An American Abroad

40 Books That Made Me a Traveler — Part 3

The authors of the books featured this week have distinctive voices, the kind you can identify from a single paragraph.

There’s the amphetamine-fueled Beat Generation prose of Jack Kerouac. The media-drenched flat affect of Alex Garland. The compassionate and erudite tut-tutting of Theodore Dalrymple. The dreamlike unreliable narration of James Salter. The sardonically twinned Thai and western perspectives of John Burdett’s Thai/American police detective. These voices speak to me still.


Yes, that’s me in the photo. I’ve been a reader since I was a kid.

Buying these books through the links here doesn’t increase your cost by a cent, but it does put a few cents into my bank account (which I will use to keep this blog going). Enjoy! And please let me know what you think of them.

By the way, if you’re interested in other books I’ve enjoyed, check out Part 1 or Part 2 of this series, or go to my buy page.

On the Road
Jack Kerouac
This classic beat novel never really grabbed me and shook me, but it has become something more like an casual friend -- the kind of guy you're never intimately close to, but who shows up in your life from time to time with stories of interesting adventures and then disappears again for months or years at a time. Kerouac's prose is as relentless as his characters' peregrinations across the US, their late-night bull sessions, and their thirst for the sensate. As his protagonist and stand-in, Sal Paradise, says, "[T]he only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
The Beach
Alex Garland
Comparing this book to, say, Michener's The Drifters,
one can see how much youth culture has changed in fifty years. The Beach is a fusion of video games, movies, violence, dark politics, and -- oh yeah, travel. There are drugs, too, but whereas in earlier travel books drugs are seen as routes to spiritual bonding, here they lead generally to bad trips of both the figurative and literal type. Garland also offers a sharp critique of hipper-than-thou western travelers who glom onto a beautiful "undiscovered" spot somewhere in the developing world and ultimately wind up ruining the things that made it so special.
Zanzibar to Timbuktu: A Journey Across Africa
Theodore Dalrymple
(Available for Kindle only)
Theodore Dalrymple's real name is Anthony Daniels. He has been quoted as saying he chose his nom de plume because he wanted "a name that sounded suitably dyspeptic, that of a gouty old man looking out of the window of his London club, port in hand, lamenting the degenerating state of the world." This is to say that he is a man of conservative mien and mind. But whereas many conservatives who travel (the awful P.J. O'Rourke comes to mind) put on a sneer and leave compassion at home, Dalrymple seems truly to care about the poor people of Africa he encounters in his overland journey from Zanzibar to Timbuktu. There is compassion for the impoverished, the criminal, and the crazy. And damn, the man can write.
A Sport and a Pastime
James Salter
By telling his tale of an affair between a ne'er-do-well American college kid and a rather ordinary French shopgirl through the voice of a man who knew them only peripherally, Salter was able to give his prose a shimmering, dream-like quality. Our narrator frankly admits he is embellishing, filling in details, adding things he couldn't possibly know. His descriptions of the couple's sweetly transgressive sodomy, for instance, tell us more about what's really going on in the narrator's head than what's going on in the couple's bed. The flashy, expensive, but decaying car the couple borrow and drive around France feels like something out of The Great Gatsby. As with Gatsby, the reader never doubts that Salter's couple is racing toward its demise, but we are only too glad to go along for the ride. One of the most neglected and underrated prose stylists of the mid-twentieth century, Salter has written a book that illuminates the almost inherently doomed nature of even the most torrid expatriate seductions.
The Royal Thai Detective Novels
John Burdett
Bangkok 8: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (1)

Bangkok Tattoo: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (2)

Bangkok Haunts: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (3)

The Godfather of Kathmandu: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (4)

Vulture Peak: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (5)

I'm cheating with my counting here, since there are five books (to date) in this series about police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a former gangster, former Buddhist monk, and current member of the Bangkok police force. The books (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts, The Godfather of Kathmandu, and Vulture Peak) hang together well, with story arcs that go from volume to volume. I first read Bangkok 8 on a trip to Thailand at Christmas time, 2013. I concluded then that it was a far better and deeper guide to the city than Lonely Planet.

