Polar-adventure stories are even better than mountaineering tales, since not only does the reader have the vicarious thrills of blinding snow, temperatures in the minus two figures, and terrible fatigue but there are ferocious polar bears and almost always ships. The saga of British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen trying to beat each other to the South Pole still captivates, and the Shackleton expedition lives on primarily due to the stark photographs taken during that voyage. In Icebound, Andrea Pitzer brilliantly retells the largely forgotten quest by Dutch explorer William Barents to find a passage to China by way of the North Pole in the late 1500s, a trip that ended with a lost ship and a year of deprivation for its stranded sailors that left several dead, including Barents himself.
For two decades, George Saunders has been teaching a class on the 19th-century Russian short story (in translation, of course) at Syracuse University, available to only six students a year, handpicked out of a pool of hundreds of applicants. Saunders, who won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, jokes that he studies these writers “to see what we can steal,” but what he really wants to do is help his students find their voice by studying the technical aspects of Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, just as a young composer might study Bach. This gem of a book is not just a master class in short-story writing but a powerful yet gentle plea to see the humanity in each of us.
All those who worship at the altar of Joan Didion have a slim, new missal to hold, though “new” is a stretch, since it comprises essays that date as far back as 1968, collected in a single volume for the first time. No matter: whether Didion is attending Gamblers Anonymous (where “mea culpa always turns out not to be entirely mea”) or observing at home the newly elected California governor’s wife, Nancy Reagan (who “says almost everything with spirit, perhaps because she was an actress for a couple of years and has the beginning actress’s habit of investing even the most casual lines with a good deal more dramatic emphasis than is ordinarily called for on a Tuesday morning on Forty-Fifth Street in Sacramento”), she is worth veneration.