Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests In none of the glowing reviews for the lavishly talented fiction writer Sarah Waters did I get a sense of the overwhelming sense of dread and darkness that infused this novel. Waters captures something in humans that is not pretty to look at, no matter how the two young women central to the action squirm to avoid condemnation.

1922, London. Frances belongs to a genteel household which includes only herself and her mother now at the end of WWI which had taken off her brothers, and finished her father. To pay the bills, she invites two boarders, "Len and Lil," newly married, to take up residence in the upstairs rooms. As Frances begins to hate pushy, overbearing, and snide Len, she simultaneously finds herself attracted to Lil. When Frances and Lil come together physically, I found myself disturbed—not so much by the idea of sex between two young women—as by the niggling sense of emotional coercion by Frances. As the story proceeded, that unease did not abate. And even Lil finally sees it in the final chapters: "You always bully me, Frances."

The story is a long one, and we are drawn into the world of criminal courts and family relationships that complicate the budding romance between the two central characters. The sense of disaster hangs over one quite palpably as the relationship between the two starts to fray under the strain of their involvement in the criminal case before the courts. One might say that neither woman showed herself to advantage in the maelstrom of accusations and public interest, and therein lie the darkness: no matter that we readers knew of their role and could exonerate them, there was still something devious, in their hearts and in their actions, that made us dislike and distrust them nonetheless.

This is a marvelous bit of writing that could make us so uneasy and feel the looming darkness in every scene. Much has been made of the sensuality with which the two women took to their bed, but even that made me uneasy. Lil was married but had never been properly “loved” and was therefore susceptible to someone who could bring her to orgasm. But sex, wondrous though it is, is not love after all. This is what I mean about “emotional coercion.” I think Frances knew this, and despite that knowledge, acted in her own self-interest and without the love she needed to make us more comfortable with her actions.

Sarah Waters’ writing is beautifully crafted but dark: Louise Welsh dark (The Cutting Room, The Bullet Trick); Patricia Highsmith dark (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train). This was my first read of her fiction, and I admit surprise that she is so widely hailed by mainstream readers. Such a long book requires days of attention, and that darkness stays with one long after. Her roster of critical successes speaks to her talent.

I listened to the audio of this title, generously provided by Penguin Random House Audio, and narrated with great skill and terrific accents by Juliet Stevenson.

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Elephant Company by Vicki Constantine Croke

Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II NPR environmental and animal journalist Vicki Croke’s new book about the British elephant mahout and teak man James “Billy” Williams in Burma in the interregnum between the 20th Century’s World Wars easily began as the best nonfiction I’d read all year. Elephants and Burma--what a combination of mysteries. No matter how many books about elephants that I read, I always learn something new. I love knowing of elephant skills, abilities, capabilities. In her Introduction, Croke tells us:
"Williams had witnessed a life among the elephants that would be hard for those outside to fathom—in fact, he reported behaviors that many would not believe until they were validated decades later by biologists in the field. He had seen these creatures thoughtfully solve problems, use tools, protect one another, express joy and humor, stand up for something more important than their own safety, and even, perhaps, comprehend the concept of death. There was a largeness to them that was about more than their physical size, a quality triggered especially when their sense of decency or outrage was provoked.

Could one really call it decency? Williams thought so. Courage defined them, He had witness their bravery—mothers defending babies, tuskers squaring off against each other, closely bonded females running toward danger, not away, to protect one another.

These were simple lessons from the animals, like how to be content with what he had. And there were more complex ones, too: the realization, for instance that trust requires much more than affection; it depends on mutual confidence—strength, not niceness. Or that sometimes it’s not necessary to know what elephants or people are thinking, as long as one honors what they are feeling."

