The writers featured in this winter’s holiday books selection are seekers – whether of discovery or the desire to share knowledge, or personal enlightenment. They are tough and resilient – for some there is the risk they will not survive the journey — and their stories just may be among the most compelling you will ever seek out.
1000 Sacred Places: The World’s Most Extraordinary Spiritual Sites, Christoph Engels (HF Ullmann) Paperback
The ultimate for travelers who seek a higher purpose, this book offers one thousand places worldwide where people have journeyed — some over thousands of years – on pilgrimage or simply individual quests to refresh their spirit and move ahead. There are countless places you’ll want to explore, if only through this book. Here for example are the mysterious rock carvings of Altafjord (Norway), Hindu, Buddhist and Shinto temples in Asia, natural sanctuaries in Australia and Africa, and prehistoric cult sites. This book offers rich content: organized by geography, color coded for each continent, 950 full color pages with photographs and illustrations, a list of symbols, glossary, plus GPS coordinates. Not least, Engels also incorporates his own essays on sacred nature, mythology, culture and pilgrimage. Author Christoph Engels studied theology and philosophy and is pastor of a Protestant Parish in Germany. Goodreads review and Blogcritics review
Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies, Alastair Bonnett (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 270 pp $25
Bonnett finds the most unlikely of things in an increasingly urbanized, highly populated planet – new places. Here’s an example: Krasnoyarsk 26. It is a “closed city” of 90,000. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia was born, it seemed likely these former Soviet communities would choose to open up. But when people were given the choice in 1996, the people of Krasnoyarsk 26 voted to remain a closed city. What is it ? “Home to a top-secret nuclear reactor that has become sort of the ultimate gated community.” There are other gated cities in the former Soviet Union. Who knew? Bonnett, who is a Newcastle University geography professor, has a knack for finding strange borders, where odd bits of land from several countries are assembled together, or a verdant place that does not appear on any map. Curious ? NPR radio interview Review in Boston Globe
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, Artemis Cooper (New York Review Books) 448 pp. $30.
Considered possibly the finest travel writer of the 20th century, Patrick (“Paddy” ) Fermor lived many lives in his 96 years – both the real and the imagined. His classic works A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) , are a chronicle, decades later, of his year-long walk across Europe in 1933, from Rotterdam to Constantinople, as a footloose 18-year-old . He’d already been kicked out of boarding school (twice) and sold silk stockings door to door to make ends meet! (The third volume in his masterful trilogy, The Broken Road, was published posthumously in 2013.) Fermor proved his survival skills decades ahead of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road amblings in the 1950s. There’s a bit of everything that readers delight in with a complex travel-memoir –“colorful characters, historical curiosities ancient and modern, reflections on geography…and sparkling dialogue.” One reviewer calls these works a “Proustian travelogue.” Fermor’s biographer Artemis Cooper (Patrick Leigh Fermor An Adventure) was fortunate to have first-hand access to her subject for much of her research, but has her hands full trying to extract from him the full story of his life. (Read the New York Times feature of how she wrote the book.) Cooper reminds her readers of “the interplay of Paddy’s memory and his imagination,” that formed these impossibly rich tales, as well as his recall for the biography. A prolific writer (books on Greece and the Caribbean, among others), Fermor is perhaps most admired for the books that resulted from his youthful European quest. If you decide to read the trilogy, settle in, have a dictionary nearby (he specializes in arcana) and your utmost concentration. These works are exquisitely written but complex.
Three women’s journeys
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed (Alfred A Knopf) 315 pp $25.95 Strayed’s 1100-mile solo hike on the grueling Pacific Crest Trail came after death, divorce and drugs nearly robbed her of a future life. Among her challenges, the greatest changes of elevation of any American scenic trail, passing through high and low desert, forest and alpine ecosystems, and perhaps the greatest reward, a reclaimed life. Now in paperback, Wild has been made into a motion picture for release December 2014. Radio interview with Cheryl Strayed (Diane Rehm show) Author’s web site Book review (NY Times)
White Beech: The Rainforest Years, Germaine Greer (Bloomsbury) 370 pp illus $34.95. Many people think of Germaine Greer as the “rock star” of the feminist movement in the 1970s. When Greer published The Female Eunuch in 1970, it became a best-seller ( available in 11 languages) and made her an international presence in the feminist movement. Thirty years on, she returned to her native Australia and sank her savings (some $500,000) into a farm hard by an ancient Australian forest in Queensland.
An unlikely quest ? Greer put her hand to reversing the devastation and conservation failures she saw in southeast Queensland – open mines, forest cut for timber, beaches littered. This memoir details her decade-long quest to restore “60 hectares of steep rocky country, most of it impenetrable scrub”, part of a farm at Cave Creek in the Numinbah Valley. (Thankfully her sister is a botanist!) Greer says, “[M]y horizons flew away, my notion of time expanded and deepened, and my self disappeared.” Greer Greer healed the land: Today, Cave Creek Rainforest Rehabilitation Scheme is a charity (Friends of Gondwana Rainforest). The memoir is named for the White Beech, a rare type of tree, Gmelina leichhardtii, which was almost logged to extinction in the 19th century and was revived at Cave Creek. Book review
Still Points North: Surviving the World’s Greatest Alaskan Childhood, Leigh Newman. (The Dial Press) Hardcover, 272 pages
Leigh Newman charted her way through two radically different worlds, in this tale of dividing her young life between summers in the Alaskan wilderness with her “Great Alaska” dad and school years with her urbane mother in Baltimore. Trying to figure out where she belonged, Newman adapted to two worlds: rugged wilderness, hunting and fishing with her dad, and life at a private girl’s school, mastering Latin and social graces. “Still Points North is a love letter,” says the reviewer,” to an unconventional Alaskan childhood of endurance and affection, one that teaches us that no matter where you go in life, the truest tests of courage are the chances you take, not with bears and blizzards, but with other people. The author’s web site Interview with the author
Tibet Wild: A Naturalist’s Journeys on the Roof of the World, by George B. Schaller. (Island Press, $29.95.)
