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20. Lady Franklin's Revenge by Ken McGoogan

I picked this up in a charity shop a while ago.  The blurb on the back makes it sound like the whole thing is about the efforts of Sir John Franklin's wife to find out what happened to his lost expedition to find the North West Passage.

Actually, it's a biography of her whole life, and the search for Franklin only occupies the last quarter.  

Having said that, it's pretty interesting and non-challenging.  Jane Griffin (later Franklin) did lead a really interesting life and travelled extensively throughout.  She and her husband are important figures in the history of Tasmania as well.

As anyone who knows anything about Arctic exploration knows, Franklin was an idiot and his wife is both a villain and a huge influence on Arctic exploration.  A huge influence because the expeditions she insisted on the Admiralty sending out, or financed herself, charted 1700 miles of the Canadian Arctic coast.  But she's the villain because she ruined John Rae, the man who discovered what happened to the Franklin expedition and who did indeed discover the North West Passage, because he reported that the last survivors resorted to cannibalism (this has since been proved to be true).  She then systematically set about making the myth that Franklin did discover the North West Passage, a lie people still believe to this day.

I'll probably read his other two books - one on John Rae, and the other on Samuel Hearne, whose primary source account of the journey to the Arctic Ocean at the mouth of the Coppermine River I read recently.
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55. Baroque: Style in the Age of Magnificence, edited by Michael Snodin and Nigel Llewellyn

This is the book that accompanied the V&A's exhibition on the Baroque from a couple years back. It is very shiny and incredibly pretty, and even in paperback weighs in at nearly my own body weight.

The text is, for the most part, pretty interesting - a lot about the social history of the Baroque, light on the details of how particular pieces were made (that always makes for the snooze-tastic-ness. A lot of the book centres round Louis XIV and Versailles, and I've even been to Versailles and it's worth the trip, etc., but I tried to give a shit about Louis XIV back when I was still in school, and failed miserably. It's interesting in the context of how other European rulers tried to copy his style, though. Fortunately, more of the book is about the Baroque as a tool of the Counter-Reformation and its spread by the Jesuits to European colonies in Asia and the New World, which floats my boat much more.

I have come away with a whole big list of places to visit, and a desire to know more about Central and Northern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Plus, did I mention the many very pretty pictures to look at?

56. An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton and the heroic age of Antarctic science by Edward J Larson

My usual pattern with non-fiction books is put them on my wish list, wait for somebody to buy it for me, and have it sit on the to-read pile for 3 years while I think about reading it,. This, I read the review in New Scientist a few weeks ago (the actual review was a while back, but I'm 3 months behind with New Scientist), ordered the book as soon as I got home (because the net connection in the café I was in at the time sucks), and read it as soon as I got it.

It's a study of the science done on Scott's two expeditions to the Antarctic, with Shackleton's first voyage in the middle. In the aftermath of Scott's failure to be first to reach the South Pole, a lot was made of "we weren't there to go to the Pole, we were there to do science". For a couple of generations this stuck, but then it started to be taken as an excuse. As it turns out, when the facts are examined, the British Antarctic expeditions really were all about the science. This book looks at what and how these expeditions contributed to science, arranged by subject.

The first couple chapters are are studying the earth's magnetism, which I have to admit didn't really interest me, but when Larson gets to biology, geography, geology, glaciology and social Darwinism, I was hooked.

The factoid I came away with is a stupid one from the introductory bit. Apparently, on Asmundsen's successful expedition to the South Pole, he actually gained weight. Even though the Norwegian used sled dogs and wasn't man-hauling like the British were, I find that really, really hard to believe. One of the main reasons for my fascination with polar exploration is that I like the idea of an environment where you can take in 6000 calories a day and still lose dangerous quantities of weight.

Quite possibly you have to be my kind of nerd to get as excited about this as I did, but I do recommend it.
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Just got back from an adventure-filled weekend in London. The general idea was to get together with an American friend who has been living in Ireland but is going back to the States soon, and meet her husband and little girl. A surprising amount of exploration got done!

Had the daytime to myself on Saturday so I headed down to the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich to catch the North West Passage: An Arctic Obsession exhibition. There wasn't all that much to it but it was free and had lots of lovely old maps and was generally interesting. As I have less than zero interest in the rest of the RMM, I wandered up the hill behind it to the Royal Observatory. Nearly gave myself a heart attack doing so, but the view is well worth the effort!

The highlight of the trip, though, was Greenwich Market - it's an excellent not-so-small market full of pretty things. Restrained myself this time, but I think I'll be making a trip in October and doing all my Christmas shopping there.

While I was in the area, I crossed under the Thames using the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, something I've been wanting to do since I read PD James's Original Sin. Not terribly exciting, but an experience nevertheless.

