Ada Blackjack

Niven, Jennifer. Ada Blackjack: a True Story of Survival in the Arctic. New York: Hyperion, 2003.

Reason read: Ear-marking the reindeer is an Arctic tradition that takes place in the summer.

Jennifer Niven calls Ada Blackjack a hero. I don’t think I would go that far. She didn’t save anyone’s life and her heroic deeds were limited to having the courage and resourcefulness to survive her unlikely predicament physically unscathed. I say unlikely because what would a impoverished and divorced 23 year old Inuit woman (a rumored prostitute) be doing on a potentially illegal expedition in the wilds of an Arctic island with four young white men and a cat? Desperate to find a husband and to make enough money to care for her oft-ill son, Ada signs on a seamstress with explorer Vilhjamur Stefansson’s mission to colonize barren Wrangel Island off the coast of Siberia. Using the theory of squatters’ rights, Stafansson sent four young men and six months worth of supplies to plant the British flag on what he thought was unclaimed land. He only sent them with six months of supplies because he was sure they could survive off the land once they had exhausted their stores. What could possibly go wrong in the “friendly” Arctic?
It’s not a plot spoiler to say that Ada was the only human to make it out alive (and yes, the cat survives, too). But, here’s where the story gets interesting. Stefansson vacillates between wanting to take all the credit for Ada’s survival and pretending he’s never heard of the woman. It’s what happens after the rescue that becomes the bigger story.

As an aside, I love the process of discovery. While Niven was researching her first book, The Ice Master she discovered Nome, Alaska native Ada Blackjack. Ada’s adventure intrigued Niven enough to prompt her to dig into Blackjack’s life story and ultimately, write a memoir about her expedition with four white men (and a cat) to Wrangel Island. To carry that idea of discovery a step further, after reading Ada Blackjack I found a documentary on her. I got caught up in her mystique, too.

Author fact: Niven also wrote The Ice Master which is on my Challenge list.

Book trivia: Ada Blackjack includes two wonderful sections of photographs. A handful of comments about the photos: the expedition cat, Vic, is fantastic. Milton Galle is a man’s man and my favorite photo is of Vic and Milton.  They were all good looking people.

Nancy said: If you like Krakauer or Junger, you will like Niven.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “To the Ends of the Earth: North and South” (p 231).


Coldest Winter

Halberstam, David. The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War. New York: Hyperion, 2007.

Reason read: the Korean War officially ended in July.

The interesting thing about the Korean War is that most were reluctant to call it an actual war. Those that admitted to it being a conflict were convinced it would be over in no time. What started in June of 1950 as a “clash” between North Korea and South Korea turned into a war of attrition when China and the Soviet Union came to the aid of North Korea and the UN and United States joined the South. Despite a treaty being signed in July of 1953, to this day, technically the conflict has not been recognized as over.
While Halberstam portrays the well-researched historical events with accuracy and thorough detail, his portrayals of key U.S. figures such as Generals MacArthur and Bradley, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and President Truman read like a fast paced political thriller. The larger than life personalities practically jump off the page.

As an aside: I suppose it would make sense if I thought about it more, but the Korean War was the first time air-to-air combat was conducted. Before then planes were mostly used to drop bombs and transport men and supplies.

Best line to quote, “Sometimes it is the fate of a given unit to get in that way of something so large it seems to have stepped into history’s own path” (p 258).

Author fact: Halberstam was born in April and died in April.

Book trivia: The Coldest Winter was published after Halberstam’s death.

Nancy said: Pearl called Coldest Winter the “best book for the nonhistorian on the Korean War” (Book Lust To Go p 127).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Korea – North and South” (p 125). I am willing to bet Coldest Winter would have been in More Book Lust’s chapter “David Halberstam: Too Good To Miss” (p 112) if it had been published in time. MBL was published in 2005 and Coldest Winter came two years later in 2007. It would appear Pearl is a fan and has read everything Halberstam has ever written.


Draining Lake

Indridason, Arnaldur. The Draining Lake. Translated by Bernard Scudder. London: Harvill Seeker, 2004.

Reason read: to continue the series started in June in honor of Iceland’s National Day is in June.

One of Iceland’s well known lakes is losing water and shrinking. Scientists from the National Energy Authority come researching the phenomenon because what was a deep body of water has slowly dried up, revealing long held secrets; some more disturbing than others. One such secret is the skeleton of a man murdered thirty years earlier. Anchored down with a Russian listening device from thirty years earlier, Inspector Erlendur and his team are called to the case. The mystery of the dead man brings Erlendur, Elinborg, and Sigurdur Oli back to the college days of the Cold War and Communism. Dancing between past and present, Indridason presents his readers with a thrilling tale of espionage and the very definition of loyalty. Fans will be happy to see a little more of Erlendur’s personal life as well.

Author fact: Indridason was a newspaper man at one point in his life.

Book trivia: Indridason was inspired by the true events of Lake Kleifarvatn.

Nancy said: Direct quote from Nancy: “Optimistic readers can see hope on the horizon…in Draining Lake” (Book Lust To Go p 99).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the obvious chapter called “Iceland” (p 99).


Angry Island

Gill, A. A. The Angry Island: Hunting the English. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005.

Reason read: Gill was born in the month of June; read in his honor.

From the very beginning you know you are going to laugh out loud at least once or twice while reading Angry Island. Right in the preface Gill starts off with, “Facts are what pedantic, dull people have instead of opinions.” Well okay! He later states “the national character of the English is anger.” At the time of this writing he was a food and travel critic so he was required to be a little…well…critical. It was expected of him. In The Angry Island his snarky essays cover all kinds of topics from language to war memorials, from sports and animals to drinking. Needless to say, he has a well-barbed opinion about everything. My big question is this, if he was born in Scotland and considers himself Scottish and hates England, why stay there? Why didn’t he move away? He has even less of an opinion about America but that (or Ireland or Australia) would have been an option for an English speaking bloke, especially one with a sharp tongue.

