Adventure

Aagaard, Finn. Aagaard's Africa. Washington: National Rifle Association, 1991. ISBN 0-935998-62-4.
The author was born in Kenya in 1932 and lived there until 1977 when, after Kenya's ban on game hunting destroyed his livelihood as a safari guide, he emigrated to the United States, where he died in April 2000. This book recounts his life in Kenya, from boyhood through his career as a professional hunter and guide. If you find the thought of hunting African wildlife repellent, this is not the book for you. It does provide a fine look at Africa and its animals by a man who clearly cherished the land and the beasts which roam it, and viewed the responsible hunter as an integral part of a sustainable environment. A little forensic astronomy allows us to determine the day on which the kudu hunt described on page 124 took place. Aagaard writes, “There was a total eclipse of the sun that afternoon, but it seemed a minor event to us. Laird and I will always remember that day as ‘The Day We Shot The Kudu’.” Checking the canon of 20th century solar eclipses shows that the only total solar eclipse crossing Kenya during the years when Aagaard was hunting there was on June 30th, 1973, a seven minute totality once in a lifetime spectacle. So, the kudu hunt had to be that morning. To this amateur astronomer, no total solar eclipse is a minor event, and the one I saw in Africa will forever remain a major event in my life. A solar eclipse with seven minutes of totality is something I shall never live to see (the next occurring on June 25th, 2150), so I would have loved to have seen the last and would never have deemed it a “minor event”, but then I've never shot a kudu the morning of an eclipse!

This book is out of print and used copies, at this writing, are offered at outrageous prices. I bought this book directly from the NRA more than a decade ago—books sometimes sit on my shelf a long time before I read them. I wouldn't pay more than about USD 25 for a used copy.

July 2005 Permalink

Amundsen, Roald. The South Pole. New York: Cooper Square Press, [1913] 2001. ISBN 978-0-8154-1127-7.
In modern warfare, it has been observed that “generals win battles, but logisticians win wars.” So it is with planning an exploration mission to a remote destination where no human has ever set foot, and the truths are as valid for polar exploration in the early 20th century as they will be for missions to Mars in the 21st. On December 14th, 1911, Roald Amundsen and his five-man southern party reached the South Pole after a trek from the camp on the Ross Ice Shelf where they had passed the previous southern winter, preparing for an assault on the pole as early as the weather would permit. By over-wintering, they would be able to depart southward well before a ship would be able to land an expedition, since a ship would have to wait until the sea ice dispersed sufficiently to make a landing.

Amundsen's plan was built around what space mission architects call “in-situ resource utilisation” and “depots”, as well as “propulsion staging”. This allowed for a very lightweight push to the pole, both in terms of the amount of supplies which had to be landed by their ship, the Fram, and in the size of the polar party and the loading of their sledges. Upon arriving in Antarctica, Amundsen's party immediately began to hunt the abundant seals near the coast. More than two hundred seals were killed, processed, and stored for later use. (Since the temperature on the Ross Ice Shelf and the Antarctic interior never rises above freezing, the seal meat would keep indefinitely.) Then parties were sent out in the months remaining before the arrival of winter in 1911 to establish depots at every degree of latitude between the base camp and 82° south. These depots contained caches of seal meat for the men and dogs and kerosene for melting snow for water and cooking food. The depot-laying journeys familiarised the explorers with driving teams of dogs and operating in the Antarctic environment.

Amundsen had chosen dogs to pull his sledges. While his rival to be first at the pole, Robert Falcon Scott, experimented with pulling sledges by ponies, motorised sledges, and man-hauling, Amundsen relied upon the experience of indigenous people in Arctic environments that dogs were the best solution. Dogs reproduced and matured sufficiently quickly that attrition could be made up by puppies born during the expedition, they could be fed on seal meat, which could be obtained locally, and if a dog team were to fall into a crevasse (as was inevitable when crossing uncharted terrain), the dogs could be hauled out, no worse for wear, by the drivers of other sledges. For ponies and motorised sledges, this was not the case.

Further, Amundsen adopted a strategy which can best be described as “dog eat dog”. On the journey to the pole, he started with 52 dogs. Seven of these had died from exhaustion or other causes before the ascent to the polar plateau. (Dogs who died were butchered and fed to the other dogs. Greenland sled dogs, being only slightly removed from wolves, had no hesitation in devouring their erstwhile comrades.) Once reaching the plateau, 27 dogs were slaughtered, their meat divided between the surviving dogs and the five men. Only 18 dogs would proceed to the pole. Dog carcasses were cached for use on the return journey.

Beyond the depots, the polar party had to carry everything required for the trip. but knowing the depots would be available for the return allowed them to travel lightly. After reaching the pole, they remained for three days to verify their position, send out parties to ensure they had encircled the pole's position, and built a cairn to commemorate their achievement. Amundsen left a letter which he requested Captain Scott deliver to King Haakon VII of Norway should Amundsen's party be lost on its return to base. (Sadly, that was the fate which awaited Scott, who arrived at the pole on January 17th, 1912, only to find the Amundsen expedition's cairn there.)

This book is Roald Amundsen's contemporary memoir of the expedition. Originally published in two volumes, the present work includes both. Appendices describe the ship, the Fram, and scientific investigations in meteorology, geology, astronomy, and oceanography conducted during the expedition. Amundsen's account is as matter-of-fact as the memoirs of some astronauts, but a wry humour comes through when discussing dealing with sled dogs who have will of their own and also the foibles of humans cooped up in a small cabin in an alien environment during a night which lasts for months. He evinces great respect for his colleagues and competitors in polar exploration, particularly Scott and Shackleton, and worries whether his own approach to reaching the pole would be proved superior to theirs. At the time the book was published, the tragic fate of Scott's expedition was not known.

Today, we might not think of polar exploration as science, but a century ago it was as central to the scientific endeavour as robotic exploration of Mars is today. Here was an entire continent, known only in sketchy detail around its coast, with only a few expeditions into the interior. When Amundsen's party set out on their march to the pole, they had no idea whether they would encounter mountain ranges along the way and, if so, whether they could find a way over or around them. They took careful geographic and meteorological observations along their trek (as well as oceanographical measurements on the trip to Antarctica and back), and these provided some of the first data points toward understanding weather in the southern hemisphere.

In Norway, Amundsen was hailed as a hero. But it is clear from this narrative he never considered himself such. He wrote:

I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.

This work is in the public domain, and there are numerous editions of it available, in print and in electronic form, many from independent publishers. The independent publishers, for the most part, did not distinguish themselves in their respect for this work. Many of their editions were produced by running an optical character recognition program over a print copy of the book, then putting it together with minimal copy-editing. Some (including the one I was foolish enough to buy) elide all of the diagrams, maps, and charts from the original book, which renders parts of the text incomprehensible. The paperback edition cited above, while expensive, is a facsimile edition of the original 1913 two volume English translation of Amundsen's original work, including all of the illustrations. I know of no presently-available electronic edition which has comparable quality and includes all of the material in the original book. Be careful—if you follow the link to the paperback edition, you'll see a Kindle edition listed, but this is from a different publisher and is rife with errors and includes none of the illustrations. I made the mistake of buying it, assuming it was the same as the highly-praised paperback. It isn't; don't be fooled.

