Discoveries: ‘The Magnetic North: Notes From the Arctic Circle’ by Sara Wheeler

Napoleon Bonaparte, born in 1769, died in 1821.
(Nancy Ohanian, For the Times)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

The Magnetic North: Notes From the Arctic Circle by Sara Wheeler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 302 pp., $26). Calling all explorers! Here is an antidote to your shrinking life (should we go to Home Depot to look at cabinets this weekend, dear?). Sara Wheeler is an interloper in the world of “frozen beards,” her fond phrase for the largely male world of Arctic exploration. Sixty-six degrees is her start and finish line — though many of the arctic zones she explores wobble around that arbitrary circle. She starts in the Russian Arctic, then travels around the navel of the globe — the American Arctic, the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Svalbord, the European Russian Arctic and Lapland.

Wheeler is an old-school naturalist, taking in as much of the places she travels as possible — the biology, the geography, the people, the culture, the literature from and about that place. At minus 97.8 degrees Fahrenheit, trees explode, “with a sound like gunfire and exhaled breath falls to the ground in a tinkle of crystals.” “An Arctic poppy takes two years to husband the energy to form a .07-inch bulbil. This is biological haiku.”

But Wheeler really shines in describing the people of these regions, how they live and the issues they face — relocation, collapsed civilizations, cultures trapped between the past and the present, enormous areas prized only for minerals, the profits of which are not adequately shared with the people who live there. In an age of specialization, Wheeler always insists on describing the whole.

The Emperor’s Body by Peter Brooks (Norton: 268 pp., $23.95). Here is the story of another expedition: this one to bring Napoleon’s body from Saint Helena to Paris in 1840, nearly 20 years after the emperor’s death.Peter Brooks is a master of texture and redolent detail; interiors are rich and characters are fixed in the reader’s imagination with dove gray silk and sudden gestures. Like many movies set in this period, the social lives of the characters — so often at odds with their inner thoughts and desires — take center stage. Chabot, the diplomat, is in charge of the expedition to bring the emperor’s body to a tomb at Invalides in Paris. Chabot is in love with Amelia Curia, a bored young beauty who hopes to avoid her fate as dutiful wife to the handsome diplomat. Henri Beyle is the consul general and, under the pen-name Stendhal, a famous author who dreams of writing the story of the expedition. He is seduced by Amelia Curia, who uses him to avoid marriage to Chabot. The novel is spun like a web, like a quadrille, by these three characters. It is a period piece, the fictional fleshing out of a historical event too meaningful, too pivotal to be left to historians.


Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A Novel by Susan Vreeland (Random House: 405 pp., $26). Clara Driscoll emerges like a shy child from behind the dramatic sweep, the enormous reputation of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Driscoll was his preeminent designer, creator of the famous leaded lamps. She started a women’s studio at Tiffany’s, where some of the company’s most enduring designs were created. The struggles of the era, the Gilded Age in New York City, are embodied in this woman — torn between money (work) and art; confused by her changing role as a woman and her professional relationship with Tiffany, a boss who insisted that his female employees remain unmarried; and the changing ideas about beauty, form and function. Like most women of her time, Driscoll rarely received credit for her ideas or her work — this tension, deeply buried rage, drives the novel. But Clara is not a self-indulgent woman. She keeps her eye on the ball, hones her skills and gets, in her equanimity, a kind of eternal revenge.

Vreeland’s writing is so graceful, her research so exhaustive, that a reader is enfolded in the world of Tiffany and Driscoll. There is a great deal of fascinating insight into Beaux Arts glass, furniture and jewelry design, Tiffany’s social milieu, the great appeal of the company’s work, and the atmosphere for artists and designers in the late 1800s in America.

Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.