July 27, 2012
So many places to go, and so many books to read—and so we continue last week’s list with more suggestions of great books to read, and the best places to read them.
Cameroon, The Innocent Anthropologist. When a pragmatic English scientist meets the superstitions and seeming simplicity of a rural people in Cameroon, multicultural comedy unfurls. So it goes for Nigel Barley as he struggles to interpret the ways of the gregarious, beer-brewing Dowayo tribe, whose friendliness both hinders and helps Barley as he conducts his doctoral research. The story is told from the grad student’s discerning but patient point of view—and the reader who takes this book onto a crowded subway train may fall into helpless fits of giggling as one set of cultural norms runs head-on into the other. No matter; keep reading. Watch for the episode in which Barley, after being informed of yet another setback in a long string of bureaucratic hassles over visas and research funding, glumly takes a seat on a fence post to ponder his uncertain future in academia. Promptly, a local man rushes over with sincere concern to tell Barley that he mustn’t sit on a fence, which will draw vitamins from a body and cause illness. Barley, who had for months displayed an admirable show of patience for the Dowayos’ superstitions, blows his lid, ranting and ridiculing their beliefs. But if we’re to ever learn anything from the science of anthropology, it’s that the watched may also be the watcher—and to the Dowayo, this English white man scribbling in notebooks, eating chicken eggs, sitting on fence posts and having causeless tantrums is probably as inexplicable as they are to Barley. For further reading about Central Africa, The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 bestseller, takes us to the Belgian Congo in 1959, where a determined Baptist missionary named Nathan Price has brought his wife and four daughters. As in The Mosquito Coast, the Americans’ life in the steamy jungle dissolves and is bound for tragedy, while Price’s mind deteriorates.
Alaska, Into the Wild. Beyond the cruise ship and tour bus routes, nearly every traveler in Alaska has come there, in part, to face-off with extreme adventure and virgin wilderness—to be in a place whose rugged beauty goes hand in hand with unforgiving danger. And so went Chris McCandless almost 20 years ago to Alaska, after months spent adventuring in the lower 48 and Mexico, as he sought to break the social contract and connect with nature and with himself. Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, tells the famous story of McCandless’ abandonment of society, his adoption of the pseudonym Alex Supertramp and his grand finale in America’s greatest, or most terrible, wilderness. Here, McCandless runs out of food on the wrong side of a high-running river. Though he subsists by shooting small game and picking berries, he slowly loses weight—and eventually McCandless dies in the harsh world he had pursued as a sort of Eden. For further reading, To the Top of Denali describes the most terrifying and disastrous attempts to climb North America’s tallest mountain—a four-mile-high peak that may dazzle its admirers from afar but could claim their lives if they attempted to hike to its summit.
The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, Biography of a Grizzly. Published in 1899, Ernest Seton Thompson’s illustrated novella, The Biography of a Grizzly, was one of the first expressions of compassion for what was at the time among the most hated beasts of the Wild West. The book details the life of Wahb, a grizzly born in Wyoming in the late 1800s, when Euro-Americans were at work conquering the West and driving the grizzly bear toward regional extinction. We are introduced to Wahb as a 1-year-old cub, when he and his siblings are still learning the ways of the wilderness—such as how to catch giant buffalo fish in streams and make a meal of an anthill. Then, as the bears pass a warm afternoon in a grassy meadow, bullets begin to fly. All the bears are downed by the distant sharpshooter—except for Wahb, who scurries into the woods, his family dead and he wounded in both flesh and spirit. Embittered with a hatred of people and distrust of the world, Wahb survives—and in spite of bullying by coyotes and black bears, he grows up. He quickly outsizes all his enemies, and he becomes the biggest, kingliest grizzly in the mountains. He can smash logs to pieces with one swipe of his giant paw, and can pull steel-jawed bear traps off his paws like clothespins. The story easily evokes the beauty of the Grand Tetons and the high plains of Yellowstone, but the reader senses a dark future, and the Biography of a Grizzly ultimately calls for a box of tissue paper. For time, and the encroach of mankind, will be Wahb’s doom.