As a whole, the series is about corruption: of the flesh, of the political process, of law enforcement, of daily life. But these books are no jeremiads. Indeed, they go out of their way to explain how what we in the west view as corruption has a rational basis in the Thai mentality. Along the way, Burdett explores the conflicts between farang (foreign) and Thai culture, Thai attitudes toward sex, drugs, and popular culture, and between powerful factions in Thai society. The protagonist, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, narrates all five books in the first person and frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly, often in a way that challenges foreign assumptions about Thailand and its people.

40 Books That Made Me a Traveler — Part 2

This week’s entry in my series about books that made me a traveler is all over the map. Literally. Iran, the Caribbean, Congo, the road from Istanbul to India, and South America are all represented in these selections. What these books have in common are stories about overcoming fears and overcoming odds. I read some of these while I was dreaming of travel and others while I was on the road in China and Tunisia.

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Buying these books through the links here doesn’t increase your cost by a cent, but it does put a few cents into my bank account (which I will use to keep this blog going). Enjoy! And please let me know what you think of them.

By the way, if you are interested in other books I’ve read recently, check out Part 1 of this series, or go to my buy page.

Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn: A Hitchhiker's Adventures in the New Iran
Jamie Maslin
One of the best things a travel book can do is to de-cartoonify a country and its people. Many of my countrymen have a cartoon image of Iran as a place of joyless religious fanatics moving in ignorant lockstep to the edicts of stern ayatollahs and their murderous henchmen. Maslin's book humanizes the Iranians, especially the young people of that country who delight in finding ways around the no-sex no-drugs no-fun mores of the Islamic Republic. The author of this raucous but informative book goes to private parties in people's homes that, in their touching awkwardness, reminded me of high school dances. He rides in fast cars. He listens to ridiculous European bands no one outside Iran has ever heard of. He and his newfound Iranian friends watch porn and do drugs. The very things that make Western culture so superficial and alluring become revolutionary aspirations for an oppressed people.
Robinson Crusoe
Daniel Defoe
If you can lay aside the heavy doses of Christian religiosity that sidetrack the narrative every twenty pages or so, what's left is a good story about self-reliance in an alien environment. Crusoe is a 17th century MacGyver, solving the practical problems of living on a deserted island with a series of clever improvisations. He meets and befriends both natives and other westerners. I read this classic while I lived in China and found it to be a pretty good metaphor for expat living.
Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo
Vanessa Woods
Bonobos are the primates whose genetic makeup is closest to that of homo sapiens, sharing 98.7% of our DNA. They live in matriarchal troupes, engage in frequent and imaginative sex as a way of defusing social tensions, and are generally more peaceful than other primate species. This makes them very interesting to primate scientists. Two such scientists (the author and her boyfriend) move to a bonobo preserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo to conduct primate research. There they discover much about the animals, the Congo, and themselves. Woods subtly and humorously compares her boyfriend's behavior to bonobo behavior, and it's not always clear who comes out better.
Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India
Rory MacLean
Back in the 1960s, there were these people called hippies who came from North America and West Europe. They grew their hair long and took drugs and traveled overland through western Asia all the way to the promised land, which turned out to be India. Along the way, they invented a whole genre of travel and had a significant impact on the economic and social lives of many of the south Asian communities they visited. This book does a neat job of showing how that generation's ideals and imagination helped to create modern travel -- and how the remnants of that generation are keeping those ideals alive today.
Two Wheels Through Terror: Diary of a South American Motorcycle Odyssey
Glen Heggstad
If I had to point to just one book that formed my ideas about travel, this would be it. It's an account of how the author, a former Hell's Angel and current martial arts instructor, decides to motorcycle from California to the southern tip of South America and back. He rides alone, but with a woman on his mind. He is disciplined, but takes risks. He's tough, but compassionate. He's got a code, but he's not an ideologue. All goes well until he is kidnapped by a guerrilla army in Colombia and held captive for five grueling weeks. Once released, he is forcefully told by the U.S. Embassy in Bogota that he should leave the country as soon as he recovers his strength. He refuses. Instead, friends back home ship him a new motorcycle and he continues his ride and completes it. Along the way he is robbed, almost frozen, and suffers mechanical and personal breakdowns. And yet he perseveres.

