Bob Ruggiero

In these days when one can book a luxury round-the-world trip on a computer screen and every space shuttle mission draws scant interest, we have little concept of what it was like for the explorers of yesteryear to venture out into then completely unknown parts of this world. For more than 300 years, one of the greatest challenges in this area was the quest to find and map the Northwest Passage, an oceanic shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific across the top of North America. When Norwegian Roald Amundsen finally conquered the Passage in the early part of this century, it was only with great cost in funds, ships, and men's lives; many who sailed into the whiteness of the Arctic were never heard from again, their ultimate fate both gruesome and unavoidable. Here, James P. Delgado chronicles dozens of expeditions through the ice-choked waters and subzero temperatures.

With true man vs. nature tales like Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm becoming huge bestsellers, the timing for this thorough tome seems right though Delgado writes more with a factually dry historian's style than that of a novelist or adventure narrator. Still, through straight text and an abundance of maps, photos, and graphics, he documents every chilly moment, while numerous sidebars delve deeper into the personalities of the explorers, both famous and little-known.

Of particular interest is his exploration of the Inuit culture and natives of the lands around the Passage and their alternately constructive/destructive relationship with the white European travelers.

Today, the Northwest Passage is valued more for its nearby natural resources than as a shipping route. But not so long ago, its discovery was an almost-mythic quest by a group of rugged men who believed strongly enough in the existence of the Passage to risk their lives. Across the Top of the World gives these adventurers their just celebration and place in history. ¦ Bob Ruggiero is a freelance journalist in Houston, Texas.

In these days when one can book a luxury round-the-world trip on a computer screen and every space shuttle mission draws scant interest, we have little concept of what it was like for the explorers of yesteryear to venture out into then completely unknown parts of this world. For more than 300 years, one of […]

Though it will probably be shelved in the True Crime section, Disco Bloodbath is only ostensibly about ultrahip New York party promoter Michael Alig's 1996 co-murder and dismemberment of his drug dealer. The gruesome act and Alig's subsequent imprisonment bookends what is really more of a fascinating memoir by St. James, an Alig friend/foe and well-known gadfly on the city's predominately homosexual nightclub circuit.

Chronicling the scene and all its excesses between the demise of Warhol and the rise of the Club Kids, St. James is the catty tour guide to a Felliniesque netherworld. In it, days are spent deciding which outrageous way to dress or dye your hair for the evening's activities, Special K is a designer drug and not a breakfast cereal, and the after-party entertainment just might include a middle-aged drag queen pulling fully lit Christmas bulbs out of his (or her) anus. St. James is the epitome of the literary convention known as the unreliable narrator. His recollections (amazing that he even has them, since he admits to being drugged up during much of the period) are filled with subjectivity, petty and pithy personality shredding, and yes a flamboyant queenly bitchiness accentuated by the hefty usage of bold, italic, and all-caps typefaces. But rather than off-putting, this is actually the book's biggest strength, as St. James's inimitable voice in full Diva mode rings through loud and clear even if it is a bit shrill at times.

Along the way he introduces many true-life and pathetic (but unforgettable) characters, happy when they've schmoozed successfully or gotten a mention in The Village Voice, but desolate when their supply of coke and the latest boy toy have run out, sometimes simultaneously.

So while the title might bring to mind a bad '70s drive-in flick and no literal carnage takes place on the dance floor populated by has-beens, wannabes, and never-wases, Disco Bloodbath is a journey into a land of strange creatures with bizarre manners. Hmm, maybe they could also put a few copies in the Science Fiction section.

Bob Ruggiero is a freelance entertainment journalist based in Houston.

Though it will probably be shelved in the True Crime section, Disco Bloodbath is only ostensibly about ultrahip New York party promoter Michael Alig's 1996 co-murder and dismemberment of his drug dealer. The gruesome act and Alig's subsequent imprisonment bookends what is really more of a fascinating memoir by St. James, an Alig friend/foe and […]

Bibliophiles got to read about a subject quite close to home themselves with the 1997 publication of Used and Rare. In it, married authors Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone chronicled their initial adventures and misadventures into the world of book collecting. Along the way, they encountered real-life characters that would make any fiction writer envious, and, through skillful narrative pacing, made reading about the hunt for musty secondhand tomes engrossing.

