Showing posts with label geography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label geography. Show all posts

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari by Paul Theroux

With The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, I am starting at or near the end of the long line of books by Paul Theroux, who has been traveling the world for over fifty years. In his subtitle, ultimate means last, not maximum or greatest. He states that he will not be going on another bus and train trip through Africa's most disturbed states. Readers can certainly see why he has come to this difficult decision. Though he has been able to deftly cross borders and mingle with rural people around the world for decades, at his current age he is an obvious target for criminals or other desperate individuals. On his trip through South Africa, Namibia, and Angola, angels guided him through threatening situations to safety. He says he will not take such risks again.

Theroux was somewhat hopeful for the places he visited in the initial parts of The Last Train to Zona Verde. He found that conditions in some of the townships around Cape Town had improved since his previous visit a decade earlier. Sadly, new shantytowns have appeared outside the improved places, but they too would eventually improve he surmised. His subsequent trip through Namibia was more difficult, but he still found that most rural people welcomed strangers.

Everyone warned Theroux not to visit Angola, which ironically encouraged him to go. He was aware but still somewhat surprised by the despair and cruelty he encountered there. He found Angola is not a poor country. It is filthy rich with money from oil and diamond companies, but almost none of that money trickles down. There is little surviving wildlife and nearly total deforestation. Most people live in slums. Unemployment is 90 percent, as foreign companies bring their own employees. He suggests that the government is totally corrupt. There is little hope anywhere in Angola.

Theroux reports that Angola does not allow tourism or visits by foreign journalists. Theroux essentially snuck in by arranging to teach some English classes. With little reporting about the corrupt state, Theroux's story takes on more importance.

As I said, I am starting near the end. I thought that I had read some of Theroux's writings, but I find no titles in the database I have kept since 1989. Maybe I read a couple of books before that. Maybe I read some of his journal articles. Whatever, I enjoyed his storytelling and analysis in The Last Train to Zona Verde and will try his other travel adventures.

Theroux, Paul. The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 353p. ISBN 9780618839339.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America from Key West to the Arctic Ocean by Philip Caputo

The literature of travel is rich with grand journeys, including explorers crossing oceans or continents to discover unknown places. In his recent book The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America from Key West to the Arctic Ocean, Philip Caputo refers lovingly to the expedition of Lewis and Clark on numerous pages. His own long journey, however, was more in the tradition of John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley. In the 21st century, there are no blank spots left on our maps, but there are still discoveries to be made.

Late in the spring of 2011, Caputo set off from Key West, Florida with his wife and two dogs in a pickup truck pulling a vintage Airstream trailer. Their destination was Deadhorse, Alaska. With a jar, Caputo planned to mix waters from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans, as he gathered impressions of the landscape and people of the United States*. Being a journalist, he had to have a quest. He chose to discover what held our diverse nation together.

Trying to stick to back roads as much as possible, much like William Least Heat-Moon in Blue Highways, he met a great variety of people, many still struggling to recover after the economic meltdown of 2008-2009. Most were philosophical when he asked his question about national cohesion. Others denied his premise, saying that the nation was coming apart.

I listened to the audiobook, which I mostly enjoyed. Some of narrator Pete Larkin's interpretations of regional accents, however, made me cringe. I can imagine some listeners being offended, especially if they recognize themselves as the original voices.

In The Longest Road, Caputo expertly weaves his subplots of repairing the Airstream, finding good meals, walking the dogs, and sharing a very small space with his wife around the story of the journey across the continent. I particularly enjoyed the part from the Great Plains, along the Yellowstone River, and across the mountains. I think many readers will long to follow.

Caputo, Philip. The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America from Key West to the Arctic Ocean. Henry Holt, 2013. 304p. ISBN 9780805094466.

Audiobook. HighBridge Audio, 2013. 10 compact discs. 11 3/4 hours. ISBN 97
81622311958.

*He mostly zips across a stretch of Canada.

