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Lost Among the Baining: Adventure, Marriage, and Other Fieldwork

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Lost Among the Baining: Adventure, Marriage, and Other Fieldwork looks back with wry humor on two life-changing journeys. The first, a field trip the author took with her husband to live with the Baining people of Papua New Guinea, was a fiasco that haunted the couple for years. The second, their redemptive return to the Baining forty years on, gave their story a whole new ending.

Lost Among the Baining is a memoir, a travel book, and a love story. Reviewers have called it "provocative," "inspiring," "compulsively readable," and "laugh-out-loud funny."

294 pages, Hardcover

First published April 7, 2015

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Gail Pool

4 books10 followers

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Displaying 1 - 10 of 10 reviews
Profile Image for Left Coast Justin.
391 reviews79 followers
July 10, 2022
This sounded like a can't-miss book for me, given my interest in world travel, other cultures and a frankly nosy interest into other people's marriages. Both of the book's principals met at Harvard, so the odds were high that the author was both highly literate and smart. But some people are so disagreeable that spending time with them is not rewarding; I came away feeling that way about this author. She seems quarrelsome, poorly organized, and has a chip on her shoulder about the way women in academia are treated. Fine, life is indeed more difficult for women scholars; but since she did not actually produce any worthwhile scholarship, her complaints ring hollow.

In short, she and her husband went to a remote area in New Guinea to study some reclusive people. It turns out that reclusive subsistence farmers actually live really, really boring lives; each day is like the last, and like the next. Feeling ripped off by this lack of drama, she spends the rest of the book (and her life) wondering what she missed, wondering why people don't understand her when she tries to explain it, and making her other family members miserable.
I type and I type, and I trash every page. Every word I write feels false. The very act of writing feels false. Increasingly, everything around me feels false: the striving, the conversation, the social life, the theorizing, the art, the bustle and busyness...all phony. All invented to mask the reality the tribespeople knew: you're born, you live out your time, and you die. No big deal!

The tribespeople didn't cover this up. They saw it as it was; they lived it: the essential boredom of existence. They didn't create things to distract them from the truth, to make everything seem more interesting than it is....how can I write so many words about these people who used so few words of their own? How can I make this trip significant when nothing at all is significant?
Your tolerance for this sort of thing may be greater than mine, but a great deal of the book consists of her arguing with herself in this manner.

Any book like this will have moments of interest:
And there is another woman sitting on the ground, her legs stretched out before her, naked except for her waistband and grass tuffet, who has the skin disease they call pukpuk--which is Pidgin for "crocodile"--because it turns the skin scaly. I remember being told that such people made good eating back in the day. I cannot say that she looks tasty.

But too much of it is
Thirty years ago, I couldn't write about them without weeping. Twenty years ago, I couldn't write about them without raging. Four years ago, I couldn't even read my journals from the field without cringing. Despair, anger--shame!--all unfolding like stages of a peculiar grief.

She was only there for a few months, but apparently it -- or something -- completely ruined her life, a favor she paid back to those around her.

Not for me, thanks. Finally gave up about 80% of the way in.
Profile Image for Cheryl Suchors.
Author 1 book18 followers
August 4, 2015
I found this book haunting, vividly portrayed, and inspiring. Even after finishing the book I keep thinking about the young couple, newly married, who travelled to New Guinea to live with the illusive Baining—how young and bold and unprepared they were—who suffered in myriad ways yet survived to return home changed forever.

Reading this memoir, I learned about a culture far different from my own and was made to consider my values and the meaning I derive from living, as well as my response to the inevitability of death.

Yet the book is also the story of a marriage of over forty years, of how this early experience affected the couple’s relationship with one another and created tensions that continued beyond their return home. Their second visit to New Guinea, decades later, to see the people they once lived with brings welcomed closure.

This is an evocative book filled with provocative questions and, beneath it all, an enduring love.
Profile Image for Liralen.
2,764 reviews162 followers
April 10, 2016
Nor are Jeremy's parents especially concerned about my career. As I should have expected, they are focused on their son. I am merely an afterthought. If anything, his mother has praise. She certainly doesn't believe that a wife should follow her husband to the ends of the earth, sacrificing career and a comfortable life: she left her own spouse some time back. But it is a different matter when the husband in question is her son. She thinks it sounds exactly right that I will live in a hut with an outhouse, dine on tubers, and give up my work for the sake of his career. (20)

In the vein of How to Cook a Tapir, this is at least nominally a memoir of fieldwork in the sixties...fieldwork through the lens of the spouse of the person conducting said fieldwork. Pool was young and married, and her husband's anthropology PhD required fieldwork, so off they went to New Guinea—because it sounded interesting, and because there was a tribe about whom little was known, and in spite of the fact that Pool probably would have been much happier if they'd been doing this thirty or forty years later and her husband could have studied, say, the anthropology of a first-world metropolis.

But to New Guinea they went. It's a book divided: their year-plus in New Guinea, the forty years following said year, and a brief trip back to New Guinea in 2008. Those first two periods are marked by extreme frustration: they're frustrated that they aren't getting the results they want (the Baining do not seem to have rituals, or religion, or deeper meaning to their actions; they are a peaceful society who do not want for things like shelter or food—although their life expectancy is relatively short, and I'm not sure if that's due to injuries or illness or what); they're frustrated with each other for reacting in different ways; they're frustrated at being frustrated; later, they're frustrated with each other for their memories of that year in New Guinea.

