An Inbred Wanderlust: Finding North by George Michelsen Foy

I can’t remember when was the last time I “ran out” of reading material.  I have always had a pile of books I haven’t read somewhere at hand, it just gives me peace to know there’s something to look forward to. I usually have at least three books I really want to read, and there’s a lot of research, conversations, Goodreads browsing and recommendations that influence my tbr pile, so when I buy a book it’s usually a title I’ve had in mind for a while. But a few times a year I’ll go crazy and buy a few titles I have never heard about, I just let them find me. This was the case of George Michelsen Foy’s Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human. 

I saw this book at Chapters, Ottawa and I just had to buy it. Partly because lately I am obsessesed with travel writing, and partly because the cover is so beautiful. So I bought it with no other reference, and for four months it just accumulated dust on my nightstand. But now I finally got to reading it, and it was a pleasant surprise.

The book is part memoir, part a rollicking reflection on the very intimate link between navigation and humanity. The book begins thus: “‘Where’ is the primal question, rather than ‘when’, ‘how’, or ‘who’ because for any animal, figuring out where to move in defense or attack relative to the forces around has always been the first step to survival. From the start, staying alive has depended on navigation, the art of figurin g out our position and in what direction to travel”. And Michelsen goes beyond that affirmation, he even visits a neuroscientist that explains to him the fragile yet indispensable links between memory and the ability of locating oneself in a certain space, and how that happens in the human brain.

The book is not, however, just a collection of fun facts about navigation, there’s a story guiding the plot. Michelsen teaches creative writing at NYU, and the hero’s journey is easily discernible along the book. His concern with navigation goes beyond simple curiosity, he’s obessesed with maritime navigation and sailing because his Nordic ancestors were in the trade before emigrating to America. One of his ancestors was the captain of a vessel called the Stavanger Paquet, which sank in a journey from Stavanger, Norway, to Hamburg, Germany. After the incident, every other member of the Michelsen family who ventured into the sea met a similar fate, so the family abandoned their trade.

And it’s this family curse, a legend that has passed from generation to generation of Michelsens, that obsesses our hero. Michelsen feels particularly attracted to navigation and ships since he was a boy growing up in Cape Code. What dazzles him is that “navigation of the kind my ancestor practised was not just a skill but the roughest of magics: a spell cast in the face of mystery and fear against the near certainty of loss”. In explaining his obsession, Michelsen strikes a feeling every traveller has felt before, the need to go places, an innate wanderlust that prevents people from staying where they are in search for who knows what: even if the seas are believed to be plagued by krakens and monsters, they have to sail. This innate wanderlust, a nomadic instinct is what Steinbeck called “the urge to be someplace else“, a charming urge which has motivated thousands of pages in literature.

Sadly, part of the charm and danger of traveling, of navigating, has been lost recently because of technology. We know now that Google Maps actually makes us worst at navigating, and Michelsen not only criticises and explains this, but takes direct action against it. That’s where things get interesting, for we would not have a hero without a task.

The plot of the book is basically Michelsen trying to recreate the trip which took his ancestor’s life, that is, in as much as possible the same conditions: a similar ship, no modern technology, in a trip from Cape Cod to Maine. In preparing for the trip and actually setting out to it, Michelsen reflects on various topics related to navigation: the biology behind it, old methods of celestial navigation, history and family history. He’s constantly trying to understand what lies behind the human need for travelling and how it may have transformed now that we are so dependable on GPS technology.

Finding North is a curious book. It is uneven, gripping at times, exasperating and even boring at times. Michelsen introduces himself as a very likeable character—that is perhaps what I found annoying in the book— and tries to use a personal plot—his quest to recreate his ancestor’s trip— to unite a series of topics and interviews that seem not to be related. While everything is about navigation, there are parts that work more like independent essays but are forced into the general plot, so that might prove anticlimactic at times.

Apart from that, I really enjoyed the book. When I bought it I thought I could learn some things about navigation, and I was not disappointed, there are plenty of facts and interesting data in the book, along with a Selected Bibliography at the end. It is obviously a very well-researched book, one that raises important questions about our current relationship with technology, and that moreover seeks to answer from personal experience the old question of why we travel. If you’re into travel writing, I’m sure Finding North will prove a delightful experience. You can get it from Amazon here*.

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New Year’s Book Haul

New year, new reads. 2018 was for me a very interesting year reading wise, in which I discovered many new authors and in which I read a lot of nonfiction, something new for me. This year, however, I intend to make that a tradition. December is usually the month in which I go like, treat yo’self, and buy myself lots of books, despite having a literal pile of things I haven’t read yet. Do you even find there are books you just can’t get around to read, no matter for how long they sit on your nightstand? I have plenty of those and I intend to give them a chance this year. The actual TBR pile is pictured here:

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However, I do not have the self-control not to buy new books that caught my fancy, and  so I ended up with this gorgeous pile of books that I really can’t wait to read:

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What surprised me about these books once I piled them up was that there’s just one work of fiction, most of these books are history books or essays. I’m very much into essays right now. You can also notice many of these are about outdoors and travelling, that has been a major subject for me in the last few months.

