Review: The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven

Cover of The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven

Author: Jennifer Niven
Title: The Ice Master
Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: November 2000
Publisher: Hachette Books
Length: 402 pages
Genre: Creative/narrative non-fiction
Why I Read: Interested in the Karluk‘s journey
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads | IndieBound | Indigo | Amazon

My introduction to the Karluk voyage came via Eric Walter’s Trapped in Ice. Walter’s book is one of the earliest chapter books I remember reading, perhaps in grade three. Earlier this year, I read Captain Bartlett’s official journals of the event in The Karluk’s Last Voyage. Both of these books indulge in some sugar coating and neither of them explore what happened to those left on the ice after Bartlett departed. The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven (author of All the Bright Places) fills in those gaps, offering a detailed account of how the Karluk‘s final voyage went so wrong. The fate of the Karluk provides an excellent exploration of how one terrible choice after another can lead to disastrous outcomes.

I enjoyed how Niven constructed the narrative. She attempts to allow “the people of the Karluk […] to speak on these pages in their own distinctive and passionate voices” (ix). This results in a tale that is less a factual account and more an adventure novel, though it still has that non-fiction vibe to it. She describes small yet poignant moments, such as when Mamen’s pocket watch suddenly starts working again during a dull day (78). However, Niven’s narrative makes it almost too easy to root for the good guys and boo at the bad guys. It’s harder to keep in mind that these were real people Niven didn’t know. The personalities of and interactions between the men may have been more complex than Niven portrays. Still, I enjoyed rallying behind Mamen and nodding in agreement with his judgment of certain characters.

The time the men spent on the island was a lot darker than I imagined. (The other two accounts I read of the Karluk were poor influences on my expectations.) Some nasty characters inhabited the Karluk, even if they weren’t in actuality as awful as Niven portrays them. I can’t help but wonder if any of it was inspiration for The North Water. Of course, that book is on a whole nother level; it’s a bit of a stretch to link the two…but I can see how one might get some seedlings of ideas from the Karluk’s situation.

The ice was misleading. It was easy to feel safe when the ice was still and settled and the men were tucked safely inside the ship. Their frozen home gave them a false sense of security. The scenery, too, was unspeakably beautiful, and it was hard to believe that something so lovely could at the same time be so deadly. The sky was bright as a mirror at times, and there was only ice and snow “and a few openings and small water channels that shine and glitter” as far as the eye could see, observed Mamen. (64)

Niven’s prose itself isn’t exceptional, but it doesn’t need to be. The subject matter impresses on its own. A handful of moments (I would have appreciated more of them) made me pause as I imagined what it would have been like to truly experience the Arctic ice, snow, and darkness.

There were two degrees of frost on McKinlay’s bunk, and everything that was freezable in the Cabin DeLuxe was frozen and frozen hard. When the men awakened, the room looked like a glittering ice palace. It covered everything, and long, jagged icicles shone from the ceiling. (87)

The Bottom Line:

A well-researched and well-written (and at times emotional) account of a lesser-known disastrous Arctic journey.

Further Reading:

Jenna's signature

Review: 438 Days by Jonathan Franklin

Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: November 2015
Publisher: Atria Books
Length: 269 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: Intriguing subject matter
Read If You: Like stories about people who overcome the impossible
Rating★★★★
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

Since reading In the Heart of the Sea, I’ve been interested in reading more stories about 19th century sea exploration and survival tales. 438 Days describes one man’s survival lost at sea for over a year. This story, however, differs from the historical stories in which I might find interest. The lost seaman is an El Salvadorian living in Mexico. Salvador Alvarenga became lost after a storm in November 2013. I’m astonished that, in spite of all our technological advances, the world remains so vast that we can still lose entire planes (let alone one man in a little boat) and never find them.

