Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage
By Alfred Lansing

If there is a sub-genre of literature that I enjoy almost as much as zombie literature it's anything that has to do with polar exploration. And while I do enjoy a good novel on the subject (i.e. The Terror by Dan Simmons), absolutely nothing compares to the real life dramas that unfolded on the ice at either end of our planet at the tail end of the great age of exploration. I have devoured more than my fair share of non-fiction books on the subjects of Franklin, Scott and Admunsen. Pages filled with endless winters, frostbite and blubber. Stories that burble with the constant threat of hunger, exposure and death. Each of ten rife with tragedy, perseverance and thankless heroism. And for what? Usually nothing more than the whim of an adventurer and the glory of the day. Like the French, Spanish and British captains of the early days of North American exploration, there are so many characters in the great age of polar exploration. The recklessness of Greeley, they mystery of Franklin, the steely determination of Admunsen, the tragedy of Scott and the absolute true grit of Ernest Shackleton, the man whose expedition spent two years on the Antarctic ice and lived to tell the tale.

For those who are unfamiliar with Ernest Shackleton, he was a  British explorer whose 1915 expedition is famous for its almost interminable time floating on Antarctic pack ice. Shackleton and his team had set out to become the first to cross the Antarctic continent on foot but they never even made landfall as their ship, the Endurance, become frozen fast into the thick pack ice that forms on the Weddell Sea. Over the course of the winter they spent on the ice, the pressure eventually crushed and sank the ship, leaving the entire expedition exposed on the ice and drifting with the pack.

Through the gutsy leadership of Shackleton and the diligent measurements made by Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, the entire expedition and crew of the ship were able to survive the ice and a harrowing sea journey to the nearby Elephant Island (off the end of the Palmer Peninsula). From their Shackleton and Worsley outfitted one of their three small skiffs, the James Caird, for an even more harrowing journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island, across the Drake Passage, a body of water known as the most dangerous on the planet.

In these latitudes, as nowhere else on Earth, the sea girdles the globe, uninterrupted by any mass of land. Here, since the beginning of time, the winds have mercilessly driven the seas clockwise around the Earth to return again to their birthplace where they reinforce themselves or one another.

And what is quite possibly the most remarkable thing about the Shackleton expedition is not the year they spent on the ice or their miraculous dash across the Drake Passage or even their impromptu crossing of South Georgia Island in order to reach the whaling station on Stromness Bay (a feat that was not repeated until 1954) but rather the fact that not a single member of the expedition lost their life. Of all the hands that left London in 1914, every one of them returned. Very few successful expeditions to the polar regions returned without casualties. It is a testament to the leadership of Ernest Shackleton that in the face of disaster, he was able to maintain order and persevere.

And it is Shackleton's leadership that is the focal point of Alfred Lansing's classic account of this remarkable expedition, Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage. Taken from the astonishing amount of primary source materials available to Lansing (i.e. the personal diaries of virtually all the men on the expedition) and given the exceptional quality of these sources, Lansing paints a picture of a dichotomous leader. Shackleton seems reckless to the point of disinterested in the planning stages of the expedition, making personnel choices based on anemic interviews and hunches. However, whatever selection process he used, it seemed to work because once on the ice, Shackleton's ability to lead in the face of extreme adversity was beyond reproach.

While the reader may disagree about Shackleton's motives and his heedless preparations for the voyage, it is difficult to question his ability as a leader in peril. From the outset, Shackleton had an almost innate ability to get the most from the men around him and the correct measure of tact to maintain order and cohesiveness even as the expedition was facing mortal peril. With very few exceptions, the entire team was able to maintain cordial relations throughout the almost two year ordeal without resorting to violence or mutiny. While a degree of credit should go to the men, it was Shackleton that brought them together and it was Shackleton that ensured they stayed together. One can only extrapolate from that that it was also Shackleton who ensured that all hands returned.

