Baghdad without a Map

Horwitz, Tony. Baghdad without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia.

Reason read: Baghdad was bombed in March 2003. Read in memory of that event.

Baghdad in the mid 1980s was such a volatile place to be. For Tony Horwitz to be bombing around (pun totally intended) Arabia was insane. There he was, in a land where even local weather reports and maps were banned. Think about it. As a left handed, Jewish stringer, he was not the most popular person to be wandering about those parts of the middle east. He met many people who exclaimed, “Death to America!” before gushing about Disneyland or Hollywood. Despite the dangers and hatreds, his narrative is more than slightly tongue-in-cheek and a lot more than a little funny. He scoffs at roadblocks manned by a 7′ cardboard soldier (while the real military gets stoned on qat). He makes light of millions of crushing fanatics at Khomeini’s funeral. He jokes about not being able to find his wife cloaked in a chador. At the same time as being funny, he is keenly observant. One of my favorites notes – while middle eastern air travel is not the safest; the oxygen masks made be missing, but at least passengers know which direction they should bow their heads in prayer thanks to a “Mecca indicator” on the ceiling of their aircraft.

As an aside, I love it when the knowledge lens gets a little wider. Through reading Martin Mosebach’s The 21, I gained a broader perspective of the Coptic Christian community. So when the Coptics were mentioned in Baghdad Without a Map the reference wasn’t a foreign concept.

Quotes to quote, “The history of modern Baghdad reads like Macbeth, only bloodier” (p 113), and “A man could play Rambo for less money than he paid for a week’s worth of qat” (p 37).

Author fact: Sadly, Tony Horwitz died last year at the age of sixty years young. Heart attack, I think.

Book trivia: There are no photographs included in Baghdad Without a Map. Bummer.

Nancy said: Pearl said her favorite line in Baghdad without a Map included Horwitz’s humor and insight.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust to Go in the chapter called “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” (p 113). It’s funny Pearl included Horwitz’s book in this chapter because he ended up going back to the middle east again…so maybe it in his mind it was always a good idea. No regrets.


All Elevations Unknown

Lightner Jr., Sam. All Elevations Unknown: An Adventure in the Heart of Borneo. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.

Reason read: Mount Kinabalu was first ascended in March 1851.

As an extremely accomplished rock climber, Sam Lightner was always looking for the next summit. Coming across a black and white photo of a mysterious mountain somewhere in the heart of Borneo sent his NeedToConquer heart beating a little faster and his adventurous spirit into overdrive. Where, exactly, was this mountain and how soon could he scale it? The map was labeled “all elevations unknown.” In the spring of 1999, following Major Tom Harrisson’s book, The World Within as his bible, Lightner and a team of fellow climbers, camera men, porters, and unseen spirits set off into the jungle. A total of twenty-seven men follow Harrisson’s footsteps to conquer mountain known as Batu Lawi.
What makes All Elevations Unknown different from other extreme sport memoirs is Lightner’s historical look-back of what Tom Harrisson was going through fifty-four years earlier. Every other chapter is set in 1945 as Tom and his native tribe of Kelabit fight off the enemy Japanese at the end of World War II. For Harrisson, it was a struggle to keep the Kelabit from using their own inhumane war tactics of decapitation and poisoned darts. For Lightner in present day, sponsorship makes it a struggle to keep the photographers and reporters from interfering with, or even ruining, the climb. Both men, fifty-four years apart, experience a necessary inconvenience by collaborating with men with different motives.
As an aside: evading leeches sounded like a true nightmare until Lightner mentioned centipedes….

Author fact: Lightner is an international rock climber and has been the subject of a documentary.

Book trivia: Sadly, there are no maps or real photographs relevant to the adventure in All Elevations Unknown. In the online version there is an image of the famed mountain. Additional trivia: Lightner includes climbing terms for those not in the know.

Nancy said: Pearl said All Elevations Unknown was “entertaining” (Book Lust To Go p 39).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called ” Borneo and Sarawak” (p 38).


Gunshot Road

Hyland, Adrian. Gunshot Road. New York: Soho Press, 2010.

Reason read: to continue the series started in January in honor of I have no idea what. I continue to have no idea.

