Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Under a Lucky Star: A Lifetime of Adventure by Roy Chapman Andrews

Nice work if you can get it
Though it has never been confirmed that Roy Chapman Andrews was the inspiration for Indiana Jones, there’s no denying that his autobiography Under a Lucky Star, published in 1943, delivers thrills and adventure reminiscent of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Andrews was born and raised in Beloit, Wisconsin, where he developed a love for nature and outdoor sport. Upon graduating from Beloit College, he decided he wanted to work for the American Museum of Natural History, so he moved to New York City uninvited and showed up on their doorstep looking for a job. He began by sweeping floors and assisting in taxidermy, but eventually he would end up as director of that prestigious institution. For much of his career, he led scientific expeditions abroad, hunting for zoological and paleontological specimens in China and Mongolia. He achieved fame when members of his expedition to the Gobi Desert were the first to discover dinosaur eggs.

Soon after starting work at the museum, Andrews was sent out to Long Island to retrieve the skeleton of a beached whale. This led to him riding along on a Japanese whaling ship in order to study whales, collect more specimens, and become an expert in cetology. Unlike biologists today, Andrews saw no problems with the whaling industry and in fact harpooned quite a few whales himself. Throughout the book he refers to himself as an explorer, rather than a scientist, but he really comes across first and foremost as a hunter. As was standard practice for natural history museums at the time, Andrews shot thousands of animals on his expeditions and shipped them back home, with no thought given to species endangerment. Though recognized as a zoologist and paleontologist, Andrews really doesn’t talk about science much at all, and one gets the idea that the specimens he collected were examined by others. 

At times I wondered whether Andrews was even qualified to do the work he was doing, but as the title of the book indicates, he was a very lucky man. What is quite evident in the book is the workings of an “old-boy network” in science—a lot of white Anglo-Saxon men eager to hand out money and careers to each other, with plenty of work and opportunity for anyone who proves himself a good chap. Business deals are done in tuxedoes over cocktails. Andrews writes more about the fund-raising parties for his expeditions than about their scientific yields. Never in the narrative does it seem like Andrews ever had to struggle for anything, and much of his “luck” can be attributed to having powerful friends like Theodore Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan. 

Andrews’s attitude toward women is also off-putting. He barely mentions his first wife, and makes it clear that he married his second wife for her looks, which is the same way he chooses secretaries, nurses, and waitresses. He devotes less ink to his wives than he does to the madam of a Japanese geisha house he frequented, and never passes up an opportunity to brag about partying with dancing girls. The only time he mentions a female scientist—one of his classmates, a “very attractive girl”—he does so with disdain. Andrews displays some racism as well, mostly directed at the Japanese, which may be attributed to the fact that this was written in the middle of World War II. Overall, however, he is respectful of Asian cultures and loved living in China for many years. 

This was a different era, so if you’re looking for political correctness, you aren’t going to find it here. If it’s adventure you want, however, this book has plenty. I wish it had more science than shooting, but it is still an entertaining read for anyone who has ever dreamt of being an explorer.
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Monday, October 15, 2018

In Desert and Wilderness by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Awfully slow for an adventure novel, no matter how old you are
In Desert and Wilderness, published in 1911, is a novel by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature. The story takes place in northeastern Africa during the 1880s. Though Sienkiewicz wrote other historical adventure novels, In Desert and Wilderness is notable for being the only book he wrote that is intended for a young audience.

Fourteen-year-old Polish boy Stanislas (Stas) Tarkowski and eight-year-old English girl Nel Rawlinson live in Port Said, Egypt, where their widower fathers work as engineers for the Suez Canal. Because of the close friendship between their dads, Stas and Nel are raised almost as brother and sister. When their fathers are called away for various engineering projects, the kids are left at home in the hands of trusted servants. At this period in Africa’s history, a Muslim preacher known as the Mahdi has incited a rebellion against British rule. While the dads are away, Stas and Nel are kidnapped by Arabs who intend to exchange the children for prisoners held by the British. The kidnappers hope to take their little hostages as an offering to the Mahdi in Khartoum. The children, however, set out to escape their captors and undertake an arduous journey to reunite with their fathers.

