. 51GLNSdDDqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Young American women considered themselves lucky to have jobs painting illuminated watch and clock dials in the 1910’s-1930’s. They licked the brushes, dipped them in radium-mixed paint, and painted, over and over again all day. When they started falling ill, the companies who employed them disavowed any responsibility. I’m so glad the stories of these brave women (who fought back against the companies despite grave illness and horrific injury) are finally being told. But important as that is, I felt like the narrative was disjointed and repetitive – and also very sad. (3 Stars.)

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso. A 95-page memoir and exploration of the keeping and letting go of a meticulous daily diary, full of meditations on identity, motherhood, the passage of 81aIlYK3KLLtime, memory. I marked many passages, especially once Manguso became pregnant and had a child. I related to so much of what she wrote. “Before I was a mother, I thought I was asking, How, then, can I survive forgetting so much? Then I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.” (3 Stars.)

The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths (Ruth Galloway mystery #2.) I barely took any notes on this one, I read it so quickly. This mystery series is the perfect mix of realistic and cozy – not too gruesome for me to handle, but not too precious or 51+aKyKRIeL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_cutesy to be believable either. In this one forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is called to investigate a child’s bones found at the demolition site of a former Catholic children’s home and, before that, a private residence. Someone is trying to frighten her off the case, of course, and she continues to work with the attractive (and married) DCI Harry Nelson. Their bond continues to be complicated, and I am really enjoying this series. (4 Stars.)

So how has your August in books been so far? Still going with 20 Books of Summer? Have you read any of these, and if so, what did you think?

(These three books are numbers 10, 11, and 12 from my 20 Books of Summer list.)

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Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou (Classics Club Review #3; 20 Books of Summer #1)

It’s only been in the last couple of years that I realized that Maya Angelou had written more than one memoir (her most famous one, the one most likely assigned in school, is the first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.) And then somehow I started reading them out of order – me, the person who is a stickler for reading mystery series in order! So I’ve read the first, many years ago, and then the third and the fifth more recently. Gather Together in My Name (published in 1974) is the second of her memoirs, and it takes up where Caged Bird leaves off. It’s post-WWII San Francisco/Oakland and teenage mother Maya (Marguerite, shortened to Rita for a short-lived job as a Creole cook) is determined to make her way in the world  with as little help as possible from her mother. In doing so she finds ways to make money that are surprising to say the least.

This is a slim book and covers a lot of ground for a time span of just a few years in her life. Maya/Rita has lived more lives than any one person ever really should – here she is a cook, a waitress, a dancer/entertainer, a madam (yes, you read that right!,) a prostitute, a chauffeur, and nearly enlists in the Army. She also goes back to Stamps, Arkansas, the tiny place where she grew up with her grandmother, on the run from her time as a madam. (Things are a little different in Stamps between whites and blacks, to say the least, and she ends up getting quickly sent back to California for her safety after offending a white store clerk.)

Gather Together is a darker volume than the third and fifth books. I had to keep reminding myself that Maya was a 17 year-old single mother, with the judgement/naivety of a 17 year-old. She keeps falling in love with men who aren’t good for her, and she has the mentality (probably common in the late 1940’s) that a man is going to rescue her and  her child and allow her to be a homemaker.

He would be a little younger than my father, and handsome in that casual way. His conservative clothes would fit well, and he’d talk to me softly and look at me penetratingly. He’d often pat me and tell me how proud he was of me and I’d strain to make him even prouder. We would live quietly in a pretty little house and I’d have another child, a girl, and the two children (whom he’d love equally) would climb over his knees and I would make three-layer caramel cakes in my electric kitchen until they went off to college.

With all of her travels, adventures, and lucky escapes, one thing that struck me was how her son, Guy, was passed around from caretaker to caretaker, and she left him for long stretches with women who she paid to look after him. During her time as a prostitute, she leaves him in the care of a woman named Big Mary. After an extended absence caring for her mother and brother Bailey, Maya returns to collect Guy only to find that Big Mary’s house is boarded up and she’s moved to parts unknown with Maya’s baby in tow. A neighbor watching from her house tells Maya that Big Mary has a brother in Bakersfield. With only that as a tip a distraught Maya manages to track down her Guy, who by this time is three years old.