In the last Emily Tempest installment, Emily had just returned to the Outback. When we catch up to her in Gunshot Road, she has settled in as a Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) for the Bluebush police department. Only half the uniform fits her and she is “allergic to authority.” Add her temperament as a hothead, not afraid of authority and you can imagine why the job isn’t sitting with her as comfortably as she (and others) would like. To top it off, her superior is a by-the-book replacement by the name of Bruce Cockburn. Cockburn is filling in for Emily’s old friend, Tom MacGillivray while Tom is hospitalized. Unfortunately, Bruce doesn’t get Emily at all. All the barriers are there; the biggest being gender. As a female investigator she isn’t taken seriously. Being biracial doesn’t help either. Her very first case is a murder investigation at the Green Swamp Well Roadhouse and she has very little support during the investigation. Par for the course, someone is covering up something much bigger.
As an aside, Emily is someone I could kick back with and enjoy a beer. I admire her smart, funny, and courageous attitude. I do not, however, believe she could fire a shotgun with her big toe while wrestling, with her hands tied, with a 200lb+ brute. As you can probably tell, there is a lot of violence in Hyland novels.
Best part of Gunshot Road: Emily’s best friend, Hazel, and boyfriend, Jojo, are back. Yes!

Quote to quote, “Rage and shame, deaf to reason, swept through me in storms that tore aware the flimsy tarps lashed above my soul” (p 241 – 242).

As another aside, I was bothered by the cruelty towards animals in both Hyland books. It seems as if the citizens of the Aboriginal bush like to take their revenge out on dogs. A dog in Moonlight Downs was punched a killing blow because it bit a trespasser. This time, in Gunshot Road, a dog was beaten with a hammer. I’m more of a cat person but geeze!

Author fact: I wish I was reading Hyland’s nonfiction, Kinglake-350. It won a few awards. As of Gunshot Road, I am officially done with this author.

Book trivia: the one thing I remember commenting on before is Hyland’s use of music in his books. Almost right away in Gunshot Road he quoted “Mother and Child Reunion.” He also introduced me to the Pigram Brothers, a band of seven brothers from Broome, WA in Australia. Coral Cowboys, Cold Chisel, and Buffalo Express are others.

Nancy said: Gunshot Road was included in the list of Australian fiction that shouldn’t be missed.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Australia, the Land of Oz: Fiction” (p 26).


Barrow’s Boys

Fleming, Fergus. Barrow’s Boys: New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998.

Reason read: February is Exploration Month.

I was excited to finally read Barrow’s Boys as Fergus promised a plethora of primary sources – the best kind when reading about adventure that involves exploration, danger, and cannibalism! [Although, I have to admit it was not easy to read about the starvation, desperation, and death.] In times of peace, what better use of the navy than to go exploring? The burning question of the day was where did the river Niger go? When that expedition initially failed John Barrow started a second expedition, setting his sights on the Northwest Passage and Antarctica. What was out there? As Second Secretary to the Admiralty in 1816 Barrow was aware of these unanswered questions. Using elite naval officers Barrow put together a string of ambitious expeditions that spanned the world.

Author fact: Fleming is one of those jack of all trades kind of guy. He trained to be an accountant and a barrister in London, England. He has worked as a furniture maker and an editor. He is obviously a great writer as well. As an aside, I think he looks like Liam Neelson.

Book trivia: Barrow’s Boys includes maps. Lots of maps. Each one is dedicated to a different expedition. Barrow’s Boys also includes two sections of black and white photographs.

Nancy said: Pearl said in Book Lust that Fleming was chatty, entertaining, and historically accurate. All things I would want in a story. She then goes on to say (in Book Lust To Go) Fleming’s biography is one of her favorites. She calls it “enthralling (p 83).

BookLust Twist: from a bunch of places. Book Lust contains Barrow’s Boys in two different places: in the chapter called “Adventure By the Book: Nonfiction” (p 8) and again in chapter “Here Be Dragons: the Great Explorers and Expeditions” (p 110). Barrow’s Boys is also in Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Explorers” (p 83).


Rome and a Villa

Clark, Eleanor. Rome and a Villa. New York: Atheneum, 1962.

Reason read: Eleanor Clark died in the month of February. Read in her memory.

Even though the last time Clark visited Rome the year was 1974, you cannot help but daydream of traveling to the ancient city when you read Rome and a Villa. I started a mental checklist of everything I hoped to see, should I get there myself: the 124 steps of Santa Mana Aracoeli beside the Campidoglio, feral cats scattering in the rain, the Piazza Vittorio, the famous Trevi Fountain which was funded with a second tax on wine, and capable of moving 80,000 cubic meters of water per day.
Clark even opened my eyes to the Roman influences here in the United States: Penn Station in New York City; how it was designed with the Baths of Caracalle in mind.
Beyond architecture and tourist draws, Clark paints pictures of influential individuals like Julius Caesar and Hadrian. She meanders with her narrative and is sometimes difficult to follow, but worth it if you can stick with her.

