Welcome to On the Nightstand, where I report on the books that are, well, on my nightstand. I rate books on bedside lamp watts. A 100 watt book will keep me awake deep into the night. A 20 watt book puts me right to sleep. And, since it is still winter, a lot of the books on my nightstand have had to do with dark, cold, and very icy places. So, without more ado, here is this edition On the Nightstand.
Alice and I, in our homeless state, went to Antarctica, and were fascinated. Glaciers. Icebergs. Penguins. Very long nights. It is where, more than one hundred years ago, Scott raced to be the first to reach the South Pole, a quest that cost him his life, and where Shackleton sailed six hundred storm-tossed miles in a 22 foot open boat to save the lives of his crew after their ship broke up. Antarctica is as pristine and vacant today as it was one hundred years ago. And, it is the site of one of the two best books I read this year: The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. One of Scott’s crew, in 1912 Cherry was sent in the dead of an Antarctic winter, on foot, with two others across forty miles of ice, crevasses, and blinding winds to retrieve eggs from an Emperor penguin colony on Cape Crozier, a scientific quest based on the hypothesis that the eggs would provide the missing link between modern birds and prehistoric reptilian scaled birds. The temperatures were between -54 and -79 degrees F. The wind made pulling sleds so hard that progress was no more than a mile and a half per day. Their sweat froze to their skins in the sleeping bags, then dropped as ice pellets into their clothes when they awoke. On arrival, the penguin colony was separated from them by a huge vertical ice barrier and only by finding a crevasse tunnel did they reach the penguins. They all survived but Scott chose the two others to join him on the final leg of the trek to the South Pole, and there they died. The Worst Journey is riveting, a 100 watt book if ever there was one, even one hundred years on.
Wanting more, I went on to read more antipodean stuff. South Georgia is a booklet about the island that Shackleton reached (as did we). Shackleton’s Boat Journey was written by F.A.Worsley, one of the crew who sailed across the Weddell Sea with Shackleton, recounting the horrid venture, the crossing on foot of mountains and glaciers of South Georgia (Alice and I walked the last two or so miles of Shackleton’s final trek and stopped at the base of the waterfall), and the expeditions to find another ship to return for the men they had left behind. These are lesser works, 70 to 75 watt reads, but well worth the time.
And last, not least, is Cherry, by Sara Wheeler, a biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard that details the life and service of the man who wrote the Worst Journey in the World and who descended into depression, self-doubt, and loneliness after Scott and his friends perished. It is a solid 90 watts.
The other best book of the year is These Truths by Jill Lepore, which is better written than The Worst Journey, every bit as gripping, and which constitutes one long look in the mirror. The title is taken from the American Declaration of Independence, the phrase that declares that all men are created equal and that all have the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Except, as Lepore makes clear, no one believed it, not even Jefferson, whose pursuit of happiness involved a lengthy sexual affair with one of his slaves, who did not have liberty and whose life and pursuit of happiness was dubious at best. The intellectual dishonesty about blacks and indigenous people began when Columbus, writing to the king and queen of Spain, advised that he needed only 50 men to subjugate all the people he had discovered in the New World. He enforced his claim by working to death all of those who did not die of disease, prompting Spanish and Portuguese development of the African slave trade to replace the dead Caribs. Lepore continues her dissection of Anglo-European racial dishonesty to the present where, she observes, repeal of the Fairness Doctrine law enabled the rise of cable networks dedicated to one-sided dishonesty in broadcasting that could, and does, influence the masses with fearmongering and disingenuity. 100 watts. Read it.
The best of the rest non-fiction:
Sea Stories, by William H. McRaven, an autobiography by the navy seal team commander who led the raid to find and, ultimately, to kill Osama Bin Laden and to rescue from Samali pirates Captain Philips and his crew of the Maersk Alabama. A gripping book that goes from one modern crisis to another. 95 watts.
Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, by Keith Dockery. This is an academic read for my work at Oxford, a hard-ish slog through the Wars of the Roses. Good read for me but, in truth, probably not for most of the human race. This was an 80 watt book for me, but if you are not riveted by the minutiae of a weak-bred introvert devolving into mental illness and being deposed in the 15th century just think of how it will help you sleep.
The Wars of the Roses, by David Grummit, a history of that particular English dynastic war. After a bit I began to realize that it could be summarized as follows: a mildly demented king named Henry (see above) was the first in a series of kings to be overthrown by a series of people named Edward, who usually murdered the overthow-ee, and who were themselves invariably prodded onward by women named Margaret or Elizabeth, resulting in the deaths of the princes in the Tower (one of whom actually was a boy king named, guess it, Edward), leading to the battle of Bosworth and the death of the last Richard (the IIId one) at the hands of the 7th Henry, and the ultimate reward of waiting five hundred years to dig that Richard up out of a car park in Leicester, England. I had a good75 watt time but I suspect it will cause a good night’s sleep for everyone else.
The View from the Ground: the Peacetime Dispatches of Martha Gellhorn. To ward off your asking ‘Who?’ may I remind you that she was a war correspondent from the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway’s third wife, who divorced him when he stole her press credentials to get on a ship to France on D-Day (she in turn stole a nurse’s uniform and smuggled herself across the Channel, where she was waiting when Hemingway waded ashore and punched him in the face), and the first and perhaps the only white blonde woman to traverse Africa alone, from west to east, during the late colonial period. This is a fine collection of her news dispatches from war-torn Europe to war-torn Vietnam and all points in between. Some of the dispatches are even better than others, none bad, and overall a solid 90 watt read.
Evolution of a State, by Noah Smithwick. This was first published in 1900 when Smithwick, by then blind, dictated his memoirs to his daughter, and memoirs they were indeed. He migrated to Texas as a teenager, learned blacksmithing and gunsmithing, and became a soldier in the Texas rebellion of 1835 and 1836. He passed himself off as a doctor on the frontier of Mexico and as a diplomat who was sent out to live with Comanche Indians when Texas became independent. He ran a flour mill, freed a friend from jail and was run out of Austin’s colony for doing so, and gave an incredibly detailed account of daily life in Texas from the 1820’s to the period of the American civil war, when he was forced to flee as an opponent of secession. 90 watts.
My friend Sue Preston referred to reading fiction as a guilty pleasure. She is quite right in some respects: we read two of the same books and had the same reaction.
The Wall, by John Lanchester. I was introduced to John Lanchester by another St. Cerean, my dear friend Gem Stafford. I have sought his books out at every bookstore and book list. He wrote Capital and A Debt to Pleasure, both of which I gave 100 watts. But The Wall is a well written failure. It describes a post-apocalyptic world in which national service is performed in two-year shifts of standing guard on a wall around England, an intriguing premise in Trumpian America. The book falters when two of the guards are punished for not preventing outsiders from breaching the wall; their punishment is to be banished outside the wall themselves, then hunted down. Lanchester seemed to not know how to end it…. I do. 20 watts.
Love is Blind by William Boyd, an author brought to me by Louis Charalambous. A Scottish piano tuner becomes employed by a renowned pianist to tour with him in capitals across Europe, a profitable arrangement that disguises that said tuner does so solely to continue an intense affair with the pianist’s own lover. I found it to be very William Boyd through to the ending, a deep dive into piano tuning and a bit of a shallow dive in the workings of people obsessed. Love is indeed blind. 85 watts.
Milkman, by Anna Burns. Up front: I loved it, despite or perhaps because of the absence of names. A teenager in an unnamed Irish city during The Troubles is beset by dangerous gossip when Milkman jogs up alongside her one morning on her daily run; Milkman is, unfortunately for her, an IRA assassin known to everyone in the city. It is a city where people don’t use names; her family is First, Second, and Third Sister, her in-laws are Second Sister’s Husband, the women who defy the IRA are the Women with Issues, and her own boyfriend is simply ‘Boyfriend.’ Because Milkman is very public in his pursuit of her, the entire city that is not part of the Enemy From Across the Water believes she is having an affair with Milkman and The Enemy from Across the Water’s agents believe from their spy photographs that she can lead them to Milkman. It is the best novel of the year, a solid 100 watts.
Henning Mankell, The Man Who Smiled, is a Swedish noir novel of existential detective Kurt Wallander. He investigates the inexplicable deaths of a retiring lawyer and his son, men without an enemy anywhere in the world. 90 watts.
Three really guilty pleasures:
1356, Bernard Cornwall, a novel of the Hundred Years War in France, with prominent roles to English archers, evil prelates, damsels in distress, and lots of medieval combat. It is as badly written as most Cornwall books, such as Azincourt, the Sharpe’s Rifle series, and the Last Kingdom series (“I am Uhtred son of Uhtred….”) He writes page-long paragraphs about the differences between obscure spears and swords, lengthy escapes with the help of disaffected nuns, and awful dialogue, but the books are just swords-and-castles fun. 85 watts.
Under Occupation, Alan Furst. Novelist Paul Ricard is handed a set of stolen torpedo drawings by a man being chased by the Gestapo. Furst writes in the vein of Patrick O’Brian in that his stories don’t really have a beginning or an ending, but instead are like studying a very long river by peering at one section half-way between its source and its emptying into the ocean. In this installment, Furst takes us deep into Paris, a torpedo factory in Kiel, and the German submarine pens of Brittany, with the Gestapo breathing down Ricard’s neck at every turn. 85 watts.
Us Against You, Fredrik Backman, the author of the brilliant A Man Named Ove. A working class town pulls together through the triumphs and tribulations of its ice hockey team until its star player is accused of raping the coach’s daughter. “A community is the sum of its choices, and when two of our children said different things, we believed him.”
Then what does the community do? 90 watts
And, on the nightstand
I am reading This is the Dawning by Mindy Reed, a novel of Woodstock; The Home, a coming of age story set in the early 1950s in which a boy too young to fend for himself is relegated to a home for homeless boys; Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, the story of a 12 year old slave in the Caribbean who escapes with his master’s brother, only to find himself hunted down in Virginia; Patrick Melrose by Edward St. Aubyn, a dark comedy of the wealthy and privileged; and Dutch Girl by Robert Matzen, a biography of Audrey Hepburn in Holland in World War II.
PS: What became of the penguin eggs? Cherry-Garrard hoarded them all the way back to England and took them to the inquiring scientists, who had forgotten all about it. He hounded them for years and eventually was told that they had no scientific value. No wonder he went crazy.