Books: Contrarian Carols

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, December 1995

Books: Contrarian Carols
By Miles Harvey

The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, by Paul Theroux (G. P. Putnam's Sons, $27.50). You're not likely to find a better holiday gift for armchair adventurers than this wild and wise new epic by one of the planet's premier travel writers. In now-classic books such as The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, and Riding the Iron Rooster, Theroux searched out some of the globe's most remote regions. At age 50, however, he realized that he had never been to such historic destinations as Spain, Israel, Egypt, and Morocco. So, in The Pillars of Hercules, he sets out from Gibraltar, planning to circle the Mediterranean, what the Greeks called "the navel of the world." As always with Theroux, it is his "usual improvisations en route" that provide the fun. In France, he crosses paths with the crew of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior. In Albania, he discovers "by far the oddest" beach in Europe: a makeshift used-car lot of 500 stolen automobiles. In Egypt, he visits author Naguib Mahfouz in a hospital where the 83-year-old Nobel Prize winner is recovering from a knife attack by a Moslem extremist. Theroux is one of our wittiest contrarians, and some of the reader's best moments here are some of the author's worst, such as a 23-hour journey "in the sulfurous interior of a bus of chain-smoking Turks." Theroux himself concedes that "there is a great deal of pleasure to be derived from a travel book in which the traveler is having a bad time." We can only look forward to his next set of marvelous misfortunes.

West from the Columbia: Views at the River Mouth, photographs by Robert Adams (Aperture, $50). The Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean are not the only forces that meet near the town of Astoria, Oregon. Many of the important currents of American history come together there, too. In 1805, for example, Lewis and Clark arrived at the spot, the farthest point in their historic journey that opened up the West. More recently, the area has been a center for clear-cut logging and the site of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. In his latest collection of photographs, Adams delivers a stark and subtle study of the place. His black-and-white photos--of beaches, jetties, dunes, and driftwood, but mostly of the sea--aren't immediately overwhelming. But as you flip through them again and again, the pages turning slowly and methodically like undulating waves, these fine photographs begin to take you in with the hypnotic power of the ocean itself.

Ancient America, photographs by David Muench (Roberts Rinehart, $60). Like the late artist Georgia O'Keeffe, Muench has a startling ability to find an almost sweat-and-blood sensuality in unlikely objects: sandstone rocks, wildflowers, cypress trees, and mountain streams. In this handsome coffee-table book, the widely published nature photographer offers his vision of pre-Columbian America in more than 200 color photographs of primeval-looking landscapes from Hawaii to Maine. Muench's prehistoric America is a decidedly pretty place, full of dramatic sunsets, crashing waves, sun-dappled forests, mysterious fog, picturesque waterfalls, stark light, and vivid colors. What we get, in short, is a kind of romantic never-never land, a postcard version of natural history. But what glorious postcards they are.

Blue Pastures, by Mary Oliver (Harcourt Brace & Company, $13). In her first collection of essays, Oliver exhibits the combination of trenchant observation and forceful frugality of language that has earned her poetry the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. At first glance, Blue Pastures seems thematically slapdash: discourses about Walt Whitman and Edna St. Vincent Millay side by side with homilies on great horned owls and bluefin tuna. But to Oliver, literature and nature are inseparable. Indeed, she sees poetry as vital not only to her own well-being, but to that of the earth. "In the hives and dungeons of the city," she writes, "poetry cannot console, it carries no weight, for the pact between the natural world and the individual has been broken." The finest achievement of these haunting little essays is that they leave us yearning to recover that bond.

The Sierra Club Desert Reader: A Literary Companion, edited by Gregory McNamee (Sierra Club Books, $16), and Voices in the Desert: Writings and Photographs, edited by Lawrence E. Cheek (Harcourt Brace & Company, $19.95). On Christmas Day of 1879, with his safari stranded in the Kalahari, adventurer Frederick Courteney Selous had only one concern: "Is there water?" It's a question asked time and again in The Sierra Club Desert Reader, an extraordinary and ambitious anthology of essays, poetry, fiction, folktales, and reminiscences about the arid, windswept lands that make up some 20 percent of the Earth's surface. McNamee, an Outside correspondent, has chosen readings that range from a 4,000-year-old Egyptian inscription to contemporary essays by the likes of Edward Abbey and Bruce Chatwin. In selection after selection, deserts serve to define the limits of humankind--the place where civilization ends and the real wild begins. Indeed, three of the book's most poignant sections--a Nazi soldier's account of his struggles for survival in the wastelands of Africa during World War II, Andrei Platonov's short story about a disastrous forced relocation of Turkmeni tribespeople during the Stalin era, and Robert Scott's final journal entries about Britain's tragic 1911 Antarctic expedition--illustrate that not even the great empires can conquer the desert. Perhaps, as Honore de Balzac suggested, "the desert is where God is and man is not." This theme is echoed in Voices in the Desert, a collection of resplendent color photographs of the American Southwest by Jeff Garton with essays by such noted writers as Mary Austin, Charles Bowden, and John Steinbeck. In one of the finest of these essays, project editor Cheek compares the current population boom in his native Arizona to that of the ancient Hohokam Indians, who "died off or scattered because there were too many of them for the spare, fragile land to support." Cheek concludes that "we are a momentary blight destined sooner or later--probably sooner--to join the Hohokam in the dustbin of history.... In the end the desert will win. Deserts always do." As both of these fine anthologies make clear, whether or not human society has a place in the desert, the desert will always have a place in human society, swirling through our imaginations like a fierce, fiery sirocco.

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