He took a fistful of my hair and twisted and pulled, crying all the time. I couldn’t untangle the hair or pull my head away. I stood holding him while he raged at being abandoned. My sobs broke free on the waves of my first guilt. I had loved him and never considered that he was an entire person. Separate from my boundaries, I had not know before that he had and would have a life beyond being my son, my pretty baby, my cute doll, my charge. In the plowed farmyard near Bakersfield, I began to understand the uniqueness of that person. He was three and I was nineteen, and never again would I think of him as a beautiful appendage of myself.

Poor Guy! I am glad that I read this because I want to read all of her memoirs, but this one wasn’t one of my favorites so far, probably because young Maya is an unappealing  combination of naive, snobby, and headstrong. She gets herself into some insane situations by virtue of ignorance, misplaced self-confidence, and desperation to be loved.  As usual, the writing is elegant and thoughtful, if a tad detached. For me it wasn’t as captivating a read as the third (Singin’ and Swingin’ And Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas) and fifth (All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.) But of course Maya is older in these books and has more about herself and the world figured out, and they both are set in interesting locales all over the world. I was shocked to read about the things young Maya did, knowing what we all know about the dignified, insightful, talented writer and poet she became, the lady who read poetry at President Clinton’s first inauguration. It’s a remarkable testament to the power of people to learn, grow, and change over the course of their lives.

(This is the third of my reviews for my Classics Club list and the first book of this year’s 20 Books of Summer Challenge.)

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

A book I read last month that I really loved was Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. It came out in 2002 and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. It’s one of those books that I love the more I think about it, the more time away from it I get. It’s rare that I go back and re-rate a book, but I’ve decided this a five-star read (up from four) with the distance of a couple of weeks. Gilbert so skillfully and holistically examines her subject (the confounding Eustace Conway) that I can’t stop thinking about the book and the man himself.

51XDqHOJJGL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_But this is how Eustace interacts with all the world all the time – taking any opportunity to teach people about nature. Which is to say that Eustace is not merely a hermit or a hippie or even a survivalist. He does not live in the woods because he’s hiding from us, or because he’s growing excellent weed, or because he’s storing guns for the imminent race war. He lives in the woods because he belongs there. Moreover, he tries to get other people to move into the woods with him, because he believes that this is his particular calling – nothing less than to save our nation’s collective soul by reintroducing Americans to the concept of revelatory communion with the frontier. Which is to say that Eustace Conway believes that he is a Man of Destiny.

Gilbert came to know Eustace through one of his younger brothers, whom she met working at a ranch in Wyoming after college. (“I went to Wyoming, in other words, to make a man of myself.”) I don’t know if someone without a family connection would have been able to get Conway to open up like she did. She even shares her conversations with Conway’s dad, who it seems to me is the driving force behind everything the younger Conway tried to do, at least in his youth. I grew furious at Eustace’s father, known as Big Eustace. He is described by each of his children differently, but to Little Eustace, his first born and namesake, he was pretty much an emotionally withholding and abusive monster.

If Little Eustace so much as touched a hammer from Big Eustace’s toolshed without permission, he would be sent to his room and forced to stay there for hours without food or water. If Little Eustace didn’t finish every morsel on his plate in proper time, Big Eustace would force him to sit at the dinner table all night, even if it meant the child had to sleep upright in his chair. If Little Eustace, in his play, accidentally kicked up a divot of grass from his father’s lawn, he would be beaten with a wooden paddle. If Little Eustace, in doing his chores, dared to mow the grass in a counterclockwise pattern instead of the clockwise pattern his father had commanded, there would be a huge scene and hell to pay.

The picture that emerges is a terrified and overanxious-to-please little boy, who is trying his best to make his taskmaster father happy, not understanding why his father is so hard on him and encourages his siblings to join in on the mocking. As the mother of a little boy it breaks my heart to think of a child who only wanted what he should have had, unconditional love from his parent.

Only when he had dutifully finished high school did Eustace Conway split. He took the teepee he’d made by hand (an older Native American woman who knew Eustace at the time described it as “the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen”) and he took his knife and he took some books and he was gone.

See, while his childhood was a minefield of trauma, Little Eustace realized that he felt his most free and most competent outside. His parents both were outdoor types and gave him enough freedom to explore the nearby woods on his own. He threw himself into things like archery, throwing knives, beadwork, weaving, and reading about “Men of Destiny” like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Geronimo. He observed turtles and snakes and frogs close-up, tending to a community of turtles in his backyard for years. So it makes sense that as soon as he was legally able he left home and lived for a time in his teepee for a time, until he took a notion to hike the Appalachian Trail with a friend on a whim, totally unprepared.

