I'm a bit of a sucker for the Best American collections. They always tempt me from the sale shelves at Powell's with their ever-descending prices andI'm a bit of a sucker for the Best American collections. They always tempt me from the sale shelves at Powell's with their ever-descending prices and the promise of shorter reads to break up my regular diet of longer fiction. The 2008 Best American Travel Writing was no different. Compiled by everyone's favorite gourmet curmudgeon, Anthony Bourdain, this collection features a host of interesting tales culled from "the darker side, those moments fearful, sublime, and absurd..." Accordingly there are essays on the pirates of the Malacca Strait in Indonesia, finding good pork to eat in Kabul, the treacherous shifting border of the Sudan(woe unto they who misguess which side of the line they're on), and a look at China's continuing repression of the Tibetans through the vehicle of the Beijing-Lhasa Express railway.
There are few throwaway articles in this collection and I found odd syncronicities appearing between the articles and the novels I would shift between. For example, shortly after reading the opening article, about the birth of the cocoa plantations in Bahia, Brazil, I began reading Mario Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World, also set in Bahia. Likewise, no sooner had I finished John le Carre's Mission Song about a coup in the Congo than I read an essay about how the Congo River is emerging from decades of strife and war to become a liquid hope for a better tomorrow for the people of the region.
I still have a large stack of these collections- somehow I am unable to resist travel writing, science and nature collections, or Dave Eggers' always interesting non-required reading- and I'm debating about whether I should just always keep one on deck to rotate between when long form fiction seems too arduous of an endeavor. Still, as mercurial as my reading habits have been this year, I have serious doubts as to my ability to plan my reads more than a book in advance....more
The premise is a simple one: if you walk long enough in one direction, you'll eventually wind up back where you started. It was this thought that launThe premise is a simple one: if you walk long enough in one direction, you'll eventually wind up back where you started. It was this thought that launched former British diplomat Rory Stewart on a stroll of mammoth proportions through some of the most dangerous places on earth.
The Places in Between does not relate all of Stewart's trip, but rather the Afghan leg of this walk. Starting in January of 2002, less than a month after the fall of the now-resurgent Taliban, Stewart left the Iranian border town of Herat to follow the Mughal emporer Babur's historic winter march through the Kush mountains to Kabul. This route, while shorter than the flat paths that head South through Kandahar before angling North to Kabul, is desirable because it keeps Stewart away from the Taliban remnants and allows him to travel through mountainous regions that most Westerners haven't seen in nearly thirty years- since the Soviet invasion sparked nearly two generations of constant warfare.
Mixing a good amount of history with his exploits, Stewart's travelogue manages to paint a very real portrait of Afghanistan, both as it was and as it is today. Relying on the Islamic tenet of good hospitality, Stewart is nearly always provided with a scrap of floor to sleep upon and some nan (flat bread) to eat. Each village headman that he visits sheds light on the twisting political winds that have buffeted this mountain nation for too long. In one village he stays with a former Taliban supporter who is soon to face his comeuppance, in another he sits with old mujahadeen who had fought in the initial Soviet war or with former Northen Alliance fighters.
This trip helps to illustrate, more than most books on the subject, the scattered nature of the Afghan identity, not to mention the political aspect. Despite all of these people's various conflicts or any of the more offensive aspects of the fundamentalism practiced by some, at their core the Afghan people are the same as anywhere else. They're just trying to get by in a country that's known maybe 3 years of peace in the past thirty. Reading Stewart's notes, you really can't help but hope that they get to enjoy some in their own lifetime....more
A fascinating look at a war-torn country during one of the few years of peace that Afghanistan has had in the past 30+ years. Elliot shows the true soA fascinating look at a war-torn country during one of the few years of peace that Afghanistan has had in the past 30+ years. Elliot shows the true soul of Afghanistan, not the repressive fundamentalist boogieman of most American's nightmares, but a loving and caring people with a fierce determination to survive against the worst odds. One of my favorite works of travel literature....more
I have a deep and abiding fear of zombies. I spend more time thinking about what to do in the event of a zombie outbreak than is probably good for oneI have a deep and abiding fear of zombies. I spend more time thinking about what to do in the event of a zombie outbreak than is probably good for one's mental health. But then I also a good amount of time worrying about giant squid attacks as well, so perhaps my fears aren't the most rational. Regardless, some wise person whose name I have long forgotten once said that if you faced you fears you would realize how foolish they were. I tried this with sharks once and ended up far more afraid than I originally was. This is not the case with Serpent and the Rainbow.
Author Wade Davis is an ethnobotanist from Cambridge who ventures to Haiti after two cases of zombis come to the attention of medical staff on the island. Funded by a group of scientists eager to learn the secret potion used to make one appear dead and then miraculously rise again some time later, Davis begins to peel apart the layers of mystique and tradition that serve to create the soul of Haiti, and which once allowed it to be the only country to successfully free itself from slavery in the history of Western domination of the Americas. As the answer to the mystery of the zombi reveals itself, Davis gains entry into the secret voudoun societies that serve as the spiritual guides and enforcers of Haitian life.
Davis has crafted a fantastically interesting story that combines history, spirituality, and excitement in what can only be described as a real-life Indiana Jones adventure. I've been savoring this book for over a month for good cause, it's just that intriguing....more