The High Arctic, Never Cry Wolf. It is 1948, and a decline in the caribou population of the Canadian Arctic has spurred government action, and a young biologist named Farley Mowat is assigned to study the region’s wolves, verify that they have played a role in obliterating the great migrating herds and effectively give the Canadian Department of the Interior the green light to cull their numbers. But Mowat, who will become one of North America’s most prominent nature writers, makes a surprising discovery: The wolves are mostly eating mice. Uncertain he can convince his superiors and his critics of such a conclusion without strong evidence, Mowat undertakes to do the same—to subsist, at least for a time, on heaping helpings of one-ounce rodents. Never Cry Wolf is Mowat’s memoir describing his months spent camping on the Arctic tundra, developing a unique friendship with a local wolf community and refining methods and recipes for cooking mice, which infest his tent cabin. The 1983 film version of Mowat’s book brings great comedy to his story but ends with a crushing scene of sport hunters packing wolf pelts into a seaplane as Mowat, played by Charles Martin Smith, looks sullenly on. The plane flies away in a blast of noise and wind, and Mowat is left alone, the wolves he knew dead and gone, and his efforts to exonerate them of wanton caribou-killing seemingly for naught. Critics have questioned Mowat’s integrity as a scientist and as a reliable conveyor of facts—but he tells a good story.
England, Notes From a Small Island. “If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, ‘Well, now that’s a bit of a tall order’…” So writes Bill Bryson in Chapter 1 of Notes From a Small Island, and though Britons, as he describes them, seem to have no understanding of road-tripping and make a muddy mess of driving directions, the author manages to find his way. And so Bryson tours England, marveling at its ridiculously designed suburbs, its appalling food and the unintentional charm of its people. Bryson proves as he always does in his books: that it’s possible to double over laughing at the cultures and customs of a familiar Western nation. For further reading, Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There is his good-natured laugh-attack of mainland Europe; in In a Sunburned Country, Bryson takes on Australia; and in The Lost Continent, he discovers the absurdities of America.
Other suggestions, briefly:
Italy, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro. Journalist Joe McGinnis takes readers into the mountains of Abruzzo, where a small-town soccer team, through what seems a miracle, ascends into the higher standings of the national soccer leagues—but the great Italian dream crashes amid sour smells of the mafia, cheaters and rats.
Spain, Driving Over Lemons. Author Chris Stewart recounts leaving his life in suburban England for a new one in Andalucia, in southern Spain, where he soaks up the idiosyncrasies and comedy of the region’s friendly but rugged village culture.
California wine country, The Silverado Squatters. In this fast-reading memoir, Robert Louis Stevenson describes his nine weeks of residence in the Napa Valley in the 1880s . The land—wealthy tourist country today—was still frontier country then, and though the wine was still young, it was Stevenson who famously said with foresight “…and the wine is bottled poetry.”
The American Southwest, Desert Solitaire. To bring the desert to life on your next Southwest getaway, pack along a paperback copy of Desert Solitaire—Edward Abbey’s classic eulogy to the canyon lands and mesa country of Utah. Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, by W.L. Rusho, may have the same effect. The book tells the famous story of the artist and desert wanderer from Southern California who spent several years developing a fast relationship with some of the wildest country in America before vanishing without a trace in Utah in 1934, when he was only 20.
Greece, The Odyssey. Homer’s most celebrated story brings to life the lands and seas of Greece, depicted then much as they still look and feel today. Whether you’re cycling through Greece’s wild mountains or kayaking along its ragged, rocky coast, you’ll be reminded by a few pages each night of The Odyssey (pick your translation) of the nation’s deep history, and you may never want to quit your travels in this most classic of the world’s landscapes.
Which books did I miss? Name them in the comment box below.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.