Tag: Maine

Review: The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel


Modern life seems set up so that we can avoid loneliness at all costs, but maybe it’s worthwhile to face it occasionally. The further we push aloneness away, the less we are able to cope with it, and the more terrifying it gets. Some philosophers believe that loneliness is the only true feeling there is.

In 1986, twenty year-old Christopher Thomas Knight walked into the woods in Maine, abandoning his car, his job, his family, and his life. For the next twenty-seven years, until he was caught, Knight lived in the harsh woods of Maine, surviving by stealing food and other necessaries from the inhabitants of the cabins and camps around North Pond, Maine. During that entire twenty-seven years, the only contact he had with another human occurred during one chance encounter with hikers, limited to the word “hi” and a wave. After he was caught, Knight ultimately plead guilty to a handful of the estimated one thousand burglaries he committed over that quarter century and was forced to live again in society. The Stranger in the Woods is the story of Knight’s survival—both in the woods and once forced out—as well as the story of how Finkel came to meet Knight and come to terms with how he chose to live.

White Privilege
This is most decidedly not what I was supposed to take from this book, but I spent large portions of this book with the phrase “White Privilege” going off like an alarm in the back of my head. The Stranger in the Woods is the story of how a man committed something around one thousand burglaries, including multiple burglaries of a camp for children with disabilities, in order to live alone without human contact. No matter his reason, no matter how sympathetic a character he appears, Christopher Knight is a man who burglarized and terrorized a community for twenty-seven years. Sure, some residents found it mostly harmless to lose the occasional book, pack of chicken, and roll of toilet paper. But others, understandably, felt violated. It wasn’t the value of what was taken, but the idea that someone had been in your house, going through your things. (As someone whose home was burglarized five years ago, I can attest—this is definitely a thing.) Despite all of this, Finkel paints him sympathetically—explains his reasons for why he committed “break-ins” (not “burglaries”), emphasizes how he suffered during his self-imposed exile. I cannot imagine anyone writing or agreeing to publish a book with so sympathetic an eye towards a black man who committed a thousand burglaries. And so there we have it. While The Stranger in the Woods is fascinating and well-written, it’s also unsettling in a way Finkel almost certainly never intended it to be. (Of course, I should probably acknowledge here that Finkel is himself an able-bodied, cis-white male.)

If The Stranger in the Woods were simply a straight-forward factual rendition of how Knight came to move into, survive, and then be caught in the Maine woods, the book would (frankly) be boring and incredibly short. Outside of explaining how he managed to survive through impossible winters, there’s not a lot to say about the twenty years Knight spent in the forest.

Finkel fleshes out what could otherwise be a boring tenth grade biography essay with his own story of Knight agreed to meet him alone of all the journalists clamoring for interviews as well as his own journeys hiking into Knight’s camp. This choice adds more a human-interest angle. The reader is expected to (and I did) identify more with Finkel, so by inserting himself into the story, there’s an easier and quicker connection. We also learn more about Knight in his interacting with/against Finkel than we would with Finkel merely reciting facts. Our meeting Knight this way is far more effective and a credit to Finkel for showing the reader, rather than just telling.

The other major element of the book is Finkel’s lengthy asides into the history of hermits, the value and meaning of solitude, Asperger’s disorder/Autism spectrum disorders (a tentative diagnosis given to Knight after his capture), suffering, cognition, time, and death. Finkel boils down theories and philosophies to present relatively neat packages against which Knight is presented. As you can likely imagine, he fits neatly almost nowhere, which is, likely, the larger point. These sections are where the real value of the book was for me. I enjoyed the theories, the quotes, and their application to the person of Knight.

Exploitation / Permission
Even if I found him a less sympathetic character than I was intended to, Knight is still a human being entitled to own his own story. Finkel quite literally inserted himself into Knight’s story and has made money selling books about Knight’s story. I had concerns throughout the book that The Stranger in the Woods was exploitative of Knight.   Towards almost the very end of his narrative, Finkel relates a series of conversations he had with Knight that had him worried Knight was about to end his life rather than continue to live in the society in which he did not fit. As part of this exchange, he notes that Knight conveyed to him that “after [Knight’s] gone…I can tell his story anyway I want.” Knight calls Finkel his “Boswell” (his biographer). So it would seem Knight gave Finkel permission…except Knight isn’t gone. So did he or did he not have permission to publish this information?