My heart broke for Ezequiel Córdoba, a young man who accompanies Alvarenga at the last minute. He has little experience on the expansive ocean, which causes him a great more suffering than Alvarenga initially experiences. An anecdote from their third week at sea demonstrates the relationship between the two:

Day 23: Córdoba was in worse shape. He pleaded with Alvarenga, “Oranges, bring me oranges.” Alvarenga stood above the prone man and assured him food was close. “Okay, I am going to the store, I will see if it is open, to bring you some food,” he said with conviction as he pointed to the horizon. “I will get tamales, oranges and shrimp.” Alvarenga strode with confidence for the few seconds it took to cross the boat. After waiting for five minutes in silence, he strode back with bad news. “The store is closed, but don’t worry, they open in an hour and they have fresh tortillas.” To his surprise, the scheme worked. Córdoba stopped moaning and fell asleep. The game of visiting the store bought Alvarenga a few hours of respite from t he cloud of fear that had seize Córdoba’s mind and rarely loosened its grip on the despairing young fisherman. (92-93)

This anecdote also illustrates an aspect of the book I appreciated. Franklin interviewed experts on various subjects related to Alvarenga’s journey. After relaying the story shared above, Franklin quotes Dr. John Leach, a “senior research fellow in survival psychology”. Leach explains why the shop exercise was beneficial to both Córdoba and Alvarenga’s mental health. Córdoba has something to look forward to and Alvarenga has “an automatic task […] a job that gives meaning to your existence” (94) to complete. There are numerous places where Alvarenga’s journey is explained and supplemented by experts in relevant fields, or by those who interact with Alvarenga.

Alvarenga’s survival techniques impressed me. Likely few other men would have been able to survive in his position, without his knowledge. What most surprised me was how he could survive on raw foods, eating creatures like fish and birds whole and drinking turtle blood. I got really stressed on those rare occasions when he would spot a boat. Like, it’s only day 126, you know he’s not going to be rescued (131)!

Because of In the Heart of the Sea, my mind did wander a bit towards the concept of cannibalism, but it was not something I really wanted to dwell, especially given the modern context of this story. The word is mentioned once in the book (about the media frenzy as Alvarenga’s story emerges). Alvarenga makes peace with Córdoba’s mother, but Córdoba’s brothers are unimpressed with Alvarenga’s explanation (253). I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in their position. I discovered while looking for news updates that Córdoba’s family filed legal action against Alvarenga, suing for $1 million, shortly after the book was published.

Towards the end of the book, I began to feel a little seasick myself. I wasn’t feeling so great and reading this book just made my head spin more! It’s a bit like trying to fathom the size of the universe – trying to imagine how Alvarenga survived 438 days lost in a tiny boat, 320 of those days alone. I don’t suppose I would survive a week. Franklin does a good job of illustrating how Alvarenga managed his time and what kind of headspace he strove for (and sometimes lost).

A cynic might say otherwise, but I’m impressed that Alvarenga chose to tell his story with a journalist who could share that story with the world. I did ponder the connection was between Alvarenga and Franklin (who is the sole author credited for the book). In the author’s afterword, Franklin asks the question I wondered all along – “What else [aside from financial benefits] motivated him to spend hour after hour with me, telling all the details of his story?” Franklin quotes Alvarenga’s answer at length, but here is the gist of it:

I suffered so much and for so long. Maybe if people read this they will realize that if I can make it, they can make it. Many people suffer only because of what happens in their head; I was also physically being tortured. I had no food. No water. If I can make it so can you. If one depressed person avoids committing suicide then the book is a success. (261) 

The Bottom Line: A fascinating tale of survival and resilience, unlike any other. Recommended for fans of narrative non-fiction.

Further Reading:

Review: The North Water by Ian McGuire

Author: Ian McGuire
Title: The North Water 
Format/Source: eBook/NetGalley 
Published: 11 February (UK)/15 March (North America)
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Literary thriller
Why I Read: Dark whaling tale
Read If You: Can stomach graphic, want to try Arctic ‘noir’
Rating★★★★ 
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Behold the man: stinking, drunk, and brutal. Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaler bound for the rich hunting waters of the arctic circle. Also aboard for the first time is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money, and no better option than to sail as the ship’s medic on this violent, filthy, and ill-fated voyage. In India, during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner thought he had experienced the depths to which man can stoop. He had hoped to find temporary respite on the Volunteer, but rest proves impossible with Drax on board. The discovery of something evil in the hold rouses Sumner to action. And as the confrontation between the two men plays out amid the freezing darkness of an arctic winter, the fateful question arises: who will survive until spring?

