Friday, July 15, 2011

Book review: "Finding Everett Ruess" by David Roberts

When I say that David Roberts has written perhaps THE definitive book about Everett Ruess, your reaction is likely to be either:

1. "Wow, I gotta read that!"
2. "Who's Everett Ruess?"

Therein lies the difficulty in writing about Everett Ruess -- most people have never heard of him, but those who have seem fascinated by his story. And it's tough to write a book for both groups.

Everett Ruess was a young man who wandered remote areas of the American Southwest starting in 1930, at age 16, until his baffling disappearance at age 20 in 1934. Ruess' favorite area for exploring was the mesas and canyons of the "Four Corners" region of northern Arizona and southern Utah. It was in one of these isolated canyons that Ruess was last seen.

"At the time of his disappearance, Ruess was unknown in the larger world," writes Roberts in his new book, "Finding Everett Ruess." "Seventy-seven years later, he is the object of an intense and romantic cult that has no parallel in the long annals of the American Southwest."

Ruess made no great discoveries during his travels -- his journeys were not about the destination, but the experience. He left behind writing that rhapsodizes the joy of untethered exploration and the beauty of raw nature.

Just before his disappearance, he wrote to his brother: "As to when I shall visit civilization, it will not be soon, I think. I have not tired of the wilderness, rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the street car and the star sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities."

There is something about the idea of cutting loose from society that enthralls many. Ruess' life and writings have been compared to John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, as well as to Chris McCandless, the subject of the book and movie, "Into the Wild." No doubt there is a vicarious thrill in reading about Ruess; many of us wish that we could have such independence to explore.

Roberts thoroughly and meticulous documents Ruess life, travels and disappearance, and further delves into the many theories about his disappearance. For those heavy-duty Ruess fans, "Finding Everett Ruess" is a must-read.

But for those new to the Ruess story, this book makes a poor introduction. Roberts is so thorough he seems to leave nothing out -- the book is filled with dry reports of minutiae such as radio programs Ruess listened to and supplies he purchased. It's just too much. It's like having to read "The Baseball Encyclopedia" when all you want is to learn about Babe Ruth.

Further, since we know at the outset that Ruess vanished and his disappearance has never been solved, there's really no suspense.

To me, the best part of the book was the last fifth, when Roberts describes his personal involvement in an attempt to solve the mystery of Ruess' disappearance. This part takes some twists you don't expect.


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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Book review: "I Survived: The Shark Attacks of 1916"

This is a nicely done book that combines tales of shark attacks with the anxieties a 10-year-old boy trying to make friends in a new town. I read it with my 8-year-old son and while it didn't quite make the you-can't-put-it-down category, it did prove fairly engaging for both of us.

Author Lauren Tarshis' book is tilted more toward boys than girls. Boys seem to have a natural affinity to anything related to sharks, while the parallel story of young Chet Roscow trying to make friends will probably ring familiar to them. This would be a good book for when your child starts reading novels on his or her own.

The story is mostly fictional, but it's tied to the true 1916 shark attacks that killed four people in New Jersey. There's a nice section at the end that explains the facts behind the story.


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