A pleasure even for those who simply like the idea of Alaska, let alone pine to go there.

ALASKA

TALES OF ADVENTURE FROM THE LAST FRONTIER

Fast becoming the dean of Alaskan adventure writing, Walker (Coming Back Alive, 2001, etc.) assembles here a crackerjack collection of evocative writings from that state, spread over time and geography.

The selection of well-worn material could easily have come from a commonplace book of passages—in some cases, whole stories or articles—on Alaska. A few are pure adventure and dread, such as Larry Kaniut's account of a man drowning after his legs get stuck in a mudflat. Others showcase Alaskan institutions like the Iditarod, caught best by Gary Paulsen in first-hand experience with that great, numbing race. No collection of this sort would be complete without Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” perhaps the best-known Yukon story of all time, but Walker also finds room for London’s fine profile of gold prospectors. “No Christian martyr ever possessed greater faith than did the pioneers of Alaska,” writes London, but even he is outdone in bleakness by the excerpt from Richard Matthews’s The Yukon: “They arrived to claim their reward and found that it was claimed already; there was no good ground left to stake and thousands to stake it.” The saving grace of his tale is in the humor as prospector after prospector is done in by the crazy circumstances. “Hope dies hard,” notes Matthews, “and in its terminal agonies it is not particular about its sustenance.” Mind you, the descriptions of how to get to the gold fields run by the Klondike News in 1898 should have been enough to send prospectors right back home. The gold-rush section is certainly the strongest here, but all of it is worth reading, from Jan Aspen’s fictional account of hunting to Dave Brown’s dry observations on the rapacious world of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, “the most interesting fiasco I have ever been allowed to participate in.”

A pleasure even for those who simply like the idea of Alaska, let alone pine to go there.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2002

ISBN: 0-312-27562-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2001

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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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