Author of several dozen books – including readable works on lions, gorillas and pandas–Dr George Schaller trekked to Nepal with the late Peter Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard) in search of the snow leopard. While they were unsuccessful in spotting one, Schaller continued on after Matthiessen went home, tracked the cats, and went on to convince the Nepalese government to create a 1,000-square mile area as a national park. Schaller has spent three decades, for months each year, in the rarified air in remote parts of Chang Tang highlands of the Tibetan plateau. Chang Tang’s animals are less known to us, but no less intriguing: the yak, the kiang, a wild ass with a white belly, and the chiru, a charming antelope-li ke creature. While this might be a lonely place for many of us, not to mention exhausting at 15,000 feet, Schaller disagrees. “The desolation calms,” he remarks, “it does not intimidate.” Schaller’s particular concern – the ongoing slaughter of the chiru, whose hair is highly sought for weaving fine shawls. This wool does not shed: some 20,000 were killed annually in the 1990’s. It can take up to three dead chiru to weave one warm, finely woven shawl. Schaller’s conservation efforts are lonely, tough work that can be appreciated by an armchair traveler.
“I console myself that natural history remains the cornerstone of conservation, “he says, “ that it must be learned on the ground, asking questions, observing, listening, taking notes, getting the boots muddy.” Book review Videos
The Tiger: A true story of vengeance and survival, John Vaillant ( Alfred A Knopf) 329 pp illus. $26.95
Huffington Post reminds us that the number of tigers worldwide has plunged 95% over the past century – perhaps just 3,200 living in the wild. This story is about the one that got away – a subarctic Amur tiger that goes rogue, acquiring a taste for humans. While Trush [of the tiger preservation team] tries to solve the mystery of where the tiger is, Vaillant tries to solve the mystery of why the tiger went rogue. To do this, he takes the reader deep into the tiger’s world, creating an intimate portrait of its inner life.”Book Review Excerpt from the book NPR radio story
In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, Hampton Sides Doubleday, 451 pp). An expedition outfitted by the wealthy publisher of the New York Herald—who fantasized a great series emanating from this voyage — the USS Jeannette was decked out with fancy Victorian technology but preposterous ideas of how to navigate pack ice in a wooden ship. The ship became imprisoned near Wrangel Island in ice pack for 21 months, then crushed by ice floes when the weather and water finally warmed. The story of Lieut. George Washington DeLong and his crew may not be as storied as that of Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, but every bit as terrifying.Review in the Washington Post
Telling Our Way to the Sea: a Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez by a trio of writers: Aaron Hirsh and his wife, Veronica Volny, both biologists, and Graham Burnett, a science historian (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 394 pp) Hirsh uses his field class with students at the Vermilion Sea Institute in Baja’s tiny fishing village of Bahía de los Ángeles to weave a singular tale of the confounding creatures and amazing complexity of marine life: a sea cucumber expels its internal organs through its anus and has the ability to regenerate its organs from stems cells in the body cavity; the group’s travels in two pangas (small skiffs about 20 feet in length) lead to an encounter with fin whales (they can weigh up to 260,000 pounds!) that explode water and mist just below their bow. Along with their amazing discoveries, the field team also figures out what is missing – upheavals of both evolution and environmental change – mostly resulting from human intervention and development. Review in the Seattle Times Read a beautiful related OPED by Hirsh
The Emerald Mile, Kevin Fedarko (Simon & Schuster). Now in paperback $17.
Kevin Fedarko’s passion for the Grand Canyon is matched by his masterful storytelling. It began, as many stories do, with a fascination. His were the decorated wooden dorys used carry people on rafting trips down the Colorado River. Says Fedarko, ” I decided that I was going to have to follow those little boats into the hidden world of whitewater at the bottom of the Grand Canyon by signing on as an apprentice river guide.” (Great canyon video)
Fedarko’s experience was pretty pedestrian – he ferried the “poop” boat known as the Jackass that is an essential part of “taking everything out, ” leaving nothing behind on these trips. What changed everything was his decision to take up the story of the Colorado River flood of 1983. It was an El Nino year, a time of high temperatures and the snowmelt was especially fierce, propelling waters toward the 710-foot-high wall of Glen Canyon Dam. Three men – in a wooden dory known as The Emerald Mile – decided to do a speed run in those raging floodwaters to break the speed record. Says Fedarko, “…the runoff on the Colorado achieved a size and a level of savagery that had not been witnessed in generations.” The Emerald Mile is also a story of admiration for the engineers desperately trying to save the dam — despised by naturalists and much needed for agriculture and drinking water — from ruin. America’s cathedral –the “church without a roof” as some call the natural attraction – is today under threat from unthinkable development, and Fedarko is stepping in to foil developers’ plans to build a tramway to the bottom of the Canyon and ferry hundreds more people daily to the bottom; and develop a town that’s less than two miles from the rim. (Read the OP-ED in the New York Times) Story of Fedarko’s book
WANT MORE BOOKS ?
If your thirst for questing/adventure and travel needs to be slaked, here are more Green News Update books featured in 2012 And come back soon for more books to give this holiday season on the history of cities, urban design, natural history, photography and more!