This being my very first book haul ever, I think I’ll just proceed to talk about each of these books.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich

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“Journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown—from innocent citizens to firefighters to those called in to clean up the disaster—and their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live.”

A couple of years ago I read Alexievich’s War’s Unwomanly Face and I must say I had never found any history book as compelling and haunting. Alexievich’s writings dwells somewhere between history and literature, and does so with utmost honesty. On the book I read she mentions how she prefers to think of what she does as a “history of the heart”, bringing up those voices that History has long ignored—women, children— and discussing the seemingly unimportant details that are in the very core of “big” historic episodes, like wars. European history and the Soviet Union are themes that interest me and I expect I’ll have a lot of feelings about this book, which is written in the same interviews/monologue style.

 

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport

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“Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados.”

More about Russia. This was a birthday gift from a friend who knows me really well, but I haven’t had the chance to read it. This book is a part of a historical trilogy which includes The Last Days of the Romanovs and The Race to Save the Romanovs. As any Downton Abbey fan, I admit I have a soft spot for royal families and agonizing empires in changing times. I really can’t wait to read this.

 

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

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“Romantic Outlaws brings together a pair of visionary women who should have shared a life, but who instead shared a powerful literary and feminist legacy. This is inventive, illuminating, involving biography at its best.”

I saw this book on my Goodreads suggestions some weeks ago and I was absolutely thrilled when I found it ON SALE in a bookshop in Ottawa (ten dollars!). I really love Mary Shelley and I am excited to read more about her life, and honestly what best than some good old 19th century feminism.

 

Finding North by George Michelsen Foy

“In 1844, Foy’s great-great grandfather, captain of a Norwegian cargo ship, perished at sea after getting lost in a snowstorm. Foy decides to unravel the mystery surrounding Halvor Michelsen’s death—and the roots of his own obsession with navigation—by re-creating his ancestor’s trip using only period instruments.”

Honestly I bought this book because it was $4* and the cover was pretty, but I am genuinely looking forward to reading it now! It’s about a guy who tries to find his way in the sea using only old navigation instruments, so yes, I’m on board. And it has pretty awesome old maps inside, what’s not to like?

*I found it in Chapters, Ottawa, just like Romantic Outlaws. This shop has the best deals ever, no kidding.

Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol Oates

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Finally some fiction. Last year I read another of Joyce Carol Oates’ gothic novels, The Accursed, and I just couldn’t put it down. It was creepy and engaging and satirical in the best way. I had been trying to find the rest of her gothic novels but somehow they don’t have them anywhere in Mexico. So I ran into this one in Quebec City and of course bought it. I am a big fan of gothic literature, and this gothic revival of which Oates’ is capable of is just impressive, it has what I like best about gothic novels—style and themes— and the very necessary critiques of current events. I’m both excited and a bit scared to read this one.

 

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

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“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

This is a book I have read before, haphazardly and in different moments of my life, but I never had an actual copy of it, mainly because every time I see it in a bookshop, it’s an ugly edition. So I finally bought one that is not too shabby and not very expensive, and I can’t wait to give it my whole, undivided attention. Both Thoreau and Emerson have shaped my life in very important ways— they’re the kind of authors I go to when at a crossroads or undecisive, so I just know it will be a rewarding read.

 

Wilderness Essays by John Muir

 

Muir is an author I have been wanting to read for a long, long time now. I have come across fragments of his essays now and then and he reminds me of Thoreau and Emerson in his approach to nature and wilderness. The outdoors is a subject that interests me greatly and I love to hear different perspectives about it, about experiencing nature, about civilisation and about traveling. This comes at the right time, I think, as I have been paving the path reading other books on similar subjects by Cheryl Strayed, Bill Bryson and Edward Abbey. Human interaction with the untamed is a topic I’m ready to explore deeply in 2019, both in my reading and my life. Also, just look at this gorgeous edition.

In fact, I started the year reading a book along those lines. I am now reading and very much enjoying John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley in Search of America. I haven’t yet read any of Steinbeck’s famous novels, but WOW. This book is just amazing. I can’t help but think of Holden Caulfield saying how he wishes he could just call an author and talk to him, that’s exactly how I feel. And to be honest I really have a crush on Steinbeck. This book is a memoir as well as an in-depht analysis of the American way of life, of the American wilderness, of the search for meaning and the need of moving, of loneliness and companionship. It is a wonderful book of which I’ll be writing about soon.

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Have you read any of these?

I’d love to hear about your TBR for 2019!