Though this book may be intended for children, in the typical fashion of a century ago it is in no way dumbed-down as is so much young adult literature published today. Even grown-ups will have trouble keeping up with the intricate political history of Egypt and the Sudan. The series of events that leads to the kidnapping is quite convoluted and tests the patience of readers of all ages. When the captors and captives finally hit the road, it often reads less like a novel than an atlas, each sentence crammed with exotic place names. For a children’s story, there’s an awful lot of realistic violence that’s more suited to grown-up reading. On the other hand, adults won’t appreciate the more fairy tale aspects of the story, in which whatever the children need to survive miraculously falls right into their laps. The book contains some quite thrilling scenes, most involving encounters with wildlife, but they are few and far between, interspersed among long trudges through the desert.

Something else that dulls the excitement of this wilderness survival tale is the fact that the children are accompanied by servants throughout their ordeal. Though the kids show some ingenuity at times, and Stas is good with a rifle, the servants do much of the daily work required to keep them alive. When the children receive help from African characters, it’s never just because the Africans are good people who want to help two kids find their way home, but rather because they are silly, superstitious rubes who view the white kids as gods or benevolent spirits. The whole book is written as a justification of European rule in Africa, where the blacks would be lost without the guidance and governance of the whites.

The story has little to offer girls, as Nel mostly serves as the damsel in distress to Stas’s knight in shining armor. To anyone who has ever read a book by Sienkiewicz, the ending is a foregone conclusion. Adults who read this novel as children may have fond memories of three or four important scenes, but the book is 47 chapters long, and most of those chapters are a bore. Sienkiewicz is a talented writer, so In Desert and Wilderness is not without some literary merit, but it counts among his worst works.

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Friday, October 12, 2018

Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World by Noah Strycker

Birding as endurance sport
Among birdwatchers (or birders, as they prefer to be called), a “big year” is the ultimate test of birding prowess. The goal is to spot as many different bird species as possible within the span of a calendar year. Often these contests are confined to a specific geographic area, such as North America, but over the past half century a few adventurous souls have expanded the big year to worldwide proportions. In 2015, a young Oregonian named Noah Strycker set out not only to put his name in the record books as the winner of the big year, but also to break the world record for most bird species in a year, a mark previously set at 4,341. As if that weren’t enough, Strycker set himself the ultimate goal of sighting at least 5,000 species, or roughly half the world’s known species of birds. To do so, he would bird nonstop for 365 days, traveling through 41 countries and hitting many of the world’s hottest birding hotspots. Strycker, a self-described “bird man,” naturalist, and birding journalist, recounts this epic journey in his 2017 book Birding Without Borders.

The key to Strycker’s success in this big year challenge would be his previously unparalleled level of strategic planning, as well as roughly $60,000 dollars spent on airfare, lodging, and gear, which he claims was paid for mostly by the publisher of this book. The reader circles the globe with Strycker as he navigates exotic locales on all seven continents, but don’t expect a typical travel narrative. All Strycker does in these far-flung nations is bird, relentlessly. For the average adventurous soul who yearns for foreign travel, it may seem like a big waste to spend three weeks in Peru without seeing Machu Picchu, or to travel all over India without stopping at the Taj Mahal. On the other hand, Strycker spends his time in remote wilderness areas and national parks, often traveling through rugged terrain and barely passable roads to get there. He visits many places that most tourists never see, guided by locals whom he has met online through birding websites, and on whose couches and floors he often sleeps. Though he may be gazing through binoculars most of the time, Strycker’s experience of his exotic destinations and their natural environment is far more authentic, personal, and enlightening than any packaged highlight tour.

Birding Without Borders will inevitably be compared to another big year memoir, Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway, in which Kaufman relates his 1973 attempt at a North American big year. Though Kaufman is a very good writer, I personally prefer Strycker’s book. Kingbird Highway was more of a coming of age story that often gave Kaufman’s personal life precedence over his ornithological pursuits. Birding Without Borders is almost strictly about the birds and Strycker’s quest to find them. Strycker goes off on some interesting asides about birding history, local customs, and conservation efforts, but it never gets bogged down in birder jargon, and he doesn’t feel the need to give you an entire history of the American Birding Association like Kaufman seems to feel obligated to do.

One nice added feature to the book is an appendix that lists every one of the thousands of bird species Strycker logged in 2015, listed in chronological order with the names of the countries in which they were spotted. Even if you’re just a casual birder like me rather than a hardcore lister, you will enjoy Strycker’s engaging narrative of his admirable and enviable journey. At times the fascinating trip turns into an exhausting whirlwind tour. Strycker visited so many countries that some are barely mentioned in the book, but even so he still manages to cram a lot of great birding and travel stories into this entertaining travelogue.
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Thursday, October 4, 2018

Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates 2018

Congratulations to Nobody!
In case you haven’t heard, the Swedish Academy decided earlier this year that they would not be awarding a Nobel Prize for literature in 2018. While in the past the literature prize has been cancelled due to war or to a lack of deserving nominees, this year’s cancelation is in response to allegations of sexual misconduct, misuse of Academy funds, and the premature leaking of past winners’ names by the husband of a member of the prize jury. Here at Old Books by Dead Guys, however, we’re going to celebrate the Nobel as we usually do by bringing attention to the works of Nobel laureates of the past.

Each year Old Books by Dead Guys presents the cumulative list of works by Nobel laureates that have been reviewed at this blog. This year, to facilitate browsing for those hunting down a Nobel-caliber read, OBDG’s ratings are clearly marked beside each title to more easily separate the wheat from the chaff. Making their first appearance on the list this year are India’s Rabindranath Tagore, Frances’s Romain Rolland, Sweden’s Verner von Heidenstam, Switzerland’s Carl Spitteler, France’s (and Russia’s) Ivan Bunin, America’s John Steinbeck, and—still alive and kickin’—China’s Mo Yan. Plus, more new works by the likes of Knut Hamsun, Pearl S. Buck, Eugene O’Neill, and more! Check out the authors below and click on the titles to read the complete reviews.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

Rudyard Kipling (1907 Nobel) United Kingdom (born in India) 🇬🇧

Selma Lagerlöf (1909 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Paul von Heyse (1910 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪

Maurice Maeterlinck (1911 Nobel) Belgium 🇧🇪

Gerhart Hauptmann (1912 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪

Rabindranath Tagore (1913 Nobel) India 🇮🇳

Romain Rolland (1915 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Verner von Heidenstam (1916 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Henrik Pontoppidan (1917 Nobel) Denmark 🇩🇰

Carl Spitteler (1919 Nobel) Switzerland 🇨🇭

Knut Hamsun (1920 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Anatole France (1921 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Wladyslaw Reymont (1924 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

George Benard Shaw (1925 Nobel) Ireland 🇮🇪

Sinclair Lewis (1930 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Ivan Bunin (1933 Nobel) France (born in Russia) 🇫🇷 🇷🇺

Eugene O’Neill (1936 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Pearl S. Buck (1938 Nobel) United States of America (raised in China) 🇺🇸

Hermann Hesse (1946 Nobel) Switzerland (born in Germany) 🇨🇭 🇩🇪

Bertrand Russell (1950 Nobel) United Kingdom 🇬🇧

Pär Lagerkvist (1951 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Ernest Hemingway (1954 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Halldór Laxness (1955 Nobel) Iceland 🇮🇸

Borris Pasternak (1958 Nobel) Russia (Soviet Union) 🇷🇺

John Steinbeck (1962 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Mo Yan (2012 Nobel) China 🇨🇳

Bob Dylan (2016 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Bonus: Albert Einstein (1921 Nobel in Physics) Germany/Switzerland 🇩🇪 🇨🇭

See you next year! In the meantime, get your Nobel on!

Friday, September 28, 2018

The Book of Jack London, Volume 2 by Charmian Kittredge London

At home and abroad with Mr. and Mrs. London
The Book of Jack London is a biography of the great American author of The Call of the Wild, Martin Eden, The Iron Heel,To Build a Fire,” and other literary classics. Written by his widow Charmian Kittredge London shortly after his death, The Book of Jack London was published in 1921 in two volumes. Volume 1 consisted mostly of secondhand anecdotes of Jack’s life before he met Charmian. In the second volume, which is superior to its predecessor, Charmian writes firsthand about her life, love, and marriage with Jack.

