Our Antarctic Adventure—Reading and Resources List

Our Antarctic Adventure—Reading and Resources List

We’ve been hanging out in Antarctica quite a bit of late, fruit of following Bella’s latest obsession. For a while last week our living room carpet was the ocean and a big Ikea box was an ice shelf. Or maybe mountains. A bunch of books spread at the base of the box were pack ice. One night Sophie and Bella in the bath were mermaids in Antarctica. One day I heard Sophie from the living room: “The penguin was standing all alone on the pack ice making noises to itself.”

I brought home a huge mountain of books about Antarctica for Bella to dive into, the fruit of a late-night requesting as many books as the library’s computer hold system would allow. (I wonder if some day she may begin to chafe at my feeding a small interest with a heaping pile of books. For now she just gasps in wonder and dives in with abandon.) Bella was so thrilled when she saw the stack. Many of them went back to the library after a quick survey. They were either too simplistic or too advanced for Bella.

Here’s a list of some of the books I renewed so that we could continue to explore them.  Some of the books, especially the penguin ones, Bella has asked for over and over again. Some we are dipping into slowly a bit at a time. Some we may not get to at all. I am learning so much on this journey and I am once again amazed at Bella’s enthusiasm as she dives into a subject. It’s astounding how much information Bella stores away and how readily she can retell the details of what she’s heard only once.

In addition to the books, we also checked out a couple of documentaries about Antarctica and while we watched Bella would be telling Sophie all the things she knew about the penguins we were seeing. She was so excited to be able to observe the things she’d read about come to life in the videos.

1. Life Under Ice by Mary M. Cerullo, photography by Bill Curtsinger. The story follows a team of divers as they dive under the Antarctic ice to explore the fabulous underwater life. It is beautifully accompanied with stunning photographs, which was the main reason it made the first cut as a book we kept instead of sending back to the library. Once we started reading, however, Bella and I were both surprised at how engaging the narrative is. It definitely qualifies as a Charlotte Mason-style “living book”. I’m finding I really prefer books that achieve that difficult balance of discussing both the animals and natural environment of Antarctica as well as scientists and their experiences, their questions and their struggles with the harsh elements. I think seeing the human element helps to avoid the trap of anthropomorphizing the animals. But it also provides an element which helps both Bella and I to see ourselves in the picture. I don’t like as much the books and documentaries that carefully edit out the observers, the camera men and the scientists. I like the narrator to step into the frame, to be a part of the story.

Here the main character is the photographer, Bill. We are seeing Antarctica through his eyes both literally as he is the one taking the pictures that illustrate the book; but also figuratively. He asks the questions of the team of scientists: Why do the animals put up with the cold and ice? What kind of animal was that I saw? His experience organizes the story. Although many of the books we saw did take an occasional dip into the ocean—you rather have to when dealing with Antarctic wildlife—this was the only book we found that really went underwater and told the story of Antarctica by focusing on the ocean life, a bottom up approach rather than top down.

2. My Season With Penguins: An Antarctic Journal by Sophie Webb. I really like this beautifully illustrated diary of an American artist/scientist who travels to Antarctica to observe Adelie penguins. The engaging story follows the author-narrator, a biologist and artist, from San Francisco to Christchurch, New Zealand to McMurdo Base in Antarctica. We see the airports and planes. We see Sophie and her team being outfitted with cold weather clothes and gear, arriving at the base camp and traveling to the location of the penguin colony and then setting up their temporary camp and the various methods of observation. The watercolor paintings are charming and Sophie’s voice is quite engaging as she tells the story of her two months with the penguins. The scientific details are interesting and I could see Bella fascinated by the process of asking questions and trying to find out the answers: How do you determine how much and what kinds of food the penguins are giving to their chicks? How do you weigh a penguin? How do you know where the penguins are hunting and how long an individual penguin is at sea and whether penguins from different colonies have overlapping hunting grounds? I loved the small, homey details like how one of the scientists put her wool hat over the eggs to keep them warm when they lifted the incubating parents off of the nest to band them.

