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My Last Continent: A Novel by Midge Raymond

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I’m happy to announce the publication of contributor Midge Raymond’s debut novel My Last Continent (Scribner).

This novel wears the “eco-fiction” label quite well. The novel focuses on penguin researchers in Antarctica and their struggles to protect creatures who are at the mercy of changing climate and increased tourism.

The book also has a plot element that has long been a concern from those who work in Antarctica: A tourist vessel hits ice and begins to sink, with rescuers more than half a day away.

Here are a few reviews My Last Continent has received so far:

“Atmospheric and adventurous…the story and vivid writing will keep readers glued to the pages.” — Library Journal

“An atmospheric tale of love discovered, and losses endured, in Antarctica. … The unpredictability of the splendors and terrors of life at the southern pole creates a backdrop of foreboding entirely appropriate for the story’s cinematic resolution [and] the authentic rendering of the setting distinguishes Raymond’s novel from other stories of love in perilous times and places.” —Kirkus Reviews

“The desolate landscape of Antarctica provides an ideal backdrop to the ever-shifting relationship of Deb and Keller…Midge Raymond’s debut novel is a sensitive exploration of how even the smallest action can ripple through an ecosystem—seemingly impenetrable, but as fragile as the human heart.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

My Last Continent is an original and entirely authentic love story. It is a love triangle with Antarctica as the third party, literally and metaphorically. Midge Raymond takes us, physically and emotionally, into an unfamiliar world—a world that has much to teach us. She deftly interweaves a compelling drama with a gentle and subtle love story. It’s a mature novel, one that recognizes that love is seldom simple or exclusive, and that the things that bring us together can also keep us apart.” —Graeme Simsion, bestselling author of The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect

“There is a romance about faraway, desperate places, about isolation, about ice and snow. Add penguins and you have Midge Raymond’s elegant My Last Continent, a love story about the Antarctic and the creatures, humans included, who are at home there. Half adventure, half elegy, and wholly recommended.” — Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

My Last Continent feels refreshingly different, vivid and immediate. Midge Raymond has an extraordinary gift for description that puts the reader bang in the middle of the action, bang in the middle of its dangerous and endangered world. Her clean, spare prose pulls us irresistibly into the story and the wider issues it raises. She is clearly a writer in command of her craft.” —M.L. Stedman, New York Times bestselling author of The Light Between Oceans

To learn more visit www.midgeraymond.com. And check out her events page to see if she may be appearing in a city near you.

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Book Review: The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

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The Penguin Lessons is the story of a young Englishman who, on vacation in Uruguay from his teaching job at a boarding school in Argentina, rescues an oil-covered Magellanic penguin. This memoir will charm anyone who loves these tuxedo-feathered birds — and Neil Baker’s illustrations, on the cover and scattered throughout the book, are enchanting.

Author Tom Michell first encounters the penguin on a beach among thousands of dead birds, and he manages to bring it back to his vacation apartment to clean its feathers of oil. “The penguin was filthy and very aggressive. Its beak snapped shut with a metallic clack like a pair of dental pliers as it continually twisted and turned in its attempts to savage me.”

And this is the last time the bird behaves like a wild penguin. As Michell begins to clean the bird’s feathers, “it became a docile and cooperative partner in this cleanup operation.” And when the time comes for Michell to return the penguin to the sea, the bird won’t go, instead following him across the beach, and then back across the road. (Michell learned much later, from a keeper at a sanctuary, that penguins can’t be released on their own, “without a fellow creature of their own kind; they won’t leave.”) And so Michell has no choice but to bring him home.

Woven into Michell’s story of smuggling the penguin, eventually named Juan Salvado (“John Saved”), back into Argentina and attempting to find him an appropriate home are tales of his experiences teaching and living in a Buenos Aires suburb during the mid-1970s. Before the military coup that ousted Isabel Perón’s government, inflation was 100 percent a month, and the local markets doubled their prices every couple of weeks, which meant that the best use of one’s paycheck was to spend it all at once, and then trade for whatever else you might need. “I bought jeans that wouldn’t fit and shirts I’d never wear,” Michell recalls, “…and I had no trouble bartering my goods later on.” Among those who suffered most were school employees, like the housekeeper Maria: “The poor, the descamisados, were rewarded with money that rapidly devalued, leaving them nothing to show for it. The rich were the beneficiaries, because their assets maintained or increased in value, as a result of labor they paid for with worthless money.”

In the midst of this poverty, uncertainty, and political strife, Juan Salvado wins over staff, students, and employees alike as he lives on the outdoor terrace of Michell’s campus housing. Students vie for the privilege of buying him food from the local fishmonger and taking part in his care. Many simply enjoy spending time talking to Juan Salvado. “Juan Salvado was such a good listener, patiently absorbing everything that was said to him, from observations about the weather to secrets of the heart, and he never once interrupted. He looked people straight in the eye and always paid such close attention to what was said that his guests were inclined to talk to him on equal terms—they thought him a wise old bird.”

Michell’s is not the only tale of Magellanic penguins (for some reason referred to as “Magellan penguins” in the book) acting more like pets than wild animals. There is Turbo of the Punta Tombo colony, who has never been fed by researchers but who nevertheless sees himself more as one of them than one of his own colony. And there is Jinjing, who after feeding at sea returns to Brazil rather than his native Argentina, to visit the retired bricklayer who rescued him from an oil spill. The many charms of this species—and the incredible nature of all penguins—are lovingly told in this story.

Michell’s travels include a quest to find a new home for Juan Salvado, and readers are sure to enjoy the travelogue as well as the story of the penguin himself (Michell’s description of the noses of elephant seal bulls on Peninsula Valdés is one of the best I’ve read: “having a pendulous protuberance like a large crumpled boot where they could reasonably expect to have a nose”).

