26 April 2011

Reading in Antarctica 80 years ago

In 1928, Admiral Richard Byrd led a scientific expedition to Antarctica. His chief scientist and second in command was geologist Larry Gould. Gould did real science and confirmed that Antarctica was geologically similar to the other continents.

When the Byrd explorers returned to the US in 1932, they were famous heroes and many of them went on speaking tours around the country. Gould also wrote a book about the expedition titled Cold.

Gould went on to become a geology professor and president of my alma mater, Carleton College. The college has kept the book in print for decades. (Used copies are still available at Amazon.com and ebay.) Then last fall, Northfield's Cannon River flooded. The basement of the college's West Gym filled with water. The swimming pool's pumps and the building's HVAC system had to be replaced. And the remaining copies of Cold became sponges.

My talented wife now has the job of editing the text for the next edition of Cold. She reports that it's well-written and interesting. And, luckily, the 50+ photographs in the book are available for republishing in the national archives.

In the process of editing, she found these amazing discussions of reading in Antarctica over 80 years ago. (What was Jean Christophe, by the way?)
[Reading during the "winter night"]

I believe the most important single source of recreation that made the time pass easily was our library of some 3,000 volumes.

When we were looking forward toward the winter night all of us anticipated great times with the books, but few of us, I think, had such ambitious projects as did one man who came to me one day early in the winter and said: “Larry, do you know what I am going to do during this winter night?” Of course I hadn't the slightest idea.

“Well,” he said, “I am going to learn aerial surveying and navigation and read the Encyclopedia Britannica through.”

It seemed a fairly ambitious program to me, but I didn't want to discourage the man so I assured him that if he carried out the project he would certainly achieve the essentials of a liberal education. His literary aspirations were rather short lived. He did start with volume I, letter A of the encyclopedia and got as far as “ammonium tetrachloride.” I saw him throw the book down with a look of disgust and asked him what was the matter.

“The stuff in that d--- book is no good for an aviator,” he replied.

Commander Byrd had charged me with the responsibility of collecting the library as part of our preparations back in New York. I asked him what sort of books he especially liked to read. His reply indicated considerable catholicity of taste: “Dickens, detective stories, and philosophy.”

And of all the various classes of reading matter that were represented detective stories were the most widely read, with accounts of other polar expeditions making a close second. The most widely read single book of all was W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions. Donn Byrne and Joseph Lincoln were more exhaustively read than any other two authors -- Mark Twain came next. We had a complete set of Kipling's works which was scarcely touched. As for myself, had the winter night given me opportunity for no other reading than Romain Rolland's Jean Christophe and Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga in its entirety I should still have considered it well spent. To me these are two works of this day that will live if any do. Jean Christophe is the most satisfying work of art with which I have ever come face to face...

[Reading while returning from the Queen Maud Mountains, a three-month geology expedition by dog sled that encompassed a total of 1,525 miles .]

We were in such excellent physical condition from the hard work of the summer that we travelled along with great ease, especially as compared with the hard work that had accompanied our southward trek. But the dogs were showing the effects of the gruelling summer's work and we had to be careful for their sake, and, purely on their account, we decided to limit ourselves to 23 miles per day. Some days when the surface made sledging easy for them we made good this distance within six or seven hours, nevertheless we forced ourselves not to get impatient but stopped and made camp…

There is much more variety in a polar night than there is in a polar day, and besides, one can create light when he tires of the darkness. But there was no way for us to induce even semi-darkness...

I don't know just what I should have done with all my free time had it not been for the few books that we had brought along with us. Each man had been allowed one book and ordinarily I should have brought Browning with me, but I had been reading him off and on all winter and elected to bring a thin paper edition of Shakespeare, complete in one volume. I regaled myself with Hamlet and Macbeth and King Lear and Love's Labor Lost and The Passionate Pilgrim, trying to fall asleep. When the day's journey had been particularly easy we would have supper over and be finished with the work for the day, ofttimes as early as 6 o'clock. I would crawl into my bag and lie there and read until 12 o'clock or later before going to sleep.

But I ran out of Shakespeare. One doesn't realize how much reading he can cover when he has five to seven hours per day without any kind of interruption. It had never before occurred to me that one of the real advantages and benefits of an Antarctic Expedition would be the opportunity to read Shakespeare in his entirety. I have never appreciated all the tragedy of Lear quite so much as I did in this reading of it out in the midst of the Ross Shelf Ice.