40 Books That Made Me a Traveler — Part 1

Literature and travel are tightly linked with me. Back when I graduated from college, bought a Eurail Pass, and backpacked through western Europe, I learned to love the racks of Penguin and Pelican paperbacks that seemed to be stationed in every convenience store. I read my way through train rides, solo meals, and rainy days. The books I bought added noticeably to the weight of my pack, until I finally, reluctantly, and for the first time in my life began leaving books behind after reading them.

Later in life, I was a founding member of a book group that reads only literature in translation. Our group traveled the world through literature. We also made a point to serve the food and spirits native to the country that produced whatever book we were reading. Through that, I learned to appreciate the literature of the non-English speaking world and added a number of must-sees to my travel list.

Still later, when I was going through a difficult emotional time, one fraught with many losses, I turned to travel books to enable my imagination to roam the world and to help me forget my woes. During one six-month period, I brought a book — usually a travel book — to a biker/bikini bar four or five nights a week, camped out on a barstool, and read while chaos roared behind me.

More recently, books have been an essential part of my expat life. As wonderful as living in another culture can be, it also has its share of lonely stretches. Reading gets me through those. After weeks and months of immersion in another language, it’s a delight to become reacquainted with English.

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The books I enjoyed most were those about travel adventure. “Adventure,” though, is a much-overused word. Many folks apply it to some mildly exciting trip that goes according to plan. Not me. I think of adventure as what happens when things don’t go according to plan. Ziplining in Mexico? Not an adventure. Being interrogated by the police in Tunisia on suspicion of fornication? Definitely an adventure.

Then there are other books that aren’t specifically about travel, but take place in foreign locations and/or involve expatriates. Graham Greene is the gold standard here; I learned about much of the world through his stories of weary British expats living in the developing world.

Here, then, is the first installment of the forty books that made me a traveler. You can read Part 2 here or visit my buy page. I’ll put up a new installment every week or so. Each of these books is hyperlinked to Amazon. Buying a book through the links here doesn’t increase your cost by a cent, but it does put a few cents into my bank account (which I will use to keep this blog going). Enjoy exploring this literature — and please let me know what you think of my selections.

The Quiet American
Graham Greene
I had a prejudice against this book for a long time after I read it due to its title. The titular American isn't any quieter than any other character. At one point, Greene simply tells us that he was, as if that settles things. But that cavil aside, this is a fine -- perhaps definitive -- portrait of expat life during the 1950s. It warns against the hubris of ideologically-driven westerners who come to tropical lands full of theories to test on the natives. On a more powerfully emotional level, though, this is a book about the strange and unequal relationships between expats and their native lovers, the way they romanticize each other, and the grief they often come to.
The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas
Paul Theroux
Veteran travel writer Paul Theroux took a train trip from Boston to Patagonia. He loved putting his hand on the Red Line tracks in Boston and being connected to Argentina by a ribbon of steel. It wasn't literally true, of course, but the image stayed with me and made me a fan of train travel throughout the world. And the fact that I read substantial portions of it while actually riding the Red Line made adventure travel seem all the more possible. He took books with him as he traveled, like I do, and blended what he was reading at the time with what he was seeing as he rode the rails.
South: The Story of Shackleton's 1914-1917 Expedition
Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton
My favorite definition of "adventure" is what happens when things don't go according to plan. By that standard, Shackleton and his crew had adventures up the wazoo. Heading for Antarctica, they were shipwrecked and then made a daring, if not crazy, journey across the southern ocean in an open boat to reach an island where they might stand some hope of being rescued. There's a lot of technical, nautical and meteorological data to wade through, but Shackleton's leadership skills shine through the jargon. And the bravery and stalwartness of his crew convinced me that he couldn't have chosen a finer posse to accompany him to the ends of the earth. The fact that every last man survived the ordeal is an incredible testament to human strength and perseverance in the face of the most daunting odds.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
Robert Pirsig
I first read this classic when I was in my teens and it didn't do much for me. Almost four decades later, though, I reread it and it made a great deal more sense. Pirsig was brilliant yet mentally ill and went to pieces in a way that destroyed his marriage and terrified his young son. The motorcycle trip he took from Minnesota to California was his attempt to reassemble his very self. It's also about his obsession with the metaphysics of quality, a theory he developed to connect the objective with the subjective. When I became a motorcyclist myself, I identified completely with the contemplative states Pirsig entered into while rolling through Montana. This is a book that satisfies dramatically, intellectually, and spiritually. I was surprised and gratified earlier this year when I spotted two twenty-something women reading it at a hostel in Sri Lanka. The book has stood the test of time.
The Royal Road to Romance
Richard Halliburton
This is a -- no, the -- classic wanderlust book. In the 1920s, Richard Halliburton, a small-town merchant's son from Tennessee, was more famous than Amelia Earhart. The Royal Road to Romance, an account of his travels from the Alps to Andorra to India to Panama, served as the basis for his profitable work on the American lecture circuit. He continued to travel and have adventures all over the world until he was lost at sea in 1939 while attempting to cross the Pacific in a Chinese junk. He traveled with a insouciant attitude toward money, convention, and officialdom. This led to him being jailed as a spy in Gibraltar, spending the night at the Taj Mahal, evading fares on various trains, and climbing the Matterhorn despite being utterly ignorant of mountain climbing and woefully under-equipped. Though they may not know it, every backpacker who has set off for a foreign land with a light wallet and no firm plans is following in Halliburton's footsteps.