September 2014 Permalink

Beck, Glenn and Harriet Parke. Agenda 21: Into the Shadows. New York: Threshold Editions, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4767-4682-1.
When I read the authors' first Agenda 21 (November 2012) novel, I thought it was a superb dystopian view of the living hell into which anti-human environmental elites wish to consign the vast majority of the human race who are to be their serfs. I wrote at the time “This is a book which begs for one or more sequels.” Well, here is the first sequel and it is…disappointing. It's not terrible, by any means, but it does not come up to the high standard set by the first book. Perhaps it suffers from the blahs which often afflict the second volume of a trilogy.

First of all, if you haven't read the original Agenda 21 you will have absolutely no idea who the characters are, how they found themselves in the situation they're in at the start of the story, and the nature of the tyranny they're trying to escape. I describe some of this in my review of the original book, along with the factual basis of the real United Nations plan upon which the story is based.

As the novel begins, Emmeline, who we met in the previous book, learns that her infant daughter Elsa, with whom she has managed to remain in tenuous contact by working at the Children's Village, where the young are reared by the state apart from their parents, along with other children are to be removed to another facility, breaking this precious human bond. She and her state-assigned partner David rescue Elsa and, joined by a young boy, Micah, escape through a hole in the fence surrounding the compound to the Human Free Zone, the wilderness outside the compounds into which humans have been relocated. In the chaos after the escape, John and Joan, David's parents, decide to also escape, with the intention of leaving a false trail to lead the inevitable pursuers away from the young escapees.

Indeed, before long, a team of Earth Protection Agents led by Steven, the kind of authoritarian control freak thug who inevitably rises to the top in such organisations, is dispatched to capture the escapees and return them to the compound for punishment (probably “recycling” for the adults) and to serve as an example for other “citizens”. The team includes Julia, a rookie among the first women assigned to Earth Protection.

The story cuts back and forth among the groups in the Human Free Zone. Emmeline's band meets two people who have lived in a cave ever since escaping the initial relocation of humans to the compounds. They learn the history of the implementation of Agenda 21 and the rudiments of survival outside the tyranny. As the groups encounter one another, the struggle between normal human nature and the cruel and stunted world of the slavers comes into focus.

Harriet Parke is the principal author of the novel. Glenn Beck acknowledges this in the afterword he contributed which describes the real-world U.N. Agenda 21. Obviously, by lending his name to the project, he increases its visibility and readership, which is all for the good. Let's hope the next book in the series returns to the high standard set by the first.

April 2015 Permalink

Benioff, David. City of Thieves. New York: Viking, 2008. ISBN 978-0-670-01870-3.
This is a coming of age novel, buddy story, and quest saga set in the most implausible of circumstances: the 872 day Siege of Leningrad and the surrounding territory. I don't know whether the author's grandfather actually lived these events and recounted them to to him or whether it's just a literary device, but I'm certain the images you experience here will stay with you for many years after you put this book down, and that you'll probably return to it after reading it the first time.

Kolya is one of the most intriguing characters I've encountered in modern fiction, with Vika a close second. You wouldn't expect a narrative set in the German invasion of the Soviet Union to be funny, but there are quite a number of laughs here, which will acquaint you with the Russian genius for black humour when everything looks the bleakest. You will learn to be very wary around well-fed people in the middle of a siege!

Much of the description of life in Leningrad during the siege is, of course, grim, although arguably less so than the factual account in Harrison Salisbury's The 900 Days (however, note that the story is set early in the siege; conditions deteriorated as it progressed). It isn't often you read a historical novel in which Olbers' paradox figures!

February 2010 Permalink

Byrd, Richard E. Alone. Washington: Island Press [1938, 1966] 2003. ISBN 978-1-55963-463-2.
To generations of Americans, Richard Byrd was the quintessential explorer of unknown terrain. First to fly over the North Pole (although this feat has been disputed from shortly after he claimed it to the present day), recipient of the Medal of Honor for this claimed exploit, pioneer in trans-Atlantic flight (although beaten by Lindbergh after a crash on a practice takeoff, he successfully flew from New York to France in June 1927), Antarctic explorer and first to fly over the South Pole, and leader of four more expeditions to the Antarctic, including commanding the operation which established the permanent base at the South Pole which remains there to this day.

In 1934, on his second Antarctic expedition, Byrd set up and manned a meteorological station on the Ross Ice Shelf south of 80°, in which he would pass the Antarctic winter—alone. He originally intended the station to be emplaced much further south and manned by three people (he goes into extensive detail why “cabin fever” makes a two man crew a prescription for disaster), and then, almost on a lark it seems from the narrative, decides, when forced by constraints of weather and delivery of supplies for the winter, to go it alone. In anticipation, he welcomes the isolation from distractions of daily events, the ability to catch up reading, thinking, and listening to music.

His hut was well designed and buried in the ice to render it immune from the high winds and drifting snow of the Antarctic winter. It was well provisioned to survive the winter: food and fuel tunnels cached abundant supplies. Less thought out was the stove and its ventilation. As winter set in, Byrd succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning, made more severe by fumes from the gasoline generator he used to power the radio set which was his only link to those wintering at the Little America base on the coast.

Byrd comes across in this narrative as an extraordinarily complex character. One moment, he's describing how his lamp failed when, at −52° C, its kerosene froze, next he's recounting how easily the smallest mistake: loss of sight of the flags leading back to shelter or a jammed hatch back into the hut can condemn one to despair and death by creeping cold, and then he goes all philosophical:

The dark side of a man's mind seems to be a sort of antenna tuned to catch gloomy thoughts from all directions. I found it so with mine. That was an evil night. It was as if all the world's vindictiveness were concentrated upon me as upon a personal enemy. I sank to depths of disillusionment which I had not believed possible. It would be tedious to discuss them. Misery, after all, is the tritest of emotions.

Here we have a U.S. Navy Rear Admiral, Medal of Honor winner, as gonzo journalist in the Antarctic winter—extraordinary. Have any other great explorers written so directly from the deepest recesses of their souls?

Byrd's complexity deepens further as he confesses to fabricating reports of his well-being in radio reports to Little America, intended, he says, to prevent them from launching a rescue mission which he feared would end in failure and the deaths of those who undertook it. And yet Byrd's increasingly bizarre communications eventually caused such a mission to be launched, and once it was, his diary pinned his entire hope upon its success.

If you've ever imagined yourself first somewhere, totally alone and living off the supplies you've brought with you: in orbit, on the Moon, on Mars, or beyond, here is a narrative of what it's really like to do that, told with brutal honesty by somebody who did. Admiral Byrd's recounting of his experience is humbling to any who aspire to the noble cause of exploration.

January 2013 Permalink

Dana, Richard Henry. Two Years Before the Mast. New York: Signet, [1840, 1869] 2000. ISBN 0-451-52759-3.

March 2001 Permalink

De-la-Noy, Michael. Scott of the Antarctic. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton Publishing, 1997. ISBN 0-7509-1512-9.

December 2001 Permalink

Gurstelle, William. Adventures from the Technology Underground. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-5082-0.
This thoroughly delightful book invites the reader into a subculture of adults who devote their free time, disposable income, and considerable brainpower to defying Mr. Wizard's sage injunction, “Don't try this yourself at home”. The author begins with a handy litmus test to decide whether you're a candidate for the Technology Underground. If you think flying cars are a silly gag from The Jetsons, you don't make the cut. If, on the other hand, you not only think flying cars are perfectly reasonable but can barely comprehend why there isn't already one, ideally with orbital capability, in your own garage right now—it's the bleepin' twenty-first century, fervent snakes—then you “get it” and will have no difficulty understanding what motivates folks to build high powered rockets, giant Tesla coils, flamethrowers, hypersonic rail guns, hundred foot long pumpkin-firing cannons, and trebuchets (if you really want to make your car fly, it's just the ticket, but the operative word is “fly”, not “land”). In a world where basement tinkering and “that looks about right” amateur engineering has been largely supplanted by virtual and vicarious experiences mediated by computers, there remains the visceral attraction of heavy metal, high voltage, volatile chemicals, high velocities, and things that go bang, whoosh, zap, splat, and occasionally kaboom.

A technical section explains the theory and operation of the principal engine of entertainment in each chapter. The author does not shrink from using equations where useful to clarify design trade-offs; flying car fans aren't going to be intimidated by the occasional resonant transformer equation! The principles of operation of the various machines are illustrated by line drawings, but there isn't a single photo in the book, which is a real shame. Three story tall diesel-powered centrifugal pumpkin hurling machines, a four story 130 kW Tesla coil, and a calliope with a voice consisting of seventeen pulsejets are something one would like to see as well as read about, however artfully described.

February 2006 Permalink

Hawks, Tony. Round Ireland with a Fridge. London: Ebury Press, 1998. ISBN 0-09-186777-0.
The author describes himself as “not, by nature” either a drinking or a betting man. Ireland, however, can have a way of changing those particular aspects of one's nature, and so it was that after a night about which little else was recalled, our hero found himself having made a hundred pound bet that he could hitch-hike entirely around the Republic of Ireland in one calendar month, accompanied the entire way by a refrigerator. A man, at a certain stage in his life, needs a goal, even if it is, as this epic quest was described by an Irish radio host, “A totally purposeless idea, but a damn fine one.” And the result is this very funny book. Think about it; almost every fridge lives a life circumscribed by a corner of a kitchen—door opens—light goes on—door closes—light goes out (except when the vegetables are having one of their wild parties in the crisper—sssshhh—mustn't let the homeowner catch on). How singular and rare it is for a fridge to experience the freedom of the open road, to go surfing in the Atlantic (chapter 10), to be baptised with a Gaelic name that means “freedom”, blessed by a Benedictine nun (chapter 14), be guest of honour at perhaps the first-ever fridge party at an Irish pub (chapter 21), and make a triumphal entry into Dublin amid an army of well-wishers consisting entirely of the author pulling it on a trolley, a radio reporter carrying a mop and an ice cube tray, and an elderly bagpiper (chapter 23). Tony Hawks points out one disadvantage of his profession I'd never thought of before. When one of those bizarre things with which his life and mine are filled comes to pass, and you're trying to explain something like, “No, you see there were squirrels loose in the passenger cabin of the 747”, and you're asked the inevitable, “What are you, a comedian?”, he has to answer, “Well, actually, as a matter of fact, I am.”

A U.S. edition is now available.

June 2005 Permalink

Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air. New York: Anchor Books, [1997] 1999. ISBN 0-385-49478-5.
It's amazing how much pain and suffering some people will endure in order to have a perfectly awful time. In 1996, the author joined a guided expedition to climb Mount Everest, on assignment by Outside magazine to report on the growing commercialisation of Everest, with guides taking numerous people, many inexperienced in alpinism, up the mountain every season. On May 10th, 1996, he reached the summit where, exhausted and debilitated by hypoxia and other effects of extreme altitude (although using supplementary oxygen), he found “I just couldn't summon the energy to care” (p. 7). This feeling of “whatever” while standing on the roof of the world was, nonetheless, the high point of the experience which quickly turned into a tragic disaster. While the climbers were descending from the summit to their highest camp, a storm, not particularly violent by Everest standards, reduced visibility to near zero and delayed progress until many climbers had exhausted their supplies of bottled oxygen. Of the six members of the expedition Krakauer joined who reached the summit, four died on the mountain, including the experienced leader of the team. In all, eight people died as a result of that storm, including the leader of another expedition which reached the summit that day.

Before joining the Everest expedition, the author had had extensive technical climbing experience but had never climbed as high as the Base Camp on Mount Everest: 17,600 feet. Most of the clients of his and other expeditions had far less mountaineering experience than the author. The wisdom of encouraging people with limited qualifications but large bank balances to undertake a potentially deadly adventure underlies much of the narrative: we encounter a New York socialite having a Sherpa haul a satellite telephone up the mountain to stay in touch from the highest camp. The supposed bond between climbers jointly confronting the hazards of a mountain at high altitude is called into question on several occasions: a Japanese expedition ascending from the Tibetan side via the Northeast Ridge passed three disabled climbers from an Indian expedition and continued on to the summit without offering to share food, oxygen, or water, nor to attempt a rescue: all of the Indians died on the mountain.

This is a disturbing account of adventure at the very edge of personal endurance, and the difficult life-and-death choices people make under such circumstances. A 1999 postscript in this paperback edition is a rebuttal to the alternative presentation of events in The Climb, which I have not read.

November 2007 Permalink

Lansing, Alfred. Endurance. New York: Carroll & Graf [1959, 1986] 1999. ISBN 978-0-7867-0621-1.
Novels and dramatisations of interplanetary missions, whether (reasonably) scrupulously realistic, highly speculative, or utterly absurd, often focus on the privation of their hardy crews and the psychological and interpersonal stresses they must endure when venturing so distant from the embrace of the planetary nanny state.

Balderdash! Unless a century of socialism succeeds in infantilising its subjects into pathetic, dependent, perpetual adolescents (see the last item cited above as an example), such voyages of discovery will be crewed by explorers, that pinnacle of the human species who volunteers to pay any price, bear any burden, and accept any risk to be among the first to see what's over the horizon.

This chronicle of Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition will acquaint you with real explorers, and leave you in awe of what those outliers on the bell curve of our species can and will endure in circumstances which almost defy description on the printed page.

At the very outbreak of World War I, Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, named after the motto of his family, Fortitudine vincimus: “By endurance we conquer”, sailed for Antarctica. The mission was breathtaking in its ambition: to land a party in Vahsel Bay area of the Weddell Sea, which would cross the entire continent of Antarctica, proceeding to the South Pole with the resources landed from their ship, and then crossing to the Ross Sea with the aid of caches of supplies emplaced by a second party landing at McMurdo Sound. So difficult was the goal that Shackleton's expedition was attempting to accomplish that it was not achieved until 1957–1958, when the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition made the crossing with the aid of motorised vehicles and aerial reconnaissance.

