Book Review: South Pole Station

Do you have digestion problems due to stress? Do you have problems with authority? How many alcoholic drinks do you consume a week? Would you rather be a florist or a truck driver?

These are some of the questions that determine if you have what it takes to survive at South Pole Station, a place with an average temperature of -54°F and no sunlight for six months a year. Cooper Gosling has just answered five hundred of them. Her results indicate she is sufficiently resilient for Polar life.

Cooper’s not sure if this is an achievement, but she knows she has nothing to lose. Unmoored by a recent family tragedy, she’s adrift at thirty and—despite her early promise as a painter—on the verge of sinking her career. So she accepts her place in the National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers Program and flees to Antarctica—where she encounters a group of misfits motivated by desires as ambiguous as her own. There’s Pearl, the Machiavellian cook with the Pollyanna attitude; Sal, an enigmatic astrophysicist whose experiment might change the world; and Tucker, the only uncloseted man on the continent, who, as station manager, casts a weary eye on all.

The only thing the Polies have in common is the conviction that they don’t belong anywhere else. Then a fringe scientist arrives, claiming climate change is a hoax. His presence will rattle this already imbalanced community, bringing Cooper and the Polies to the center of a global controversy and threatening the ancient ice chip they call home.

A winning comedy of errors set in the world’s harshest place, Ashley Shelby’s South Pole Station is a wry and witty debut novel about the courage it takes to band together, even as everything around you falls apart.

That synopsis needs a little tweaking, I think. For starters, I don’t think I’d describe South Pole Station as a “comedy of errors”. While there are funny moments, I don’t think of this book as a comedy at all. The characters are quirky and odd, but the setting and the stakes become increasingly serious as the plot moves forward, and the individuals portrayed here all seem to have buried hurts in their pasts that they’re trying to escape from or figure out. So no, not a comedy.

Putting that aside, let me start by saying that I truly enjoyed South Pole Station. I seem to be fascinated by people who willingly walk away from society with the intent of spending months at a time in isolation at the farthest reaches of the planet. I’ve read a few novels and one memoir related to time at the Pole, and can’t help being intrigued by the special mindset it takes to make a commitment of that sort.

In South Pole Station, Cooper is going to Pole because she can’t quite be anywhere else. Her family life is raw after a devastating loss, she has no support systems and little hope for her art career, and latches on the NSF Artists and Writers program as if it’s her only lifeline. She feels compelled to go, both to prove something to herself, to lay her ghosts to rest, and to find something meaningful to give her purpose again.

At the Pole, she meets the scientists (Beakers) and support workers (Nailheads) who call the place home, as well as the odd group of artists on the same grant — an interpretive dancer, a historical novelist, and a literary novelist, among others. They’ve all come seeking inspiration, but they’re also expected to pull their weight, going through fire training and all the other essentials for survival in such a stark and inhospitable place.

The bonds that form among the people at Pole are strong, as are the gripes and grudges that quickly emerge among a group of argumentative, strong-willed people forced to live in extremely close quarters for extended periods of time. The dynamics can be insanely fun, but veer quickly to the dark side when their group understandings are threatened — as is the case when Frank Pavano, a climate “denier” arrives to conduct research that’s antithetical to everything the Polies believe in. Pavano, as we discover, is sponsored by big oil and by Republican Congressmen on a mission, and he’s ostracized and opposed at every turn by the hardcore Beakers and even the Nailheads. When there’s a terrible accident, it becomes a national scandal as headlines scream about bullying and harassment and the exclusion of diversity of opinions.

Be warned — there are heavy doses of science talk in this book, and I’ll admit that some of the talk about cosmology and quantum physics made my head spin. At the same time, that’s one of the book’s charms — it doesn’t talk down to its readers, and assumes we’ll all manage to keep up.

The characters are well developed and full of personality, from Cooper the artist to Sal the scientist to Denise the anthropologist and Doc Carla, the station’s one and only medical staffer. It’s great fun to see these oddballs bounce off each other, entertain each other, fight with each other, and fall in love with each other.

While Cooper is our main point-of-view character, we do get sections focusing on other characters’ backstories and inner workings, and these parts add to the richness of the story and enhance our understanding of the characters’ actions and motivations.

All in all, I found South Pole Station to be a captivating look at a unique social dynamic, as well as a story of interesting characters in a highly unusual situation. Oh, and add in politics and scientific discoveries and artwork, and it’s one book that really doesn’t fit any of the usual fictional trends or tropes.

A final note on my reading experience: This just goes to show how much damage a badly formatted ARC can do! I know we shouldn’t let formatting issues influence our reviews, but I can’t help but be turned off by a book that’s impossible to read. The finished, published version of South Pole Station includes emails and letters and other documents that enhance the story, but in the ARC version, these weren’t set off from the main text in any way, making it incredibly difficult to understand what went where. I DNF’d the ARC, and basically walked away from the book at 15%. Luckily, I happened across a copy at the library a few months later and decided to give it another chance, and I’m so glad I did! It’s sad to think that based on my initial reading experience, I would never have read this terrific novel.