From there Eustace has more cross-country adventures (including a wild horseback trek with his brother all the way to the Pacific Ocean) until he finally settles back in North Carolina and starts buying tracts of land near the city of Boone. Here Gilbert really digs into Conway’s relationships, both with the endless stream of women who are attracted to him and the people he tries to work with and mentor on his farm/education center. Turns out he is nearly impossible to work for and completely hopeless at romantic relationships. (The armchair psychologist in me says it’s because of his childhood trauma – never getting the love he wanted from his father and feeling like the only way he could possibly get it would be to be absolutely perfect in all his endeavors.) Gilbert really portrays him skillfully, honestly but also sympathetically. He’s someone I don’t know if I’d really want to be around in real life, but he’s someone who was absolutely fascinating to read about. And his aims of giving young people a taste of the natural world through hard work, farming, and back-to-nature methods of living are undeniably admirable. Gilbert tries to situate Conway’s story, and some of the young men who are drawn to work for him, within the framework of American masculinity, the lack of ritual to young men coming into manhood, the disconnection with any sense of nature. It makes for thought-provoking reading, even when I wanted to smack Eustace for being so obtuse in his romantic and business endeavors.

Conway’s farming and education center, Turtle Island, is still operational. You can read about it here. Apparently he was also on a television show on the History Channel called “Mountain Men.” I’ve never seen it. I wonder if Gilbert is still in contact with Conway, if they’re still friends, and what his response to this book was. It’s approaching 20 years since publication. I wonder what compromises Conway has made to keep his place going, because as of the end of this book it didn’t seem like he would do something like be in a TV show. Maybe I should check it out!

I seem to have a thing for books about explorers/hermits/back-to-nature types. Last year one of my favorite reads was The Stranger in the Woods about the North Pond Hermit, and I also have loved Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. This is funny because I’m about the least outdoorsy person you would ever meet. I have never even been camping and the longest hike I’ve ever been on was a five mile round trip. But there’s something so appealing to me about the notion of wild spaces, of solitude and time for reflection in those natural places. There’s something that speaks to me in the desire for a simpler, unplugged lifestyle, and for pushing your physical limits to commune with nature and find inner peace. For now I am an armchair traveler/hiker/camper, but I do so appreciate reading about these intrepid (sometimes foolhardy) souls who continue to reach for something basic and wild about humanity even in these turbulent times of technological revolution. Eustace Conway was a maddening, complicated person to read about, but I am glad someone like him exists and is still trying to draw others into wild spaces.

Have you read any books about nature and/or explorers that you would recommend? I’d love to read your suggestions and thoughts!

These Books Need To Go: a Mini-Review Round-Up

Having (regrettably) set my Goodreads Challenge number higher than I ever had in the past, I felt the pressure to read faster.  I have indeed turned on the jets and finished quite a few books in the past six weeks.  But I haven’t been reviewing them at the same pace.  So I’ve got this stack of books staring me in the face and, honestly, getting on my nerves.  Plus, they just need to get back to the library (where I procured them all.)  Because I’m sick of looking at them, here are some super quick mini-reviews to clear the decks.

Now You See Me (Lacey Flint #1) by Sharon Bolton.  Fiction Fan turned me onto this author.  I really enjoyed this one.  It’s got a strong female detective constable (Lacey,) a Jack the Ripper copycat killer with a mysterious connection to Lacey, and a nice slow-burning sexual tension between her and DI Mark Joesbury.  Very suspenseful, and I really didn’t know how it was all going to work out until the end.  High quality writing as well.  Definitely will be reading more of this series and this author in 2018!  Four stars.

Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards (British Library Crime Classics.)  My pick for Christmas reading this year.  An uneven collection, but five of the Golden Age crime stories really stood out and made this a worthwhile pick.  Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock story, “The Blue Carbuncle” was entertaining as one might expect.  “Stuffing” by Edgar Wallace was short and sweet.  H.C. Bailey’s “The Unknown Murderer” featured an unlikely criminal and an unexpected twist.  “The Chinese Apple” by Joseph Shearing (a pen name of Marjorie Bowen) is a masterpiece of misdirection.  And my favorite, Ethel Lina White’s “Waxworks,” is a creepy delight.  A young female journalist investigates a hall of wax where two people have mysteriously died.  Determined to find out of the hall is indeed haunted, she sneaks in and gets herself locked in overnight on Christmas Eve.  Suspense builds as the night goes on and she finds herself imagining things – or could there be a murderer locked in with her?  I absolutely loved this one.  Overall, though, for the collection, Three stars.