But what makes this book stand along side some of the other pillars of polar literature (The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton, The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Admunsen's Race to the South Pole by Roland Huntford) is the author's ability to allow the story to work for itself rather than resort to embellishment and hyperbole. Lansing deals with his subject in the clinical, matter-of-fact way in which a good chronicler should. Certainly the events of Shackleton's two year adventure on the Antarctic ice (never once setting foot on the actual continent, I might add) are fantastical enough, certainly there is no need for a writer to garnish the story with over-wrought trimmings. It is difficult to add much to the open-boat voyage of the James Caird without resorting to mythologizing. Better writers have done so in the past, so it is a testament to Lansing that he has resisted, and it certainly must have been a temptation.

If you, like me, devour books about polar expeditions (and I especially like reading them during the sweaty Taiwanese summers, it helps me cool off just a bit) then this is a good call. Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage is both well researched and accessible. It shies away from the florid language of myth-making, maintaining the tone and pace of the materials from which it was born. It is often difficult to construct a compelling narrative from the personal recollections of a dozen men, but Lansing is apt to the challenge. Indeed he has written a book that should be viewed as a pillar in the genre.  One that should be read be an would-be Antarctic explorer (even if their armchair is preferable to and slightly more comfortable than the confines of the James Caird).

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Dance With Dragons: Book Five of a Song of Fire and Ice

A Dance With Dragons: Book Five of A Song of Fire and Ice
By George R.R. Martin

I'm there. I'm finally there!

Two years and 4884 pages later, I'm finally caught up. As of today (May 21, 2013, 26 days after starting the latest installment) I am completely up to date on The Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin. It's been a long and grueling road. At points I thought I'd never get to this point. I'd like to thank R'hollor, the Seven and the old gods as well as my agent, Petyr Baelish, my publicist, Cersei Lannister and my spin doctor, Davos Seaworth. Davos! Dude! We did it! I owe you a bushel of onions! Wait... wait! Before you cue the music, I'd just like to say that now that I am caught up, I wish I wasn't. I wish I could dive right back into Martin's world.  I'm completely hooked in and I'm not sure what I'm going to do while waiting for the next installment. 

Yeah, that's right. I'm a fully converted and completely unrepentant Game of Thrones fanboy. Sue me.

So it should come as no surprise that I say, without hyperbole, that this series has been the single greatest undertaking in my reading career. It has been every bit as monumental as reading the Old Testament, as thoroughly time-consuming as Infinite Jest and as satisfying as completing my first Shakespeare play in the ninth grade (Twelfth Night for those keeping score at home). But what sets Martin's series apart from those other reading peaks is the sheer scale of the series. 

A Song of Fire and Ice has thrice the number of characters as the Old Testament (There might be more Freys alone than characters in the entire Book of Genesis), four times the amount of pages as Infinite Jest and.... well, okay, Shakespeare is still a better writer than George R.R. Martin, but he's at least in the same ballpark when it comes to writing epic histories. And there's still two books to go!

Furthermore, As of today I join the legion of fans eagerly awaiting The Winds of Winter. More precisely, because I have not seen a single second of the television series I can count myself among the bookishly elite uber-nerds who have forsaken the television series in a vainglorious quest to keep the series intellectually pure. My vision of Daenerys Targaryen is a unique snowflake that will remain untarnished by the creative limitations of the boob tube. How many of the readers of the series can say that? Sometimes living in Taiwan has its perks. One of them is the ability to completely avoid American popular culture if the need arises (as it does here and in the case of Justin Beiber, reality television and the cult of celebrity).

As well, I can now join the increasing cacophony of impatience bombarding Martin as he works furiously (alas, not furiously enough to satisfy this reader) to finish the series (Please take care of yourself Mr. Martin and, please, consider moving closer to a healthcare provider in case you suffer any unexpected medical emergencies). Sure, I'm joining the back of the line, but I am officially in that line and I'm guessing that you are now. (The law of averages says that the last sentence will be true of most of the visitors to this site. If that last sentence does not pertain to you, trust that I didn't mean YOU).

