Posts Tagged ‘Alone’

2017: my year of reading

December 30, 2017

Time for my annual look back over the year that’s almost over: my big blue book tells me that I’ve managed to acquire 37 more books this year, and that I’ve read 63 thus far. It doesn’t tell me how many I’ve disposed of, however. Both totals are slightly up on the previous year, I note, which shows I haven’t managed to curb my book-buying habits as much as I’d hoped or intended.

A major achievement this year was finally getting to the end of my reading of Montaigne‘s essays, which I had begun a couple of years back, and paused several times. It has been very comforting to share the mind of someone so thoughtful, knowledgeable and humane. In a way, I see him as an inspiration when I write, and strive to pull my scattered thoughts together: someone to look up to, most certainly. Since there are so many essays and I can’t see myself ever re-reading them all, I have carefully noted which were my favourites.

My awards for 2017:

Most disappointing read: Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Red Mars. I’d had great hopes of this and the rest of the series, having put it off for quite a few years, but it was a let-down when I eventually got to it, and I can’t see I’ll be bothering with the rest of them.

No award this year for Weirdest Book. I have come across no real weirdness this year.

61f7iyJLzGL._AC_US218_A necessary distinction in the fiction category: Best New Novel is Philip Pullman‘s La Belle Sauvage, of course, and you can read my review here and see why. I’m hoping that the next book in the series will appear in 2018, since he’s actually finished writing it, and hopefully the final one not too long after that. It’s nice having something to look forward to. The distinction was to allow me to list Ursula Le Guin‘s Malafrena as a Best Novel, because it was another one I’d held off reading for a long time, and this time was well worth the wait, a brilliant, moving and carefully-crafted historical novel from a writer who I love as a writer of SF.

51hWEeFhq1L._AC_US218_Several books get mentions in the non-fiction category this year. Erika Mann‘s collection of stories When the Lights Go Out is so rooted in the reality of daily life in Germany as the Nazi grip tightened that I’d hesitate to class it as fiction, though it technically is. It’s chilling in its ordinariness, its smallness and yet the inescapability of the evil. Richard Byrd‘s Alone, a travel book, is about his several months alone in winter at an isolated weather station in Antarctica. What was so powerful and mesmerising about it was the way he accidentally gave himself severe carbon monoxide poisoning quite early on in his stay, and his incredible struggle to survive. knowing that the source of heat he depends on for survival, will also kill him.

51BZSRipcpL._AC_US218_But, Book of the Year in any category goes to Svetlana Alexievich‘s stunning The Unwomanly Face of War, truly a masterpiece. It’s gruellingly difficult to read – you need a really strong stomach – and it’s a powerful antidote to any attempts at apologetics for German behaviour in the Second World War. It should be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks that war is any sort of answer to any of our problems.

Resolutions: I have a lot more history to read this coming year, and I’ve had much pleasure from returning to my old collection of SF, so I hope to continue with some of that, too. And I’ve decided that instead of buying books when I fancy, I will compile a list of books I covet each month and at the end of that month, award myself one from that list. Wish me luck! (By the way, that’s new books only…)

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Richard Byrd: Alone

May 23, 2017

I’m more than a little surprised by how many interesting books I come across when reading French newspapers and magazines; on a recent trip I went with a list of four books I wanted and came back with them all plus another must-have… and this was one of them, although originally written in English and available at a high price; the new French edition was nicely produced and sensibly priced.

It’s an astonishing piece of exploration and travel writing from the 1930s: Richard Byrd (a US admiral) was an explorer who (among other things) set up a base on the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf, from which a small station a couple of hundred miles further inland was also set up, in order to make meteorological observations during the polar night; because it was a dangerous task, Byrd, as expedition leader, decided to undertake the task himself, spending several months alone in the polar darkness.

He’s fully aware of the risks he’s taking, and begins with acute and almost disinterested self-observation. He knows he could fall ill, injure himself, get lost whilst outside, suffer from the fumes of his stove, and is several days from possible help or rescue. But it’s the psychological effects of solitude he is initially interested to observe in himself and record; he’s a very intelligent and literate man and so does this well and interestingly.

The horror then starts, and it is truly shocking. He nearly dies from carbon monoxide poisoning because of a malfunctioning generator which drives the wireless transmitter he uses to keep in contact with his base, and as a result of this, realises that certain symptoms he had previously been experiencing show that his heating stove – on which his very life obviously depends – has also very slowly and insidiously been poisoning him. And the depths of polar winter, night, storms and cold – we are talking up to minus 70 Fahrenheit here – are approaching. If he cannot function to keep himself warm, he will die. And if he overuses his stove, it will also kill him…

Recovery from severe carbon monoxide poisoning is truly horrific, from his description: it will take months for his liver and spleen to repair his blood. He can hardly eat, vomiting most things, has appalling headaches, his eyesight is affected and he becomes physically very weak. Nevertheless he attempts to continue his weather recording, rations his use of the stove to a few hours a day because it is not possible to repair or modify it, endures dreadful cold, and will not call in help because it would mean others risking their lives.

I’ve read a number of accounts of men coping with extreme conditions, and this sits alongside voyages like Shackleton’s, or, at the other extreme, journeys through places like the empty quarter of Saudi Arabia; the effects of the poisoning were truly scary and Byrd admits freely that there were times he almost succumbed to the temptation to give up: another of the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning is the inability to sleep; he had strong sleeping tablets with him, which he did not give in to the desire to take… I can see why it took four years and considerable persuasion to get him to commit his account of those months to paper. It’s an astonishing read, an account from a true explorer who was unafraid to take risks and almost paid with his life.

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