Frozen Mystery; Want to Write? 

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Frozen Mystery

In the late 1860s, a renewed desire to penetrate the frozen wasteland of the North Pole took hold in America. Charles Frances Hall, a former businessman turned independent Arctic adventurer, secured a sizeable congressional appropriation in July 1870 to launch an expedition to the North Pole with enthusiastic support from President Ulysses Grant. "Fatal North" by Bruce Henderson (New American Library, $22.95) is a detailed account that provides a rare insight into this ill-fated, doomed voyage.

In 1871, Hall assembled a crew consisting of veteran seamen, whalers, Eskimos who would hunt, and researchers from the scientific community. They set sail from the Brooklyn Navy Yard on a renovated gunboat, the Polaris. Despite Hall's high hopes of bringing America international recognition, the expedition was predestined for failure. The sailing master, Sidney Buddington, was an unreliable, mutinous reprobate. The chief scientist and surgeon, Dr Emil Bessels from Germany, held visible disdain for Hall and constantly tried to undermine the leader's authority. The weather and frigid temperatures were also a definite insurmountable obstacle.

The Polaris became encased in ice, the provisions dwindled and Charles Hall died from unknown causes. The expedition now became a daily, grueling battle for survival. The relentless climate became a secondary problem compared to the fierce contest for leadership. It was only through the heroism and faith of the chief navigator, George Tyson, that 19 members, separated from the main vessel, were able to cling to life after being adrift on an ice floe for over seven months. It was more than two years later that the Polaris survivors appeared at a naval Board of Inquiry in New York and the facts of the voyage would be revealed.

" Fatal North" is a chilling report of an exploration attempt that began full of optimism but sailed into tragedy, insubordination and hardship and eventually became part of an orchestrated political cover-up. This is a gripping book that painstakingly seeks to tie up the loose ends of a lingering, historical mystery.

Bruce R. Simon

Want to Write?

Kurt Wenzel's savvy novel, "Lit Life" (Random House; $24.95), should be required reading for all aspiring writers. Set in Manhattan and the Hamptons, the book is a sardonic take on the New York publishing world.

Wenzel wryly dissects the troubled writing lives of two authors, one a talented newcomer sidetracked by fame and the other a disillusioned veteran. Kyle Clayton, a young writer whose first novel brought him literary stardom, is a drunken failure, creatively spent. Clayton faces increasing pressure from his publisher to either produce or pay back the huge advance for his contracted second novel, due four years earlier. Meanwhile, Richard Whitehurst, who is smitten with Kyle's former fame, fights to keep his career on track after his new novel, a decade in the making, is greeted with positive reviews, but few sales.

Following a highly anticipated meeting at a literary party, Kyle agrees to a summer stay at Richard's Hamptons house, where the spectacle of the Whitehurst family's deterioration forces him to mature and take stock of his life as a writer and a man.

Supported by a carefully drawn cast of characters, Richard's disillusioned wife, Meryl; his desperate for love, drug-addicted daughter, Kerry; the old-school agent Larry Wabzug, a friend of both writers. Kyle and Richard search for fame and credibility, although not necessarily in that order. Wenzel's taut, fast-paced writing makes this novel easy to recommend as a good read. — Lee Hall


"A Sky So Close," by Betool Khedairi (Pantheon $23) is a first novel written in Arabic by a young woman born to a Scottish mother and Iraqi father. It is well-written, if at times seemingly slow. But it builds and gives us a picture of the conflict between the Muslim and Christian cultures, and of life in Iraq, both for the poor and the prosperous middle class. Of even greater interest, we see the Iran-Iraq war and the U.S. bombing of Iraq from the point of view of the people on the ground. For that reason alone, it is well worth reading.

Rozanne Epps

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