Croke explains the differences between African and Asian elephants, in size and temperament, and gets into details about living in the plains and mountains of Burma. Details of early teak harvesting are both sad and fascinating. It takes two to three years to harvest a tree, and “it could take anywhere from five to twenty years for a log to become a milled plank." Demand for teak, a hard wood resistant to insects and weather damage increased dramatically in the first part of the 20th century, from "sixty-three thousand tons of teak a year in the late 1800s to more than five hundred thousand tons annually in Williams’s early years." Additionally we learn that "a teak forest 10,000 square miles in extent may be capable of producing only seven or eight thousand trees a year."

Living as a teak forester sounds formidable, and lonely. The hardship of the sheeting rain of the monsoon and the isolation of the jungle life would keep most folks away, but Billy Williams had the consolation of working with the world’s largest land animals. Williams suffered innumerable bouts of malaria and other illnesses that nearly took him out, but he soldiered on without complaint and once recovered, raced back to his post and his elephants.

The only thing that keeps this from being the best book I have ever read is the section on Williams’ involvement in WWII as it played out in Burma. Undoubtedly the Japanese had a strategy for domination that included rustling about in the jungles of Burma, but somehow that did not make any sense to me. No book can answer every question, but if the author makes the reader interested enough to seek out more information as a result of their reading, the book can be considered a success. In this way, Croke's work makes one want to know more. Many of us are more familiar than we’d like to be with the European theatre, but the war in Asia deserved just a few sentences of intent and context.

Once Croke began to talk about the war, the map of Burma given after the Introduction seemed too thinly marked. I could not find the locations she spoke of in terms of troop movements and distances became unclear. Details about the elephants’ involvement in bridge building required more than Williams’ diary would have provided. I understand the difficulties she must have encountered, but I would have preferred, then, not to have the title so focused on the participation of elephants in WWII. It was neither the most interesting nor the most complete section of the narrative.

In any case, the elephants were involved in at least two long distance treks carrying refugees across vast distances and through difficult terrain, forgoing their usual regime of being river-washed and set free each night to forage and rest. Despite all the hardships of teak work and war, they made the best of their situation and came through when called upon for help. Williams himself earned commendation for his war effort which included mustering and handling the elephants behind enemy lines and we know from his own writings how much credit he gave the animals in his care, especially one exceptional bull called Bandoola, whom he loved.

The resurrection of this riveting account of elephant teak and war work in Burma is due entirely to the research and attention of Vicki Croke, whose fluency makes the narrative absorbing. She has a sensitivity regarding animal and human behaviors that seems exceptionally perceptive. Despite my quibbles about the final third of the book, the story is packed with detail and photos of early teak work in Burma and is definitely one of the best books of my year. This extraordinary nonfiction title is well worth the time/money investment to locate and read a copy and would be a great book to gift someone for the upcoming holiday season.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #5) Until I’d navigated the shoals of Irish teen speak in Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, I might have been dismissive of the enormous skill it takes to recreate the speech patterns of a dozen teens. By now I am inoculated against scorn for the abbreviations and slangerizing of words that compose ordinary conversation, and parse much more quickly now.

Tana French’s sleight of hand places in parallel the confusing world of just-awakening teens alongside squads of police learning their craft in the harsh and unforgiving world of crime. By juxtaposing the two groups, we see the seeds of the men and women the teens will become.

St. Kilda’s Girl School and St. Colm’s Boy’s School are just across the way from one another, and the boarders of each mix at dances or in the town shopping arcade called the “Court.” They try on their adult selves like clothes at the thrift shop—delighting and discarding with snide remarks and zings of pleasure.

French slowly unfurls her story, showing us how teens so close to the right answer in the test that is life can actually get the wrong result. It is agonizing to share in the desperation of lovely, lonely girls seeking a closeness together they all feel but cannot preserve. French creates marvelously complex and fully realized girls, boys, cops, but one stands out: Holly Mackey, daughter of Frank Mackey, the detective introduced in Faithful Place. Holly is sixteen with a mind like a steel trap. One can’t wait to see what she will become.

