Welcome to the "I will read anything by Hampton Sides" club!
Judging by the reviews here, it's a pretty large gathering. But don't get me wrong -- I'mWelcome to the "I will read anything by Hampton Sides" club!
Judging by the reviews here, it's a pretty large gathering. But don't get me wrong -- I'm happy to have company. The third book I've read by Sides (having previously enjoyed Ghost Soldiers and Blood and Thunder), In the Kingdom of Ice ventures into one of my favorite genres: exploration. Better yet, exploration in extremely cold and dangerous places.
But, hey, you knew that already. What you may not know is how well this book stacks up against other classics of the genre, such as Alfred Lansing's Endurance, Roland Huntford's Nansen, Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, and David Horwath's We Die Alone. As a bonus, In the Kingdom of Ice tied in nicely with another book on (mostly) arctic exploration I read not long ago, Barrow's Boys by Fergus Fleming, which chronicles the attempts to find a "Northwest Passage" through the Arctic. As in the case in Fleming's account, the Jeannette voyage was based on what, in hindsight, was a spectacularly flawed theory: that a warm polar sea lay at the top of the world and all the Jeannette's crew needed to do was find a warm northbound current to take them past the encircling ice boundary.
"What folly!" chortles the reader. Ah, but don't be so smug... recall that it was only recently (1968) that Alfred Wegener's concept of plate tectonics, first laid out in 1915, was accepted, upending the previous "contracting earth" theory. Sides does an admirable job of presenting, in compressed form, the background to the "open polar sea" theory, and delivers a sympathetic portrait of the theory's champion, August Petermann. He makes it clear that while the expedition may have been wrong to wholeheartedly adhere to the theory, they were far from foolhardy.
Indeed, the preparation for and administration of the voyage were painstakingly professional and cautious. The captain, George De Long, was in most respects the ideal person to lead the expedition, and he selected the members of his crew with great care and perspicacity. The author adroitly and vividly portrays the key crew members, falling just shy, in a few cases, of hero worship, such as for chief engineer George Melville, a distant relation to, yes, Herman. But based on the sheer facts of Melville's accomplishments, Sides' admiration is not misplaced. In fact, if I had one desire at the end of the book, it was to learn more about George W. Melville. (And perhaps I shall.)
In counterbalance to these sterling characters there are those with blots, or indeed gaping holes, in their characters, such as the self-absorbed naturalist and, mostly critically, a navigator suffering from advanced syphilis. One of the enduring appeals of reading about expeditions such as this is to learn who falls apart and who, sometimes unexpectedly, rises to challenges. Sides does a cracking job of moving the narrative along, shuttling back and forth between locales and key personnel, and even supplying the requisite love interest in the form of letters written by De Long's wife, Emma. Extracts from the letters preface most of the latter chapters and are a poignant touchstone, for her husband never receives them.
Aside from all these enjoyable facets of the book, there is also the heady and almost palpable sense of the late 1870's. The author gives the reader just enough (and not too much) cultural and political background to the era. And this is what I particularly like about Sides: he has a fine sense of proportion. On many occasions I've read a nonfiction saga like this marred by the writer's inability to rein in the impulse to disgorge background research, however tangential to the central narrative. Perhaps it's a lack of firm editing or perhaps it's a greater tolerance for topical breadth, but it is trying in any case. Hampton Sides has clearly done masses of research, but he never needlessly parades it: readers get what they need to understand the historical background but never at the expense of narrative momentum.
And this brings me to my final point: this book has wonderful pacing. I've mentioned already the author's sense of proportion, the vivid portrayal of characters, the eloquent rendering of era, and the lucid presentation of geographic theory and scientific background. Add to this an almost cinematic unfolding of the tale and you have something close to narrative perfection. It's tempting to almost mistrust a nonfiction book that reads as compulsively as fiction, but as an avid reader of both genres, I believe that when nonfiction eclipses fiction, there must be genius in both the selection of the central event and the telling of it. Bravo, Hampton Sides!
