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The Magnetic North: Notes From The Arctic Circle

3.7 of 5 stars 3.70  ·  rating details  ·  251 ratings  ·  42 reviews
A Globe and Mail Best Books of the Year 2011 Title

More than a decade ago, Sara Wheeler traveled to Antarctica to understand a continent nearly lost to myth and lore. In the widely acclaimed, bestselling Terra Incognita, she chronicled her quest to find a hidden history buried in Antarctica's extreme surroundings. Now, Wheeler journeys to the opposite pole to create a defin
Hardcover, 354 pages
Published 2011 by Jonathan Cape (first published 2009)
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Finally finished it! This was an interesting topic, but a real tedious read. The book chronicles the author's tour of various arctic regions. That's cool, but the writing style is really strained and difficult to get through. Some of word choices are just odd. For instance:

"I camped nearby, on a dot of the ice cap, with a team of atmospheric chemists who spend three or four months each summer in temperatures of -22 F measuring halogens, a nonmetal element group, that are coming off the snowpack
A comprehensive examination of some of the hidden aspects of arctic culture, from Alaska to Canada to Russia to Scandinavia. Ms. Wheeler describes historical lore about polar exploration, the stark beauty of many of the desolate areas she visited, and diverting stories about the people she met along the way. She has a captivating style, and this is a great book for fans of travel narratives.
Jul 22, 2011 Karen added it
I had previously read Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica. I thought that since I really enjoyed the author's book about Antarctica, I would surely enjoy her book about the Arctic Circle. The result? No... not so much.

Terra Incognita had the appeal of covering the topic closest to exploring new worlds without having to go off planet (that, or deep sea exploration). Magnetic North has chapters on multiple countries that have territories within the Arctic Circle and instead of exploration and s
I started reading this on a day when the heat index was 114 degrees. Perfect weather for reading about frostbite and men who were stranded in subzero temperatures eating their own shoe leather. (Heat index got up to 128 that week! Bring on the icebreakers!) It took me much longer to read this book, though – for several reasons. First of all, it was SO GOOD. I didn’t skim or skip any sections. Also, I read this before bed. So it stayed on my nightstand, and I read it roughly 5 pages at a time. An ...more
Starting in the far east of Siberia, this is a travelogue with historical flashbacks, as Wheeler moves eastward around the Arctic Circle. Next is a chapter on Alaska, then Canada, Greenland, Svarlbard, Lappland, and the White Sea region of European Russia. We start and end with the ghosts of the Soviet gulags. Wheeler clearly loves her subject, both the land and the rugged people who have chosen to live there. She aims to catalog a rapidly changing part of the world that is the apex of climate c ...more
Although a bit dry, there were things I liked about this book:
- The chapter setup - a chapter for each country or region.
- The balance of travel and history
- The anecdotes and stories within the story
But there was really only one thing that annoyed me:
- The index to the illustrations - so annoying to have this at the start of the book, so that very time you come across an illustration, you have to return to the index to find out what it is. Why do this? Why not have the text at the foot of the i
I've read Wheeler's book on the Antarctic (twice) but first time reading this excellent book about the different countries in the Arctic including Canada, Russia, Lapland, Greenland - their similarities and differences. Wheeler visits each of these countries, travels with local people and scientists. Her reportage is interesting, humorous, historical, scientific, especially aware of the horrors being visited on this fragile environment by mining, the military, climate change. After two visits to ...more
I generally enjoy anything I read about the colder parts of the world, and this was no exception. It was quite different than many of the books I've read lately, though. Rather than being a history of a particular area or person associated with the Arctic, this book reads like a series of journalistic pieces, which, in a sense, they are. Over the course of several years, Wheeler visits various areas around the Arctic. Chapters are set up by region, covering the Russian far east, Alaska, Canada, ...more
Bookmarks Magazine
Wheeler serves as an engaging and insightful guide through the countries that surge up past the 66th parallel. Reviewers praised her storytelling skills, her nose for obscure and fascinating facts, and her refusal to romanticize the region’s indigenous cultures; and, surprisingly, none objected to her evidence for climate change. The Boston Globe occasionally found the flood of information overwhelming, and others wished that Wheeler had spent more time in the field and less in the library, but ...more
This is a terrifying book, and I am not referring to the gulag stories, but to the depiction of a shrinking Artic. The fact that most stuck with me when I closed the cover was that people living furthest from pollution (in the remote Artic) are most affected by it. The build up of toxins in animals, the change in fragile ecosystems due to climate change and pollution, and the erosion of native culture, show up unavoidably in every segment of the story throughout all the author's travels. It is d ...more
I wasn't that familiar with travel writing literature,,, i admit that with all the details included about the far North one can get himself lost and loose track especially if he is not that skilled in elements such geography, history.Still, i find it interesting to read a very good way to not only one's cultural knowledge but also to sensibilize people about the dangers that threaten this part of the world.
An interesting and valuable look at northern fringe of the world and global issues that are obvious there - the treatment of indigenous people, pollution and climate change, and human nature. It tries to sees some hope in these things but facing these things is still a downer.
I didn't enjoy the occasional flight of overly poetic language and got a little confused by the not entirely organized historical side trips that supplement the author's recollection of her own travels.
I suppose I did not rate this more highly as it was very disturbing. Not her fault and she is a really great writer, but as opposed to Terra Incognito this book is severely depressing. She seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time detailing the Russian atrocities in the arctic zones- east and west. And she freely acknowledged the book she set out to write at the start was not what it evolved into.
I had hoped for more environmental, nature writing and while there was some of that there was ent
Another book I was again excited to read expecting stories of adventures exploring the Arctic from a well-seasoned female explorer. I was surprised then when reading the book felt more like watching a fact-filled documentary with each chapter featuring a different country with land in the Arctic circle - covering the history, sociology and environmental science of the area. Each chapter could have been it's own book and it felt like a crash course in understanding climate change and Arctic 'sett ...more
Marceline Smith
Really interesting book about the people who live in the Arctic Circle. It's easy to forget quite how many countries are partly in the Arctic but she visits them all and describes the lives of the inhabitants, visitors and scientific communities. Bit of a coincidence that I ended up reading this around the same time as Frozen Planet was on the BBC - the last couple of episodes cover some of the same ground. The book is way more in depth though and includes lots of personal anecdotes as well as d ...more
Claire L-C
I listened to this book as an audio book. It has made me want to learn more. Already had quite an interest in the oceans and I particularly enjoyed the study of the polar peoples.
Not the best of Wheeler's books but she sets high standards. This is about the people of the north, and the degradation of their environment, rather than a book of or about exploration (though Nansen and co get a look-in). Wheeler succeeds in conveying the rapid and devastating change that is taking place as a result of our exploitation of the Arctic, but unlike her other books the flow is disrupted by it not being a single journey. Nevertheless, who else has visited so many of the populated par ...more
This is a fabulous read. The author is sharp, insightful and witty. Each page has something delightful - and anecdote, a perfect phrase or an analogy that takes your breath away with it's perceptiveness. The people she's met are rounded and real, not caricatures. Her impressions of the great explorers are not coloured by awe or weight of history. The result is a book that informs, not terrifies and unlike other books on the subject, she never becomes bogged down by the bleak environmental or soc ...more
I was very interested in the content of this book but the writing style was so disjointed that I couldn't get past Chapter 2- too tedious a read. There was also the added frustration of photos with no identification on the page on which they appeared. I had to constantly go back to the list of photos in the beginning of the book so I would know what I was looking at. They were not mentioned in text either. The area Wheeler is writing about is so interesting that is is such a shame that she could ...more
Learned that one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emission is methane from rice paddies, 10 times worse than CO2.

Very interesting, well written book about the Arctic, it's natural history and it's peoples around the world. At times hard to read, due to the way native peoples have been treated over the millenia.

Sara Wheeler is a very gutsy woman - imagine breast feeding a her child at minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

I do wish there had been more photos and maps to help understand the mater
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
The Magnetic North by Sara Wheeler

Wheeler takes her readers places no one has been, places no one really wants to go except via books. This time, she guides us through the frozen north, the lands and waters north of the Arctic Circle. She's an ideal guide, one who seeks out all the coolest (in both senses of the word) spots and who finds all the best of the Arctic stories, and relates her tales with a delightfully literate vocabulary.

Apr 15, 2012 Gwen rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Gwen by: Wheeler's Slate article on the Arctic
Shelves: arctic-antarctic
I loved this book, even though I feel like an Antarctic traitor for liking this one about the Arctic better. It was quite similar to "The Future History of the Arctic" in terms of its environmentalism and concerns about what will happen to the native people of the Arctic lands. The information on Russia/Siberia was fascinating since my knowledge of that region is next to nothing. Highly recommended, more so than "Terra Incognita."
In the first few pages of this book, the author describes what happens when the temperature reaches the coldest experienced on earth. Apparently at that temperature, trees explode, and your exhaled breath tinkles to the ground as ice crystals.

After reading that, I knew that I would enjoy this book, particularly as a mental antidote to a particularly humid summer.
A great read to learn about the history of the Arctic circle, focused mostly on the indigenous people. As you can guess it's not always an uplifting story, but very real. As a first read about the Arctic it's good because Sara also draws upon books and movies of the last century that inspired her. I can't wait to watch Nanook of the North!
I found this an interesting book but a slow read. Wheeler reports on the natural and human history of several regions along and above the Arctic Circle. The chapters on the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Svalbard, and Lapland were the most appealing to me. For a faster-paced book, I'd recommend her "Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica."
Informative, readable, recommended - I enjoyed her witty prose style, and she covers aspects of the Arctic I haven't seen much about. (Presumably for the reason that getting a visa to visit Chukotka is apparently nigh impossible. Sara Wheeler has quite a reserve of perseverance.)
Some interesting stuff in this one and I liked how she divided the book into sections with a map slice of the arctic circle, but some parts were dull and my mind wandered a lot. I'll give her Antarctica book a try since I hear that one is better.
Marie Cinti
I wish I had enjoyed this book more. Wheeler has an important message but I found her delivery tedious. The sea ice is melting. Got it? Animals, indigenous peoples, developed world, Northeastern coast of the United States? All in trouble.
A magnificent account of arctic history and its people. Sara Wheeler does a great job of connecting histories, cultures, science and nature while remaining objective and on point. It was a truly enjoyable read from cover to cover.
Julian Walker
An update on life and work in the Arctic, with an interesting array of characters and processes, plus thoughts on climate change and reflections on life.

Good read from a warm and comfortable environment.
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Sara Wheeler was brought up in Bristol and studied Classics and Modern Languages at Brasenose College, University of Oxford. After writing about her travels on the Greek island of Euboea and in Chile, she was accepted by the US National Science Foundation as their first female writer-in-residence at the South Pole, and spent seven months in Antarctica.

In her resultant book Terra Incognita: Travels
More about Sara Wheeler...
Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard O My America!: Six Women and Their Second Acts in a New World

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