White Rage: The Unspoke Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson.  This book grew out of an op-ed in the Washington Post in response to the 2014 Ferguson, MO riots after the killing of Michael Brown.  I could call this book Important Stuff We Should Have Studied in High School.  In a short but well-researched 164 pages (and 60 pages of end notes) Anderson lays out a map of white oppression tactics to every gain in status that African Americans have won since the end of the Civil War.  From the unjust laws of the former CSA states during Reconstruction to the assault on voting rights after the election of our first black president, Anderson makes a persuasive argument that every time African Americans win a victory, there is always a well-coordinated and legalistic backlash by a segment of white people in power.  The chapter on the aftermath of the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education was especially good.  An eye-opening, enraging, important book.  Four stars.

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons.  A debut novel about grief and identity.  Unusual structure – some photographs, some graphs, a few pages include only three or four sentences.  The main character is Thandi, born and raised in America to a mixed-race South African mother and a light-skinned Black American father.  Thandi’s mother has died of cancer (not a spoiler) and we get to see how the event shapes Thandi’s life as she tries to find her place in the world as an adult.  There were some beautifully written passages about grief, but it just didn’t come together for me as powerful, cohesive  narrative.  The most interesting sections of the book for me were explorations of contemporary motherhood and marriage.  Three stars.

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud.  I’ve loved Messud’s two previous novels, The Emperor’s Children and The Woman Upstairs.  This one wasn’t on par with those, unfortunately.  A portrait of two twelve-year old best friends on the cusp of big changes and growing apart.  It moved along quickly and I was engaged, but I couldn’t quite believe that the narrator was supposed to be a seventeen year-old looking back and not a middle-aged author.  The voice was felt too mature.  There are some intelligent observations about the physical freedoms that girls give up as they grow into women, and there are scenes as the girls explore an old abandoned asylum that are lovely and creepy.  Messud is a good writer, I just wanted more vitality from this book.  Three stars.

Hear me now – I’m setting my Goodreads Challenge number nice and low next year!  This (self-imposed) pressure is for the birds.  Three more books by the end of the year to meet my goal.  I can do it!  Hope you all are enjoying some good reading this weekend.  Will you meet your Goodreads Challenge goal?

A Solution Staring Me In The Face

I read mostly fiction.   For years I’ve been meaning to read more nonfiction, and I add more and more nonfiction titles to my Goodreads TBR, but there they sit, as I continue to devour novels.  However!  I’ve just stumbled upon a pretty obvious solution to my problem. PUT THE NONFICTION ON HOLD AT THE LIBRARY, LAILA.

See, one of the perks of working at a library is everyday access to the library catalog, where I can check and see if new titles have been added before they’re published.  (Patrons can do this too, it’s just that I’m here all the time and think about it more often than the average person, probably.)  So when I know the new Michael Connelly or Kate Atkinson book is coming out soon, I put myself on hold and hopefully will be near the top of the list.  But for some reason, I NEVER THINK to put myself on hold for nonfiction.  I’ve got a hold list full of fiction (and movies and compact discs ) instead.

A few months back I put White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson on hold.  When it came around to me, shockingly, I read it!  So I thought, “This worked so well, why don’t I look at my Goodreads list and put some more nonfiction on hold?”

Here are three nonfiction titles I’ve recently placed on hold (book blurbs from Goodreads:)

the-last-castle-9781476794044_hrThe Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan.  (“The fascinating true story behind the magnificent Gilded Age mansion Biltmore—the largest, grandest residence ever built in the United States.”)  At the moment I’m number 81 out of 91 waiting for it. (Knoxville isn’t too far from Asheville, NC, which is one reason I think that there are so many people waiting for this.)

51GLNSdDDqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Radium Girls:  The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore.  (“The Curies’ newly discovered element of radium makes gleaming headlines across the nation as the fresh face of beauty, and wonder drug of the medical community. From body lotion to tonic water, the popular new element shines bright in the otherwise dark years of the First World War.

Meanwhile, hundreds of girls toil amidst the glowing dust of the radium-dial factories. The glittering chemical covers their bodies from head to toe; they light up the night like industrious fireflies. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” are the luckiest alive – until they begin to fall mysteriously ill.”)  I am currently number 12 out of 16 waiting.