This is definitely one of the best books out there. One I’d consider adding to our own library.

Bonus: it avoids one of the most annoying features of most children’s stories about female scientists: all the over-enthusiastic twaddle about how girls can be whatever they want, do whatever they want, how they can overcome all the odds. Sophie’s accomplishments instead speak for themselves, as they should.

3. The Life Cycle of an Emperor Penguin by Bobbie Kalman and Robin Johnson is Bella’s top pick. Dom’s had to read it to her over and over again. I’ve not read it but it seems to be a basic overview, beginning with what is a penguin and a comparison of different species of penguins and then going into fairly close detail about the emperor penguins. I’m not sure there’s much special about the book or that there aren’t probably better ones on the subject; but this seems to get the job done.

4. Antarctic Journal by Meredith Hooper illustrated by Lucia de Leiris. We haven’t read this one but it looks really pretty and skimming it, I think the text looks well done. I think maybe Bella hasn’t picked it out because it looks a little too similar to #2, the other “Antarctic Journal” book with pretty watercolor images of penguins. Like that one, this is a first person narrative but Hooper is a historian rather than a scientist and this one seems a bit broader in scope, looking at a wide range of animals. I’ve got to move it up to the top of the pile.

5.Penguin: A Season in the Life of the Adélie Penguin by Lloyd Spencer Davis. The photography is beautiful and the book is very informative. I find myself a bit put off by the first person penguin narrator; but I think the girls are rather fascinated by it. (“Is it the penguin talking?” Bella asks, incredulous.) The section on mating is rather detailed and more than a little uncomfortable to read aloud. I find myself skipping bits and editing on the fly. We can get into some of those details a little later when my audience is more mature.


1. National Geographic – Antarctic Wildlife Adventure This documentary caught my eye because it focuses on a family—a mother, father, and three boys, ages 10, 8, and 5—who take their yacht to the Antarctic for the summer, traveling from their home in the Faulkland Islands. The father is French and first went to Antarctica twenty years before when he was much younger. He fell in love and going there has become a family affair—they often bring scientists along on the journey. They are conducting a survey of penguin colonies along the Antarctic Peninsula. Mom counts while the boys clamber about on the rocks, studying geology, looking at plants and moss, watching seals, and generally being boys. The five year old is especially cute. Mom is Australian and dad is French and the boys sound rather British to me. I loved the accents. I did wish the film had focused more on the family and less on the standard narrative about endangered natural spaces and the encroachment of man and global warming. I wanted more about the family dynamics, more footage of the kids being kids and of the kind of informal learning that must go on during these expeditions. Obviously if I’d been in charge this would have been a much different film. Still, it was different enough from the standard nature film and I do think having the kids in it helped my kids to engage with the film.

This disk had a second feature, that I didn’t expect as it wasn’t mentioned at all on the library’s description page. It was a shorter documentary about a group of mountain climbers who are the first people ever to scale a particular Antarctic peak, whose Dutch name I no longer remember but I’m pretty sure it meant something like razor. Bella was surprisingly engaged in the story and fascinated by the scenery and the drama of the climb.

2. March of the Penguins was a beautiful documentary, as I had been told by many people, and I mostly loved the narration by Morgan Freeman—except when it drifted too much into anthropomorphizing the penguins, which seems to be an almost unavoidable pitfall in nature documentaries. Or maybe it’s just the style of National Geographic? More than the movie itself, I actually enjoyed the extras on the disc which included a short film by the filmmakers on the making of the movie. This actually showed the cameramen and discussed the process of filming a movie that took an entire year to film so as to capture the entire breeding cycle of the emperor penguins. I think removing the people from the shots and focusing only on the animals makes it far too tempting to create a sentimental story, investing the animals with human traits and emotions in order to create drama. When you include the film crew, the story is much less sentimental and the animals remain animals—surprising, intriguing, beautiful but clearly animals and not people. 

