.. Reviews From Sea Level

Books


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 hadn’t 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 who’s spent time in the islands.

The Changer
Legends Walking and The Changer -- (Jane Lindskold) A pair of "urban fantasy" novels. Although the "urban" in these is Albuquerque, and a lot of the action takes place in the dessert, jungle, and a small African town. The "urban" aspect has more to do with the the modern setting, and with immortal, shape changing, magic working characters fitting into a world of personal computers, cel phones, and spy technology. Lindskold puts forth a theory that explains big foot and the abomidable snowman, unicorns, pooka, and many of history’s greatest minds (they’re all Athanor, immortal beings hiding among, or from, us mortals). Lindskold’s writing is compelling, I pretty much inhaled both volumes, and my only complaint is that there are a lot of characters who are sometimes not so well differentiated.

Sonnet
Sonnet -- Lydia Bird’s personal story of sailing a 40-foot sailboat from the Chesapeake Bay to Greece. Sharing with her the first leg, alone from Maryland to the Azores, is an ordeal even for the reader. Bird’s honesty about her hopes, dreams, disappointments, and personal failings makes for nearly voyeristic reading. Later legs of the trip are with various crew members, and the various relationships Bird forms ring true to me as a sailor. Some people you can spend time on a boat with, some you can’t. Whether you’re a sailor or a woman, or especially if you’re both, Sonnet offers something worth reading about.

Friends Like These
Snap Happy and Friends Like These -- (Fiona Walker and Victoria Routledge, respectively) How snobby is it to review boosk that aren't available in this country? (You can order them online, but Snap Happy is out of print right now.) Andrew and I picked these up at Heathrow on the way home from France (Andrew immediately ordered the rest of Fiona Walker’s books directly from her English publisher). Although they're both "girl's books," Andrew ate them up as fast as I did. Both are lively, contemporary tales of young women recently out of college living in London. They're Bridget Jones's Diary with more complexity and more characters. Like a classic romance novel, Snap Happy is based on an endless series of missunderstandings and misscommunications between the heroine and love interest. But that's where the romance novel comparison ends -- no pot boiler is as witty as this. Friends Like These is about 300 pages shorter (making it about 200 pages long), but it covers the same ground. Perhaps not quite as unrepentently witty, it follows a transitional period in the lives of several young Londoners. If we're lucky, both of these authors will be imported to the US. If not, I urge you to fly to London!

Angela’s 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.

I Know This Much Is True
I Know This Much Is True -- Wally Lamb doesn't like to stop writing. His She's Come Undone, at near 500 pages, remains one of my favorite books. His story of twins, one a paranoid schizophrenic, didn't ring so true for me, but I still pushed through it (altough there was no way I was going to finish its 900 page in the one week the library gave me--thanks to Erich for the loan of his copy for a couple more weeks).

The Famished Road
The Famished Road -- (Ben Okri) Before you pick up Jane Lindskold’s Legends Walking, you should really work your way through The Famished Road. That's asking a lot, since the latter is 500 hundred pages of hypnotic dream sequences. But The Famished Road’s exploration of Nigerian spiritualism is key to Legends Walking's plot. And if you make it through The Famished Road, the concepts and dieties, when they’re introduced by Lindskold, will seem like old friends. None of which is intended to imply that The Famished Road isn’t worth reading for its own sake. In fact, this Booker prize winner is such a dense, worthwhile read, it makes you feel like you’ve earned the right to pick up light fantasy next.

Hidden Latitudes
I Was Amelia Earhart and Hidden Latitudes -- (Jane Mendelsohn and Alison Anderson, respectively) Two very different approaches to the legend of Amelia Earhart. I was Amelia Earhart is a fictional diary by the pilot, written after her crash on a south pacific island. It's mysterious and sad, and firmly rooted in the culture and morals of the time. Rather than attempting to explain the pilot and her navigator’s disappearance, Mendelsohn builds upon the myth. In Hidden Latitudes, a sailing couple anchor their storm-damaged boat in the lagoon of a deserted south pacific island. They are watched from the jungle by an elderly Earhart, who, for the first time in her 40-years of survival on this island, must face the possibility of rescue. These books are both short, interesting reads. Taken together they piece together a multi-layerd puzzle, all of it fantastical, about one of this country’s great heroines.