Author fact: Clark was a native of Connecticut, right down the road from me. Her dust jacket photograph reminds me of a great-aunt I used to know.

Book trivia: Rome and a Villa was illustrated by Eugene Berman. They’re pretty spectacular.

Nancy said: Pearl said Rome and a Villa is for the traveler. I think it would be interesting to reread Rome and a Villa after a trip to Rome, just to compare notes.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Roman Holiday” (p 188).


Anna In-Between

Nunez, Elizabeth. Anne In-Between. New York: Akashic Books, 2009.

Reason read: Anna In-Between reflects on childhood. Every time my birthday nears, so do I. Read for myself.

Thirty-nine year old Anna returns to her parents’ home in the Caribbean islands. Anna has been in New York City as an in-demand editor for almost eighteen years, returning to her Caribbean home periodically for short visits. She returns, not because of a longing for her country, but only to check in on her aging parents. They appreciate the visits but feel Anna has lost touch with her roots. It is as if Anna cannot wait to bolt from her childhood memories, the color of her mixed-race skin, and her emotional parents.
On this particular trip, Anna discovers her mother has advanced stage breast cancer and is appalled her parents have been aware of the growing tumors all along. It is inconceivable they chose not to do anything about the disease growing in Beatrice’s breast. With Anna’s insistence of medical care ever increasing, Anna’s parents finally visit a doctor to begin treating the disease with chemotherapy. Anna’s mother, however, draws the line at traveling to the United States for necessary-for-survival surgery, strongly believing her dark skin will warrant sub par treatment.
Mother and daughter are locked in a cultural battle; mother accusing daughter of becoming too Americanized as if it were akin to catching a different debilitating disease. [As an aside, their fight reminded me of my own battles. My mother is convinced I no longer have the capacity to take care of my childhood home; as if the ways of Monhegan are too foreign to me as now I live with running water, working lights, and an automatic thermostat.] Anna In-Between is the dance of expectation. Mothers want so much for their daughters that reality seems like a constant disappointment, an “you can never do anything right” attitude. Been there! Beatrice is not entirely to blame in all this. Anna has her assumptions, too. She has so much pent up resentment towards her mother she thinks Beatrice blames her for a failed marriage, is disappointed in Anna’s less than impressive career, and is embarrassed by Anna’s less than impeccable appearance. It is hard for Anna to empathize; to see Beatrice as human when she feels like such a failure herself. I won’t spoil the plot, but I can say Nunez’s gift is a satisfactory non-ending with a healthy dose of hope. For Anna and Beatrice.
Interestingly enough, Nunez refers to the locale of Anna In-Between as “the island” as if she doesn’t want to put a pin the map of where the story actually takes place.

Author fact: Nunez was born in Trinidad.

Book trivia: Anna In-Between was reviewed by Edwidge Danticat. I just finished reading The Farming of Bones by Danticat last month.

Nancy said: Pearl said she has enjoyed the novels of Nunez and made mention of Anna In-Between (Book Lust To Go p 58).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Cavorting Through the Caribbean – Trinidad and Tobago” (p 58).


Beijing of Possibilities

Te, Jonathan. The Beijing of Possibilities: Stories. New York: Other Press, 2009.

Reason read: Okay, so I have a confession. I wanted to read this in honor of January being the month for the Chinese New Year (on the 25th), but as the loan was coming from the east coast, it took an inordinate amount of time to arrive. I didn’t think I would have time to read it before January 31st, so I changed the reason to China’s Lantern Festival, which is in February. Well, to make a long story short, I finished Beijing before January 31st, so I’m back to the original reason, the new year.

Beijing of Possibilities is comprised of twelve witty, sharp, and compelling stories all taking place in contradictory Beijing. Many of the stories address the conflict between old and new. Ancient tradition clashing with modern ambition. Beijing is a hotbed of contradictions. Each character exemplifies and amplifies what happens when cultural norm meets current forward trajectory of capitalism.
The brilliant thread running through most all stories: the ancient Monkey King and the modern Olympic pride of the city.

Author fact: Tel has written other collections of short stories, none of which are on my Challenge list.

Book trivia: Quite unexpectedly I found black and white photographs in each story. What a nice surprise!

Nancy said: Pearl described the stories in Beijing of Possibilities as surreal with “Italo Calvinoist tendencies” (Book Lust To Go p 62).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “China: the Middle Kingdom” (p 60).