December 2019, Nonfiction

The Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina

The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier by Ian Urbina. August 20, 2019. Alfred A. Knopf, 544 p. ISBN: 9780451492944.  Int Lvl: AD; Rdg Lvl: AD.

A riveting, adrenaline-fueled tour of a vast, lawless and rampantly criminal world that few have ever seen: the high seas.

There are few remaining frontiers on our planet. But perhaps the wildest, and least understood, are the world’s oceans: too big to police, and under no clear international authority, these immense regions of treacherous water play host to rampant criminality and exploitation.

Traffickers and smugglers, pirates and mercenaries, wreck thieves and repo men, vigilante conservationists and elusive poachers, seabound abortion providers, clandestine oil-dumpers, shackled slaves and cast-adrift stowaways — drawing on five years of perilous and intrepid reporting, often hundreds of miles from shore, Ian Urbina introduces us to the inhabitants of this hidden world. Through their stories of astonishing courage and brutality, survival and tragedy, he uncovers a globe-spanning network of crime and exploitation that emanates from the fishing, oil and shipping industries, and on which the world’s economies rely.

Both a gripping adventure story and a stunning exposé, this unique work of reportage brings fully into view for the first time the disturbing reality of a floating world that connects us all, a place where anyone can do anything because no one is watching.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Abortion, Criminal culture, Cruelty to animals, Racism, Rape, Strong language, Violence


Book Trailer


Booklist starred (August 2019 (Vol. 115, No. 22))
“We know shockingly little about the sea,” states Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter Urbina, who proves his assertion many times over in this tour de force of intrepid global inquiry. The crimes committed on the high seas run a horrifying gamut of enslavement, poaching, torture, murder, piracy, and environmental decimation, all stoked by fraud and corruption. Urbina witnessed such outrages at tremendous personal risk, often aboard filthy illegal fishing boats manned by captive and abused workers. He illuminates the many loopholes through which profiteers maneuver in this realm of ruthlessness and impunity, where young Asian men are trapped into debt bondage, bought and sold, forced into dangerous and debilitating labor, and brutally detained. Here, too, are profiles of a wily ship repo man, and of courageous activists trying to help “sea slaves” and boldly confronting illegal fishing operations. With precision, drama, and intimacy, Urbina recounts his role in a dangerous at-sea standoff between Indonesian and Vietnamese authorities, a frightening escape from Somalia, and many other harrowing situations, and describes his tenuous network of sources, translators, fixers, and spies. His biggest fear is that his risky quest may do harm to people rather than good, but there is no doubt that the bravely gleaned and galvanizing facts about maritime savagery and brewing catastrophes, which he so vividly and cogently presents, coalesce into an exposé of immense magnitude and consequence.

Kirkus Reviews starred (July 15, 2019)
Anarchy reigns on the high seas as a New York Times investigative reporter travels the world’s oceans.Early on, Pulitzer Prize and George Polk Award winner Urbina (Life’s Little Annoyances: True Tales of People Who Just Can’t Take It Anymore, 2005) writes that the stories he turned up while roaming from port to port “felt less like journalism than an attention deficit disorder,” so bewildering and untidy did they seem, so without unalloyed heroes and villains. One figure in the narrative, for instance, is a law-trained, poetry-writing sailor whose job is to sneak into ports where ships have been impounded and, on behalf of their owners, steal those ships away; the work is dangerous and utterly demanding. “He struck me as an older Tintin,” writes the author. The good guys in the story are beleaguered, outnumbered, and often outmaneuvered. As Urbina writes of Palau’s efforts to halt maritime poaching, a former captain of an interdicted pirate ship arrested in 2016 was back as an ordinary deckhand six months later, making the effort “more myth of Sisyphus than David and Goliath.” If there are villains in the story, they are perhaps the unnamed owners of fishing fleets that put out to sea for long periods of time, for they are inspected and policed only in port. Urbina engagingly chronicles his travels from one trouble spot to another: oil rigs erected on continental shelves, just outside the territorial zones of neighboring nations and subject to little governance; pirate-rich Somalia, where he became a persona non grata; and Djibouti, one of the places where ship owners—in this case of a Thai fleet—“shop around for the most lax registries with the lowest prices and fewest regulations.” Urbina’s book ranks alongside those by Mark Bowden and Sebastian Junger, fraught with peril and laced with beer, the smell of sea air, and constant bouts of gaming an inept system. A swift-moving, often surprising account of the dangers that face sailors and nations alike on the lawless tide.

About the Author

Ian Urbina is a reporter for The New York Times, based in the paper’s Washington bureau. He has degrees in history from Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and his writings, which range from domestic and foreign policy to commentary on everyday life, have appeared in the Los Angeles TimesThe GuardianHarper’s, and elsewhere. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, son, stepdaughter, and a nuisance of a dog.


