A fact-filled, exciting tale of a ship’s tragic final voyage. A good complement to Slade’s more well-rounded book.




Tense recounting of the final hours aboard a cargo ship that went down in a hurricane with all hands onboard.

At the end of September 2015, the captain and crew boarded El Faro, a ship loaded with metal containers, on a routine run from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico. At the same time, a hurricane was building in the Atlantic, but Capt. Mike Davidson felt they could outrun the storm and reach the island without too much trouble. Using interviews with family members and thousands of pages of documentation, including the transcriptions of hours of recordings from the voyage data recorder, Foy (Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human, 2016, etc.), a former officer on coastal freighters, pieces together the final few days aboard El Faro, including its fateful run-in with freakish Hurricane Joaquin on Oct. 1, 2015. The author carefully introduces the captain and crew, painting fully fleshed portraits, and he also provides a solid overview of the ship itself. Foy describes the numerous errors that occurred on the last voyage. “The quantum chain reactions that would end in shipwreck began individually and at varied locations, at different hours, sometimes on separate days,” he writes, “but they started to come together most concretely in the afternoon of Tuesday, September 29, 2015, as the SS El Faro prepared for sea.” These mistakes, including hubris, the relentless chase for profits, and breaches in safety, claimed the lives of all onboard. The author provides little information about what happened after the ship sank, how it was found, and who was found responsible—details that receive greater elaboration in Rachel Slade’s compelling book on the same subject, Into the Raging Sea. Foy maintains the focus on the hours leading up to the last minute that anyone was alive, and photographs, maps, and drawings help readers imagine the entire scenario.

A fact-filled, exciting tale of a ship’s tragic final voyage. A good complement to Slade’s more well-rounded book.

Pub Date: May 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-8489-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 1, 2018

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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...


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.


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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