• To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron *** (of 4)

    Mount Kailash in Tibet is a mountain revered and sanctified by Hindus and Muslims. Walking around its base cleanses the soul and brings respect and understanding to our dead ancestors. The mountain is reached from Nepal into Tibet, but is now monitored by China, intent upon Sino-fying the ancient kingdom of Tibet. Colin Thubron is one of Great Britain’s preeminent travel writers, barely a hare’s breadth away from nineteenth century British explorers, bedecked in pith helmets and khaki shorts, who preceded him.

    Thubron, already in his 70s, made his own pilgrimage immediately following the death of his mother, his last remaining relative and does so bathed in introspection. He pays exquisite attention to details noting interesting stones along a path made nearly entirely of stones. He shows us prayer flags worth looking at, discarded flashlights, exhausted acolytes crawling their way toward Nirvana, icy torrents, and armed Chinese soldiers anxiously hunting for protestors. He takes notes by the light of yak-butter lanterns and provides enough religious, spiritual, and political history to inform without overwhelming. He hikes to 18,000 feet in elevation meditating on his mother, who, like him, at the end, was gasping for oxygen, and his long-lost sister buried by an avalanche at the age of 21. Thubron’s adjectives cut like razors to the heart of every description. His account on life, death, and walking should be taken one step at a time, with concentration.

  • The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles **** (of 4)

    Steinbeckian in scope and style, The Lincoln Highway is equal parts coming-of-age story, travelogue, American history, rumination on the inalienable properties of heroism, and inevitable flaws hidden behind the armor of heroic characters.

    The book opens as Emmett is released from a 1950s work-farm that doubles as juvenile detention center for wayward teens. At eighteen years old he heads home because his father has just died and his 8-year-old brother, Billie, is in need of a caretaker. Billie insists they take the Lincoln Highway from the middle of the U.S. to San Francisco to find their mother who left without explanation many years earlier.

    Just before heading west in Emmett’s light-blue Studebaker, two of Emmett’s roommates from the work farm appear outside his father’s foreclosed house, having taken the liberty of stowing away in the warden’s trunk on his delivery run with Emmett. Duchess, Woolie, Emmett and Billie (map of America carefully laid across Billie’s lap) head for The Lincoln Highway whereupon misadventure followed by heroic escapes send the foursome step by step eastward toward Times Square in New York City, the highway’s point of origin, rather than it’s terminus.

    Duchess, Woolie, Emmett, and Billie are as true-to-life, and as likable, as any characters confined to a page can be, and long after the book has ended, readers will be pondering right and wrong, maturity and immaturity, accident and intention, good and evil, heroism and hubris.

  • In the Kingdom of Ice by Hamptom Sides **** (of 4)

    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.

  • Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson **** (of 4)

    bill_bryson_notes_from_a_small_islandAfter a couple of decades of living in Britain, Bill Bryson decides to journey around the country one last time before moving with his family back to the U.S.  He takes seven weeks to do a grand loop stopping in towns large and small to describe the British Isles of the early 90s with special attention to beer, architecture, and people, in that order.  No doubt, the more you know of England the more you would appreciate his observations, but even without being able to fully appreciate the locales he was visiting, I was left with some rather wonderful impressions.  Firstly, Bryson reminds one of the value of seeing the world at walking speed.  That alone made me reevaluate the amount of daily energy I devote just to keeping up.  Secondly, tied as I am to the natural world, I don’t pay nearly enough attention to the power of buildings as individuals or in their collective.  Thirdly, this book is vintage early Bryson.  He is so funny on so many occasions I laughed aloud as if I was the one who had consumed one too many brews.  If you have a chance to listen to the audiobook.  It’s a remarkable read aloud.

  • Indonesia Etc. by Elisabeth Pisani *** (of 4)

    indonesiaIndonesia is the fourth largest country in the world comprised of more than 10,000 islands and hundreds of languages and cultures.  From west to east it stretches the equivalent of Anchorage, Alaska to Washington, D.C. In Java, where more than half the population lives you can find hipsters, international businessmen, ungodly traffic, and muslim women covered from head to foot.  In the east, in Papua, bushmen live in the jungles.  It’s a thriving democracy and an inefficient, bureaucratic, corrupt nightmare of decentralized governance.  Ethnic divisions lead to mass slaughters and average Indonesians may be the most welcoming people on earth.  In most places you can find decent cell coverage, but might have to wait an interminable week before a boat arrives to take you from one island to the next.  Elisabeth Pisani has lived in Indonesia off and on for decades and has done her best to travel from one side of the country to the other talking, cooking, sleeping on rattan mats in crowded huts, and waiting with locals wherever she could.  She does a remarkable job of tying personal experiences of the variety of cultures who have come to be ensnared in the modern country called Indonesia to the national experience of a country rattling its way into the global marketplace of ideas and commerce.  Pisani’s writing is strong and engaging, but somehow the length of her trip is as exhausting to read about as it must have been to undertake.

