Nov 232010

Griswold travels the around the globe hanging out approximately 10 degrees north of the equator.  In Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines it’s the abrasion zone between Muslims who have spread from the north and Christians arriving by boat from the coasts and the south.  In some aspects Griswold makes more of a religious conflict than probably really exists; she simplifies culture to unidimensional religious identification when most people carry ethnic, tribal, historic, and family identities, too.  She focuses on the cities where conflict is most pronounced, sidestepping communities where coexistence and intermarriage are prevalent.  What does jump out, however, is how tenacious and aggressive American-born, Christian missionaries are in their drive to save souls from damnation.  It is easy to see how Muslim people and governments perceive American intervention (say in Iraq or Afghanistan) as a continuation of a long history of western, Christian, first British and now American, colonial domination.  Anyone who has ever confronted a Christian missionary knows how unrelenting and self-confident they can be.  Unfortunately, the book isn’t an easy read.  Somehow Griswold makes history and conflict more complicated rather than less.  By mentioning every actor from local to national with a relationship to a particular zone she confused me.  My mind wandered and eventually I could hang on no longer.

Jul 152010

A journalist who traveled from childhood memories to adult memories from urban NY to Austria’s highest peaks in search of Hans Breuer, Yiddish folk singer and “last wandering shepherd of Austria.” Apple manages to seamlessly tie shepherding and Yiddish into his questions about post-war Austria and contemporary anti-semitism in Europe suspensefully and full with satisfaction.

Jun 212010

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.

Jun 202010

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.

Jun 172010

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.

Jun 172010

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.

Jun 172010

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.