I found this review tough to write. I enjoyed this book (to my own surprise!) but there’s a lot about it I feel that I need to ‘set straight’. I like to include the publishers description in my blog posts for books that aren’t yet published, but this time I do so with a hint of hesitation. Everyone’s impression of a book after reading one of these marketing descriptions will be different. However, I think there is an objective difference between the book I read and this blurb. Not a huge difference, but one that might influence your decision or whether or not to check out this book.  The North Water is Sumner’s story, not Drax’s. The two are not pitted in some sort of conflict the whole way through (which is what I expected after reading the description :P). If you’re wondering (like I did…) “How can they end up not killing each other? Are they each going to gather men to their sides?” etc., then you can put those thoughts to rest. Their conflict plays out naturally. Something else that might muddy your impressions of this tale is the first chapter, which focuses on Drax. If Drax disgusts you, and you find yourself thinking “How can I read a whole novel about this man??” – don’t worry, you won’t be reading a whole novel about him. That being said… Drax is not just evil incarnate. He’s a shocking, disgusting man, yet McGuire successfully puts some effort towards exploring why. There’s not a whole lot to the why – certainly nothing that attempts to justify Drax’s actions – just enough to make him all the more creepy.

This courtyard has become a place of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations, and Henry Drax is its wild, unholy engineer. (Loc128)

Going back to that first chapter… If you’ve heard anything about this book, you’ve probably heard that it’s graphic (applicable in this tale to that trinity of violence, sex and language). I don’t think I’d read anything this graphic before. It certainly made me uncomfortable at times, inducing a bit of stomach churning. I learnt from reading this book where that line of what I can and cannot stand lies. (The North Water is right on the border). Anything more graphic than this will be too unpleasant for me to bother reading. Chapter 1 functions as a warning, a shock to the system. It flashes, “If this is too icky for you, pick up another book.” But if that’s about as much as you can handle, then proceed. (If the entire book was like chapter 1, I couldn’t read it.)  The story doesn’t get worse than that. The graphic descriptions generally apply to bodily states and functions, rather than the actual acts being committed. Having said all that, the graphic descriptions don’t overwhelm the novel. I can count the descriptions of Drax’s violence on one hand. Those moments are intense and disgusting, yet they don’t become the entire story. There are other moments where you brace for the worst and it doesn’t happen. Attempting to avoid spoilers here. Just know that not everyone is as awful as you might expect. Finally, I’ll add that the foul language that seems too thick and cartoonish at the beginning eventually thins out, but the descriptions of unpleasant bodily functions never entirely cease. There’s a few spots where I commented “Is this really necessary? =.=” I’ll spare you the quotes.

“I’d venture the Good Lord don’t spend much time up here in the North Water,” he says with a smile. “It’s most probable he don’t like the chill.” (Loc1437)

Yup, I feel a bit weird writing my opening paragraph about how the book’s description and first chapter don’t give a good impression of what it’s about, but I wanted to clear that up. So that review was mostly me defending the book against gory claims…what can I say is good about The North Water? Quite a bit, actually! I loved the prose, the setting, and Sumner. The plot held my interest. What fuelled all this is probably that I had this intense feeling that I, the reader, being the averagely decent modern sort of human being that I am, would never encounter such scenes as those depicted within the tale. I know this sounds like a simple concept. Isn’t that why we read? To experience that which we would never otherwise experience? This book takes that experience to another level. I was keenly aware of the sorts of lives I will never interact with, let alone experience.

