The Last Unicorn by William deBuys

The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures1992, Laos – A remote team of scientists stumble across an unusual pair of horns on the wall of a village hut. Excitedly interrogating the residents, they confirm the discovery of a new species of animal, the first large land mammal discovered in fifty years – the saola.

Infrequently seen alive in the wild and only once kept briefly in captivity, saolas are considered to be The Last Unicorn, practically a mythological creature. They are so rare and elusive that they could be extinct and we wouldn’t know it. Pulitzer Prize-finalist and nature writer William deBuys set off with famed biologist William Robichaud into the wild mountain forests in the hopes of becoming the first Westerners to spot a saola – I’ll let you read it to find out if they did! But along the way, the expedition must tangle with belligerent poachers and unhelpful locals as well as untangle snares, traps, and the truth about the difficulties of conservation in a developing nation.

DeBuys gives us fascinating glimpse into a place that most of us will never go and a creature that we will never see. I particularly appreciated the bounty of photos to help the reader gain a clearer insight into his adventure. His eloquent writing also draws an in-depth background picture of saolas – the history of their region, the people cohabiting their habitat, and the culture that both reveres and hunts them. I was less impressed with deBuys’ interjections about his travel woes than his factual knowledge or even his philosophical musings on humans and nature, but it lightened the depressing parts (i.e. extinction) I guess.

Overall, an informative and engaging read for fans of nature and travel.

4 Stars

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In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS JeannetteHampton Sides’ nonfiction tome In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terribly Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette had made its appearance on a number of best lists of 2014, so I was eager to read it. Silly me made the error of reading it on a cruise ship though, which led to the appearance of a number of icebergs in my dreams.

It’s the late nineteenth century and people the world over are struck by Artic Fever. Theories abound about the North Pole, including the prominent (and incorrect) one by the German cartographer August Petermann, which claimed that the fortress of ice simply framed a warm sea surrounding a verdant island. James Gordon Bennett, the millionaire owner of the New York Herald, seeking a new adventure to sensationalize for his readers, decides to find the truth. He funds a nationally-sanctioned U.S. naval expedition to prove American might and claim the Pole. Departing in 1879 from San Francisco and captained by rescue hero George Washington De Long, the USS Jeanette quickly became trapped in an ice pack. For two years, the 32-man crew lived on the floes until the ship finally sank. Realizing the only hope of survival was to travel 1000 miles south, they set off with their dogs and canoes, walking across a frozen hellscape, either to rescue in Siberia or death.

Is that all a spoiler when it actually happened over a century ago? In any case, the ending is tragic, especially for a few of the people (and dogs) I felt connected to over the course of their 454 page narrative. Because let’s be real, I would’ve given up and died much sooner than them (not that I would’ve taken this trip to begin with), so was suitably impressed by their perseverance and courage in the face of insane adversity and terrible odds of survival – though I was convinced for the first half that they all would survive, and appalled to discover the reality.

This voyage was both a product of its time and of its people, and Sides does a fantastic job of weaving in a character-driven story with the greater historical-cultural background. From the flamboyantly wealthy and eccentric sponsor James Gordon Bennett to the determined dreamer and fearless leader George Washington De Long and his devoted wife Emma, he made the reader feel like these real people were really alive and personally knowable. For a sad and harrowing tale, the contrast between Bennett and De Long provides some levity, as does anecdotes of Bennett’s society-scandalizing hijinks and the men’s daily occupations on the ice. I’m glad Sides focused mainly on Bennett and De Long because the introduction of the rest of the crew proved to be a few too many to remember all individually.

There is a fair amount of science involved, including detailed explanations of the prevailing theories of the time about currents and the Earth’s geography (ex. Kuro Siwo, Wrangel Land, and the Open Polar Sea). Sides makes it readable, even for a non-science person like myself, though I admit my attention flagged at certain parts during the journey’s preparation stages. Though the book is long, and dry on occasion, I still read it fairly quickly. The last third as the crew walks through endless labyrinths of ice is a gripping, awe-inspiring journey and definitely worth the first few hundred pages.

Overall, this book is both well-researched and well-written, and particularly interesting in an age where the melting polar ice cap is making headlines. A highly recommended read for anyone with Artic fever of their own, or who are explorers and adventurers at heart.

4 Stars

Weekend Update: “A Week At The Airport”

A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow DiaryNo, I didn’t spend my last week, or even this past weekend, at the airport. Instead, I read Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport, which was a rather random suggestion from my librarian. He picked well though as I ended up loving it!

In 2009, de Botton was invited by British Airways to be the first ever writer-in-residence at an airport, specifically Heathrow Terminal 5. Billeted at an onsite hotel and given a desk in the terminal, he spent a week poking around with unlimited access to all aspects of the airline industry, from the CEO to the janitorial staff in the first class lounge. The result is a curious compilation of anecdotes and fascinating facts behind travel that we don’t normally think about as we hurry frustratedly though an airport.

I don’t feel like it’s fair to give this text a full review and rating since it’s more of a brochure than a book as the author admits himself. Coming in at around a hundred pages, he packs quite a punch into the small space. His expressive descriptions of passengers and staff almost made me weep a few times due to their existential elegance. De Botton turned the mundane of travel into poetry, whether he was discovering the process by which airplane food was made or going behind the scenes at with the officers manning the security checks.

His ode to air certainly moved me to begin planning my next trip! And for once I’m excited about not just the destination, but the journey.