Brief Reviews

The Ice Finders

As Mr. Bolles points out, the Ice Age is today so well established as historical fact that it is difficult to accept its origins as a crackpot theory with which a previously respectable scientist disgraced himself and reduced a gathering of colleagues to unseemly uproar. The young Louis Agassiz, well regarded for studies of fossil fish, confounded fellow geologists by proposing that all Europe had once been engulfed by a monstrous glacier. Men accustomed to glaciers that stay put on Swiss mountains found the notion of a mile-thick, continent-wide tide of ice impossibly fantastic. The arguments dragged on for years. Agassiz made converts, but the influential Scottish geologist Charles Lyell was for a while a stubborn opponent. Agassiz's case depended on the application of common sense to meticulously observed physical evidence, and that evidence did not include a monstrous glacier. The case was finally settled, backhandedly, by Elisha Kent Kane, of the U.S. Navy. He was vainly looking for the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin, but he went farther north than anyone had previously done, observed the Greenland ice sheet, named the Humboldt glacier, and returned to publish an account of what he had seen, complete with illustrations (military officers were expected to be good draftsmen in those pre-camera days) -- and there was Agassiz's glacier. Mr. Bolles's account of the long dispute is consistently interesting for his description of the participants and their various alliances, whimsies, and jealousies, for the grim ordeal of Kane's party, and for the author's style, which is peppery and sometimes startlingly eloquent. The Greenland glacier "was there in front of Kane, prowling across the earth, as unexpected by science as was the first dinosaur bone."

Voyage to the North Star

Mr. Nichols loves ships and respects the sea. He despises trophy hunters and wealthy irresponsibles. His novel begins with a self-made millionaire in the 1930s, a man confident that his money, untouched by the depression raging across the country, enables him to do whatever he fancies. He fancies a quick, comfortable arctic safari from which he will return with the greatest collection of specimens ever to dazzle the Explorers Club. He has an exceptionally fast ship, a captain late of the British navy, a French chef, a black butler to serve cocktails, a variety of first-class guns with equivalent ammunition, all hands outfitted by Abercrombie & Fitch, and a box of dynamite to control inconvenient icebergs. What can possibly go wrong?There are three men aboard who know what can go wrong. Their efforts to fend off disaster lead to an ironic conclusion, as savagely unjust as the depression that provides the story's overall backdrop. This is not a pleasant novel, but it is admirably written and exciting all the way.


The New Sweet Style

The hero of Mr. Aksyonov's novel is Alexander Korbach, known as Sasha, a wildly versatile performer and impresario driven from the Soviet Union for irreverent indifference to the principles of socialist realism. He arrives in the United States, where practically nobody has ever heard of him, and scrabbles a catch-as-catch-can living. The situation enables the author, himself a Soviet refugee, to describe aspects of American society from a wry alien perspective. At the same time, the tale celebrates the endurance of Jewish traditions and family connections, for Sasha finds American kinsmen and ultimately a rather astounding ancestor. Mr. Aksyonov's style is idiosyncratic, surprising, and witty, if at times a bit overflirtatious with the reader. That excess is forgivable in a novel of wide range and generous invention.


Hunting Badger

The latest of Mr. Hillerman's Navajo police mysteries derives from his exasperation with the Federal Bureau of Ineptitude, which recently conducted a manhunt in his area by bringing in city agents to flounder in strange canyons while local police officers familiar with the territory sat at roadblocks. That practical connection aside, Mr. Hillerman provides his usual fine descriptions of weather and scenery, his usual deceptive plot, and the always engaging characters of Leaphorn and Chee.

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