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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-04-06 08:22
ice floes, blubber and reindeer sleeping bags, oh my!
Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage - Alfred Lansing
Insomuch as a written account of a noted historical event can be spoiled, this review contains spoilers. If you don't want to be spoiled, stop here and read the book. It's excellent.

So much is amazing about Ernest Shackleton's voyage to explore Antarctica and the misadventures that follow, but the most noteworthy one is that everyone survives. Think of it, 28 men spend nearly two years essentially camping on ice floes or drifting in 20-foot wooden lifeboats where the temperature rarely rise above freezing and no one dies. NO. ONE. DIES. What author of fiction would have the audacity to write that?

Actually, I should qualify the above to say that no human dies. Because the the expedition was supposed to be a trans-Antarctic, there were lots of dogs. More dogs than humans. And with so many dogs, there were also puppies!

There was also a cat named Mrs. Chippy

Photo Credit Frank Hurley -http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3818613.stm from Scott Polar Research Institute - Cambridge,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?...

Sadly, the four legged crew members took one for the team so to speak. What author of fiction would have the audacity to write that?

As is often the case with survival stories, there's lots of discussion of food. The expedition was well stocked, and rations were supplemented and eventually supplanted with what they could hunt. Seals and penguins feature prominently in their diet, with the occasional sea leopard. Protein and blubber, yum. This image may bring memories of the delightful children's book Mr. Popper's Penguins, but nope, cute penguins never made it back to England, but they did make it into something called hoosh.

Ironically, starvation was never a sustained threat to the crew of the Endurance. What was a threat was the sustained cold, wet and monotony. Monotony in their activity, their diet and the company they kept. And yet, they survived, and they functioned largely without despair or fear. At least that is how it's documented in this book. As you can see, there is a photographic record of the events and many of the men also kept diaries. The author interviewed many of the crew members and had firsthand accounts. I find myself wondering if the crew withheld any dark events or secrets for posterity (what happens on the ice floe stays on the ice floe). These events took place around 1915-1916 (think early Downton Abby seasons), an era that seems to be on the cusp between old timey-days and modern times.

So now that I have spoiled everything, why should you read this book? Because it is a case study in leadership and the will to survive. It's an amazing tale, yet as fiction it be ridiculed and rejected for its amazingly optimistic outcome. As non-fiction, it's compelling and hopeful. I was riveted.

2016 reading challenge checks the box for 36. A book about a road trip. Ok, that might be stretching it a bit, but if road trip = adventure, this is totally on the mark.


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review 2015-08-30 06:54
lots of babies but not one cigar
Call The Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950s - Jennifer Worth

A  midwife's authentic and slightly ethnocentric account of mid-20th century London slums.  While the author is a competent writer, it's not literary, and to me that adds to the charm.   She was a bit patronizing of her patients at times, but she did seem to genuinely care for them.  I really liked learning about this piece of post-war London as it is rarely depicted in books and movies.  Certainly a great book for anyone interested in women's heath in a pre-oral contraceptive era.

There are two more books in this memoir (a memoir trilogy?) and a netflix series to boot.  Potential of midwifery ahead.   Maybe.

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review 2015-08-20 07:22
under the banner of disturbing revelations
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith - Jon Krakauer

When a man kills a woman and her toddler in cold blood and claims god told him to do it, your first reaction is he must be crazy. Because only a crazy person would do that, right? Actually, he's quite rational under the construct of his belief system. The biggest and most disturbing takeaway from this book is that those who murder innocent people, exploit women and molest children in the name of god are not mentally ill, but rather responding to their circumstance in a logical manner using their beliefs and doctrine to guide them.


Wait a minute, wasn't this a book about the LDS church and spin off fundamentalist sects? Yes! The book intersperses Mormon history with a true crime account of the events before, during and after the above mentioned murder. It's an interesting approach and helps illustrate the circumstances in which this could happen. While this is ostensibly about the LDS church, it delves into that fuzzy line that divides garden variety god-fearing people from religious fanatics.


Disclaimer - I am not a Mormon, not a church goer, not an advocate of any Christian faith. However, I have an interest in the sociology of religion and a particular interest in the LDS church. I find much about it paradoxical. I have observed that Mormons seem to want to pass as 'normal', just like me and you, only without the coffee, cigarettes and alcohol. This mainstreaming of the LDS population can probably be tied to the church officially denouncing the practice of polygamy in 1890 and Utah becoming a state. Ever since, the LDS church vigorously disavows the practice. Arguably the church's growth in the 20th century would not have happened without distancing itself from the practice of polygamy. Unfortunately, the structure of the religion as it was founded - anyone can receive a revelation from god - makes it rife for spin-off LDS sects embrace the original doctrine. Hence, you have several flavors of fundamentalist LDS groups living in remote insular communities where the men exploit, subjugate and sexually abuse woman and girls and justify it as their god sanctioned family values.


The author mentions on several occasions that the LDS church is unique in that it is relatively new and people, places and events are well documented. It is, although the Gold Plates from which Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon are conveniently missing. BTW, he translated the BOM from these plates by looking a magic stone with his face in his hat. As it turns out, you don't need an airtight narrative to amass millions of followers.

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