Category Archives: World Citizen 2009

Cold by Bill Streever

Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places

by Bill Streever

Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2009

Borrowed from my local library.

Bill Steever, an Alaskan biologist, takes his readers through the cycle of  a year visiting different places affected by cold.  Not just the temperature, but the geology, the impact on human habitation and plant and animal adaptations. He includes the history of the science of cold, the search for absolute zero  and human exploration into regions were temperatures fall to 60 below.

This is the kind of natural history-science book I love, the kind I can open up at any page and find something really intriguing.  He includes writings by authors who have studied the cold, animals that live in cold habitats or lived through expeditions into frigid climates including Apsley Cherry-Garrard, John Muir, Farley Mowat, and Bernd Heinrich.

There are sections on the discovery of  the ice ages.

A year later, in 1837, Agassiz presided over a meeting of the Natural History Society of Switzerland.  In his introductory speech, when he was expected to talk about fossil fish, he sprang the idea of an ice age.  Although Charpentier knew that the alpine glaciers had once covered more of the Alps then they currently did, Agassiz went further.  He described a sheet of ice that went from the North Pole to the Mediterranean.  He knew that some would view this as hairbrained.  “I am afraid,” he said, “that this approach will not be accepted by a great number of our geologists, who have well established opinions on this subject, and the fate of this question will be that of all those who contradict traditional ideas.  From page 62.

There are many references to animal adaptation, evolution and migration.  Why do some animals thrive in the cold and others migrate?  And its not just animals, all life forms have found their place on this planet and as the climate changes all living things adapt or die.

There is more to be learned.  There are , for example, physiological adaptations.  Not unexpectedly, birds put on fat, but in some cases nonessential organs shrink.  Just before migration, the bartailed godwit becomes fifty-five percent fat, but its kidneys, liver and intestines shrink.  Then it flies nonstop at something like 45 miles per hour for days on end.  The speed and exact route of many birds are not known.  Migrating sea ducks tracked by radar in the Arctic fly at more than 50 miles per hour.  A dunlin– a long-beaked shorebird–was once clocked at 110 miles per hour, passing a small plane.  From page 88.

Ranges of species go where species work best, destined by the character of their enzymes, destined by how well their enzymes work at different temperatures.  But also: Who will graze on my leaves?  Who will eat me?  Whom will I eat?  Is there space for my nest?  Is the soil right for my burrows or my roots?  Who will drive me away?  Puffins became scarce around Great Britain after 190 not because of air temperature, but because the fish they ate followed a shift in water temperature.  The birds followed the fish.  When water temperature shifted again around 1950, the fish returned, and with them the puffins.  The lives within biomes are interwoven, and if one species can go no further because of the temperature, it may affect another species, and another, and another, until it appears as though there is some definite boundary and that everything responds in concert.  But zoom in on the map, look a little closer, and the boundaries blur. Brown bears live in tundra and taiga and temperate deciduous forest.  Caribou migrate across biome boundaries.  The red fox, the tiger, the wolf, the wolverine and the raven all cross biome boundaries as if they did not exist, as if they have never read an ecology textbook, or studied a biome map.  From page 99

Streever talks about climate change in a balanced way, describing planetary changes and changes exacerbated by human technologies.   He is enthralled by the cold, and saddened by the prospect of loosing areas of colder climates.  This well-written little book is full of interesting facts about humans and animals that live in cold places.  I plan on adding a copy to my shelf of natural history books.

Often whales and seals and otters are the hottest things around.  A Wendell seal, a thousand pound of fur and blubber and heart and lung and rete mirabile, might lie on the Antarctic ice, open the shunts that let warm blood flow through its blubber, and create above a cloud of steam.  After a time, bored or hungry or spooked by a nosy human, it might flop from the ice into the water.  It might leave behind the marine mammal equivalent of a snow angel, an outline of itself melted into the ice, a negative image of belly and fins and head in three dimensions.  The Wendell seal thumbs its nose at the cold, leaving in the ice an image that is often called a seal shadow.  From page 129.


Filed under Nonfiction, Science, Science Books 2009, World Citizen 2009

The Road To Oxiana by Robert Byron

Road2621afe940da8605934637255414141414c3441 The Road To Oxiana by Robert Byron

Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007

In 1933 Robert Byron,  British author and art critic, traveled through the Middle East to Oxiana, the country of the Oxus, the ancient name for the river that forms the border between Afghanistan and what was then the Soviet Union.  On his journey he stopped in many cities, including Jerusalem, Baghdad, Teheran and Herat.  The Road To Oxiana is his travel journal and it contains many different elements, like a collage.  Newspaper clippings, letters, official forms, essays and dialogues make up a wonderfully intimate and witty description of his travels.

Most of Byron’s journey involved visiting mosques and monuments but the really entrancing  parts of the book are the descriptions of the people Byron met and the things that happened to him along the way.

Yesterday morning we got up at three and were out of town by six, intending to make Isfahan in one day.  After ten miles the road became an ice-floe; a drift had thawed and frozen again.  I accelerated.  We crashed on twenty yards, nearly overturned, and came to a lugubrious stop.  At  this moment the sun rose, a twinkle of fire lit the snowy plain, the white range of the Elbuzr was suffused with blue and gold, and a breath of warmth endeared the icy wind. Cheered by the beauty of the scene, we returned to the capital.

Then there are the conversations, which never failed to make me burst into laughter.

I met a young Swede at dinner, whose expensive jewellery and talk about his father’s estates made me wonder why he was living in Teheran.

Swede : I am in the business of cases.