Cartagena 2008: Inside/Outside

Concepts like inside and outside tend to blur in Cartagena — indeed, in many tropical countries. Houses and other buildings in the old city are built around courtyards. Whether the courtyard counts as inside or outside is an issue I don’t really want to address. Same with rooftops.

The Hotel Agua had both a courtyard and a rooftop garden and pool. The views of the old city were striking, affording glimpses of both the beautiful facades of the city and the less beautiful inner and upper aspects of nearby residences.





Other much larger hotels had grand courtyards with enormous verandas, perfect for hanging out for a drink with friends. Those places were decorated in contemporary Colombian style, a look that combines Scandinavian elegance with South American colors and heat.




I preferred the smaller bars and cafés. The one below was my favorite. “Gabby comes here,” the barkeep told me, referring proudly to Cartagena’s native son, Gabriel García Márquez. I wondered how many bars in the US would so proudly announce their patronage by a then-living writer?





The cathedral was, of course, designed to over-awe and connect the congregation to the eternal. It was more restrained in its decoration than many South- and Central American churches I’ve seen, and to good effect.



Numerous alleyways were cut into the city’s buildings, resembling the medinas of Arabic nations. These further conflated the concepts of inside and outside.


This painting in a local gallery or museum caught my eye. I saw in it an ambiguous combination of gaiety and menace.

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Perhaps that was similar to the ambiguity of place I felt in Cartagena. Inside or outside? Public display or walled-off secrets? Devils or angels?

Note: some of the photos above may have been taken by Susan Doktor.

Cartagena 2008: At Night

As much as I seek to dispel stereotypes by traveling, there are some that are hard not to fall prey to. In Cartagena, I was all in on the notion that the city was every bit the magical, romantic place that its native son, Gabriel García Márquez, immortalized in Love in the Time of Cholera

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As Anand Giridharadas wrote in the New York Times a few years ago,

Truth can be stranger than fiction in Cartagena, the Colombian city whose real-life blend of seediness and charm has been an important inspiration for one of the most imaginative writers of the modern era, Gabriel García Márquez. It is a city so pregnant with the near magical that, when Mr. García Márquez took a visiting Spaniard on a tour one day that included a Creole lunch and a stroll through the old city, it lowered his opinion of Mr. García Márquez’s talents. The Spaniard told Mr. García Márquez, as he would later record in an essay, “You’re just a notary without imagination.”

