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A Polar Affair

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Member Reviews

I really enjoyed learning about penguins and polar exploration. I didn't know much about the rave to the South Pole, and now I wish I knew more. I was intrigued by his portrayal of the main characters and the differences from the popularized tale. Overall, I enjoyed it,  although I think the method of telling the story was somewhat labored. The story was very factual, but it made it seem unwieldy. Some streamlining of the facts and less repetition of full names would have made it a smoother read. I also felt like the author had an overtly hostile attitude towards the myth of penguin morals and its prevalence in society. I guess if you're an expert on something, it's probably very frustrating when everyone else misunderstands it. 
Overall, interesting and well-worth reading.
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A Polar Affair

I think it's fair to say that most people have heard of Roald Amundsen's voyages which led him to lead the first expedition to reach the South Pole, and also Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated expedition to reach the Pole before Amundsen.  What isn't so much common knowledge is the Northern Party of Scott's expedition and George Murray Levick, a man who's knowledge and expertise helped keep the party alive through one of the harshest winters they'd ever experience and a man who undertook the first ever study of Penguins.

In A Polar Affair, Biologist Lloyd Spencer Davis takes us on a tour through a voyage of his own following a discovery in Antarctica in 1996.  His discovery was that our understanding of the sex lives of Penguins aren't as straightforward as we once thought, with the common conception being that Penguins mate for life.  However, when seeing two male penguins in the throes of passion, all was not as it seemed!

However, A Polar Affair is not just a book about Penguin sex, Lloyd Spencer Davis' own expedition to discover the work of Murray Levick is indeed engrossing, while uncovering his work we learn more about the man who wrote it and about his own Victorian attitudes which led to him censoring his work for almost a century.   Murray Levick's work, even the censored work, has been a main source of research for many biologists studying and working in Antarctica, and elsewhere, and allowed students great insight from such a time when even that part of the world was still uncovered.  Murray Levick's research shone great light on the lives of penguins and their incredible promiscuity which in many ways mirrors our own. After reading A Polar Affair I realised why Murray Levick chose to censor it, it would have caused outrage in Victorian Moral society and reminiscent of King Edward VII himself.

Aside from the study of Penguins undertaken by Murray Levick A Polar Affair brilliantly undertakes the history of the expeditions to reach the North and South Poles.  These are stories not just of high adventure but also great personal tragedy and sacrifice.  Famous names such as Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton have been synonymous with the tales of the race to reach the Poles and of great expeditions but the personal history of these expeditions is never known, which is one of many aspects so appealing to A Polar Affair.  Lloyd Spencer Davis's narrative manages to, not only cover the history itself, but also shows for all the personal journey of each of these men.  However, it is Murray Levick who is the hero of this novel, without whose knowledge and initiative many more lives would have been lost during Scott's expedition to reach the South Pole.  As the author explains "Antarctica is a harsh mistress. She exacts a high price from penguins and men for being with her; for getting things wrong; for being late; for not having enough food, the right feathers or the right clothes, or, simply, for not being fat enough" which sums up Murray Levick's own experience and the tragedy of Scott's expedition perfectly.

A Polar Affair is a book that genuinely kept me on the edge of my seat, I was quite sad when I finished it but I'm looking forward to reading again.   Lloyd Spencer Davis has brought us a hugely fascinating and highly entertaining book about the far reaches of human endeavour and, of course, Penguin sex.

• A Polar Affair by Lloyd Spencer Davis is published by Handheld Press (£12.99). To order a copy go to
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At the end of this book I feel like I have gained all sorts of knowledge in the best possible way. This book is not only about penguin sex (though it tells you a whole lot about that!), it is about the race for the South Pole and polar exploration and the hardships those explorers experienced. I learned that it takes a special kind of person to push those limits.

The author goes from is own research and experience in penguin biology and surviving in Antarctica to that of the first penguin biologist, Murray Levick, and the South Pole race between Robert Falcon Scott and Roal Admundsen.