Oh, how I wish this was not the first history I read of the Vietnam war. Having lived through the era, I had a naive hope that I would have some basicOh, how I wish this was not the first history I read of the Vietnam war. Having lived through the era, I had a naive hope that I would have some basic understanding of events and would be able to follow the author's arguments reasonably well. I was wrong. Another reviewer here likened reading Fire in the Lake to drinking from a fire hose, and I wholeheartedly agree. FitzGerald unleashes a torrent of statistics, quotes, and scholarship embedded in a rigorous sociological perspective and never lets up. She harks back repeatedly to her central thesis, which is that Vietnamese society was (is?) so foreign, so completely based on different principles and assumptions, that the Americans hadn't a prayer to intervening successfully or winning the war. The family, the village, the land, and a Confucian world order of people in correct relation to each other in a reflection of heavenly order and harmony -- these are notions she harks back to repeatedly. Indeed, these leit motifs recurred much too often for my taste. Given that the author seemed to assume the reader could follow her sophisticated analysis, it struck me that at the same time she was not above cramming her thesis down the reader's throat.
Fire in the Lake is a difficult book, rendered even moreso by the passage of time. Events were still unfolding in Vietnam when this book came out. The edition I read was printed in 1972, and I can only hope that the new edition, which contains an afterword by the author, offers more "closure," if I may use the term. The book ends without an ending, trailing off in speculation about what would happen when the Americans left. There is no neat summing up of events or the luxury of looking back to bring the narrative to a satisfying conclusion. That may account, in part, for my feeling as I read of being cast adrift on a dark sea; I knew the ending of the story but I didn't quite understand how the ending was reached. And, unlike everything else I've read or heard about Vietnam, this book is not at all concerned with American soldiers and their experiences or even that much with the reaction to the war at home. The Vietnamese and Vietnamese culture are her touchstones, and only insofar as American actions affected them does America enter into the picture. (And that, now that I think of it, is perhaps this book's most redeeming feature.)
I'm not in a position to say whether FitzGerald's book was accurate, but indeed if even a small portion of her assessments are correct then her blistering condemnation of American foolhardiness and willful blindness in Vietnam is certainly understandable. Still, I found myself holding back at times from her arguments, even as I was impressed by them, partially in annoyance at her highhanded and theoretic approach and partially in mere confusion. How could I have lived through this era and know so little about the Vietnam war? True, I was a child at its beginnings, yet I was in college during the last few years and had participated in anti-war marches and rallies and, in general, thought I "knew" enough about the war to know that I opposed it. But it seems I knew very little, after all, at least in terms of who the major political figures were -- certainly the major Vietnamese figures -- and what the major U.S. policies and campaigns were.
And so, it seems, more reading is needed before I can say whether this book was insightful or merely a useful irritant, goading me on to reaching a better understanding. ...more
Much like the character in this book, Mitchell Sanders, who invariably comes up with a "moral" to each story he tells, it's hard not to fall into theMuch like the character in this book, Mitchell Sanders, who invariably comes up with a "moral" to each story he tells, it's hard not to fall into the mode of "moral-izing" in response to a book like this, but I will do my best not to. Indeed, it would be an oversimplification to even categorize a book like this as a "war novel" or "memoir" or "bildungsroman" or any other convenient pigeonhole that springs to mind. While it's clear that the author draws heavily from his own experience, he resists hewing to the truth of "what happened." The boundary between fact and fiction is fluid. In the end, it doesn't really matter which is which. The fictional may serve us better than the facts.
Rather than my usual slice-and-dice review, cobbling together my reactions to and rendering some verdict about the book, I will simply quote a few resonant passages that I found particularly poignant. They are "the things I carried with me" after reading this book.
(In a chapter in which the author attempts to flee the draft by going to Canada but, after an odd interlude on the border, goes home and ultimately to Vietnam instead):
"I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war." (Italics mine.)
"A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie." (From the chapter entitled, "How to Tell a True War Story")
"I did not look on my work [writing about the war] as therapy, and still don't. Yet...it occurred to me that the act of wring had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain."
"But this too is true: stories can save us. I'm forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda [a childhood friend] alive. And Ted Lavender, too, and Kiowa, and Curt Lemon [three friends who died in Vietnam], and a slim young man I killed, and an old man sprawled beside a pigpen... They're all dead. But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world."