The men from the Zembla are dancing with the whores; they are all whooping and stamping their feet on the floorboards. The air is filling with sawdust and peat smoke. There is a warm, fetid odor of tobacco and ashes and stale beer. Drax looks disdainfully across at the dancers and then asks Sumner to buy him another whiskey. (Loc429)

The plot held my interest. It wasn’t wholly predictable, surprising me at times. (Thankfully, there were no twists of the WTF variety.) The rhythmic prose, however, drew me in more than the plot. McGuire can create an intense atmosphere, using precise yet evocative prose. I highlighted more great quotes than I should stuff into this post. (Also, I’ve rarely felt such emotion at the final line of a novel.) I also appreciated Sumner’s character arc. I’ve never encountered a character quite like him, one who finds himself facing such a dreadful situation. His development over the story had me glued to the page, wondering where he would end up. This is another book to add to your dark winter reading list. 

Although [Sumner] is certainly annoying, there is something admirable in his persistence. He is a dogged little fucker all in all. (Loc1509)

A small aside: I find ebooks super convenient for these historical novels. I can easily look up old slang, origins of words, historical events referenced in passing, all those little tidbits which flavour a novel that I would otherwise overlook.

The Bottom Line: A tale held together by gruesome events, you may nonetheless find The North Water a rewarding read. Setting, plot, prose, and characterization may all well captivate the reader who can grit their teeth and dig in.

 

Further Reading: 

    Brief Thoughts: The Karluk’s Last Voyage by Robert A. Bartlett

    GoodReads | IndieBound | Chapters | Amazon

    ★★★½

    Call it love of adventure if you will; it seems to me the life that ought to appeal to any man with red blood in his veins, for as long as there is a square mile of the old earth’s surface that is unexplored, man will want to seek out that spot and find out all about ti and bring back word of what he finds. Some people call the search for the North Pole a sporting event; to me it represents the unconquerable aspiration of mankind to attain an ideal. Our Karluk drift and its possibilities interested me keenly, for we were on the way to a vast region where man had never been; we were learning things about ocean currents and the influence of the winds and almost daily were bringing up strange specimens from the bottom of the sea. And I felt sure that come what might we would get back in safety to civilization. (50)

    • One of the earliest chapter books I remember reading, perhaps in grade three, is Traped in Ice by Eric Walters. The main character is Helen, a 13 year-old who boards the Karluk with her seamstress mother and younger brother. I remember being disappointed, at that age, when I  eventually found out she wasn’t real (There was a Helen aboard the Karluk – an 8 year old Inuit girl, on board with her mother, father, and baby sister).
    • One scene that stood out for me from Trapped In Ice was Captain Bartlett playing Chopin’s “Funeral March” as the ship goes down, and jumping from the ship to the ice at the last moment. Of all the bits of the tale I expected to be fictionalized…this one wasn’t! I didn’t know what happened to the Captain after he left the island to get help (other than that they were eventually rescued), so there was still a good chunk of the story left (about 50%) for me to learn about.
    • I enjoyed reading the tale in the Captain’s own words. I have a budding interest in seafaring exploration. This is the first book I’ve read that was written by someone who lived it. The tone is naturally a bit more formal and old-fashioned so while it wasn’t a dull read for me it felt much slower going as the two books I’d read immediately prior I had completed in a day each. I did get the sense that quite a lot of sugar-coating happens in this narration, if only by omission…This is not a tell-all where Bartlett disparages those who might rightly deserve to be. I have a couple other books on my TBR about the Karluk, so I’ll have to compare. Bartlett remains very factual at times, but his personality does come through. I especially felt for him as he wrote of his angst while he waited weeks for a ship to be finally sent to pick up the remainder of the Karluk crew, knowing that they had no idea if he had succeeded. 
    • How well off they were, for so long after the Karluk was trapped and sunk, surprised me. They had good stores of food and no health troubles. Of course, how they fared after Bartlett departed isn’t really dealt with (and see my comment on sugar-coating above…). Still, I’m always amazed at how much can be packed into a ship!
    • Bartlett has a largely decent attitude towards the Inuit. Though he at times uses the term savages, he seems to respect them and their abilities. He writes, “Then he [an Inuit he’s trying to trade with] voice the age-old cry of the savage against the civilized; the pity of it is that the savage is right. ‘White man steal from other man,’ he said. ‘White man promise bring things for fox skins and bear skins. White man no bring ’em. White man go ‘way, forget come back.'” (251)
    • I liked the bits where Bartlett explains about the practicalities of travelling in the Arctic. I even liked his lists of supplies! I was reminded of Chris Hadfield’s book, which really put into perspective the astonishing amount of knowledge of an astronaut must have in order to be able to survive many scenarios. Bartlett demonstrates his knowledge of Arctic ice travel, of rationing and keeping moral and navigating dangerous ice, which saved those who followed his lead.