Friday, February 08, 2013

On Assignment with National Geographic: The Inside Story of Legendary Explorers, Photographers, and Adventurers by Mark Collins Jenkins

2013 is the 125th anniversary of the National Geographic Society. In celebration, the society has publishing several books, including On Assignment with National Geographic: The Inside Story of Legendary Explorers, Photographers, and Adventurers by Mark Collins Jenkins. With such a big title, you might imagine a jumbo coffee table book, but in this case, the volume is compact. (National Geographic 125 Years is a much bigger book.) While the size of On Assignment with National Geographic is small, the anniversary publication is still packed with stories about the history of the society, its monthly magazine, and many of its most famous naturalists, scientists, explorers, and editors.

Readers will readily recognize many names, including its second president Alexander Graham Bell, arctic explorer Richard Byrd, oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, primatologist Jane Goodall, and paleontologist Paul Sereno. Many now mostly forgotten scientists, such as adventurer William Beebe and balloonist William Kepner are also featured. As I read, I recognized many photos and magazine covers that I have seen over the last fifty plus years. I also realized how National Geographic has documented the mapping of the planet, the disappearance of traditional societies, the evolution of scientific knowledge, and the development of technologies that could not have been imagined at the society's founding. Look at a National Geographic from 100 years ago and you see a radically different world.

Finally, On Assignment with National Geographic lets readers see into the processes of grant funding and publishing the big stories. This quick reading history will interest many of the society's members and fans.

Jenkins, Mark Collins. On Assignment with National Geographic: The Inside Story of Legendary Explorers, Photographers, and Adventurers. National Geographic Society, 2013. 134p. ISBN 9781426210136.

Monday, February 04, 2013

My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile by Isabel Allende

"A country, like a husband, is always open to improvement." 

If you were a librarian, where would you shelve My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile by Isabel Allende? Various libraries in my area have it in the Dewey 800s because it reflects on her fiction, 900s because it is about her country of birth, and biography because she tells how grew up in and left Chile after 1973 military coup d'etat. I would choose the 900s because much of the text is about Chile and the title seems to say that the country is the focus of the book. Someone might counter that the title also says that it is the Chile of Allende's imagination, much like William Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, and thus should be an 800. It may also be argued that My Invented Country is a memoir, though one that is only lightly self-revealing. Our book group may have tended toward calling the book a country description, but we were in by no means unified.

Is it fair to say the book is only lightly personally revealing? Allende tells numerous short stories about her life and admits to many faults, but it seems to me that Chile is really her main focus. Does all this matter? Readers mostly want good reading and do not worry about classification. We were not agreed whether My Invented Country passed that test. Several members of the club who had read Allende's novels were unsatisfied. They thought her voice was very different, somewhat arrogant, not engaging. Others enjoyed her alternately witty and serious assessment of her country and life.

I enjoyed what might just be called "encyclopedia facts," the sections in which Allende describes the country. She is, of course, more entertaining than most encyclopedias. I'd now like to travel through the country, something that none of us had done.

My Invented Country is an imperfect book in that its perceived message clearly is not the same to every reader. Ironically, that makes it a good candidate for book discussions. Discussion leaders should also prepare to discuss what has changed in the ten years since it was published.

Allende, Isabel. My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile. Harper Collins, 2003. ISBN 006054564X.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

How are Americans, mostly protected by a safety net of government and private programs to provide economic aid should they suffer misfortune, able to comprehend Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo? The conditions in the Annawadi slum outside the international airport in Mumbai, India are appalling. The people crowded into pieced-together shacks around industrial waste and sewage, without running water, are so poor. It is a setting unlike what we see in the U.S.

Boo has been living in India off and on with her Indian-husband for ten years. In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, she recounts slightly over three years in the lives of the sons and daughters of Muslim day laborers, garbage pickers, teachers, and housewives mired in a slum. The central character in the huge cast is Abdul, an industrious scavenger with a strict moral conscience, who is falsely accused of contributing to the suicide of an irritating neighbor. Though there really is no evidence and most of the community vouches for innocence of Abdul, the corrupt local police see an opportunity for extortion. Abdul, his father, and his sister are beaten and imprisoned to await a distant trial.

The author states that not all of India is like the Annawadi slum, but it is also not unique. Boo describes corruption at many levels of India's government affecting the slum. Elected officials help constituents just before elections (and only then), and the police are always shaking down anyone with a spare rupee. Particularly appalling are the schools that only exist on inspection days, reaping government grants and international aid for their crooked directors.

