More History Books by Caroline Alexander

The Endurance | The War That Killed Achilles | Lost Gold of the Dark Ages

Title:Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition
Author(s):Caroline Alexander
Publisher:Alfred A. Knopf
Published:November 3, 1998
Date Added:May 15, 2023
calibre ID:e-1435
Date Finished:n/a

About the Book

In August 1914, days before the outbreak of the First World War, the renowned explorer Ernest Shackleton and a crew of twenty-seven set sail for the South Atlantic in pursuit of the last unclaimed prize in the history of exploration: the first crossing on foot of the Antarctic continent. Weaving a treacherous path through the freezing Weddell Sea, they had come within eighty-five miles of their destination when their ship, Endurance, was trapped fast in the ice pack. Soon the ship was crushed like matchwood, leaving the crew stranded on the floes. Their ordeal would last for twenty months, and they would make two near-fatal attempts to escape by open boat before their final rescue.

Drawing upon previously unavailable sources, Caroline Alexander gives us a riveting account of Shackleton’s expedition — one of history’s greatest epics of survival. And she presents the astonishing work of Frank Hurley, the Australian photographer whose visual record of the adventure has never before been published comprehensively. Together, text and image re-create the terrible beauty of Antarctica, the awful destruction of the ship, and the crew’s heroic daily struggle to stay alive, a miracle achieved largely through Shackleton’s inspiring leadership.

The survival of Hurley’s remarkable images is scarcely less miraculous: The original glass plate negatives, from which most of the book’s illustrations are superbly reproduced, were stored in hermetically sealed cannisters that survived months on the ice floes, a week in an open boat on the polar seas, and several more months buried in the snows of a rocky outcrop called Elephant Island. Finally Hurley was forced to abandon his professional equipment; he captured some of the most unforgettable images of the struggle with a pocket camera and three rolls of Kodak film.

Published in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History’s landmark exhibition on Shackleton’s journey, The Endurance thrillingly recounts one of the last great adventures in the Heroic Age of exploration–perhaps the greatest of them all.

Source: Goodreads


‘The Endurance’: Ice, Wondrous Even in the Face of Death

By Christopher Lehmann-Haupt | Dec. 10, 1998

To cross the Antarctic continent from the Weddell to the Ross Sea on foot: in retrospect the project seems a little banal, maybe because we’ve been spoiled by what exploration has accomplished in the meantime. But to Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1914, the trans-Antarctic hike was one of the last remaining prizes in exploration. So writes Caroline Alexander in her stirring new account, “The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition.”

As Shackleton himself put it in the prospectus for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition: “It will be a greater journey than the journey to the pole and back, and I feel it is up to the British nation to accomplish this, for we have been beaten at the conquest of the North Pole and beaten at the conquest of the South Pole.”

To this end, he bought a 300-ton barquentine from a Norwegian shipyard, renamed it Endurance after his family motto, “By endurance we conquer,” manned it with a mixed company of officers, scientists and seamen, 27 in all, and set off from England on Aug. 8, 1914, a week after World War I began.

The remarkable story of what happened to the expedition has been told in several previous books, most notably in Shackleton’s classic account, “South,” published in 1919 to help defray the cost of the project. Yet in Ms. Alexander’s telling, the terrifying details of the journey come as vividly to life as ever.

Ice conditions were unusually severe that year, with pack extending farther north than it had in anyone’s recollection. Although Shackleton delayed his departure from South Georgia, an island east of the Falklands, until Dec. 5, he was soon surrounded by the sea ice that churned in an interminable clockwise circle in the Weddell Sea. By Jan. 15 the Endurance was locked in, 80 miles away, or a day’s sail, from its port of destination to the south.