So, what of A Dance With Dragons? Well, I do not want to be the bearer of spoilers for those either A) still mired deep in the printed series or B) those unfortunate souls who have opted for the television version. I will try my best to maintain a spoiler free take on the novel but please, if you are at all worried, stop reading here.

I thought it unfair of reviewers to have been so hard on the fourth book, A Feast for Crows. As I said in my review of that installment, it wasn't warranted. Oddly enough, I might be inclined to be a little hard on the fifth novel given that match of its one thousand plus pages seemed like a never-ending build-up to nothing. I was about 70% into the novel when I realized that very little had yet happened. The proverbial dust from the previous novel settled nicely but following that it was simply a lot of characters moving about Westeros and Essos without actually doing much of anything. Fortunately the final third of the novel more than made up for the slow-pace of the first two-thirds and there were enough holy-shit moments in the last few chapters to satisfy even the most jaded fans of the series. 

There are a could of narrative specific thought I had while reading that are worth noting: 

It took five books but Martin finally managed to generate some heated interest in the story lines emanating out of Dorne. Up until A Dance With Dragons, I cringed at a Dornish chapter heading. Now, Dorne finally figured into the storyline in a more concrete and meaningful way. Now if he can just do that for anything happening in the Eyrie all bases would be covered. 

Tyrion continues to be my favorite character, though he lost a little something now that he's off his high horse. Here's to hoping for a return to form in the next installment. I also liked the inclusion (finally) of Barristan Selmy as a POV character. He's always been one of my favorites. But the one character that I want to see done as a POV is the one I fear will never be done: Varys.

I've never been a huge fan of Bran Stark's storyline but it took such a boring, pseudo-spiritual turn in this book that almost stalled out in his chapters. I know Martin is gearing up for something special with Bran but I wish he'd keep the hocus pocus to a minimum.

I'm hoping that Martin gives us a POV character from the House Martell in The Winds of Winter. Of the seven kingdoms, Highgarden is the only one that has yet to have its own POV character and I would really like to understand their motivations better. Or perhaps I'm not supposed to know.

And who the hell is Robert the Strong?

Anyway, as I said, A Dance With Dragons started out slow but those last few chapters made the entire ride so very much worthwhile. So many changes. So many questions. So much uncertainty. My only fear is that, like so many mediocre writers, Martin will end up creating such a masterful set up that he will be unable to follow through. I sincerely hope he knows where this narrative is going because other than in the most general terms, I haven't the foggiest. The rightful holder of the Iron Throne could be Stannis, Tommen, Daenerys or Moon Boy, for all I know. 

And of course, I know nothing.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Magic Circle

The Magic Circle
By Jenny Davidson

About halfway through this novel I was reminded of an interactive work of theater called Sleep No More that had runs in both London and New York (neither of which I attended). According to the interview I heard with the creator of the project, Sleep No More is set in a five floor building which is transformed into a turn-of-the-century hotel. Rather than traditional theater where audience members are asked to sit and watch the action, In Sleep No More the members of the audience, who are given masks upon entry to maintain anonymity but no program, are free to wander aimlessly throughout the building and into any of the various settings. They are encouraged to open drawers and closets, read diaries and interact with the actors (who remain silent throughout the performance). The story, or what little there is of it, is loosely based on MacBeth. Like I said, interactive.

Let me be absolutely clear on something. Jenny Davidson's novel The Magic Circle has nothing to do with this macabre bit of theater, but until about a week ago, Sleep No More the closest thing to Live Action Role Playing that I had ever heard of. That's right. I have lived almost four decades completely unaware of the entire sub-culture of live action role playing games (henceforth referred to as larp or larping). Some of you are probably rolling your eyes at me. How could I have never heard of larping? Surely I've heard of Dungeons and Dragons.

