Archive for the ‘Non Fiction’ Category

Endurance-Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

The Endurance Succumbing to the pressure of the ice pack

The Endurance
Succumbing to the pressure of the pack ice

In August 1914, the ship Endurance left England on the first leg of what was called the Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition. Led by Ernest Shackleton, the purpose of the expedition was to cross the Antarctic continent on land, from one end to the other, across the South Pole. The ship was sturdily built, well-supplied, and had an able crew. The Endurance left for Antarctica from South Georgia Island on December 5. By February 1915, the ship was trapped in the ice.

The crew wintered on the ship. In October, when it became clear that the Endurance was going to be crushed by the pack ice, Shackleton ordered his crew to abandon ship. They set up camp on an ice floe, in the hopes that it would drift north towards land. When the ice floe broke up in April 1916, the crew gathered in their lifeboats and reached Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton and a crew of five journeyed through the roughest seas on the planet back to South Georgia Island, about 800 miles away. Shacklteon then returned by ship to Elephant Island to rescue his crew, arriving on August 30, 2016, two years after they had left England.

The miracle of this expedition is that every man on the expedition survived. Shackleton’s leadership ability and courage are legendary.

So-everyone knows the basics of this amazing story. What Alfred Lansing has done is bring these intrepid explorers to life. For his source material, Lansing had access to diaries and personal accounts of some members of the expedition, and was able to interview a a number of the surviving members of the expedition. Even knowing the outcome, I was riveted by the details that Lansing wrote about.

The crew was subject to the constantly changing Antarctic weather. Shrieking winds, blinding snow, high seas, sub-freezing temperatures, and months of darkness plagued them during the winter. The Antarctic summer brought little relief, as temperatures hovered near freezing, and the melting and shifting ice brought extraordinary danger.

The story of Shackleton’s expedition is a true life adventure, with true life heroes.

In USA-published in hardcover-Adventure Library-1994
Softcover edition-Basic Books-1999
(Original edition published in 1959)

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage


Loose Diamonds

Loose Diamonds is a collection of personal essays by the novelist, journalist, screenwriter Amy Ephron. Some of these essays have been previously published. I had not read any of them, so they were all new to me.

As the youngest child of Hollywood screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, Amy had a privileged childhood. And yet, the private schools and all the opportunities afforded her by her successful parents and siblings have not prevented her from making errors in judgment that profoundly affected her life, and the lives of others.

In these essays, Ephron is candid about her failings, but not so much her successes. She downplays the famous family. She drops the names of famous friends. She seems critical of her mother, while her father is barely mentioned. Surely these successful parents had some influence on Ephron’s own successful career.

These vignettes from Amy Ephron’s life span decades, but she doesn’t evidence any remarkable personal growth over time. Loose Diamonds is glib and easy to read, and there is little of substance.

Thanks once again to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending this to me.


Published in hardcover-William Morrow-2011

Loose Diamonds: …and other things I’ve lost (and found) along the way


Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an athlete who ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and later became a prisoner of war in Japan. Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit, brings Louie’s story to life with remarkable detail.

Louie was a defiant and delinquent boy. Growing up in Torrance, California, he was the scourge of the neighborhood; stealing pies from neighbors, assaulting other children, running away from home, failing in school. With the encouragement and coaching of Pete, his older brother,  Louie began running track. His focus and abilities soon brought him medals and renown.

During World War II Louie was in the Army Air Force. After his plane crashed in the Pacific, the survivors drifted for weeks until being “rescued” by the Japanese. Louie spent the remainder of the War as a POW. He was treated brutally by guards and other prison camp personnel, both civilian and military. He suffered through beatings, starvation, illness, degradation and forced labor.

This  book details Louie’s struggles, and tells how he survived. That Louie is alive and well to this day is a testament to his strength, faith, and optimism. Unbroken is well-written, well-researched and truly inspiring.


Published in hardcover-Random House-2010

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This amazing book of non-fiction by Rebecca Skloot reads like a great novel.  And it seems like a science fiction tale. A poor uneducated 31 year old mother of five dies of an extremely aggressive cervical cancer in the charity ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. Most of her family does not even know that she is being treated for cancer. During one operation, a section of tissue is given to another doctor in the hospital to culture. When the cells began to grow and multiply, an industry is born.