On the one hand, Knight gave him as close to explicit permission as you can get. On the other, it was conditional and has brought more scrutiny to Knight than would have if there were no book published—I had certainly never heard of the North Pond hermit and likely wouldn’t have if The Stranger in the Woods hadn’t been published and then reviewed in Time magazine (which is where I heard of it and decided to add it to my TBR list). One of the things that is very clear in Finkel’s book is that Knight loathed attention. That being caught and subject to the mini-media frenzy was the last thing he wanted. Had he been able to live as he wanted, he would have eventually died in the woods and remained unfound, unsung, unmourned. By publishing this book before Knights death, did Finkel violate one of Knight’s conditions for permission? It’s unlikely we’ll know since Knight himself is perhaps the last person on earth who would ever issue a public statement or talk to a reporter about he feels about this potential violation. Ultimately, it isn’t clear if The Stranger in the Woods is a celebration of Knight or the most glaring of the violations of Knight’s privacy after he was caught.

For all of the hesitancy I have after reading this book—particularly around privilege and permission—I still can’t help feeling like I want to recommend it. It was well-written. The pace and philosophical asides (which, admittedly, only skim the surface of the deeper themes) were well-done. It is a compelling, relatively quick read. If you aren’t troubled by the privilege and permission issues that lurk under the surface, it is a book that many would find highly enjoyable and intriguing. (So I guess sorry/not-sorry for introducing those issues to you that may now hamper your reading of the book). Knight’s way of life is challenging to contemplate and there is always value in reading about someone whose life is so different from yours that you cannot fathom living as they did. (I joke that I could do without people, but at the end of the day, I could never actually live as a hermit. At least, not without my dog to talk to.) So I leave it to you—if you can look past the two major issues above, it’s a book I recommend. If reading books where people use but never acknowledge privilege, it’s not going to be for you.

Published: March 7, 2017 by Knopf (@aaknopf)
Author: Michael Finkel
Date read: December 17, 2017
Rating: 3 ¾ stars

Review: Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin


“I refused to be shamed.”
“How did you do that?” you asked.
“When they came at me, I kept coming.”

In the early-to-mid 2000s, Aviva Grossman was a Congressional intern who fell for her boss, got caught up in an affair, and caught. In essence, she was Monica Lewinski with a blog. Young Jane Young is how it happened and what followed—as told by Aviva’s mother; a wedding planner named Jane Young; the Congressman’s wife, Embeth; Jane’s daughter Ruby; and Aviva herself. At its heart, Young Jane Young is the story of the choices women make—the ones they are forced to make, the ones others make for them, and the ones they are finally able to freely make themselves—and the way society treats women for these choices.

The Author of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
One of the books that people (particularly women) in my bookish community seem to love is The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry—it gets referred to and recommended frequently. So frequently, in fact, that I read it as my first book of 2017 for the “Book You Were Excited to Borrow or Buy But Haven’t Read Yet.” To be fair to Fikry, very little probably could have held up to the hype. It was…fluffier that I expected. It was quick and it was cute and I can see why people love it, but “cute” isn’t really my thing when I read, unless I’m deliberately looking for something lighthearted after a run of dark books. When Anne announced the picks for the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club for fall, I’ll admit to being a little let down—I didn’t think Fikry was poorly written, (quite the opposite) I just didn’t see Zevin’s books as book club discussion material.

Thankfully, I was wrong. Zevin’s style is still very much the same—her writing as a lighthearted quality to it and parts of it are still what I would refer to as “cute;” however, the subject matter for Young Jane Young is timely and Zevin seems to have a deliberate point of view in Young Jane Young that was missing in Fikry. Where Fikry sought to entertain, Young Jane Young sends a clear message about the names and values we place on women and their mistakes—particularly compared to men who make the same. This isn’t to say Young Jane Young isn’t entertaining—it still is. But this one had the “hook” that Fikry seemed to be missing that gave me a reason to want to keep reading.