Mike Thorne had brought along W. H. Hudson's Purple Land and though I had read it but a few weeks previously, I read it again with the delight I always find in Hudson's exquisite prose. Eddie Goodale had brought a volume of English poetry which I devoured and in which I was glad to find one of my great favorites by Browning, "The Bishop Orders His Tomb." O'Brien had a big thick volume containing H. G. Wells short stories. I read this too, and it would have afforded me no end of satisfaction to have dropped this volume down the deepest crevasse I could find, but O'Brien objected strongly. He had borrowed the book from Russell Owen who wanted it returned...

The Research Vessel Laurence M. Gould was commissioned in 1995 and is chartered by the National Science Foundation for use in the oceans between Chile and Antarctica.

The RV Gould at Ross Station, Antarctica.

18 April 2011

Sunday, the library is closed

Already we suffer from reduced public spending. The Northfield library used to be open on Sunday afternoons in the winter. No more.

So, when I came home on Saturday wtih a book I'd already read and didn't want to reread, I was stuck.

What it meant was a 35-mile ride to the nearest bookstore. It was a nice Sunday afternoon. Driving the Prius meant I used less than 2 gallons of gas for the round trip. Still, it was a luxury I would think more than twice about after writing checks today for income taxes. (Tom Paxton, at the time of the first auto industry bail out, wrote a song, "I'm Changing My Name to Chrysler." Later he updated the song to "I am Changing My Name to Fannie Mae.") Today, I want to change my name to GE. I don't want any of its billions in profits. I just want to avoid paying taxes on my income like it did.

Back in the halcyon days before I saw our tax returns, I made the drive to the bookstore and came home with several books. One of the was A Test of Wills, that I wrote about a couple weeks ago. Another was Last Rituals by Yrsa. Yrsa is another of the Icelanders who usually do without a family name. When publishers outside of Iceland demand a second name, she gets her revenge by saying, "I'm Yrsa Sigurðardóttir." (Go ahead try and write or type that one.) It's so difficult that her publisher transliterates her name into Yrsa Sigurdardóttir.

Enough about Icelandic names.

The cover of the book says that Last Rituals is "A Novel of Suspense." An unnamed USA Today reviewer was more accurate when describing the book as a "fascinating and deliciously creepy mystery." The closest to suspense I could identify was what was wrong with the main character's teen age son or how long would it take for the divorced Icelandic lawyer, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir (Þóra Guðmundsdóttir) to get into bed with the gorgeous German guy who was directing the investigation.

No suspense, but definitely creepy. And sort of fascinating. The story is strung out like a trail of breadcrumbs behind Hansel and Gretel. One thing leads to another and another. Sometimes the trail is a dead end, but if you haven't eaten the breadcrumbs, it's possible to get back to the main route.

Yrsa writes well and translator Bernard Scudder does a great job of putting things into casual and correct English. Thóra and the German factotum talk to each other and to the people involved in a grisly murder. The dialogue moves the plot along very well (I've noted that before; for me it's usually much better than straight story telling most of the time.)

The victim was the son of a wealthy German family researching Medieval witch burnings in Iceland. His death seems as symbolic and horrifying as the persecutions he was studying. Matthew, a representative of the German family, needs help understanding Iclandic and Iceland. Thóra is an attorney who could use the generous fee offered by the family. Besides, she's a quick study and smart. The local police are on the fringe of things, but pretty much quit investigating when they're satisfied that their suspect is guilty.

So, no suspense. If there was any suspense, it happened in the back story. Lots of creepyness. Not very delicious. But it's a well-told story. Several of the characters are interesting. Ysra has written a couple more novels about Thóra, and I'll be looking for them in the library. (Buying books is on hold for awhile.)

Have you read Last Rituals or another of Yrsa's novels? Did you like it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

17 April 2011

Goodluck and bad luck

The early returns from Nigeria point to the reelection of President Goodluck Jonathan. It seems a good time to write about Goodluck Tinubu.

Tinubu is the title character (and victim) in Michael Stanley's book The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu. After reading A Carrion Death at the beginning of last year, I was looking forward to reading another book by the writing team who go by the name of Michael Stanley. But in the blur of daily life, I forgot.

Then blogging friend Gary Sankary reminded me that there was another "Detective Kubu mystery." So, I looked for it on my next trip to the Northfield Library.

The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu is a big book. It has about twice as many pages (460+) as most of the mysteries I read. Then again, there are two authors. The main character is Botswanan detective David "Kubu" Bengu. (Kubu is the name for hippo. The detective resembles a hippo in girth as well as in determination.)

