Sunday, November 25, 2012

To the End of the Earth

Title: To the End of the Earth: Our Epic Journey to the North Pole and the Legend of Peary and Henson
Author: Tom Avery
Year: 2009
Genre: Non-fiction/memoir/history
Rating: 2

Foolhardiness often overlaps with bravery. Oftentimes, it's not until after the success that we dub it as brave; the most famous accomplishments were often accused of being ludicrous when they were first proposed. From the top of Everest to the bottom of the ocean's trenches, we are constantly encroaching on that legendary phrase-- "to boldly go where no man has gone before."
Tom Avery has dedicated his life to doing just that. In his young life, Avery has made expeditions to both poles, in the Andes, to a remote mountain range in Kyrgystan (don't ask me to find that one on a map) and various other places on earth. What's most interesting about these trips is not that he has done so many, but that he survived them at all. Some people might call him an adrenaline junkie for his numerous, at times reckless, brushes with death. In his 2009 memoir To The Ends of the Earth, Avery recounts dozens of moments where he thought he might have just missed the mark and sentenced his team to death on his daring expedition to the North Pole.
The adventure wasn't a passing fancy. After returning from his 2002 pursuit to the South Pole, Avery was surprised by an offer of sponsorship for his next trek, which he decided on the spot would be to the North Pole. Over the next two years before the actual trip took place, he would discover how monumental that idea actually was. The simple reason is that the North Pole is in the middle of an enormous, malevolent, frozen ocean, and Avery wanted to sled there. On foot.
The subtitle of the book alludes to a 100 year old mystery, the voyage of Robert Peary, who claimed to have reached the North Pole by dogsled in 37 days. Upon his return, his claim was decried by the arctic exploration community as ridiculous, impossible, and false. For a man who had forever held aspirations of reaching the Pole, this was a crushing blow, and to this day Peary's assertion is doubted.
 With his 2005 expedition, Avery's goal was to prove once and for all that Peary was telling the truth. The most difficult part of organizing the mission was to recreate Peary's exploration team, composed of the nearly-extinct Eskimo dog (no, not a husky, an Eskimo dog) and two turn-of-the-century sleds. Not only did he want to do this whole 413-mile trek with 5 people and 16 dogs, he wanted to make the entire run in 37 days. To any onlooker, Avery was asking for death.
His memoir of the trip is gripping, with an expert's wry sense of humor. Readers come to know each of the dogs' names as well as the explorers do, to laugh at the little anecdotes of their antics, and to feel their pain as they struggle for life on the hostile plains of the Arctic. The explorers themselves keep a friendly, co-dependent dynamic, companions in this strange world where no man has ever lived.
We also come to know the landscape as well as Avery did, with his ardent descriptions of what could only be described as an icy wasteland. To him, it is a wonderland, and that love is communicated in his writing. As the book progresses and the conditions grow more desperate, we see that love grow briefer and more passing, but never entirely fades: here is a man obsessed, and come face to face with his deepest passion. No matter the hardships, Tom Avery pursues the poles, and that in itself is admirable, albeit the daredevil nature of his exploits.
Structurally, To the End of the Earth flows very easily, the history intermittent with the narrative, creating one cohesive story, in the purest sense of the word. Avery has even reconstructed dialogue between himself and his companions, which lends the book a feeling of personality rather than a dry historical memoir to be logged away at the Royal Geographical Society.
Taking another step back, the sheer topic of the book is incredible. So few men make the trip to the North Pole and live to tell the tale, let alone on foot, that the idea of it is incredible. Avery deserves applause for his incredible bravery and ambition for taking on a task that so many have failed to do, and for increasing our true knowledge of the planet that, day by day, it becomes apparent that we know very little about.
Because it's such a specific book and not of wide interest, To the End of the Earth is available in paperback for as little as $6.36 from Amazon, and $7.99 on the Kindle. However, even if you are not familiar with the story of the Arctic, take a look at this one. Avery's website gives a little more information on the background of the book if you are interested, and gives a list of his expeditions as well.

