The Book: Alfred Lansing, ENDURANCE: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage. Carroll & Graf trade paperback, 1997 (16th printing). Good condition; back cover is slightly warped from exposure to damp.
First read: 1997
Owned since: 1997
Ernest Shackleton was part of Robert Falcon Scott's first, abortive 1901 expedition to Antarctica. He led his own unsuccessful expedition to the South Pole in 1907, turning back only 97 miles from his goal, and returned in 1914 determined to cross the continent of Antarctica by foot.
Shackleton drew on his own experience to plan and equip his expedition. He brought furs, not wool, and dogs rather than mules or ponies. He also brought an expedition photographer to record it all, and the photographer brought a motion picture camera.
Although Shackleton was a sailor by training, his ship was not designed to withstand the pack ice of the Pole. The Endurance was trapped and crushed by pack ice, and the 28 members of the expedition were forced to abandon it on October 27, 1915. Shackleton led his men and dogs almost 200 miles to set up a camp at Elephant Island; then, in a desperate effort to reach help, he and five others took a 22-foot open boat, the James Caird, over 800 miles of ocean -- and by foot across South Georgia Island -- to find rescue. Even then, it took another four months to rescue the men left on Elephant Island, but every man survived. (One of the men on the James Caird, Able Seaman Timothy McCarthy, was killed in the Great War just three weeks after returning from Antarctica.)
It may well be the greatest feat of human endurance in history, and I'd never even heard of it until I was an adult -- something that still baffles me. It didn't even happen that long ago; Lansing, writing in 1959, was able to talk and correspond with survivors of the Endurance. The last survivor, First Officer Lionel Greenstreet, died in 1979 at the age of 89.
Photographer James Hurley not only managed to film much of the expedition, but also managed to hang onto his film throughout the ordeal. The movie footage became the documentary South, which is one of the most amazing films you'll ever see. It's available on DVD through Netflix, but if you ever get a chance to see it in a theater, don't miss it.
Best Books I Read in 2007, Part Two
Laura Lippman, WHAT THE DEAD KNOW. The best book I read this year. Two sisters disappear from a Baltimore shopping center at Easter, 1975; 30 years later, a woman claims to be one of the missing girls. The mysteries only begin here, as this novel explores the secrets families keep from each other, the secrets we keep from ourselves, and the essential challenge of midlife: facing up to who we really are.
J.K. Rowling, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. Why should I feel guilty about including this book on this list? I have one friend in particular who's just nasty about this series, and to him I say: Shut up, you snob and begrudger. The Harry Potter novels were an extraordinary achievement, and this book wound up the series in the most satisfying way I could have imagined.
Dan Simmons, THE TERROR. Quite a lot of polar expeditions have the adjective "doomed" attached, and this epic horror novel speculates on the fate of one of them: Sir John Franklin's voyage to find the Northwest Passage, 1846-1849. Seven hundred-plus pages, and I read it in about two days.
Tobias Wolff, OLD SCHOOL. Thanks to Scott Phillips for recommending this small gem. At a boys' boarding school in early 1960s New England, the students compete to meet with visiting famous writers -- Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and others. A visit from Ernest Hemingway leads the narrator to some choices that change his life permanently. The ending, set years later, baffled me and felt tacked on; otherwise, the book is perfect.
Daniel Woodrell, WINTER'S BONE. This made several friends' "Best of 2006" lists, but I didn't get to it until 2007. Sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly's father is missing, and if he's jumped bail, they'll lose their house. Ree's determination to find the truth nearly destroys her, but ultimately saves her. She is one of the fiercest, most memorable characters I've ever met.
So that's the top ten. The next ten also deserve mention: A HELL OF A WOMAN, edited by Megan Abbott; NEW ENGLAND WHITE by Stephen L. Carter; THE UNQUIET by John Connolly; THE GHOST by Robert Harris; THE COLOR OF BLOOD by Declan Hughes; THE SPELLMAN FILES by Lisa Lutz; A FATAL GRACE by Louise Penny; RED CAT by Peter Spiegelman; THE AMATEUR MARRIAGE by Anne Tyler; and WHO IS CONRAD HIRST? by Kevin Wignall.