Two detectives, Antoinette Conway of the Murder Squad and Stephen Moran of Cold Cases, work together for a day and a night on the year-old death of one of the Colm boys. Loners both, they approach the case from different directions. Antoinette takes a flashy MG to the tony school to “Get the respect.” Stephen would prefer to drive “an old Polo, too many miles, too many layers of paint not quite hiding the dings. You come in playing low man on the totem, you get people off guard.” Antoinette faces criticism and office taunts straight on, with hostility. Stephen instead sidesteps the sarcasm and, joshing back, lowers the tension while awaiting his moment to outshine the club boys.

Detective Frank Mackey, both admired as well as feared, makes an appearance during the investigation and suggests the younger cops “go along [with their lesser colleagues] to get along.” Both reject his advice and earn his grudging respect. This may be French’s point after all: one must cleave to the notion there is something you care about more than the adulation of crowds. There may not be as much wisdom as needed in crowds after all.

French involves us completely with the subterfuges of the young folk in the book. We know how teens are: smart, secretive, seductive in what they choose to share. But we also know they are not as clever as they think they are, and they cannot outrun the ghost of youth.

I listened to the audio of this book alongside the paper copy. Stephen Hogan and Lara Hutchinson alternated reading and though the narrative shifted from the year-old lead-up to the murder and the current investigation, points of view were capably interleaved. I was rapt for the duration of this stellar mystery.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin

The first time I sunk into one of Mark Helprin’s huge, atmospheric novels I wondered how it was this man was not better known. But he is well known as a maker of epics, I just didn’t know it then. That first brush with Helprin was A Soldier of the Great War which so enraptured me I thought I’d never read another that was as good. Later, a professor friend of mine told me he “couldn’t get through it.” Older now, I wonder if it isn’t the fantastical quality of the romance, or the steel thread of Ayn Rand-like self-reliance that runs through his work that put my friend off.

Helprin, having attended Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford, has had access to the lives of the moneyed classes and unashamedly uses that access to create lavish sets for his novels. His insights into this exotic world waltz us off into dreaming how it would be if…which might actually be more fun than actually living in that constrained and rule-bound world. To be reassuringly safe from the vicissitudes of having enough to eat or clothes to wear, this is the stuff of romance. I am less susceptible to those fictions now, but I can see its attraction for many.

This unabashedly romantic tale centers on a great love between a New York Brahmin and a New York Jew. We are treated to the lush scenery of a minutely-observed post-War New York City, and to the problems encountered by small businessmen trying to keep their businesses viable while paying out protection monies on a weekly basis. The outlines of Helprin’s characters are carefully and completely drawn, and are then filled in with great swathes of color and fabric and angled light—that sunshine and shadow comes at us from every direction.

What I noticed and celebrate again is Helprin’s unequaled ability to observe and then relate the way the water in the wake of a ship, for instance, curls and moves and vaporizes, indicating current, direction, wind speed, tide levels…so much is caught in his web of words we can taste the salt spray. It leaves me gasping.

Helprin takes his time over this novel, moving back and forth in time, as expansive on the state of play in the garment district of New York as on the honeyed beaches of Long Island. There is a brilliant set-piece in which the aspirant for the hand of the heiress meets her parents for the first time. They eat dinner at the beach house on Long Island and the conversation is so elliptical and constantly shifting that one feels the danger in the meanings behind the words like hidden shoals upon which one might be wrecked.

The cast of characters is large, but completely manageable in Helprin’s hands. We get Manhattan: the theatre district, the garment and financial districts, the shops, the bustle, the 1950’s coffee shops with menus and waitresses. It is a brilliant reconstruction that must tempt more than one filmmaker to try it on. But it is too large a thing for a film; others have already tried to make films of Helprin’s novels (Winter’s Tale), and they must realize it is too…hopelessly romantic for our hard-bitten and seen-it-all audiences today.

I listened to the audio of this novel, and it went on for days while I worked on endless tasks. The inflectionless voice of the narrator, Sean Runnette, was not appealing at first, but this is a long story, and perhaps his style is what was needed. It was a little like being read to by one’s parent at bedtime instead of by a professional reader. Not what one would have chosen, but it becomes familiar. Helprin is still writing epics and he has a unique viewpoint that gives us romance like no one else.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer

The Mathematician's Shiva
"…smart people do stupid things far more often than most people realize."

This beautifully conceived novel revolves around the death of a world-class mathematician and the resolution of a proof about turbulence, or the chaotic movement of air and water in the atmosphere during a hurricane.
"Actually, it is more than this. The big D in the Navier-Stokes equation is called the material derivative, and it refers to watching velocities of fluids change not from a fixed reference frame but from one in which you are riding with the storm. When I think of Navier-Stokes, sometimes I imagine myself as a Lilliputian in a tiny canoe that has been lifted up and tossed high in a fun-house mirror. I watch as the fluids careen against and flow around me."
Wouldn’t it be great if the turbulence in our lives could be described and defined and nailed down with scientific precision? We could coolly assess a situation and recognize just when things are going to fly out of control, in which direction, and with what force.
"Tornados are a good metaphor for how bad things happen in our lives. They build from small disturbances that usually don’t mean a thing and almost always dissipate. But somehow one particular random bad event attracts others, and all of them together grow and attract more nasty stuff. Once it gets to a critical size, the odds of it growing even larger are no longer remote."

Rachela Karnokovitch was the stuff of legend--a brilliant mathematician immigrant to the United States. Born in Poland and raised in Siberia, she escaped to the United States in advance of her husband and her child and was welcomed with open arms into the IV League academic community. However, she preferred the chill of Wisconsin rather than the warm Princeton climate. She hated and derided any modifier to her genius, e.g., female mathematician, though the rarity of that made her even more precious, at least in the eyes of her husband and son.

Could there be a more unique premise for a novel than the funeral of a genius mathematician rumored to have held off dying in order to solve a major problem? This funeral gathers to itself a constellation of weird but bright individuals all circulating about that star of genius to see if the here-to-fore unannounced solution to the problem is anywhere apparent in Rachela’s papers. They sit shiva in her house for seven days. They search the office, walls, and floorboards of her house. They eat the food offered by neighbors, and drink continually. They generally make themselves a nuisance, though not without mathematician jokes, academician jokes, and a gradual but reluctant acceptance of reality.

In searching for the solution to the math problem, her son comes across Rachela’s diary. Rachela’s remembrances interspersed with shiva-sitting prompt her son to consider the big social questions that face us as humans:
"Our capacity for love isn’t like a gallon jug that you fill up from a rest stop as you take a drive across the country. It can swell, and sadly, it can shrink. Less is not more. Less is less, and more is better, although I can’t say that I fully understood that at the time of my mother’s death. I’m a whiz at science and math. In matters of people, I am indeed a slow learner."

This is a first novel, though it does not read like one. It is a profound meditation on life’s large questions, on math, on academia, on love and marriage. It is told with humor, pathos, honesty, and the understanding that long experience and large intellect can bring. The writing is graceful and mature and the the author instinctively seems to understand the requirements of fiction. We readers can follow anywhere, even to a funeral, as long as it has passages like the mathematician Rachela as a child in Siberia encountering a bear as she scoured the woods for lily bulbs to supplement her inadequate diet.

I was offered a copy of this book by Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Raising Steam
"It is hard to understand nothing, but the multiverse is full of it."

Were I a resident of Discworld, I am not entirely sure I wouldn’t be classified a goblin, a troll, or a dwarf. Terry Pratchett has created a satire so rich that we see our lives, successes, failures, and intentions reflected back at us. Pratchett can be biting, but he is never cruel. He retains an equanimity about human failure that inspires us to greater acts of idiocy and splendor.

Now the fortieth entry in the cycle of Discworld brings us "tech-nol-ogy" and the Rail Way by little tinkers who carried on tinkering. It changes everything! "…nothing…hurried to become something even faster."