Shackleton's expedition didn't even manage to land on the Antarctic shore; the Endurance was trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea in January 1915, and the crew were forced to endure the Antarctic winter on the ship, frozen in place. Throughout the long polar night, conditions were tolerable and morale was high, but much worse was to come. As the southern summer approached, the pack ice began to melt, break up, and grind floe against floe, and on 27th October 1915, pressure of the ice against the ship became unsustainable and Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship and establish a camp on the ice floe, floating on the Weddell Sea. The original plan was to use the sled dogs and the men to drag supplies and the ship's three lifeboats across the ice toward a cache of supplies known to have been left at Paulet Island by an earlier expedition, but pressure ridges in the sea ice soon made it evident that such an ambitious traverse would be impossible, and the crew resigned themselves to camping on the ice pack, whose drift was taking them north, until its breakup would allow them to use the boats to make for the nearest land. And so they waited, until April 8th, 1916, when the floe on which they were camped began to break up and they were forced into the three lifeboats to head for Elephant Island, a forbidding and uninhabited speck of land in the Southern Ocean. After a harrowing six day voyage, the three lifeboats arrived at the island, and for the first time in 497 days the crew of the Endurance were able to sleep on terra firma.

Nobody, even sealers and whalers operating of Antarctica, ever visited Elephant Island: Shackleton's crew were the first to land there. So the only hope of rescue was for a party to set out from there to the nearest reachable inhabited location, South Georgia Island, 1,300 kilometres across the Drake Passage, the stormiest and most treacherous sea on Earth. (There were closer destinations, but due to the winds and currents of the Southern Ocean, none of them were achievable in a vessel with the limited capabilities of their lifeboat.) Well, it had to be done, and so they did it. In one of the most remarkable achievements of seamanship of all time, Frank Worsley sailed his small open boat through these forbidding seas, surviving hurricane-force winds, rogue waves, and unimaginable conditions at the helm, arriving at almost a pinpoint landing on a tiny island in a vast sea with only his sextant and a pocket chronometer, the last remaining of the 24 the Endurance carried when it sailed from the Thames, worn around his neck to keep it from freezing.

But even then it wasn't over. Shackleton's small party had landed on the other side of South Georgia Island from the whaling station, and the state of their boat and prevailing currents and winds made it impossible to sail around the coast to there. So, there was no alternative but to go cross-country, across terrain completely uncharted (all maps showed only the coast, as nobody had ventured inland). And, with no other option, they did it. Since Shackleton's party, there has been only one crossing of South Georgia Island, done in 1955 by a party of expert climbers with modern equipment and a complete aerial survey of their route. They found it difficult to imagine how Shackleton's party, in their condition and with their resources, managed to make the crossing, but of course it was because they had to.

Then it was a matter of rescuing the party left at the original landing site on South Georgia, and then mounting an expedition to relieve those waiting at Elephant Island. The latter was difficult and frustrating—it was not until 30th August 1916 that Shackleton was able to take those he left on Elephant Island back to civilisation. And every single person who departed from South Georgia on the Endurance survived the expedition and returned to civilisation. All suffered from the voyage, but only stowaway Perce Blackboro lost a foot to frostbite; all the rest returned without consequences from their ordeal.

Bottom line—there were men on this expedition, and if similarly demanding expeditions in the future are crewed by men and women equal to their mettle, they will come through just fine without any of the problems the touchy-feely inkblot drones worry about. People with the “born as victim” self-image instilled by the nanny state are unlikely to qualify for such a mission, and should the all-smothering state manage to reduce its subjects to such larvæ, it is unlikely in the extreme that it would mount such a mission, choosing instead to huddle in its green enclaves powered by sewage and the unpredictable winds until the giant rock from the sky calls down the curtain on their fruitless existence.

I read the Kindle edition; unless you're concerned with mass and volume taking this book on a long trip (for which it couldn't be more appropriate!), I'd recommend the print edition, which is not only less expensive (neglecting shipping charges), but also reproduces with much higher quality the many photographs taken by expedition photographer Frank Hurley and preserved through the entire ordeal.

August 2010 Permalink

Lime, Jean-Hugues. Le roi de Clipperton. Paris: Le Cherche Midi, 2002. ISBN 2-86274-947-8.
This fascinating novel, reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, is based on events which actually occurred during the Mexican occupation of Clipperton Island from 1910 through 1917. (After World War I, the island returned to French possession, as it remains today; it has been uninhabited since 1917.) There is one instance of bad astronomy here: in chapter 4, set on the evening of November 30th, 1910, the Moon is described as «…très lumineuse…. On y voyait comme en plein jour.» (“…very luminous;…. One could see like in broad daylight” [my translation]). But on that night, the Moon was not visible at all! Here is the sky above Clipperton at about 21:00 local time courtesy of Your Sky. (Note that in Universal time it's already the morning of December 1st, and that I have supplied the actual latitude of Clipperton, which is shown as one minute of latitude too far North in the map on page 8.) In fact, the Moon was only 17 hours before new as shown by Earth and Moon Viewer, and hence wasn't visible from anywhere on Earth on that night. Special thanks to the person who recommended this book using the recommendation form! This was an excellent read which I'd otherwise never have discovered.

November 2003 Permalink

O'Rourke, P. J. Driving Like Crazy. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8021-1883-7.
Sex, drugs, fast cars, crazed drivers, vehicular mayhem spanning the globe from Manhattan to Kyrgyzstan, and vehicles to die for (or in) ranging from Fangio's 1939 Chevrolet racer to a six-wheel-drive Soviet Zil truck—what's not to like! Humorist and eternally young speed demon P. J. O'Rourke recounts the adventures of his reckless youth and (mostly) wreckless present from the perspective of someone who once owned a 1960 MGA (disclaimer: I once owned a 1966 MGB I named “Crunderthush”—Keith Laumer fans will understand why) and, decades later, actually, seriously contemplated buying a minivan (got better).

This collection of O'Rourke's automotive journalism has been extensively edited to remove irrelevant details and place each piece in context. His retrospective on the classic National Lampoon piece (included here) whose title is a bit too edgy for our family audience is worth the price of purchase all by itself. Ever wanted to drive across the Indian subcontinent flat-out? The account here will help you avoid that particular resolution of your mid-life crisis. (Hint: think “end of life crisis”—Whoa!)

You don't need to be a gearhead to enjoy this book. O'Rourke isn't remotely a gearhead himself: he just likes to drive fast on insane roads in marvellous machinery, and even if your own preference is to experience such joys vicariously, there are plenty of white knuckle road trips and great flatbeds full of laughs in this delightful read.

A podcast interview with the author is available.

July 2009 Permalink

Ryan, Craig. Magnificent Failure. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2003. ISBN 978-1-58834-141-9.
In his 1995 book, The Pre-Astronauts (which I read before I began keeping this list), the author masterfully explores the pioneering U.S. balloon flights into the upper atmosphere between the end of World War II and the first manned space flights, which brought both Air Force and Navy manned balloon programs to an abrupt halt. These flights are little remembered today (except for folks lucky enough to have an attic [or DVD] full of National Geographics from the epoch, which covered them in detail). Still less known is the story recounted here: one man's quest, fuelled only by ambition, determination, willingness to do whatever it took, persuasiveness, and sheer guts, to fly higher and free-fall farther than any man had ever done before. Without the backing of any military service, government agency, wealthy patron, or corporate sponsor, he achieved his first goal, setting an altitude record for lighter than air flight which remains unbroken more than four decades later, and tragically died from injuries sustained in his attempt to accomplish the second, after an in-flight accident which remains enigmatic and controversial to this day.