To add to the drama, the family of Henrietta Lacks has no idea that a tissue sample has been taken from her.  Henrietta’s cells are used to develop the polio vaccine; to investigate cancer; to develop in vitro fertilization and many other medical advances. Not only was her family not informed of the multi-million dollar industry that developed around the growth and sale of Henrietta’s cells, they themselves were uneducated, poor, and lacked access to adequate medical care.

Her children grew up without their mother. The youngest two have no memory of her. One of her daughters died alone at the age of fifteen in a state institution. When her family learned of the culturing and sale of Henrietta’s cells, they lacked the knowledge to even understand what a cell was.

Skloot has done years of research to write this book, and yet it reads like a drama. She doesn’t sensationalize anything and, most importantly, treats the family with the respect they deserve. Skloot discusses the legalities of tissue ownership rights and mentions a number of other cases where individuals have tried to claim the rights to their own tissue.

There is a tremendous of information in this book, and yet the real person that was Henrietta shines through. This book is a must read.


Published in hardcover-Crown-2010
Softcover edition-Macmillan-2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story

The Zookeeper’s Wife is the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who helped save hundreds of Jewish lives in Warsaw, Poland during World War II. Jan was the head zookeeper of the Warsaw Zoo. Prior to WWII, this was a modern and important zoo. The Zabinski family lived in a large house on the zoo grounds. Many of the zoo’s animals were killed during the German army’s occupation of Warsaw; numerous other animals were confiscated by the Germans for their own zoos.

Throughout the occupation, the Zabinski’s gave shelter to Jews who were escaping the Warsaw Ghetto. They hid the fugitives in animal enclosures and tunnels in the zoo, as well as in their own house. Jan was able to enter the Ghetto. He brought food into the Ghetto, and often helped smuggle people out. Towards the end of the war, Jan also fought in the Polish underground army and was, for a time, a prisoner of war. The Zabinski’s story is briefly told on the website of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel. Diane Ackerman has done so much research and given a thorough accounting of the Zabinski’s heroism.

Unfortunately for this very important book, it is not so well-written. It took me a long time to get into reading it. I really had to plow on through the first few chapters. I only bothered because this was a selection for my book club.  it would have been much more interesting if Ackerman had spent more time on the details of how the Zabinski’s helped the Jews. And if we had more information about the people they helped, it would have been more interesting. There are some photos in the book. I do think that a map of Warsaw during the occupation would have been helpful, as well as a map of the zoo.

To summarize-important, yes. A good read-no.


Published in hardcover-W.W. Norton-2007
Softcover edition-W.W. Norton-2008

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story

American Priestess

American Priestess tells the true story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem. It is part biography, and part the story of American evangelical Christians who settled in Jerusalem in the late 19th century to await the End of Days. Anna Larsdatter was born  in Norway in 1842. As a young child, she emigrated with her family to Chicago. Through a series of misfortunes and happenstance, Anna was reared by a well-to-do family and was well-educated for a girl of her time. She was introduced to Horatio Spafford, a much older attorney who fell in love with her. They married when Anna was 19, shortly after the beginning of the Civil War.

The first section of this books drags a bit, telling of Anna and Horatio’s life in Chicago. It definitely picks up when the Spaffords, along with some of their followers, arrive in Jerusalem in 1881. For a time they live within the walls of the Old City. When their numbers expand, along with their treasury, the group rents a former pasha’s palace in East Jerusalem. They eventually purchase this property and, in the twentieth century, this becomes the famed American Colony Hotel.

The group of “overcomers” spends much time and effort feeding and nursing the poor, be they Jews or Arabs. They are well regarded by the locals, but are constantly at odds with the American consular officer. He is concerned with the group’s financial irregularities and rumors of how they practice their religion. Anna Spafford hears voices from God, and controls every aspect of the lives of her followers. Meanwhile, the Chicago relatives of some of her followers are concerned that Anna has, essentially,  stolen their money for her own purposes.

American Priestess contains a tremendous amount of information. Jane Fletcher Geniesse has certainly done her research. I was particularly interested in life in Jerusalem during the fall of the Ottoman Empire and World War I, which was devastating for people in the Middle East. This book is well-written but it is not a quick read for the casual reader.


Published in hardcover-Nan A. Talese-2008
Softcover edition-Anchor-2009

American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem