A literate, stylish memoir of personal adventure rich in history, geography and science.

EMPIRE ANTARCTICA

ICE, SILENCE, AND EMPEROR PENGUINS

A highly readable, enjoyable account of one man’s year serving as a doctor at Halley Research Station, the British Antarctic Survey’s base on the Brunt Ice Shelf.

Francis (True North: Travels in Arctic Europe, 2009) was looking for space, solitude and silence—and a chance to get close to emperor penguins—when he signed on with the survey’s medical unit. His job taking care of the men and women on the isolated base was undemanding, giving him time to read, gaze out his window, ski around the base, and help other crew members with their daily chores of keeping the base and its equipment operational and monitoring its research projects. Francis fills his account with many stories of early polar explorers and their ordeals in bitter weather and isolation, lacking as they did the benefits of modern technology that keep today’s polar crews in relative comfort and safety. A keen observer of his surroundings, the author writes vividly of auroras, clouds, stars, sunlight, darkness, ice and snow. Who but a doctor would describe a patch of pink-stained snow as “melting down like gently deflating lungs”? Francis is focused not on his companions but on what lies outside their shelter; although he profiles them briefly, readers do not get to know them well. The author makes clear that, on the base, rules of conduct are enforced, and there are a few hints of strife: He smuggled penguin eggs inside the base but was forced to get rid of them, and he was not allowed to dissect an adult bird. In one chapter, Francis discusses the psychological effects of isolated confinement; at the end of his year, his pleasure at his release into a green and fragrant world is clear. What gets surprisingly short shrift here is the emperor penguin, featured in the subtitle but out of reach for much of the author’s stay in Antarctica.

A literate, stylish memoir of personal adventure rich in history, geography and science.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-61902-184-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: Aug. 12, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2013

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

THE BOOK OF EELS

OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE NATURAL WORLD

An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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