A hot summer day is the perfect time to read about this journey of polar exploration. 135 years ago, the North Pole was the great unknown. A popular theory was that a ring of ice surrounded an open polar sea. After a voyage to Greenland, George De Long became fascinated by the Arctic. Eccentric newspaper owner James Gordon Bennett agreed to fund a polar expedition for the U.S. Navy, and Lt. Commander De Long and a crew of 32 took the USS Jeannette through the Bering Sea between Alaska and Siberia. The Jeannette had been reinforced for the ice, and they took plenty of provisions, two scientists, and a doctor. Their goal was to explore Wrangel Island and the polar sea. They did discover three uncharted islands far north of Siberia, but were trapped in the ice, drifting for almost two years. Three other ships were sent in search, while the crew of Jeannette finally had to take to the ice, towing three boats in search of open water and then Siberia. Their adventures make for compelling reading. This book will be published in August, and will also be available as an audiobook.
Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff
In November, 1942, three American military planes crashed in Greenland near the Arctic Circle. The second plane was searching for the first, and the third plane was also on a rescue mission. Several men survived two of the crashes, and men in planes, boats, motorsleds, and dogsleds tried desperately to locate, drop supplies, and then rescue the crews. Some of the men were rescued, but others remain frozen in time, under a glacier somewhere in Greenland.
In 2012, the author participated in (and helped fund) a joint private and military expedition to Greenland to find one of the planes, now covered by a glacier, and bring the missing servicemen home. Two real life adventure stories combine to make a fascinating book. Flying in whiteout conditions, survival on a glacier, tales of heroism and endurance make for a memorable, suspenseful read. I wanted to keep turning the pages to find out what happened, then and now. The author has written another World War II adventure story, Lost in Shangri-La.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Wild describes the real life journey of one woman on a 1,100 mile solitary hike through California, Oregon, and Washington in the ’90s. After her mother dies suddenly from cancer, twenty-two year old Cheryl Strayed’s (a name the author fittingly chooses for herself) life falls apart. Her once tight-knit family soon scatters away from her, she continually cheats on her seemingly “perfect” husband time and again, and after her marriage dissolves, she jumps into a toxic relationship that results in a dangerous heroin habit. Thus, four years later and with nothing left to lose, Strayed decides to hike the massive Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on her own, despite her utter lack of preparedness (or a proper fitting pair of boots). Strayed weaves her past with her present as she tackles the trail, meets eccentric and amiable characters along the way, and not so amiable characters in rattlesnakes, bears, and other critters. Strayed tells her story with brutal honesty, never sugarcoating her own shortcomings and mistakes, as well as with a skilled storyteller’s voice. You will find yourself rooting for Strayed as she hitchhikes to and from the PCT, small towns and remote campsites, constantly struggling to get by on $20 or less at a time. But most of all, you will root for Strayed to find in the PCT what it is she needs to move on with her life. Wild is an Oprah Book Club 2.0 selection.
Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff
The library’s evening book group met recently to discuss Lost in Shangri-La. I read the book, and listened to it. Those of us who listened to the book enjoyed it the most, even without the photographs scattered throughout the print book. This is a real life adventure story that takes place on the island of New Guinea during World War II. Pilots discover a hidden valley in the unexplored mountainous interior of New Guinea, and many groups of American military personnel stationed on the coast make sightseeing flights over the valley. The entrance to the valley is very tricky, and often foggy. A flight in 1945 with several women WACs aboard crashes into a mountain, leaving few survivors. The survivors struggle to stay alive and reach an area where they can be spotted from the air. Encounters with the native villagers of New Guinea prove very interesting. The struggle to find and then rescue the survivors catches the interest of the media, and their story is followed all over the United States. We found it ironic that the valley turns out to be a very different sort of place then the fabled valley in the Himalayas. Photos and a wealth of information can be found on the author’s website, even some old documentary footage. While our book group had mixed reactions to the book, we certainly found plenty to talk about.
Before the space race, before the sound barrier, the conquest of Mount Everest was the final frontier, or so the British public thought after the disaster of World War I. The two poles had already been visited, and the British Raj were engaged in a tremendous effort to map India and the surrounding areas. In their endeavors they discovered the highest mountain in the world. Many veterans were terribly disenchanted with the war and its aftermath. Britain’s honor, dragged through the mud and gore at the Battle of the Somme, must be restored, but how? Everest was the answer. The British must conquer it or die trying.
Into the Silence chronicles three British expeditions launched in the early 1920s to attempt to climb Everest. There were numerous factors working against them. First was the woefully inadequate equipment. Clothing, climbing gear, tents, stoves, and oxygen tanks (if they had them), were not made to withstand the rigors of the extraordinary altitude. It would be like sending a man into space without a spaceship or spacesuit. Second was the non-cooperation of the local people. The Buddhist monks held that Everest, or Chomolungma as they knew it, was a sacred place guarded by demons, who would cast out anyone trying to climb its rarified slopes. Sherpas, who really are the unsung heroes in any Everest climb, before or since, were not in the business of climbing at that time. They all thought the British were mad. Why go to all the trouble of climbing the mountain? Of course we know why, “because it is there”, as Mallory famously stated. Thirdly, Nepal was closed to foreigners, and the expedition had to take an indirect route from their base in Darjeeling, India, adding about 150 miles to the route. In the end, the expeditions met with failure. On the second try, ten porters were swept to their deaths. On the third try, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappeared while attempting to summit Everest.
At 655 pages, this book was a bit of a challenge, with some sections bogged down in detailed descriptions of the expeditions and their privations, but the author gives the reader a great feel for what the people in the expeditions experienced.
Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand
Hillenbrand’s book is the extraordinary tale of Louie Zamperini’s life – from track and field star of the 1930s, participant in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, survivor of a B-24 crash into the Pacific Ocean in May 1943 followed by 47 days adrift in shark-infested waters, to a hellish and brutal existence in a Japanese POW camp. After the war he experienced years of suffering from what is now referred to as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Eventually he finds inner-peace by forgiving his WWII captors, especially the exceptionally cruel Corp. Mutsuhiro Watanabe. If you are interested in a gripping story that is destined to become a classic of narrative nonfiction, then this book is for you. Highly recommended. For more about Louie, visit the author’s web site.