Some readers may give up quickly on Behind the Beautiful Forevers with its many characters and seemingly hopeless situation. If they stick out the introductory chapters, they will find a universal drama tied closer to the U.S. economy than one might think. A promising book for discussion groups.

Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Random House, 2012. 256p. ISBN 9781400067558.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels by the late Richard Paul Roe

William Shakespeare is one the people about whom I keep reading. Ironically, not much is known about the playwright, who is often called the Bard. His whereabouts for some years are unknown. Perhaps that is exactly why he is so fascinating. He's a mystery. The latest title that I read is The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels by the late Richard Paul Roe.

In the past, many literary scholars have ridiculed the Shakespeare plays set in Italy for their many geographical inaccuracies. The standard line was that Shakespeare never went to Italy and that he just looked at some books and talked to some travelers to learn some place names and brief descriptions and then he creatively elaborated. Roe suspected that the scholars themselves did not know much, so he set out to stand where the playwright stood, supposing that he did go to Italy.

What Roe discovered was the descriptions were very exact in detail far beyond any of the sources the playwright could have used. He also located many of the "lost" sites simply by looking around and talking to local historians. His conclusion was that the playwright had to have traveled in Italy.

What Roe would not say is whether the playwright was William Shakespeare. The author said he was unqualified to speculate whether Shakespeare fronted for some well-traveled writer. Through most of the book, Roe just refers to "the playwright."

Regardless of who wrote the plays, Roe provided not only evidence of real places matching those in the plays, but he also commented on 16th century Italian commercial, social, religious, legal, and military affairs. I enjoyed reading about discrimination against the Jewish community in Venice, safe travel on the canal system across the peninsula, and the troubled politics of the Holy Roman Empire.

Roe's book does become slow going when there is a lot of visual detail to verify, but that detail will become important to you when you take his book to Italy to see for yourself. I also found chapters about plays I know well were easier to read than others. I was particularly interested in the Much Ado About Nothing chapter which revealed a lot of political backstory. A great book for Bard fanatics.

Roe, Richard Paul. The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels. Harper Perennial, 2011. 309p. ISBN 9780062074263.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Wedding in Haiti: The Story of a Friendship by Julia Alvarez

Cruel dictators, violent gangs, disasterous earthquakes, poverty, and disease are the prevailing topics in most discussions of Haiti. Novelist Julia Alvarez has witnessed all of this from her coffee farm in the neighboring Dominican Republic, but she has seen reason for hope in the Haitian people. She recounts two driving trips in a pickup truck into Haiti with her warm-hearted husband and some of her Haitian workers in A Wedding in Haiti: The Story of a Friendship.

Central to the story is Piti, a Haitian that Alvarez has seen grow from a boy into a man. When he was just a boy, she made the casual remark that someday she would attend his wedding. In August 2009, Piti called her on short notice to remind her of her pledge. She cancelled all her appointments and flew from her Vermont home back to the island of Hispanola to take a trip across the border. The first trip is a mostly entertaining look at rural Haiti. The second taken after the 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of Port-Au-Prince is a short report of the state of the Haitian people in and away from the epicenter of the capital city.

Throughout both, Alvarez saw resilience amid the despair and devotion to family. Readers who enjoy peeks into other cultures will like this quick-reading book.

Alvarez, Julia. A Wedding in Haiti: The Story of a Friendship. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012. 287p. ISBN 9781616201302.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Maphead: Charting the Wide Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings

I love maps and atlases, and I believe maps are a great way to dress up walls. Atlases are a great diversion. Whenever I need to see where a story that I am reading took place, I turn to one of our atlases (if the book did not come with its own maps). Sadly, the world atlas often does not have enough detail. Then I'll go to the Internet seeking maps that are more focused on the obscure places that interest me. It seems to me that any place that is worth writing and reading about ought to be on a map, and I want to see it. That makes me a little bit of a maphead, but I will not pretend to be so fanatical as Ken Jennings, author of Maphead: Charting the Wide Weird World of Geography Wonks.

From early in childhood Jennings saved his allowance to buy atlases. He asked for them for birthdays and Christmas. He kept one by his bedside lamp. And he has never grown out of his map love. Luckily for him, he has been able to turn his fascination with maps, trivia, and all of the world's knowledge into a career. It helped that he won tons of money on Jeopardy, and that experience helped launch his writing career. Being a writer has allowed him to seek out mapheads around the world, many of whom he describes in Maphead.

