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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The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!

SILENT SPRING

It should come as no surprise that the gifted author of The Sea Around Us and its successors can take another branch of science—that phase of biology indicated by the term ecology—and bring it so sharply into focus that any intelligent layman can understand what she is talking about.

Understand, yes, and shudder, for she has drawn a living portrait of what is happening to this balance nature has decreed in the science of life—and what man is doing (and has done) to destroy it and create a science of death. Death to our birds, to fish, to wild creatures of the woods—and, to a degree as yet undetermined, to man himself. World War II hastened the program by releasing lethal chemicals for destruction of insects that threatened man’s health and comfort, vegetation that needed quick disposal. The war against insects had been under way before, but the methods were relatively harmless to other than the insects under attack; the products non-chemical, sometimes even introduction of other insects, enemies of the ones under attack. But with chemicals—increasingly stronger, more potent, more varied, more dangerous—new chain reactions have set in. And ironically, the insects are winning the war, setting up immunities, and re-emerging, their natural enemies destroyed. The peril does not stop here. Waters, even to the underground water tables, are contaminated; soils are poisoned. The birds consume the poisons in their insect and earthworm diet; the cattle, in their fodder; the fish, in the waters and the food those waters provide. And humans? They drink the milk, eat the vegetables, the fish, the poultry. There is enough evidence to point to the far-reaching effects; but this is only the beginning,—in cancer, in liver disorders, in radiation perils…This is the horrifying story. It needed to be told—and by a scientist with a rare gift of communication and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Already the articles taken from the book for publication in The New Yorker are being widely discussed. Book-of-the-Month distribution in October will spread the message yet more widely.

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!  

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 1962

ISBN: 061825305X

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1962

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