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Book Review: Race Across Alaska: The First Woman to Win the Iditarod Tells Her Story by Libby Riddles and Tim Jones

Image of a book cover. A woman with a dog sled team races across the cover.

Summary:
Libby Riddles wanted an adventure. At the age of 16 she left home for the snowy frontiers of Alaska, the Last Frontier. There, her love of animals drew her to the sport of sled dog racing. When she entered the Iditarod in 1985, the famous marathon from Anchorage to Nome, she was just another Iditarod Nobody. Twelve hundred miles later, having conquered blizzards, extreme cold, and exhaustion, she and her dogs crossed the final stretch of sea ice, miles ahead of the nearest competitor… and suddenly she realized: I will be the first woman to win the Iditarod. This is the story of a courageous woman and her heroic dogs. This is the story of Libby Riddles’s adventure.

Review:
First published in 1988, this book drips with the freshness of an event recently lived. Both in the assumption that everyone reading this knows at least some things about Libby and in the clarity with which she remembers the events. In fact, Libby was actually featured in Vogue magazine after winning the Iditarod, so the novelty of being the first woman to win meant it reached out further to the general population than it might have otherwise. Reading it in 2022 without previously having given much thought to women in the Iditarod made it feel like a fun, time-travel adventure.

Each chapter is one day of the Iditarod, and the book jumps right in with day 1. There’s no prologue or introduction to Libby. It’s just day one of the race. Each chapter also shows which part of the trail Libby completed that day, gives a note on the weather (highs, lows, and wind speed), and a brief summary of what that day was like for her. Throughout the book there are asides explaining various aspects of the Iditarod and mushing, everything from what clothes mushers wear and why to the history of the event. I found these very helpful. I just wish there’d been one introducing me to Libby too.

I expected the Iditarod to be a story of loneliness and individual perseverance. Instead, I learned that the race involves a lot of people, includes seeing people more than you might think, and is a meaningful event to various towns and villages along the trail. In retrospect I should have realized this. But the Iditarod is discussed as such a survivalist event that it never crossed my mind. Especially at the beginning of the race, the mushers are quite close to each other, and even sometimes travel in groups if they have a similar pace. Villages, towns, and even just individual homes are checkpoints throughout that the mushers must check in to. The locals open up their homes to the mushers, even giving over their beds for them to get an hour or two of shut-eye. At one point, Libby sleeps in a bed with two other mushers briefly. It’s really not the individual experience I was expecting! This sort of help is allowed only if it’s offered to all mushers equally, so when a person chooses to open up their home and feed and clothe people, they’re really offering it up.

Each checkpoint also has at least one veterinarian available to check in on the dogs. Dogsled racing is largely about the dog teams, after all. Many mushers actually breed their own sled dogs. Libby’s dogs were half hers and half her partner Joe’s. Throughout the book, we get to know her dogs a bit and see how much care she gives to them. Libby also won the award given by the vets to the musher who took best care of their dogs, an interesting accomplishment for the person who also won the whole thing that year.

This isn’t to say that mushers are never alone or reliant only on themselves and their dogs. As the race goes on, they get more spread out from each other. At one point, Libby must camp out on her sled in the middle of a blizzard completely alone. Also the further in front you are, the less clear the trail is, and the easier it is to get lost. So winning is also about having the fortitude to go ahead of everyone else.

I enjoyed how I learned about the Iditarod without ever feeling like it was a textbook. The learning happened naturally as I followed Libby on her route and rooted for her inevitable win I knew was coming. You can see some footage of Libby in the 1985 Iditarod and her induction moment into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame here. If you have little ones in your life, you might like to get Libby’s children’s book about her historic Iditarod win. The adult memoir is a fun and educational read for anyone interested in the tale.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 244 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

August 18, 2016 3 comments

Book Review: Into the Wild by Jon KrakauerSummary:
In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters. Krakauer found himself fascinated by this young man and set out to tell his story.

