22 Jan 2006

The Endurance

The Endurance, Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, Caroline Alexander

Although it is somewhat immoral to read a book the title of which is subtly intended to inspire my wife to stay extra unpaid hours at work, I enjoyed this.

It traces the voyage of the British explorer Ernest Shackleton, in his failure to complete his most famous expedition, and the miraculous endurance that he and his crew had to suffer as a result of that failure. The conditions of navigation and trekking in the antarctic are spectacular, and while the word "chilling" is appropriate literally, here it is its figurative sense that is the more haunting.

The book has two main parts: in the first, the narrative of life on the ice is slow, and the categoric descriptions of all the men involved often ponderous, but it is rescued by the mountains of stunning photographs of Frank Hurley, taken with the professional aim of paying for the expedition; in the second part, with camera equipment no longer available, the story itself, which describes why the camera equipment is no longer available, is incredible. Which, in sum, means that this is a good book.

The Endurance was a year-end gift to all employees in my wife's company, and I am seriously convinced that its point was to alleviate the guilt of the management for keeping everyone late hours at work.

7 Jan 2006

Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienkiewicz, tr. Jeremiah Curtin

First of all, I didn't want to start this book at all. It looked boring.

My first impression reminded me of War and Peace. It begins with a discussion that all of a sudden, with one sentence, launches an epic story. But as the first few chapters unfolded, I saw that the epicness was not quite as big as Tolstoy's.

And then, the appearance of pious Christian characters professing their faith bade even more boringness.

But later on, I realised there was a great deal of audacity in setting a historical novel in the midst of a history that is covered by the Bible. Unlike a "life of Jesus" book, or movie, Quo Vadis is an imagination of what the characters surrounding Jesus were doing, and especially what they did after he died. So it must stick to facts that are covered by the Bible, but it must fill in the parts that are not covered. I think that's an admirable risk for a writer. I suppose an historical novelist always takes this risk--the fact that he or she must meet "checkpoints" that are verifiable in textbooks--but with all the cultural weight that the Bible carries, basing a history on it is just that little bit harder.

Finally, I appreciated that, although Christianity is unoriginally presented as triumphant in the end, the book allows very blunt debate between Christians and atheists. The principal atheist who converts to Christianity for example, backslides several times, even forgetting himself and killing a bunch of random people just to save a favourite. Doubts about the priopriety and potential of Christianity are carried through until the very end.

And finally, the story turns out very rich, the details original, and the read attractive.