4 out of 4 stars
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Man Mission: Four Men, Fifteen Years, One Epic Journey, by Eytan Uliel, is a wonderfully written story about friendship, travel, adventure, commitment, hardship, and personal growth. It can be read as an engaging adventure travelogue, but it is much, much more.
Man Mission tells the story of four Australian friends, and college classmates, over a fifteen-year period. Each year, they go on a two week (or so) “man mission.” The original trip was conceived by two of the friends in response to boredom with their early careers in law. With little planning, the two embarked on an ambitious trek in New Zealand – a trek on which they encountered various obstacles and adventures, including interaction with a band of itinerant drug dealers. Such a trip became an annual tradition, ultimately attended (in most of the years) by all four of the friends.
Each trip is an experiential adventure governed by the ten rules of the “Man Mission Charter.” These rules mandate adventure, pushing beyond one’s limits, traveling under one’s own power, and other “manly” attributes and behaviors (e.g. washing is optional). Accordingly, many of the annual missions involve hiking and biking in exotic settings, in places such as New Zealand, Vietnam, Japan, Fifi, and Spain.
The trips taken by the four are totally in contrast with their regular lives as high-functioning professionals and businessmen with wives and families. The annual missions allow the men to deepen their relationships with each other, as well as to reflect on and explore the experiences of their individual lives navigating love, marriage, parenting, and careers.
The book is structured perfectly to tell the story; each chapter recounts one of the man missions. Along with a description of the places and events of the trip, there is a discussion of the important life events of that year. The story is narrated in the first person by one of the men. Most of the story, therefore, focuses on the events in his life; the other men’s stories are exposed through his eyes. Throughout the story, we are exposed to their highs and lows in love, marriage, parenting, and careers. It is in these events that the main drama of the book occurs.
The author uses the structural contrasts in the story (man mission vacations versus everyday lives with families and jobs) to great advantage. Each of the men contrasts their roles as men under the relatively primitive nature of the mission with their greater roles as men in modern society. On an individual level, the characters use the contrasts between mission life and everyday life to highlight and explore their life challenges.
Also, there is a contrast between the lives of the four men and the lives of the people they meet on their adventures. On their adventures, the four men meet many people of other cultures and backgrounds. These encounters provide perspective and wisdom in examining their own lives.
The quality of the writing in Man Mission is superb. The prose is easy to read and flows beautifully. I particularly enjoyed the author’s often lyrical descriptions of the countryside the men encountered on their trips.
While there was nothing I particularly disliked about Man Mission, I did find it curious that a group of men as highly educated as these had not apparently had much experience with classical literature, philosophy, and religion. The narrator, in particular, dwells quite extensively with classical issues such as balancing one’s desires against one’s obligations to others – themes that are common in literature and philosophy – yet there is little evidence that his perspective is informed by anything other than his own experience.
I rated Man Mission, by Eytan Uliel, 4 stars out of 4. The book was entirely a joy to read, both for its subject matter, as well as the wonderful writing. I recommend this book for anyone interested in a great story, told well, that resonates with the issues we all experience in our lives.
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