Monday, November 19, 2012

American Rust

Title: American Rust
Author: Philipp Meyer
Year: 2009
Genre: Crime/drama
Rating: 4

Okay, we get it. America has no jobs, the Rust Belt felt the worst of it, our youth is flailing without a direction, and we need to reach inside ourselves to find a future. Anyone who has lived in America for the past five years knows that, and while the situation in the old industry centers is pitiable, we need to move on now, kay? Thanks.
Philipp Meyer's novel American Rust attempts absolutely nothing daring. Novels of the times are all too common, and it's not like any of us don't know what's happening in the factories and mills of the old production towns. We've all stepped inside what it means to be an American in these times, when the American Dream is dead and we need to find a new dream to pursue. Meyer is not touching any new ground here; in fact, he may even be wallowing in the past, depending on how you look at it.
The novel runs like the ripples in a pond-- a story of aftereffects. At the very beginning of the story, twenty year-old genius Isaac English has already stolen $4,000 in cash from his crippled father and strikes out into the dark with his best friend, Billy Poe, to make their way out of their economically crippled Pennsylvania town of Buell. However, a run-in and subsequent fight with some homeless men leaves one dead, and the two boys must face how that small act of desperate, poorly considered violence will change their lives forever.
Poe's mother Grace, police chief Bud Harris, and Isaac's sister Lee also tell chunks of the story from their perspective, but all speak from the same voice: stagnant hopelessness. Even Lee, who has escaped from Buell and married into a rich family in Connecticut, has little direction and feels trapped by her past. Grace has slid into her present with little ambition, and now regrets her choices, and Bud has tried his hardest to prevent Poe's inevitable time in prison. The novel plays out in bad choice after bad choice, all of which make sense at the time, but have negative consequences in the long run.
Shadows of the Great Depression are nearly tangible throughout the novel. The most omnipresent wound in Buell's wallet is the closure of the steel mills in the 80s, which shut down the entire Valley where the town is located. Poe, Isaac, and Lee often comment on how beautiful the landscape is despite the heavy air of economic suffering on the town, but they talk about little else. Meyer certainly understands what it's like to have little money and no job, but he doesn't seem to understand much else.
The one interesting facet of this novel is writing style. Told in stream-of-consciousness, the style is evocative of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In fact, Meyer is probably a Joyce fan, as he slips in a subtle mention of the author in one of Lee's segments. The format lends the novel an element of sensitivity, like stepping inside the minds of the characters, bringing them to the human level the reader sitting in their heated home with enough to eat and an alarm system.
However, that is the only humanizing thing about American Rust. Very little of it seems real, and the author may argue that that's how it really is, but having lived in America all my life, this seems rather romanticized and farfetched. None of the characters is relatable, or even realistic: Isaac the genius, removed from society, Poe the jailbait, Lee the nostalgic rebel, and Grace the regretful waiting mother. All of them neatly fit into stereotypes that we expect in a novel about a crumbling society, and though they may exist somewhere in the world, people tend to be a great deal more complicated than Meyer makes them out to be.
Bud Harris the only interesting bright spot. He is conflicted about his life, stagnated, and unsure of why he does what he does. His chapters, rife with a kind of sadness about the state that both his country and his life are in, bristle with a resigned anger, and that is the only unique thing about this book. If the whole novel had been about Bud, it would have been time better spent.
American Rust is available for the Kindle for $11.99, or $10.20 in paperback from Amazon. It's three years old now and 367 pages long, so skip buying it if you can and check your library. Overall, a pretty dull read, and dragged out far longer than it should have, but the writing style is worth a shot if you want something simple and gritty to get you through your Thanksgiving break.
On that note, happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Read a book. If you're looking for some good ones, try An Imperfect God, or if you're in a fiction mood, The Whiskey Rebels is fantastic. Or, I've heard The Jefferson Lies is great, but I haven't gotten my hands on it yet. Enjoy your break!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

