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

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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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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

HORIZON

Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.

“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-394-58582-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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