As the pack ice bore the Endurance away to the north, it squeezed harder and harder, eventually crushing it on Oct. 27 and forcing its crew to abandon ship with its three lifeboats. For another six months the men drifted northward on floes until the ice began to break up. This permitted them to sail west in the most adverse weather conditions and to land eventually on Elephant Island, some 599 miles to the north of the Antarctic Peninsula and as grim and hostile a piece of land as was possible to imagine.

Because there was no chance that anyone would ever find them there, Shackleton took the desperate measure of picking five men and trying to sail one of the 22-foot lifeboats to South Georgia, which meant traveling 800 miles across the most formidable ocean on earth, in winter. Miraculously, they succeeded, landing on the west coast of South Georgia 16 days later in what was subsequently ranked as one of the greatest boat journeys ever accomplished. Trekking over the island’s glaciers, Shackleton rejoined civilization and set in motion the rescue of all 22 men on Elephant Island, which was finally achieved four months after he had left them.

How has Ms. Alexander managed to retell Shackleton’s adventure so vividly? For one thing, she avails herself of all prior sources, some of them unavailable until now. A travel writer and the author of four previous books — among them “One Dry Season: Traveling in Equatorial Africa” and “Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition: The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton’s Polar-Bound Cat” — she skillfully weaves together diary entries and memoirs so as to evoke both the beauty and the terror of the Antarctic, the eerie landscape of ice blocks piling up like sugar cubes, the sound of emperor penguins crying soulfully as if lamenting the breakup of the Endurance.

More significantly, Ms. Alexander has included 140 of the photographs taken by Frank Hurley, who was enlisted by Shackleton to create a visual record of the expedition. These photographs, by turns abstractly beautiful and graphic, were stored in hermetically sealed canisters that somehow survived the journey and have never before been published comprehensively. They will be shown in an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History to open in April 1999, with Ms. Alexander as the curator.

The only distraction from her powerful narrative is one’s feeling of the absurdity of the venture, a nagging sense that the only force to match Shackleton’s heroism in bringing his men through was his foolishness in having placed them at such risk in the first place. Of course, what Ms. Alexander also makes clear is that we are viewing the whole enterprise across the historical divide of World War I, which brought to an end what the author calls “the Heroic Age of polar exploration” and undermined faith in all forms of human striving. (Britain’s preoccupation with the war explains why Shackleton took so long getting help to rescue his men from Elephant Island and finally had to turn to the Chilean government for a ship.)

Yet if history distances Shackleton’s exploits, Hurley’s photographs return them to immediacy. We can look into the eyes of the men and recall how they described their feelings. One of them, Thomas Orde-Lees, a marine captain, wrote in his diary after one failed attempt by the crew to march over the ice pack, “Were it not for a little natural anxiety as to our ultimate progress I have never been happier in my life than I am now, for is not this kind of existence the ‘real thing,’ the thing I have for years set my heart on. . . .”

Elsewhere, Ms. Alexander quotes Shackleton in “South” describing the end of his final trek across South Georgia: “In memories we were rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had ‘suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.’ We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”

Such effusions of romantic agony combined with Hurley’s remarkably crisp visual record serve to collapse history into a universal truth. What men will risk death for is any alternative to boredom.

Source: The New York Times

Title:The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Illiad and the Trojan War
Author(s):Caroline Alexander
Published:October 15, 2009
Date Added:May 15, 2023
calibre ID:e-1437
Date Finished:n/a

About the Book

“Spectacular and constantly surprising.”
-Ken Burns

Written with the authority of a scholar and the vigor of a bestselling narrative historian, The War That Killed Achilles is a superb and utterly timely presentation of one of the timeless stories of Western civilization. As she did in The Endurance and The BountyNew York Times bestselling author Caroline Alexander has taken apart a narrative we think we know and put it back together in a way that lets us see its true power. In the process, she reveals the intended theme of Homer’s masterwork — the tragic lessons of war and its enduring devastation.


