A swift-moving, often surprising account of the dangers that face sailors and nations alike on the lawless tide.

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THE OUTLAW OCEAN

JOURNEYS ACROSS THE LAST UNTAMED FRONTIER

Anarchy reigns on the high seas as a New York Times investigative reporter travels the world’s oceans.

Early on, Pulitzer Prize and George Polk Award winner Urbina (Life's Little Annoyances: True Tales of People Who Just Can't Take It Anymore, 2005) writes that the stories he turned up while roaming from port to port “felt less like journalism than an attention deficit disorder,” so bewildering and untidy did they seem, so without unalloyed heroes and villains. One figure in the narrative, for instance, is a law-trained, poetry-writing sailor whose job is to sneak into ports where ships have been impounded and, on behalf of their owners, steal those ships away; the work is dangerous and utterly demanding. “He struck me as an older Tintin,” writes the author. The good guys in the story are beleaguered, outnumbered, and often outmaneuvered. As Urbina writes of Palau’s efforts to halt maritime poaching, a former captain of an interdicted pirate ship arrested in 2016 was back as an ordinary deckhand six months later, making the effort “more myth of Sisyphus than David and Goliath.” If there are villains in the story, they are perhaps the unnamed owners of fishing fleets that put out to sea for long periods of time, for they are inspected and policed only in port. Urbina engagingly chronicles his travels from one trouble spot to another: oil rigs erected on continental shelves, just outside the territorial zones of neighboring nations and subject to little governance; pirate-rich Somalia, where he became a persona non grata; and Djibouti, one of the places where ship owners—in this case of a Thai fleet—“shop around for the most lax registries with the lowest prices and fewest regulations.” Urbina’s book ranks alongside those by Mark Bowden and Sebastian Junger, fraught with peril and laced with beer, the smell of sea air, and constant bouts of gaming an inept system.

A swift-moving, often surprising account of the dangers that face sailors and nations alike on the lawless tide.

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-451-49294-4

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 30, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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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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