Under the Antarctic sun, life vanishes entirely, replaced only by the endless white of nothingness. In this vast white void, a lone speck of life solemnly marches forward. The White Darkness (Doubleday, $20) is the epic story of Henry Worsley, one lone trekker who sought to conquer the unforgiving continent. Tracing the steps of the legendary Ernest Shackleton, Worsley set out by himself to complete what would be the first solo journey across the span of Antarctica. David Grann brings his masterful storytelling abilities to the trek of Worsley. White Darkness is an utterly captivating account of the dogged determination of one man who literally followed in the footsteps of his hero. Most importantly, Grann asks the question: why? In an age where the frontiers of human exploration have been pushed to the extremes, Worsley’s endurance stands out as deeply inspiring.
If Friedrich Nietzsche kept his “gaze … fixed beyond all that is ephemeral,” seeing himself as “untimely,” Sue Prideaux’s I Am Dynamite! (Tim Duggan, $30) shows how very timely the “philosopher of perhaps” remains. Prideaux looks closely at the thinker’s family, friendships, health, and travels, tracing the development of his ideas within larger personal and cultural contexts. So rich are these contexts that at times they threaten to overwhelm the ideas. Prideaux gives generous selections from Nietzsche’s letters as well as the letters and journals of his sister Elisabeth, Cosima Wagner, Paul Rée, Jacob Burckhardt, and others; combined with her often witty and always sharp comments, these actual voices bring even the secondary characters to life. The narrative is also full of telling and indelible details, like the “Renaissance painter outfit” Richard Wagner wore for his first meeting with Nietzsche. Prideaux’s accounts of Nietzsche’s life-long ill health, when he was incapacitated for weeks with headaches, nausea, and sensitivity to light, reveal him as a courageous and vulnerable man as well as a formidable thinker. But when he was incapacitated mentally and physically for the last years of his life, he was at the mercy of his sister Elisabeth, who recreated her brother in the image of proto-Nazi. Prideaux untangles her distortions from Nietzsche’s rejection of systems, restoring his “blazing if baffling vision that challenges us to think for ourselves.”
If you are going to write a biography of the journalist Hunter S. Thompson, the one thing you should never be is capital O Objective. To be Objective--a word Thompson loathed-- would be to have missed the point of your subject and Timothy Denevi has certainly not missed the point. By adopting (or imitating) Thompson’s gonzo style in Freak Kingdom (PublicAffairs, $28), Denevi creates a necessarily fast-paced narrative of the most significant decade of Thompson’s life (1964-1974). He also succeeds in drawing a revisionist portrait of Thompson that never quite dispels the drug-addled caricature one finds in Doonesbury’s Uncle Duke, nor should it. Denevi resuscitates an important and unfortunately overlooked aspect of Thompson’s political thought: his true commitment to lowercase r republican virtues and ultimately to the Dream of America, rather than the American Dream. This Thompson, who Denevi strives to portray as an opponent to the Ever Present Specter of Fascism: American Style, appears more as a nuanced and thoughtful figure whose idiosyncrasies are not simply those of a drug-addled freak, but of a different sort of patriot. Denevi’s Thompson is a patriot loyal to America’s highest aspirations, democracy, multiculturalism, and equality, while antagonistic to its Lowest Common Discriminators, namely, Richard Milhous Nixon.