Other quotes I liked, “The purpose of an army must surely be to put itself out of business” (p 237),

Author fact: A.A. Gill is Anthony Andre Gill, born on June 28th. He died of cancer in 2016.

Book trivia: since Angry Island is a collection of essays I was surprised to find an index.

Nancy said: Gill’s essays are “filled with biting, sometimes snarky commentary about morals and mores of England” (Book Lust To Go p 78). I had to laugh when I read the word “snarky” because it’s a favorite of mine and it describes Gill perfectly.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Entering England” (p 76).


Cactus Eaters

White, Dan. The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind – and Almost Found Myself – On the Pacific Crest Trail. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.

Reason read: June is National Hiking Month.

Pure fun. From the comfort of my couch I took great pleasure in reading about Dan White’s adventures while hiking the 2,650+ mile Pacific Coast Trail from Mexico to Canada. With his girlfriend Allison for companionship Dan’s account is in turn both funny and didactic. He can be snarky and scholarly in a single sentence. What starts out as an avoidance of the real world turns into a journey of self reflection and maybe, just maybe, a little growing up.
What makes Cactus such a pleasure to read is this is Dan’s account of the first time he hiked the PCT. He has no idea what he’s doing, despite reading up on it in the months leading up to the hike. He isn’t a seasoned through-hiker expertly navigating arid blazing hot deserts. He isn’t a blase professional warding off bear visits with a ho hum attitude. He is cocky in his naivete.

All time favorite line, “I could not stop the racing thoughts about Todd the Sasquatch somewhere out there, tearing up the foothills while exuding massive amounts of man sweat” (p 63).

Author fact: I could tell from the songs White enjoyed singing while on the PCT that he is about my age. An internet search revealed he was born just a few years before me.

Book trivia: The Pacific Crest Trail is 2,650 miles long and covers three countries and yet White doesn’t include a single map or photograph. To be fair, his camera didn’t have film in it for part of the trip and he did include one illustration of a journal entry.

Nancy said: Nancy dedicates 25% of the chapter to describing the plot of Cactus Eaters, but not much else.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Hiking the (Fill in the Blank) Trail” (p 94). Confessional: this the second book I am reading from the chapter and I just now noticed while Pearl mentions the four major long-distance trails in the Americas, she only recommends four books. Three of them are about the PCT and the final one is about the Appalachian Trail. Why bring up the Continental Divide or the American Discovery Trail if you aren’t going to include a book or two about them? There certainly was room for a few more recommendations for the chapter.


Envoy from Mirror City

Frame, Janet. The Envoy From Mirror City. New York: George Braziller, 1985.
Frame, Janet. The Envoy From Mirror City. New York: George Braziller, 1985. http://archive.org/details/envoyfrommirrorc00fram

Reason read: to finish the series started in April in honor of New Zealand’s Anzac Day.

As a writer, Janet Frame branches out beyond New Zealand in Envoy from Mirror City. Personally, she finds her womanhood. I considered this reading timely because of the focus Frame gave to mental illness. (I was reading this before and after the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade.) I found it interesting that Frame got herself checked into a psychiatric facility so she could learn “the truth” about her illness and was somewhat disappointed to learn she was not considered schizophrenic. She had been using her illness as a shield against normalcy and everyday life. It was if naivete was catching up with her and she had to learn the coming of age ways of adulthood.

As an aside, there are a lot of chapters for such a short little book.

Lines I liked, “In my first foreign country I still wore the old clothes of prejudice” (p 5), “Nothing would make him change his mind while he was afraid” (p 16), “Strangely, I cherished my ignorance and never inquired” (p 67), and lastly, “Although I did not accept El Vivi’s ring, I did not reject him” (p 86).

Author fact: Frame had all of her books published by George Braziller.

Book trivia: Like the other volumes in Frame’s autobiography, there are no photographs in The Envoy from Mirror City.

Nancy said: nothing specific about Envoy.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Kiwis Forever!: New Zealand in Print” (p 123).


Jar City

Indridason, Arnaldur. Jar City. Read by George Guidall. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, 2011.

Reason read: Icelandic National Day is in June.

Arnaldur Indridason doesn’t sugarcoat his protagonists with sweet personalities. They aren’t perfect people with mundane lives. Inspector Erlender is a divorced father with a drug addicted daughter living on the fringe of society. She occasionally scrounges Erlender’s flat for money or a meal. And like any parent who loves his child to the brink of insanity, Erlender takes whatever attention he can get from her. In the meantime, he has a murder to solve. An elderly man has been bashed in the head with an ashtray. It wasn’t a robbery so who would want to kill a frail and quiet man in his 70s? As Erlender digs into the victim’s past he uncovers horrible truths about the dead man. An unsolved cold case suddenly heats up and Erlender discovers just how complicated blood ties can be.

Author fact: Arnaldur won the Glass Key award in 2002.

Narrator fact: Guidall also narrated A Widow For One Year by John Irving. I knew his voice sounded familiar.

Book trivia: Jar City is not the first in a series of Reykjavik thrillers. Sons of Dust is the first to feature Erlender.

Nancy said: “The mysteries of Arnaldur Indridason are fine examples of police procedurals” (Book Lust To Go p 99). She also mentioned reading them in order which I really appreciated since she doesn’t often do that.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called simply “Iceland” (p 99).