Christmas haul containing 4 classic novels

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe book cover clothboundAs I pack away my Christmas tree for another year, I took stock today of my Christmas haul of books. I’m planning on reading more classics in 2015 and was fortunate enough to receive a few beautiful clothbound editions for Christmas. I hope you too were lucky enough to receive a book or two at Christmas time, here’s what I received (in alphabetical order by author surname):

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Somehow I didn’t read Robinson Crusoe as a young adult, and it’s one of those books that is always referred to in passing. As I approach my 40s, I thought it was time to pick up Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and this clothbound classic edition will make a wonderful addition to my bookshelf.

Frankenstein by Mary ShelleyFrankenstein Mary Shelley clothbound classic cover
I’ve read a few horror novels in my time as well as many science fiction books, but I’ve never read the classic Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I love the story behind the book, in that Shelley wrote Frankenstein almost 100 years ago in 1817 at just 19 years of age. I’m really looking forward to reading this clothbound edition of Frankenstein this year (love the hearts on the cover) and discovering for myself the gothic and romantic elements within.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck was an American author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, and is known for writing Grapes of Wrath (awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1940), Of Mice And Men, and East of Eden, and I haven’t read any of them.Pearl John Steinbeck book cover

For some reason I find this author intimidating so I’ve decided to read The Pearl (a novella of less than 100 pages) as a gentle introduction to his writing. Have you read any Steinbeck? What do you recommend?

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The plot in Oscar Wilde’s classic The Picture of Dorian Gray is known by many and I especially loved the portrayal in the recent TV Show Penny Dreadful. Just being aware of the premise of the book is no longer enough and I thought it was about time I read this classic for myself. It’ll be my first time reading any material by Oscar Wilde (I’m sure quotes don’t count) and I’m hoping The Picture of Dorian Gray lives up to the hype.Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde book cover

Have you read any of the classics above? Did you receive or give any books during the festive period? I gave a family member a copy of The Menzies Era by John Howard and another family member a handful of books by James Patterson.

Happy Reading in 2015.

Snowfall

Into Thin AirThis New York Times article just won a Pulitzer. Frankly, I’m not one bit surprised it did. Snowfall documents, through a six-part, transmedia tale that incorporates text, images, video interviews, video footage, simulations, and interactive maps, an avalanche that occurred at Tunnel Creek in the US.

Snowfall is exquisite and haunting in terms of both its story and its presentation. It sets, as the New York Times does with just about everything it turns its gaze to, the bar high. In some ways it’s is a big, sweeping tale, charting the history and complexity of an area unstable, prone to unexpected avalanches, and that arguably shouldn’t be skied. In other ways it’s a small story—a tight-knit group of experienced skiers and friends caught in a terrifying mother nature-uncontrollable ordeal.

Either way, the tale is heart-wrenchingly comprehensive. It provides insight into what causes avalanches as well as what it’s like to both be in one and to try to dig your friends out of its aftermath. It’s also an excellent example of transmedia storytelling, using a variety of platforms to execute, complement, and augment a potent story. (It feels like an online, modern version of breathtaking print book Into Thin Air*.)

First impressions of Snowfall are of snowy sparseness, with images simultaneously iconic and eerie. Its text lobs us straight into the action. One of the skiers is tumbling, catapulting in the avalanche, trying to recall her avalanche-survival skills, terrified, stuck, unsure which was is up or down, fearing she’s going to die. It’s pulsating and suffocating at the same time, and there’s no doubt in your mind that this story is going to be emotionally fraught.

‘Like many ideas that sound good at the time, skiing Tunnel Creek was an idea hatched in a bar,’ we read. Fresh, optimal overnight snowfalls make skiing irresistible and a meeting and skiing time is roughly planned.

Naturally occurring avalanches rarely kill, we find out. Human-triggered ones, on the other hand, often do. Every skier who traverses a slope subtly changes the snowpack’s structure. The thin layer of frost buried beneath fresh snow is called the unappetising name of ‘surface hoar’.

The day’s avalanche prediction for Tunnel Creek was the difficult-to-define ‘considerable’. Suffice to say, it was inadvisable to ski there. But the skiers were experienced—many of them were locals—and one even scouted extreme skiing courses worldwide.

The mood setting out was jovial: ‘Get me out of here before another spreadsheet finds me,’ says one skier, having extracted himself from a meeting. Sixteen people set out that day, ‘although no one thought to count at the time’. It was an unusually large number, particularly for that terrain, likened to someone divulging details of a spare keg found at a party. It’s not cool, with no one quite admitting to having told others, but no one is game to uninvite anyone.

Warning signs mark entry to the backcountry ski area: Do you have a beacon, a shovel, and a probe? They’re a reminder that when things go wrong, you’ll be relying on your ski buddies to save you. Each skier is equipped with avalanche beacons, or transceivers, which emit signals for others to locate you if you get buried. But equipment advances, we’re told, make people falsely bold.

‘The start of an avalanche is unlike any other force of nature.’ That is to say that they occur without warning. Three quarters of those killed in an avalanche asphyxiate or suffocate after being buried by the snow.

Reading Snowfall, cyclic and chronological in its telling, is an exercise in inevitability and denial. We know the skiers get caught in the avalanche—the opening paragraphs show us one skier being hurled down the mountain—but we can’t help but hope they make it through unscathed.