9780553447453Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.  (“Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today.”)  There isn’t a waiting list for this one anymore, but I’ve suspended my hold until January, when I’ve hopefully made a dent in the books I’ve got on my nightstand at the moment.

So now that you’re shaking your head at my obtuseness, tell me:  if you’ve ever wanted to make shake up your reading habits, what are some strategies you’ve used to actually get those books in your hands?  Have you read any of these books, or if not, do they interest you? What is your balance of fiction to nonfiction?  Let’s chat in the comments!

My Life With Bob by Pamela Paul

717w6Z79NILMy Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues is one of those books that is incredibly quotable.  I put little Post-it notes in the backs of my library books so that I always have paper on hand to make notations (in case my little notepad isn’t handy) and I filled four full Post-its – plus two pages in my notepad.  Pamela Paul is very opinionated, which I suppose makes for a good book about books.  Who’d want to read a book about books with a bunch of milquetoast opinions? Sometimes I really liked her, sometimes I found her insufferable (to be fair, mostly when she was younger.  And who isn’t insufferable when they’re young?)  But the entire time I was reading this, I found her interesting.

I think I expected more whimsy and less substance from this book, but I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of Paul’s tale.  A shy only sister in a large family of brothers, she wanted to impress the librarians of her childhood with her reading taste. (“I was certain I’d lose their respect entirely if they caught me when, following the gateway drug of Judy Blume, I progressed to Paula Danziger and Norma Klein explicit and positively dirty.”)  The reader follows Paul from adolescence and high school through college and world travels thereafter, then onto a first failed marriage and up to the present day, married with children (who are readers themselves.)  All along the way, Paul describes how the books she chose informed her thinking and her life and vice versa.  Her teenage obsession with the Andy Warhol-endorsed Slaves of New York, by Tama Janovitz, served as her “inchoate way of declaring to the rest of my high school classmates where I stood.”  On a summer abroad in France, disgusted by her previous self-indulgent and histrionic diaries, she began “Bob,” her book of books.  It would be a diary of the better part of herself, or the self she wanted to present to the world and become. Later, writing of her first marriage, she credits her intellectual and philosophical arguments with her then husband, also a voracious reader, with enhancing her ability to consider books on a deeper level.  (“I’d gone from escaping into books and searching for answers to locating a considered remove, respecting my perspective on the work, and trusting my own responses.  I hadn’t properly engaged with books before I’d met my husband; I’d never wrestled with a text.  Before we were married, I”d never written a book review; a few months after we split up, I wrote my first.”)

I dare anyone to read the chapter about her father (called “Bad News: Tearjerkers”) and not bawl.

Some favorite lines:

“This is every reader’s catch-22: the more you read, the more you realize you haven’t read; the more you yearn to read more, the more you understand that you have, in fact, read nothing.”

“It was as if our fundamental differences became manifest in how we read, slicing through the fog of infatuation.”

“Books gnaw at me from around the edges of my life, demanding more time and attention.  I am always left hungry.”

“The ability to choose one’s own books becomes slightly less satisfying when you realize your own children have that power, too, and they insist on reading about rainbow fairies or killer cats.”

IMG_1979
My second and current “Bob”

 

I eagerly anticipated reading this because I also keep a “Bob” of my own.  I’m on the second edition, actually, having filled up the first in 2015.  They are nondescript lined journals, and they don’t have names, but they’re dear to my heart as a record of who I was when I was reading things.  I’ve written little notes about who I started dating and when I broke up with them, when I began dating my now husband, when I had my son (precious little reading was done in the months thereafter!)  I like to take these “Bobs” out from time to time and reflect on all the things I’ve read, how my tastes have changed, favorite books I’ve read more than once and ones I still want to reread.  Paul sums up the appeal of a “Bob” nicely near the end of her memoir by saying,

I’d like to think others would get as much out of a Book of Books as I have gotten out of mine.  For each of us, the books we’ve chosen across a lifetime reveal not only our evolving interests and tastes, but also our momentary and insatiable desires, the questions we can’t stop asking, the failings we recognize in ourselves at the time, and the ones we can see clearly only years later.  We pass our lives according to our books – relishing and reacting against them, reliving their stories when we recall where we were when we read them and the reasons we did.  Most people, I’m convinced, are not just searching for cocktail-party fodder when they ask what someone else is reading.  They are trying to figure someone out, to get to the bottom of him.  They are looking for clues.

