NIGHTS OF ICE

TRUE STORIES OF DISASTER AND SURVIVAL ON ALASKA'S HIGH SEAS

The Bering Sea in January can be a mean place, as Walker (Working on the Edge, 1991) relates in this spine-tingling (if redundant) collection—particularly when the winds clip by at 100 mph, the waves crest at 60 feet, the water temperature is 38 degrees, it's nightime, and your boat is sinking. Walker has no time for foreshadowing here, no time to develop mood or characters. These are grab-you-by-the-throat, rip-snorting tales of disaster on furious high seas and of the outrageous efforts made by both rescuers and those in the drink to beat the odds for survival in the Bering's icy waters. There is not much variation in these eight tales: In hellacious weather, a fishing vessel founders. Sometimes it runs aground or overturns with the accumulated weight of ice, or it just springs a leak. Then it all comes down to hypothermia and how fast it steals your life. The rescues are thus all just in the nick of time, and Walker plays them for all they're worth. But the lack of variety here, combined with Walker's tendency to overdeploy stock sentences—``His terror became resolve,'' and ``He thought of his lovely young wife,'' and ``This is the end!''—robs the stories of their specific identities. What saves the best ones is Walker's fastening on a particular element: the godawful storms, known as williwaws, that boom out of the coastal mountains, their impossible winds freighted with ice and snow (vigorously described in the chapter ``Chopper Rescue: Men in Peril''); or the cheekiness of Tim White (in the chapter titled ``The Face of an Angel''), who stayed warm by working hard at being a badass. It is said that America's most dangerous profession is commercial fishing on Alaska's high seas. Even a quick dip into this collection will convince you of that.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 1997

ISBN: 0-312-15611-1

Page Count: 208

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1997

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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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 4, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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