Layering the story with video interviews with survivors explaining key moments or their reactions to them, as well as visual elements enabling us to track skiers’ movements instead of imagine them, enhances the story. The skiers’ paths, accompanied by floating headshots and simulations, appear as the story unfolds.

We don’t have to view all of the videos and simulations, but even viewing one or two lends humanising, insightful detail that makes the text-led tale even stronger. Good design that balances sparsity, multiple platforms, layers, and typography can’t be underestimated either. It makes me think this is the future of storytelling—online, incorporating complementary transmedia elements, while recognising the need for good design to supplement a good story.

The one criticism I’ll make of Snowfall is that it concentrates too much on the avalanche and its build-up and not enough on its aftermath. What happens to the skiers who survive once they make it off the mountain? How scarred are they by the incident? Who really knows? The story’s presumably a teaser directing us to watch a documentary created about the event, but that’s where it lost me. I signed on to read the story; I don’t have the time or the inclination to continue on.

That said, as a contained document, Snowfall hints at the far-reaching devastation: ‘Avalanches swallow more lives than just the ones buried beneath the snow’.

*Into Thin Air, which documents one of the worst ever accidents on Mt Everest and which questions the viability of people overestimating experience and underestimating nature.

The War On Bewilderment

The Good SoldiersI have to fess up that I find the war in Iraq—replete with obfuscating, PR-oriented euphemisms such as ‘the war on terror’ that make the incursions sound much more palatable, heroic, and successful than they are—completely and utterly bewildering.

In some ways I find the issues underpinning the war so complex that I worry that no one—least of all the troops sent to Iraq to apparently set things straight and whose skills are more aligned with brute force than negotiation—can truly understand them. In other ways I find them so multi-faceted and overwhelming that they’re inevitably assigned to the thank-goodness-it’s-over-there-not-over-here too-hard basket.

Two American journalists—one from Rolling Stone magazine and one from The Washington Post—went in to experience and deconstruct the war for the rest of us. The results are pretty incredible and, after reading both books, I’m slightly less bewildered. Or I at least it’s bewilderment I better understand.

Evan Wright’s Generation Kill documents the true story of First Recon marines, the special forces soldiers who are the first guys on the ground in the most dangerous areas. Nicknamed the ‘First Suicide Battalion’, they’re the guys that they army keeps angry so they’ll be spoiling for a fight, and Wright’s no-holds-barred insight into the motley crew is compelling.

There’s plenty of profanity contained within the pages—in fact, it’s used as a term of endearment—but beyond that is a group of marines struggling to do the best they can with minimal information and resources at their disposal in a war they little understand. Most frightening is the fact that their superiors are incompetent and are making decisions that put them directly in the line of fire.

Which sounds pretty bleak, but isn’t. Or it’s more insightful than depressing. The marines are actually incredibly funny, and Wright contrasts this with the horrors and guilt they face, including when they know they’ve been responsible for some innocent civilians’ injuries.

Generaton KillGeneration Kill was turned into a major television series by the same name by the creators of The Wire and many of the actors in the series are recognisable from other American shows (Alexander Skarsgård who plays vampire Eric Northman in the True Blood series plays my favourite Generation Kill character, The Iceman, so named because he remains cool under pressure).

About the same time Wright was embedded, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel spent eight months with infantry soliders of the 2-16, a battalion nicknamed the Rangers. And his platoon-level account, The Good Soldiers, is extraordinary. Finkel begins the book with its end, outlining upfront just how badly the Iraq operation would end up.

The opening sentence speaks of eternal optimist Colonel Kauzlarich, whose catchphrase was ‘It’s all good’—‘His soldiers weren’t yet calling him ‘the Lost Kauz’ behind his back, not when this began’—and proceeds to powerfully outline the battalion’s morale demise: ‘The soldiers of his who would be injured were still perfectly healthy, and the soldiers of his who would die were still perfectly alive. A soldier who was a favourite of his, and who was often described as a younger version of him, hadn’t yet written of the war in a letter to a friend, “I’ve had enough of this bulls&*t.” Another soldier, one of his best, hadn’t yet written in the journal he kept hidden, “I’ve lost all hope. I feel the end is near for me, very, very near.”’

In a book-length, even-handed feature article-style format, Finkel commences each chapter with a date-coinciding quote from President George Dubya Bush—the quotes a stark contrast to what was happening in Iraq and what was being reported courtesy of the American PR. Then he proceeds to focus on not only the big-picture complexities of the war, but to illustrate them through exploring its minutiae.

There’s the soldier so badly affected by the death of another that he obsessively rearranges the furniture in his room. There’s the soldier who spends hours sandbagging his room until there’s only a small opening at the door. There’s the thoughts the soldiers have about where the next IED or EFP—the enemy’s exploding, roadside weapons of choice—will hit and how they should sit or stand to minimise the loss of limbs.

There’s the devastation that the soldiers experience as they try to make sense of the senseless deaths and destruction, and there’s the Iraq nationals who work as translators but find themselves and their families aligned neither with the Americans nor with their own people. Then there’s the state-of-the-art rehabilitation clinic that badly injured soldiers end up in and the slow demise of morale and optimism in all of the troops, including Colonel Kauzlarich.

While both Generation Kill and The Good Soldiers raise further questions for me about the issues underpinning and coming out of the so-called ‘war on terror’, they’re raising valid questions and ones that are—weeks after I finished reading both books—turning over in my mind. I might still be bewildered by the war, but I’m now bewildered with some solid insight. Most importantly, I am determined to find out more.