What I Read on My Summer Vacation pt. 1

Well, I suppose my vacation really was in Fall, but I was going for that whole essay everyone had to write about what they did over summer feel. I got to the airport early on my way to Spain and impulsively bought Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival by Dean King at the Borders even though I already had several books packed. It’s a book I’ve been wanting to read and it seemed like a great plane book. I was not wrong. This book not only has an amazing story to tell, it’s also very well-written and researched. King tells the story of Captain James Riley and the crew of the merchant ship Commerce as they shipwreck on the coast of Africa in 1815. He uses two separate first person accounts from the crew as well as traveling to the areas himself. The men hiked for four days without food and water, drinking their own urine to survive, only to be caught and sold as slaves. Eventually they are bought by Hamet, a man who has lost his own money on a failed caravan, but who sympathizes with the crew. They set off on a hellish journey to Swearah, where Hamet can collect on a bounty for them. Throughout the book, King peppers the account with facts about camels, the body’s need for water, so the reader can get a feel for what life in the Sahara is like. Upon returning home, Riley became an ardent abolitionist. Even Lincoln read Riley’s bestseller about his experiences as a slave. The compassion and understanding between Riley and Hamet who come from two very different worlds also rewards the reader.

I packed Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates because it’s another book I’ve long wanted to read. Everyone raves about this author. I read his complete short story collection while in Belize in February and loved his writing style. Would RR be as good? Set in the suburbs of Connecticut in the 1950s, Yates details the inner lives of April and Frank Wheeler. They think themselves the untypical suburban family and spend time with a set of friends making fun of the other suburbanites never quite realizing that they’re just as boring and unfulfilled. Frank languishes at his office job constantly fighting against the tide of his inbox while April mourns the loss of an acting career that she never had. The character who represents what I think the Wheelers resent most about their age is Mrs. Givings, the real estate agent. Her son rebelled against the staid lifestyle and got put into a mental institution as a result. In the end of the book, her husband shuts off his hearing aid as she drones on about how she knew the Wheelers weren’t quite right (even though she sang their praises in the beginning of the book).

In an effort to stave off the consumerist demands of their life, April comes up with the idea of moving to France where Frank can develop his artistic abilities (even though he knows he has none. He spent a lot of time embellishing his own personality, in a way which Yates gets dead on). This throws them briefly into a period of joy, until April realizes she is pregnant. Also, Frank has a tawdry affair with a secretary in his office, which has about as much passion as a conversation between Dick Cheney and well, anyone, but April doesn’t seem to care. Their whole lives come undone by the end of the book. I could go on about the fruitlessness of the Wheelers’ lives and how this is an accurate portrait of the emptiness and loneliness of suburban life, but one, it’s been said before and two, I imagine one can get the picture already. I will agree with everyone before me who has said that RR is a beautifully and evocative book.

Next time I will talk about at least books 3 and 4, which were Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski and The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon. I have to discuss them together because the reading of one definitely affected my reading of the other, so stay tuned.