I’d never dismiss García Márquez as a mere note-taker. At night there I saw deep shadows, beautiful women, desolate wallscapes, and ancient archways all lit by soft yellow streetlamps. If you don’t feel something romantic in that, there’s no emotional Cialis that’ll help you.


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Note: some of the photos above may have been taken by Susan Doktor.

The Giant Rat of Sumatra, Discovered

    “Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”
    The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire

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We now know that the giant rat of Sumatra made its way to Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, where it met a grisly end. The event was immortalized on a METRA viaduct at 16th and Ashland. Those wishing to see how giant a giant rat is are invited to click on the above photo.

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I wasn’t investigating vampirism. I came for the rat, which is often photographed and displayed online. But I found much more than a megarodent. Weird game pieces. Sponge Bob character rejects. Robbie the Robot. Don Quixote. Spontaneous abstract expressionism. Fleeing immigrants. And a guy with a big hat.

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The 27th Street Gallery — Part 2

One of the best books I’ve read this year is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

The story is set in a post-plague future where 99% of humanity is dead and the remaining few live mean and difficult lives. But the book is actually about the human need to make art, even in the most terrible of circumstances. A group of musicians and actors travels around the Great Lakes through the ruins of civilization. They play classical music and perform Shakespeare for whatever hardscrabble audiences they find. The banner on their caravan displays a quote from Star Trek: Voyager‘s Seven of Nine: “Survival is insufficient.” In this ruined future, pop cultural artifacts from the past such as graphic novels and celebrity gossip magazines are treasured and held in awe to the same degree as Shakespeare and Beethoven, though for different reasons.

I was thinking about this book as I continued my walk around 27th Street, Chicago, where it intersects Kedzie. Earlier this year, I beheld the Roman ruins at Bulla Regia and spent time communing with Amphitrite and her chums on the floor of in an underground house. Was that mosaic the graphic novel of its day? Do we venerate and preserve it nowadays in part because we know that there will be no more Roman mosaics? And if a Station Eleven-style plague really did ravage our civilization, would the graffiti murals at 27th and Kedzie one day be venerated by the descendants of our survivors? And would those descendants appreciate the murals all the more because of their incredulous understanding that such art was actually illegal in the civilization that produced it?

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Rimbaud Speaks of Bangkok

I’ve been struggling to understand why I didn’t take photos in Bangkok, why I can’t even seem to write much about it. Something about the too-muchness of that city shuts me down. Then in one of those weird coincidences of literature, I found an answer.

I’ve been reading Rimbaud’s Illuminations on and off for awhile now. Today I came upon this:


Seen enough. The vision was encountered in every kind of place.

Had enough. City uproar, in the evening, in the sunlight, and forever.

Known enough. The interruptions of life. —Oh uproar and visions!

Departure in the midst of new involvements, new sounds!

Rimbaud knew a thing or two about excess. Here, even he seems incapable of describing what he saw, heard, felt, tasted, smelled. There are no concrete nouns, no metaphors or similes. If even he could be shut down by the sensory overload of city life, then maybe I can forgive myself for not being able to commit Bangkok to words and pictures.

I was feeling wiped out after my trip to the Similan Islands yesterday. Spent most of the day in my hotel, just trying to get my digestion and temperature regulation and energy levels back to normal. A friend suggested that I had “overwhelmed my immune system.” Perhaps. But that phrase stuck with me as I considered Bangkok. After all the travel I’ve done in the last 20 months, I do feel pretty much immune to the ways that new places can assault my senses. But Bangkok seems to be an exception. I’m not immune to it yet. It infects me and stops me up.

Someday I’ll go back and figure out how and why.

Books Read in 2014

For the last few years, I’ve kept a running list of every book I’ve read. I got a Kindle last summer, which has helped me get my book fix even when I’m far from an English-language bookstore. Here’s my list of books read in 2014, presented in the order they were read, with some commentary on each one.

A Week in December
Sebastian Faulks

This battered paperback was kicking around Shane English Yuxi while I was teaching there. I knew nothing about it going in and was delighted to find a portrait of contemporary London presented through a half-dozen vivid characters. The plot centers on two plots: one by a radical Muslim group that plans to blow up a hospital and one by a financier who plans to destroy a venerable British bank. The book implicitly asks which of these is the real terrorist.