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  • 1)  Off topic:  When I saw that painting I immediately recognized the style.  I had the good fortune (ha) to see de la Tour’s “The Cheat” in person a couple of years ago here in Minneapolis.  This painting has much in common with it.  Nice pick.

    2) No comment about the name?  The sibilance is interesting—Eliot is really playing with the sounds and rhythms of words here, when you consider the “had a bad cold”.  It’s really a weird-sounding passage to read aloud, and it’s hard to know where to put pauses and emphasis.  As for where it comes from, try this:

    3)  Also notable is the change in tense/voice.  “Had a bad cold, nevertheless is known to be?”  The jump from past active to present passive is very awkward.  Meaning-wise it sounds like a complete non sequitur. What does having a bad cold have to do with being wise or not? 

    It almost sounds as if the speaker is making excuses for Mme. Sosotris.  Like she made a kooky prediction, or one that turned out wrong, and he’s explaining away her mistake while emphasizing that he had good reason to seek her advice.  “She must have just had an off day.  She’s famous, known to be the wisest, etc….”

    4)  I don’t think “wicked” is entirely unambiguous.  Besides “evil,” hasn’t it had a meaning of “mischievous” or “irreverent” for a long enough time?  To the extent that it generally means “bad,” but the precise degree to which it is bad is not entirely clear?  (I’m trying hard not to read into it the more modern meaning of “awesome, dude!”  My brain really wants to.)

    5) I know there’s a comma there, but I feel ambiguity: 

    Wisest woman in Europe [when it comes to] a wicked pack of cards


    Wisest woman in Europe [among all those who have] a wicked pack of cards

  • 1.  I’d love to know how you got a post up two days in a row when you’re at home alone with four little kids.

    2.  I dunno about “had a bad cold, nevertheless…” being a non sequitur.  It sounds to me like he’s trying to brush off an obvious sign of her humanity.  There’s nothing more thoroughly human than having a bad cold, and it tells against the expected preternatural nature of a fortune teller.

    2b.  Heh, my captcha is normal37

  • bearing,
    You’re welcome. I often feel that way when something gets lost. In this case, though, I don’t think I could have NOT typed it out. I’d already been composing it my head for a while before I sat down the first time and once my brain gets going down that track, it’s really hard to disengage. It would have driven me crazy to the point of not being able to sleep.

    Keeping the momentum going on the posts is hard but I am determined to finish this series eventually. I’m glad you’re enjoying it and commenting. Having feedback does make it much easier to keep going. I guess in that I’m kind of like Mike Mulligan, I need an audience.

  • Bearing, Bah! I just typed out a five part response and somehow lost the whole thing when I submitted it!!!! Now I am wrathful.

    It’s going to take me a bit of time to recreate all that.

    Geek Lady, Both posts were mostly written (I began this one last month and the other one more than a week ago) and saved in my drafts folder. My only real accomplishment was dusting them off and making a last few additions and changes. Also, Dom’s out of town this week so my evenings are less conflicted. I can write without feeling guilty for retreating to me hole. And my mom’s here to help with the kids while Dom’s gone, so I’m actually far ahead of the game in terms of that, having another adult here all day takes much of the pressure off.

  • bearing take 2:

    1. Not a non sequitur at all. I find choosing the pictures to illustrate this series a big part of the fun. It’s great to have someone notice and comment on it.

    I love Georges de la Tour. He’s one of my favorites and I have a print of his Penitent Magdalene hanging in my living room. I suppose I should say one of his Penitent Magdlenes, he did several different pictures of that subject. I saw an exhibition of his work years ago at the Kimball in Ft Worth. Must have been in the late 90s. Great stuff.

    I was at a loss, not having a painting already in mind and not finding anything I liked until this came up in a Google search. I do think it’s perfect and reflects quite well Eliot’s contempt for his character.