The term “American original” is over-used in describing exceptional characters that nation has produced, but if anybody deserves that designation, Nick Piantanida does. The son of immigrant parents from the Adriatic island of Korčula (now part of Croatia), Nick was born in 1932 and grew up on the gritty Depression-era streets of Union City, New Jersey in the very cauldron of the American melting pot, amid communities of Germans, Italians, Irish, Jews, Poles, Syrians, and Greeks. Although universally acknowledged to be extremely bright, his interests in school were mostly brawling and basketball. He excelled in the latter, sharing the 1953 YMCA All-America honours with some guy named Wilt Chamberlain. After belatedly finishing high school (bored, he had dropped out to start a scrap iron business, but was persuaded to return by his parents), he joined the Army where he was All-Army in basketball for both years of his hitch and undefeated as a heavyweight boxer. After mustering out, he received a full basketball scholarship to Fairleigh Dickinson University, then abruptly quit a few months into his freshman year, finding the regimentation of college life as distasteful as that of the Army.

In search of fame, fortune, and adventure, Nick next set his sights on Venezuela, where he vowed to be the first to climb Devil's Mountain, from which Angel Falls plummets 807 metres. Penniless, he recruited one of his Army buddies as a climbing partner and lined up sponsors to fund the expedition. At the outset, he knew nothing about mountaineering, so he taught himself on the Hudson River Palisades with the aid of books from the library. Upon arrival in Venezuela, the climbers learnt to their dismay that another expedition had just completed the first ascent of the mountain, so Nick vowed to make the first ascent of the north face, just beside the falls, which was thought unclimbable. After an arduous trip through the jungle, during which their guide quit and left the climbers alone, Nick and his partner made the ascent by themselves and returned to the acclaim of all. Such was the determination of this man.

Nick was always looking for adventure, celebrity, and the big score. He worked for a while as a steelworker on the high iron of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but most often supported himself and, after his marriage, his growing family, by contract truck driving and, occasionally, unemployment checks. Still, he never ceased to look for ways, always unconventional, to make his fortune, nor failed to recruit associates and find funding for his schemes. Many of his acquaintances use the word “hustler” to describe him in those days, and one doubts that Nick would be offended by the honorific. He opened an exotic animal import business, and ordered cobras, mongooses, goanna lizards, and other critters mail-order from around the world for resale to wealthy clients. When buyers failed to materialise, he staged gladiatorial contests of both animal versus animal and animal versus himself. Eventually he imported a Bengal tiger cub which he kept in his apartment until it had grown so large it could put its paws on his shoulders, whence he traded the tiger for a decrepit airplane (he had earned a pilot's license while still in his teens). Offered a spot on the New York Knicks professional basketball team, he turned it down because he thought he could make more money barnstorming in his airplane.

Nick finally found his life's vocation when, on a lark, he made a parachute jump. Soon, he had progressed from static line beginner jumps to free fall and increasingly advanced skydiving, making as many jumps as he could afford and find the time for. And then he had the Big Idea. In 1960, Joseph Kittinger had ridden a helium balloon to an altitude of 31,333 metres and bailed out, using a small drogue parachute to stabilise his fall until he opened his main parachute at an altitude of 5,330 metres. Although this was, at the time (and remains to this day) the highest altitude parachute jump ever made, skydiving purists do not consider it a true free fall jump due to the use of the stabilising chute. In 1962, Eugene Andreev jumped from a Soviet balloon at an altitude of 25,460 metres and did a pure free fall descent, stabilising himself purely by skydiving techniques, setting an official free-fall altitude record which also remains unbroken. Nick vowed to claim both the record for highest altitude ascent and longest free-fall jump for himself, and set about it with his usual energy and single-minded determination.

Piantanida faced a daunting set of challenges in achieving his goal: at the outset he had neither balloon, gondola, spacesuit, life support system, suitable parachute, nor any knowledge of or experience with the multitude of specialities whose mastery is required to survive in the stratosphere, above 99% of the Earth's atmosphere. Kittinger and Andreev were supported by all the resources, knowledge, and funding of their respective superpowers' military establishments, while Nick had—well…Nick. But he was not to be deterred, and immediately set out educating himself and lining up people, sponsors, and gear necessary for the attempt.

The story of what became known as Project Strato-Jump reads like an early Heinlein novel, with an indomitable spirit pursuing a goal other, more “reasonable”, people considered absurd or futile. By will, guile, charm, pull, intimidation, or simply wearing down adversaries until they gave in just to make him go away, he managed to line up everything he needed, including having the company which supplied NASA with its Project Gemini spacesuits custom tailor one (Nick was built like an NBA star, not an astronaut) and loan it to him for the project.

Finally, on October 22, 1965, all was ready, and Nick took to the sky above Minnesota, bound for the edge of space. But just a few minutes after launch, at just 7,000 metres, the balloon burst, probably due to a faulty seam in the polyethylene envelope, triggered by a wind shear at that altitude. Nick rode down in the gondola under its recovery parachute, then bailed out at 3200 metres, unglamorously landing in the Pig's Eye Dump in St. Paul.

Undeterred by the failure, Nick recruited a new balloon manufacturer and raised money for a second attempt, setting off again for the stratosphere a second time on February 2, 1966. This time the ascent went flawlessly, and the balloon rose to an all-time record altitude of 37,643 metres. But as Nick proceeded through the pre-jump checklist, when he attempted to disconnect the oxygen hose that fed his suit from the gondola's supply and switch over to the “bail out bottle” from which he would breathe during the descent, the disconnect fitting jammed, and he was unable to dislodge it. He was, in effect, tethered to the gondola by his oxygen line and had no option but to descend with it. Ground control cut the gondola's parachute from the balloon, and after a harrowing descent Nick and gondola landed in a farm field with only minor injuries. The jump had failed, but Nick had flown higher than any manned balloon ever had. But since the attempt was not registered as an official altitude attempt, although the altitude attained is undisputed, the record remains unofficial.

After the second failure, Nick's confidence appeared visibly shaken. Having all that expense, work, and risk undertaken come to nought due to a small detail with which nobody had been concerned prior to the flight underlined just how small the margin for error was in the extreme environment at the edge of space and, by implication, how the smallest error or oversight could lead to disaster. Still, he was bent on trying yet again, and on May 1, 1966 (since he was trying to break a Soviet record, he thought this date particularly appropriate), launched for the third time. Everything went normally as the balloon approached 17,375 metres, whereupon the ground crew monitoring the air to ground voice link heard what was described as a “whoosh” or hiss, followed by a call of “Emergen” from Nick, followed by silence. The ground crew immediately sent a radio command to cut the balloon loose, and the gondola, with Nick inside, began to descend under its cargo parachute.

