The Web has democratized the reviewing process, of everything from washing machines to widgets to, of course, books, where Amazon started the trend. Alas, the reviewing landscape has gotten a bit wild and woolly, what with fake reviews, both positive and negative, meant to drive up or down reputations. Leaving those problems aside, reading reviews of one's books yields a fascinating range of experiences, from inspirational pleasure to exasperated hair-pulling. Some blithe souls review not the book but the delivery service. "Received in good condition, thanks!" Then, too, what am I to make of this comment on Amazon, about my college-level text in history? "It's pretty small and compact unit. The instructions are quite informative and easy to read and understand. The projector casing feels like it's made from a strong durable aluminum. The unit seams very sturdy and robust."
Then there are those reviews that are not particularly favorable, yet bring a smile to the author's face nonetheless. In an earlier blog entry I noted the student who gave five stars to my college text (oooh, five stars, great!) only to discover the air being let out of my balloon in his comments. "Man, I love college! Passing class with A and haven't read a page!" Then there was the review, on Goodreads, of They Say, my book about Ida B. Wells and her campaign against lynching. "I probably wouldn't have read this if it wasn't for school," the reviewer noted, "but for a non-fiction historical book, it didn't make me want to put a hole in my head, and I feel that's always a plus."
Wow! That would grab your attention as a blurb on the dust-jacket. "Didn't make me want to put a hole in my head!"--Dolores, from Goodreads.
Contrasting reviews demonstrate the wide range of human tastes and desires. For some readers, A Little History of the United States hits the sweet spot in terms of length and coverage: "...good at being able to talk about the various things/people/ideas that have made America what it is today. And all without getting bogged down in side stories, tangents, or extraneous details." For others, the book seemed almost painfully short: "It flows at breakneck speed and because it is a potted history of a long period and of a diverse and huge country there are things left out, alluded too and not quite covered..." (True enough, although actually, he still liked the book.)
Similarly, Great Heart (co-authored with my paddling partner John Rugge) tells the story of three expeditions across Labrador. The first, launched in 1903, ends in starvation and death. The follow-up, in 1905, involves two rival expeditions, each seeking to complete the work of the original trek. In addition, a love story becomes part of the tale, as one of the main characters, a Scottish-Cree Indian guide, falls for the widow leading one of the trips. Some reviewers resist that aspect:: "I really liked the first half of the book. The second half started out strong but there was a romance that was intimated and it was too much of a focus and took away from the story." Other readers feel that the romance adds to the interest: "One of the best books I've read in a while. A true adventure... with a great love story at the center. Very touching. If you like expeditions, this is the book for you."
For me, though, the reviews that most satisfy are not measured by praise or blame but reveal readers' life experiences. People engage with their books intensely, for better or worse. Great Heart was emphatically not the ticket one reader was seeking, as the review below reveals—though it's a bit hard to say whether the reviewer's dissatisfaction arose from the book itself or from her own life experiences. Who is this Brandon and where did he go?
More positively, I've found that the first book John Rugge and I wrote over forty years ago, The Complete Wilderness Paddler, has become an intimate part of many readers lives:
And finally, a Goodreads review by a woman named Sally, which touched me greatly—not so much for the praise as for her own pungent story-telling and the help the book provided for her own adventures:
Wonderful recollections, wonderful writing—evocative, imaginative, poignant!
