Weekend Reading

Here is a celebration of interesting reading for the American holiday weekend:

A series on Why We Travel by Pico Iyer at picoiyerjourneys.com
The Hateful Monk by Gavin Jacobson in the New York Review of Books online
Why Germans Are So Ambivalent About Russia by Daniel Tost at global.handelsblatt.com
How Much More Can We Learn About the Universe by Lawrence M. Krauss in Nautilus
Borderline Insanity: What Does Brexit Mean for Northern Ireland by Jörg Schindler in Spiegel
Glossing Africa by Namwali Serpell in the New York Review of Books online

Plus two most recommendable short fiction books from international authors which will serve you well if you’re lucky enough to have a third day this weekend:

From Norway,  The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen, and
From Sri Lanka, The Story of a Brief Marriage: A Novel by Anuk Arudpragasam

Cheers!

Weekend Reading

Articles I’ve enjoyed this week. Load them on your mobile device and enjoy them at the beach.

A Swap for Zanzibar by Neal Ascherson in the London Review of Books
The Paradox of the Elephant Brain by Suzana Herculano-Houzel at mitp.nautil.us
The Origin Story of Animals Is a Song of Ice and Fire by Ed Yong at theatlantic.com
Once upon a time in 1989 by Slavenka Drakulić at eurozine.com
What to Expect When You’re Expecting Zapad 2017 by Michael Kofman at War on the Rocks
Understanding Moscow: The Mysteries of the Russian Mindset by Christian Neef at Spiegel
This Pacific Island Is Caught in a Global Power Struggle (And It’s Not Guam) by Daniel Lin at nationalgeographic.com

Eclipse Book Excerpt 6

In anticipation of Monday’s total eclipse, this week we’ve got a series of excerpts from the Svalbard chapter of Out in the Cold, in which we traveled up to 800 miles from the North Pole in search of totality in March, 2015. Get a copy of the whole book for yourself, or order the unabridged audiobook.

HOW DID WE DO?

I go back to around to visit people I had seen before. Two of them tell me they felt they held a privileged position in that they didn’t have to get here, and maybe that was why they hadn’t thought about it much, but it turned out it was something they never expected.

A lady selling wool sweaters in a tourist shop says she thought it would be darker. I suggest the majesty, noting that the width of the moon’s shadow is usually only about 160 kilometers (267 km at most), so isn’t it incredible that across the whole of the Earth, you should happen to find yourself exactly underneath it? And she nods, but still, to her it should have got darker.

The lady at the Apotek calls it unbelievable and magical. “And more than the eclipse, the light on the ground, everything.”

The airport lady: “Amazing. I didn’t think so much about it before.”

Downtown Longyearbyen

Longyearbyen is fast emptying out when I walk into the tourist office the day after, deserted but for two young women with expectant smiles. Might they help me?

I want to know if the tourist office feels we all behaved ourselves on their island and they think we did. The day before the eclipse there was a snowmobile accident. There had been some frostbite (but that was always). There was that one polar bear thing. It is illegal to shoot a polar bear. Shooting a polar bear who wants to eat your son is a better idea than obeying the law, obviously, but every incident requires “full … what? … research … investigation” as Sigrid, the snowmobile guide, put it.

Mark Sabbatini, editor of the local English language newspaper, tells me, “We had an arsonist which was the first time I’d ever seen that happen. I think it was last night or yesterday over on 222. All the streets here have numbers and 222 is a kinda busy residential area … there’s a whole bunch of homes, it’s kind of like suburban central … somebody went along there trying to start fires.”

In other European cities you can always try to stay warm in the train station. Maybe some didn’t think it through that there is no transport hub here to hide.

“We had a rash of people who came in Thursday night on the late flight, stayed up all night at pubs, didn’t have a place to stay. Pubs close down here about three or four at the latest, god knows what they did after that to stay warm until the sun came up, so they had folks going door to door basically knocking and begging to sleep on floors or hoping there was someone left their house unlocked and wasn’t home, just a bunch of folks came up here to prey upon the kindness of strangers. But nobody died….”

A lady from Greece tells me she paid $150 to sleep on a travel agency office floor the first night (“They threw down skins for us to sleep on”) and then $800 for a room without private bath on the night before the eclipse. We booked a year and a half out, but even then the Radisson SAS hotel (it’s a small Radisson) was bulk booked by a tour company. The rumor was that it had been booked in its entirety eight years out.

You mustn’t let the sunshine fool you. Days since our arrival have been sunny and if you can call -12 or -16C mild, then, mild, but the meteorological tide turns the day after the eclipse and with the sun obscured, in an Arctic, all blue way that makes the way people ambled up the main walkway the day before like leisure country rambles.

Today is all anonymity and purpose, heads wrapped, strides long and purposeful. Suddenly you see how, impossible as it seems, the last few days, with the hard frozen footpaths and the snowmobiles parked on the two-foot snowbank outside the window, were springtime for Svalbarders, a time to enjoy walking without mufflers wrapped up to their ear hats.

