Reviews From Sea Level
A Trip to the Beach -- (Melinda Blanchard and Bob Blanchard). A delighting, and frustrating, book. The Blanchard's descriptive prose in A Trip to the Beach put me at the bar on Sandy Cay with a grilled lobster before me, or at the helm in the wind and swells at the east end, even when I was actually sitting on the New York City subway. However, their assertion that they came to Anguilla broke and looking for a new start soon rankled. "These people don't know the meaning of 'broke'!" I muttered, causing the guy next to me to stand up and move to the other end of the car. People who are scrimping to start a business don't stay at an expensive beach resort, or even at a Marriott in Miami on a buying trip. Can we spell Ho-Jos? I was further surprised at the authors naivete with regard to Caribbean bureaucrats. Caribbean government functionaries are among the most red-tape bound in the world, and, yes, they prize their carbon paper. And yet, for the Blanchards, each new delivery caused great angst as they ran afoul of customs regulations that they hadnt researched in advance do these people never learn? I was equally astounded that they committed to a lease before being sure they could establish residency and get business permits, let alone researching a reliable source for food! Can we spell Business Plan? The "misadventures" are presented in a pleasantly readable narrative style, and carefully intermixed with slices of island life, profiles of people, and cultural observations. And yet these episodes annoyed too: in one section the authors stress how getting the restaurant ready to open was nearly round-the-clock work, while in the next they describe taking a leisurely afternoon to visit a venerable Anguillan native and learn about how salt was harvested. Sure, everyone needs a day of rest, but in these narrative respites they never acknowledge that they were, indeed, slacking off from the job at hand because they were exhausted. A Trip to the Beach is hardly a business startup handbook (except for bad examples), but it is an enjoyable read for anyone whos spent time in the islands.
Angelas Ashes -- (Frank McCourt) I'm compelled to include this current classic because I'm one of the minority who didn't adore it. I'll gladly acknowledge that it's a fine book, an excellent piece of writing. But I just didn't enjoy reading about children starving.
The Antarctic is the new in place, according to a recent Time Magazine. Once the domain of penguins and stolid explorers, the southern continent is seeing an influx of eco-tourists that may already outnumber the seasonal scientific teams. We find this astounding, given the harsh environment weve read about. [Read more thoughts on the far south.]
These diaries and Cherry-Gerrards narrative make extraordinary conditions and events seem rather matter-of-fact. Reading the chapters about the Winter Journey one must step back and consider what is being described in modern terms. Three men crossed a frozen sea in the antarctic night, dragging a sledge with all of their food and supplies. The average temperature was around -60. Making a camp and cooking a meal took hours, and when they finally defrosted their sleeping bags they could hardly sleep for the shivering. They knew nothing of vitamins, and only a little about scurvy. Their food was biscuits, butter, jerkey, and tea. Their goal? To collect emperor penguin eggs. They returned with three.
In 1911, these men were adventurers. Today they would be lunatics. In 1911 their venture was funded by governments and sponsors, and considered well-equiped. Today it seems beyond reckless. Today the US Military mans a post on the spot where Scotts group lived for two winters -- their hut still stands, surrounded by military buildings. Fortunately, the Antarctic continent remains largely unspoiled, just as Scott and Cherry-Gerrard found it.
Nonetheless, Antarctic Navigation is one of the most compelling books I've read in the last year or so. The navigator in question is Morgan Lamont -- not a Cook or Scott, indeed, not a victorian at all, but a child of the 1970s (okay, she was born in 1962, but I maintain that we are formed by the years in which we spend puberty, not infancy).
Unlike myself, Morgan develops an obsession with Robert Falcon Scott, who died on a failed Antarctic expedition in 1912 (on what would 50 years later be, by grand coincidence, Morgans birthday). Throughout her youth she collects friends who, although they do not share her passion with the ice, do have qualities, skills, and dreams compatible with an expedition there.
While the story could be called contrived (Where will she ever get funding to recreate Scotts mission? Enter stage right her estranged grandfather, owner of a massive paint manufacturing company.), the impact of Morgans self exploration is not dampened by the necessities of plot. Of course, the antarctic of the title is no more a geographic location than is the hut where Scott spent his final days. Morgan spends time exploring both places and learning about herself through them. You might even say its too bad she had to go all that way, spend all that money, and drag all her friends along just to find herself. But it's one hell of a trip by dog sled and antique skis (theyre reproducing Scotts trek down to the leather laces, but with fake fur on their parkas to appease the animal rights people).
Of course you root for Morgan -- people with missions are often compelling. But where the true journals of explorers often bury the journalists self development in the details of the mission, this story, perhaps because it is just that, reveals Morgan's self discovery through her exploration.
What does she discover? That the ice is bigger than she is. That to survive you have to accept help when you dont want to. That to succeed you have to keep an open mind and be prepared to change it. That you have to admit your failures before you can achieve a greater success.
But it seems like the only one blaming Krakauer is himself. He didnt make the decisions that led to disaster, and he didnt conjur the storm that trapped so many of the climbers.
Curious about his point of view, I rented both Everest, the Imax film by David Braeshears filmed on the mountain in 1996, and In To Thin Air: Death on Everest the video version of the book. In this somewhat abridged video version, Krakauers role in key events is expanded. One could view this as a way to eliminate some of the real-life characters and stream-line the story. Or not.
I followed this film with Everest. Very revealing. Braeshears set out to document a geological expedition to place GPS devices on the mountain to track its movement (something like an inch a year, to the north, it turns out). His party was aclimatizing at one of the lower camps the day of the disaster up above. Abandoning their immediate plans, he and his camera crew climbed up to the higher camp to help bring out frostbitten climbers. Their adventure was about as heroic as you can get, and then get back on course and climb the mountain for your original purpose. His story includes some of the same events as the Thin Air film, but here the details match Krakauers written narrative, taking Krakauer out of the starring role.
Im not trying to indict Krakauer -- I have no idea who had creative control of the film version. In fact, when I put down his book I felt nothing but sympathy for him and, like many readers, would like to tell him, It wasnt your fault! Let it go.
This book generated a lot of buzz; everybody seems to love a good disaster story these days. I picked it up after reading a letter to the editor of Sail Magazine from a sailor who felt he'd been unfairly portrayed in the book. He and his two women crew were caught aboard his boat in the turbulence at the edge of the storm. Basing his telling on interviews with the crew, Junger portrays the skipper as a non-communicative mad man who curls up in his bunk as the storm rages, refusing to take any action, including abandon ship. The sailor claims that he knew his boat, while his crew were newcommers to it. He was conserving his strength, not hiding in his bunk. He is vindicated by the fact that his boat washed up on a beach after the storm, undamaged and with the survival bag he had dropped during his forced departure still sitting on deck.
But the sailor refused to be interviewed by Junger for the book, while his crew were most vocal. Some people are just not meant to be shipmates.
This little sailing story is just a sub-plot to the main narrative -- the destructiveness of the sea and its absolute power. Junger brings the life of a fisherman into sharp focus. The slimey bait, razor-sharp hooks, freezing water, and self-destructive life-style make you wonder why anyone chooses this career.