“But why would anyone—officer, seaman, or scientist—volunteer for such a risky and difficult mission in the Arctic?”

Books on Tap’s first  virtual meeting of 2021 featured In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides. A non-fiction examination of the 1879-1881 voyage of the USS Jeannette to discover the northwest passage was a suitable match for our own mostly home-bound winter of 2021. The New York Herald editor, James Gordon Bennett, was looking to finance another sensational expedition after his paper sponsored the “rescue” of Dr. Livingstone (and selling many papers in the process). He tapped experienced polar captain George Washington DeLong to lead a team of 32 men in search of a warm current that would lead them to a green island at the top of the world. Pretty quickly the men were trapped in ice for two years, at which point the hull breached and the ship quickly sank. The men then faced a thousand mile trek to Siberia with few supplies and fewer hopes of rescue. 

Sides packs lots of his research into this adventure tale, and much like the men of the Jeannette, we readers all bogged down at various points. It’s hard to make a marooned ship interesting, but then again we all made it though to the end compelled to find out what happened to our favorite characters, like Captain DeLong, engineer George Melville (yes, a relative of that other whale obsessed Melville) and James Ambler the ship’s doctor. 

DeLong comes through as the hero of the story, preparing the ship and choosing men whom he could rely on and who in turn trusted him. An optimistic man by nature, he met each setback with determination and grit. He was matched in his optimism by his wife Emma, whose letters Sides used as a primary source. Much like Elizabeth Hamilton, wife of Alexander, Emma kept her husband’s legacy alive. 

We discussed the bravery of the men, especially the rescuers who kept up their mission despite great risk to themselves. We also compared polar exploration to space exploration, both cold, inhospitable unknowns of vast differences. 

Sides was smart to pick an obscure voyage since none of our readers knew how it would end. Despite long stretches where the men go nowhere, we kept reading to see who survived and how their logs and diaries were preserved. We talked about the luck and chance that both benefited the crew at points and doomed some of them at others. In all, we agreed it was a journey best experienced at home with a warm drink. 

Books on Tap will meet again on February 4 via Zoom. For the link, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org).  We’ll be reading  Switched On by John Elder Robison, which the library owns in multiple formats. 

More Information:
About the author
Other titles by Sides  
Interview with the author
Find images of the crew and the voyage at the Politics & Prose  recorded discussion
Map of the route
Logbooks in the National Archives 

Other Titles Recommended :
Disappearing Earth by Juila Phillips
The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whale Ship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
The Terror by Dan Simmons
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier
Woolly : The True Story Of The Quest To Revive One Of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures by Ben Mezrich
Other icy read alikes at JMRL Upcoming Meetings:
February 4: Switched On by John Elder Robison
March : Red at the Bone by Jacquline Woodson
April :  Elevation by Stephen King

“We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

Books on Tap met virtually to discuss Travels with Charley: In Search of America  by John Steinbeck. In 1960 Steinbeck loaded up a trailer he named Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse) and his poodle Charley and circumnavigated the US.  Nearing the end of his life, he wanted to see for himself what modern Americans were like. Along the way, he ruminates about social, racial and environmental changes. Charley both provides structure to Steinbeck’s days and is an ambassador to the folks they meet. 

Most book club members had read at least one book by Steinbeck and enjoyed this one. It  has been criticized for being fictionalized but our readers didn’t expect it to be the definitive travelogue. The country is too big with too many cultures for any one story to encompass it. However, Steinbeck introduces us to characters (who may or may not have been composites) who feel genuine and who illuminate mid-century American worries. Each of us could  point to one, like the hairdresser or traveling salesmen, who made a lasting impression. Some of us thought Steinbeck gave himself too much credit for “discovering” the extent of pollution and  racism, but perhaps this was a useful window for his intended white, middle-class readers. 

One book club member called the book a snapshot and argued that it could have been even shorter. In fact, Steinbeck himself seems burned-out halfway through the trip, which we related to. It offered us both a way to travel while staying at home and brought up issues that are still relevant sixty years later. 

Books on Tap will meet again on January 7th via Zoom. For the link, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org).  We’ll be reading In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, which the library owns in multiple formats. Email Sarah Hamfeldt (shamfeldt at jmrl dot org) for help accessing these titles for curbside pickup or by download. 

More Information:
About the author
About the novel
Interview with the author’s son about Travels with Charley

Other Works Discussed
The Truth about Travels with Charley
Svetlana Aleksievich

Upcoming Meetings:
January 7: In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
February 4: Switched On by John Elder Robison
March : Red at the Bone by Jacquline Woodson
April :  Elevation by Stephen King

“It takes a whole lot longer to dispose of a body than to dispose of a soul, especially if you don’t want to leave any evidence of foul play.”

Books on Tap met virtually to discuss My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite on the strength of the suggestion of a former JMRL librarian who enjoyed the audiobook. This fast-paced, darkly humorous thriller is not our usual book club choice but we all enjoyed it. As readers we are thrown in medias res into the action, watching Korede answering her sister’s Ayoola’s call to clean up yet another of her murders. Korede is a nurse in Lagos, Nigeria and takes her caretaking role as the elder sister very seriously. Her younger, prettier sister attracts too much male attention and uses her knife when enough is enough. Their mother favors Ayoola so Korede resorts to confessing their crimes to her comatose patient, who inconveniently wakes up. 

We started by discussing the limit of our obligation to family. Korede clearly sees her sister’s flaws and the box society puts both of them in. She doesn’t see helping her sister dispose of body after body as a choice, it’s just something she has to do, even when she likes the victim. The sisters are tightly bonded by the violence they suffered at their father’s hand. This reminded one reader of a recent book club memoir, Educated by Tara Westover, who also describes how her father’s abuse bonded her to some siblings and alienated her from others. It also led us to debate how many men Ayoola has killed. Both sisters start counting with Ayoola’s first boyfriend, but the novel leaves room for us to think that both sisters killed their father years ago when the sexual danger to Ayoola is first made explicit in her own home. 

This ambiguity was part of the fairytale nature of the story. The characters’ motivation and personalities are all well drawn, as are the glimpses we see of Lagos and Nigerian culture, but there is an otherworldly sense. Both sisters are absolutely certain about past and present murders and there’s no sign that the  murders will end. The author, a poet, uses economical prose and precise pacing to draw us in to this improbable story and keep us enchanted to the end. 

And that’s what we responded most to. In a month when the news didn’t stop for a second, this quick read offered a refuge. It took us out of our present circumstances and gave us a movie-like escape that was easy to focus on for a few hours. We highly recommend both the print and audio if you’re struggling to concentrate enough to read  your usual favorites. 

Books on Tap will meet again on December 3 via Zoom. For the link, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org).  We’ll be reading Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, which the library owns in multiple formats. Email Sarah Hamfeldt (shamfeldt at jmrl dot org) for help accessing these titles for curbside pickup or by download. 

More Information:
About the author
About the novel
Interview with the author 

Other TItles Discussed
Dexter mystery series (the author has family in Charlottesville)
Educated by Tara Westover

Upcoming Meetings:
December 3: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
January 7: In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
February 4: Elevation by Stephen King