Saturday, September 01, 2007

Epics of Deprivation

Here's hoping producer Mario Garcia, photographer Bruce Bernstein and soundman Curt Bernstein soon find their way back to the states. On assignment in Greenland, the NBC crew- along with correspondent Anne Thompson - were already to jet home when an Air Greenland strike rendered them marooned. Thursday night reporter Thompson managed to board a flight home (funny how that works), but her crew's still killing time in Kangerlussuaq - where they're no doubt trying to buy a few vowels. Me, I'd sink my nose in whatever paperback I could find and soak up the network pay. With that in mind, here are eight books I'd insist on re-reading, were I trapped on an ice floe...

Ice Blink It was from Greenland that Sir John Franklin set out in search of the Northwest Passage, launching two state of the art wooden vessels packed with the lastest Nineteenth Century gizmos. When both heavily-laden ships vanished, countless rescue attempts folllowed and more men died for naught. Fourteen years later, searchers found a mountain of discarded supplies and two skeletal corpses, along with other clues so vague and tantalizing, you'll never go near another worn-out Shackleton yarn again.

Selkirk's Island Remember Robinson Crusoe? Neither do I really, but I'm well versed on the real life O.C. (Original Castaway) thanks to Diana Souhami's epic of solitary endurance. Alexander Selkirk signed up with a famous pirate for a life of riches and plunder, but when things went South the addled Captain pulled up to a tiny island in the middle of nowhere and booted his Scotch ass out. Four years followed. Peaks climbed. Horizons stared at. Goats violated. Read it anyway.

Safe Return Doubtful As much as I dig reading about the 1960's space race, I'm equally in awe of another astronaut of his time: the Polar Explorer. Armed with hubris and often little else, many a mustachio'd windbag trekked to subzero spots for Queen, Country and perhaps a beef jerky endorsement or two. Penned by a celebrated maritime historian, this book neatly encapsulates the Age of Exploration and provides context to all that prideful deprivation. You'll never view inceberg mirages and sweat-soaked fur the same way again.

Wreck of the Medusa This French frigate was 40 miles off the coast of Senegal when it slammed into a sandbar. Urged off-board by a panicking Captain, 150 landlubbing souls climbed onto a raft so threadbare it supported some and swallowed others. For twelve days 'the death raft' drifted, time enough for all semblance of sanity to vanish. Mutiny, slaughter, cannibalism - it occured time and time again before French sailors spotted the raft, and brought aboard the fifteen surviving hollow-eyed zombies.

Into the Wild One wonders how the insode of the old school bus will look in the upcoming film version of Jon Krakauer's real-life fable of misguided wanderlust. In the book, privileged kid Chris McCandless burns trhe dollars in his wallet and decamped to the vast woods surrounding Mount McKinley. Four months later, moose hunters found him aboard an old school bus half-buried in a bog, his remains long-dead from apparent starvation. Krakauer launched his career with this materpiece. Here's hoping the film won't muck it all up.

The Custom of the Sea Sunk by what only can be called a 'freak wave', the yacht Mignonette dropped to the bottom in May of 1884. The crew of four cast off in a leaky dinghy, one thousand miles away from the closest shore. Little food and no shelter from the sun wracked their systems and baked their brains. Nineteen days into the ordeal, the Captain decided something had to be done, so he sunk a blade into the cabin boy's jugular and carved up his body to feed the rest. Five days later they were rescued. Oopsie!

The Coldest March Of all the ill-fated polar expeditions, that of Robert Falcon Scott's rings most tragic. Having raced his rival to the South Pole, Scott arrived to discover he'd come in second; the Norweigan Roald Amundsen having already secured his name in the history books. Beleaguered but not broken, Scott and hs men turned around, only to die on the return journey. Vexing and perplexing, the death of this English hero is a textbook example of early 20th Century stiff upper lip.

Big Dead Place One hundred years later, the South Pole is no longer just some fabled spot in the snow. It's a high-tech headquarters for scientific missions, one awash in hopeless bureaucracy and - according to this ice-melting tell-all - rampant debauchery. Written by an antarctic garbageman with a penchant for the unhinged, Big Dead Place shines a dying flashlight on the mirth and madness at McMurdo Station. After reading this book, you'll scratch Antarctica off your must-see list forever. Hey, I hear Greenland's nice...

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