BOOKS ABOUT ANTARCTICA
[All reviews refer to audiotape editions]
-- Admiral Richard E. Byrd; read by Wolfram Kandinsky
The mettle and grace of the Victorian gentleman: Robert Falcon Scott, on his 1911/12 polar trek, endured incredible hardship, crushing disappointment, and approaching death -- and wrote it all down in a journal as inspiring as it is heartbreaking. In "Alone", a much better-equipped Admiral Richard E. Byrd suffers similar travails a quarter-century later, and offers up a mundane narrative of egotism, complaint and self-justification.
That Antarctic exploration has undergone a sea change since the days of Scott and Shackleton becomes apparent as Admiral Byrd faces his first crisis: the loss of "two indispensable items": his alarm clock and cookbook. Not even instructions radioed in from Oscar of the Waldorf himself can salvage flapjacks made without that cookbook. Byrd plods along, making mistakes the average Boy Scout would avoid, such as wandering off and getting lost. And we are left to wonder why he had not learned Morse code, his only means of communication.
The details of daily life are interesting. And the awful, majestic beauty of the Antarctic night shines through it all, despite the half-baked psychoanalysis and philosophy which Byrd ladles over everything. ("The past was gone, and the future would adduce its own appropriate liquidation", he sums up at one point.) But he fails to inspire, to ennoble, to evoke all mankind. It is all about him.
Antarctica has been blessed with chroniclers of encompassing vision, poetic insight, and literary ability. Admiral Byrd is not one of them.
Beyond Cape Horn
-- Charles Neider; read by Walter Zimmerman
Once past the alarmingly dull first chapter - a detailed treatise on Antarctic law which combines the style of a superannuated college professor with that of an assiduous low-level bureaucrat - "Beyond Cape Horn" settles into an enjoyable though disjointed read.
Neider's book is a happy democracy in which all facts are equal and each anecdote merits the same amount of space and generous allotment of adjectives. He does not sift the wheat from the chaff, prioritize, or even impose much order. An account of Shackleton's Endurance expedition, a vivid depiction of life aboard an icebreaker and interviews with members of the Scott and Byrd expeditions jostle for space amid a list of condiments available in the base mess hall, a biographical paragraph or three on every explorer who ever ventured near the Antarctic regions, and a meditation on the life of Rachel the Husky. (We also get a blow-by blow description of the men butchering a seal for Rachel.)
There is something endearing in this. Neider is like an enthusiastic hobbyist, full of information and bursting to tell us all about it. He draws us in, whether he is watching killer whales at play, examining gorgeously-colored caverns of glacial ice, or musing on the moral probity of a helicopter crew filming a penguin "in a panic which [they themselves] have caused."
And it is hard to dislike a writer who refuses to take sea-sickness pills because Darwin had none on the Beagle.
-- Alfred Lansing; read by Grover Gardner
They had planned to be the first to trek across the south polar continent, but they never reached their starting point. Everything went horribly wrong, and their great, shining triumph lies in the fact that they survived. Writing in the 1950s, Alfred Lansing managed to interview members of Sir Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Their stories, along with diary entries, make for a powerful, riveting account of what these men endured, and how they felt about it. They dreamed of home (and of foods rich in carbohydrates), struggled to drain guano-imbued water from the floor of a ramshackle hut, looked on in terrified wonder as miles of churning, surging pack ice swept toward them, slept in wet clothing and sodden sleeping bags, ate cold dog meat, read and reread a tattered penny cookbook, and never lost hope. Maybe the true meaning of their experience shows through in Lansing's memorable description of 28 cold, shaggy, soot-blackened ragged men sitting on an ice floe, enthusiastically playing bridge. "It is a horrible existence," one castaway wrote, many months into the ordeal, "yet we are pretty happy."
-- Caroline Alexander; read by Stuart Langton
"For speed and efficiency of travel," declared Antarctic explorer Sir Raymond Priestly, "give me Amundsen. For scientific discovery, give me Scott. But when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton."
He wasn't exaggerating. A novel with a plot such as "The Endurance" would be rejected outright as entirely improbable. Perhaps mindful that Shackleton's saga stands powerfully on its own and needs no literary embroidery, Alexander gives us s a straightforward, efficiently-told account of it. Diaries and other primary sources make the story real, three-dimensional. We can practically hear the boards creaking in the ice-bound ship.
The book does have flaws. Shackleton and Scott, two great men of strong and divergent temperaments, did not like one another. Casting objectivity off the sledge, Alexander takes up the cudgels for Shackleton. Slighting references to "the gallant little tent" in which Scott and two companions died, and where, she tells us, "Scott unfurled his real greatness, not for expeditionary leadership, but for language", are both unprofessional and unseemly. And the reading really is bizarre: odd, irregular cadences and inflections actually distract from the narrative, at least initially.
The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket
-- Edgar Allan Poe; read by John Chatty
One of his compeers aptly described Edgar Allan Poe as "Three-fifths of him genius, and two-fifths sheer fudge". For "The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket" we might reverse the ratios. This is "The Perils of Pauline" for those with strong stomachs. Since most of its fascination lies in wondering what could possibly happen next, the plot is best left unmentioned. Pym, a resilient if sometimes weak-kneed hero, rackets along from crisis to crisis, pausing occasionally to lecture on proper ship's stowage (he has strong views about this), the mating habits of penguins or the history of Antarctic exploration. These discourses, delivered with deadpan seriousness by reader John Chatty, prove almost as engrossing as the tale itself. Poe's uneasy blend of literary skill, gruesome depiction and "sheer fudge" won't please everyone. But those who like this sort of thing will like it very much.