“In her spectacular and constantly surprising new book, Caroline Alexander has taken the ‘original’ war book and turned it upside down, making it, as all wars are, an excruciating story of loss…The War that Killed Achilles is a triumph.”
-Ken Burns

“This riveting tale of ancient wars, legendary warriors, and mythical gods is at once a great adventure story and a cautionary tale of the enduring perils of hubris and ego. Achilles’ life and death are instructive lessons for all of us today.”
-Tom Brokaw

“Spirited and provocative…a nobly bold even rousing venture…it would be hard to find a faster, livelier, more compact introduction to such a great range of recent Iliadic explorations.”
-Steve Coates, The New York Times

“Penetrating…reflecting her own skills [Alexander] provides her own translation of an entire chapter…a real bonus for the reader, comparing favorably with Lattimore and Fagles.”
Boston Globe

Source: Penguin-Random House


The War that Killed Achilles by Caroline Alexander

By Tom Holland | Jan. 16, 2010

Illustration of Achilles by Clifford Harper

Interminable though the Chilcot inquiry might seem, it has nothing on a far earlier attempt to make sense of a ruinous invasion. In the earliest days of their history, so the Greeks recorded, a city in Asia by the name of Troy had been besieged by their ancestors for 10 long years, captured, and burnt to the ground. Why? Responsibility for the conflict was pinned on Paris, a Trojan prince whose abduction of Helen, the fabulously beautiful daughter of the king of the gods, had set in train a truly calamitous sequence of events. Not only Troy had ended up obliterated, but so, too, had the age of heroes. War had consumed the world.

No wonder, then, that the Greeks should have been torn between a desire to find some meaning in this terrible conflagration and a suspicion that it had never had any meaning at all. In the 5th century BC, the historian Herodotus concluded that “the utter ruin of the Trojans, and their annihilation, had served to demonstrate to humanity how terrible crimes will always be met, courtesy of the gods, with a terrible vengeance”. Elsewhere, however, he reported an entirely contrary view: that the rape of Helen had been barely a crime at all, and that the Greek response had been grotesquely disproportionate. The implication of this was potentially most unsettling: that the destruction of Troy, far from demonstrating the workings of a divine order, reflected instead a chill and unheeding universe. “Why should I call to the gods?” Such was the question that the Athenian tragedian, Euripides, put into the mouth of the queen of fallen Troy in his tragedy, The Trojan Women. “Long have I raised my voice to them, but they do not listen.”

When the National Theatre staged the same play in 2007, the director, Katie Mitchell, was perfectly explicit about the mirror she felt that the death agony of Troy might hold up to the present. “World events,” as she put it, “lead me to the Greeks.” So also have they led Caroline Alexander, in her new book, to the primal representation of the Trojan war: Homer’s Iliad. The first and greatest epic in European literature, it has never ceased to be interpreted in the light of the contemporary. Alexander’s claim that it is “as resonant today – perhaps especially today – as it was in Homer’s Dark Age” has a two and a half thousand-year-old pedigree.

Yet that does not make it any the less convincing. The entire history of warfare over the past century, so Alexander argues, is to be found prefigured in the pages of Homer’s epic: from the phantom bowmen who supposedly shadowed the British retreat from Mons in 1914 to the American servicemen dragged by their heels through the streets of Mogadishu. That “combat trauma undoes character” is a lesson which can be applied equally to the plain of Troy and the streets of Fallujah. Even the environmental ruin that modern warfare has invariably brought in its wake, so Alexander suggests, is foreshadowed in the Iliad: for when Achilles, the deadliest of all the Greek heroes, advances into battle, a divinely sent fire follows in his wake, “parching the plain, drying the land, and burning the many corpses”.

