Feb 13, 2014

The Ice Balloon, by Alec Wilkinson

This little book is about the age of Arctic exploration, when intrepid, adventurous men in the late 1800s tried to find the geographic North Pole. Wilkinson writes for The New Yorker, and though he has published several other books (none of which I've read), this one reads much like a series of connected essays. The title is inspired by the Arctic attempt of S. A. Andree (please forgive my lack of computer expertise; that first "e" in Andree should have an accent on it). We learn a bit about Andree's youth and young adulthood leading up to his attempt to sail a balloon across the North Pole, then read about several other journeys, nearly all of which ended in horrific disaster. There's an awful lot of quoting in this book - journals, diaries, newspaper articles, and essays make up the bulk of the narrative, strung together by Wilkinson's writing. There was one section where he listed four or five pages of different kinds of ice and what they looked like. I'm not entirely sure why this was necessary; a few paragraphs would have been sufficient to elucidate that sailors have lots of words for ice. And I have to say that I was extremely, perhaps excessively, bothered by the fact that Wilkinson never tells us what the S and A in Andree's name stood for. A small thing, yes, but when writing a biography about someone, even if there is a bigger theme to the book, for goodness' sake, tell us that basic information at least! We do eventually find out that it stood for Solomon August, but only towards the end and in a quoted section, not in Wilkinson's own words. So the book was interesting, but mostly for the topic rather than the writing, and I can't help but feel a more heavy-handed editor would have helped immensely.

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