River of Darkness

Title: River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana's Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon
Author: Buddy Levy
Year: 2011
Genre: History
Rating: 4

Few people know that the name of the Amazon is actually Greek in origin. Most of the time, the Amazon is automatically associated with the enormous river commanding the northern part of South America, with a possible secondary association with the mythical all-female colony hidden deep in the thick jungles. If the person is really well versed in Greek literature, they might come up with Hippolyta, Euripides's fictional queen of the Greek Amazons. But isn't it odd how disparate the two are? The faraway women sequestered in ancient Greece and the indomitable tropical river.
That's the air of Buddy Levy's new book on the conquest of the Amazon, River of Darkness. Though he pours thick, vivid details in, constructing a true story of an incredible event, it seems marginalized by the structure of the book and the writing style. In fact, the topic of the book feels like it just doesn't belong.
 Despite the scale of Francisco Orellana's fame in the 16th century, he seems to have slipped away from conquistador canon in favor of characters like Francisco Pizarro and Hernan Cortes, who toppled empires and killed thousands. Levy brings his journey back to us, though the telling leaves something to be desired.
The book opens with a gritty, visual narrative of the moment Francisco Orellana embarked on his fateful journey down the Amazon, destined to make him the first man to cross the entire continent of South America. Orellana originally came with the youngest Pizarro (fun fact: there were five Pizarro brothers, all notoriously cruel and effective conquerors) to the new Spanish land of Peru and began an expedition to find El Dorado and the Cinnamon Valley, two myths common throughout conquistador lore. Unfortunately for Pizarro, the intended conquest goes as wrong as possible, and he is forced to split from his trusted captain, Francisco Orellana.
Orellana takes the group's boat and goes in search of food for a great distance down the river, and rather than return, he continues down the river to explore and reach the sea on the other end. For a poorly outfitted, uninformed, and unprepared group of men, the journey has often been greeted with incredulity and accolade, for the dangers of the Amazon are legendary. Orellana managed to avoid poisonous fish and plants, enormous snakes, hostile natives, and tricky rivers to guide his men back to civilization on two islands north of modern-day Venezuela.
Levy relates the tale with remarkable amounts of research and commendable detail. He has unearthed the narrative of a priest who accompanied Orellana and made notes along the way, relating the man's remarkably diplomatic approach to the natives of the area. Most conquistadors would rather slash and burn their way into kingdoms, but Orellana had a gift for linguistics and managed to learn the rudimentary parts of the local language and even secured a month's room and board for his men with a local tribe.
Levy relates all these details with the cool, academic air of a historian, which turns the book into a dry pile of incongruous dust. It's horribly unfortunate, because such a remarkable piece of obscure history could be told in such a gripping way. The Amazon captures all our imaginations with the vivid beauty of a nearly untouched world, and Orellana was seeing it for the first time. Levy, however, take the clinical approach of not stepping into the captain's shoes and relies solely on documents. His purist attitude is admirable, but boring.
What's more, the book claims to be the story of Francisco Orellana, but spends much of its time telling the general history of the conquest of Peru. At 250 pages, Levy is short on space for this huge topic, and chooses to spend much of it talking about Gonzalo Pizarro and what happened after Orellana succeeded rather than the actual journey. In fact, only a little more than half the book is actually spent on its topic, which is bitterly disappointing. There is so much to discuss and so much to research, and Levy chooses only to scratch the surface. Perhaps he should have instead written a book about the Spanish conquest of South America-- he would have had more to talk about.
Altogether, the story is interesting, but very superficial. After reading Levy's book, readers who are interested will have to go out and pick up another book on the same subject for more detail.
Because it's only about a year old, River of Darkness is $13.99 on the Kindle and $17.82 for the hardback from Amazon. My library had a copy, so if you live in a city, yours might too; if not, skip this one. It's tantalizing, but there have got to be better books out there on this same subject that delve more deeply into Orellana's fascinating, groundbreaking journey.