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The Magnetic North: Notes From The Arctic Circle

3.69  ·  Rating details ·  347 Ratings  ·  54 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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Jun 20, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
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
Nov 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
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 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 15, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, 2011books
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
Jul 22, 2011 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
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
Jul 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
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.)
Nov 11, 2009 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
In the end, I felt that The Magnetic North turned out to be a mixed bag: there are highs here in the broad scope that Wheeler gives herself, which in turn allows her to explore fascinating stories of historical and personal interest. Whether we're reading about Swedish explorers and Norwegian resistance fighters, roadtrips along long Alaskan highways, or Wheeler's struggles to reach Chukchi towns or her admiration for the Sami, there's always something interesting happening in this survey. The b ...more
Fred Rose
Dec 18, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: travel, global-issues
I'm a fan of the North, reading about it and traveling to it (and living in northern US), so I enjoyed this book about traveling on the far fringes of the north. The author is a great travel writer (I also enjoyed her book on Antarctica), with the right dose of history, landscape and characters. The North is changing rapidly both due to cultural influences and climate, and the author captures all that nicely, not in an unrealistic romantic way but matter of factly.
Gail Richmond
Mar 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Detailed examination of the cultures and people of the various lands of the Arctic Circle provides in depth analysis of history, politics, and science.
Mar 24, 2017 rated it liked it
3.5 stars
Suzanne Auckerman
Feb 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
Her writing is excellent, with vivid imagery, tragedy and humor. She travels to all the Artic lands and tells the story of the native peoples and the environment. It is not a cherry tale, but one worth knowing.
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
Apr 06, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: may-june-2011
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
May 18, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 14, 2013 rated it liked it
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
Feb 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
May 29, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, travel
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
Mar 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
I now have to read everything this author has ever written, she is that good. Mary Roach-like but smarter, more adventurous, more attuned to people and places, inner and outer landscapes. The Arctic is still a barely discovered place, and you don't have to go there to feel its power because Wheeler describes it so well.
It is also incredibly humbling and sobering to realize all the pollution that we cause here in the lower latitudes ends up in animals and people there. Wheeler is not an environm
Jun 05, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not my favorite Sara Wheeler

One to get full enjoyment of this book would have to strongly believe that climate change is caused by the people of the earth. It was very interesting to learn of the various Arctic countries. I had always been interested in the Sami people. By the time you are through with the book you will know much more.
I have one bone to pick with the author. She writes of the crowded Alaska Marine Highway. I don't believe there are traffic jams on the Marine Highway!
Jun 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, travel
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
Dec 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: arctic
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
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
Feb 13, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 30, 2014 rated it it was ok
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.
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
Jul 18, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: adventure, travel
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 27, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: culture
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.
Mar 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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."
Feb 12, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, journeys
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.
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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
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