Teacher Resources

The Outlaw Ocean website

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December 2019, Fiction

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. October 1, 2019. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 282 p. ISBN: 9780374277789.  Int Lvl: AD; Rdg Lvl: AD.

From the award-winning author of 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, a tender and expansive family drama set in the American Midwest at the turn of the century: a tale of adolescence, transgression, and the conditions that have given rise to the trolls and tyrants of the New Right

Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of ’97. His mother, Jane, is a famous feminist author; his father, Jonathan, is an expert at getting “lost boys” to open up. They both work at a psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is a renowned debater, expected to win a national championship before he heads to college. He is one of the cool kids, ready to fight or, better, freestyle about fighting if it keeps his peers from thinking of him as weak. Adam is also one of the seniors who bring the loner Darren Eberheart–who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father’s patient–into the social scene, to disastrous effect.

Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, The Topeka School is the story of a family, its struggles and its strengths: Jane’s reckoning with the legacy of an abusive father, Jonathan’s marital transgressions, the challenge of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a riveting prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the trolls and tyrants of the New Right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Drugs; Marijuana; Strong language; Strong sexual themes; Underage drinking; Violence



Booklist starred (September 1, 2019 (Vol. 116, No. 1))
The messy relationship between masculinity and language drives this seeking, eloquent story by poet-novelist Lerner (10:04, 2014; Leaving Atocha Station, 2011). Adam Gordon (maybe the same Adam Gordon as in Leaving Atocha Station, maybe not) is a debate-team prodigy. The son of talk-therapy professionals, Adam loves poetry and believes in the power of words. At parties, after a few drinks, freestyle rap keeps him out of fights, unlike his damaged classmate Darren, whose violent impulses are neither sublimated into nor constrained by mere words. Seeking early stirrings of today’s sociopolitical tensions in 1990s Kansas, Lerner interrogates Adam’s personal origins, dependency upon language, and the complicity tacit in his adolescent oblivion. Chapters narrated by Adam’s psychologist parents reveal other masculine transgressions and suggest that Adam’s issues are not his alone. The ekphrastic style and autofictional tendencies echo Lerner’s earlier works, and his focus on language games and their discontents fits nicely within the 1990s setting. But the fear at the core of this tale—that language, no matter how thoroughly mastered or artfully presented, simply isn’t enough—feels new and urgent.

Kirkus Reviews starred (June 1, 2019)
In which the author scrupulously investigates his upper-middle-class upbringing to confront its messy interior of violence, betrayal, and mental illness. Adam, the center and occasional narrator of Lerner’s (The Hatred of Poetry, 2016, etc.) essayistic and engrossing novel, enjoyed a privileged adolescence in the Kansas capital during the 1990s: He competed nationally in debate, had plenty of friends, and was close to his parents, two psychologists at an illustrious foundation. (Lerner is again in autofiction mode; he, too, competed in high school debate, and his parents are psychologists who’ve worked at Topeka’s Menninger Clinic.) But all is not well: Fred Phelps’ homophobic Westboro Baptist Church recurs in the narrative, a childhood concussion has left Adam with migraines, and his parents’ marriage is strained. Lerner alternates sections written from the perspectives of Adam, his mother, and his father with interludes about Darren, a mentally troubled teen who committed an act of violence at a party that Adam feels complicit in. How much? Hard to say, but the book sensitively gathers up the evidence of abuse, violation, and cruelty in Adam’s life. Though the conflicts are often modest, like Adam’s mom’s fending off Phelps-ian trolls angry at her bestselling book, Lerner convincingly argues they’re worth intense scrutiny. As a debate competitor, Adam had to confront a “spread”—an opponent’s laying out a fearsome number of arguments, each requiring rebuttals—and Lerner is doing much the same with his adolescence. How do childhood microaggressions build into a singular violent act? Were the rhetorical debates between the Phelpses and the foundation a rehearsal for contemporary Trumpian politics? Few writers are so deeply engaged as Lerner in how our interior selves are shaped by memory and consequence, and if he finds no clear conclusion to his explorations, it makes the “Darren Eberheart situation” increasingly powerful and heartbreaking as the story moves on. Autofiction at its smartest and most effective: self-interested, self-interrogating, but never self-involved.

About the Author

Ben Lerner is the author of three books of poetry (The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path), three novels (Leaving the Atocha Station, 10:04, and The Topeka School) and a work of criticism (The Hatred of Poetry). His collaborations with artists include Blossom (with Thomas Demand), The Polish Rider (with Anna Ostoya), and The Snows of Venice (with Alexander Kluge). Lerner has been a Fulbright Scholar, a finalist for the National Book Award, a Howard Foundation Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and he is currently a MacArthur Fellow. In 2011 he won the “Preis der Stadt Münster für internationale Poesie”, making him the first American to receive this honor. Lerner teaches at Brooklyn College, where he was named a Distinguished Professor of English in 2016.

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The Topeka School on Amazon

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The Topeka School Publisher Page