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

I LOVED The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.  I finished it in two days and am pretty sure that if I hadn’t had to put it down I could have read it in one sitting.  It was totally absorbing and compelling, and Michael Finkel has written a fascinating, true account with a high level of compassion and empathy.  I often bemoan how nonfiction takes me longer to read than fiction, but this is one book that I absolutely inhaled.

30687200._UY400_SS400_You might be familiar with the book’s subject, Christopher Knight, the North Pond Hermit, who lived in the woods, stole items from cabins and eluded capture for over 25 years in Maine.  I hadn’t heard of this story before. Finkel begins the book from Knight’s perspective, as he makes a run in the dead of night to steal food from a summer camp for disabled people.  It details the ways he avoids leaving footprints or breaking underbrush, hopscotching through the woods with catlike agility, his route honed over many years. The second chapter is from the perspective of the Maine game warden who has been pursuing Knight, and who has booby-trapped the camp’s kitchen.  The third is from the perspective of a state trooper who arrests and questions him.  It’s a great entry into the story, putting us right in the action and letting us know about all the people who have been trying to catch Knight all these years.  Knight himself has been unaware of all the attention directed at him.  When captured he wasn’t quite sure what year it was. When asked how long he’d been living in the woods, he told them since the year of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (1986.)

Finkel reads about Knight’s story in the newspaper and feels instantly drawn to him.  He writes Knight a letter including a story he’d written in National Geographic about a remote hunter-gather tribe in East Africa and mentioing that they share a love of literature.  To his surprise, Knight writes back.  They began a quasi-correspondence, but Knight always held back somewhat. After being alone in nature all those years, the time in jail was wearing away at his nerves.  His mental state deteriorating, he abruptly quit writing, so Finkel decided to go visit him in jail in Maine.

Through a series of visits with Knight, Finkel discovers how he survived brutal Maine winters with no heat source (fires would attract attention, obviously.)  Knight talks about how and why he stole the items from cabins all those years ( food, batteries, clothing, camping gear, nothing too valuable or personal.)  The details of survival were endlessly fascinating to me.  For instance, Knight recycled the magazine he stole and used them as subflooring for his living area, “creating a platform that was perfectly level and also permitted decent drainage of rainwater.”  He lived so close to others that he couldn’t even sneeze aloud!  (Turns out that dense foliage and huge outcroppings of boulders helped protect his tent from discovery.)

Besides being interested in the mechanics of how someone survives alone in the woods all that time, I was drawn to what it must have felt like, the silence and stillness that Knight experienced.  Finkel does a good job portraying this, sharing his experience of camping overnight at the spot that Knight called home.  He talks about the reading material Knight stole, how he stole portable radios and even had a small black and white television for a time, rigged up with car batteries and an antenna hidden in the trees.  But what he did most of the time wasn’t listening to the radio or reading.

Mostly what he did was nothing.  He sat on his bucket or on a lawn chair in quiet contemplation.  There was no chanting, no mantra, no lotus position. “Daydreaming,” he termed it.  Meditation.  Thinking about things. Thinking about whatever I wanted to think about.”  

He was never once bored.  He wasn’t sure, he said, that he even understood the concept of boredom.  It applied only to people who felt they had to be doing something all the time, which from what he’d observed was most people.

Finkel weaves some historical accounts of hermits throughout the book, but Knight is the real draw here.  What makes a 20 year old with no criminal record or known mental problems just drop out of society entirely?  Why did his family not report him missing? How does he reconcile all the things he stole from people over the years, which includes their sense of personal safety?  How does someone who’s been in the woods all that time reenter society?  Could we learn something from Knight, and how do we do so without romanticizing his criminal behavior?

Finkel-SDN-032417-1-1
A picture of Knight’s camp after his arrest.

If you couldn’t tell, I just enjoyed the heck out of this book.  As someone who reads disproportionately more fiction, I can say that this felt like reading a really good novel – it was that immersive and compelling.  I envied Knight somewhat.  I don’t want to do what he did – I love my family and hot, running water too much for that – but I envy the experience of nature and quiet that he experienced.

The dividing line between himself and the forest, Knight said, seemed to dissolve.  His isolation felt more like a communion.  “My desires dropped away.  I didn’t long for anything.  I didn’t even have a name.  To put it romantically, I was completely free.”

If you’re wanting a quick nonfiction book for a change of pace, pick this up! Five enthusiastic stars.