Trapper, early twentieth century. Library of Congress
The thermometer here has been hovering in single digits and New York City recorded wind-chill temps below zero. In Saranac Lake, where I spend time during the summer, wind chills yesterday dropped to around -40. Times like these, I think of a delightful little volume written by a nineteenth-century fur trapper from northern Canada. Martin Hunter's Canadian Wilds is available to read on Google Books, if you want to get a fire going in the living room and do a little browsing on your tablet. His book is full of old-fashioned lore about staying alive in difficult conditions. Here is some advice from Chapter 16, "Things to Avoid:"
Jack London's tyro in "To Build a Fire" would not have come to grief if he had followed Hunter's advice that "a proper partner is necessary" while traveling in the wilds, "for safety, successful hunting, and division of the many necessary labors, when the hunting or trapping day is over." Hunter reels off a list of possible disasters with fatal consequence, not least the risk of getting caught in your own animal traps. "I have known two men to lose their lives in a most horrible way of torture and agony, and these men were not novices at the business," he notes. One was middle-aged and "born and brought up to trapping, and the other was an old Nova Scotian who had trapped and hunted for forty years and yet he died in a bear trap." Hunter recounted one of his own near-misses when traveling alone in winter:
Despite such sage wisdom, Hunter was not without his crotchets:
So go ahead: throw another log on the fire and cozy up with this book until the cold wave snaps. You will feel even better if you line your head up with True North!
Astonishing country. The Torngats lie north of Labrador's northernmost permanent settlement, Nain. The country is carved out of rock billions of years old, among the oldest in the world. Parks Canada has set aside the area as Torngat Mountains National Park.
Yet although the spectacular vistas rival those of the Grand Canyon, only about 600 people visit the park each year, mainly because it's almost impossible to reach except by ship or plane. Polar bears are common.
Artist Rockwell Kent was an inveterate wanderer, spending time in Maine, Alaska, Labrador, Greenland and Tierra del Fuego, among other remote spots. But when he settled down, it was on a farm in the Adirondacks which he named Asgaard, located in Au Sable Forks, New York. I visited this month, for the farm is still prospering in a wonderfully modest way (Kent was never the agribusiness type), specializing in goat cheese and—to the present owners' surprise, given the unexpected demand—salted caramels.
Kent is a favorite artist in our family, partly for his love of the wilderness, partly because of his stylistically vibrant prints and drawings. He had a wonderful sense of book design, manifested in N by E and Salamina, two volumes about his experiences in Labrador and Greenland. The Modern Library edition of Moby Dick also uses Kent's superb drawings. My wife and daughter are both artists and my first book editor, Angus Cameron, was a friend of Kent and his wife. When I got to know Angus in the 1970s, he was still visiting Sally Kent at Asgaard.
Off in a quiet grove near the open fields, stands the artist's studio which Kent designed for himself. These days, the farm offers internships to young artists who use the studio.
Kent's name for his farm, Asgaard, refers in Norse mythology to one of the nine worlds of the gods. The thirteenth-century Icelander Snorri Sturleson described Asgaard as a land more fertile than any other, blessed by an abundance of gold and jewels. Kent had cows instead, but he loved the land and its views. "And there, westward and heavenward, to the high ridge of Whiteface northward to the northern limit of the mountains, southward to their highest peaks, was spread the full half-circle panorama of the Adirondacks. It was as if we had never seen the mountains before." He wrote of his time there in This Is My Own and appended that title to his gravestone, where he is buried, not far from his studio. The mosses and lichens are steadily encroaching, and perhaps Kent might have found pleasing the idea of becoming one with the nature he so loved. Then again, he was headstrong and proud enough that he probably wouldn't have protested if the gravestone were cleaned off and spiffed up a wee mite now and then!
The summer solstice went by almost without my wife and I noticing it. But we felt it. We’re up in the Adirondacks, in camp, where we sleep on a porch screened on three sides. The sun comes up at about 5:30 on a lake where the call of loons is a regular occurrence. The stillness that morning was crystalline. Lying with eyes half closed, I heard the ripples of an object moving through water, really close by. We have a friend who loves early morning paddles and it sounded just like her wooden blade dipping into the water as she quietly worked her way around the edge of the bay.
But our friend wasn’t in camp yet, so I knew it couldn’t be her. Perhaps another early-morning paddler? Possible, but unlikely. Most folks aren't on the lake this early in the season.
And then I heard it again—along with a little splashing noise. No one would paddle so close to our spot at this hour. I sat up, got out of bed to have a look.