Okay, so one bit of reflexive reviewer analysis. It just occurred to me that parts of this book reminded me of James Joyce's story, "The Dead." I can't say why, other than the subject is, of course, death and the dead. But beyond that there's a certain lyricism and sense of sadness. At the end of "The Dead," the main character, Gabriel, confronts a past he didn't know existed, reflecting of what he has become and wishes he could be. He sees that the dead do not stay in the past but that they still affect us. While we have no control over who lives or dies, we can, in a sense, give the dead life. We carry them with us; they live through us still.
Next month I'll be traveling to Vietnam, accompanying my husband, who has a conference there. Although I lived through the era of the Vietnam War, I was too young to really form a clear opinion or understand what was really happening, though generally speaking, I fell in step with my high-school friends and participated in anti-war marches and was, broadly speaking, against the war. Now I'm nearly sixty, looking back on an era that I only dimly recall. Before I go to Vietnam, I want to have a better understanding of what happened. Starting with this very personal book provided one person's truth, and that's something, if only a sliver of a very much larger truth that is ultimately unknowable and incomprehensible.
Enough with the abnormal psychology, already! The detective and his mismatched assistants are interesting, but I can't say the extended passages detaiEnough with the abnormal psychology, already! The detective and his mismatched assistants are interesting, but I can't say the extended passages detailing the depredations of the sickos they are up against did much for me. I didn't really learn anything, didn't particularly enjoy it... oh, except the narrator for the audiobook was rather good. That's pretty much why I finished it, I think. ...more
This book wasn't what I'd hoped it would be, but it was fairly interesting, nonetheless. I was hoping it would be more of a general exploration of howThis book wasn't what I'd hoped it would be, but it was fairly interesting, nonetheless. I was hoping it would be more of a general exploration of how the brain processes and perceives music, but the emphasis here is largely on neurological case studies, many of them recycled from Sacks' previous books such as An Anthropologist on Mars, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and The Island of the Colorblind, all of which I have read and enjoyed at various times but which, frankly, I hadn't needed or wanted to hear about again.
However, Musicophilia did strike a chord (pun intended) in many ways as it made me think more deeply about my own involvement with music and my own brain's peculiarities, limitations, and features. Sacks is a tireless explorer and chronicler of his own mind, and at times I wished I possessed his tenacity of purpose. What intrigued me most was his hypothesis that when one hemisphere or portion of the brain is damaged, other sections may "step it up" to compensate. Indeed, the examples he provided of how patients coped with and adapted to extremely debilitating conditions were fascinating and heartening. As I age and deal with hearing issues, for example, it is useful to understand the mechanisms behind hearing loss and to learn of how others cope with far more striking afflictions.
While many of the cases that Sacks details are interesting, about halfway through the book hearing of one case after another became repetitive. What I was hoping for, but never really got, was a deeper analysis of how the "normal" brain perceives and relates to music. His neurological patients are the exception, not the norm, and he focuses almost exclusively on fairly talented (or, indeed, brilliant) classical performers and composers. There are few examples of people involved in, say, jazz or rock. This reflects Sacks' own interests and experiences, of course, but it seemed like a significant shortcoming.
Ultimately, I couldn't really complain, though, as the title says it all: this is a collection of tales of music and the brain. The book does not claim to be a comprehensive examination of the topic. ...more
I can't fathom why this reader was chosen for this book. His voice and delivery are incredibly annoying. Not only does he sound like a heavy smoker suI can't fathom why this reader was chosen for this book. His voice and delivery are incredibly annoying. Not only does he sound like a heavy smoker suffering from a cold, but his staccato delivery is odd, to say the least. In addition, there is quite a bit of variance in the timbre of his voice, with obvious differences between recording sessions.
This is one of those rare cases where the author would have done a much better job reading the book than the hired pro. (Exceptions to my "authors should never narrate their own books" dictum, however, are Oliver Sacks, Simon Winchester, Bill Bryson, and Neil Gaiman.) I heard Nathaniel Philbrick read excerpts from one of his work at the National Book Festival in DC a few years back and I'm sure he'd have done a much better job than this reader.