    2. About the name. Yeah, I’m guilty for skipping it too quickly. The hypertext version of the poem, which I’m using as my primary reference so that I don’t have to keep track of my book and because it’s just easier, glosses the name thus: “A mock Egyptian name (suggested to Eliot by ‘Sesostris, the Sorceress of Ecbatana’, the name assumed by a character in Aldous Huxley’s novel Crome Yellow who dresses up as a gypsy to tell fortunes at a fair).” That’s much less interesting than the Herodotus connection your wikipedia link suggests. And then I think because the gloss didn’t seem to add anything to my reading of the poem, I just skipped the name altogether. It was pretty sloppy of me, though.

    Somehow the Huxley source just didn’t seem all that interesting or worth following up on, though I’m also guilty of not following up on the Huxley reference either, because it might well yield something interesting. Herodotus, though… And an ancient Egyptian pharaoh… It connects this section thematically and allusively to Cleopatra later in the poem and to Phlebas the Phoeneican and to Carthage and Dido. It suggests the European fascination with all things Egyptian, mummies, curses, etc and in general with Oriental mysticism. So it does indeed seem to be a name rich with suggestive possibility.

    I do agree that the sound is wonderful. I love the sibilance and I think “Sosostris” is an interesting near-rhyme with “nevertheless”.

    3. Yes, I do think that change is worth looking at more closely. I do think that having a bad cold has not so much to do with her wisdom as with her glamour. As Geek Lady suggests, there is nothing so prosaic as a head cold. It sort of ruins her mystique and so the speaker feels a need to defend her a bit. Perhaps there is a suggestion again of that theme of fleeing from nature and time and the natural consequences of being embodied. Wouldn’t it be better if we could be more spiritual and less encumbered by these bodies which get tired and sick and eventually die? Colds remind us of the frailty of flesh and thus indirectly of our own mortality.

    4. I think you’re right. It’s not unambiguous. I knew I was over thinking that word and was far too tempted to read it in that last sense, which is amplified by the local New England vernacular. Like yours, my brain really wanted to hear the modern meaning. I hear the kids from our parish youth group: “That St Peter was wicked holy!”) In insisting on an unambiguous meaning I was perhaps over-correcting for my tendency to read the slang. But I followed up and found an OED citation for a usage by F. Scott Fitzgerald in This Side of Paradise: “‘Tell ‘em toplay ‘Admiration’!’ shouted Sloane… ‘Phoebe and I are going to shake a wicked calf.” That sounds very much like a voice Eliot would use here. In fact, I think these snatches of modern voices that seem to contrast with the more literary narrator all seem to be slangy and also to have those moments of ambiguity that you note in the last section. They are all rather like bits of conversation overheard in a crowded restaurant that are intriguing but you don’t quite have enough context to fully understand the speaker’s meaning. They are just hints and guesses.

    5. I’ve always read “with” as a simple possessive:

    Wisest woman in Europe [and she is known to have] a wicked pack of cards

    so hadn’t considered either of your suggested readings. Interesting.

  • Melanie,

    Just wanted to say thanks for retyping all that!  So frustrating to lose the first draft.  I hate that and I often don’t have the heart to do it again when it happens to me.

    I’m glad you picked up this series again, I’m really enjoying it.

  • Melanie, I am enjoying the series. Thanks.

    I also really appreciate all the comments. When I finished reading the post, I was interested, but had no original thoughts or comments to add. (My brain is a bit fried – literally – from being out in the heat so much earlier today.)

    But as I read all the wonderful comments, I wondered something…

    Melanie, you mention the trickiness of the “nevertheless”… It seems to me it could have a double meaning…

    On the one hand, here she supposedly can see the future yet could not even avoid a cold. If we could really see the future, we would avoid so much, but certainly illnesses. Shouldn’t she have at least been able to avoid getting sick if she could see it coming? It is like that old joke: Why don’t psychics win the lottery?

    On the other hand the “nevertheless” seems it could point to the undeserved global recognition of being wise despite being not at her best. Anyone with a bad cold is not functioning at 100% – they are tired, not thinking clearly, etc. – yet she is still the wisest in Europe? (Doesn’t seem to say much for Europe, does it?)