The book is invaluable for the copious level of detail it provides on the author’s life, such as the places to which he traveled, the people he met, the venues where he lectured, his dealings with publishers, his agricultural operations, and the leisure time Mr. and Mrs. London spent with their friends. I’ve read everything Jack London ever wrote and much of what has been written about him, but this is the first book I can recall that even mentions his trips to Cuba and Jamaica, which is just one example of this volume’s thoroughness. On the other hand, Charmian is probably best known for accompanying Jack on an aborted around-the-world yachting voyage, but she all but skips over that trip here because she’s already covered it in another book, The Log of the Snark. The same is true of much of their Hawaiian travels, which she recounted in her book Our Hawaii.

The biggest problem with The Book of Jack London is Charmian’s writing. Her pretentious prose stands as a glaring exemplar of thesaurus abuse, and her convoluted syntax hinders understanding. In constructing the narrative of her husband’s life, Charmian jumps all over chronologically and thematically while haphazardly reproducing quotations, letters, and poetry, whether relevant or not. The fact that this account of Jack London’s life is quite biased should not be surprising, given it was written by his spouse, but the extent to which Charmian sugarcoats and sanitizes every aspect of Jack’s life really tests the reader’s patience. She speaks about her husband as if he were a cross between Hercules and Romeo. When describing his final days, she paints him as a Christ figure who died for humanity’s sins. Charmian goes to great pains to show that she and Jack shared a superhuman love, not only relentlessly praising the man but reproducing every utterance of praise he ever had for her as well. Nevertheless, one can read between the lines and see that all was not paradise in their relationship, and Jack could be a difficult man to live with. One wishes Charmian had been a little more forthright about Jack’s problems instead of constantly making excuses for him.

Mr. and Mrs. London, who constantly referred to each other as “Mate-Man” and Mate-Woman” and spoke about their love in near-mythic terms, would surely have been an annoying couple to hang out with. Despite Charmian’s best efforts to portray Jack as the perfect man, he often comes across as rather childish and petty in this memoir. Charmian’s account actually lessened my admiration for the man, but not my love for his writing. Though I am fascinated by Jack’s amazing life, Charmian managed to turn it into a book that I just wanted to be over and done with. There’s no denying this book’s value as a source for subsequent biographers, however. If you’re unfamiliar with Jack London’s life story, I would recommend Earle Labor’s 2013 biography Jack London: An American Life. Only the great writer’s most diehard fans will appreciate The Book of Jack London, and even they, like myself, might find themselves annoyed and disappointed by it.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Don’t count him out yet
His Last Bow, published in 1917, is the fourth collection of short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring the detective Sherlock Holmes. The book consists of eight Holmes adventures that were previously published in magazines, mostly The Strand but also Collier’s. In the preceding short story collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes, its final selection, “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” published in 1904, mentions that Holmes had retired from detective work. In a brief preface to His Last Bow, Watson explains that Holmes is still retired, and the adventures detailed in this volume occurred prior to his retirement, so presumably these stories take place before 1904. The one exception is the final story, “His Last Bow: The War Service of Sherlock Holmes,” which takes place during World War I and has Holmes squaring off against German spies.

The volume opens with “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge,” which is unusual for being a two-parter, twice as long as a typical Holmes and Watson adventure. The story, involving the murder of a mysterious Spaniard, is not really one of Holmes’s best, so its double length seems unjustified. Other lackluster selections include “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” in which Holmes sends Watson to Switzerland to do his leg work, and “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” which was one of Conan Doyle’s favorites but seemed pretty obvious to me. Still, we’re talking about Sherlock Holmes stories here, so even the mediocre ones are better than most anything else in the mystery genre. Even when the cases aren’t sufficiently baffling, the atmosphere and the character development still satisfy. Although the first short story collection, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, is definitely the best, it is remarkable how Conan Doyle kept up the quality of the stories through the subsequent volumes, as His Last Bow has no shortage of great mysteries.

“The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” is among the absolute best of Holmes’s adventures. In this delightfully complex case, Sherlock’s brother Mycroft asks him to recover some missing blueprints for a top secret submarine and to investigate the death of the government clerk who apparently stole them. In “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box,” a woman receives two human ears in the mail, and the most remarkable thing of all: they don’t match! In “The Adventure of the Dying Detective,” Watson, finding Holmes deathly ill and delirious, must discern the cause of his friend’s sudden failing health and bizarre behavior. In “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” a landlady asks Holmes to investigate an extremely reclusive tenant who may be involved in criminal activity. In some instances, the final outcomes of these cases may not be entirely baffling, but Holmes still manages to surprise the reader with the perspicacity of his deductive reasoning, and Conan Doyle provides satisfyingly unique and intricate back stories for the supporting characters.