Well, yes. But I had always assumed that was something that a certain demographic of kids did with dice and cards in their parent's basement. I was unaware of the massive cottage industry of dressing up, equipping oneself with all sorts of expensive paraphernalia and wandering around pre-determined environments engaging in some sort of elaborate game complete with scoring. Apparently there are literally thousands of adults who do this and I was completely unaware. Me, a self-avowed nerd. I should hand in my card.

Now, I'm not particularly interested in larping. I'm not about to skip out and buy myself a broadsword, but to each their own. But it's these sorts of discoveries about the world that keep me in books. I love it that even at my rapidly advancing age I am able to discover pockets and corners of this world of which I was previously ignorant. Yay books!

So anyway, The Magic Circle is about three female friends who are particularly interested in larping, specifically in New York City. The three friends are on a seemingly endless quest to concoct and then play an elaborate urban role playing game. But much like games, reality is not exactly what it seems. Anna, the mysterious Swedish-born, occult-obssessed woman next door isn't being entirely forthwith about her past and when her brother shows up on the scene, the lines between the game and reality begin to blur. Much like Sleep No More, The Magic Circle is loosely based on another classic story. In this case it is The Bacchae by Euripides (If you are unfamiliar with The Bacchae, never fear, Davidson has you covered. She provides a more than adequate summary of the story within the narrative.

Viewed simply fas a narrative, The Magic Circle is fairly weak. The story is simplistic, slow and often aimless, especially toward the beginning. Davidson provides very little background about the three main characters and it took me a long time to differentiate between the three as separate entities. Their careers seem to be categorically dismissed in a manner that left me wondering where these three got all their free time. But not too much, because I really didn't develop any strong feelings for her characters. The story seemed to jump across large swathes of time (work, presumably) but as the novel progressed, the narrative did began to take a certain shape and dimension, but it never fleshes out as completely as I thought it could have.

But to read The Magic Circle simply as a narrative it to sell this novel short. Behind the flimsy narrative is a discussion worth having. The Magic Circle is, at its core, a novel about infantilization and the modern glorification of games and play in lieu of earnest relationships and honest dialogue. Davidson spends a lot of time inside the heads of her protagonists, chronicling their neuroses and their inabilities to communicate with family and friends on a mature field. Instead, the characters (and many of us) use games, whether they are role-playing games, sports etc... as a form of social lubrication. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with using games as a way in which to foster and facilitate friendships but, like so much else, there is more than one face on a dice.

This theme got me to thinking about an exceptional book I read a couple of years back called Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole by Benjamin R. Barber. Barber contends that modern markets and the media that drives them have created an endless maze of escapism that has ostensibly "dumbed down" our population via movies, music, television and, yes.... games. While I don't think Davidson was thinking specifically about Barber's thesis or the infantilization of adults in specific, this novel does address the issue, even if by accident, and that's a dialogue worth having.

In this vein, the thematic centerpiece of the novel (for me, anyway) is the Christmas dinner at Ruth's mother's house. Ruth's mother is a collector of vintage toys and is given a first edition copy of The Game of Life from 1860. Despite the fact that the game is a historical artifact in the eyes of Ruth's mother, Ruth's friend Anna suggests they play the game. What follows is a flash of brilliance in an otherwise mediocre read. The episode speaks volumes about the games people play with each other within their own personal relationships all within the strict confines of an actual, physical game being played. What isn't said becomes every bit as important as what is said.

In fact, had Davidson edited this already short novel a bit more and had it centered around this particular episode rather reaching for the parallelism between The Bacchae and reality, it would have made for an exceptional short story. As it stands, The Magic Circle is an accessible novel about a subject that will is relatively unknown to most readers and could potentially be an excellent way in which to introduce the notions of larping to readers (such as me) who have never heard of it. Unfortunately, it is a great idea fallen a bit flat. There are moments in this novel, but they are too few and too far between.