    Just a few drops of thoughts I could squeeze out. I can’t wait for this summer heat to get lost. smile

  • I like the point of the near rhyme between “Sosostris” and “nevertheless.”  I never noticed that.  Other than that I can’t see any special significance to “nevertheless.” 

    Four points that come to mind on this passage, and the whole tarot card scene that was already presented.  (1) It’s a sin for Catholics to put their faith in fortune telling; I don’t know if that is also true in Anglicanism.  (2) She is so superficial.  It shows the degradation that the modern culture has become.  Instead of religious prophets we now have fortunetellers. (3) She serves as a counterpoint to the Merlin character in the Grail legend.  (4) Her tarot cards replace the body and blood of Christ through the Eucharest.  She is a priestess of sorts who performs an illicit mystery of faith.

  • Manny,

    1. The Waste Land seems to have been written just on the cusp of Eliot’s conversion. It was published in 1922 and Eliot became a British citizen and converted to the Anglican church in 1927. So I’m not sure exactly where he was in his faith journey. He might have been on the path to belief but hadn’t made a commitment. I’ve always felt that his Christianity is nascent in the poem; but critics tend to read it as a poem of doubt rather than one of faith. there are those elements of Hinduism at the end too which seem to express some ambivalence. However, Eliot did later very much regret that the tarot cards in the poem led people in that direction and I do think it is because he sees it as a hindrance to the spiritual life.

    2.  A good point about the contrast between prophet and fortune teller, especially with the very prophetic sounding voice in the previous section.

    3.  Along with the Sibyl and Tiresias you definitely have a theme of fortune telling and magic. I hadn’t thought to connect the theme explicitly with the Grail legend and Merlin but that’s a distinct possibility.

    4. I think it’s interesting that you associate her with the Eucharist. I don’t really see the Eucharistic imagery, although I suppose I do see where she is a sort of priestess figure and the elements of a mystery religion.


  • I agree Eliot was a believer at least in some way. My remark was intending to address your specific remark about Anglicanism. It isn’t clear how much he’d investigated it at the time of the writing of the poem. His religious heritage was New England Unitarianism and it seems pretty clear that he’d found it unsatisfactory by the time he was studying at Harvard. As I recall he rather drifted around philisophically speaking until he embraced the Church of England, which was a very different sort of Christianity than the Unitarianism he’d been raised in. So I’ve always wondered about The Waste Land to what degree the Christian elements are a reflection of his conscious faith at the time and to what extent they are symbols and images he is playing with in a more intellectual way. It is clear by the time he writes Ash Wednesday that his poetry has shifted from that of The Waste Land and reflects a much more mature Christian faith. I’ve always sort of wondered if the act of writing The Waste Land isn’t itself an important part of his conversion process, a way of sorting out for himself, imaginatively, what it is he believes. How much of the fear of baptism, fear of change, fear of Christ in the poem is an honest portrayal of Eliot’s own fears as he stands on one side of the chasm between faith and doubt and wonders if he can take the plunge?

    It isn’t a secular work at all; but I’m not sure if Eliot himself was clear when he wrote it whether his spiritual journey might take him in the direction of Eastern mysticism instead of toward the Western Christian tradition. While I don’t think the Hindu elements necessarily undermine the Christianity, I do think they are in tension with it and perhaps reveal a mind that has not settled firmly within the Christian tradition.

    I’ve always found it interesting too that when he became an Anglican he also became a British citizen and a monarchist. It’s rather the antithesis of American Unitarianism and in a way shows how unrooted he felt before his conversion because he seems to have such a desperate need to find a faith that is very rooted in a specific place and culture, a longing for tradition.