The Sword of Truth
The Sword of Truth Series -- (Terry Goodkind) I’ve long resisted getting involved with Robert Jordan’s massive fantasy volumes. Then I picked up the Sword of Truth and fell prey to this huge series instead. Unlike some of the other enormous books on this list, these thick volumes go very quickly. They aren't particularly challenging, but they pack a lot of plot and some fun characters into their many pages. I like them almost, but not quite as much, as Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series. By all means start at the beginning -- and know that you've got four, or even five by the time you get there, volumes ahead of you.

Adventure and Survival

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 we’ve read about. [Read more thoughts on the far south.]

The Heart of the Antarctic
Heart of the Antarctic -- Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition (named after the ship) to the Antarctic is currently receiving a lot of attention through several recently published books. Heart of the Antarctic is his book about his previous trip south -- his second trip to the ice, but the first one that he led. He wrote this book based on his and his crew’s journals, and publshed it in order to pay back the loans he’d received for the expedition. On this expedition, Shackleton and three of his crew trecked south to within 100 miles of the South Pole, only turning back when they were nearly starving and knew their supplies wouldn’t last. Other members of the expedition climbed Mt. Erebus and made it to the magnetic south pole. Shackleton’s detailed explanation of his preparations and supplies, down to the daily rations for sledging, are not at all tedious. Rather, they provide an excellent background for some of the other books about polar exploration that lack these details (I read all of The Worst Journey in the World without finding out just what pemmican and finneskoes are.

Worst Journey in the World
The Worst Journey in the World -- (Apsley Cherry-Garrard) This is not a suspense tale in that we know the outcome even before beginning to read; but it is as captivating as the best-woven mystery. Apsley Cherry-Gerrard drew from the diaries of his companions and quotes from them extensively. He and his fellow adventurers are skillful writers, and their stiff-upper-lip diaries and letters vascilate from scientific observation to joyful description of the wonders of their environment.

These diaries and Cherry-Gerrard’s 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 Scott’s 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.

Antarctic Navigation
Antarctic Navigation -- (Elizabeth Arthur) I will confess from the start that I have never been fascinated by the Antarctic. I can hardly imagine finding a place where the summertime high is below freezing. Seems to defeat the purpose of having 24 hours of sunlight a day--you sure can't build up a good base tan.

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, Morgan’s 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 Scott’s mission? Enter stage right her estranged grandfather, owner of a massive paint manufacturing company.), the impact of Morgan’s 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 it’s 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 (they’re reproducing Scott’s 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 don’t 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.

In To Thin Air
Into Thin Air -- (Jon Krakauer) Like most people who’ve picked it up, I tore through this book in a weekend. Krakauer’s semi-confessional narrative of the disasterous 1996 Everest expeditions reveals both why people climb mountains, and why some shouldn’t. In 1996 something like 40 climbers tried to reach the summit during the same 12-hour period. Twelve of them died. Krakauer is one of the handfull who reached the top and, although he would probably not agree, we’re lucky he lived to tell about it. A professional writer, he’s a consumate story teller. But Krakauer does not spare himself in dishing out the blame for the deaths. Spent, ill, and freezing, he huddled in a tent in a high mountain camp rather than go out and search for other missing climbers. During his descent, he miss-identified a climber, and his report of seeing the person near the camp caused searchers to look in the wrong place. The missing climber died near the top of the mountain, spaking via radio relay to his pregnanat wife in New Zealand.

But it seems like the only one blaming Krakauer is himself. He didn’t make the decisions that led to disaster, and he didn’t 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, Krakauer’s 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 Krakauer’s written narrative, taking Krakauer out of the starring role.

I’m 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 wasn’t your fault! Let it go.”

The Perfect Storm
The Perfect Storm -- (Sebastian Junger) The Glouchester fishing industry is about as endangered as the swordfish the fishermen keep bringing up in their nets. Competition and overfishing forces the fleet of private boats working out of Glouchester to go out in marginal conditions. And, of course, conditions in the North Atlantic are more likely to be marginal than fair. Junger introduces us to the hard-working, hard-partying fishermen of Glouchester, and specifically to the crew of one boat that was lost in what meterologists have called a “storm of the century.”

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.

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