From Publishers Weekly
Attempts by humans to surmount nature at its most expansive and inhospitable is an almost guaranteed home-run story arc. But Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard, etc.) uses a clinical, detached voice to narrate his epic treks to Antarctica, making what should be a gripping page-turner a bland yawn. It's not his fault that a wicked storm limited his journey to the White South, disrupting the natural apex of the trip's trajectory. But Matthiessen would have been more effective in conveying the magnitude of his experiences if he had used words-not latitude and longitude coordinates-to narrate the action. He vaguely compensates for his stoicism by liberally citing and quoting from his Antarctic forebears, especially Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen. This historical context is appreciated, particularly after slogging through languorous descriptions of animals, objects and elements that lack personification (a necessary tool when making "nature" the subject, protagonist and plot line of a book). Statements like, "Birds call us into the moment," made by an associate of Matthiessen's (but equally indicative of Matthiessen's philosophy) are not evocative hallmarks of the Antarctic quest, one of the most complex, majestic and challenging journeys that exist. Although he succeeds in prioritizing nature over narrative arc, it remains frustrating that such an accomplished author would not, in his 27th book, find a way to liven up antiseptic observations of albatrosses and hurricanes with an expansive, emotive voice befitting the scope of his travels. 8-page color photo insert not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
The grand master of the purposeful and philosophical nature-oriented travelogue, Matthiessen chronicles the attainment of a lifelong dream in his eighteenth work of nonfiction: two voyages to Antarctica. The first time out, Matthiessen and company explore the coast of South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula, where he is enthralled by the grace and fortitude of albatrosses and petrels, stalwart chin-strap penguins, and stoic seals. Contemplation of these amazing creatures leads to ruminations over our species' crimes against them, just as his poetic marveling over the majestic beauty of icebergs and their enshrinement of "bubbles of pure ancient air" and "the last uncontaminated water on the planet's surface" leads to strongly stated objections to the U.S. government's failure to combat global warming. On his second voyage, this time aboard a polar icebreaker, Matthiessen visits emperor penguin breeding colonies, a phenomenon few ornithologists have witnessed, and describes with arresting lyricism the spiritual cleansing one experiences in this pristine, wind-scoured kingdom of ice. Vivid and empathic accounts of the high drama and petty rivalries of Antarctic exploration alternate with Matthiessen's own adventures as he shares his indelible impressions of this cold, white wonderland in the hope that they will inspire readers to appreciate the beauty and bounty of the earth's "shimmering web of biodiversity" enough to defend and preserve it. Donna SeamanCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved