Empire Antarctica (Antarctica)

Empire Antarctica book coverby Gavin Francis

The frozen continent is one of three I haven’t visited. Not many do, except scientists, penguins, and soldiers. Is it a country? Technically no. Britain, the US, Germany, Argentina, Chile, and others have “research” stations there. In the Heroic Age, explorers died there – unnecessarily, as the author points out. It was just 13 years after Shackleton’s desperate rescue of his stranded men that Byrd flew an aeroplane over the South Pole.

Because of the remoteness and extreme weather, they say it is harder to extract a person from the British base camp Halley than it is the International Space Station. During a certain time of year, the sun rises then sets five minutes later. Emperor penguins are the only form of sentient life (that we know about) who live there year round.

I say that WE know about advisedly, since Eastern culture and some indigenous tribes believe that all forms have sentience, including rock and ice and water. The ice of Antarctica was recently found to be around 140,000 years old.

This is the story of a British doctor’s one-year stay at Halley base camp and peripherally, his study of Emperor penguins.

Love and Annoyance

I found both in this book. Concept and execution = fascinating. The way the author ponders philosophy, religion, and history in conjunction with his Antarctic experiences makes it more than just a collection of fascinating facts or a “slice of life” memoir. It is a pity he did not study George Orwell, however – he might have used fewer “25-cent words” and “purple prose” in his descriptions of the scenery. I have a master’s degree, and I ran into 2/3 words on every page whose meanings were unknown to me. To be honest, they jerked me out of the story and it read like someone striving for legitimacy – trying to impress. Plain language is usually best.

Emperor penguins
Emperor Penguins

It would also have been well, had the author explained the meaning of certain events for non-scientists: Example:  “Polar magnetism has switched at least 30 times in the last 5 million years.” Switched how? Switched between what? To what? What causes this?

In addition, he gives distance measurements in metric (despite the fact that I know they use miles in Britain just like we do in the US) and weight measurements in kilos, and temperatures in Celcius. This meant that I never knew how big, how far, or how cold something was. But then he explains perfectly obvious terms like “mukluks”. (Obvious to North Americans like myself that is. 😉

Something else he doesn’t explain is why they can only bathe once per year.

Despite these shortcomings, I really did love this book.  I don’t want to experience extreme cold, so thanks to Gavin Francis for writing about it so I didn’t have to.

On January 17, 1773:

the British ships Resolution and Adventure became the first known to cross the Antarctic Circle. According to the author they came within 150 miles of the Antarctic continent. What fascinates me is the idea of a world in which you could still discover continents unknown (to you).

All my generation has left is space, though I was born in the year men first walked on the moon. We hope for mystery and we long for adventure. What we’ve got is product. If Scott and Shakleton had been alive today, their Nansen sledges would have been plastered with Walmart stickers like NASCAR racers. Ugh.

Captain CookThe author makes a lot of comparisons between the hardships of early expeditions and the relative comfort of the Halley base today. He has a computer, though only periodic hand-cranked dial-up Internet. He has antibiotics, but if he falls ill, as the station’s only doctor, none of the other 13 “winterers” can treat him. And he says studies have been done showing that the mental satisfaction (or was it health) of sub-Antarctic personnel has been shown to go down the less danger they are in. Hmm.

I guess it takes a certain type of person to want to go so far, for so long, away from their fellows. Or maybe they’re just more realistic about how risky and uncertain life on this planet really is.

The Last Word

Despite the tortured purple prose referred to earlier, this is a super chill armchair read. Five bars of South Pole chocolate!


Dots on a Map (Gibralter)

Gibralter Islandby Colin Leaky

This time Colin’s off to the Rock of Gibralter (see my blog on the Faroe Islands for more countries from his book). The southernmost tip of Europe is a lot like England, except Spanicized, with gangs of tourist-bullying Barbary apes.

