Review, March 1997
Glass, Paper, Beans: Revelations on the Nature and Value of Ordinary Things, by Leah Hager Cohen (Doubleday, $23). From a cafï near Boston, Leah Hager Cohen considers the glass of coffee and newspaper in front of her and decides that we have become "sealed off from [the] origins" of everyday objects. A fiction writer and essayist who sets out to trace these items back to their sources, Cohen skillfully manages to escape the usual preciousness of books of this genre. Starting at a glass factory in Ohio, she travels to the black-pine forests of Plumweseep, New Brunswick, home of a Canadian lumberjack who's struggling to use eco-friendly logging techniques, and south to a small-scale coffee farm in Oaxaca, Mexico. The people she meets lead relatively uneventful lives, but their stories nonetheless hold a quiet fascination, thanks to Cohen's acumen for finding intrigue in even the smallest of details. More fascinating still are her historical observations, in which she notes that while commonplace items were once imbued with religious power--the ancient Chinese burned "spirit paper" as part of their funeral rites, for example--today such fetishism has largely disappeared, at a cost. "What could be more...advanced," Cohen asks, "than to admit a sense of wonder into daily life?" Her vibrant book achieves just such an effect, reminding us that even the smallest pieces of our prepackaged culture--crayons, doughnuts, postage stamps--are rife with "invisible stories."
The Beach, by Alex Garland (Riverhead Books, $24), and Yak Butter & Black Tea: A Journey into Forbidden China,by Wade Brackenbury (Algonquin Books, $20). Is there anywhere left for a tourist to visit that hasn't already been overrun by other tourists? That's the question that vexes the disaffected backpackers who populate The Beach, the debut novel by 26-year-old British author Alex Garland, as well as the author of Yak Butter & Black Tea, a young American hoping to find "a people untouched by the outside world."
In Bangkok, Garland's would-be adventurers bemoan "spoiled islands" and dream of discovering a tourist-free tropical paradise. When a suicidal stranger gives Richard, the novel's narrator, a map of a remote island in a sealed-off Thai marine park where a "select community of travelers" is rumored to have set up a utopian resort, he and his friends can't resist finding it. Once there, they're convinced they've discovered Eden, or at least their neo-hippie version of it: a self-sufficient commune of wanderers who've made the pristine beach their home. But as we know all too well, things in Eden have a nasty habit of going awry--especially when Eden's not so secret anymore. By novel's end, the beach's inhabitants are howling crazies, swinging decapitated heads by the hair in an orgy of primitive violence.
Sound familiar? That's because Garland's book is essentially a nineties version of William Golding's 1955 classic Lord of the Flies, right down to the allegorical overtones and the occasional human sacrifice. Although Garland lacks Golding's nuance, he does excel at creating suspenseful plot twists. As one character says, "It would be sad to be bored of Eden," and whatever its shortcomings, Garland's ambitious first novel is far from tedious.
The same can't be said of Yak Butter & Black Tea, Wade Brackenbury's nonfiction account of his journey by foot to the Drung Valley, a remote section of southern Tibet's Irawaddy River basin long closed to outsiders by Chinese authorities. A chiropractor by profession and a mountaineer by avocation, Brackenbury first hears of the Drung from a French photojournalist--and in less than an hour he is packing his bags, later admitting, "I had no idea what I was getting into." After several failed attempts, countless run-ins with carbine-wielding border police, and a grueling solo trek through the Kar-Kar-Po Mountains, he becomes the first Westerner to reach the forbidden valley in over a century--only to find that somehow the West got there first. To his surprise, the first Drung man he meets is dressed in "a new checkered sports coat" and informs him that locals are well-versed in basketball, movies, and pop music. Sadly, Brackenbury is prone to relying on high-pitched exclamations when words fail him, and it's clear by the end that he's confused: "Why...was it so important for me to be the first to this obscure place?" His answer: "Winning! That was what it was all about!" Still, the question is compelling, one that will haunt like-minded adventurers still searching for an imagined paradise.
I've Been Gone Far Too Long: Field Trip Fiascoes and Expedition Disasters, edited by Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and Wendy Logsdon (RDR Books, $15). "No doubt you have noticed the goat shit on my head?" a Maasai elder nonchalantly asks a tongue-tied American academic during one of the many hilariously awkward moments
that make up this compendium of travel crises. A sequel to the 1994 best-seller I Should Have Stayed Home, this collection brings together the horror stories of 21 biologists, botanists, and anthropologists, including one researcher's brush with an enormous flesh-eating cockroach. A few contributors make it clumsily clear why they earn their livings
writing scientific reports, but they are the exceptions. For the most part, I've Been Gone Far Too Long is full of marvelously witty tales of bungling in the jungle. Perhaps the most memorable are Kelly Stewart's account of Dian Fossey's attempt to smuggle a pistol into Rwanda inside a fruitcake and Truman P. Young's story of his blood feud with a
colony of hyraxes, woodchuck-size relatives of the rhinoceros, on Mount Kenya. "Almost every exciting bush story I have ever heard (or experienced) has been due to the protagonist's stupidity," Young observes. If so, this collection gleefully demonstrates that scientists can be as harebrained as the rest of us.