At the end of the nineteenth century, because no one had ever been there, the virtual consensus among geographers was that the North Pole resided in a warm, open sea. One needed only to sail a ship through the ice surrounding it to reach the open ocean. In 1879, Captain George DeLong and a crew of 30-plus sailors set off for the North Pole. At end of the their first year, their ship, having failed to find open water, was instead frozen in place, where they remained out of communication with the rest of the world for three years. Half of their time was in near total darkness and nearly all of their days and nights were below freezing. Finally, sheets of ice crushed and sank the U.S.S. Jeannette. The crew walked and sailed for hundreds of days across ice floes and freezing oceans with hopes of reaching the coldest landmass on earth, the north coast of Siberia. The test of human physical and psychological endurance is simultaneously contemporary and otherworldly. The relationship of European and American men to the environment, native people of the Arctic, to women, and stoicism is history not to be overlooked.
After a couple of decades of living in Britain, Bill Bryson decides to journey around the country one last time before moving with his family back to the U.S. He takes seven weeks to do a grand loop stopping in towns large and small to describe the British Isles of the early 90s with special attention to beer, architecture, and people, in that order. No doubt, the more you know of England the more you would appreciate his observations, but even without being able to fully appreciate the locales he was visiting, I was left with some rather wonderful impressions. Firstly, Bryson reminds one of the value of seeing the world at walking speed. That alone made me reevaluate the amount of daily energy I devote just to keeping up. Secondly, tied as I am to the natural world, I don’t pay nearly enough attention to the power of buildings as individuals or in their collective. Thirdly, this book is vintage early Bryson. He is so funny on so many occasions I laughed aloud as if I was the one who had consumed one too many brews. If you have a chance to listen to the audiobook. It’s a remarkable read aloud.
Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world comprised of more than 10,000 islands and hundreds of languages and cultures. From west to east it stretches the equivalent of Anchorage, Alaska to Washington, D.C. In Java, where more than half the population lives you can find hipsters, international businessmen, ungodly traffic, and muslim women covered from head to foot. In the east, in Papua, bushmen live in the jungles. It’s a thriving democracy and an inefficient, bureaucratic, corrupt nightmare of decentralized governance. Ethnic divisions lead to mass slaughters and average Indonesians may be the most welcoming people on earth. In most places you can find decent cell coverage, but might have to wait an interminable week before a boat arrives to take you from one island to the next. Elisabeth Pisani has lived in Indonesia off and on for decades and has done her best to travel from one side of the country to the other talking, cooking, sleeping on rattan mats in crowded huts, and waiting with locals wherever she could. She does a remarkable job of tying personal experiences of the variety of cultures who have come to be ensnared in the modern country called Indonesia to the national experience of a country rattling its way into the global marketplace of ideas and commerce. Pisani’s writing is strong and engaging, but somehow the length of her trip is as exhausting to read about as it must have been to undertake.
It’s a standard genre. Expat, in this case British, lives in France long enough to write an irreverent, comic, snarky account of French mannerisms. He describes how the French eschew rules, scrum instead of queue, adore denying service to anyone and everyone, are hopeless romantics (at least with their mistresses), work fewer hours on job than any employees in the world, and insist that nothing — not war nor peace — interrupt their daily break for a two hour lunch. Unfortunately, Clarke is neither sufficiently funny or nasty enough to be completely compelling. On the other hand, my French cousins say his accounting of French behavior is spot on making it a worthwhile book for anyone who has been to France.
Ghosh recounts the life of a Medieval Jewish trader, Ben Yiyu, who transported goods by ship from India to Egypt. Evidence of his trader emerge on scraps of paper from the famed Egyptian geniza, a millennial trove of sacred papers in Cairo’s synagogue. In order to fill in the gaps in Ben Yiyu’s life, Ghosh moves to a small village in Egypt, and then a second nearby village, to live among the Felaheen, farmers on the Nile’s banks. It is the early 1990s and rural Egyptians are being pulled from the timeless habits of sowing seeds and tending cows to the trappings of refrigeration, TVs, and urban colleges for able youth. So with the aid of the eyes and ears of a trained anthropologist, we find ourselves immersed in the daily rhythms of growing children, greedy landlords, temperamental imams, ambitious businessmen, and village elders serving endless rounds of mint tea. It is not lost on anyone that frequently we are observing a Hindu researcher explaining to his Muslim hosts his search for information about a Jewish trader. Because men and women in traditional Islamic culture lead such separate lives, you will need to read Guests of the Sheik, if you want to get an insider’s view of female lives.
