At the end of the nineteenth century, because no one had ever been there, the virtual consensus among geographers was that the North Pole resided in a warm, open sea. One needed only to sail a ship through the ice surrounding it to reach the open ocean. In 1879, Captain George DeLong and a crew of 30-plus sailors set off for the North Pole. At end of the their first year, their ship, having failed to find open water, was instead frozen in place, where they remained out of communication with the rest of the world for three years. Half of their time was in near total darkness and nearly all of their days and nights were below freezing. Finally, sheets of ice crushed and sank the U.S.S. Jeannette. The crew walked and sailed for hundreds of days across ice floes and freezing oceans with hopes of reaching the coldest landmass on earth, the north coast of Siberia. The test of human physical and psychological endurance is simultaneously contemporary and otherworldly. The relationship of European and American men to the environment, native people of the Arctic, to women, and stoicism is history not to be overlooked.
Three parallel stories expertly told. In the first, the author trains a goshawk to fly from her glove to hunt pheasants and rabbits on the British countryside. In a second, Macdonald recounts the life of T.H. White, author of Arthurian novels, depressed, gay, abused, and also a goshawk trainer. And, in the third, she writes a memoir of the year that her father died unexpectedly, she acquired a hawk, named it Mabel, trained Mabel, lost her happiness, read everything of T.H. White’s, scrambled in the British woods behind her not always cooperative goshawk, and muddled through. We learn to see Britain’s hedges and forests through the eyes of an expert hawker and the eyes of a hawk, and Britain’s mid-twentieth century rigidity through the writings of T.H. White.
This recounting of America’s dust bowl is a vivid, filthy painting of an American environmental disaster brought about by greed, hubris, and ignorance. After demolishing the Comanche and the bison, an American government anxious to “settle” the West gave away its prairie in huge chunks. Plows sliced prairie grasses from their deep roots creating caskets of bare soil over buried sod. Homesteader wheat, mining untapped soil nutrients and decomposing grasses, produce unimaginably profitable and prolific yields. When the Great Depression struck in 1929, jobless masses in East Coast cities could not afford to pay for food and wheat piled up in the Great Plains. In terrible need of income farmers expanded production, exacerbating the problem. Then one of the periodic droughts that has always cycled through the Great Plains struck the year following the crash of the stock market and stretched nearly a decade. Crops died. Then trees and streams, horses and cattle all withered. Great roiling winds picked up tons and tons of soil hurling black blizzards of sand and grit across the plains and finally people, their lungs so full of dust they could not draw sufficient oxygen, they, too, started to die and with them the farms and towns of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas that should never have exchanged perennial grasses, bison, antelope, snakes, and hares for wheat, corn, and cotton. The soil of the Great Plains was eventually tied down by the Soil Conservation Service and new plants grown on water mined from the Ogallala Aquifer, which shortly will run dry.
Many of the essays, interviews, and reports collected here were first published in the New Yorker, but not one of them is less interesting reading a second time. The stories range from a page to more than thirty and cover such disparate topics as the most dangerous bus route in New York City, seal-spotting, the guys that invented compostable packaging made from fungi, teaching the homeless to be better writers, the origins of one of Bob Dylan’s earliest and most important songs, and how Asian Carp are spreading throughout America’s heartland. Who knew there were so many interesting things to learn about? What makes each essay so interesting, of course, is not the topic, but Frazier’s innate ability to spin simile and metaphor. Park benches have snow pulled up to their knees and a meteorite that crashed through a roof in Monmouth, New Jersey, “was dull brownish-silver and shaped sort of like a small croissant.” Reading every story back-to-back can be wearing. Better, perhaps, to treat this collection like a box of fine chocolates.
Even if you do not recall the Oslo terrorist attack in 2011, the opening pages of this book make certain there is no surprise. Anders Breivik, a native of Norway exploded a homemade bomb in front of the Prime Minister’s residence and then drove a van to Utoya Island to murder socialist youth. He killed seventy-seven people, most of them children, nearly all with gunshots to the back of the head. Only a few pages after it opens, the story returns to the beginning of Anders Breivik’s life to uncover in page-turning detail his development as a right-wing terrorist bent upon preserving Norway’s ethnic purity from creeping left-wing government policy. Breivik emerges as a psychotic, deranged killer. Except his continued lucidity and consistent logic of self-defined clarity of purpose make him indistinguishable from any member of ISIS, the Taliban, fanatical Israeli settlers and their Hamas counterparts, the routine gun-wielding mass shooters that too routinely make our headlines, more than a few affiliate of the NRA, and several of my neighbors in northwest Pennsylvania. One of us. This book explains what runs through their minds and then asks us to define the border between idealistic soldier of freedom and the psychologically impaired.
As these things go, not too bad. Consider it everything you ever wanted to know about the hydrological cycle (there are similar books on coffee, cod, oil, and so forth). Well written and organized loosely from the most ancient rains, those that fell on a recently cooled planet, forward toward contemporary discussions of floods, droughts, dams, rivers, crops, and the livelihoods of humans at rain’s mercy. The book is remarkable for its breadth and inclusiveness, and strongest when Cynthia Barnett’s stories are longest, but the final result is like so many unending raindrops. A drowning in more facts about rain than anyone really wishes to endure.
On the face of it an uplifting story of a group of eight hayseeds from Washington state who come together to become the world’s best rowing team. They stand for all that is good in America — hard work, optimism, rags-to-riches, democracy, talent, and above all a can-do attitude — when they compete for gold in Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. Brown’s writing is so evocative that you can feel the cold wind on Lake Washington during a late-fall practice, endure the doubt inside the mind of every student-rower anxious about paying for an upcoming semester during the height of the great depression, crane your neck watching a tight race, and in the end, when all goes right, fly on a boat with eight oarsmen working in perfect synchrony. You really do want these guys to beat the Nazis.
Well, someone has to tell it like it is and Kolbert lays it out there as clearly as anyone possibly can. She travels the world, to visit rocks containing the fossil record of the first five great disruptions in evolution when species, genera, and families disappeared with virtual instantaneity. Then she keeps traveling to demonstrate that, again geologically speaking, we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction in the last two billion years. This time, the era called the Anthropocene, will appear in the rock record, millions of years from now, as the period when one species, Homo sapiens, destroyed an inordinate number of species around the globe. Humans have changed the climate, introduced devastating invasive species from one part of the planet to another, demolished habitats of every variety, and polluted land and sea to such an extent that only the heartiest rats, cockroaches, and bacteria are likely to survive. Philosophically, it is interesting to ponder that perhaps the most sentient species in earth’s history is aware enough to understand the malice it is causing, but not smart enough to do anything about it. In the end, the book, well written as it is, was too depressing to finish.
Prior to the outbreak of WWII, the British citizen Eddie Chapman spent his youth blowing safes and robbing banks. Passing in and out of jails, Chapman learned new techniques for thievery and when he wasn’t incarcerated, he fell in love, seriously in love, with a series of women. When war erupted, Chapman was languishing in a cell on the isle of Jersey which fell under Nazi occupation and after failing to escape a couple of times figured his best chance for freedom was to volunteer to become a Nazi spy, that is, a British citizen employed by the Nazis to spy on the British. A year or so later the Germans took him up on his offer, trained him, and air dropped him into Britain for the purpose of blowing up a British airplane factory. Chapman’s apparent success led him to become one of the most decorated Nazi spies in history, only soon after landing in England, he also because one of the most celebrated spies in the British secret service, where he acted as a double agent spying on the Nazis. Using newly released documents McIntyre uncovers a fascinating history of the spy war raging between Allied and Axis forces.
The summer of 1927 begins with the worst rains the United States has endured in a century or more. The Mississippi has flooded millions of acres and hundreds of thousands of people are homeless and facing starvation. President Coolidge brings in the world’s most successful savior of human life since Jesus Christ, the man who almost single handedly saved western Europe from starvation during WW I. Herbert Hoover. The floods prevent a young pilot from getting out of his airfield in St. Louis and Charles Lindbergh almost doesn’t make it to New York in time to be the first person to fly the Atlantic and become the most famous individual in the world. As Lindbergh takes off from Roosevelt field on Long Island he circles over Yankee Stadium where Babe Ruth is beginning his march toward breaking the all-time home run record for one season. And we are only in May. Bryson does a remarkable job of making us eager to awaken every morning to read the daily paper just to keep abreast of what might really be one of the most compelling four months of the twentieth century.