The structure of Young Jane Young is interesting—each character’s section is told in its entirety before moving on to another’s so there is some moving back and forth through time. Zevin clearly distinguished between her characters, using a different form for each section, in addition to including speech patterns unique to certain characters like Rachel’s use of Yiddish phrases and Ruby’s more modern slang.

We start with Rachel, written in stream-of-consciousness and move onto Jane, written in a more typical literary style. Ruby follows written purely as emails to her pen-pal Fatima. Embeth, the Congressman’s wife uses free and direct discourse in the third person—this use of third person distances her from the other characters and emphasizes her outsider status compared to the other four voices. Finally we hear from Aviva, written as a choose-your-own adventure novel, with the choices removed. This form highlights Aviva’s relative youth at the time of the scandal and allows the reader to see her choices dwindling as the action progresses. The last section borders on gimmicky and might throw off a reader unfamiliar with Zevin’s style. From reading Fikry, I expected the “cute” so this didn’t bother me as much as it might have otherwise and it services Zevin’s purposes well. By the time this structural choice came up (the last section of the book), I was invested in the narrative and message, so I didn’t find this off-putting, though I freely admit it is the kind of thing that usually drives me to sprain my eye-muscles from rolling them too hard when it isn’t done really well.

Feminist Choices
I was a child when the Monica Lewinsky scandal happened so I honestly haven’t thought terribly hard about it—it wasn’t on my radar then and it doesn’t really come up often anymore. Young Jane Young forces the reader to reconsider the narrative—at least in the mainstream media that I vaguely recall from the time, there was not an emphasis on the power imbalance, on the age imbalance. Words like “slut” were thrown around to describe her while President Clinton’s punishment came not for the sex, but for lying about it to people who wasn’t supposed to lie to. She was punished for the act, he was punished only for trying to cover it up the wrong way. People questioned her parents’ choices, her morals. She was the temptress, the woman who should have kept her legs and mouth closed. She was, quite simply, at fault, despite the fact that she was 22, only five years’ removed from being legally a child. Indeed, it seems everyone wants to blame everyone except President Clinton—Hillary Clinton found herself in the spotlight from whispers about why she wasn’t able to keep her man happy so that he wouldn’t stray to why she chose to stay.

As Zevin noted in the discussion with the MMD book club, the scandal at the heart of Young Jane Young is not really a sex scandal—it’s a sexist scandal. Aviva’s mother Rachel sets the stage, providing the foundation and background facts of the scandal and the current state of affairs ten years later. Next is Jane, living a quiet life in Maine with her daughter Ruby, as far removed from the scandal as possible, yet still not far enough away not to have the Grossman scandal come back up. Ruby follows, with wide-eyed precociousness giving a black-and-white, right-and-wrong perspective common only to children and newscasters. Embeth follows—the woman scorned yet also the woman who stayed. Finally, Aviva and her choices filling in the gaps. At each step, we see the effect of judgment on the character speaking, on Aviva generally, on women as a whole since we so often live and die on each other’s mistakes being held against us. One of Aviva’s vignettes that stood out so starkly was a discussion with a political science professor where she remarks that the feminists didn’t stand by her—didn’t point out the age gap, the Congressman’s role. The professor remarks that it was true but the Congressman was good on women’s issues. The one woman was sacrificed for the man, in hopes a greater good might result from the man remaining in power.  And so nothing seems to be changing.

While I likely wouldn’t have picked up this book if not for the MMD Book Club, I’m glad I did and I’m keeping an eye out for my own copy. Zevin kept the quirk and cute that made Fikry so popular while having meat and a message behind Young Jane Young. It is rare that a book comes across as so light and readable while still packing this much of a punch. Zevin does a remarkable job packing the book with the myriad examples of the way women are held to an entirely different standard than men in politics (and generally) without the book ever becoming preachy (save for the vignette with the professor). The book made an excellent book club selection—any time there are lots of choices made by multiple characters there is plenty of fodder for discussion. Young Jane Young goes one further in that characters make choices but the message of the book turns the reader’s reactions back on them—i.e. Aviva made a choice and this is your reaction to it—what does that reaction say about you? About society? About how we judge and value women? About the standards we measure them against?