Opportunities for mapheads have expanded greatly in the past several decades with the development of personal electronics and the introduction of global positioning services. Jennings tells about becoming one of the enthusiasts who chases geocached treasures and seeks confluences. Confluences are the exact spots where lines of longitude meet lines of latitude. With your own handheld GPS, you can find the spots where the minutes and seconds are all zeros. The difficulty is that these spots are often on the side of a cliff or (even worse) on private property.

While embracing the new technology, Jennings also rues the loss of free gas station maps and the feeling that there might no longer be blank spots in human geographic knowledge that still need exploring. Maphead is a very personal report that should entertain and enlighten many readers.

Jennings, Ken. Maphead: Charting the Wide Weird World of Geography Wonks. Scribner, 2011. 276p. ISBN 9781439167175.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Instant City by Steve Inskeep

What do I know about Pakistan? It separated from India when the subcontinent gained independence from the British Empire in 1947. It has fought with India over border issues since then and lost its eastern section when Bangladesh broke away in 1971. It is a Muslim country that has a mountainous border with Afghanistan over which the Taliban often travels. The Pakistani army has dissolved the elected government several times. A former prime minister was executed, and his daughter was assassinated when she ran for the top office a third time. Pakistan has been an unsteady American ally. Osama Bin Laden hid there for many years.

What did I know about Karachi before I read Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi by NPR reporter Steve Inskeep? Not much. I knew the name, but I could not place it on an unlabeled map. I did not know that it had been the country's capital before Islamabad was built. Seeing the burning buses on the cover of the book I guessed that it was a dangerous place.

How did the former British colonial port become a battleground? Despite the reassurances from founding statesman Muhammad Ali Jinnah that Pakistan would be a secular society with opportunity for all, the Hindi majority fled Karachi and was replaced by various Muslims groups from India and rural Pakistan. City planning and services could never keep up with the flow of refugees, mostly illiterate rural people with no modern labor skills. Most public lands intended for parks and development were overrun with illegal encampments. Ethnic groups formed parties to press their own needs; they often resorted to violence to get their way. Wave after wave of people settled in Karachi. According to Inskeep, Karachi mushroomed from about 400,000 people at the time of independence in 1947 to over 13 million by 2010.

Inskeep lets us know all of this in his accounts of the events of 2009 and 2010, when a series of bombings rocked the city. I appreciate how he links incidents and histories to landmarks and neighborhood of the city, making the story immediate and understandable. Instant City makes the news from Pakistan a bit clearer. It joins a growing collection of great books from NPR staff that may be found in many public libraries.

Inskeep, Steve. Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi. Penguin Press, 2011. 284p. ISBN 9781594203152.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade by David Eltis and David Richardson

For over 350 years, roughly from 1501-1867, merchants of European descent shipped captive Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to be sold as slaves in the Americas. Spain and Portugal started the trade when they began to colonize territories that they claimed; they had found Native Americans both very resistant to enslavement and very vulnerable to European diseases. Other seafaring European nations also discovered how profitable the slave trade was, and it was unstoppable through the 17th and 18th centuries. Great Britain with many ships out of Liverpool and London became the world's leading slave trading nation until a movement of conscience lead by William Wilberforce convinced Parliament to outlaw the trade in 1807. By the time the last illegal shipload of slaves reached Cuba in 1867, over 10.7 million Africans had been transported, with as many as 20 percent dying at sea.

It has taken a century and a half for scholars to really calculate the impact of the trade in slaves. A key breakthrough has been the creation of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which as of January 2008 included records of 34,934 voyages carrying slaves across the Atlantic. Scholars think this may represent about 80 percent of all voyages in the 366 year period. Geographic analysis of the data has resulted in some unexpected discoveries, much of which is reported in the Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade by David Eltis and David Richardson, a reference book filled with maps, charts, period illustrations, and the texts of slave trading documents.

Several facts may surprise U.S. readers. Only 4 percent of the traffic went directly from Africa to the U.S., with Charleston, South Carolina being the leading slave trading port. Of course, more slaves were eventually were shipped out of the Caribbean to the U.S. For direct shipments, New York and Rhode Island traded more slaves than New Orleans. New Orleans was a latecomer and distinguished itself in the trade of U.S. born slaves after international trading was banned. The ultimate leading slave trading nation was Portugal and almost half of all captives were taken to Brazil.

