There is a disappointment that is unique to the genre of books built around someone who, wearied with the rat race, wanting to trim off the psychic fat, repairs to the wilderness to build a retreat.
A cabin, a writing shed, an old farmhouse with disrepair mirroring the disrepair of his zest for life -- it's the sort of book one writes when one wants to fully inhabit this change, to be able to simultaneously retreat from it all while sending back a message in a bottle. "Enjoying my inner life in this cabin in the woods -- wish you were here! Not really!"
For the reader who harbors similar yearnings, what we get is more window dressing than escape. The book usually ends up being more about the author than about the place. In some cases -- "Walden," anyone? -- this is intended; but "Walden" is exceptional.
"Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine" is an exceptional book in its employ of the "Escape of the English Major" theme, precisely because author Lou Ureneck succeeds in delivering an almost tangible experience of escape. The supporting player here -- and not in a shortchanged sense, but in a strong way -- is Ureneck himself. He doesn't attempt a pretense of making himself an anonymous figure in service of descriptions of snowy Maine days; we are given some of the details that led him to pursue this retreat, largely consisting of many of the concerns of a midlife discontentment. This sets up the reader with sympathetic concerns to want the experience of sabbatical that follows for Ureneck.
"Cabin" is as close as a book could come to really capturing that feeling of going to the woods to live deliberately. While Ureneck continues the thread of his own disenchantment with life throughout the pages, it is only in service of describing in clear, selfless detail -- clear and crisp as a winter's day in Maine -- the process he and his brother go through to make the idea a reality.
He strikes a pitch-perfect balance in relating the construction of a cabin and the changes going on in his life. Instead of ponderous considerations of man's position relative to the wilderness in the 21st century, Ureneck uses his own inner machinations only as tools in raising the roof beams. This holds true for the construction of the cabin as well as the writing of this book, and if the cabin's sturdiness in some way mirrors the resulting narrative, that will be a cabin built to last.
Matthew Tiffany is a book critic in Maine.