BOOK: "Theatre of Fish," by John Gimlette (Alfred A. Knopf, $25)

TARGET AUDIENCE: People wanting to see "how the Earth had looked in the beginning, or how it would look at the end."

"I didn't know," says a visitor to Newfoundland, "that God had made so much nothing." Here "the weather has to be defied, like living with blindness or a crazy dog." Gimlette's great-grandfather served as a medical missionary here in 1893, and the author seeks out the places mentioned in his ancestor's journal. He blends the province's bleak history with views of its often equally bleak modern life The cod that once even were used as currency are gone -- fished out. But it's oddly compelling, too: Local tipplers chill drinks with chunks of iceberg that release 10,000-year-old air bubbles.

Reading the book often is heavy going. Gimlette's fondness for British slang and misdirected adjectives forces the reader to deduce meaning from context. The reward is the feast of stories gathered from taverns, ferry rides and old journals: drownings, battles with "Esquimaux," greenhorns challenging an unforgiving wilderness, folks who still use dogsleds because in tough times, "You can't eat a snowmobile."

-- Jerry V. Haines