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My mom read sixty books this year. That’s more than a book a week. Another Ricochet member offered an impressive post on his 2020 reading list where I see that others enjoy a similar diet. I don’t know how you all do it. I read nightly, snacking on my stories for a few minutes before falling asleep, and then partaking of extended meals on occasions when I’m awake in the wee hours. I always have a book or two on my plate. Despite this, it takes me weeks to finish a work, and I realized that I’ve completed only a handful of books in 2019/2020 and sampled a few others. I count my daily grazing at Ricochet as reading, too, so I suppose I could figure in the equivalent of a year of bi-monthly magazines to account for that.
I usually skip the dessert of fiction that keeps me up at night and stick with autobiographical stories and engaging histories with subtle, well-rounded layers. These works, often two-dollar Kindle deals, can have imbalances that earn them a few one and two-star ratings on Amazon. However, I often find them satisfying or even deeply nourishing. Most selections originate from places and times outside my own: the South Seas in the 1700s, Europe, Africa, the Middle East. Some of these international repasts were unforgettable, others savory and filling, and a few meriting abandonment after several bites.
As a first course, I’ll include one I finished at the end of 2019 since in all its richness, I was still digesting it in 2020. Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, had its structural issues; the author visits the sites of Captain Cook’s voyages and switches between past and present, resulting in a satiating narrative. However, this was one of those works that changed the way I view the world. I summarized the experience in rushed verse in October, with updates around Thanksgiving and Pearl Harbor Day:
I’m on Cook’s third voyage, and the story has been dragging for some time, now. Still vivid and informative, though. Just too long.
The book gave a stunning account of Cook’s last days. It’s overwhelming, like a crescendo—the majestic setting; the teeming, friendly Hawaiians; the building tension; the ongoing mysteries in the surge of violence and what happened afterward.
One aspect of the story that simmered in my mind for months after was the author’s bold inclusion of the crew’s transgressions and Cook’s complex involvement in them, in contrast to the understated infusion of barbarities by the sunny islands’ inhabitants. Any author with integrity would not leave out staple truths, and the hints are there–accounts of worship places with human remains, a nod toward cultural taboos, the strange fate of Cook’s corpse. Under the attractive presentations Cook’s men encountered, there must have been dangerous layers, but beyond a few clues, the author spends little time exploring these.
The first contact stories lingered pleasantly for me, the most savory occurring near Alaska, where the ship’s crew and curious natives in a canoe sang to one another past nightfall. Reading this book also filled in my mental map–I’ve grown in my conception of South Sea islands and of Europe’s first acquaintance with Australia and New Zealand. Cook was always mentioned in my history books, and I remember studying his portrait. But reading a bland textbook list of his accomplishments cannot compare to experiencing the harsh, piquant, bittersweet voyages under a brave and brilliant captain.
Hold on to your fork, I have more reviews to add in the coming weeks.Published in