More Adventure Awaits

I am sorry to say I haven’t read anything by Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS to scholars, Louis to his friends), but I’ve come close by reading Brian Doyle’s The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: a novel of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Doyle, an extreme fan, acknowledges in the preface that his book is a celebration of the man whose writing he admires above all other writers in the English language. Then, writing in Louis’ voice, Doyle goes about conjuring up the four months Louis spent in the winter of 1880 in San Francisco. It was a difficult time for Louis, having left behind a comfortable life of wealth and privilege in Scotland to make his way to California and the woman he intended to marry.

His health is bad and he has very little money. He waits out the impending divorce of Fanny Osborne, who is living across the bay in Oakland with her two children. He rides out the four months staying at a boarding house on the corner of Hyde and Bush streets. This part is all true. The rest is Doyle’s writing skill.

The story is primarily one wild tale after another as told by retired sea captain John Carson and recounted by Louis. Each day Louis, if he feels well enough to get out of bed, gets to know the city and returns to a roaring fire in the fireplace of his boarding house. Just as his host Mr. Carson is getting to the good part of each story, however, boarding house owner and cook Mary Carson calls everyone to dinner in no uncertain terms.

The other character in this tale is the city itself. You will feel the fog on your face and feel the muscles in your legs ache when climbing the stair-stepped slopes of San Fran along with Louis. You’ll feel Louis’s generosity of spirit and the love he was heading toward in marrying Fanny. And you will just feel beautiful writing enveloping you.

Then you’ll wonder more about the real life of Robert Louis Stevenson. And, let me tell you, there is plenty to find out. If you just want a quick but satisfying read with photos of Louis in the South Pacific, I recommend a tiny little booklet in the Northwest room called R.L. Stevenson Poet in Paradise by Maxine Mrantz. Then there is a more complete telling of Louis’ whole life in Claire Harman’s Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson.

To cap it all off, take a quick trip down to the 10th street boat launch road in Everett and stand just a few feet away from what is left of the Equator, the boat that brought Louis to his final destiny, Samoa.

Treasure! Pirates! Danger! Giant Squid!

I would never in a million years do this: dive to the depths of the ocean in search of shipwrecks; then, once found, weave through the wreckage to find clues as to why it sunk. I’ve seen enough stuff on TV and in the movies to know it’s no picnic under the waves. And when things go wrong, they go horribly wrong. Plus, there are all those giant squid watching you with their bowling-ball sized eyes. I know this from Discovery Channel specials I should never have watched.

Luckily, someone else has done all the diving, researching and dodging giant squid for me while searching for a long-lost pirate ship, the Golden Fleece. And Robert Kurson has written all about it in Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship in which he chronicles the treasure hunt by diving superstars John Mattera and John Chatterton.

Mattera and Chatterton scuttle their plans for a major dive after they are contacted by a world-renown and very successful treasure hunter (we’ll call him Mr. Smarty-pants) who is obsessed with finding the lost ship of John Bannister, pirate extraordinaire. The divers will get a cut of what they find, but there is a short window of opportunity to find it. The Dominican Republic is on the verge of signing the UNESCO international treaty that would put a stop to private shipwreck hunting in their waters.

The Golden Fleece is the holy grail of pirate shipwrecks. It sunk in June of 1686 when Bannister and his crew fought a two-day battle with two British warships. England had been embarrassed many times by Bannister and they were determined to put an end to his pirate shenanigans. But Bannister wasn’t captured and the Royal Navy ships limped back to England, further adding to Bannister’s swashbuckling reputation.

The only thing is, the two divers agree to search only where Mr. Smarty-pants says the shipwreck of the Golden Fleece must be. So, with their state of the art equipment and two other experts on board, they comb the waters off the white sandy beaches of Cayo Levantado for months and months and months. They start running out of time and money and realize they’re never going to find the wreckage if they continue to do what Mr. Smarty-pants tells them to do. Mattera decides to strikes out on his own and uncovers clues that point in another direction. He finds these clues IN A LIBRARY(!!) and they are able to pinpoint where the wreckage lies.

This is a choppy but satisfying ride of a book. You don’t have to be a good swimmer to enjoy it and you may even find yourself holding your breath in a couple of places. And those giant squid? Turns out, they’re only in the really, really deep ocean. Can you blame me for reading between the bubbles?

Da to A Terrible Country

Early each weekday morning, two hours before the library opens, one of my tasks is to find all the books, CDs, and DVDs that you, dear library user, have placed on hold. I start the hunt near the new books on the first floor and wind up in the 900s on the second floor where there is one of the best views in the city.

Titles on the holds list are sometimes so enticing that I have to add them to my ‘to-be-read’ list. My list is heavy on non-fiction, but on a rare occasion a novel will make the cut. This title didn’t even have to be put on any list. It jumped out at me when I was making my rounds: A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen. Displayed face-out, and not on hold for anyone, the cover caught my eye, particularly because above the title was this: “A Cause for Celebration.” – George Saunders. George Saunders is supposed to be a pretty big deal in the book world, so this book already had a leg-up on the rest.

The terrible county being referred to in the title is Russia.

After a lot of pressure from his older brother, Andrei agrees to leave his New York City life to help out their very old grandmother in Moscow. Brother Dima had been doing the caregiving up until now, but he has to hightail it out of the country just ahead of some Russian government/mafia types who are after him. Andrei is assured he will be playing as much amateur hockey (his first love) as he can stand, once he’s back in the land of his birth. It’s only going to be temporary, and since Andrei’s girlfriend just dumped him and his prospects of getting a university position seems to be drying up despite his 8 years of graduate studies in Slavic literature, he agrees to go. A change of scenery and culture may be just what he needs.

What he imagines happening – bonding over a lot of family history, joining a hockey team and fitting back into a culture he left when he was 5 – is not so simple. The time is 2008 and he has trouble getting wi-fi in the apartment and a good cup of coffee. Grandma can hardly hear, is in and out of the throws of dementia and barely remembers who he is. And, he has trouble infiltrating a hockey game. Black Mercedes and Audis are all over Moscow with mobster-like men getting out of them.

In Russia, everything has layers and layers of history and you’re never quite sure if talking with someone will get you pistol-whipped when you’re least expecting it. But there are ways to retaliate, whether it’s on the ice in a hockey game or by documenting your experiences and sending it out into the world. There’s not just danger and Soviet-era ruins and political intrigue here. There’s also romance in a reversed Dr. Zhivagian sort of way. And lots of beer and vodka.

What Andrei finds in Russia is not exactly what he was after, but he does figure out what’s important to him. This story will help you understanding Russia and Russian culture just a little bit more from a very human side, even if it’s just make-believe.

To tell you the truth, this book kind of made me want to go to Russia, but mostly, it made me think, what else has this guy written?