Published: August 22, 2017 (my birthday!) by Algonquin Books (@algonquinbooks)
Author: Gabrielle Zevin (@gabriellezevin)
Date read: October 10, 2017
Rating: 4 stars

Review: The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve


“The fire runs underground?” Grace asks.
She imagines secret fires tunneling beneath the house. “But how? There’s no oxygen.”
“There’s oxygen in peat and dead vegetation,” Gene explains. The fires move solely beneath the surface, he adds, burning enough to bring more oxygen into the soil. They can burn, undetected, for months, for years.

In October 1947, coastal Maine was ravaged by devastating fires. Sixteen people were killed and more than twenty separate fires burned throughout the state. Against this backdrop, Shreve introduces us to Grace, a housewife whose surface life is everything she thought she always wanted—two children and a successful husband who comes home to her every night. Its only as the fires take everything from Grace that she is faced with deciding what she really wants and, in turn, who that makes her.

Grace as a Survivor

I struggled with this review more than with others, simply because it is difficult to talk abut the evolution of Grace without giving away major plot points that, like a new shoot of growth, she must grow around or risk dying out. As I thought through writing this review, the thought I kept circling back to is that this is the story of surviving a violent relationship, yet most readers will not see it as such. Grace’s husband Gene, in his callousness, his entitlement, stifles and chokes Grace, nearly extinguishing her, yet almost never places his hands on her. Even in those moments, because of the way Shreve has developed the story, because of how familiar Grace’s unhappiness in her marriage feels, the reader is disinclined to jump to recognizing the violence—both emotional and physical—for what it is. Let me disillusion you. From working with survivors of violence and being one myself, this is what a violent relationship looks like. It is not all hits and slaps. It is the contempt Gene feels for Grace. The attempts to isolate. The gas-lighting. Grace is what it looks like to be a survivor.

The violent marital relationship, however, is not the main point of the book. Grace is not defined by Gene—a fact she has to come to realize herself as the fire, having burned away almost everything she thought she knew and held dear, instead gives her room to breathe for the first time. Just as some forests cannot live until the underbrush choking the tender new growth is burned away, so Grace cannot live until the fire burns away everything she knows.

“Classic” Anita Shreve

Admittedly, I have only read one other Anita Shreve and that was quite some time ago; however, this book has much of what I think of as Shrevian characteristics. Her language sizzles and smokes. Shreve writes in juxtapositions, highlighting the brightest whites with the inkiest blacks. Maine first goes through a wet season—so wet that once a dry day finally comes the white laundry flaps on the lines so that “it looked as though an entire town of women had surrendered.” The town, having nearly been destroyed by flood must now contend (or fall) to an all-consuming fire.

Her descriptions are neither lush nor spare, striking the right balance that leaves the reader well acquainted with their new surroundings in Grace’s world in Maine without feeling overwhelmed or slowed by strings of adjectives. There’s a more sex than I typically prefer in my reading; however, nothing that becomes gratuitous. No one is mistaking this book for a Harlequin anytime soon.

Her main character is a female who initially comes across as a shrinking violet before being faced with a series of plot twists that force Grace to either stand or fall on her own. The relationships among women are paramount, with Rosie being Grace’s anchor and safe place to land.

The Friendships of Women

Shreve shines with Rosie. The initial impression is that she’s a bit of a mess—her house is always cluttered, Grace has to save her and her children from the fire—and yet, Rosie is happy. Rosie is fulfilled and loved in her relationships and, as a result, Grace is drawn to her and to what she doesn’t have. I loved Rosie and hope that I can be the kind of friend she was to Grace. Without giving away more, I was pleased with Shreve’s use of Rosie and glad she stayed a part of the story for Grace despite their physical distance after the fire.

Published: April 18, 2017 by Knopf (@aaknopf)
Author: Anita Shreve
Date read: July 2, 2017
Rating: 3.5 stars