Politics and Lager Louts

Since Gibralter sits right off the coast of their country, the Spanish would like it back. The Brits, having had it weighing their necks down for the past 400 years, aren’t averse except for the huge RAF airstrip – but the people living there don’t want to go. Most speak some form of Spanglish. In addition, Spain owns some properties off the coast of Morocco that the Africans would very much like back, but does that make sense to the Spanish? No. The whole situation was a bit much for this American. Of course, why and how we have a tiny piece of Cuba has never made sense to me either…

It’s like that annoying moment in Sid Meier’s Civilization when you realize those foreign troops running across your continent have created a city on your coast and there’s nothing you can do about it. You are invited to watch as they discover a technology advancement (no scribes please).

Not First on the List

Barbary ApeI think the author found this country to be a bit like I found Sea World in San Diego last winter: Lovely dolphins, lots of kitsch and blaring music. Super touristy, and politically charged. In the modern era, Gibralter seems to have more history than culture. I kept hearing the song “Torremolinos” – from Monty Python’s “Spam and Chips” clip.

The history of the island was super interesting – a strategic launching point for troops against the French and the Spanish…the Moors…whoever. One of the generals was a vegetarian, I remember that because it was so odd for the time period. Between sieges, famines, and disease, the population of the place went through a lot.

Good writing – Colin teased out all the humorous bit, as usual. The unintentional humor of the signs in the museum was my favorite – or maybe the Last Gift Shop in Europe (closed). Didn’t make me want to visit. Don’t know that it could be done, with so many more interesting bits of the world unvisited by me. I’d rather go back to Cornwall, or off to the real Spain or the Basque country.


When Adam Lacroft Met Death (Venezuela)

Adam Lacroft book coverby Carlos Paolini (no relation to Christopher)

I recently read that God is a process, not a being. In this novel, Death is a person, not a process – and she’s a leetle pissy. Alternately known as Eve, Helena, Anna, etc., Death is a hot girl in a polka-dot dress…(young male narrator)!

Like many beautiful creatures, Death is lethal. She tricks Adam and other humans into accepting contracts with her by withholding part of the information. (Remind you of anyone? At one point Adam jokes that he doesn’t play the fiddle.)

Possibly like his writer creator, Adam hates math (“if it were a physical entity I’d punch it in the face”) and spends time in graveyards because they’re cool. (Well, that’s how *I* feel anyway…)

“The graveyard was about a hundred acres of marble, granite, iron and bronze structures that pledged to protect the remains of something useless to most, but worth the world to a few, at the cost of their own degradation. I found them inspiriang and Erica was someone I wanted to share that with.

Venezuelan Map“I pulled in through the big iron gates and parked in the desolate lot. I grabbed my backpack and the picnic basket and escorted her all the way to the spot I wanted to set up in. It was a twenty-minute walk, but every time Erica complained I hit her in the back of the head with a stick. I learned that from the cattle wranglers in Venezuela.”

Cool Bits:

  • The “Death Signature” –a live tattoo which allows the contracted human to speak to Death at any time
  • Where Death comes from (was she always Death?)
  • Her grievances with Life and Adam’s argument with her
  • The Spanish language interplay between Adam and Erica — Her family is from Argentina so he makes fun of her accent

2 mistakes I made with this book:

1) I almost didn’t buy it because I read “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” somewhere (not in relation to the book) and I have already done Bolivia.

2) I thought the book was set in Caracas, but the author was born there; the book is set in the US.

It didn’t matter because I enjoyed the book a lot! And anyway most of it takes place in generic space – it isn’t a place-driven novel.

Who Are These Characters, Anyway?

pastelesAdam is well-drawn: By turns cocky, silly, vulnerable, and just plain scared and angry. No matter what, he’s not about to just lay down and well…die. Or to let the things he love most be taken from him, even by Death.

Erica too is brave and smart. no “girl” stereotypes here, and…

Death is appealingly mysterious and even vulnerable at times.

The book is not without humor either.I caught maybe three sentences I thought needed minor editing, but nothing that pulled me out of the story. I enjoyed this book a lot. Great effort from a new author (published 2013 I believe and it seems there will be a sequel).

The Last Word

Five pasteles with awesome sauce!