3 to read: romance, resilience, resourcefulness

On Valentine’s Day I offer you a treat: three reviews of great books worth reading — no added fat, sugar or artificial ingredients.

The common theme is exploration and survival, and the books are Joan Druett’s Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World; Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania; and The Long Walk, The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz.

In brief, each of these books will exhaust the reader because there’s so much to  digest.

RESILIENCE: In The Long Walk, the author, Rawicz, was a Polish army officer falsely accused and sentenced to the Russian Gulag. Even the first few chapters of the book are so incredible and appalling that they’re unforgettable: frozen, emaciated prisoners taken to the end of the railroad in Siberia, then put on uninsulated trucks for hundreds more miles — and THEN forced to walk hundreds of miles chained together with little food, poor clothing and no shelter. They finally arrive at their prison, so far from anything that the urge to escape is muted by hours of painful work in the woods (with little food, poor clothing, etc). Until amazingly, Rawicz develops an escape plan, putting in motion the Most Epic True Survival Story I have ever read. He and others basically WALK 4,000 miles to India: through the Gobi desert, over the Himalayas (where there’s a bit of a surprise for the reader), skirting civilization the whole way to avoid being returned to the Gulag. If you like survival stories, this is a must read.

RESOURCEFULNESS: Druett’s Island of the Lost is my second favorite because there’s nothing like the sea to create extreme isolation and desperation. Back in the early 1800s, four men set out from Australia (or New Zealand? I can’t remember!) to scout a distant island for mineral mining. In the beginning the book is a little slow, spelling out all of the hoops they have to jump through to get a sponsor, secure and provision the boat, etc. Fast forward and they’re shipwrecked on the island with prospects for rescue unknown (weather, sea conditions are so awful there that it’s amazing they were rescued at all). Apparently this particular island frequently hosted shipwrecked sailors because there was some evidence of previous inhabitants — but sea lions comprised most of the population. Aside from having to approach massive sea lions and club them to death in order to survive (can you see yourself doing that??) one of the men kept a concise diary of their activities, including step-by-step accounts of repurposing parts of their boat to build a shelter, foraging for edibles when sea lions/seals were not in season (there were times that the creatures left the island completely), finding other shipwrecked sailors on another part of the island, building a new boat.. I was so impressed by the knowledge and skills they possessed that I was convinced that NO ONE living today would have been rescued alive from that island, as they eventually were. (Except if you’re Steve Callahan, who documented his survival on a life raft in the Atlantic in the book Adrift — also highly recommended.)

ROMANCE: The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux started out as a fun read because it’s a contemporary account of someone, like me, who seeks the unexplored as a solo traveler — and uses humor and wry observations to color his narrative. Starting in Australia, Theroux went to some of the least-traveled areas and talked to anyone he found, obliquely to explore the national identity of the enigmatic and apparently elusive Aborigines. With humor similar to author Bill Bryson’s (A Walk in the Woods), he has no schedule to keep, and lots to explore as he paddles a collapsible kayak among islands of the South Pacific, including visits to Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, Somoa and many more seldomly-discussed nations, examining the culture along the way. Although I’m not finished reading this book yet (it’s about 600 pages and frankly his observations of different islands are starting to sound alike) I can say I’d recommend it for the physical and cultural exploration he does and for his interesting comparisons between our romanticized views of that part of the world and their current (circa 1992) realities. It’s refreshing to read an outdoors travelogue that includes many references to literature and history rather than dry observations (although his are more wry than dry).

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