This is an endlessly fascinating account about those first Antarctic explores and the animals they encountered based on their notes and diaries, but written in a clear and engaging way. Their hardships break your heart. It also looks at their lives (if they lived) after polar exploration. And of course, the author shows us glimpses into the often vulgar lives of the Adelie penguins.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in adventure or natural history.
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The author of this non-fiction book is from New Zealand, but received his PhD from the University of Alberta.  He is a penguin scientist and has both studied them extensively (in Antarctica) and written many books on the subject.  In this one he looks at the life of George Murray Levick, who was what could be called the first penguin scientist.  In 1910 he became the doctor on Scott's tragic Antarctic exhibition.  When he found himself stuck there over a period of many months he decided to study the penguins.  He survived the ordeal (unlike many of his fellow explores) and went on to publish a book on penguins.  Years later Davis discovers that Levick censored his findings to placate the Victorian morals of the time.  Davis describes his actual findings and supplements them with his own (penguins are not the monogamous creatures we have been led to believe).  The book also includes the story of the race for the South Pole between Scott and Amundsen, describing the hardships faced by the men and the decisions that led to success by one and failure by the other.  This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in history, adventure and penguin science.  I found it to be fascinating.
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Even though I'm a scientist I rarely read non-fiction for down time. But when I saw this book pop up, I thought "Penguins. Homosexuality. This sounds interesting." It's a common misconception that penguins mate for life and this book first explores this misconception. By following a number of key people who's sole mission was to be the first at the South pole, Lloyd Spencer Davis narrates finds of penguins, extreme conditions and human responses over a number to voyages. Lloyd Spencer Davis also interjects with his studies of adiele penguins and his research into the people who contributed towards the voyage and research of adiele penguin mating rituals and habits by the first ever penguin biologist, Levick. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, it was easy to read with elements of humour and some beautiful language to describe the terrain. My only criticism is that it would have been beneficial to include a map of Antartica to get a judge of distance and bearing to help visualise the journies more.
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My eye caught three things: Robert Falcon Scott--Antarctica--Penguins--and I submitted my request for the galley. Later I noted one other stand-out word: Sex. Specifically, the sex lives of penguins, but the book embraced more than just the birds' proclivities.

My first introduction to Antarctica was Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater, which an elementary school teacher read aloud to my class. I read it many times. When I was about eleven years old I picked up The Great White South by Herbert Ponting, the photographer on the Scott Expedition to the South Pole. Scott's story caught my imagination. He was a tragic, flawed hero. Ever since, I have been drawn to read books about Polar expeditions and explorers. 

A Polar Affair by Llyod Spencer Davis is a highly readable and entertaining book about Davis's career in penguin research and the stories of the explorers who first encountered the Antarctic penguins. Specifically, George Murray Levick, physician with the Scott expedition, who became the first to record the habits and lives of penguins.

Levick wrote a book but it was never made public. When Davis discovered a copy he was shocked to learn that he was not the first to observe what Levick had already documented.

The book is a wonderful blend, offering science and nature, history, first-person account, and adventure. He vividly recounts the story of the men who vied to be the first to reach the South Pole, including their human frailties and ill-thought decisions. 

The story of Levick and two other men trapped over an Antarctic winter in an ice cave is especially horrifying to read! The harsh realities of the penguins' struggle to survive was eye-opening.

Davis's quest to understand Levick and the mystery of the suppressed research takes him across the world, snooping into libraries and museums. 

Even though I know the stories, I was riveted, especially since Davis includes the explorer's personal lives. As Davis writes, "Our idols are never so virtuous as we make them out to be."

The next visit I make to the Detroit Zoo Penguin Conservation Center I will be looking at the penguins with more appreciation.

I was given access to a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
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Amundsen. Scott. Shackleton. Levick. ... Wait, who? The world knows of the exploits of Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton - men of renown from the turn of the 20th century famous for their exploits in the Antarctic and beyond. In this book, Davis - a lifelong penguin biologist and filmmaker - traces the path of a man who both inspired his own work and is forever tied into the lives of the more famous men who were his contemporaries. That man being George Murray Levick, the member of Scott's crew who inadvertently became the very first penguin biologist - and who made discoveries about Adelie penguins that would go hidden for nearly a century before Davis himself next observed them. In this book, Davis explores both his own path and research and that of Levick, as he finds himself on a quest to find the "real" George Murray Levick and the reason Levick hid his more salacious findings about Adelie penguins. Truly remarkable work, told in an incredibly approachable and easily readable manner. Very much recommended for all, particularly those who - like this particular reader - find themselves also very attached to penguins.
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