It proved to be a family of Mergansers, mother and about eight baby ducks who were being remarkably quiet—none of the quacking or gabbling I’m used to hearing. Though only days old, the young ones were already exhibiting personalities and moods. Most of the babies obediently lined up beside their mother. But two were playing tag, whooshing back and forth in ten-yard bursts, making the sounds I’d heard.
I love this time of June. The long day’s light seems bluer, more transparent than other times of the year. Perhaps it’s only the spring green of the new leaves creating the airy light, but I suspect that, because the sun’s arc is higher at summer solstice, the color temperature leans toward the blue, with less atmosphere to pierce. Whatever the cause, the light on these days, accompanied by a light summer breeze, is delectable.
A few hours after the encounter with the Mergansers, I caught the sun’s rays reflected off the water onto a breezeway ceiling which faces the lake, along with the sounds of a loon or two. If you want to listen, it’s on YouTube here. Happy solstice!
In A Little History, my next-to-last chapter ends with a brief sketch of Rachel Carson, one exemplar of how Americans had come to realize the interconnectedness of their world, both globally and in terms of the environment around them. (Gordon Allen's headpiece for the chapter (above) evoked Carson looking out on the ocean at a sailing ship on the horizon, a hint of temporal connectedness with Christopher Columbus's ship seen in the headpiece of Chapter 1 of the book.) Now PBS has produced a fine documentary in their American Experience series, entitled "Rachel Carson." At this writing it's available for viewing on the Web here. I highly recommend it.
I do so partly because a colleague, friend and coauthor of many years is one of the film's expert contributors. Mark Lytle did a biography of Carson, The Gentle Subversive, for a series I co-edit for Oxford University Press. Gracefully written and relatively brief (about 250 pages), it's a useful overview for those who want to dig a little deeper.
The Hudson River begins at Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondacks, near the summit of Mount Marcy. The highest point in New York State, Marcy was being climbed by Vice President Theodore Roosevelt when word came that President McKinley had succumbed to complications from an assassin's bullet. As readers of A Little History of the United States know, Roosevelt went racing back to civilization along rough trails and muddy roads until he reached the railroad station at North Creek, where he was sworn in as the new president. It's along the river here that a whitewater derby is held every year, consisting of a "giant slalom" race held on Saturday and a downriver contest on Sunday.
The slalom is too odd for any hardcore paddlers to attend. Its gates are spread much farther apart than Olympic-style courses (hence the appellation "giant"). But it provides good fun for old duffers and youngsters alike; and a group of us have been coming to it for well over forty years now. For us, it's like the annual rendezvous that the Mountain Men used to hold at the end of their fur trapping season, when they gathered to sell their season's catch and whoop and holler. Come to think of it, our rendezvous has persisted for far more years than the fur trappers' version, which lasted little more than a decade in its heyday.
There's a novice slalom race that allows newcomers to the sport to ease into the competition without too much paddling experience; but the giant slalom requires crossing the river to a number of gates on the far side, which can be dicey in higher water. And the last five gates are set in bigger rapids, which require more skill. By now we know the course by heart, though there are variations from year to year, as to which gates are reverse (you have to back through) or upstream (which requires paddling upstream through them, against the current. Every year we scout the position of the gates, debate how to maneuver around the boulders and souse holes, and take our one shot on the course for yet another year. Almost always there's some screw-up, major or minor, which leaves us the rest of the afternoon to float downriver with friends and debate what we did wrong. The capsize below is from three years ago, and took place a few weeks before I had a cataract removed that had left me temporarily blind in one eye. Not that I need that kind of excuse to capsize!
This year nobody spilled and the weather was fine. My coauthor on The Complete Wilderness Paddler, John Rugge took top honors in his class as usual, paddling with his grandson Mishkin, who has been racing since he was about eight or nine. Below, they're negotiating Gate 18 quite nicely, the most difficult needle to thread this year.
And after the float down the river, it's back to a nearby farmhouse where we stay, for a nice communal dinner, political debates, and margaritas. I suspect if the Mountain Men had margaritas, they would have kept coming back for forty years too...
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors