The Monday Book: NORTH TO THE NIGHT by Alvah Simon

Armchair adventuring isn’t usually my cuppa tea. I picked this book up in part because of its subtitle, “A Spiritual Odyssey in the Arctic.”

The book is written by a man who convinces his long-suffering wife Diana that they should live on a boat, and then that the boat should be sailed to the northernmost point possible on the planet so they can live there for a year.

Polar bears are a big feature in the book, mostly how to detect and escape from them. The Simons pick up a kitten as they sail north, naming her Halifax. She becomes a bear detector, companion in the darkness, comic relief, and star attraction for the Inuit who visit the crazy people with the boat wedged in the ice.

That’s the thing about going to the Arctic: getting out again is hard. There are several passages about how the boat suddenly bucks and plunges and ice pieces like killer knives suddenly appear on deck, etc. Also, polar bears.

Diana has to leave in the middle of the winter because her father is dying; kind people come get her because, see above, getting out is hard. And she wasn’t an emergency in the technical sense.

During the year, Simon comes to recognize how much being alone makes you aware of your inner resources, not just surviving, but maintaining sanity. Who are you when no one is looking, literally? The book dealt with that in some aspects, although in true author-to-the-most-people fashion, he leaves how that resolves into affiliational loyalty ambiguous at the end.

There’s a gyrfalcon story that could be considered heartbreaking advocacy, but my favorite was wee Halifax running off an Arctic Fox, and charming an Inuit elder.

Perhaps the most powerful thing about this book is, it made me interested in their journey, even though I never want to go on one similar myself. It is easy for an author to entice people with similar interests to keep reading. I kept reading even though I was halfway to horrified at how strange and different and hard to understand some of their experiences–and even motivations–were. He’s good at making you see what he sees.

Pour yourself a warm beverage, sit back, and watch Halifax romp and the birds fly. And look out for polar bears.


Despite the fact that we have an ever-shifting eternal library of humanity below us in our bookshop, my husband and I keep a few books in our personal space on the second floor.

Yesterday I had occasion to sit down for a few minutes and pick up two of the tomes that have graced the coffee tables in every house we’ve owned. One is called In the Company of Bears by Curtiss; the other, In Every Tiny Grain of Sand by Lindbergh.

bearsBears is a beautiful, tall book featuring wonderfully whimsical illustrations that make you look twice on every page. Clouds are bear-shaped; overstuffed armchairs have bear bodies in the upholstery pattern. And the words are just sweet: “When you’re sad you can sing the saddest songs/When you’re mad you can beat on the Chinese gongs.” It’s the kind of  book that lets you crawl inside its pages and get your childhood back for ten minutes.

Sand is also ostensibly a book for children – no psychoanalysis please – but it’s a collection of prayers from many franchises of faith, charmingly illustrated on themes of light, dark, home, and family. Lindbergh does some lovely rewrites of famous Psalms into verse, and the Celtic prayers include “Deep Peace,” which Jack and I used at our wedding, yet my favorite in the whole book remains a tiny little prayer in a bottom right corner, by G.K. Chesterton: “The snail does the holy/ Will of God slowly.”grain of sand

Maybe that’s why I love these books in the first place. They are “slow down, regroup, relax, say a prayer and have a cup of tea” books. In a world frenzied with helping other people slow down and enjoy books, these are the ones that remind me to stop and enjoy the moments of giving enjoyment. Sip ‘n smile.

That snail isn’t going any place quickly, but he is getting somewhere.