Tuesday 19 March 2024

Favourite Books I've Read This Year In Progress

Non-Fiction:

Gilbert King: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.

Fiction: 

Andrea Barrett: The Voyage of the Narwhal.
Michelle Paver: Thin Air.
Sarah Lotz: The White Road. 
Maggie Thrash: Rainbow Black.
Gabrielle Zevin: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.

Andrea Barrett
's The Voyage of the Narwhal follows a fictional American expedition looking for signs of John Franklin's lost ships Erebus and Terror in the early 1850s. The voyage is also meant to be a scientific journey, gathering data about the fauna and flora of the Arctic. The main character is a scientist, naturalist Erasmus Darwin Wells, who is also coming along to look after his sister's fiance, the headstrong expedition leader Zeke. The story may be fictional, but to anyone who has read accounts of real polar expeditions during the 19th century, it holds little treasures of recognition and references many actual events, including the horrifying Inuit accounts that Rae collected about the fate of Franklin and his men. The beauty of the novel is the scientific work though, and the close relationship that Erasmus forges with the surgeon on board (a relationship almost romantic, and tragically doomed), who is similarly fascinated by everything he encounters. There are echoes here of the television adaptation of Harry Goodsir's character in The Terror and of the (in my opinion) best part of the seafaring classic Master and Commander. One of my favourite aspects of the novel were the attempts Erasmus makes to include Ned, the eager and curious young ship cook (with his own tragic story of surviving the potato famine in Ireland), in the journey of discovery. Of course, most things that can go wrong do, including scurvy due to inadequate preparation for overwintering, a nipped and lost ship, and severe discordance within the crew when individuals begin to disagree about priorities and plans. Interwoven with the accounts and thoughts of the explorers are the women back at home, waiting for the men to return and contributing to the scientific work in the only way they're reluctantly allowed to (I thought that Alexandra, a woman who is learning the art of engraving, was deeply fascinating). There is also a discussion of science in relation to racism, both in regards to the understanding of the Inuit that the expedition connects with and the question of slavery back home in the United States just before the Civil War. This is a fantastic novel of fiction that weaves together philosophy, science and polar exploration with all of its dark sides included. 

I like when by sheer coincidence, two books appear to be in conversation with each other. Michelle Paver's Thin Air chronicles a fictional 1935 attempt to reach the summit of Kangchenjunga. Soon after arriving at the foot of the mountain, expedition doctor Stephen, eager to prove to his comrades that he is just as valuable as his older, sneering brother, begins experiencing a haunting - T.S. Eliot's "There is always another one walking beside you", but, as he comes to realise, malevolent, unlike the calming presence that Shackleton felt when he first reported the phenomenon after his trek through the mountains of South Georgia to save his stranded expedition. It appears that the mountain is haunted, perhaps by a member of a previous expedition whose body was never retrieved. Thin Air is a great portrait of the same kind of doomed English arrogance that cost Scott's life at the South Pole, putting a focus on the way the white men of the expedition look down on their support staff (the ones actually doing all the work, while they sip their tea). 
Sarah Lotz
' The White Road doesn't begin on a mountain - it starts in a place that I personally find even more scary, a cave system in Wales in which protagonist Simon is attempting to film the dead bodies of a previous group of cavers for a morbid and sensationalist website he runs with his friend. In the caves, his guide dies after they get trapped by rising water levels, but his presence doesn't leave Simon, as if his bad intentions are now being judged by the constant presence of another malevolent "third man". Simon carries that spectre with him to Everest (again on a mission to film the dead), where he finds himself in the middle of another man's attempt to find closure from the death of his mother on the mountain years earlier. The climb ends in more disaster, and Simon is stuck trying to artificially create closure so the haunting stops. 
 
Gabrielle Zevin
's Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a book about a complicated friendship between Sam and Sadie that begins in a hospital games room. Sam is in it for the long haul after a severe leg injury from a car crash that killed his mother, Sadie is there to visit her sister, who has cancer. They bond over their shared love of computer games and form a tight friendship that runs into some difficulties when Sam finds out that Sadie is collecting brownie points for the community service she is providing by keeping Sam's company (she's gamified friendship, but it's pretty obvious she's being genuine in her affection for Sam). They later reconnect after years of not talking to each other and begin playing again, except this time they make games together - a beautiful, artistic game, ambitious. The book also adds Marx to the mix - a lovely if privileged "tamer of horses" who becomes their producer and thinks about all the things they don't, because they're focused on the work. 
This novel works because it is passionate about the computer games, which are written in a way that the reader can imagine them, maybe even play along. The characters are flawed, but difficult not to root for. I think what really made this exceptional is that it reads like a spin-off of Halt and Catch Fire, specifically the seasons after the first one when the focus was on Cameron and Donna: It's about two incredibly creative people creating beautiful things together, but clashing on principles sometimes, and they both care so much that their differences threaten the friendship constantly.

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