I am sorry now I did not join Pratchett’s league of admirers earlier. He has a vast body of work on Discworld already that follows along with humankind’s stumbling activities and manages to illuminate our deepest held secrets and most agonizing social issues. Allusions to previous great works of literature and moments in history abound. Was there ever a more wise and humorous critic of our best and our worst tendencies?

A reader does not have to begin at the beginning with this series, though you may find yourself wishing to go back and delve into the riches of Pratchett's vision and humor. While these books can be read as delightful interludes 'twixt more serious fare, you may find yourself wishing there were more folks with Pratchett's understanding guiding our multiverse.

I was given the opportunity to listen to the Random House Audio version of this title narrated by the incomparable Stephen Briggs. He has narrated over thirty of Terry Pratchett’s books and has won numerous awards for his work. There is perhaps no better way to gain entry into the world of Ank-Morpork than listening to Stephen Briggs share his range of voices and interpretations of Terry Pratchett’s memorable saga. This is classic literature for our times.

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

The Dream of the Celt I don’t recall ever reading anything by Nobel Prize winner Vargas Llosa before, so I can’t compare this historical novel and thinly-disguised biography to his other work, but the subject--the life of Sir Roger Casement--is one which interests me deeply. Adam Hochschild’s 1998 book of the Congo, King Leopold’s Ghost, introduced me to the unforgettable figure of Roger Casement and I see Vargas Llosa was similarly captured. Casement was a man who harbored within him enormous contradictions and who struggled to live a life of meaning. Despite being hung for a traitor, he was a man of honor who stood up for his convictions, and who died for them.

Roger Casement (1864-1916) was born just outside of Dublin, Ireland, in a seaside location given variously as Sandycove or Kingstown. Though baptized as a child, Casement considered himself Protestant most of his life and embraced his Catholicism only shortly before his death. Much of what we know about him comes from his own journals in which he recorded his work, thoughts, travels, and sexual encounters. Vargas Llosa’s first section detailing Casement’s life and work in the Congo tracked so closely with Hochschild’s account that I realized both must have used the same source materials.

It is the second section, called Amazonia, which held my attention most closely. After Casement works with Protestant missionaries and the journalist and human rights activist E.D. Morel in the Congo disclosing the atrocities committed in the push to harvest rubber, he is dispatched by the British government to Peru to do the same there. He was not a well man by this time, for a white man in the tropics often developed debilitating illnesses that recurred with alarming frequency. Returning to the hot, humid environment of the Amazonian jungle caused his health to further fray. A photograph of Casement in Peru takes one aback; in it Casement looks positively skeletal.

Casement in Peru
Casement (on left) w/ Representative of Peruvian Amazon Company

Vargas Llosa describes Casement’s life in Peru with a verisimilitude and authenticity that makes those passages come alive. Casement had a nasty assignment, travelling to remote and dangerous outposts to conduct interviews and write detailed reports on atrocities. He couldn’t wait to be shot of it. But he persevered until he had enough damning evidence, only to find that the business interests trumped human rights in the Amazon, as they often did in colonial possessions.

Gradually Casement came to realize that freedom is something one must seize for oneself:
"I have reached the absolute conviction that the only way the indigenous people of Putumayo can emerge from the miserable condition to which they have been reduced is by rising up in arms against their masters. It is an illusion devoid of all reality to believe…that this state will change when…there are authorities, judges, police to enforce the laws that have prohibited servitude and slavery in Peru since 1854…In this society the state is an inseparable part of the machinery of exploitation and extermination…If they want to be free they have to conquer their freedom with their arms and their courage…We Irish are like the Huitotos, the Boras, the Andoques, and the Muinanes of Putumayo. Colonized, exploited and condemned to be that way forever if we continue trusting in British laws, institutions, and governments to attain our freedom. They will never give it to us. Why would the Empire that colonized us do that unless it felt an irresistible pressure that obliged it to do so? That pressure can only come from weapons."

