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Review: In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette
In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best nonfiction book I’ve read in a long time. To be honest, the last few nonfiction books I read (or tried to read) had some rather boring bits in them. I skipped a few pages here and there reading Robert F. Gates’ Duty, and even, yes, while reading The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. I skipped at least one entire chapter in The Unthinkable. I outright gave up on the biography of Alexandre Dumas’ father (and I can’t even remember the name of it).

Not so for Kingdom of Ice. I hung on every single word. It’s a pretty long read, but I tore through it, faster even than The Goldfinch, no slender volume either. The author really brought to life all the larger-than-life characters that went into making the dream of Arctic exploration a reality in 1878: the eccentric millionaire newspaper owner, the half-mad, half-brilliant, all-business explorer, the explorer’s steadfast, fun-loving and devoted wife, the quirky crew. I could not put this book down. A far better adventure than any summer blockbuster in recent memory.

I’m actually not a big fan of history or nonfiction. That’s sort of why I’ve been trying to read it, to expand my horizons. I heard an interview with the author and that convinced me to give this one a go. He sounded very enthusiastic and excited about his topic, and I found his enthusiasm contagious. Once I got reading the book, I too fell in love with the time, the place, and the adventure. The voyage of the USS Jeanette was world-famous at the time, and when it became lost, the whole world wanted to know what had become of it. Books were written, medals were awarded, and then… the world forgot about it. Until Hampton Sides came along, dug deep into tons of original source material and first-hand accounts, and resurrected her for us to read about. Some of the best writing comes from the source material in fact, and Sides is an excellent curator of his material, saturating his telling of the story with the words of the people who were there.

There are also some great asides that never distract from the story, but add to the reader’s understanding of the historical, cultural and scientific context of the ill-fated voyage: what Thomas Edison provided for the journey, how this journey fit into the history of mapmaking, why John Muir tried to track down the ship after it went missing, and even what Stanley and Livingstone had to do with the journey. Tons of details, none of which weigh the story down, but all of which help propel it along.

I wish I could read it again for the first time!

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Time for a brief little real-life update. Like any good aspiring writer, though, I’ll save the big reveal for the end (and cunningly allude to it early on so as to generate suspense). The thing is, last night I became aware that a lot of things in my life had, all at once and completely independently of one another, just become unstuck. The best thing about it was that I actually wasn’t consciously aware of how stuck these things were, and how that was making me feel, til the obstructions suddenly fell down, and action started to flow once again.

Unsticking #1: I completed our wedding album! One year and two weeks after our wedding, I finally got the last photos inserted on Monday night. I didn’t really start work on this til July or August, but it was slow going and frequently tedious work. Then, ALL OF A SUDDEN, blammo, I sat down and did the last third of it in one sitting.

Unsticking #2: Daisy (my cat) broke her years-long dry spell of being, well, there’s no polite way to put this, a less-than-adequate mouser. Prior to this week, we’d had two mouse visitors (and one bat, but I’m not going to hold it against her that she couldn’t bring down a bat), none of which Daisy had been actually able to bring down. Then, last night, I came home, and ALL OF A SUDDEN before my very eyes she delivered the death blow to the latest little feller to come in from the cold. He was still warm when I scooped him up. Even better: she didn’t break the skin or make a mess of it. Just beat the little fucker senseless. Poor lil fucker. Good job, Daisy! She got an entire bowl full of treats for that.

Unsticking #3: Our landlord finally started moving on getting some much-needed repairs done in our apartment, after months of asking. He’s usually been a great landlord and responsive about small things, but this slightly larger scale repair has been put off over and over, and we were starting to get kind of frustrated. But now all that’s in the past, and ALL OF A SUDDEN we are back in motion again.

Unsticking #4: I’m not going to jinx this by fully disclosing all the deets until we have signed an actual P&S, but… It looks like after six months of looking, we may have finally found a house. We put in an offer on Thursday, and had it summarily handed back to us. Then, yesterday morning, ALL OF A SUDDEN, the seller came back to us and wanted to know if our offer still stood. We decided it did, and now we are lining up an inspection.

I’m not sure what happened to unstick all that was stuck, or whether it’s just a combination of having a little more free time, plus luck, plus a little coincidence thrown in as well. It doesn’t matter, and I put no stock by such confluences. What does matter is this wonderful feeling. It’s nothing less than the feeling of being alive, the sense of change, of finally not knowing what’s next.