    Pemmican has been the staple article of food for polar expeditions for many years and contains, in small compass, the essentials adequate to support life. It is put up by various packing-houses, expressly for such needs as ours. I have lived for a hundred and twenty days on pemmican, biscuit and tea and found it amply sufficient. We had two kinds of pemmican; one, for ourselves, consisting of beef, raisins, sugar and suet, all cooked together and pressed, was packed in blue tins; the other, for the dogs, without the raisins and sugar, in red tins. I remember once, after a talk which I was giving on the North Pole trip, a lady came up to me and inquired what pemmican was, which I had mentioned several times. I explained what it was made of and what it was used for. She thought for a moment and then said, “Well, what I don’t understand is how you shoot them.” (117-8)

    Brief Thoughts: In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

    This book had been on the corner of my interest for some time. Once I discovered the movie release date (December 2015), I decided to prioritize it in the TBR queue. Page numbers given refer to my large font Overdrive ebook…not very helpful but I felt strange not including them!

    • In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
    • Rating: ★★★★
    • A compelling yet gruesome story (not recommended for the faint of heart) constructed from historical documents and first hand journals
    • Whales scare me because they’re way too big! Can you imagine being attacked by not just a sperm whale, but an abnormally huge sperm whale ?? Nope nope nope. But, I like reading about wooden ships and coastal towns and spectacular voyages. 
    • I love the settings and the Nantucket atmosphere. I liked to read about life in the bustling little village (and the accents!).
    • I tried to keep in perspective the ages of those on the Essex, finding it difficult to remember that the Captain was younger than most of my friends (28 years old) and the First Mate was, at 22 years old, younger than me (56). 
    • I didn’t like the actual description of the whale killing. Gory and intense, I can’t imagine how anyone could pull it off. One young sailor wrote, “It is painful to witness the death of the smallest of God’s created beings, much more, one in which life is so vigorously maintained as the Whale! And when I saw this, the largest and most terrible of all created animals bleeding, quivering, dying a victim to the cunning of man, my feelings were indeed peculiar!” (107)
    • Something else I have trouble visualizing is the size of these ships. I couldn’t believe they had tortoises from Galapagos roaming the decks – “They also collected another hundred tortoises” (137)!
    • At one point Captain Bligh of The Bounty‘s story is mentioned. I wonder if there any good books about him?
    • Though numerous astounding moments comprise this book, the incident with the whale will keep you on the edge of your seat. I knew generally what happened, but reading it play out I remained astonished. My note was, “YAH FREAKING SERIOUS, WHALE?!” (151)
    • I think I spoke too quickly when I said to my sister, “I’d totally watch this movie!” Not because of my fear of whales but because of the cannibalism…it’s difficult enough to read about (I’m not usually a queasy person but I couldn’t read those bits even when just eating toast at breakfast). How will those scenes translate to film? I definitely don’t need to see them visualized.
      • The practice of drawing lots, of killing your fellow sailor to consume him. I cannot imagine that. I like to think I would rather cast myself into the sea instead, but that’s practically the selfish option. (284)

    Have you read any compelling non-fiction books about whaling? Would you read this one?