  • Talk to the Snail by Stephen Clarke *** (of 5)

    snailIt’s a standard genre.  Expat, in this case British, lives in France long enough to write an irreverent, comic, snarky account of French mannerisms.  He describes how the French eschew rules, scrum instead of queue, adore denying service to anyone and everyone, are hopeless romantics (at least with their mistresses), work fewer hours on job than any employees in the world, and insist that nothing — not war nor peace — interrupt their daily break for a two hour lunch.  Unfortunately, Clarke is neither sufficiently funny or nasty enough to be completely compelling.  On the other hand, my French cousins say his accounting of French behavior is spot on making it a worthwhile book for anyone who has been to France.

  • In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh *** (of 4)

    egyptGhosh recounts the life of a Medieval Jewish trader, Ben Yiyu, who transported goods by ship from India to Egypt.  Evidence of his trader emerge on scraps of paper from the famed Egyptian geniza, a millennial trove of sacred papers in Cairo’s synagogue.  In order to fill in the gaps in Ben Yiyu’s life, Ghosh moves to a small village in Egypt, and then a second nearby village, to live among the Felaheen, farmers on the Nile’s banks.  It is the early 1990s and rural Egyptians are being pulled from the timeless habits of sowing seeds and tending cows to the trappings of refrigeration, TVs, and urban colleges for able youth.  So with the aid of the eyes and ears of a trained anthropologist, we find ourselves immersed in the daily rhythms of growing children, greedy landlords, temperamental imams, ambitious businessmen, and village elders serving endless rounds of mint tea.  It is not lost on anyone that frequently we are observing a Hindu researcher explaining to his Muslim hosts his search for information about a Jewish trader.  Because men and women in traditional Islamic culture lead such separate lives, you will need to read Guests of the Sheik, if you want to get an insider’s view of female lives.

  • Ninety Percent of Everything by Rose George ** (of 4)

    shipsI loved Rose George’s, The Big Necessity about toilets and the lack of them around the world.  I’m also fascinated by the sea and even once talked my way onto a container ship transiting the Panama Canal so I had high hopes for “Ninety Percent of Everything.”  Unfortunately, the title just about says it all, and the subtitle finishes the task: “Invisible shipping, the invisible industry that puts clothes on your back, gas in your car, and food on your plate.”  The rest of the book consists of George’s multi-week trip aboard a freighter traveling from England to Singapore.  Along the way she scrounges up facts about shipping with a particular focus on the unusual and dangerous pointing to particularly heinous acts of piracy, unscrupulous ship owners, and wrecked cargo vessels, their poor workers abandoned to the sea.  But it all feels like a stretch, as if someone wrote a book about the airline industry largely overlooking the hundreds of thousands of uneventful daily flights to focus instead on the one crash decades ago in the Andes where the passengers cannibalized one another to survive.  In the end, shipping is a business and working aboard ships is no more glamorous than driving a truck, slaughtering beef, or manufacturing sneakers.  We demand the products and Rose George makes us think hard about where they come from and how they get to us, but it never quite amounts to a full book’s worth of information.

  • Paris to the Pyranees by David Downie * (of 4)

    parisSo much promise, so little delivery.  David Downie sets his mind to walking the old pilgrim trail of Saint James.  He’s trying to recover from overeating for a lifetime. He wants to find himself without succumbing to spirituality, which he cynically despises.  He does like Gauls, Caesar, good coffee, and pretty scenery, however.  Only problem is the book sucks.  Mostly he gives us self-important field notes.  Thus, no section is longer than a couple of pages.  He is so intent on dissing pilgrims and their spiritual journeys the reader is left to suspect he is establishing a strawman right from page one.  His recounting of history appears to be coming from a single guidebook he is carrying with him.  I could have read my own guidebook it that was the level of discovery I was hoping for.  He is self-consciously snarky.  Probably served him well has a food writer for magazines, but not here.

  • Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff **** (of 4)

    leduffDetroit, once the nation’s industrial capital, is forty percent vacant.  Politicians are corrupt, robbing what little money still flows through the city.  Murderous thugs roam the streets.  Homelessness, hunger, despair, lawlessness, and unbridled fear imprison law-abiding citizens inside their homes.  Everyone else appears to be hanging onto street corners, jobless, self-medicating their misery.  Certainly, there are worthy people in Detroit, pockets of revival, attempts to replace the rotten timbers of a city already mostly submerged, so why read a book that is simultaneously so depressing and unflinchingly focused on the negative?  Because LeDuff can write like nobody’s business.  After ten years as a New York Times reporter, he returns to his city to write for the Detroit Free Press, covering the city with the guts of a war journalist and the keen eye of a native son.  Read the book because it will take you somewhere you would never go yourself and because no one could write this story any better.