Macfarlane adds his bit to the long lore of mountaineering, but his encounters with the peaks themselves have special...

MOUNTAINS OF THE MIND

HOW DESOLATE AND FORBIDDING HEIGHTS WERE TRANSFORMED INTO EXPERIENCES OF INDOMITABLE SPIRIT

A crisp historical study of the sensations and emotions people have brought to (and taken from) mountains, laced with the author’s own experiences scrambling among the peaks.

Mountains were once thought of as godless and lawless places, best to be avoided. By the 17th century, those associations were changing, says Macfarlane (Emmanuel College, Cambridge), as a geology beyond scripture was first being understood, and by the 19th century the hills were being read like great stone books, “ghostly landscapes which had suddenly opened up under the scrutiny of geology.” Also by then, the mountain landscape had been vested with a complex aesthetic that embraced terror and elation, a filter to an ancient and atavistic world that scorned the appalling transience of a human life (“What makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die”). Macfarlane intelligently probes the push/pull of the peaks, the odd but real pleasure of fear—its centrality to the experience—and the exhilaration of a moment reduced to the neat binaries of danger and safety, right move and wrong move, living and dying, the “human paradox of altitude: that it both exalts the human mind and erases it. Those who travel to mountain tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.” George Mallory is a good example, whose Everest days Macfarlane sketches. A certain amount of melodrama is inevitable when the stakes are mortal, as is a measure of magniloquence—“the unknown is so inflammatory to the imagination because it is an imaginatively malleable space”—yet Macfarlane works hard to keep his sojourns in the Cairngorms, the Rockies, and the Tian Shan expressively sharp and enticing.

Macfarlane adds his bit to the long lore of mountaineering, but his encounters with the peaks themselves have special presence and acuity. (b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: June 3, 2003

ISBN: 0-375-42180-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2003

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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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