Summing up my rambles… I thought South Pole Station was great! I love the setting, and had a lot of fun getting to know the characters. I was drawn into the scientific competitions and the political maneuvering, and felt the ups and downs of Cooper’s emotional journey. So yes, that would be a big thumbs-up recommendation!

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The details:

Title: South Pole Station
Author: Ashley Shelby
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: July 4, 2017
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Up To This Pointe

Up to this PointeYou may be thinking, “What on earth are ballet and Antarctica doing in the same novel?”

That’s a very good question, but fortunately, Up To This Pointe, the new YA novel by the author of Six Feet Over It (review), has some very good answers.

Harper Scott has been absolutely certain about her future for her entire life. Along with her best friend Kate, Harper has a plan. Which they call The Plan. And it’s very simple: Work their butts off with constant ballet lessons and rehearsals. Graduate a semester early from high school. Audition for and get accepted by the San Francisco Ballet. Live and work together in their hometown, the best city in the world, being ballerinas and having careers doing what they love best.

There’s a small hitch: Kate is a gifted ballet dancer with the perfect ballet body and innate talent. Harper is a very good dancer who works harder than anyone and pours her heart and soul into ballet — but as she learns when she finally gets the honest talk she should have gotten years earlier, she lacks that indefinable “it” that would propel her into success and acceptance by a ballet company.

When Harper’s dreams come crashing down, she takes refuge by running away, pretty much as far as she can go.

Harper, you see, is a Scott — as in, a descendant of the famous South Pole explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Beyond the name cachet, her mother is a scientist with lots of colleagues who are willing to help out her daughter. And in the blink of an eye, Harper finagles herself into a six-month internship available to high school students, to live and work at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica during the extreme dark of a sunless winter. [Note: As the author points out in the afterword, there is no such internship. High school students would never be permitted to winter over in Antarctica — but hey, this is fiction!]

To Harper, this is a perfect solution. Her whole life has become nothing but emptiness. Her dreams and plans have amounted to nothing. Harper’s despair drives her away from her loving family, the very cute boy she’s only just started to know, and especially, from Kate and a perceived betrayal. She rushes headlong into a commitment that she can’t break until the sun rises again six months later, and meanwhile is thrust into an experience unlike anything she’s ever known.

While the idea of a ballerina at the South Pole may sound funny, Up To This Pointe works, and works well. Harper is a lovely character, with deep commitments, a strong sense of purpose, and absolute love for her family, her art, and her little ballet students who adore her madly. The book gives us a sharp picture of what life is like for an aspiring ballet dancer — the absolute commitment required, the years of training and self-denial, the toll on body and mind — and the risk that what someone devotes herself to all her life may not be what she can end up succeeding at.

The book also give us a fascinating introduction to what life at an Antarctic science station is like during the long winter months, the craziness and even illness that can be caused by winters there, and the unusual friendships and relationships that come from being marooned with a small group of people for so many months on end. Likewise, the beauty of Antarctica is lovingly described… as well as the bitter, piercing cold. The author finds a clever way to include the three most famous Antarctic explorers — Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton — as almost spirit guides to Harper. Their stories give her hope, courage, and a way forward just when she needs it most.

Author Jennifer Longo has clearly spent a lot of time in San Francisco, as she makes the city a perfect backdrop for Harper’s world. The San Francisco of Up To This Pointe is much more than just famous bridges and crooked streets. It’s the avenues and neighborhoods and cafes and parks that Harper and her friends and family inhabit and love that really bring the city to life.

The writing in Up To This Pointe is both funny and real. There’s a lot of humor here, even as Harper deals with heartbreak and horrible loss. Her pain and inner turmoil are portrayed sensitively and realistically, and because this is a first-person narrative, we’re in Harper’s head with her as she sorts through her sorrow and desires and figures out what to do with herself.

From the book’s opening lines:

The thing about Antarctica that surprises me most? The condoms. They’re absolutely everywhere.

…to descriptions of the Antarctic sky:

Paintbrush strokes of color, flung from a palette of violet and crimson, of green and blue. Vivid, pure color, and it seems to move and shimmer, not like the pearly nacreous clouds; these are ribbons of pigment.

Aurora australis.

This is a really crazy time of year for the southern lights to show.

It’s a sign.

Of something.

… and back again to San Francisco:

Ocean Beach smells like my childhood. Sounds like my future. I breathe the salt and cold and then, nearer the park, the evergreens and cypress and juniper berry and the lawn, new soil. I’m in a tank top. No coat. The fog moves in my hair. I want to hug it.

Up To This Pointe is a sweet, fun, hopeful and highly readable story of a talented young woman figuring out what home is all about, what a Plan is for, and what matters most.

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The details:

Title: Up To This Pointe
Author: Jennifer Longo
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 19, 2016
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Library

Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Huh. I just now realized that I’ve been committing hyper-punctuation in regard to this book, whose title does in fact include a comma and an apostrophe, but not a question mark — which I have egregiously added in several tweets and emails. Mea culpa.

Be that as it may, I have to say that I just adored Where’d You Go, Bernadette. (See? No question mark). Author Maria Semple has crafted a social satire that is uproariously funny, hits on a ton of memes and flashpoints of today’s hyper-plugged in society, and yet is also quite touching and surprisingly sweet in places.

Given the title, it’s not a spoiler to say that the plot revolves around events leading up to the disappearance of 50-year-old Bernadette Fox, once a brilliant rising star in the world of architecture, now an eccentric, possibly agoraphobic mother and housewife, whose life is one long string of odd behaviors. Bernadette, her 15-year-old super-talented daughter Bee, and her workaholic Microsoft exec husband Elgin, live in a run-down former reform school for girls atop a Seattle hill. The house is falling apart at the seams, literally, as blackberry vines force their way up through the foundations and the damp ceilings and walls crumble around them. (Keep an eye on those blackberry vines — they’re key to some early developments that lead to a disaster at once appalling and hilarious.)

Bee attends the Galer Street School, described in its mission statement as “a place where compassion, academics, and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet.” Children are graded on a scale of “Surpasses Excellence”, “Achieves Excellence”, and “Working Toward Excellence”. Bernadette is happy that her daughter is thriving, but hates everything about Seattle, including the meddling, fussy, over-involved parents of the school, whom she refers to as gnats. Things go from bad to worse when Bernadette’s neighbor Audrey hosts a prospective parents brunch at her home in an attempt to lure “Mercedes Parents” to their Suburu-level school. To say that Bernadette and Audrey don’t quite get along would be the understatement of the year.

Further complications: Bernadette has hired a virtual assistant named Manjula to handle all of her personal business by internet — everything from travel plans to prescriptions to ordering clothing and household repairs. Before you can say “identity theft”, Bernadette has provided Manjula with her entire family’s bank account numbers, birthdates, passport numbers, and social security numbers.

When Bee comes home one day with a report card full of S grades and a brochure for a trip to Antarctica, events and disasters begin to snowball. Neither parent says no, plans for this exotic trip are set in motion, and Bernadette soon begins to fear that she’s in way over her head. By the time the date of the trip rolls around, psychiatrists, FBI agents, Microsoft admins, school chums, and gardeners have all played a role in the unfolding crisis… and Bernadette disappears without a trace.

Precocious, talented, determined Bee is left behind to put the pieces together, and what we’ve been reading all along is Bee’s compilation of documents pertaining to these events. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is told via emails, faxes, school reports, letters, magazine articles, and captain’s logs; Bee has assembled everything she can that may shed light on her mother’s disappearance, and through quick thinking and connecting of dots, believes she may have found pieces of the puzzle that will lead to answers about her mother.

Let me just say that I enjoyed this book immensely. The writing is crisp and deft, and the author does an outstanding job of capturing some of the nuttiness that is so deeply ingrained in today’s world of helicopter parenting, the cult of self-esteem, the worship of tech, and the increasing isolation experienced by individuals in a world of constant “connectitude”. One character writes impassioned screeds about her Victims Against Victimhood support group, whose members TORCH one another (Time Out! Reality Check) when they speak in victim-lingo; Bernadette’s husband Elgie is revered because he gave the 4th-most watched TEDTalk ever; the school hosts a constant series of concerts and events featuring multiculturalism so extreme that it’s practically a religious devotion. This all rings true in a way that is both slightly sad and hilariously funny.

And yet, there is an underlying sweetness in much of this story as well. As the book unfolds, some of the most self-deluded characters find ways to acknowledge hard truths. The bad guys aren’t necessarily all that bad after all. What seems charming and eccentric is revealed to be a cover for deeper problems that must be addressed. The perfect schools may not be what all children need. Little by little, the beliefs held by the characters at the start of the book fall away, until just about all find their way toward something closer to honesty and decency.

My only quibble about Where’d You Go, Bernadette has to do with the last section of the book, which is told mostly through Bee’s narration and loses some of the oddball charm built into the stream of constant emails and faxes. At times, this section reads a bit too much like a travelogue and loses a bit of the punch provided throughout so much of the book. Still, this is a minor complaint; the book wraps up in a way that’s completely satisfying yet still surprising, and I walked away a) smiling and b) resolved to read whatever Maria Semple decides to write next.

If you enjoy quirky fiction with a bite, this is a book for you.