I tried to get used to this narrator, as occasionally I find I can mentally tune out the more annoying features of some voices, but I finally gave up in exasperation at the end of the first of ten CDs, just as I was becoming engrossed in Philbrick's account. Guess I will have to find this book in print, which is annoying as I'm having eye trouble and have been relying on books on CD to get my reading fix. ...more
The insights in this book have much broader societal implications than how we behave on the road -- or perhaps how we behave on the road merely reflecThe insights in this book have much broader societal implications than how we behave on the road -- or perhaps how we behave on the road merely reflects our species' failings?
"We have met the enemy and he is us," Walt Kelly once famously penned, but on the road, it seems we fancy ourselves much better drivers than all those people we wish would go away -- the tailgaters or those who leave too much space between cars; the lane-changers or those who stubbornly sit in one lane; those who merge too late or too early; drivers who are going too fast or too slow; and particularly all those S.O.B.S who drive (insert favorite hated type of car here). Yet, as Tom Vanderbilt notes, but we are contributors to whatever traffic jam we're stuck in and by default fall into someone else's notion of a bad driver. We are the enemy.
Vanderbilt begins his straightforward yet complex book with an analysis of traffic jams and their contributing factors, but he soon ranges much further afield, citing studies from a wide range of disciplines. I found much information in this book surprising, not the least of which was learning that the road and car safety features that we rely so heavily upon -- lines on the road, signage, anti-lock brakes, seat belts, driving bigger cars -- can be contributing factors to a false sense of security. I was intrigued to learn that removing road signs could actually lead to fewer collisions in many places.
Other things I was surprised to learn were that drivers tend to pass closer to cyclists wearing helmets than those who are not (perhaps assuming the helmet-wearing cyclists are more "serious" and will not veer in front of them), that cars rather than trucks are the cause of most truck-car collisions, that a surprising amount of the traffic on city streets consists of people looking for parking, and that suburbs can be riskier places to drive than cities.
Much of this has to do with the way we seem to be hard-wired, while some has to do with social conditioning. In one of the chapters that most intrigued me, Vanderbilt analyzes traffic in other parts of the world such as China and India (two places I have been a passenger but not a driver, thankfully) as well as the much safer Scandinavian countries. I've driven in places that felt completely chaotic (Croatia springs to mind) and counted myself lucky to emerge unscathed, and also driven in places that are supposedly difficult to drive such as Italy, the U.K. and other "wrong side of the road" countries, Mexico, and the German autobahn. In these cases, I realize, my perception of being in danger kept me in a continual state of high alert and was probably the main reason I emerged unscathed.
One important dictum I took away from this book is that drivers are in more peril when they assume they're safe than when they are on the alert for danger. It is, ultimately, our own inattentiveness that is the greatest threat to our safety on the road.
Toward the end of the book, Vanderbilt mentions that after September 11, 2001, there was a marked increase in traffic fatalities. The obvious reason, of course, was that those too skittish to fly were driving instead, and so put themselves at greater risk. This was the springboard for Vanderbilt's trenchant analysis of real vs. perceived risk, which I found quite illuminating. Why do we, as a society, tolerate the great number of traffic deaths per year (approximately 40,000) yet remain on constant alert for terrorists, who, all told, have caused some 5,000 deaths since 1960 in the U.S.?
A lot of the reasons we don't recoil in horror at these grim traffic statistics, it seems, have to do with our ideas of what is acceptable: it is more acceptable to die doing something with a perceived benefit (getting where we want to go) and under our own autonomy (e.g. we are the drivers, not someone else) than to have little or no autonomy or perceived benefit.
When we are in "control," it seems, we feel that it's not such a bad thing if, for example, we have a beer or two before getting behind the wheel or talk on our cell phones or text while driving, which, studies have shown, put us at much greater risk. We might even feel quite indignant when we see other drivers holding cellphones to their ears or coming out of a bar and getting into a car. And it is speed, above all factors, that kills, yet we stubbornly resist lowering speed limits and regard it as our god-given right to proceed at a "fair" speed: e.g. ten miles over the posted limit.
Thus Vanderbilt leaves us with the undeniable conclusion that regardless of how sophisticated our machines become or how deftly we engineer our roads, it is ultimately our own psychological limitations that bedevil and endanger us. We have met the enemy. He is us.
