There are so many books and so little time that I rarely read a book twice. Eric Newby's A Short Walk is one of the very few exceptions. An eccentric,There are so many books and so little time that I rarely read a book twice. Eric Newby's A Short Walk is one of the very few exceptions. An eccentric, frighteningly intelligent, and irascible former editor recommended it to me twenty years ago, and it immediately became one of my favorite books. It's howlingly funny, an account of a trip to the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan, a place so different that it might as well have been on a different planet. Newby and his friend Hugh Carless plan to climb a 19,000-foot peak, the Mir Shamir. Neither are mountain climbers and Newby isn't even in very good physical shape. He's been standing around selling high couture women's clothing. So they begin with some practice climbs in Wales, and get a first glimpse into just how ill qualified they are for the undertaking. By the time they reach Tehran, Newby also understands that Carless believes that a traveler just needs to get used to contaminated water, build up a resistance. The two men are sick, therefore, for much of the trip. Newby expertly imparts a sense of impending doom while making you laugh, and if you didn't know he and Carless lived through the journey it wouldn't have been much fun. Indeed, it's an adventure they were lucky to have survived. In Turkey, they're accused of hitting an old man on the road. In Iran, Newby is already sick: "We drove on and on and all the time I felt worse. Finally we reached a town called Fariman. A whole gale of wind was blowing, tearing up the surface of the main street. Except for two policemen holding hands and a dog whose hind legs were paralysed, it was deserted." It gets worse: "The customs house was rocking in the wind, which roared about it so loud that conversation was difficult. "'Is it always like this?' I screamed in Hugh's ear. "'It's the Bad-i-Sad-o-bist, the Wind of a Hundred and Twenty Days.'... "We were in Afghanistan." The joy of Newby's writing is that he and Carless are the butt of most of the jokes—although he doesn't spare anyone. Of the local men who are to travel with them up the Panjshir River Valley to Mir Shamir, Newby writes, "They were crouching with Abdul Ghiyas over a wooden bowl containing curds and talking with great animation while they scraped the bottom of the bowl with great hunks of bread; occasionally they would interrupt their conversation to look at us with sinister emphasis." The two amateurs will climb with the help of a pamphlet they pull out now and then. Newby hopes to impress Carless with his knowledge of a local dialect by studying a 1901 booklet that has helpful phrases for the traveler. "Reading the 1744 sentences with their English equivalents, I began to form a disturbing impression of the waking life of the Bashgali Kafirs.... "Dum allangiti atsiti i sundi basnd bra. 'A gust of wind came and took away all my clothes' "'A lammergeier came down from the sky and took off my cock.'... "'Why do you kick my horse? I will kick you.'" Newby writes like a poet about the strange, harsh landscapes he encounters, but his fortes are humor and honesty. He encountered a culture that was exotic and often brutal. As a reader I often felt horrified in between laughs. Newby's encounter with an especially heinous man in Tehran left me feeling queasy, and of course there was always the issue of how women were treated, something Newby notes but doesn't dwell upon. I recommend it.
I put this on my travel shelf, but it's actually a well-written story of adventure, self-discovery, and grace. Slakey was a dare-devil kid - one of hiI put this on my travel shelf, but it's actually a well-written story of adventure, self-discovery, and grace. Slakey was a dare-devil kid - one of his earlier stunts was jumping out from a four-story building into a shallow pool, again and again, only to learn that a 6-year-old had seen him and tried it.
As an adult, he was still a driven, competitive thrill-seeker. This is the story of his journey from being a self-centered alpha to someone who truly understands how connected we all are - connected to the watching 6-year-olds, to the guys who didn't make it to the top of the mountain but are willing to loan their ice axe to someone else, and to the rest of the world.
Few people can reach that kind of grace via extreme mountain-climbing and surfing around the world. Even fewer can then write about it in such a way that it becomes visible for others. Unsurprisingly, Slakely is a professor at Georgetown. The guy's smart.
I had to finish this book fast, because my brother's visiting, and I knew soon after I started reading it that I wanted him to take it with him. Now I know I want him to send it on to my son when he's done.
Great book, and recommended for just about anyone.
In the first paragraph of this fabulous book, Taras Grescoe writes, about the Shanghai Auto Show, biggest in the world: "Throughout the cavernous showIn the first paragraph of this fabulous book, Taras Grescoe writes, about the Shanghai Auto Show, biggest in the world: "Throughout the cavernous showrooms, lithe motor-showgirls in shimmering nylon evening gowns and leatherette miniskirts drape themselves over aerodynamic fenders, like molten watches drizzled over branches in a Dali landscape. On rotating platforms, surrealistic concept cars languidly pirouette…"
Wow. Beyond absolutely jaw-dropping writing, so good you want to linger over it, Grescoe can pack in more information in a paragraph than you can get in an entire newspaper article. Try this one:
Only twenty-five years ago, automobile traffic in Shanghai was limited to chauffeur-driven Hongqi limousines for Communist Party officials. Such was China's isolation that, during the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards floated a proposal to make red stoplights signify "Go." Today, there are two million cars on the streets of Shanghai. to ease congestion, a high price has been set on car registration, and bicycles have been banned from main streets. Backups in China can make even Los Angeles traffic look positively bucolic: in 2010, drivers northwest of Beijing were stuck for ten days in a jam that stretched 60 miles across two provinces. To increase mobility, China has built a 33,000-mile system of expressways in the last twenty years. Already larger than the network that connects the European Union, it will be more extensive than the United States' freeway system, by 2035. By then, carbon dioxide emissions from China's transport sector will easily be the highest in the world.
Later, in a chapter on my heart's hometown, Portland, Oregon, Grescoe gives a great description, then, ominously, writes, "Yet something is missing from downtown Portland."
Oh! My hackles slightly up, I read on…
It was only as I crossed Burnside Avenue toward Union Station and heard a train whistle ricocheting between the steel bridges spanning the Willamette River, that I realized what Portland was lacking. I'd been strolling downtown for over two hours and had yet to encounter that bane of the North American metropolis: the neighborhood-killing, blight-inducing, multilaned freeway.
All in all, this is an entertaining, fact-filled travelogue. Admittedly, I share Grescoe's absolute disdain for automobiles, highways, and suburbs. I'm pretty sure, though, that I would have loved it even if I thought cars were great.
Thanks to Goodreads Firstreads program for this first-rate book. Everyone should read it. (And get rid of their cars and start commuting by bike, train, bus, or ferry.)...more