Non-fiction: Roland Huntford: Nansen (Gerald Duckworth & co., 1997)
Another peripheral Antarctica book, this is the biography of Fridtjof Nansen, whom many regard as the greatest polar explorer of all time and who was the hero of the great explorers of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Huntford’s book is very thorough, following in the footsteps of his classic biography of Scott and Amundsen, The Last Place on Earth. It’s also very readable, and its main problem is something that was probably almost impossible to avoid: The main character of the book is so multifaceted, he’s unreal.
Among Nansen’s many achievements we see revolutionizing the technique of polar travel, books on subjects as varied as Eskimo culture and the future of Russia, a Nobel Peace Prize, a post as the ambassador of Norway in London, two groundbreaking Arctic expeditions, important roles in the founding of both modern neurology and oceanography, a job as the first U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and so on.
To make it funnier, the book quotes copiously from his diaries where he’s mostly complaining about how little he’s managed to achieve during his life.
Non-fiction: Sara Wheeler: Terra Incognita (Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1996)
This is a very thorough travel book about Antarctica by a British travel journalist. She’s had a lot of access and has a good eye for little cultural details of life on the American, British, Italian and New Zealand bases. She incorporates bits of Antarctic history into her story, which would probably work better if I hadn’t read it all in other books before. Still, there’s added resonance when she’s writing about Scott while visiting one of the historic huts Scott had built on the continent.
The personal style and the humor of the book make it readable, and its a good general introduction. I had a problem with the God stuff she insisted on including from time to time and sometimes the annoying journalistic practise of fake evenhandedness shows through, but these are minor quibbles.