Review: Books

Outside magazine, February 1998

Review: Books

Rough Passage
By Miles Harvey


Riddle of the Ice: A Scientific Adventure into the Arctic, by Myron Arms (Anchor Books, $23). The idea for this unusual book was born in a fit of nautical pique. In the summer of 1991, while en route to the remote Torngat region of northern Labrador, veteran small-boat sailor Myron Arms was forced to abort his long-anticipated journey nearly 400 miles shy of his destination. The culprit? A flotilla of immense icebergs that in one of the warmest years on record "should not have been there." Arms spent his long sail home stewing over the ice's strange presence, wondering what larger environmental significance it might portend. "The 'riddle of the ice,'" he writes, "became a window into a larger and much more important question: the riddle of the Earth's climate." An ambitious inquiry to be sure, but with the help of climatologists, oceanographers, and geochemists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, among others, Arms plunged headfirst into the study of cutting-edge climate theories-including the cryptically named Great Ocean Conveyor Belt hypothesis and Great Salinity Anomaly. Intent on telling the story "slowly, quietly, the way a sailor would tell it," Arms fuses the intellectual journey with an account of his 1994 voyage to Kangia, Greenland, the site of an "ice river" that heaves monstrous chunks of ice into the North Atlantic. Although these twin narratives make for a read that's choppy and unpredictable at times, Arms proves an able translator of the global climatologist's argot. Riddle of the Ice offers not only a provocative introduction to the emerging field of "earth systems science," but also a gripping sea yarn tinged with disquieting scenarios of cataclysmic climate change-scenarios that remain frozen, for now, deep in the Arctic floes.

In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, by Quintard Taylor (W. W. Norton, $30). During a spate of racist violence that made national news late last year, a Denver teenage skinhead charged with murdering a black man claimed he did so because the victim "really didn't belong where he was." The notion that blacks somehow "don't belong" in the West has been disturbingly widespread-even, until recently, among historians. According to the long-held logic of scholars, Taylor writes, African Americans "were not an indigenous conquered group, and certainly they were not among the conquerors. Thus black Westerners had no place in the region's historical saga." Seeking to disabuse readers of this grand misreading, the University of Oregon historian examines five centuries of black influence in the West-from Esteban, a Moroccan slave who traveled from Florida to Mexico in 1528 on one of the earliest transcontinental expeditions, to the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954 and the recent Los Angeles riots. To enliven his encyclopedic recounting, Taylor flecks the tale with such intriguing, if obscure, personalities as Pìo Pico, who in the mid-nineteenth century served as the Mexican governor of what is now California, and Oscar Micheaux, a black homesteader who became the first prominent African-American filmmaker. It's an exhaustive historical survey and therein lies its only shortcoming: At times Taylor's account reads more like a Who's Who compendium than a richly textured history, leaving readers wishing for deeper analysis. But he convincingly proves his point that the black history of the West "can be celebrated or critiqued, but it can no longer be ignored."

Waiting for Fidel, by Christopher Hunt (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin, $13). "What I want is soap," announces a Cuban beggar to a bewildered Christopher Hunt. "Please give me soap. Please do me this favor." In most other places, you don't find panhandlers out hustling for hygiene. But in Cuba-where U.S. sanctions and the Soviet Union's demise have caused chronic shortages of even the most basic provisions — absurd vignettes such as this one quickly seem normal. All of which intrigues Hunt, author of Sparring with Charlie (a humorous account of his travels, via Russian motorcycle, through post-war Vietnam). In his equally odd and funny new book, 35-year-old Hunt embarks on a half-serious quest to find Fidel Castro, hitchhiking his way along the circuitous route the young revolutionary took during his 1959 victory march. On the way, Hunt encounters a wildly idiosyncratic cast of characters, including a teenage smuggler swathed in bags of contraband coffee, a Leninism-professor-cum-small-time-thug, and the now-decrepit actor who played Grandpa Munster on TV. Given Hunt's appetite for the bizarre, it's not surprising that sociopolitical analysis takes a back seat to more spontaneous observations of day-to-day Cuban life, from the rich culture of bootlegging to the ubiquitous sugarcane carnival. Waiting for Fidel is a campy postcard from a resilient island engaged in a drama that's equal parts tragedy and farce.

New from Our Contributors

David Quammen speaks on Outside Radio Click to listen
David Quammen, Outside's resident polymath and the acclaimed author of The Song of the Dodo, regaled us for 15 years with his monthly Natural Acts column. Now his Wild Thoughts from Wild Places (Scribner, $24) collects some of the finest of his "far-flung reports and reckless notions," from kayaking Chile's Futaleufö River to dining on sweet-and-sour mountain lion. Likewise, The Best of Outside: The First 20 Years (Villard, $25) assembles 31 of our favorite stories from the magazine's archives, including Tim Cahill's charming report on cannibalism in Irian Jaya and William Finnegan's surf journal from Oahu's fabled North Shore. Finally, in Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral (Crown, $22), which was excerpted in our pages last month, Charles Siebert recounts his revisionist-Thoreauvian adventures experienced during a five-month stay in a dilapidated log cabin in Quebec.

Photographs by Clay Ellis

More Adventure