Some Personal Favorites from 1999

Review by Lynda La Rocca

Favorite Books – January 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

THIS YEAR, my choices are all over the map — and I mean that both literally and figuratively.

For a taste of genuine, death-defying adventure, the kind we moderns pay exorbitant sums to be carefully guided through, pick up a copy of The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1998).

In August, 1914, the great British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and his 27-member crew set sail for Antarctica aboard his ship, the Endurance. Shackleton’s goal: to complete the first crossing of the entire Antarctic continent — on foot.

But they never even made landfall. With the Endurance trapped in, and eventually crushed by, pack ice, her crew drifted for 170 days on ice floes, enduring nearly unimaginable cold.

And that was only the beginning. After leaving the ice, the crew spent a week in small, open boats on stormy seas before reaching the desolate coast of Elephant Island, their first contact with land in 20 months. In a desperate attempt to save his comrades, Shackleton and five crew members set sail again for South Georgia Island, 800 miles distant. After landing–miraculously–17 days later, Shackleton and two companions struggled through miles of unmapped, glacier-filled wilderness to reach manned whaling stations on the island’s opposite side. From there, a ship was dispatched to rescue those still stranded on Elephant Island, and on August 30, 1916, the ordeal of the crew of the Endurance ended at last.

“I have done it,” Shackleton wrote his wife shortly afterward. “. . . Not a life lost and we have been through Hell.”

I’ll say. Alexander’s account of this complicated and unbelievable journey is enhanced by the frequent inclusion of entries from the journals of Shackleton and his crew. (Incredibly, the men kept writing even in the open boats.) But numerous black and white photographs, taken by expedition photographer Frank Hurley and chronicling the voyage from beginning to end, are by far the book’s most unforgettable feature. There are no words to adequately describe his images of the listing Endurance locked in her death throes on an ice-choked, indifferent sea.

ONE NEED ONLY ENTER the seemingly sedate world of Jane Austen’s heroines to realize that cruelty and indifference are not unique to the Antarctic.

In her classic novel, Sense and Sensibility, Austen is at both her comic, and tragic, best. As hopeless romantic Marianne (the epitome of “sensibility”) falls in love with a scoundrel, while her more reasonable sister, Elinor, (the personification of “sense”) loses her heart to an already-engaged gentleman, readers revel in Austen’s always dead-on accurate portrayals of universal human passions, nobilities and frailties.

From describing one character as “not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather coldhearted and rather selfish to be ill-disposed,” to skewering another as “not a woman of many words; for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas,” Austen delights with her finely-drawn characters who, whether kind or heartless, silly or wise, are always genuine enough to remind us of our own friends, relations — and selves.

Given the controversy about the Harry Potter children’s books, I decided to see whether these were truly the devil’s work, as has been argued in some quarters.

Now that I’ve read the first in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic Inc., 1997), I can confidently say this book is a keeper, destined to be read over and over again. This delightful, fast-paced tale of Harry’s introduction into a magical world of magical powers, courtesy of the training provided at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is filled with just the kind of goofy, yet wondrous, happenings that enchant children of all ages.

Harry is measured for his magic wand, gets his first taste of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, a confection which can taste like anything from chocolate and peppermint to liver or ear wax, studies for classes in Potions, Charms, and the History of Magic, and becomes adept at Quidditch, a wild game played in the air on broomsticks. Meanwhile, he learns about his own past and his special abilities, and stops, albeit temporarily, an evil and dangerous enemy who will go to any lengths to obtain absolute power.

Anyone who enjoys fantasy can’t help but be charmed by this funny, wise, wonderful book. I can’t wait to read the others in this series.