Bangkok Tattoo
John Burdett

I started this series while I was in Bangkok last Christmas and found it to be a better introduction to the city than any travel guide.

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Geoncide
Gary J. Bass

I bought this book in Dhaka, Bangladesh at the Liberation War Museum. It tells the story of Archer Blood, the American Consul in Dhaka during Bangladesh’s war of liberation from Pakistan. At that time, Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, and the government in Islamabad sent the Pakistani army there to brutally suppress a nationalist uprising. Blood pleaded with his superiors in the State Department for America to put pressure on Pakistan to stop the killing. The State Department refused because, unknown to Blood, Pakistan’s president was the go-between for the secret communications between President Nixon and the People’s Republic of China, which eventually led to Nixon’s historic visit to China. The Pakistani army was given a free hand to slaughter tens of thousands of Bangladeshis so that Nixon and Kissinger could achieve their geopolitical objectives. Blood’s staff sent an historic telegram to State, bluntly describing what was happening as “genocide” and objecting as strongly as possible to American policy. This wound up torpedoing his career. The book is an infuriating and heart-wrenching account of how America armed, equipped, and encouraged Pakistan to make war on the people of Bangladesh.

The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper
John D. MacDonald

The Green Ripper
John D. MacDonald

I love John D. MacDonald and his greatest creation, Travis McGee. McGee calls himself a “salvage consultant”; he gets back things that have been taken from their rightful owners and keeps a contingent fee of 50% for himself. But what he really salvages are troubled women. Travis has soul. Travis has a code. The many hours I’ve passed with him are like time spent with an old and wonderful friend.

The Man Who Was Thursday
G.K. Chesterton

This 1908 book is startlingly contemporary in its structure and content. A policeman is assigned to infiltrate a terrorist organization, but it soon turns out that the police themselves are running the organization. The set-up is written for laughs for much of the book, but toward the end some serious questions about the relationship of society to terrorism are addressed. Chesterton’s writing reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s.

The Casual Vacancy
J.K. Rowling

Yes, that J.K. Rowling. This is an adult novel about the hatred and ugliness that lurk just beneath the surface of a small English town. Rowling’s voice is unmistakable, though it’s a bit of a jolt to hear that voice detailing sexual acts and drug use. What also comes through is her abiding sympathy for people who get the short end of the stick again and again.

King Solomon’s Mines
H. Rider Haggard

This 1885 adventure yarn feels cartoonish today, and its casual racism is infuriating. But it’s the sort of tale that inspired a lot of young boys to get out and explore the world, something that resonates with me.

Bangkok Haunts
John Burdett

More adventures of Bangkok Buddhist policeman Sonchai Jitpleecheep.

The Quiet American
Graham Greene

I read a lot of books by and about expats. That means I’ve read a lot of Greene. And I don’t think this is one of his best. Or maybe it’s just hard to enjoy a book in which all the main characters are so unlikable and uninteresting.

The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization
Bryan Ward-Perkins

I’ve visited several Roman ruins in Tunisia and Turkey, so I picked this up to educate myself about why the ruins are ruins. In the late-Roman historical debate between the Castrophists and the Transformationists, Ward-Perkins is definitely in the former school. His book is one long rebuttal to those historians who say that what happened to Rome in the fifth through eighth centuries really wasn’t all that bad or even all that dramatic.

Bright Orange for the Shroud
John D. MacDonald

More quality time with Travis McGee.