If you're not familiar with a bit African history, you'll have to learn about apartheid, Southern Rhodesia, Zimbabwe and its war for independence, and the proximity of Botswana to South African and Zimbabwe. It also helps to know a little about the terrors of present-day Zimbabwe.

You see, George Tinubu got his name Goodluck when he survived a murder during the hostilities between the white settler government of Southern Rhodesia and the independence fighters. However, the authorities listed him as dead because they found his identity papers with his fingerprints on them. Goodluck Tinubu went on to become a school teacher in Botswana. Many years later, he was killed in a tourist camp in northern Botswana near the border with Zimbabwe.

The local police don't seem able to make much headway in solving the murder because there are so many likely suspects and so many possible motives. So Detective Kubu Bengu is called in from the capital.

The story is set up well in the opening chapters, and it's well-told through conversations and bits of inner dialogue. I enjoyed reading the first half of the book and was thoroughly immersed in the story.

Then the book got better! The story telling never seemed to falter. Michael and Stanley write short snappy chapters and manage the information flow very well. There are partial escapes from the hunt for a murderer or murderers when Kubu gets home for weekends with his wife and his parents. But his wife gets more involved than expected when she's kidnapped -- seemingly by Tinubu's murderers who think Kubu has a briefcase full of cash that's gone missing.

Kubu ventures across the border into Zimbabwe to interview Goodluck Tinubu's mentor, the headmaster of a closed Zimbabwean school. He almost catches one of the bad guys by draining most of the gas from an outboard motor. He figures out that the past had caught up with several of the people at the tourist camp where Tinubu was killed.

But all that's told in a great story. And, if you need your stereotypes of Africa shattered, there's no better place for that to happen in a story set in Botswana.

I recommend it for many reasons.

Have you read The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.

05 April 2011

Swedish crime novel

And here's another view of Sweden to fracture your stereotypes (well, at least the stereotypes of the descendants of Swedish immigrants in Minnesota). Leif GW Persson’s novel also jostled the images of reviewer Katherine Powers, writing in The Boston Post. Persson's description of Sweden's police and intelligence organizations give credence to the cabals in Stieg Larsson's series of "The Girl Who..." stories. Powers also adds a reference to Arnaldur's Arctic Chill, something I read and wrote about just over a year ago.

From Nordic climes, come chilling thrillers
[H]ere before me is Leif GW Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End: The Story of a Crime, unquestionably the best Swedish crime novel I’ve read so far.

In it, Persson takes up the 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, a crime that has never been solved. Aside from that event, the specific goings-on, as well as the characters, motives, involvements, and actions are fictional, but they are also completely believable. The novel consists of two chronologies and a fraught history. Sweden’s geo-political predicament is the backdrop, especially the years that spanned the end of World War II as it segued into the Cold War up to the mid-1950s. In Sweden this was the time during which “wherever you turned you only saw the Russian bear with his mighty paws, ready to deliver the final embrace.’’...

But be warned: This is a novel to read with your cerebral capacity at its highest setting and with, perhaps, a little notebook at your side. Most of the book’s characters are members of the Stockholm police force or of the country’s security organizations. They are numerous, and their names and official titles are nothing but trouble...

The Swedish security organization in place here is made up of a number of bodies: a central organization... a smaller “external group,’’ camouflaged as a management consulting firm established for the purpose of pursuing the most secret operations; a special “threat group,’’... and a further group, whose task is to spy on everyone else in the organization....

As I'll explain at a later date, my dance card for reading is pretty full right now, but I'm going to keep Persson's book on my waiting list.

01 April 2011

Rereading again

Awhile ago I had to look at my notes here to figure out whether I had already read the latest Arnaldur novel I'd started. (I hadn't.)

When I went to the library to return that book, I checked out a James Lee Burke novel (good recommendations and good memories). I'd only read two pages when I began to suspect I'd read it before. By page three I was sure. I read the back cover and was even more sure. It was Swan Peak. If I'd written about it, it was in the old newsletter. I couldn't find any record of my reactions online. I remembered it enough to decide not to re-read it.

It was Sunday. The library was closed. The closest open bookstore was 30+ miles away. Off I went.

I bought a couple birthday presents and four books for myself.

The first one I sat down to read when I got home was A Test of Wills by Charles Todd. Before long, I realized I'd read it before, too. I looked back on what I said about it a year ago. It was okay, except I felt cheated at the end.

I decided to read it again, in part because I remembered so little of the plot.

I read it. It was okay. I felt cheated at the end. (Red herrings are one thing, but magical resolutions are something totally different. And unwelcome to me.)

Did you read A Test of Wills? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

For me it's on to new and unread books.