Changing to the DLR at Bank was a bit of a nightmare (I can't imagine what it must be like during the week) so I came back via Stratford. I love the DLR because you can see where you're going & I get geekily excited by all kinds of stuff. Am I a bad person because I'm convinced I'd really like a place in one of those new Docklands flats?

Yesterday, a group of us started out by going to Spencer House, apparently the best-restored aristocratic Regency townhouse in London. I'd never heard of it before, but it's very opulent indeed, and quite a different experience to any National Trust stately home I've ever been to.

Lunch in Soho was followed by a trip to the V&A. We made a diversion to Harrods, where I've never been before. It's even more awful (in a really funny way) than I'd been led to believe. The shrine to Diana and Dodi - photos do not convey the true tackiness of it. In the immortal words of Stephen Fry, there is not enough vomit in the world. (Come to think of it, he was either describing the Diana Memorial Fountain or this when he said these words). Beat a hasty retreat before we got chucked out for laughing too hard at said memorial.

I've never been to the Victoria & Albert Museum before. I still haven't seen any of the permanent collections. It was a bit late in the day when we got there, and I discovered that a) they have a Baroque exhibition, and b) it ends next week. I loved it, especially that they had examples of Baroque art & architecture from India, South America and the Philippines. Because we got there late, I had to charge through the last third of it at a pace I wasn't terribly happy about (but it was better than not seeing it at all, and I think the better and more interesting exhibits were at the start anyway). I bought the book so I can read the descriptions I missed later. If you're in London and have a couple of hours before the 19th, go for it.

Got home today via Wood Green Shopping Centre - believe it or not, it was cheaper transport-wise and faster time-wise to go there from Alexandra Palace to pick up hair dye than to do so at this end. I also had the comparatively unhelpful experience of dealing with the non-Oyster-technology-enabled bus system here. When wrestling heavy bags, it's an awful lot easier to swipe one's pre-pay card than to faff about with coins and wallets.

Looking at all the above, it's hardly surprising I'm a bit exhausted!
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I'm probably on my own with this, but the National Maritime Museum are having an exhibition on the search for the North West Passage. Lasts till 3rd January 2010.

Details here.

Let me know if you'd be interested. With that time span, I think even I can get myself organised to catch it.
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24. The Lost Men: The Harrowing Story of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party by Kelly Tyler-Lewis

As I mentioned in relation to the BBC programme Blizzard: Race to the Pole, I'm fascinated by polar exploration[1].

The story of Shackleton's unsuccessful attempt to cross Antarctica is one of the best known episodes of polar exploration in the 20th century. What is less well known is the story of the Ross Sea party, though it is no less exciting. A boat and men were sent to the other side of Antarctica to lay supply depots for Shackleton's team to pick up as they neared the end of their trek. This part of the Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition was less well organised than Shackleton's own trip, and then just about everything that could go wrong did, culminating in the ship, the Aurora, being cast adrift in the pack ice leaving 10 men on shore. Despite most of their equipment being on the ship, they managed to complete their mission. Which was of course completely futile, given that Shackleton never made land in Antarctica.

This is a really well written book, successfully treading the fine line between telling an exciting adventure story and providing analysis of what went wrong, and right. By 1914 there was quite a wealth of experience in traveling in Antarctica already, and a great deal of it was ignored. Surprisingly, this included not only the strengths that the Norwegians had brought to polar exploration (which we've already established the British were too stubborn to take on board), but hard-won lessons of Scott and previous Shackleton expeditions were also ignored. On the other hand, the men could be astonishingly innovative with what few materials they had. The human body can withstand some quite unbelievable stresses and weather.

This book is extremely well researched and a complete joy to read. I got it from the library at the same time as The Long Exile, expecting that to be a gripping good story and this to be a bit of a hard slog, but in fact I got frustrated with that and thoroughly enjoyed this. Not one for the serious nerds only - I recommend it even if polar exploration isn't really your thing.

Interestingly, it's International Polar Year (which I find majorly exciting). Canadian Geographic has been focusing on this, and included a map of the polar regions with its Jan/Feb issue. I thought this was really neat anyway, and I was able to make use of it while reading this book (though one of the book's strengths is good maps throughout).

[1] I may be a fat lazy slob who couldn't be less active unless I was in a coma, but I have serious respect for people who go out and test the limits of human endurance and scientific knowledge.
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BBC2's Blizzard: Race to the Pole re-creates Scott & Amundsen's race to the South Pole in 1911, using period equipment and period food (eurgh!).

They are travelling through Greenland and not actually to the South Pole. I feel cheated.

I'm easily amused, so otherwise the first episode was quite good. Be warned that I do find the phenomenon of polar exploration more amusing interesting than most people.


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