Scott of the Antarctic
-- Elspeth Huxley; read by Walter Zimmerman
Lasting fame usually requires the death of the hero, as Elspeth Huxley notes in her preface. Had Robert Falcon Scott returned from the south pole, only the historian - and perhaps the scientist - would care about his story. But Scott and four companions died valiantly on the ice. Their courage, fortitude and dignity helped sustain Britain through dark years of war. And they inspire us still. Huxley focuses on Scott's character and how it shaped his motives and decisions. Fortunately, she does not overdo the 'psychoanalysis'. She gives detailed accounts of Scott's two expeditions, and reaches sensible conclusions on the major points: his reluctance to use dogs, the complexity of his plans, the reasons for his failure. The latter she ascribes to incipient scurvy, bad weather and bad luck. But one simple, irrefutable fact hangs over all; ponies do not belong in Antarctica … and Scott's plan centered around pony transport. His last expedition unfolds like a Greek tragedy, complete with warnings from the gods and universal moral lessons. Appropriately, his men inscribed their memorial to their five comrades with the closing line of Tennyson's Ulysses: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
Scott's Last Expedition
-- Robert Falcon Scott; read by William Sutherland
About halfway through this diary account of the Terra Nova expedition, it becomes clear why Amundsen made it first to the pole … and why Scott's was the greater achievement. The Norwegians focused completely on getting to the pole and back: no fuss, no elaboration, no scientific spin-offs. Amundsen cared not a whit about paleobotany, the discovery of a new parasite in fish livers or pony psychology. (More to the point, Amundsen kept to dogs.) Scott took an interest in everything, and he was willing to experiment. The diaries brim with accounts of sledging diets, weather balloons, penguin dissections, ice crystal formation, geologic strata and killer whales. He writes of what it is like to be without the sun for four months, of feelings stirred by the aurora australis, and of the colors of ice and sea and sky. He describes camp life and daily routines and the antics of ponies and dogs. And, knowing he has failed in his goal, he speaks movingly of his obligations to his country … and to science. Among the items dragged to their final camp by three exhausted, half-frozen dying men were 35 pounds of fossils - fossils which would help rewrite geologic history.
-- M. Morrell and S. Capparell; read by Richard Matthews
It says much about our society that the greatest saga of the heroic age of exploration is now a management training tool. But it does make sense. Shackleton had great leadership skills. He understood risk management and he knew how to pick the best team for the job. The authors give a capsule version of each stage in the Endurance journey, and then explain the lessons to be learned from it. They offer examples of present-day military leaders, CEOs and pioneering educators who have benefited by emulating Shackleton. They offer excellent advice: lead by example; provide your team with the best equipment you can; build up a spirit of camaraderie. And it is probably a good thing that Shackleton's inspiration helped the head of Jaguar to sell more cars. But in transforming Sir Ernest Shackleton into an Edwardian Tony Robbins, we perhaps lose something of what his story truly means.
-- Sir Ernest Shackleton; read by Geoffrey Howard
His party stranded on an ice floe hundreds of miles from their destination, beyond the reach of the outside world -- even had the outside world known they needed help, or where to look -- his ship crushed by countless miles of pack ice and supplies running low, Ernest Shackleton spent not a moment in lamentation. He set about saving his crew and himself. They made their way to a small, desolate bit of island shore, from which Shackleton and five men journeyed 800 miles in a 22-foot open boat across the most dangerous sea in the world. A trek through miles of snow-covered mountain wilderness finally brought rescue. And everybody survived! Shackleton's is an epic tale of true adventure and derring-do, and he tells it with the straight-ahead momentum of an ice breaker diving into the pack. He sees beauty in the Antarctic, and he carries a touch of poetry (Browning, anyway) in his soul. He is also a detail man, and his flights of descriptive eloquence bog down amid facts, figures, wind speeds and diatomous striations. But this piling-on of minutiae proves riveting in the action sequences (most of the book). We feel like we are there. Having told his own party's tale, Shackleton gives a useful if anticlimactic account of the Ross Sea wing of the expedition - a story with its own generous measure of adventure, heroism and poignancy.
The Worst Journey in the World
-- Apsley Cherry-Garrard; read by Robert Whitfield
Either the Antarctic draws explorers of uncommon literary ability, or something in that desolate, terrible beauty draws out eloquence from those who go there. Apsley Cherry-Garrard stands primus inter pares among south polar chroniclers. With the hindsight of ten years, and with liberal use of letters and diaries written by his companions on the Terra Nova expedition, he gives us a clear insight into the splendor and horror, the tedium and exhilaration of life in Antarctica. He talks about everything; most eloquently, perhaps, of his companions and their life in the snug little hut at the base of Mount Erebus. But his narrative gleams with wonderful portraits of fractious ponies and rambunctious dogs; of killer whales and of penguins notable for "devouring curiosity and a pigheaded disregard for their own safety". He tells of the "worst journey": a harrowing, immiserating and near-fatal trek through the Antarctic night in quest of … a penguin egg. He describes a barren landscape of snow and ice which somehow vibrates with color and awes all who see it. And he makes us understand why they go back.