Pool talks, in the forty-year section, about struggling to write about her experience, struggling to make sense of it at all. All the same, she says, I cannot get past the idea that this trip is his. I feel that the material itself belongs to him. I feel almost as though he holds the copyright on the experience. Do I have the right to appropriate it? Can I just take it and write it up as if it were my own? I think not. Especially when I consider what my own sorry role in this venture was (183). Both she and her husband seem to have latched on to the idea that she is to blame for 'ruining' his fieldwork (her words, not mine), which I never fully understood. Ruining it by being unhappy? But he was unhappy too, at least as she tells it. Unhappy and frustrated by that lack of results. Fry, in How to Cook a Tapir, talks about the ways in which her marriage fell apart over the course of her husband's fieldwork. Pool and her husband hung in there, and for a while I wondered how things might have gone differently if she had not gone with him 'to the ends of the earth'—but I'm not convinced that that would have helped, because (and this is, of course, pure speculation about people I don't know) then he would have come home after this disappointing experience, frustrated and perhaps depressed in ways that he could not articulate. I don't know. It's a moot point, anyway; I'm just curious because of the effect their shared experience did have.

More important: Pool (and her husband, and the few researchers who came before them) concluded that the Baining were deathly dull for their lack of rituals and lack of idle chitchat and so on. An anthropologist's...not nightmare, but snoozefest. But why is that lack of ritual and belief and so on not fascinating in and of itself? Shouldn't we then be asking why their culture is that way, and what we can learn from it, and how it helps or hinders their success?

I don't mean that as a criticism of Pool, or of her book: neither she nor her husband can go back to the sixties and process things differently then. But...I did wish I'd understood the Baining a bit better from this book—individual characters. Pool refers to the 'people we knew well' (173), but I hadn't really gotten enough about them to understand their personalities or, in the case of the more talkative people, what made them more talkative in this society of people who don't seem to value...well, talking. I suspect that this comes down in part to the time between the fieldwork and the writing, and in part to Pool's discomfort with memoir (which she writes about), but it's hard to know.

What, then, to make of this book? Is it a memoir of fieldwork in the sixties? Perhaps. I think I understand it better, though, as a memoir of decades of trying to understand an experience and, finally, coming to some resolution.
Profile Image for Bettye Kearse.
4 reviews
January 22, 2016
I enjoy memoirs, and Gail Pool’s Lost Among the Baining: Adventure, Marriage, and Other Fieldwork is one of the best. Though quite funny in some parts, the story is thought-provoking, substantive, and informative throughout. It brings up questions about what field anthropologist do, what they should do, and, perhaps most important, what they should not do. Should these academicians allow—or, in some cases, use—their presence to affect the people they study? Should they try to make communities “better?” Should anthropologists be required to know what questions to ask? Should they ask questions at all? Another, very different, question Pool’s memoir raises with remarkable honesty and frankness is what makes a marriage last in the midst of significant stressors? Does sharing stressful experiences sometimes bind a couple together? Lost Among the Baining, a love story in the bush, would make a great movie.
July 27, 2015
Wow. Forget about the Baining, I got lost in the book. And I caught a co-worker utterly absorbed in it in between seeing clients.

What a wonderful book. It is so full of ideas. It captures the Baining in a way that is so much more true to them and their particular take on humanity than any anthropological study could be. And the exploration on their impact on the author and her husband is fascinating.

Always when I look back on this summer, reading this book will be a memory of great pleasure. It helped me understand aspects of myself and my own experience of extreme travel that I’ve never really had anyone to talk about with. And the book is just a good read. It successfully creates a universe as all the best books do.
1 review
June 23, 2015
A really terrific book. I found it compulsively readable — at once funny and literate, honest and insightful. Having studied anthropology, I anticipated a chance to glimpse another culture, one rarely studied and poorly understood. I was rewarded with that, but so much more. This is the story of a marriage, of a relationship transformed by living among the Baining people of Papua New Guinea. It’s rare to read a book that feels so authentic. The author doesn’t pull her punches, doesn’t spare herself, her husband, or the many fascinating characters she encounters along the way. The result is a memorable and often hilarious book. I highly recommend it!
June 24, 2015
A truly wonderful book: smart, funny, heart-warming, and full of real insight. It is a great adventure story --a young couple go off to live with a little-known tribe in New Guinea-- but the deeper adventure is one we've all had in one way or another: of struggling to understanding a powerful, early experience and the way it changed everything that came after. And it's also a love story! I've never read anything even remotely like it, not in style, format, voice, let alone story. I just loved it. You can't not.
Profile Image for Leanna Manuel.
Author 2 books10 followers
February 8, 2016
I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway. I was hopeful and eager to learn about a culture that I had never known existed. My experience reading this book was quite the parallel to the description of the author's time with the Baining. I was just existing. There were moments of high interest, but most of the time I was just bored. That said, I am still glad that I read it.
29 reviews2 followers
February 3, 2016
I appreciated the author's honesty about the emotional toll of fieldwork. It was a sad read, though, as the young couple tried to struggle through the challenges.
Profile Image for Holly Ratcliff.
131 reviews3 followers
August 15, 2016
What a satisfying story!

Pool is absolutely candid, guiding readers through the journey of her life, marriage, and the Baining. Introspection and reflection at its finest.
Displaying 1 - 10 of 10 reviews

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