Rescue crews arrived just moments after the gondola touched down and found it undamaged, but Nick was unconscious and unresponsive. He was rushed to the local hospital, treated without avail, and then transferred to a hospital in Minneapolis where he was placed in a hyperbaric chamber where treatment for decompression sickness was administered, without improvement. On June 18th, he was transferred to the National Institute of Health hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where he was examined and treated by experts in decompression disease and hypoxia, but never regained consciousness. He died on August 25, 1966, with an autopsy finding the cause of death hypoxia and ruptures of the tissue in the brain due to decompression.

What happened to Nick up there in the sky? Within hours after the accident, rumours started to circulate that he was the victim of equipment failure: that his faceplate had blown out or that the pressure suit had failed in some other manner, leading to an explosive decompression. This story has been repeated so often it has become almost canon—consider this article from Wired from July 2002. Indeed, when rescuers arrived on the scene, Nick's “faceplate” was damaged, but this was just the sun visor which can be pivoted down to cover the pressure-retaining faceplate, which was intact and, in a subsequent test of the helmet, found to seal perfectly. Rescuers assumed the sun visor was damaged by impact with part of the gondola during the landing and, in any case, would not have caused a decompression however damaged.

Because the pressure suit had been cut off in the emergency room, it wasn't possible to perform a full pressure test, but meticulous inspection of the suit by the manufacturer discovered no flaws which could explain an explosive decompression. The oxygen supply system in the gondola was found to be functioning normally, with all pressure vessels and regulators operating within specifications.

So, what happened? We will never know for sure. Unlike a NASA mission, there was no telemetry, nor even a sequence camera recording what was happening in the gondola. And yet, within minutes after the accident occurred, many members of the ground crew came to a conclusion as to the probable cause, which those still alive today have seen no need to revisit. Such was their certainty that reporter Robert Vaughan gave it as the cause in the story he filed with Life magazine, which he was dismayed to see replaced with an ambiguous passage by the editors, because his explanation did not fit with the narrative chosen for the story. (The legacy media acted like the legacy media even when they were the only media and not yet legacy!)

Astonishingly, all the evidence (which, admittedly, isn't very much) seems to indicate that Nick opened his helmet visor at that extreme altitude, which allowed the air in suit to rush out (causing the “whoosh”), forcing the air from his lungs (cutting off the call of “Emergency!”), and rapidly incapacitating him. The extended hypoxia and exposure to low pressure as the gondola descended under the cargo parachute caused irreversible brain damage well before the gondola landed. But why would Nick do such a crazy thing as open his helmet visor when in the physiological equivalent of space? Again, we can never know, but what is known is that he'd done it before, at lower altitudes, to the dismay of his crew, who warned him of the potentially dire consequences. There is abundant evidence that Piantanida violated the oxygen prebreathing protocol before high altitude exposure not only on this flight, but on a regular basis. He reported symptoms completely consistent with decompression sickness (the onset of “the bends”), and is quoted as saying that he could relieve the symptoms by deflating and reinflating his suit. Finally, about as close to a smoking gun as we're likely to find, the rescue crew found Nick's pressure visor unlatched and rotated away from the seal position. Since Nick would have been in a coma well before he entered breathable atmosphere, it isn't possible he could have done this before landing, and there is no way an impact upon landing could have performed the precise sequence of operations required to depressurise the suit and open the visor.

It is impossible put oneself inside the mind of such an outlier in the human population as Nick, no less imagine what he was thinking and feeling when rising into the darkness above the dawn on the third attempt at achieving his dream. He was almost certainly suffering from symptoms of decompression sickness due to inadequate oxygen prebreathing, afflicted by chronic sleep deprivation in the rush to get the flight off, and under intense stress to complete the mission before his backers grew discouraged and the money ran out. All of these factors can cloud the judgement of even the most disciplined and best trained person, and, it must be said, Nick was neither. Perhaps the larger puzzle is why members of his crew who did understand these things, did not speak up, pull the plug, or walk off the project when they saw what was happening. But then a personality like Nick can sweep people along through its own primal power, for better or for worse; in this case, to tragedy.

Was Nick a hero? Decide for yourself—my opinion is no. In pursuing his own ego-driven ambition, he ended up leaving his wife a widow and his three daughters without a father they remember, with only a meagre life insurance policy to support them. The project was basically a stunt, mounted with the goal of turning its success into money by sales of story, film, and celebrity appearances. Even had the jump succeeded, it would have yielded no useful aeromedical research data applicable to subsequent work apart from the fact that it was possible. (In Nick's defence on this account, he approached the Air Force and NASA, inviting them to supply instrumentation and experiments for the jump, and was rebuffed.)

This book is an exhaustively researched (involving many interviews with surviving participants in the events) and artfully written account of this strange episode which was, at the same time, the last chapter of the exploration of the black beyond by intrepid men in their floating machines and a kind of false dawn precursor of the private exploration of space which is coming to the fore almost half a century after Nick Piantanida set out to pursue his black sky dream. The only embarrassing aspect to this superb book is that on occasion the author equates state-sponsored projects with competence, responsibility, and merit. Well, let's see…. In a rough calculation, using 2007 constant dollars, NASA has spent northward of half a trillion dollars, killing a total of 17 astronauts (plus other employees in industrial accidents on the ground), with all of the astronaut deaths due to foreseeable risks which management failed to identify or mitigate in time.

Project Strato-Jump, funded entirely by voluntary contributions, without resort to the state's monopoly on the use of force, set an altitude record for lighter than air flight within the atmosphere which has stood from 1966 to this writing, and accomplished it in three missions with a total budget of less than (2007 constant) US$400,000, with the loss of a single life due to pilot error. Yes, NASA has achieved much, much more. But a million times more?

This is a very long review, so if you've made it to this point and found it tedious, please accept my excuses. Nick Piantanida has haunted me for decades. I followed his exploits as they happened, and were reported on the CBS Evening News in the 1960s. I felt the frustration of the second flight (with that achingly so far and yet so near view of the Earth from altitude, when he couldn't jump), and then the dismay at the calamity on the third, then the long vigil ending with his sad demise. Astronauts were, well, astronauts, but Nick was one of us. If a truck driver from New Jersey could, by main force, travel to the black of space, then why couldn't any of us? That was the real dream of the Space Age: Have Space Suit—Will Travel. Well, Nick managed to lay his hands on a space suit and travel he did!

Anybody who swallowed the bogus mainstream media narrative of Nick's “suit failure” had to watch the subsequent Gemini and Apollo EVA missions with a special sense of apprehension. A pressure suit is one of the few things in the NASA space program which has no backup: if the pressure garment fails catastrophically, you're dead before you can do anything about it. (A slow leak isn't a problem, since there's an oxygen purge system which can maintain pressure until you can get inside, but a major seam failure, or having a visor blow out or glove pop off is endsville.) Knowing that those fellows cavorting on the Moon were wearing pretty much the same suit as Nick caused those who believed the propaganda version of his death to needlessly catch their breath every time one of them stumbled and left a sitzmark or faceplant in the eternal lunar regolith.

