lefaquin’s #CBR5 Review #5: Baghdad Without A Map by Tony Horowitz

Everyone should read this book. Instead of handing your parents another dull memoir of ‘traveling in the Middle East’ which Orientalizes and exoticizes the region, give them Baghdad Without a Map. It’s entertaining, thought provoking, informed, self-aware, and by far one of the best (entertaining-style) books I’ve read on the region. For a few rambling thoughts, check out my blog – but really, just go read the book.

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reginadelmar’s #CBRV review #12 Yoga for Peope Who can’t be Bothered to Do it by Geoff Dyer

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This book has been kicking around the house for over a year, and for the life of me I don’t know how it got here. Was it a staff picks at Powell’s near the cash register?  Did a visiting friend leave it behind? My spouse denies any knowledge of it, even though travel books are right up his alley.  Not knowing how the book arrived is perfect, because it’s a tricky little book to describe. It’s not about yoga, although it’s a better meditation on life than many a yoga session I’ve experienced. The upper right hand corner of the back cover says Travel/Memoir.  I suppose this is accurate, but it’s less about the travels and more about numerous journeys over ten years pursuing nothing in particular.

The forward of the book is a short reflection of the meaning of home, is it a place where we experience certain things, or is it a place at all? Is the book describing a journey home, or is it merely a collection of travel stories?  Dyer’s travels to different places in the world include a lot of things: humor, truths, great dialogue, snippets of poetry and philosophy.  As all good travelers know, it is the ugliness, the unexpected, the inconvenient that make the best and the funniest travel stories. Dyer’s observations about mice, mold and excrement all made me laugh. His observations of people and place are witty and refreshing.

While Dyer probably would disapprove of this description, ultimately this is a book of self-discovery. I don’t mean this to be trite; it isn’t an Englishman’s version of Eat Pray Love. During the 10 year span of the book Dyer is experiencing self-doubt, and ultimately some type of breakdown. The breakdown is not the focus of the book; there is no self-pity. Rather, Dyer observes moments of truth and is cognizant enough to realize that it is these moments that get us through life. For example, he describes being in the “zone:” those moments where he doesn’t wish he were anywhere else. I’ve experienced that same feeling a few times: on a rocky point overlooking the Straits of Juan de Fuca or standing at almost 5000 meters in the Himalaya. Being in the zone is terrific, but of course, it doesn’t last. What Dyer knows is that life’s crap; unhappiness and struggles are part of life.  As are those rare moments which make you feel like your whole life is worthwhile.  It’s all part of the journey.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #12: Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa

This is a great travel book which manages to combine politics, history, economics, art history, memoir, and insight into Nigerian fast food dishes. It provides what really good travel stories do, the vicarious thrills of travel without having to get your passport stamped. Noo (pronounced “gnaw”) Saro-Wiwa went back to Nigeria with trepidation – she hated going there as a child, much preferring her adopted homeland of England, but wanted to confront her own prejudices and find out just what was true about the country more notorious for government corruption and spam emails than its rich heritage and beautiful landscape. It’s understandable how difficult this would be for anyone, but her name is familiar for a reason, her father was the murdered activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of the most famous Nigerians in the world.

She moves around this huge country and sees just how bad the corruption is, and the strange and sometimes wonderful ways Nigerians have coped with it. As well as writing with great economy and skill about complex social patterns and the way that the governments and oil companies have screwed over much of the populace, she allows herself to express her feelings being confronted with the big problems – lack of infrastructure, the environmental neglect – and the frustrating small problems, like the constant noise of Lagos and the impossibility of getting a clean hotel room.

I wanted to read this as a fan of so many great Nigerian artists (Fela and Femi Kuti, Helon Habila, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Abani, etc etc) and having seen this great short film about Lagos. Saro-Wiwa gives us a much more nuanced view of the country than the awfully one-dimensional take of ‘poor Africa’ that gets stuck. A funny, sometimes moving, very enjoyable read.

lyndamk #cbr5 review #4: Vietnam: Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton

Vietnam: Rising Dragon is not just for the Vietnam bound or Southeast Asian fans. Considering Vietnam is the 13th most populous country in the world. Considering President Obama has proclaimed a Pacific Pivot. And considering the rising dragon is nestled in the armpit of China, this is a country to watch. Read more at my blog …

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #2: The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny

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This novel, set in Europe at the end of the 16th century, tells of a daughter’s quest to find her father as well as herself. Gabriella Mondini is a Venetian doctor who learned her skills by her father’s side and was accepted (begrudgingly) into the Venetian doctors guild as long as her father was her patron. When the story begins, Gabriella’s father has been gone for 10 years and the guild has terminated her membership. Dr. Mondini had been working on a book of disease with Gabriella, and when he left, he took it with him, leaving his daughter without her father, her patron and her work.

 

Mondini sent occasional letters to his daughter as he traveled, and over the years, he became more and more lax with providing dates or cities from which he wrote. Moreover, the content of his letters became increasingly confusing and distressing. What really drove him away? Was it a desire to learn more of disease or was it to hide his own illness? When she receives a final message from him, without date or point of origin, telling Gabriella that he will not return and she should not look for him, Gabriella, naturally, resolves to find him. She gathers up her servants Olmina and Lorenzo, her own book of diseases that she has been recreating from memory, and bids her unsupportive and shrill mother good-by. Gabriella retraces her father’s steps through Europe, starting with his first letters, which did indicate cities and fellow doctors whom he had consulted.

The novel follows her journeys through a year and reveals much about the unstable political political situation in Europe, the widespread suspicion of “healers” as opposed to doctors (who seem to be purely intellectual in their pursuits) and particularly of women. It also shows Gabriella’s own development — is she mad to pursue her father, who seems to have left behind a dubious reputation in the cities he visited? Interspersed throughout the novel are excerpts from Gabriella’s book, which is largely about psychological and emotional disorders. Melancholia, loss of desire, invidia (the invisible worm that consumes the heart), the “repugnance of closed space” — how many of these maladies, which frequently defy cure, afflict Gabriella and her father?

I admire the authors’ ambition in covering so much ground — geographically, historically and psychologically. Her characters travel through Northern Europe, Scotland, France, Spain and North Africa on their odyssey, and O’Melveny does a fine job of showing the political, social and cultural atmosphere of these places. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Gabriella. At times I thought her impetuous and selfish, but this is perhaps reflective of her class and upbringing. I found the story arc to be satisfying without stretching the credulity too much, and the writing is lovely. O’Melveny is a poet and it comes through in her novel.

Some women think of love as a rising thing, but I’d always known it as a descent where I might lose myself or my beloved. A sweetness and then a severance greater than original solitude. And so I feared joy. Yet there in the library [we] climbed the bright ladder of the body, as if it were sky and we a deafening, twisting flock of birds that could never fall to earth.

This was a pleasurable read. Recommended for those who have read and enjoyed the novels of Sarah Dunant and Geraldine Brooks.