Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

From the Arctic to the Amazon

In the last couple of months, I’ve read nonfiction books about both the Brazilian jungle and the Canadian Arctic, which led me to the idea of pairing them in a review. Not only are their temperate zones at opposite ends of the thermometer, but their encounters with the wildlife take completely different attitudes and intents. Both trips were taken for the purpose of learning, but the participants ended up learning different things than they expected. The Canadian experience was a modern one to a well known area(at least in wildlife circles) and the Brazilian trip was into the unknown wilderness at the beginning of the 20th century. One of the things in common was the feeling of “man vs. Nature” which felt out of date, though perhaps understandable to people overwhelmed by their environments. There was the added commonality of having family members along, though whether that meant more emotional support or increased stress is unfortunately, an issue not examined.

polar bear in eyeNever Look a Polar Bear in the Eye by Zac Unger
A memoir of a journalist who moves his family temporarily to an unfurnished apartment in Churchill, Manitoba(Canada), the polar bear capital of the world. When I began this book, I wasn’t sure I’d finish it, due to a combination of the author’s macho outlook and the fact that he couldn’t stick with his own beliefs. He is there to discover just how endangered polar bears are and to sort out the conflicting hype surrounding them. While he agrees that climate change is happening, he isn’t certain of the effects it will have on the bears and wonders if, as one researcher believes, polar bears could become a type of arctic raccoon, surviving by scavenging and further adapting to human encroachment into their habitat. Unger appears to place more weight on anecdotes, rather than scientific facts. The author does have a snarky way of writing, which grows on the reader and the antics of his children, especially his eldest little boy(whom he dubs a caveman) are entertaining. I was left wondering why anyone would settle in such a remote and rickety town, but envying those who got to see a wild polar bear, even from the confines of a sightseeing tundra buggy.

Da Capo Press 2013 320 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0306821165

river-doubtThe River of Doubt by Candace Millard
Subtitled “Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” this is an account of a little known event in the life of the 26th president. Most people are familiar with his adventures in Africa and the American West, but few know about the exploratory journey he took down a tributary of the Amazon. A couple of years after being defeated in his third run for president in 1912, Roosevelt was invited to a lecture tour of South America and afterwards became part of an expedition to map the Rio Da Divida(River of Doubt), an offshoot of the Amazon. His son, Kermit and several scientists from American museums also went along. The harrowing journey through the Brazillian rainforest was made more so by extremely poor planning and provisions, leaving the group on the verge of starvation for much of the time. Murder, life-threatening illness and destruction of transport boats in dangerous river rapids was only part of what they had to deal with. It’s remarkable that any of the party survived. While the author makes a few zoological mistakes, she makes the setting vivid and we easily follow along on the trek through an unmapped rainforest. Perfect for anyone who enjoys adventure stories and this one has the benefit of being true.

Doubleday 2005 416 pp. ISBN 978-0-385-50796-7

2 comments on “From the Arctic to the Amazon

  1. Kate
    August 22, 2013

    Nice contrasts! Living in a rickety town would be quite an experience, if the children are healthy.

    And I didn’t know about Roosevelt on the Amazon, that seems completely unexpected!

  2. Hilary
    August 27, 2013

    Great review, Jackie, and two fascinating finds! Having been to polar bear country – twice! – and failed to see one, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of Churchill, where I gather they are always visible. I am rather taken by the idea that they’ll adapt and become scavengers – the 500lb urban foxes of the arctic. But that won’t help them in Svalbard, more’s the pity.

    I had no idea of that episode in Roosevelt’s life, either! What a surprise.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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