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.
Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost **** (of 4)
It’s a travel book, most fun because Troost has a keen eye, a sharp tongue, precise wit, and he is no sissy when it comes to difficult journeys (See Getting Stoned With Savages.) So it is especially appealing in a literary sense to see through his eyes how much there is to not like about China: First, the pollution; second, the overwhelming crowds; third Chinese disdain for foreigners; fourth, their preoccupation with international recognition. The book lingers a little too long, and his inability to speak Chinese is a barrier. Nevertheless, I take away an insight (and laughed aloud on more than one occasion) I have not been able to find anywhere else. January 2010.
The Best American Travel Writing 2007 Edited by Susan Orlean *** (of 4)
On the upside, no kidding, Orlean and the series editor really do skim the cream from thousands of annual travel articles. On the down, there are only so many travel stories you can read in one sitting. It’s like reading a magazine that never ends. Among my favorites are Ian Frazier’s account of getting sick in Russia, Kevin Fedarko’s description of the drug addicted nation of Djibouti, and Matthew Power’s experience with the economics of garbage picking communities in the Phillipines. June 2008.
The author immerses himself in the ultra marathoning community and finds, and compellingly describes, the kind of people that run 100 miles, up and down mountains, in the desert, in the summer, for fun. Then he finds a hidden tribe of Taruahmara Indians in the remotest mountains of Mexico, a tribe that runs ultras as a way of life. He recounts a race between the best of the American nutters and the best of the Taruahamara and along the way makes running sound exhilarating and running shoes sound like an enormous, overpriced hoax guaranteed to induce injuries. August 2009.
The Endurance by Caroline Alexander ** (of 4)
About explorers trapped on the ice of Antarctica. Outstanding photos, OK read.
Fifty Miles from Tomorrow by William L. Iggiagruk Hensley ** (of 4)
The life story of a native Inupiaq from the early 40s when native Alaskans were virtually untouched by Westerners, except missionaries, through statehood and the battle for native rights to the land. Alas, not many surprises: life was hard, but pure in the early days, but the introduction of alcohol, Christianity, disease, and, well, you know, all the rest of the problems that decimate native populations play out in the narrative. May 2009.
Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost *** (of 4)
In the style of Bill Bryson, self-effacing and laugh aloud funny, Troost describes his adventures on the Pacific isles of Vanuatu and Fiji. He leaves you with no illusions. These islands may be paradise for the rich and famous that can afford secluded beaches, but for the natives, and those imported by British colonists, these are third world countries rife with poverty, corruption, inept government, and apalling colonial legacies. Still, it’s funny. November 2009.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer **** (of 4)
This book about climbing Mount Everest made Krakauer famous with good reason. It’s a page turner. Suspenseful. Informative. A terrific read.
The Lost City of Z by David Grann ** (of 4)
Percy Fawcett, one of the last of the iconic British explorers, ca. 1920, khaki get-up, pith helmet, and scraggly beard spends most of a lifetime searching for a purported grand, abandoned city in the Amazon until he finally gets lost never to be heard from again. The author searches for Fawcett and all the other explorers who have searched for Fawcett, but never quite builds much in the way of suspense. Maybe it is because I have spent time in the Amazon, but I was left with an overwhelming sense of despair for the obvious loss of one of the world’s last great ecosystems and the decimation of the natives who live there, a sideline in Grann’s account.
Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron ** (of 4)
The Dean of British travel writers takes the Silk Road from China to Turkey and the NY Times says, “Thubron goes to places most other sojourners can’t — because they’re not so much geographic locations as states of mind.” It’s true: Thubron is so elegaic I could barely follow him. There are periods of great lucidity that bring to focus western China in ways I’ve never seen them and then there’s the majority of the book, which requires heavy slogging through knee-deep prose and ankle twisting constructions that make the book exhausting. I only got as far as Kyrghistan. October 2007.