Zanzibar to Timbuktu: A Journey Across Africa
Theodore Dalrymple

This was my introduction to Dalrymple, the kind of enlightened social conservative I would love to have a beer with. The book tells the story of Dalrymple’s travels from Tanzania to Mali, all of which he accomplished using buses, trains, and taxis. Along the way he considers the many follies of well-intentioned westerners who seek to bring “development” to Africa and frequently wind up leaving things worse than when they found them. Two things separate Dalrymple from other social conservatives. One is his obvious sympathy for and personal knowledge of the people of Africa. The other is the sterling quality of his prose. Damn, that guy can write. And he’s funny, too.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson

Since Dalrymple (above) writes about some of the most impoverished countries in the world, this book seemed like a good way to answer the question why some countries are successful and others are not. Acemoglu and Robinson reject theories of geographical, climatological, or historical determinism and argue that countries develop (or not) at different rates because of specific policy choices made by their rulers.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Since I’m interested in applying for a grant under the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists & Writers Program, I began reading a lot about Antarctica. The author of this novel went to Antarctica under the same grant program and produced this fine book, which, unfortunately for me, covers a lot of the same themes I was thinking of: the idea of independent communities, the pressures of global climate change, the tension between preservationists and economic developers, the social conflicts between the scientists and the Antarctic support staff.

Don’t Die In Bed: The Brief, Intense Life of Richard Halliburton
John H. Alt

Richard Halliburton was a popular adventurer and writer of the early twentieth century. His first book, The Royal Road to Romance, was one of my travel inspirations. This biography has some annoying verbal tics, but is nonetheless a informative look at Halliburton’s life, travels, and work.

Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo
Vanessa Woods

I loved this book. It’s got many things I enjoy: travel, adventure, sex, science, and an exotic locale. The author subtly compares her and her boyfriend’s behavior to bonobo behavior, and it’s not always clear whose is better.

Escape from Freedom
Erich Fromm

This is a classic that somehow I never read before. Fromm’s theory is that modern man suffers from the loss of certainty about his place in the world, which is the flip side of freedom. Political extremists offer to restore the sense of belonging and the certainties, and are thus deeply attractive to people on a psychosocial level.

The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi

I read one sci-fi novel every year. This one I bought because I liked the cover, a scene of a post-apocalyptic Bangkok with a huge elephant, a blimp, and other steampunk trappings. The book was as good as the cover. In the post-“contraction” future, the planet has heated up, the seas have risen, and the world economy is dominated by “calorie companies.” Genetically modified plants and animals and terrifying diseases and blights are aspects of daily existence. The titular windup girl is a bioengineered human who is genetically disposed to compliance and service. She finds herself in the middle of a civil war between the Thai Ministry of Trade and the Ministry of the Environment for control of Thailand. Great story and characters, with more than a hint of allegory.

A Geography Of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist
Robert Levine

OK, people in different cultures treat the idea of time differently. This seems kind of obvious to me. And the author seems to conflate the idea of time with the idea of pace. I was not impressed.

Thomas Pynchon

I’ve read V. at least a dozen times and with each read I find something new. This is Pynchon’s first novel, and it confounds me that at age 25, he knew about ten times as much as I ever will. And while my earlier readings supported the oft-proclaimed view that Pynchon’s stories and characters are “chilly,” I find more and more warmth with each reading. One way to describe V. is to say that it’s about the trajectories of two men, one with no direction at all and the other who’s goal-obsessed, who eventually intersect on Malta in search of a mysterious woman who may or may not exist. But this would be to describe only the surface of an incredibly deep exploration of the meaning of the twentieth century.

South: The Story of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Expedition
Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton

This is an account of the catastrophes which befell Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition and the resolute steps he took to save his men. The first half of the book is a rather dull explication of early twentieth century seamanship, but the second half is a remarkable study of leadership in the some of the most difficult situations imaginable.

At the Mountains of Madness
H.P. Lovecraft

Another Antarctic book. Lovecraft imagines the ruins of an ancient civilization in Antartica, one that may not be entirely dead. It’s less about the real continent of Antarctica and more about what Lovecraft imagined one might find in a mysterious and unexplored land.

Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex
Katherine Frank

Frank is a Duke University cultural anthropologist who has researched and written about monogamy, fidelity, and sex work. This book is a cross-cultural history of group sex (both consensual and nonconsensual) from Roman times to the present. More thought-provoking than titillating.

Ice Reich
William Dietrich

Nazis in Antarctica. Pretty pulpy.

Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses
Theodore Dalrymple

A collection of essays by the delightfully dyspeptic Dalrymple.