November 2010 Permalink

Scott, Robert Falcon. Journals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1913, 1914, 1923, 1927] 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-953680-1.
Robert Falcon Scott, leading a party of five men hauling their supplies on sledges across the ice cap, reached the South Pole on January 17th, 1912. When he arrived, he discovered a cairn built by Roald Amundsen's party, which had reached the Pole on December 14th, 1911 using sledges pulled by dogs. After this crushing disappointment, Scott's polar party turned back toward their base on the coast. After crossing the high portion of the ice pack (which Scott refers to as “the summit”) without severe difficulties, they encountered unexpected, unprecedented, and, based upon subsequent meteorological records, extremely low temperatures on the Ross Ice Shelf (the “Barrier” in Scott's nomenclature). Immobilised by a blizzard, and without food or sufficient fuel to melt ice for water, Scott's party succumbed, with Scott's last journal entry, dated March 29th, 1912.

I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.
R. Scott.

For God's sake look after our people.

A search party found the bodies of Scott and the other two members of the expedition who died with him in the tent (the other two had died earlier on the return journey; their remains were never found). His journals were found with him, and when returned to Britain were prepared for publication, and proved a sensation. Amundsen's priority was almost forgotten in the English speaking world, alongside Scott's first-hand account of audacious daring, meticulous planning, heroic exertion, and dignity in the face of death.

A bewildering variety of Scott's journals were published over the years. They are described in detail and their differences curated in this Oxford World's Classics edition. In particular, Scott's original journals contained very candid and often acerbic observations about members of his expedition and other explorers, particularly Shackleton. These were elided or toned down in the published copies of the journals. In this edition, the published text is used, but the original manuscript text appears in an appendix.

Scott was originally considered a hero, then was subjected to a revisionist view that deemed him ill-prepared for the expedition and distracted by peripheral matters such as a study of the embryonic development of emperor penguins as opposed to Amundsen's single-minded focus on a dash to the Pole. The pendulum has now swung back somewhat, and a careful reading of Scott's own journals seems, at least to this reader, to support this more balanced view. Yes, in some ways Scott's expedition seems amazingly amateurish (I mean, if you were planning to ski across the ice cap, wouldn't you learn to ski before you arrived in Antarctica, rather than bring along a Norwegian to teach you after you arrived?), but ultimately Scott's polar party died due to a combination of horrific weather (present-day estimates are that only one year in sixteen has temperatures as low as those Scott experienced on the Ross Ice Shelf) and an equipment failure: leather washers on cans of fuel failed in the extreme temperatures, which caused loss of fuel Scott needed to melt ice to sustain the party on its return. And yet the same failure had been observed during Scott's 1901–1904 expedition, and nothing had been done to remedy it. The record remains ambiguous and probably always will.

The writing, especially when you consider the conditions under which it was done, makes you shiver. At the Pole:

The Pole. Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected.

… Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.

and from his “Message to the Public” written shortly before his death:

We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.

Now that's an explorer.

February 2013 Permalink

Shute, Nevil. Trustee from the Toolroom. New York: Vintage Books, [1960] 2010. ISBN 978-0-345-02663-7.
Keith Stewart is an unexceptional man. “[Y]ou may see a little man get in at West Ealing, dressed in a shabby raincoat over a blue suit. He is one of hundreds of thousands like him in industrial England, pale-faced, running to fat a little, rather hard up. His hands show evidence of manual work, his eyes and forehead evidence of intellect.” He earns his living by making mechanical models and writing articles about them which are published, with directions, in the London weekly Miniature Mechanic. His modest income from the magazine has allowed him to give up his toolroom job at an aircraft subcontractor. Along with the income his wife Katie earns from her job in a shop, they make ends meet and are paying down the mortgage on their house, half of which they rent out.

Keith's sister Jo married well. Her husband, John Dermott, is a retired naval officer and nephew of Lord Dungannon, with an independent income from the family fortune. Like many people in postwar Britain, the Dermotts have begun to chafe under the ceaseless austerity, grey collectivism, and shrinking freedom of what was once the vanguard of civilisation and have decided to emigrate to the west coast of Canada, to live the rest of their lives in freedom. They've decided to make their journey an adventure, making the voyage from Britain to Vancouver through the Panama Canal in their modest but oceangoing sailboat Shearwater. Keith and Katie agree to look after their young daughter Janice, whose parents don't want to take out of school and who might not tolerate a long ocean voyage well.

Tragedy befalls the Dermotts, as they are shipwrecked and drowned in a tropical storm in the Pacific. Keith and Katie have agreed to become Janice's trustees in such an event and, consulting the Dermotts' solicitor, are astonished to learn that their fortune, assumed substantial, has almost entirely vanished. While they can get along and support Janice, she'll not be able to receive the education they assumed her parents intended her to have.

Given the confiscatory capital controls in effect at the time, Keith has an idea what may have happened to the Dermott fortune. “And he was the trustee.” Keith Stewart, who had never set foot outside of England, and can barely afford a modest holiday, suddenly finds himself faced with figuring out how to travel to the other side of the world, to a location that isn't even on his map, and undertake a difficult and risky mission.

Keith discovers that while nobody would recognise him on the street or think him out of the ordinary, his writing for Miniature Mechanic has made him a celebrity in what, more than half a century later, would be called the “maker subculture”, and that these people are resourceful, creative, willing to bend the rules to get things done and help one another, and some dispose of substantial wealth. By a chain of connections which might have seemed implausible at the outset but is the kind of thing which happens all of the time in the real world, Keith Stewart, modelmaker and scribbler, sets out on an epic adventure.

This is a thoroughly satisfying and utterly charming story. It is charming because the characters are such good people; the kind you'd feel privileged to have as friends. But they are also realistic; the author's career was immersed in the engineering and entrepreneurial milieu, and understands these folks in detail. This is a world, devoid of much of what we consider to be modern, you'll find yourself admiring; it is a joy to visit it. The last two paragraphs will make you shiver.

This novel is currently unavailable in a print edition, so I have linked to the Kindle edition in the head. Used paperback copies are readily available. There is an unabridged audio version of this book.

August 2015 Permalink

Solé, Robert. Le grand voyage de l'obélisque. Paris: Seuil, 2004. ISBN 2-02-039279-8.
No, this is not an Astérix book—it's “obélisque”, not “Obélix”! This is the story of how an obelisk of Ramses II happened to end up in the middle of la Place de la Concorde in Paris. Moving a 22 metre, 220 metric ton chunk of granite from the banks of the Nile to the banks of the Seine in the 1830s was not a simple task—it involved a purpose-built ship, an expedition of more than two and a half years with a crew of 121, twelve of whom died in Egypt from cholera and dysentery, and the combined muscle power of 350 artillerymen in Paris to erect the obelisk where it stands today. One has to be impressed with the ancient Egyptians, who managed much the same more than thirty centuries earlier. The book includes a complete transcription and translation of the hieroglyphic inscriptions—Ramses II must have set the all-time record for effort expended in publishing banal text.

