Book Review

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Publisher: Doubleday
Genre: Fantasy Fiction
Format: Hardback
Pages: 498
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

As with all good things, this story begins with a book. Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a mildly enthusiastic college student, is wandering through the shelves of his university library. He is searching, although he does not know what for, when he happens upon a book which is more than it seems. The book is old, unmarked and deliciously mysterious. Once Zachary begins to read, he cannot stop, because in its pages Zachary finds stories of pirates, and gatekeepers, and finally, himself.

The book describes the young man as he was in his childhood. It is a chronicle of a moment of magic when Zachary was offered passage into another world—a moment which he chose not to seize. The promise of the book is that this moment has not been lost, only postponed. It is this promise that propels Zachary through a painted doorway into a world full of wonder, a world in which a Starless Sea exists beneath the earth, on whose shores exist all the stories that ever were and that will ever be.

Thoughts

The Starless Sea is long-form love letter to books. It is collection of stories within stories, all neatly woven together with the thread of the main narrative, which the reader learns is yet another story in another book. There is some not so subtle subtext here concerning the nature of “Story,” and what that means to those who are passionate about it. In one of my favorite tangents, those who wish to protect and keep the treasures of the Starless Sea must pass a test in which they relate a story to a single person. Based on their performance they are deemed either worthy or not. This is an enticing prospect, and a call-to-arms of those (such as myself) that fancy themselves storytellers. Morgenstern blatantly states, if you do not love books, this one is not for you.

The powerful imagery immerses the reader in a magical reality outside of the mundane world. From the masquerade party where the attendees must dress as literary characters, to the underground quarters where any food you wish appears by means of an enchanted dumbwaiter, each scenario is finely crafted to enchant the lover of the unusual and fantastic. While there is little explanation as to the why of events, the richness that they offer renders this unnecessary. Why explain the realm of magic? The prose is lovely, full of metaphor, and unabashedly romantic.

For me, this books speaks with the voice of a kindred spirit. If the Reveurs of The Night Circus (Morgenstern’s first book) were my tribe, then this book is our destination. Were we all to go on a voyage, I am sure that we would set sail together on the Starless Sea. Of course, we would be traveling together on a boat crafted from heartwood of the Ancient Forest, with sails of silk woven from the hair of naiads and perfumed with the dew of night-blooming flowers. If this sounds like exactly the type of adventure that you would like to go on—one full of lovers, villains, and unlikely heroes—then this is the book for you. I would highly recommend it devotees of fantasy and bibliophiles alike. Curl up with a nice cup of tea and The Starless Sea and be prepare to be transported into a dream!

Book Review

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Publisher: Anchor Books
Genre: Nonfiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 240
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

In this nonfiction book, journalist Jon Krakauer uncovers the story of Chris McCandless, a young man from a successful family who donates his money, abandons most of his possessions, and adopts the name “Alexander Supertramp” on an adventure across the States and into the Alaskan wilderness north of Mt. McKinley.

Four months after his descent into the wilderness, a moose hunter found his body, and several news stories follow, stirring up public criticism about his supposed reckless behavior.

Krakauer follows clues to discover more about McCandless’ adventure and to answer the questions he has about this young man. What exactly was McCandless’ motivation? How should we understand his surprising death? What can we learn from his story?

Thoughts

My first interaction with the true story of Alexander Supertramp was not from Krakauer’s bestseller, nor was it from the 2007 award-winning movie adaptation. Instead, I learned about his legendary travels through my older sister Jessica, who adores this story so much that she begged our parents to stop by the famous Slab City and Salton Sea (which Chris McCandless visited on his journey) on the drive home from a vacation. 11 years old at the time, I hadn’t read the book or watched the movie, nor did I appreciate this lengthy detour in our already long drive. However, it proved extremely memorable, filled with bizarre creations and interesting caricatures, including Leonard, an artist of the desert.

Jessica and Leonard Knight, the artist behind Salvation Mountain who crossed paths with Chris McCandless

Now, almost a decade later, I’ve returned to the story with Krakauer’s book for a proper explanation of Chris McCandless…and a new understanding about why Jessica dragged us out an hour and a half into the middle of nowhere. (Jessica, I might not have been grateful for this detour at the time, but thanks for urging us to take this mini adventure while Leonard was still around!)

I enjoyed reading this book, not only for an explanation of this Slab City visit, but also for Krakauer’s excellent, detailed storytelling and writing style.

Krakauer’s Into the Wild is a book about a journalist’s interest in a young man’s adventure as much as it’s a story about McCandless’ travels into the wild. While it details clues about McCandless, it also provides a deep look into Krakauer himself as he reflects on why Chris’ story resonates with him so much. He even reserves two chapters to discuss his own story and the connections he feels it might have to Chris’ life.

Throughout the book, the author includes pieces of evidence to explain how he constructed an understanding of the Alexander Supertramp adventure: postcards, letters, a journal, photographs, book annotations, and several eye witness and family interviews. Later, when he tries to pinpoint the cause of Chris’ death, he even describes his encounter with researchers and critics as he explores different possible explanations. Since Krakauer unravels little pieces along the way, it sometimes reads more like a mystery than nonfiction, adding intrigue and a need to continue reading.

Each chapter begins with a passage, either from Krakauer’s own choosing or, in some cases, a passage highlighted in one of the books McCandless carried into the wild. Krakauer points out these highlighted passages to show a progression in the traveler’s ideology, ending in his famous scribbled annotation: “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.” I found this detail extremely interesting, and, being a bookworm at heart, it makes me wonder if Chris would have drawn the same conclusion if he were carrying a different set of books with him into the wild. That is, was this revelation a discovery bound to occur from his life experiences, or were these books essential to creating this understanding?

Now that I finally took the time to appreciate a more concrete telling of McCandless’ story, I’m excited to watch the film, which gives more details about Leonard himself, to learn more about the Supertramp adventure.

If you’re not much of a nonfiction reader, it’s worth noting that the author’s prose often reads more like fiction than dry facts, which made Chris’ story beautiful and enjoyable to read. I’d recommend this book to any lover of nonfiction, adventure, or mystery.