- February 16, 2012
Snapshots showcases short reviews of recently published fiction and non-fiction.
February’s potpourri has adventure and excitement for all, no matter how you like your thrills. Hungry for nonfiction? Try some Arctic ice while curled next to your fireplace (The Ice Balloon), or follow the growth of Hemingway in letters from his youth. For thrills and mystery of the fictional variety, we review The Rook and The Invisible Ones. And for those who didn’t get enough family drama over the holidays, read what reviewer Amanda Holmes Duffy has to say about poet Alan Shapiro’s first novel, Broadway Baby.
The Ice Balloon: S.A. Andree and the Golden Age of Arctic Exploration
by Alec Wilkinson
If the Greely and Nansen expeditions represent the golden age of Arctic exploration — and Alec Wilkinson depicts them as such — woe to those who follow in their footsteps! On those epic journeys, dozens of men ventured out, but only few returned, years later, with stories of the grisly, frozen, dark circumstances of their failures. Then came the Swedish balloonist S.A. Andree. He and two comrades attempted to float over the pole in a matter of weeks. In truth, Andree was mostly interested in finding a way for balloons to become the standard for cross-oceanic travel. Oh, those poor deluded balloonists! Their science was inadequate and their technology flawed. Three gentlemen floated off to their doom on July 11, 1897. After two days, the balloon went down, and the ill-prepared three began to walk south, pulling 400-pound sleds on rugged, wet and sludgy ice in sub-zero temperatures and increasingly lightless conditions. The sun set for good in September, and by October the stranded balloonists finally found a sliver of land to settle onto. One man was killed by a bear, and Andree and his remaining partner died side by side, in a sitting position, in a hollowed-out space on the shore of White Island on the northeast coast of the Spitzbergen Islands. Their bodies were not found until 1930. Shackleton’s South presents something more heroic, but Wilkinson reminds us of how wrong exploration can go.
We think of Hemingway as the man of action whose Spartan prose explores a world in which meanings are not always clear and struggles rage between nature’s destructiveness and man’s nihilistic response. But these letters, which cover Hemingway’s early years (progressing from Oak Park, Illinois. to the author’s arrival in Paris in December 1921), showcase a different Hemingway. In the preface, Linda Patterson Miller observes that these early letters gauge the “emotional compass of Hemingway’s coming of age as he confronted his rapidly changing world firsthand.” Most are written to his parents, Grace and Clarence Hemingway, his sister Marcelline and friends from home. Topics range from baseball and job frustration to details of his European travels. Hemingway’s wartime correspondence provides rich intellectual material for understanding the war’s impact on his psychological development. While much has been made of his being wounded while driving an ambulance for the American Red Cross, many letters from the front find the author underplaying the danger. For example, in a June 1918 letter Hemingway remarks that the French people accept the arrival of German bombs “as a matter of course and hardly show any interest.” Letters toward the end of this volume addressed to Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound mark Hemingway’s arrival on the literary scene. In a March 9, 1922 letter to Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway describes Pound as “a really good guy … with a fine bitter tongue onto him,” identifies Joyce’s work Ulysses as a “most god-damn wonderful book” and defines his relationship with Gertrude Stein oddly as that of “brothers.” The editors of this volume have done a fantastic job piecing together the epistolary exchanges of the author’s early life and produced an exceptional achievement for Hemingway scholars and lay readers alike.
Call it a combination of Michael Crichton and Ghostbusters, a techno-thriller with perfectly placed bursts of humor. The book begins with a young woman recovering consciousness in a London park, reading a letter that says, “The body you are wearing used to be mine.” She is now Myfanwy Thomas, a high-level operative in a secret agency protecting society from supernatural forces. All members of this agency have odd powers: one can inhabit other peoples’ dreams, another is one mind inhabiting four bodies. Myfanwy must discover who she is, and thwart the plans of the agency’s enemies—and some of its members. The action moves fast: violence is perfunctory, and wit pulls the reader along. The author, Daniel O’Malley, is working in media relations for an agency of the Australian government. The ending of The Rook allows for a sequel. O’Malley may soon be able to quit his day job.
~Susan Storer Clark
The Invisible Ones
by Stef Penney
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
The Invisible Ones opens as half-Romany private eye Ray Lovell awakes in a hospital after a near-fatal accident. Paralyzed by a concoction of henbane and ergot, he has no memory of the crash or, at first, of much else. But soon he recalls the wealthy Romany father who hired him to find his missing daughter Rose. Penney, a master of the small telling detail, effortlessly interweaves Ray’s past and present with the voice of Rose’s teenage nephew as Ray unravels far more than the mystery behind the young woman’s disappearance. The burden of an inherited chronic disease that affects only males has decimated the Janko family and triggered a multifaceted deception. The story offers a fascinating tour of English Romany life and legend, showing both those who embrace the traveling life and those who have settled for brick. The final secret is quite a twist, although the denouement might have been better served by observing the writers’ workshop trope, “show, don’t tell.” Ray’s “aha” moment and several unresolved issues proved a little anticlimactic.
Miriam’s fantasy life is informed by Fanny Brice, Cole Porter songs and a love for the stage. The prolific poet Alan Shapiro has divided his first novel, Broadway Baby, into three “acts” that move through Miriam’s courtship, married life and child-rearing years, and end in her old age. Instead of going into the theater herself, Miriam pushes her middle child, Ethan, into the profession, with mixed success. Each act in the family drama is divided into “scenes,” which work more as a montage. Owing to the omniscient narration, and in spite of their old-fashioned charm, the first two acts have a sketched-in feeling. The world of the theater happens at a remove and productions are mentioned only in passing. The real drama is the story of a Jewish mother in the 1950s and difficult family life, complete with an irascible grandma, a bed- wetting son and endless errands. For two-thirds of the book I wondered whose story this was, and why Shapiro wanted to tell it. When I got to Act III, I understood. The scenes of family illness and therapy sessions are bitterly poignant. In the final heartbreaking act, Shapiro pulls out all the stops and his dialog soars.
~Amanda Holmes Duffy