In the final selection, “His Last Bow,” Conan Doyle really deviates from format and begins with a conversation between two German spies, which continues through roughly half the story before our heroes show up. With Holmes in the service of British intelligence and the story’s concluding patriotic message, this adventure calls to mind the Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone, which often pitted Holmes and Watson against the Nazis during World War II. Chronologically, “His Last Bow” is the final Holmes adventure, but one more volume of 12 prequels, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, would be published in 1927. I haven’t yet read that fifth volume of short stories, but if this fourth book is any indication, Holmes and Conan Doyle still have a lot of life left in them.

Stories in this collection
The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge
The Adventure of the Cardboard Box
The Adventure of the Red Circle
The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans
The Adventure of the Dying Detective
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax
The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot
His Last Bow: The War Service of Sherlock Holmes

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Monday, September 24, 2018

North: Adventures in the Frozen Wild by Nicolas Vanier

Photographic retrospective of a life of wilderness expeditions
French adventurer Nicolas Vanier has made a career out of traveling to remote places and documenting his expeditions in books and on film. Specifically, he has spent over three decades exploring northern wildernesses in such locales as Alaska, the Yukon Territory, Siberia, Lapland, and Labrador. North: Adventures in the Frozen Wild, published in 1997, is one of only a few of Vanier’s books that have been translated into English. This 10” x 12” coffee table book presents a photographic retrospective of Vanier’s northern expeditions from 1983 to 1995.

The book is divided into 15 chapters of from 12 to 30 pages, each of which is devoted to a journey through a northern wilderness that Vanier undertook by canoe, dogsled, pack train, or raft. Vanier prefers to travel using the traditional methods of the region’s Indigenous inhabitants, so you won’t find any Gore-Tex, Spandex, or Thinsulate among his gear. He only uses time-honored materials such as wood, leather, and fur, and he prefers to make his own gear himself, including sleds, harnesses, boots, and snowshoes. He sometimes travels in the company of the region’s Native inhabitants, learning their way of life, such as when he makes a trek by reindeer sled with the nomadic Even people of Siberia. In the final chapters, he and his wife build a cabin by hand in the remote woods of the Yukon, where they live with their toddler daughter. Ostensibly the three lived there in complete solitude, though there was also a photographer present to document their lives.

Each chapter begins with a very brief textual introduction stating where Vanier’s journey leads and the methods used to get there. The bulk of the pages, however, are filled with photographs, which are augmented by captions. Overall, the book resembles a series of National Geographic articles without the text. Occasionally there are brief sidebars that offer lessons about a region’s history or its inhabitants. The book also includes many diagrammatic drawings, similar to what you might find in the Boy Scout Handbook, that illustrate Vanier’s tips for how to make your own moccasins, build an igloo, tie appropriate knots, and so forth. These drawings really aren’t thorough enough to function as a how-to manual, but they do give you an idea of what Vanier went through and a fuller appreciation of his methods. The text does not mention any dates for Vanier’s expeditions, and it is sometimes unclear which chapters were stand-alone adventures and which were performed as consecutive stages in one grand tour.

The photographs, though beautiful, are not your typical coffee-table shots of amazing scenery. Almost every image depicts Vanier or members of his team in the act of traveling through the landscape. There are many two-page spreads of dogsled teams, for example. The best images in the book depict the Indigenous peoples and illustrate their way of life. To appreciate a volume such as this, you really have to have a sense of adventure and a desire to live vicariously through Vanier. Perhaps, like him, you grew up reading the stories of Jack London and have always dreamt of an independent, self-sufficient life in the wilderness. If so, you will not only admire Vanier but also envy him. What this book really needs, however, is just more information. While the photos may be stunning, the paucity of text really lessens one’s understanding and appreciation for what Vanier actually accomplished with these expeditions and what he learned from them. Still, it is an enjoyable experience for any armchair adventurer who has ever fantasized about exploring the great wild North.
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