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EMPIRE ANTARCTICA

ICE, SILENCE, AND EMPEROR PENGUINS

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

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. 11, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2013

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SILENT SPRING

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!

It should come as no surprise that the gifted author of The Sea Around Usand its successors can take another branch of science—that phase of biology indicated by the term ecology—and bring it so sharply into focus that any intelligent layman can understand what she is talking about.

Understand, yes, and shudder, for she has drawn a living portrait of what is happening to this balance nature has decreed in the science of life—and what man is doing (and has done) to destroy it and create a science of death. Death to our birds, to fish, to wild creatures of the woods—and, to a degree as yet undetermined, to man himself. World War II hastened the program by releasing lethal chemicals for destruction of insects that threatened man’s health and comfort, vegetation that needed quick disposal. The war against insects had been under way before, but the methods were relatively harmless to other than the insects under attack; the products non-chemical, sometimes even introduction of other insects, enemies of the ones under attack. But with chemicals—increasingly stronger, more potent, more varied, more dangerous—new chain reactions have set in. And ironically, the insects are winning the war, setting up immunities, and re-emerging, their natural enemies destroyed. The peril does not stop here. Waters, even to the underground water tables, are contaminated; soils are poisoned. The birds consume the poisons in their insect and earthworm diet; the cattle, in their fodder; the fish, in the waters and the food those waters provide. And humans? They drink the milk, eat the vegetables, the fish, the poultry. There is enough evidence to point to the far-reaching effects; but this is only the beginning,—in cancer, in liver disorders, in radiation perils…This is the horrifying story. It needed to be told—and by a scientist with a rare gift of communication and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Already the articles taken from the book for publication in The New Yorkerare being widely discussed. Book-of-the-Month distribution in October will spread the message yet more widely.

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!  

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 1962

ISBN: 061825305X

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1962

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WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

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

A quirky wonder of a book.

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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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