Wednesday, October 17, 2007

THE ARCTIC GRAIL by Pierre Berton

The Book: Pierre Berton, THE ARCTIC GRAIL: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909. The Lyons Press, trade paperback reprint, 2001. Book is in fine condition.
First read: 2001
Owned since: 2001

I don't remember when or where I bought this book. Sometime late in the 1990s, I read Beryl Bainbridge's The Birthday Boys, about Robert Falcon Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition, and it sparked a mild obsession with all things polar that has lasted ever since.

I can't explain it, because until I moved to Maine I never lived north of New York City, and was known for hostility toward cold temperatures and winter sports. If I believed in reincarnation, which I don't, I might speculate that I'd spent too much time in the frozen north or south in a previous life.

This massive book -- 671 pages, although 40 are notes, bibliography and index -- recounts a series of obsessions with the once-mythical Northwest Passage. Whether or not it existed (and it does), explorers determined early on that it would never be commercially viable. They spent fortunes and lives looking for it anyway; why?

Berton does his best to explain, in ten chapters that follow the careers of half a dozen explorers who tackled the question with varying degrees of optimism and foolhardiness. The most famous of these was Sir John Franklin, who lost not only his own party, but also several members of expeditions sent out to rescue him. (The details of Franklin's fate will never be known, but I recommend Dan Simmons' novel The Terror for one particularly harrowing take on the story.)

The thermometer read 35F this morning, and the fog was so heavy -- because the ground temperature was warmer than the air -- that Dizzy and I had to wait for it to burn off before going out. Now that I live here I don't mind the cold, once I'm used to it, and Dizzy doesn't even notice it until the temperature drops into the teens.

I'd still rather read about camping in the Arctic than do it myself, though.

Five Random Songs

"(Do Not Feed the) Oyster," Stephen Malkmus. High-quality indie pop-rock from the former lead singer of Pavement.

"Could You Be Loved," Bob Marley. An instant jolt of optimism, better than a shot of Red Bull.

"I'll Work for Your Love," Bruce Springsteen. From the new album, Magic, which I am loving -- thanks, Susan!

"Lay Me Down," The Connells. A guitar-driven waltz from Fun & Games. I'm a sucker for anything in 3/4 time, and this song even has a chorus that goes "La la la, la la la la la"...

"Strike Up the Band," Bob Cooper Octet. Classic work from a virtuoso of the saxophone.


Lefty said...

I really enjoyed the novel VOYAGE OF THE NARWHAL by Andrea Barrett. Great Arctic exploration read.

Anonymous said...

At the moment "I'll Work for Your Love" is my favorite song from Magic. It's a hymn-like offer of borderline-obsessive love - set to a toe-tapping beat. What's not to love?

AnswerGirl said...

I have an entire shelf of "Polar" books, and VOYAGE OF THE NARWHAL is one of them -- maybe I'll devote an entire week to them, sometime in January.