Review: A Sport and a Pastime

A Sport and a Pastime
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Easily one of the best books I’ve read this year, if not of all time. My paperback edition actually glows with a quiet radiance that keeps me up at night. It’s so good, I know I can’t do it justice with a review. I loved this book for its language, for the facility with which it transcends many rules of fiction, for its simplicity, for how perfectly it evoked being a visitor to a foreign country, how perfectly it evoked being a foreign visitor in someone else’s relationship. This book is about a lot of things, but mostly I think it’s about the fever that can strike a man down when he sees someone else in a relationship he wishes he was in.

Specifically… a sexual relationship. This is a very “sexy” book, so if that’s not your thing, better steer wide and clear of this one. Do not think that because it was written before 1970, the sex scenes have to be pretty tame. They’re not tame, and they’re written with a poet’s gift for evocation, so we’re often a lot closer to the action (as it were) than we want to be. Which is kind of the whole sordid point, I think. Like the narrator, we’re tantalized by the disclosed indiscretions, but we’re also uncomfortable with them. Like the narrator, too, we never really know which are wholly real and which are wholly the invention of the narrator, seized as he is in the jaws of a jealous curiosity.

The arc of this story doesn’t have much amplitude, and there are very few real surprises. The author frequently writes in sentence fragments, and the whole story is short, but still: the book works. It more than works. And it’s all carried by the completely understated lust, boredom, envy of the perpetual 3rd-wheel narrator. Everything in this book is quiet, calm, a little bleak, and fiercely beautiful, like a snowfall in a graveyard, or a dark flower blooming.

One of those books I read and re-read sentences of over and over before continuing. A book I didn’t underline or bookmark because I knew I’d have to underline the whole book, dog-ear every page. If it didn’t have so many overtly dirty bits, I’d put a copy in the hands of everyone I know. Eh. But then I probably wouldn’t have liked it as much. ;)

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One Year

E and I have now been married for one year (and a few days). We’ve been an Item for over five years, but only got married just last year, on September 1, 2013. As the one year marker approached and then passed, we’ve both been getting a lot of, “So, how’s married life treating you?” and “How does it feel, one year in?” Mostly I answer this question with a backslappy sort of sideways remark like, HA HA SO FAR SO GOOD or NO COMPLAINTS.. YET HA HA. Matrimony! What a hoot!

I answer in this stupid way because this is my knee-jerk reaction to non-specific small-talky questions (other examples of which include, “How’s the book coming,” “How’s life treating you,” and “How’s E doing with her business?”). All these questions, super well-intentioned though they may be, and as grateful as I am for the kinds of friends who ask them, leave me stranded on the shores of specificity. Believe me, friends, I long to go out there into the ocean of generality, but I’m stuck back here, looking at these particular and very specific shells, crabs, pebbles. It’s just how my brain works. Ask me something like “What have you been doing this summer,” or “What’s next for you with the book,” and I’ll do much better, but if you ask me, “What are your thoughts on marriage after being in it for a year”… I will gaze at you blankly.

Then I’ll come on here and blog about it.

I actually took this first anniversary pretty seriously. One, because it’s an opportunity for me to stop and reflect on how completely lucky I am to have such a supportive, fun, smart, serious, and perfect fit of a partner. But she’s not just my partner pro tem! She’s actually sworn to stick by my thorny side, through storm and calm, thick and thin, acme and nadir. I try to be grateful for her presence in my life every single day, not just on anniversaries, which isn’t really isn’t that hard, but a first anniversary does grant me another chance to look squarely into the radiance of that gift, for as long as my squirrelly little brain can handle it.

And, two, because I do think marriage works better when you consciously engage with it, and what better invitation to reflect on my own engagement with that vow and choice I made last year, about this time. I’ve specifically been trying to figure out what’s different now that we’re married. What, if anything, is true (or truer) now, that wasn’t the case when we were “just” in the committed relationship for four years prior to getting married.

I think, for me, it’s about balance. Marriage has given me a way to balance the act of committed love. Before we were married, the relationship worked because we kept a certain amount of levity around the relationship. I learned to treat perceived insults and injuries to my person with a lighter touch. I learned to handle difficult things gingerly and lightly. I tried to keep a sense of humor about the past, and the future. The lessons were all about levity, about not holding on too tightly. The act of marrying, though, introduced, at just the right time for us, I think, a little bit of gravity for me to hold in my other hand. Bearing levity in one hand and gravity in the other gives me the tools to keep the right things in mind at the right moments. Sometimes a relationship needs lightness to work, and sometimes it really needs utmost seriousness in order to survive. Refusing to let go can be just as necessary, sometimes, as letting go completely.

I’m not very good at keeping balance. Sometimes I swing wildly out of control into the mania of too much lightness, and then other times I can plummet into the depths of too much gravity. And then… my wife is there, to catch me. Just like I’m there to catch her sometimes, when she needs it, when she swings untethered, as everyone does from time to time. It’s really been working great for us… so far.


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