Above all, however, what Alexander distinguishes in Homer’s epic is an attitude to warfare that would do credit to anyone who marched against the invasion of Iraq. A poem that back in the 19th century was seen as the very thing to instill martial virtue in the future rulers of the British empire is recast as history’s first protest song. After all, as Alexander justly points out, the conflict it commemorates “established no boundaries, won no territory, and furthered no cause”. Its consequences were nothing but destruction and misery. Even Achilles himself, the glorious and terrifying hero of the Iliad, knows in his heart that there is no glory in life worth the blank dullness of death. When we meet him in Homer’s sister epic, the Odyssey, it is as a ghost who declares flatly that he would rather be a slave in the land of the living than “a king over all the perished dead”.

This, in Alexander’s somewhat forced reading of his character, makes him a peacenik – albeit one with an occasionally murderous temper. Yet the truth is surely grimmer. “The life of a man,” Achilles declares bleakly, “can be neither retrieved, nor stolen, nor bought.” All very existential – and yet it is precisely his consciousness of how precarious life is that prompts Achilles not only to live it to the full, but to do so by ending the lives of others. Even when he chooses not to fight, his principal motivation is a brooding desire to see his former comrades wiped out. It is the very pointlessness of war, freely acknowledged by Achilles, which enables him to grace his own life, not with meaning, but rather with a blaze of integrity. Such is the keynote of what has proved to be his deathless fame.

The War that Killed Achilles is certainly a worthy memorial to Homer’s poem: compassionate, urgent and unfailingly stimulating. Yet it is hard to escape a nagging feeling that the image which Alexander sees reflected in the Iliad is too much her own. The Iliad is indeed, as she claims, an “evocation of war’s destruction”; but it is also repeatedly complicit in the sense of joy that can accompany slaughter. If Homer is our contemporary, then that does not prevent him from being simultaneously, and terrifyingly, alien. “The true story of the Iliad“, as Alexander subtitles her book, is more ambiguous, perhaps, and more unsettling, than she is willing to allow.

Tom Holland’s Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom is published by Abacus.

Source: The Guardian

Title:Lost Gold of the Dark Ages: War, Treasure, and the Mystery of the Saxons
Author(s):Caroline Alexander
Publisher:National Geographic
Published:October 18, 2011
Date Added:May 15, 2023
calibre ID:e-1436
Date Finished:n/a

About the Book

In July 2009 an amateur metal-detecting enthusiast made an astonishing find: 1500 pieces of bejeweled gold and silver almost 1500 years old, buried, lost, then forgotten. The treasure trove promises to shed unprecedented light on the most mysterious period of British history—the so-called “Dark Ages”—when the Saxons, Anglos, Celts, Picts, Jutes, and Vikings battled for control of the British Isles and a “mish mash of peoples evolved into a homogenous nation possessed with a strong cultural identity,” according to New York Times bestselling author of the book, Caroline Alexander.
Alexander, author of the bestselling The Endurance and The Bounty, draws themes from the story of the spectacular treasure to explore the entire fascinating history of the Saxons in England; from the fall of Rome to the flourishing and seemingly incomprehensible spread of Saxon influence. Piece by piece, she draws readers into a world of near constant warfare guided by a unique understanding of Christianity, blended as it was with pagan traditions. Through heroic and epic literature that survives in poems such as Beowulf and the Legends of King Arthur, Alexander seeks to separate myth from reality and wonder, with readers, if the circumstances of the deposit of such a spectacular hoard have parallels in legendary tales. Peering through a millennia of mist and mystery, Alexander reveals a fascinating era—and a mesmerizing discovery—as never before, uncovering a dynamic period of history that would see its conclusion in the birth of the English nation.
Set in a landscape whose beauty endures, the story of the making of England emerges through a wealth of archaeological and written material. The story highlights the fluid nature of human societies and carries a surprisingly modern message of a successful, cohesive culture emerging from a diverse group of peoples.

Source: Goodreads

About the Author

Caroline Alexander

Caroline Alexander has written for The New Yorker, Granta, Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian, Outside, and National Geographic. She is the curator of “Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Expedition,” an exhibition that opened at the American Museum of Natural History in March 1999. She lives on a farm in New Hampshire.

Source: Goodreads

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