I loved Rose George’s, The Big Necessity about toilets and the lack of them around the world. I’m also fascinated by the sea and even once talked my way onto a container ship transiting the Panama Canal so I had high hopes for “Ninety Percent of Everything.” Unfortunately, the title just about says it all, and the subtitle finishes the task: “Invisible shipping, the invisible industry that puts clothes on your back, gas in your car, and food on your plate.” The rest of the book consists of George’s multi-week trip aboard a freighter traveling from England to Singapore. Along the way she scrounges up facts about shipping with a particular focus on the unusual and dangerous pointing to particularly heinous acts of piracy, unscrupulous ship owners, and wrecked cargo vessels, their poor workers abandoned to the sea. But it all feels like a stretch, as if someone wrote a book about the airline industry largely overlooking the hundreds of thousands of uneventful daily flights to focus instead on the one crash decades ago in the Andes where the passengers cannibalized one another to survive. In the end, shipping is a business and working aboard ships is no more glamorous than driving a truck, slaughtering beef, or manufacturing sneakers. We demand the products and Rose George makes us think hard about where they come from and how they get to us, but it never quite amounts to a full book’s worth of information.
So much promise, so little delivery. David Downie sets his mind to walking the old pilgrim trail of Saint James. He’s trying to recover from overeating for a lifetime. He wants to find himself without succumbing to spirituality, which he cynically despises. He does like Gauls, Caesar, good coffee, and pretty scenery, however. Only problem is the book sucks. Mostly he gives us self-important field notes. Thus, no section is longer than a couple of pages. He is so intent on dissing pilgrims and their spiritual journeys the reader is left to suspect he is establishing a strawman right from page one. His recounting of history appears to be coming from a single guidebook he is carrying with him. I could have read my own guidebook it that was the level of discovery I was hoping for. He is self-consciously snarky. Probably served him well has a food writer for magazines, but not here.
Detroit, once the nation’s industrial capital, is forty percent vacant. Politicians are corrupt, robbing what little money still flows through the city. Murderous thugs roam the streets. Homelessness, hunger, despair, lawlessness, and unbridled fear imprison law-abiding citizens inside their homes. Everyone else appears to be hanging onto street corners, jobless, self-medicating their misery. Certainly, there are worthy people in Detroit, pockets of revival, attempts to replace the rotten timbers of a city already mostly submerged, so why read a book that is simultaneously so depressing and unflinchingly focused on the negative? Because LeDuff can write like nobody’s business. After ten years as a New York Times reporter, he returns to his city to write for the Detroit Free Press, covering the city with the guts of a war journalist and the keen eye of a native son. Read the book because it will take you somewhere you would never go yourself and because no one could write this story any better.
If a book is this bad I ordinarily just leave it off my list, but this one deserves to be panned, partly because it received such a flourishing review in the New York Times. Author, Jennifer Steil, gives up her day job as a NYC journalist to manage a newspaper in Sanaa, Yemen. While few topics could be more timely than to learn about daily life in Yemen, Steil eschews the opportunity to let her staff of Yemeni reporters gather information for us, her American readers, that might otherwise be hidden from a western reporter. Instead, in breathless, purple prose she focuses on herself and her blossoming affair with Britain’s (married) ambassador to Yemen. She drinks, she parties, she works too hard, and she frets, but her writing does nothing to make me care about any of it. Feh.
Fresh out of college in the mid 1960s, just before he became famous as one of the great travel writers of a generation, Paul Theroux worked as a Peace Corps volunteer and then teacher in East Africa. Forty years later, nearing the age of 60, wiser, crankier, and more critical Theroux returned to Africa to travel by land from Cairo to Cape Town. He recounts a series of countries worse off politically, environmentally, socially, and economically than they were when he worked there. He makes no bones about the fact that fault lies with aid agencies that have created an industry of fostering dependence and Africans unwilling to help themselves. Missionaries, too, receive a hammering for their self-righteous self-assuredness and their adding a level of misery to hardened lives by calling so many Africans sinners to their faces. While I don’t agree with all of his assessments — his level of political acumen seems shallow — his willingness to call it as he sees it and the unflinching accuracy with which he brings us to Africa make this book a must read.