In the chapter introductions, the authors describe the forces behind the slave trade, which were economic. Slaves provided the labor for the production of in-demand consumer goods, especially sugar, tobacco, and rum, none of which the authors point out were essential or even helpful in providing good health to their consumers. Atrocities in support of vice. One very Wall-Street-economist-like letter from a West Indies plantation owner argues the necessity of slave labor for the providing of cheap products for the world market to insure profits for investors. The low regard for the people who actually produce consumer goods was a problem then as it still is today.

The strength of the Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade may be in the supplemental documents and illustrations as the 189 maps themselves get to be very repetitive to the reader looking for an overall understanding of history. The maps, however, will be very useful for African Americans trying to understand the specific origins of their ancestors. This book is a worthy addition to any public library and recommended to anyone trying to understand American history.

Eltis, David and David Richardson. Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Yale University Press, 2010. ISBN 9780300124606.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking by Anand Giridharadas

Who in the West knows and understands India? American-born Anand Giridharadas thought that he knew it pretty well before he moved to the land of his parents in 2003. He had heard family stories, attended Indian expatriate parties in the U.S., and visited his grandparents in the ancestral homes many times. India was a hot and humid country where family obligations limited personal freedom, he thought. It was a place where things never changed and people accepted their roles. He knew there was a trend toward modernization in the larger cities, but he expected to find bedrock conservative Hindi values in charge almost everywhere. In India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking, Giridharadas tells how right and wrong he found his preconceptions.

Giridharadas went to India for a job with a multinational corporation but after a couple of years became a reporter for the New York Times/International Herald Tribune. Both jobs allowed him to travel through rural India where he met many people struggling with old values and new opportunities. India is a rapidly changing place where former lower classes can move into prosperous positions but still might not be able to marry well. Giridharadas also found that many young people have replaced Gandhi and Nehru with entrepreneurs as their heroes. In many ways, he though Indians had become just like American consumers, but they also retaining many local customs while claiming to reject Western ways.

The strength of Giridharadas's book is his ability to tell stories and draw conclusions from them. With the rise of India as a major economic and political power and with so many Indians immigrating to Western countries, this might be a good time for book groups to read about the Indian people. India Calling would be a good choice for book discussions.

Giridharadas, Anand. India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking. Times Books, 2011. ISBN 9780805091779.

Monday, July 05, 2010

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

Patagonia is a place of extremes which harbors descendants of many wandering tribes of humanity. Mixed in its valleys, deserts, and mountains are people of astonishing origins. Welsh, Germans, Italians, Brits, Scots, Spaniards, Turks, Arabs, Russians, Hindus, Africans, Japanese, New Zealanders, and North Americans have all sought wealth or refuge in South America's southernmost region. The late Bruce Chatwin reported on meeting many of them in his now classic travel account In Patagonia.

Despite being only 199 pages and made up of 97 short episodes, In Patagonia is not a book to read in a day. Chatwin wrote minimal, economic prose to report his wandering through the region. The sharp-image quality may make little sense to someone plowing through the book quickly. To them it may seem to be just one thing after another. Readers need to pause and contemplate what Chatwin has shown them to draw their own conclusions about the place and its people.

There is much in the text to disturb the reader. I particularly noticed how the Native Americans who work on the ranches and in factories are referred to by everyone as "peons." Even in the 1970s, they often did hard labor for little pay. In the historical accounts that Chatwin includes, they were often killed for sport or just to lay claim to land. Even the missionaries, who seem to have had some good intentions, often betrayed them.

Chatwin says very little about himself other than how he travels, which might be hiking across a desert or hitchhiking with truck drivers or riding with the engineer in a train. In conversations, he mostly asks question or otherwise spurs conversation. Almost everyone other than an old priest who wanted to be left alone spoke to Chatwin readily and many gave him a meal and a place to stay. More than most travel writers, he made the journey not about himself.

In Patagonia is a book that might be quite different if written today, when people are leery of travel writers, who often go with film crews into even the remotest regions. We should be thankful for this broadcast pre-media account, which may still be found in many libraries.

Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. Summit Books, 1977. ISBN 0671400452