In Slightly Chipped—more of a companion volume than a sequel—the Goldstones actually surpass their first effort on the same subject. Now a bit more experienced, they improve on their story by visiting more of a variety of settings, from a library book sale to a seemingly staid rare book discussion group. The most memorable chapters chronicle an investigation into the almost cultish readers and collectors of mystery books (including a disastrous evening at the Edgar Awards) and their own quest to buy books at Sotheby's Duke and Duchess of Windsor auction.

The Goldstones also delve a bit deeper into the stories about the books and authors behind their purchases, including solid background information on Bram Stoker's Dracula and the various writings of the Bloomsbury group. The inclusion helps you appreciate their desire to own the books, and you can't help but feel involved in their successes and failures or want to read some of the books discussed. The weaknesses in this book are the same as in the first: a tendency toward axe-wielding and sniping at people they don't like; unsolicited reviews of specific bookstores, people, and businesses that may or may not be balanced and deserved; and a strange dwelling on the physical appearances of those the authors seem to consider unattractive.

Regardless, Slightly Chipped, like its predecessor, is a delightful, fresh journey. And even if you couldn't tell the difference between the Kelmscott Chaucer and a modern picture book, Slightly Chipped is a welcome addition to any collection.

Bob Ruggiero is a freelance journalist based in Houston, Texas.

Bibliophiles got to read about a subject quite close to home themselves with the 1997 publication of Used and Rare. In it, married authors Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone chronicled their initial adventures and misadventures into the world of book collecting. Along the way, they encountered real-life characters that would make any fiction writer envious, and, […]

We tend to think of flower growers and collectors as timid, gentle souls who spend their days wistfully tending to their colorful collections and praying for a little rain. But in these true-life dispatches by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, we're introduced to one particular strain of botanist that's chock full of characters, crazies, and con men—the orchid lover. With a skillful blending of keen journalism, historical background, and first-person narrative, Orlean takes us behind the scenes in the highly competitive (and often combative) world of Florida's orchid scene.

Inspired by a newspaper account of three Seminole Indians and a white man (John Laroche, the thief of the title) facing trial for stealing some prize specimens out of a protected swamp area, Orlean introduces us to a cast of real-life plant smugglers, obsessed collectors, dealers who encourage breeding with their "stud" flowers, and even a country-singing flamboyant Seminole chief. All of their lives somehow intertwine with Laroche, who is, according to Orlean, the "most moral amoral man" she's ever met. Oddly handsome (though he's missing all his teeth), Laroche is equal parts slimy con man and moralizing do-gooder. He's also an unforgettable literary presence.

Orlean also writes thoroughly on the politics and business of Florida real estate, the history of orchid growing and hunting, and Native American relations. And though these pages sometimes read like a dry biology textbook, they are populated with peculiar information, like the true tales of the Victorian orchid hunters who often risked life and limb to claim rare flowers for their rich patrons — sort of like a horticultural Indiana Jones.

The Orchid Thief is being compared to the spirit of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. But while the author of that monster-selling tome took a backseat to his cast of southern eccentrics and the area's unique sociology, Orlean offers a more compartmentalized book readable in segments. As readers of the novels of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard will tell you, the steamy state of Florida is full of tropical schemers, hidden secrets, and dirty dealings on or by the water. And all of them are present here—except in this case, they're real. In the end, The Orchid Thief will make you look twice at that nice little old lady in the greenhouse with the glint in her eye.

We tend to think of flower growers and collectors as timid, gentle souls who spend their days wistfully tending to their colorful collections and praying for a little rain. But in these true-life dispatches by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, we're introduced to one particular strain of botanist that's chock full of characters, crazies, and […]

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