Thursday, September 20, 2012

Baby It's Malarial with a Chance of Cannibalism Outside: Books to Make You Rethink Passport Renewal

I blame Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness kind of eliminated the romantic view of travel for me. Was it the oppressive fog? The rotting hippo meat? The horror, the horror?
Probably all of the above.

In any case, Conrad's novel was my first experience of the fictional or non-fictional travelogue that serves only to convince the reader that one's backyard ought to be the extent of one's travels.

Other outstanding selections in this genre include:

1. The Mosquito Coast, Paul Theroux
Allie Fox is a genius, a Harvard dropout,  and a self-taught engineer and inventor. He is also a rabid atheist, back-to-the-land counterculturist and rejector of the McDonaldization of America. In order to protect his family from the evils of modern American society, Fox packs them up and moves them to the jungles of Honduras. 

Fox's older son, Charlie, is the novel's narrator and his simultaneous admiration, resentment and fear of his father make for a satisfyingly complex perspective on Allie Fox's self-imposed mission of Creation. 

Allie Fox is challenged by his inability to find a truly Edenic wilderness in which to build his new world, and Charlie is faced with his father's increasingly desperate attempts to bring nature, his family, and the indigenous tribes to heel. 

2. The Coldest March: Scott's Fatal Antarctic Expedition, Susan Solomon
In November 1911, Scott and his team set out to reach the South Pole. They trekked nine hundred miles across Antarctica without the benefit of neoprene, wireless communication, or motorized equipment. They dragged their own sleds, sheltered in sleeping bags so poorly insulated and water-proofed that they were essentially ice coffins, and suffered from frostbite, snow blindness and horrific sunburns. Capt. Lawrence Oates, certain that his own miserable physical condition after months of back-breaking travel was slowing down the team, announced: "I am just going outside and may be some time" and then walked away into a blizzard to die.

Solomon's account of the Scott expedition seeks to address the misconceptions about Scott as a bumbling incompetent. In so doing, she presents a very intimate version of the famous mission, one that focuses on the personalities and relationships of Oates, Bowers, Wilson, Evans and Scott. This is not a Bob Costas Olympics special, though, and Solomon does present, in truly fascinating detail, the failures of equipment, viciousness of environment, and meteorological disasters that overwhelmed Scott and his men. 

3. Deliverance, James Dickey
Yes, the movie "Deliverance" was based on James Dickey's book.  
No, the infamous "squeal like a pig" line does not appear in the book.
Yes, you should read the book anyway.
No, I do not want to go on a camping trip in Georgia with you. 

The movie does overshadow the book, and Dickey's own life tended to overshadow all his work ("I am crazy about being drunk," he once said, "I like it like Patton liked war.") But Deliverance is legitimately good; Dickey captures the voices of his very distinct characters, and his descriptions, particularly of the river and music, are sharp and telling.


  1. I've always had a bit of a fascination with the idea of the Scott expedition. I don't know much about its actual details, but it's got a "feel" that kind of grabs hold of me now and then. Desolation. Glory just beyond the outstretched fingertips. Such fucking cold. That kind of thing. I'll pick up Solomon's book mostly based on your review. It's nice to see literary reviews by someone who's obviously actually excited by the act of reading.

    1. Thanks, Andrew. The Solomon book will live up to my hype.

  2. This blog post reminds me of an essay I wrote in college about the weather in The Plague ... 'Cloudy With a Chance of Plague'. It also reminds me of the time I warned my friend that an enemy of his would be at a party he was considering attending by sending him a note that read 'Forecast calls for fat turds with a chance of goatee'. Based on this similarity alone, I will read all your thoughtfully written recommendations, except maybe Deliverance, which could provoke unwanted attention in the subway, where I get most of my reading done ... though this could make another fine topic ... 'Stop Looking At Me, Swan: Tawdry or Otherwise Inadvisable Books That Should Not Be Brought To Public Places For Fear of the Furtive and Disapproving Ganders They Might Elicit'.

    1. Hey Mike.
      Excellent idea for a new post - books not to read on public transportation. Suggestions on books to include under the "Stop Looking at me, Swan" heading? Marquis De Sade leaps to mind...

  3. Dickey is a big feature on our campus. Marvelous poet. That book is astonishing.