A note on the reader, Marc Cashman: Mr. Cashman was, I thought, the ideal reader for this book. I'm a picky listener but not a single feature of his voice, phrasing, timing, or emphasis bothered me; on the contrary, I felt he greatly added to my enjoyment and understanding of the book. I'll be seeking out other books read by him. ...more
I am something of a connoisseur of survivor tales, avidly reading of survivors of shipwrecks, doomed polar expeditions, harrowing wilderness treks, caI am something of a connoisseur of survivor tales, avidly reading of survivors of shipwrecks, doomed polar expeditions, harrowing wilderness treks, calamitous military missions, devastating illnesses, and all-encompassing wars. A well-written tale of survival successfully steers away from being overly sensational, melodramatic, or sentimental but also offers something beyond the mere fact of survival. It's a tightrope walk between lapsing into "moral-of-the-story" tropes and succumbing to a bleak sense of powerlessness. Survivors should do more than survive, yet if their ordeal is distilled into the merely inspirational, we (or I, at any rate) distrust it.
A Train in Winter has a great deal more to offer than a tale of mere survival, yet it also nimbly circumvents the inspiration trap. First I should add that there are very few survivors, and their survival is often more a matter of luck than courage or fortitude. The hardest thing in listening to this book comes as the reader learns of the death of women whom the author has brought to life, whether they be plucky young resistance members or hard-bitten older women. There is little redeeming in their deaths, and though many die nobly, they leave not only their fellow internees bereft but something of a gap in the narrative as well.
In fact, the biggest problem for me was that there are simply so many women's stories. Their fates are interwoven, and certainly the author does an admirable job of making the narrative as clear as possible, but as a listener it is a daunting job to keep them all straight. (Had I a book at hand, of course, I could probably have done so more easily.) I wished at times that she had narrowed her scope a bit, perhaps relating the stories of fewer women. As it is, it can be a bit overwhelming to take in.
What impressed me most was Moorehead's stern judgement on the people who betrayed the women. They were, for the most part, all fellow Frenchmen. For the collaborators she has nothing but scorn, and the French police in particular seemed reprehensible. I confess to knowing not as much as I had supposed about the German occupation of France and how the Vichy government operated. This book shed a great deal of light on both how the Resistance operated and how the Germans managed to co-opt local authorities to do their dirty work.
But in counterbalance to this bleak realpolitik, the behavior of the women prisoners stands in stark contrast. They forged strong bonds of friendship and commitment, despite of or sometimes perhaps because of differences. They were clever, persistent, and determined to come out alive if only to tell their story. Only 49 of the original 230 survived, and while Moorehead gives factors such as luck their due, she makes a fairly strong case that it was a sense of camaraderie and allegiance that kept some of the women alive.
The survivors' ordeals were not confined to what they experienced in the death camps, for those who returned found that they were, in a sense, a painful reminder to neighbors and family, and a number found that telling their story proved to be extremely painful or impossible. That a few did doggedly bear witness to the fate of the 230 is perhaps the most heroic action of all.
A note on the narrator: I thoroughly enjoyed Wanda McCaddon's reading of the book. She sailed through the French, German, and Russian names and terms with elan and parsed sentences well, making them easier to understand. She has a sympathetic but matter-of-fact voice that meshed well with this narrative. I give her five stars.
I recently returned from a 2-1/2 week trip to China, where I spent three days in Hangzhou. My husband and I found this guide quite useful and informatI recently returned from a 2-1/2 week trip to China, where I spent three days in Hangzhou. My husband and I found this guide quite useful and informative, giving us insight into the city and steering us in the right direction. What I found particularly admirable was that this guide's listing headings give the name of each item both in English and Chinese characters. Having the names written in Chinese was critical as cab drivers in China speak little or no English, and saying something like "Take me to Hafeng Road" was useless. Instead, I'd whip out my iPad, find the bookmarked page of this guide with the relevant listing, and point to the Chinese characters. Worked every time. In other cities, I was reduced to taking screen shots of Chinese websites for the places I wanted to visit so that cab drivers could understand where I wanted to be taken. My Fodor's and Lonely Planet guides did not provide this essential Chinese information. ...more