While this book is overall a light, easygoing read, Michell also poses tough but necessary questions about what he sees on his travels, and how he came to discover Juan Salvado in the first place: “How, in a world so full of astonishing beauty and priceless wonders, had humans devised such misery, and not just for our own species?” He experiences an environmental awakening, making the very real and important connection between how humans treat one another and how they treat the planet: “In an equivalent way that millions of Marias paid indirectly for all the mortgaged homes of the middle classes in Buenos Aires thanks to inflation, it is the penguins and the rest of nature’s descamisados who pay the real cost of our way of life, in the only currency they have.”

 

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Book Review: Lost Antarctica by James McClintock

As James McClintock points out in his enlightening book, Antarctica is often referred to as “the poster child” for global warming, a bellwether of climate change, the place where we see the most drastic results of a warming planet. McClintock’s Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land offers a firsthand view of the challenges facing this magnificent continent and its creatures.

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McClintock, a polar and marine biology expert who teaches at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and has been traveling to Antarctica for decades, writes in a straightforward, accessible way about his research in one of the most remote regions on earth. As a researcher who has been returning to Antarctica for so many years, he offers not only hard data on the changes happening on the continent but his own firsthand observations. He writes, for example, of one scientist’s recording of the loss of 12,000 to 15,000 breeding pairs of Adélie penguins over the past thirty-five years (an 80 percent loss), while observing on one of his visits how an early snowfall affected a nesting Adélie: “Dawn revealed a haunting scene on this miniscule island: the penguin still nested, although the was completely buried in the snow, with only a small opening in which to breathe. Sadly, her two unborn chicks would eventually, inevitably, drown in the meltwater of this unseasonable snowstorm, a storm fueled by an increasingly moist and warming climate.”

While Antarctica is known to most as the land of penguins, its ecosystem is vast and diverse, and the penguins are not the only creatures vulnerable to climate change. Lost Antarctica covers other and equally important aspects of the continent’s health, from the ice shelves to sea butterflies to krill, and McClintock points out not only how climate change is threatening the livelihood of certain species but how it’s making room for other species to disrupt Antarctic life, such as king crabs, which can now survive in the Antarctic’s warmer temperatures.

Also interesting are some of the details about research and traveling in Antarctica over the decades—from the days when McClintock had to communicate with family via $4/word telegrams to the white-knuckle adventures of ice-diving to the never-predictable voyage through the Drake Passage. Such personal details of McClintock’s travel and research will be fascinating to readers who are curious about what day-to-day life in Antarctica is like.

Building on each chapter, McClintock brings his travels and research together to show how climate change is slowly but surely taking its toll on this amazing region of the world. “By the end of the century the annual sea ice along the central and northern regions of the western Antarctic Peninsula will have vanished. Adélie penguins would have vanished with it; krill will have been replaced by salps; seafloor organisms will be threatened by rising temperatures, ocean acidification, and invading king crabs; the defensive chemicals that kill pathogens and warn off predators will be lost.” Lost Antarctica is not only a love letter to a magnificent place but a cautionary tale as well.

As Sylvia Earle points out in the book’s foreword, “Earth is not too big to fail.” McClintock’s book shows us why we need to pay attention—and why it needs to be right now. He asks: “What sort of a world, I wonder, will future generations of Antarctic scientists find when they come to this remarkable place? And when they gaze over this landscape, will they be reminded how this place, this peninsula, these ecosystems, served as a wake-up call to jump-start the technological, societal, and political paths to a sustainable planet?”

Visit McClintock’s website at www.lostantarctica.com to learn more and to see his stunning photographs of Antarctica.

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Book Review: Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

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Let me preface this review by saying that I am a longtime fan of co-author Dee Boersma’s work.

Years ago, I was part of a volunteer project at Punta Tombo, assisting Dee and her team with a penguin census. It was a week that changed the direction of my life in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine at the time. Dee has spent more than 20 years at Punta Tumbo researching Magellanic penguins — and helped to found the Penguin Sentinels organization.

So now that you know of my affinity for penguins and those who work to protect them, on with the review.

This is a reference book at its core.

It provides an in-depth description (and plenty of photos) of each of the 17 penguin species — from Gentoos to Rockhoppers to the Emperor penguins that were made famous in March of the Penguins. You’ll learn how to identify each, as well as its breeding habits, range, prey, and predators. (Did you know the Emperor penguin can dive up to 500 meters and hold its breath for 23 minutes?)

Yet even though this book is chock full of penguin details, such as counts and feeding habits and population trends, there is plenty drama between the lines.

For example, in the African Penguin section there are two photos of the Halifax Island colony in Namibia. In the photo taken in the 1930s, the colony is filled with penguins. In the 2004 photo, only a handful of penguins can be seen. The African Penguins are in big trouble, due to oil spills and overfishing.

I didn’t realize until reading this book the extent to which penguin eggs were once collected by locals. And penguin guano was also a target (which some species very much need for their nests).

Not all penguin species are declining. The Gentoos appear to be growing in number (though it appears that most species are indeed in various stages of decline).

Ultimately, this book is a call to action. For example, if the human demand for seafood ended tomorrow, the fishing trawlers would have a reason to be out in the oceans, scooping up the penguins’ food supply (as well as the penguins themselves).

Climate change is a more insidious challenge simply because it’s not so easily combatted or its impact fully understood. All we do know is that the waters are warming and food sources are moving or declining. And penguins must adapt to these changes or fade away.

Some species, sadly, are fading away.

If you’re passionate about penguins and the oceans, this is a must-have book. You’ll find yourself referring to it again and again, as I have.

Penguins: Natural History and Conservation

Pablo Garcia Borboroglu (Editor), P. Dee Boersma (Editor)