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
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
The relevant sections for the parts of China we were in were fairly helpful, but I will think twice before I buy more electronic travel guides. SimplyThe relevant sections for the parts of China we were in were fairly helpful, but I will think twice before I buy more electronic travel guides. Simply put, they are a pain in the butt to deal with. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find things in them. You can't dog-ear an iPad, alas!
Also, both this guide and Lonely Planet's have one major failing, in my opinion. None of the listings gives the names in Chinese characters, which I found to be the most critical thing. For instance, if I needed to take a taxi somewhere, saying something like 'Take me to the Nanjing Museum' to a taxi driver was useless. Taxi drivers spoke almost no English and even my most earnest attempts to render place names authentically fell flat. The only thing that worked was having the name of the place I wanted to go to written out in Chinese characters and pointing to it when I got in a cab.
I don't think it would be too much of a stretch for the editors of these guides to ensure that the Chinese characters for hotels, major sights, restaurants, etc. are listed in the headings. ...more
I like the background information that LP provides (history, culture, etc) but I am rethinking my new policy of only taking travel guides downloaded tI like the background information that LP provides (history, culture, etc) but I am rethinking my new policy of only taking travel guides downloaded to my iPad. Using them is more cumbersome and frustrating than I'd like. While saving on weight, I end up losing time. It's a trade-off.
Also, both this guide and Fodor's have one major failing, in my opinion. None of the listings gives the names in Chinese characters, which I found to be the most critical thing. For instance, if I needed to take a taxi to a museum, saying something like 'Take me to the Nanjing Museum' to a taxi driver was useless. The only thing that worked was having the name of the place I wanted to go to written out in Chinese characters. I don't think it would be too much of a stretch for the editors of these guides to ensure that the Chinese characters for hotels, major sights, restaurants, etc. are listed in the headings. ...more