Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Book Reviews: Darkest Jungle, Young Men and Fire, Bridges of Madison County

I've read a few books in the last weeks.  Three of them I recall, the others were not even notable enough to recall.  It's a crap shoot, grabbing a book from a thrift store, a garage sale or at the dollar store.

Bridges of Madison County is a love story.  While others hail it, it was unimpressive to me, in all but a few aspects.  My neighbor gave me this book.  It was otherwise headed to Goodwill.

My major complaint with this book is that the author makes from the beginning like such a love story is unusual.  I don't think it is very unusual.  I think these fast and passionate well remembered affairs are common.

I've been in love.  I met a young alcoholic in Alaska way back when I was so young I was muddled in the brain and thought still that everything would work out for me in life, that I would still find a great job, fall in love, have children, go on vacations once a year while managing three kids, pets at home and a career.  Sure, the vision had blurred and tunneled to fantasy terribly by then, with a dark horizon and gathering clouds on all sides.  I loved Jim.   I loved him so much he followed me back to Corvallis.  When he found no work and I was judged mental and put away, he drifted back to Alaska and Sitka, his native island.  Years later, he called me, from Seattle, on my birthday.  Not even my family remembered my birthday that year.  But Jim did.  He'd found Jesus he said, and was off the bottle.  A couple years after that, his father called me, from Sitka, asked me if I had seen or heard from Jim, wanted me to find him and marry him because he said Jim called me the love of his life and I'd make a good man of him. This made me feel silly wonderful and needed and powerful.  But I couldn't find Jim.

Now I have found him.  He's living in an apartment complex, with a wife, up in Sitka.  His father is dead and so too his love for me.  I almost called him two months ago, but I put down the phone.  I am not a home wrecker.

So Bridges of Madison County was no big wonderful rare love story to read.  It's a common love story.  I kept reading thinking something would happen, other than a bored rural house wife, who hated her rural meaningless day to day, encountered a man whose personality, values and life mirrored every longing in her soul.  She didn't ignore her own desires and opened the doors of her soul to a stranger.  And to her house.  And was gloriously happy and fulfilled for a few days times.  So was he.  Her husband was away with the kids at the county fair, who had livestock they were showing.  A funny comment in the book was about how kids love their farm animals then take them to the fair and if they win a ribbon the animal goes up for auction and gets slaughtered.  Contradictions, she says.

The photographer, the other half of the love affair, is on assignment for National Geographic, to photograph the bridges of Madison County. He stops in at her place, lost, looking for one particular bridge. He has long hair, which causes a flurry of comments amongst the small towners.

They have a fling.  The rest of both of their lives is consumed with remembering it.  Her children, once grown, discover the secrets of their mother's life, once she is gone, and, at the beginning of the book, ask a writer to tell the story.  Their pleas include the statement that if the writer will not tell the story he is to tell it no one else ever.  This paragraph at the beginning of the book, made me want to read the book, made me think it would be more than an account of longings unfulfilled and a short love affair that filled both the man and the woman with immense joy.  Enough to last a lifetime maybe?  But that both were too timid, in the end, to change their lives.  However, once again, I was reminded of a discussion in Hemmingways' For Whom the Bell Tolls.  The main characters discuss how long it takes to live a full life.  Can a full life be lived in a week, say, or three days, or one day even, or an hour?

I rate Bridges of Madison County, on a scale of one to five, a two!  If you are a romantic, a poet, or an unfulfilled lover of either sex, you will rate the book higher.

Darkest Jungle is the tale of a segment in American history, when young military men were anxious to gain reputations.  The Panama straits were being used to shorten the trip from European starting points and from the east coast of America, to the gold fields on the west coast.   At this point in history, travellers were deposited by boat, and walked or were mule ferried across the isthmus.  But there were intriguing tales of a passage farther south, in the Darien straits, of a gap in the mountains across a narrow isthmus, through which a canal could easily be built.  The Scotts and the Brits wanted to find and claim this route also.  Ah, the money that could be made.

A crew was assembled in America to make the voyage and explore reports, made by explorers, one a doctor, they thought could believe, including a report by one of these explorers, who, turns out, really concocted a truth of his own making, to make money and to enhance his own reputation, of a point where he  could see from coast to coast.  The Americans planned to find this gap from the east coast to the west coast, suitable for a canal passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific before anyone else did so.

The jungles however were filled with angry native tribes that just wanted these whites of all nationality, to leave them and their lands alone.  Another party, attempting the crossing, had been attacked and at least two of its members killed.

The Americans came into Darien Bay slightly before other ships and set out, with a expeditionary force.   This book recounts their misery, as they follow a river that winds back and forth, once they crest the divide, become lost and nearly starve to death.  Many survived only because of the tenacity of their young leader, who, with another, finally leaves the sluggish party, starving so badly they cannot continue, and makes a run for help.  Somehow, he makes it to a west coast port and survives over a month of starvation.  His men, left behind to wait, finally turn back.  Some die, others go nuts.  And when all hope is lost, around the corner of the river comes their leader, returning for them, with help.  I read this book at least two months ago, so I can't recall many details.  Or even names.  It is a survival story, an enthusiastic expedition gone sour.  There was no gap in the mountains or passageway that could become a canal.  They acted on reports from liars.  Many died as a result and those who survived were lucky.

An interesting quote in the book, attributed to one of explorers, mentions the lack of values he had found among the Americans and settlers in CA.  He did not like their killing, violent and miserable ways.  It seemed funny to me, because people now sometimes refer to the old days, the farther back the better, as the good days when everyone had such high morals.  I've always thought this mentality to be funny.  Our history is anything but moral, beginning when European settlers stole the lands from the natives!!  How moral is stealing?  History is history.  But really people, the old days were better, people had morals?  OMG.

I'll give this book a three, simply because it is a history book and a good read.

Here's a link to the book on Amazon.

I didn't finish the third book:  Young Men and Fire, written by the author of A River Runs Through It, but when he is very old.  It was tedious from the start, a chronicle of the Montana Man Gulch Fire, that killed 9 men.  Much of the book is devoted to the history of wild fire fighting and smoke jumping and the weather that invokes a blow up.  In the case of the Mann Gulch fire lightning sparked it down in the gulch.  It burned uphill and was potted by a look out.  There were flyovers of the fire, out of Missoulla, Montana then 12 smoke jumpers, many under 20, were flown and dropped, except for one, who became too sick in the lurching plane, from unsteady winds.

In the meantime, a recreational ranger had hiked up to the fire from the bottom and was fighting it alone.  He was older and not in the excellent shape the young smoke jumpers were in.  they met up however, and within an hour, nine were dead, including the ranger.  From the bottom, the district ranger had come in with recruited "bar fly" drunks as a crew to attack it from the bottom and create a passage so the smoke jumpers, up top, could come through.

However, as he started up to check out the fire, from the bottom, a man named Dodge, the leader of the smoke jumpers, was seeing something he didn't like, in leading the jumpers down to the fire, and ordered them back, a retreat, on the run, virtually vertical.  The fire had blown up. From the bottom, the district ranger ran from it, passed out, and made it to the river.  The blow out occurred when the hot burning crown fire was smothered somewhat by maybe a thunder cloud with its heavy dense air, and burned all the available oxygen.  Suddenly a wind shift from upgulch, opened a hole in the heavy air, and the sudden oxygen available at the top of the ridge, created a monster.  The fire blew up on a tear up the ridge invigorated by a blast of oxygen. The smoke jumpers were in its path.

Dodge and two young men, one only 17, were the only survivors.  The two young men made it t the ridge and over and found a rock slide without fire fuel, with  only seconds to spare.  Another young man with them had taken only a slightly different route and did not make it.  Dodge made it only because he lit his own fire.  It was unheard of then, and probably his own invention, under the knowledge of certain death.  He pulled out a match and struck it to the waist high grass in front of him.  When it had burned out, which happened quickly a hundred square foot area, he dove into, yelling at the smoke jumpers to follow, and laid down in the middle of the burned bare dirt, put a handkerchief over his face, and buried his face in the charred earth.  Not one fire fighter followed him.  All raced this way and that, for the ridge.  Nobody made it.  Two were alive, when the fire bolted over the ridge and was gone.  Two were so badly burned their skin hung from their bodies and they died later.  And then Dodge survived, in his charred field.  He would not have survived if it had been forest they were racing up and through for the ridge as he could not have set a fire in a forest that would have quickly burned him an safety zone.  But this was waist high dead dry grass.

The author has great trouble finding a perspective for the story and even admits that readily, referring to himself repeatedly in the book as "the storyteller".  It's a tedious back and forth walk, to get  detailed obsessive facts on why these men died, why the fire blew up the way it did, what could have been done differently, the obsession of the district ranger afterwards, that lasted a lifetime.  You learn a lot about fire, reading this book, but by Section Two, I still knew almost nothing about any of the men who died and I put the book down.

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