And it really must feel like some strange springtime, because at such a latitude as this, just in the time of our visit the length of the day increased from 11:54 to 13:10 – an extra hour and sixteen minutes of daylight in five days.

Which comports with the strangest single realization about this latitude, namely that scarcely five weeks since the first sunrise of the year (until 16 February the sun had been beneath the horizon, yet in the very first day that it rose, it didn’t just peep and retreat but stayed up for a full hour and forty minutes), already it never gets totally dark at night. Instead the sun skims a shallow enough path below the horizon to give the sky a twilight glow all night, ahead of – less than a month from now – 19 April, when the sun will stay up all day.

With the weather even better than way down in Oslo, we lull ourselves into believing Svalbard is just like home, it’s just way up north. Until the day after the eclipse. Snow falls all day long. Wind pounds the windows when they aren’t rattled by sleet. We wake with no agenda and ponder the standard inventory of kitchen utensils at the Svalbard Lodge, which includes among other things,

7 glasses

7 wine glasses

7 coffee cups (mugs from Ikea)

7 schnapps glasses

7 cognac glasses

Seven.

Svalbard Lodge doesn’t do coziness, the sense of well being expressed by the German gemütlich or the Danish hyggeligt, but it has one mighty heater, and today that goes a long way. We toast to eclipse success using two-sevenths of our supply of cognac glasses.

•••••

Eclipse Book Excerpt 5 of 6

In anticipation of Monday’s total eclipse, this week we’ve got a series of excerpts from the Svalbard chapter of Out in the Cold, in which we traveled up to 800 miles from the North Pole in search of totality in March, 2015. Get a copy of the whole book for yourself, or order the unabridged audiobook.

MEANWHILE DOWN BELOW

As the eclipse approached Svalbard began to fret:

Svalbard eclipse prompts warnings

January 22, 2015

Authorities on Norway’s Arctic archipelago of Svalbard are bracing for an onslaught of tourists in connection with the solar eclipse on March 20. That’s prompted them to issue warnings to the public, in an effort to avoid over-capacity.

“Since Longyearbyen (the main settlement on Svalbard) is a small town, we can have problems when so many people gather,” the local sheriff wrote in the warning posted on Svalbard’s public sector website.

Tourism agency VisitSvalbard reported that all hotels and other forms of lodging have been fully booked for several years on and around March 20. Now authorities are warning that there also is limited capacity in Longyearbyen’s few local restaurants and cafés, that no warming tents will be available to ward off the chill of the Arctic night, and that anyone venturing outside the city limits of Longyearbyen must have protection against polar bears.

So worried were the authorities that the hospital didn’t schedule appointments in the days around the eclipse. The town laid in extra food supplies and with characteristic Norwegian efficiency, the Red Cross had tents up and ready.

All hotels sold out a year before and they reckoned island population would swell to 3,500 or 4,000, or maybe more if you account for those who rented vacation homes or friends who came to stay with friends.

On eclipse day a dozen charter and private flights flew in for the eclipse and then out the same day, and authorities worried that a weather change could prevent those same-day visitors from departing when the whole town was already full.

In the event, the weather didn’t change and Longyearbyen handled things with good humor. We all tramped up and down their normally sovereign daily paths, most people wearing appropriate gear, and I think, just five weeks since the first sunrise of the year, the clerks and barkeeps were mostly happy to see all the strangers.

Until the eclipse actually crossed the sky it seemed as if local people downplayed its significance. Maybe they just didn’t think about it much, mainly marveling at the arrival of visitors from far away. I think they thought we were nuts.

Some said they hadn’t planned anything special, or hadn’t given it much thought. Maybe they thought they already lived in a place of wonder. Mostly, I think, the few who stayed at work wished they had taken a day off.

•••••

An Eclipse on Mars

The scientists who thought to pan up with the Curiosity Martian Rover were impossibly cool. Here is an eclipse as seen on Mars, as recorded by Curiosity. This is what we call on earth an annular eclipse, in which the diameter of the moon, in this case Phobos, combined with its distance from the surface of the planet, make it too apparently small to cover the entire disk of the sun.

As to total eclipses, we are incredibly lucky to be alive on Earth just now. Part of my most recent book Out in the Cold covers a trip my wife and I made to Svalbard, chasing the total solar eclipse of March 2015. To quote from the book:

“Total eclipses are possible only because the sun’s diameter is about 400 times that of the moon, while the moon is about 400 times closer to earth, allowing for the moon’s disk to just about cover the sun’s. Consider the serendipity.

Further, we just happen to be here at the right moment in the cosmos. The moon’s orbit drifts about four centimeters a year away from earth. Scientists have measured its retreat using tools left on the moon by the Apollo program. A billion years ago all eclipses entirely blotted out the sun, and in just fifty million years the moon will be too small when viewed from earth to ever cover the sun. Even now it barely does. If the moon’s diameter were just 169 miles smaller total eclipses would be impossible.”

To everyone who saw today’s eclipse and was a little awed, cheers!