R.B. : Cases?

Swede : Cases for sausages.

R.B. : Tins do you mean?

Swede : No, cases for sausages themselves made from sheep’s intestines.  Some people think it is not a nice business.  I do not always talk about it.

R.B. : I thought those cases were made of rice paper or some such material.

Swede : Not at all.  Every sausage has a gut case.

R.B. : What happens, ha, ha, with a sausage six inches across?

Swede (seriously) : We use not only sheep’s guts, but also ox guts.  The big intestine of the ox will hold the biggest sausage manufactured.

R.B. : But have Swedish cattle no intestines?  Why come to Persia for them?

Swede : Persian cases are of a high grade.  The first grade comes from the Kalmuckian steppe in Russia.  The second from Australia and New Zealand.  The next from Persia.  It is an important business for Persia.  Cases are one of the largest exports under the Swedish-Persian trading agreement.

R.B. : What made you choose cases as a profession?

Swede : It is my father’s business.

Hence the estates, I suppose.

Even as a vegetarian I found this whole exchange at the dinner table very funny.  As I was reading  I thought of all the changes that have taking place in this area of the world.

Byron changed travel writing by using different elements, humor and very irreverent comments in his work.  His book has influenced travel writers ever since.  Bruce Chatwin described it as  “a sacred text, beyond criticism” and carried it with him through central Asia.   A wonderful collection of photos from Byron’s journey to Oxiana can be found here.

Other reviews:

Twentieth Century Vox


Filed under Challenges, Travel, World Citizen 2009

The Ascent Of Money by Niall Ferguson

159420192701_sx140_sclzzzzzzz_2 The Ascent of Money is a history of money and the world financial system written by English historian Niall Ferguson.  As I read I kept thinking about everything that has happened to the world financial system since it was published(November 2008).

Ferguson takes us through the history of money, banks, bonds,  equities, derivatives, insurance and finally some of the causes of the ongoing credit crunch in very clear language.  He makes a very clear argument for the development of money as the driving force behind civilization, and never questions the outcomes of colonization and capitalism on the many peoples who have suffered under the quest for profit.  The outcomes of such a quest were all acceptable because money and capitol drive growth and that is a good thing.

I read this book to learn about the world financial system, parts of it where slow and difficult for me.  I skimmed some of it. I learned  a lot, and remain convinced that we must find a better way to live on this planet.  I’m weird that way.


Filed under Review, World Citizen 2009

City of Oranges by Adam LeBor

039332984401_sy190_sclzzzzzzz_A book read for the World Citizen Challenge.  Well-researched if a bit dry.  It is about the cities of Jaffa and Tel Aviv before and after the British mandate and the creation of the state of Israel.

This is not a political book but one that follows the lives of six families who have lived in and around Jaffa for the last 100 years.  Lebor meets many family members and listens to their histories.  He records these stories in an open and balance way.  He shows the fear and corruption on all sides.

A timely read, particularly with the recent war against Palestine.  It is sad to think of these people, any people, separated by religion and culture making the same mistakes over and over,  not really listening to each other.

I have my own political views on Isreal/Palentine and will not discuss them here.  Learning the unbiased history of this area is extremely important for all of us.

Other reviews:

A Striped Armchair

Books and Other Miscellany


Filed under Review, World Citizen 2009

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

3476101 My first book  for the World Citizens Challenge.  I have been meaning to read this book since I first heard about it.  It is a book for anyone wishing to expand their understanding of the history and present day struggles in Africa. The book is horrific, well-written and fast paced and in most places  reads like a novel.  Hochschild has gathered much information concerning  Belgian King Leopold II’s desire for and control of a colony.  He read many original sources as most of this history has been covered up and forgotten.

King Leopold II sought a place that he could control while making it appear his intentions were purely humanitarian. His stated desire to bring “civilization” to ” poor savages” and protect the native population from “Arab slavers”  as well as the belief in western civilization’s uplifting  affect held by European and American politicians, businessmen and clergy allowed atrocities to continue for almost two decades.   During the time of his colonization it is believed that between 4 – 8 million people died, mostly indigenous Congolese forced into slave labor to harvest rubber.  The story is terrifying, a tale of one man’s greed and desire for power.  It also tells of the complicity of others, and of how many people struggled to finally bring the knowledge of this atrocity to the public eye.

Leopold’s greed ravaged the Congo and it’s people.  When the atrocities where finally brought to light he scrambled to cover them up and was forced to turn over his controlling interest to Belgium.  In the countries surrounding  the Congo and in the rest Africa these atrocities were repeated, leaving death and destruction in their wake.  Similar behaviors continue today, perpetrated by warlords, governments and multinational corporations.  The Congo’s history, and the rest of the world’s forgetting of it, can only add to the problems facing the peoples of Africa.

Hochschild writes “..the world we live in – it’s divisions and conflicts, it’s widening gap between rich and poor, it’s seemingly inexplicable outbursts of violence – is shaped far less by what we celebrate and mythologize than by the painful events we try to forget.  Leopold’s Congo is but one of those silences of history.”


Filed under Challenges, Review, World Citizen 2009

World Citizen Challenge 2009

worldcitizenbutton1World Citizen Challenge 2009.  Okay,  so here’s my second challenge for 2009.  I don’t have a book list but have many interesting “world citizen” titles on my TBR list.  I am interested in reading more history and biography and this challenge really expands my horizons!  The Orbis Terrarum challenge does not start until March.

I am also interested in connecting with other book bloggers and this should help.

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Filed under Challenges, World Citizen 2009