Vargas Llosa also captures the beauty and pathos of Casement’s homosexual encounters, for Casement was a gay man in a world constrained by its own harsh and corrupted morality. By the time he lived in Peru, Casement was increasingly indiscreet in his encounters and his recording of them in his journals. Vargas Llosa makes the point that Casement must have keenly felt his solitary, unmarried life. When Casement leaves the Amazon and returns to Europe via New York, he encounters a handsome young Slav, Eivind, for whom he falls heavily, thinking he is finally enjoying a mutual and adult relationship. Eivind will be his undoing, for he sells Casement’s secrets, including his determination to work for Irish independence, to the British.

Casement had been knighted after his work in Africa. When, in a roiled and pre-WWI Europe, he made the decision to go to a militarizing Germany to get aid for Irish rebels, the British felt sufficiently betrayed to try him for treason. While in Germany, Casement apparently considered every possible means to weaken the hold of the British on her colonies wherever they might be, strengthening the case by the prosecution and ensuring he would never be granted clemency. He was hung in 1916, a mere three months after his dawn capture April 21 at McKenna’s Fort in Ireland.

The last section of Vargas Llosa’s novel details the confusion of Casement’s botched return to Ireland and the support for his case, or lack of it, by longtime friends and admirers. Many old friends, including E.D. Morel, considered Casement seriously off base in his collaboration with the German machine against England, and so never responded to his letters. Though his hangman called him "the bravest man it fell to my unhappy lot to execute," even his Irish compatriots could not hail him wholeheartedly as a nationalist because rumors of his homosexuality offended their sense of moral right.

In the Epilogue, Vargas Llosa celebrates the return of Casement to the popular imagination:
"With the revolution in customs, principally in the area of sexuality, in Ireland, the name of Casement gradually, though always with reluctance and prudery, began to clear a path to being accepted for what he was: one of the greatest anticolonial fighters and defenders of human rights and indigenous cultures of his time, and a sacrificed combatant for the emancipation of Ireland. Slowly his compatriots became resigned to accepting that a hero and martyr is not an abstract prototype or a model of perfection but a human being made of contradictions and contrasts, weakness and greatness, since a man, as José Enrique Rodó wrote, ‘is many men,’ which means that angels and demons combine inextricably in his personality."

In 1965, Casement’s bones were repatriated and rest now in Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery.

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Saturday, September 6, 2014

You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

You Deserve NothingMaksik’s debut novel is not a perfect thing, though he does a magnificent job catching the idiom and inflection of high school enrollees in the International School of France (ISF), an American school in a wealthy enclave of Paris. Three voices interweave: Marie, a student learning the power of her sexuality; Will, a thirty-three year-old teaching Sartre, Camus, Faulkner, and Shakespeare in a senior English seminar; Gilad, a student in Will’s class who, with Will, witnesses a man being pushed under a train at the subway.

The tentative and unclear thoughts of high school students is as frustrating to read as it was to experience: the cloudiness of motivations, of adult lives and decisions suddenly being thrust upon them, of the importance of their own place in a universe so small it includes only their friends and their parents. They tell us enough of what is going on in their heads that we believe there is little more there than what we are given.

It is the voice of teacher Will that makes us work: he gives us half-truths, possibilities for actions, and motivations that glance off the truth but that are not the truth. The death of his parents is one such possibility: both gone at once, suddenly. Will had left his wife then. But another reason for his actions might lie closer to watching a man randomly being thrown under a train in a Paris subway. He claims it has no effect upon him. It may be enough to make one think that one has little or no control nor impact on the direction of one’s life, so what does it matter? Will’s student, Gilad, makes the point that we should do just do the best we can and expect nothing in return. That is the human condition. We deserve nothing.

(view spoiler)

This is a man facing the existential crisis and losing himself. Even his girlfriend thinks him a ghost. He claims to be pleased that his students adore him but he is empty, numb, vacant. The teenaged journal entries are trying but they reflect a childish truth. The deadness of Will’s world is terrifying.

Maksik uses whatever material is to hand to demonstrate his novelistic skills. He has the goods. Now, this reader hopes he extends his reach beyond the issues facing a wealthy international school and brings his novelistic and philosophical skill to bear on the larger questions that face us in the world as it is. After all, “to be or not to be, that is the question.” Once that question has been answered, one is either engaged or dead.

Maksik’s second book, A Marker to Measure Drift, faces those larger questions. Bravo!

Two points I must comment upon: one good, one bad. Midway, Maksik gives us one of the hottest sex scenes I can recall. It should go down in the annals. In the final scene, however, is an embarrassingly empty gesture with a gold Cartier pen and a plastic ballpoint. I didn’t like that as well, but we can’t always have it all. Keep your ears cocked for news of this man. He’s not lightweight.

It occurs to me that I am unsure, now, why this book is entitled You Deserve Nothing. I mean, why not We Deserve Nothing or I Deserve Nothing? Could it be that the people or persons he tries to understand by writing their point of view in his novel have had their repayment, explanation, and opportunity to defend themselves and he no longer feels obligated to feel badly or responsible? Curious...

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Friday, September 5, 2014

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

To tell the truth, polar exploring never held much fascination for me. The only thing that makes me think it might be magical is that so many explorers have mentioned the quality of the light. But the idea that one would risk one’s life and spend more than two years to “get through the ice pack” really seems like a dumb idea to me.

Given that, I probably was not the ideal reader for this book, but I took on this story because I thought maybe all would become clear. Sides tries to make it sound exciting, but he spends a lot of time going over the lives of the financial backers (James Gordon Bennett Jr., owner of The New York Herald), and detailing the previous failed attempts to reach the North Pole. By the time the men leave San Francisco bay July 8, 1879, it already feels too late.

The U.S.S. Jeannette was first burdened with the task of trying to locate Adolf Nordenskiold's Scandinavian expedition to find a "Northeast Passage" which was seriously past its return date. The detour to Siberia meant the Jeannette's crew was late in getting off on the real purpose of their journey and indeed, once through the Bering Strait, they became stuck in pack ice. “Wintering in the pack may be a thrilling thing to read about,” DeLong wrote. Well, not so much, really.

Anyway, for two years these folks tried to free themselves and their ship from the relentless cold and shifting ice. The ice pack would move them northwest, only to circle back later. Eventually all choice was taken from them when their ship was crushed by the enormous forces of the ice. It is a frustrating story of hardship and heartbreak, though some of the men made it out alive to tell the tale and pass on locations of the ship’s log, which had to be abandoned.

What they learned was practically all negative: the maps and theories of the polar regions being floated at the time, notably those of the German cartographer August Petermann, were dead wrong. But they did discover a couple of islands (Jeannette, Henrietta, and Bennett seen below) and they learned that arctic ice is constantly in motion. In 1884, some years after Jeannette was wrecked in 1881, some of Jeannette’s wreckage (one of DeLong’s sealskin boots), washed up in Greenland, proving the ice movement absolutely.

Jeannette Island
Henrietta Island

Bennett Island
Sketches of Islands Discovered by U.S.S. Jeannette

Sides does a remarkable job of research, and for those interested in polar exploration, this book must be a wondrous cache of riches. Sides collected the mass of information in a complete and rounded way, stretching long before and long after the two-and-a half years of the expedition. I, however, came away wondering at the choices of some folks. They prepared the best way they could at the time, and did amazingly well finding folks they thought might be able to take the isolation and challenges they were to face. I note that the innovative Mr.-Fixit-Melville was the man who ended up writing the stories of the others who died. He had both heart and brains and survived to tell the tale. There were other exceptional men among their number, Neidermann among them, who could take any amount of cold and physical toil. Tales of their exploits thrill us still. But the cost? These are the trade-offs men make.

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