Review:
I read this in print, which meant everyone could see what book I was reading (at work, on the bus), and I must say I was surprised at how polarizing McCandless (who primarily called himself Alex) is. Some people find his obsession with living off-grid admirable, while others found it wasteful and irresponsible. Regardless of what you think of Alex, Krakauer presents his story in an engaging way, starting with the bare facts of how he was discovered and then taking the reader through his own investigation into who Alex was.

I feel like a lot of us know a person who is some flavor of Alex. Someone who grew up with the world his oyster but pushed it away in pursuit of simpler things. Some people take this to a reasonable level. For instance, they might refuse the $25,000 in savings from their parents but also not give it away to charity. Or they might give that money away but keep enough to get started on, not actually burn money. It’s very interesting to me how many people react with such utter disdain for Alex burning the money. I think it’s a clear example of an act of youthful passion. He really believed in this way of life. He really wanted to distance himself from his family. So he destroyed something. I wonder, when people react so strongly to this, whether they, in their youth, were never moved to destroy something in a symbolic manner? Perhaps some people are just not so possessed by the passion of youth.

In any case, while Krakauer’s own opinion of Alex is pretty clear by the end of the book, he does a good job holding it off for quite a while, letting the reader make up their own mind. I also think he might not realize he does this but he draws some interesting parallels to Walden and Thoreau that might make people who dislike Alex realize the privilege Walden and Thoreau were exercising in choosing to “go into the woods” but a woods they could leave at any time.

As a person who grew up in a very rural area with a father who hunted and fished and a family who grew our own garden of food and learned to shoot a rifle at a young age, I understand many Alaskans’ disdain for Alex. There’s something insulting about someone who has studied and learned nothing or next to nothing about surviving off the land just waltzing in and claiming they can do it. And often these people put the locals who live there in danger, whether by needing rescuing or causing wildfires or what have you. I get that. But I also get the impulse those who were raised far from the land with too much handed to them on a platter have to go out and prove they can do it on their own. For a long time I myself couldn’t understand the downsides of coming from money but I have come to learn them from observing others who come from money. There is a certain freedom in family and money not going hand-in-hand and in being pushed into adulthood and making it on your own early.

If this clash of those living on the land and those desiring to abandon it all and live on the land intrigues you, you’ll enjoy this book. It’s well-written, even-handed, and demonstrates the value in taking a moment to consider other perspectives and not jump to heated conclusions.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Borrowed

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A Trio of Disappointing Reads Reviewed in Haiku

August 15, 2016 3 comments

A Trio of Disappointing Reads Reviewed in Haiku

The Maze Runner
By James Dashner

Summary:
When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his name. He’s surrounded by strangers—boys whose memories are also gone. Outside the towering stone walls is a limitless, ever-changing maze. It’s the only way out—and no one’s ever made it through alive. Then a girl arrives. The first girl ever. And the message she delivers is terrifying.

Haiku Review:

Surprisingly dull
Who made the maze and monsters?
Oh, that. Is that it?

3 out of 5 stars
Source: PaperBackSwap
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house

House of Leaves
By: 
Mark Z. Danielewski

Summary:
A young family moves into a small home on Ash Tree Lane where they discover something is terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Haiku Review:

Someone impressed his
Lit prof but not me with his
Wasteful pretention.

2 out of 5 stars
Source: PaperBackSwap
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A Trio of Disappointing Reads Reviewed in Haiku

The Quality of Silence
By: 
Rosamund Lupton

Summary:
On 24th November Yasmin and her deaf daughter Ruby arrived in Alaska. Within hours they were driving alone across a frozen wilderness. They are looking for Ruby’s father. Travelling deeper into a silent land. They still cannot find him. And someone is watching them in the dark.

Haiku Review:

Don’t you fucking dare
Keep me up at night worried
Then grant no closure.

2 out of 5 stars
Source: Library
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