  • Melanie

    Yes, TWL was written before his conversion, but though he wasn’t committed to faith, he was still some sort of believer.  I’ve argued with people who claim this is a secularist work.  They are wrong.  There are too many Judeo Christian parts.  How does one read this and now see a believer:
    What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
    Out of this stony rubbish?Son of man, 20
    You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
    A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
    And the dead tree gives no shelter,  the cricket no relief, 23
    And the dry stone no sound of water.  Only
    There is shadow under this red rock,
    (Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
    And I will show you something different from either
    Your shadow at morning striding behind you
    Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
    I will show you fear in a handful of dust. 30

    Yes there are hindu allusions, but I think they complement the Christianity not undermine it.  It’s definitely not a secular work but an embracing of a religious spirit.

    Perhaps i over stretched my comparison by comparing the tarot cards to the Eucharest.  What I meant to say was they both embrace a sort of mystery beyond physical reason, with the difference that the tarot cards are absent of spirituality.

  • Hi Manny,

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read on Eliot. Looking at online reviews and trying to dredge my memories, there seem to be two really good options: Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot (1984), and Lyndall Gordon, T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life(1998).

    I’ve read the Ackroyd. However, it was more than a decade ago when I was an undergrad and I don’t have my notes anymore nor can I recall any details about it. Though I don’t recall it being particularly spectacular, I think it was the standard biography at the time.

    The Gordon book is a revision of her two previous partial biographies, of which I know I read one Eliot’s Early Years (1977) and possibly the second Eliot’s New Life.  I’m actually intrigued to hear of this newer Gordon biography—it postdates my undergraduate period when I was immersing myself in all things Eliot—and think I may go out and get it for myself. It looks like it draws on a lot of previously unavailable material and I think is the most authoritative book to date. If I had to pick one, I’d probably go with the Gordon since it is more recent and thus she is able to draw on more letters and other material that Ackroyd simply didn’t have access to.

    Other recent books that look quite interesting but don’t seem to be as comprehensive are T. S. Eliot: A Short Biography by John Worthen (2011) and T.S. Eliot: The Making Of An American Poet, 1888-1922 by James Edwin Miller (2005) and Anglo-Catholic in Religion: T.S. Eliot and Christianity by Barry Spurr (2010).

    There’s also a biography of Eliot’s wife that might have appeal: Painted Shadow: The Life of Vivienne Eliot, First Wife of T. S. Eliot by Carole Seymour-Jones (2003)

    Wow! I think I’m going to have to go on an Eliot reading binge. There’s been quite a bit published in the past decade and I feel quite behind. Anyway, I hope this is helpful to you.

  • Thank you Melanie.  When I think it’s time, I will pick one.  I did read Craig Raine’s TS Eliot (Lives and Leagacy) from Oxford, and while it looked at Eliot’s work it didn’t go too deeply into his bio. as I had expected it would

    I smiled at all that reading of Eliot you did.  That’s quite a bit to focus on a single author at an undergrad level.  I did my master’s thesis on DH Lawrence, and with all that Lawrence immersion I thought my head was going to explode by the end.  I didn’t read Lawrence again for a few years. 

    You mentioned John Worthen above.  He’s actually a noted Lawrentian scholar.  He must have branched out into Eliot.

  • You’re welcome.

    I did my BA at the University of Dallas and I must say that in some ways that degree was more rigorous than my MA. I studied Eliot for my junior project. We were required to read our poet’s complete works, a biography, and a good selection of the major criticism. Then we wrote an annotated bibliography. Then we sat a thirty minute oral exam with three faculty members. It was the most intense and thrilling course of study I’ve ever done. More interesting than anything I did at the MA level, I must confess. I don’t know of any other undergraduate program that is quite so demanding. (That was just the junior project we also had a senior thesis with oral defense and then had comprehensive exams.)

    I know what you mean about not reading Lawrence again for a few years. I didn’t read Eliot for a while. This Waste Land project is sort of my attempt to get back to read him and to do something like the paper I’ve always wanted to write but never had the time—but modified of course to my current state in life as a stay-at-home mom.

    I did note something about Worthen and Lawrence in the reviews I read. Interesting.

  • Wow, that BA program sounds more intense than my MA as well!  I’ll have to remember U of Dallas if someone asks for a recomendation.