The Stoned Apocalypse
Marco Vassi

I read this book and the Dalrymple book (above) at the same time. They’re ideological opposites: Dalymple is a dyspeptic social conservative and Vassi is a hedonistic hippie. They’re both good writers, though, with a disdain for bullshit, however bullshit is variously defined.

The Tragedy of the Korosko
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This 1898 story is remarkably timely. A group of European and American travelers on a Nile riverboat is ambushed by a group of Islamic militants, who offer them the choice between conversion and death. Of course the Europeans triumph in the end, but not before sustaining serious losses.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
George Packer

Without being didactic, Packer shows how America has been hollowed out — or “unwound” — in the last couple decades. He follows three ordinary Americans as they struggle in the new, grim economic environment. He intersperses brief biographies of entertainers, writers, businesspeople, and others. He never shoves the tragedy of economic dislocation in the readers’ faces or screams “how can we let this happen?” He doesn’t have to.

Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn

A nicely-done he-said, she-said thriller. Good observations about the dynamics of marriage. I was disappointed in the ending, which essentially leaves the reader with no one to root for.

Travis McGee & Me: Reflections on the Man from Slip F-18
D.R. Martin

I’ve followed Martin’s Travis McGee blog for some time and hoped to find something new here. However, this book is just a lightly-edited compilation of his blog entries. It’s essentially a collection of plot summaries of all the Travis McGee novels, which is fine as far as that goes. People looking for a more insightful analysis of McGee will have to look elsewhere.

An Antarctic Mystery
Jules Verne

In 1897, Jules Verne published this book, which is essentially a sequel to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. So little was known about Antarctica at that time that authors like Verne and Poe felt free to write their own imaginings on the tabula rasa of the white continent. This book reads like a love letter to Poe, whom Verne clearly holds in awe. As a book, though, it’s more revealing of how Antarctica was perceived in the artistic imagination of the 19th century than anything else.

Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period
Michelle Mercer

I became obsessed with Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album last summer when I was traveling from Asia to America to North Africa. Travel is the main theme of the album, especially the conflict between the urge to be with old friends and lovers and the urge to venture out into the new. This book explores how Mitchell came to write the songs on the album. Interesting, but not quite the in-depth textual analysis I had hoped for.

A Bullet For Cinderella
John D. MacDonald

This was one of the hard-boiled novels MacDonald turned out before he created Travis McGee. It’s interesting to hear his voice in this different context, but compared to the McGee series, it’s a journeyman effort.

Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel

For the first 80% of this novel, I was ready to name it as the best book I’d read all year. It seems like a response to all the apocalyptic zombie/plague movies and books this century has produced. In this book, a flu pandemic wipes out more than 99% of the human population. One band of survivors travels around the Great Lakes playing classical music and performing Shakespeare. On their caravan is printed “Because survival is not enough.” It’s a book about the urge to make art and to touch the sublime even in — or especially in — terrible times. Unfortunately, Mandel couldn’t sustain the wonder or the tension, and in the last 20% all narrative tension and even unique characterization seem to vanish.

Bangkok 9

On Christmas eve, I catch a tuk-tuk to Khaosan Road. Anyone who’s seen or read The Beach knows that street as the place where Richard is first given the mysterious map to the island. It’s backpacker central. In Bangkok Eight, Burdett questions whether it is really part of Thailand at all. I arrive at 8:30 at night and the street seems crowded, but by 10:00 it’s almost impossible to move.

There are bars and inexpensive restaurants, street musicians, travel agents hawking packages to Phuket, stalls offering the latest in tie-dye clothing, Bob Marley paraphernalia, bookstores (in one, I bought what turned out to be a bootleg copy of a Lonely Planet guide to Bangladesh), cheap guesthouses and hostels. There are storefronts advertising in Hebrew, catering to the young Israelis who’ve just been discharged from the IDF and are now on their almost mandatory round-the-world treks. There are young people everywhere. I’ve been on many streets like this, though not for quite a while. To tell the truth, it’s good to be back. It’s easy to sneer at hippie travelers, but even after all this time it still feels like these are my people.

(Ahead to Bangkok 10)

(Back to Bangkok 8)