Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence, and Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis
This isn’t the sort of book I usually read in December, but I’m glad I did. Gavin is a young Scottish doctor who is thrilled at the chance to spend 14 months on the Antarctic ice shelf at British research station Halley. He takes passage on a freighter headed there with supplies, via South America. 60 scientists and engineers spend the short Antarctic summer at Halley, along with those there to resupply it and haul away the waste. The station, the fifth at the same location, needs jacking up every summer above the level of the snow. The fourth Halley station is buried under snow, and another eventually fell into the sea. I was interested to learn that a newer Halley station can move horizontally across the snow and ice as needed on skis. Gavis was at Halley from the end of 2002 to the beginning of 2004, as station doctor. Only 14 crew spend the seemingly endless winter together, where time alone on the small station is at a premium and contact with the outside world is rather limited. Gavin is fascinated by emperor penguins, and a colony is wintering nearby. He is also well-informed on the history of Antarctic exploration and shares just enough of this with the reader, allowing more space for observations on the penguins, and on life in the beautiful Antarctic. One of the crew members trades duties to avoid going outside in the frigid winter, but Gavin rather likes shoveling snow into their water tank and watching the stars and the Aurora Australis. I found this to be an absorbing, thoroughly readable memoir.
The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck
I thought this was a terrific book. Rinker and Nick Buck, two brothers from Maine, ages 60 and 54, buy three mules and set off to make the first unassisted crossing of the Oregon Trail by covered wagon in a century. A wagon trip with their father and siblings from New Jersey to Pennsylvania a half-century earlier is part of a parallel story about their father, who died young. Rinker, a journalist, gets fascinated by the history of the Oregon Trail, and reads over 100 books about it before they head west from Missouri to Oregon, sometimes following the original wheel ruts of some of the 400,000 pioneers of the mid-nineteenth century. Rinker originally thought of taking the trip alone, but it’s clear that would never have worked. Nick can fix anything, and is skilled at driving a team, and it really takes two people to catch and harness three mules every morning. The mules, Jake, Beck, and Bute have very distinct personalities. Wagon wheels, brakes, and axles need frequent repair, and the mules need regular care. The men, not so much. Rinker sleeps on a mattress in the wagon while Nick and his terrier, Olive Oyl, sleep on the ground or in sheds. Showers and laundry are infrequent and meals are very simple. A series of strangers greet them, help them navigate mountain and river crossings, and offer space in their corrals for the mules at night, and become their trail family. The kindness of those they encounter on their trip, with one notable exception, stunned them with their hospitality. I enjoyed the descriptions of the scenery, found the history of the trail quite interesting, and hoped the very different brothers would find a way over all the obstacles to reach the end of the trail. A very enjoyable journey, one that reminded me a bit of The Longest Road, by Philip Caputo.
Dashing Through the Snow by Debbie Macomber
Once I got past the first scene in an airport, I enjoyed reading this light holiday romance. Ashley Davidson, a grad student in San Francisco who works in a diner, wants to fly home to Seattle in time to surprise her mother for Christmas. Naturally, no seats are available, but the man in line behind her gets the option to be on a wait list. Instead, they end up sharing the last rental car available at the airport. Sensible Ashley wants a character reference, and accepts one from Dashiell’s mother on the phone. Ashley and Dash don’t get on at first, especially as Dash wants to drive straight through, even skipping meals, to get to a job interview. Instead, they somehow end up with a puppy and are chased by the FBI, who are looking for a different Ashley Davidson.
Slade House by David Mitchell
Readers who have enjoyed David Mitchell’s earlier novels, The Bone Clocks or Cloud Atlas, or who are looking for a haunted house story will be entertained by Slade House. Otherwise, you may be just as confused as young teen Nathan, college student Sally, or policeman Gordon when they open the tiny iron door in Slade Alley and enter the garden of Slade House. The door only appears every nine years on the last Saturday of October. Of course, things are not what they seem, more like Alice in Wonderland than Brigadoon, and eventually they encounter evil twins Jonah and Norah. Not nearly as substantial as his other books, Slade House is humorous and scary, but not very satisfying.
Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr
I really enjoyed reading this memoir of the year the author spent in Rome with his wife Shauna and their twin babies, Henry and Owen. The day the twins were born in Boise, Idaho, Anthony learned that he won the Rome Prize, providing an apartment, a writing studio, and a stipend for a year. He is best known for his Pulitzer prize-winning historical novel All the Light We Cannot See. Part of that novel was written during that year, but Rome kept distracting him. The subtitle is very descriptive: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World. Their apartment was in walking distance of St. Peter’s Square, and Pope John Paul II died while they were living in Rome. Struggling to communicate in Italian, the family is charmed by the warmth of the Italians they encounter, and stunned by the beauty and history of Rome. The struggles of writing are well detailed, but the main topics are Rome and life with young twins. I plan to read more of Doerr’s stories and essays, especially involving further travels with his family.
The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
Cristina Rosati is 18 in 1943 when the war comes to Villa Chimera in the Tuscan hills south of Florence. Her brother Vittore works in Florence, trying to keep Italian antiquities safe and out of Germany. Brother Marco is an engineer with the Italian army in Sicily while his wife Francesca and their two children live with Cristina and her parents at the villa, where she swims, rides horseback, and plays with the children. After the Germans learn that there is an Etruscan tomb at Villa Chimera, they start visiting, and she meets a handsome German lieutenant. Also 18, orphaned Serafina is working with the Italian Resistance and is injured in an explosion. She has a connection to Villa Chimera that she’s forgotten, and is now a detective in 1955 Florence, where a murderer has begun stalking the Rosati women. The Rosatis had no easy choices to make during the war, and they didn’t all survive. Cristina and Serafina don’t know what secrets from the past may be haunting the Rosatis now. The most interesting part of the book for me was descriptions of life in Italy in 1943 and 1944. Some of the characters were more developed than others, such as Cristina’s father and brother Marco. The pace of the story intensifies, as the killer gets closer and the reader learns more of the events of 1944 at Villa Chimera. Beautiful settings, some appealing characters, with a story that kept my interest, but darker in tone and more gruesome than I expected.
This is a light month for book discussions. Because of ongoing renovations at the library, the Tuesday Evening Book Group met an extra time this summer and we’re not meeting this month. Also, the Crime Readers are skipping November. The Tuesday Morning Book Group is having their 10th book discussion of 2015 at 10 am on November 17. We are discussing A Quilt for Christmas, by Sandra Dallas, set in Kansas in 1864 and 1865. Here is my earlier review. I am enjoying rereading it.