May 2004 Permalink

[Audiobook] Twain, Mark [Samuel Langhorne Clemens]. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Auburn, CA: Audio Partners, [1876] 1995. ISBN 978-157270-307-0.
Having read this book as a kid, I never imagined how much more there was to it, both because of the depth of Mark Twain's prose as perceived by an adult, and due to reading his actual words, free of abridgement for a “juvenile edition”. (Note that the author, in the introduction, explicitly states that he is writing for young people and hence expects his words to reach them unexpurgated, and that they will understand them. I've no doubt that in the epoch in which he wrote them they would. Today, I have my doubts, but there's no question that the more people who are exposed to this self-reliant and enterprising view of childhood, the brighter the future will be for the children of the kids who experience the freedom of a childhood like Tom's, as opposed to those I frequently see wearing crash helmets when riding bicycles with training wheels.)

There is nothing I can possibly add to the existing corpus of commentary on one of the greatest of American novels. Well, maybe this: if you've read an abridged version (and if you read it in grade school, you probably did), then give the original a try. There's a lot of material here which can be easily cut by somebody seeking the “essence” with no sense of the art of story-telling. You may remember the proper way to get rid of warts given a dead cat and a graveyard at midnight, but do you remember all of the other ways of getting rid of warts, their respective incantations, and their merits and demerits? Savour the folklore.

This audiobook is produced and performed by voice actor Patrick Fraley, who adopts a different timbre and dialect for each of the characters in the novel. The audio programme is distributed as a single file, running 7 hours and 42 minutes, with original music between the chapters. Audio CD and numerous print editions are available, of which this one looks like a good choice.

March 2008 Permalink

[Audiobook] Twain, Mark [Samuel Langhorne Clemens]. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Audiobook, Unabridged). Auburn, CA: Audio Partners, [1884] 1999. ISBN 978-0-393-02039-7.
If you've read an abridged or bowdlerised edition of this timeless classic as a child or been deprived of it due to its being deemed politically incorrect by the hacks and morons in charge of education in recent decades, this audiobook is a superb way (better in some ways than a print edition) to appreciate the genius of one the greatest storytellers of all time. This is not your typical narration of a print novel. Voice actor Patrick Fraley assumes a different pitch, timbre, and dialect for each of the characters, making this a performance, not a reading; his wry, ironic tone for Huck's first person narration is spot on.

I, like many readers (among them Ernest Hemingway), found the last part of the book set on the Phelps farm less satisfying than the earlier story, but so great is Mark Twain's genius that, by themselves, these chapters would be a masterwork of the imagination of childhood.

The audio programme is distributed in two files, running 11 hours and 17 minutes, with original music between the chapters and plot interludes. An Audio CD edition is available. If you're looking for a print edition, this is the one to get; it can also serve as an excellent resource to consult as you're listening to the audiobook.

June 2009 Permalink

Verne, Jules. Voyage à reculons en Angleterre et en Écosse. Paris: Le Cherche Midi, 1989. ISBN 2-86274-147-7.
As a child, Jules Verne was fascinated by the stories of his ancestor who came to France from exotic Scotland to serve as an archer in the guard of Louis XI. Verne's attraction to Scotland was reinforced by his life-long love of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and when in 1859, at age 31, he had a chance to visit that enchanting ancestral land, he jumped at the opportunity. This novel is a thinly fictionalised account of his “backwards voyage” to Scotland and England. “Backwards” («à reculons») because he and his travelling companion began their trip from Paris into the North by heading South to Bordeaux, where they had arranged economical passage on a ship bound for Liverpool, then on to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and then back by way of London and Dieppe—en sens inverse of most Parisian tourists. The theme of “backwards” surfaces regularly in the narrative, most amusingly on p. 110 where they find themselves advancing to the rear after having inadvertently wandered onto a nude beach.

So prolific was Jules Verne that more than a century and a half after he began his writing career, new manuscripts keep turning up among his voluminous papers. In the last two decades, Paris au XXe siècle, the original un-mangled version of La chasse au météore (October 2002), and the present volume have finally made their way into print. Verne transformed the account of his own trip into a fictionalised travel narrative of a kind quite common in the 19th century but rarely encountered today. The fictional form gave him freedom to add humour, accentuate detail, and highlight aspects of the country and culture he was visiting without crossing the line into that other venerable literary genre, the travel tall tale. One suspects that the pub brawl in chapter 16 is an example of such embroidery, along with the remarkable steam powered contraption on p. 159 which prefigured Mrs. Tweedy's infernal machine in Chicken Run. The description of the weather, however, seems entirely authentic. Verne offered the manuscript to Hetzel, who published most of his work, but it was rejected and remained forgotten until it was discovered in a cache of Verne papers acquired by the city of Nantes in 1981. This 1989 edition is its first appearance in print, and includes six pages of notes on the history of the work and its significance in Verne's œuvre, notes on changes in the manuscript made by Verne, and a facsimile manuscript page.

What is remarkable in reading this novel is the extent to which it is a fully-developed “template” for Verne's subsequent Voyages extraordinaires: here we have an excitable and naïve voyager (think Michel Ardan or Passepartout) paired with a more stolid and knowledgeable companion (Barbicane or Phileas Fogg), the encyclopedist's exultation in enumeration, fascination with all forms of locomotion, and fun with language and dialect (particularly poor Jacques who beats the Dickens out of the language of Shakespeare). Often, when reading the early works of writers, you sense them “finding their voice”—not here. Verne is in full form, the master of his language and the art of story-telling, and fully ready, a few years later, with just a change of topic, to invent science fiction. This is not “major Verne”, and you certainly wouldn't want to start with this work, but if you've read most of Verne and are interested in how it all began, this is genuine treat.

This book is out of print. If you can't locate a used copy at a reasonable price at the Amazon link above, try abebooks.com. For comparison with copies offered for sale, the cover price in 1989 was FRF 95, which is about €14.50 at the final fixed rate.

April 2006 Permalink

Verne, Jules. Le Château des Carpathes. Paris: Poche, [1892] 1976. ISBN 978-2-253-01329-7.
This is one of Jules Verne's later novels, originally published in 1892, and is considered “minor Verne”, which is to say it's superior to about 95% of science and adventure fiction by other authors. Five years before Bram Stoker penned Dracula, Verne takes us to a looming, gloomy, and abandoned (or is it?) castle on a Carpathian peak in Transylvania, to which the superstitious residents of nearby villages attribute all kinds of supernatural goings on. Verne is clearly having fun with the reader in this book, which reads like a mystery, but what is mysterious is not whodunit, but rather what genre of book you're reading: is it a ghost story, tale of the supernatural, love triangle, mad scientist yarn, or something else? Verne manages to keep all of these balls in the air until the last thirty pages or so, when all is revealed and resolved. It's plenty of fun getting there, as the narrative is rich with the lush descriptive prose and expansive vocabulary for which Verne is renowned. It wouldn't be a Jules Verne novel without at least one stunning throwaway prediction of future technology; here it's the video telephone, to which he gives the delightful name “téléphote”.

A public domain electronic text edition is available from Project Gutenberg in a variety of formats. A (pricey) English translation is available. I have not read it and cannot vouch for its faithfulness to Verne's text.

June 2009 Permalink