Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier

Travels in Siberia is BIG, and I thought the vast expanse of white cover particularly appropriate, too--just like the place. It seems peculiar to describe a trip (several trips, actually) across Siberia and say honestly at the end: "nothing much happened," but that about sums it up. For a traveller, nothing (unexpected) happening can be a very good thing, and readers can take heart that we had such a pleasant and wryly funny guide to the biggest country on earth ("too big, really"). I, for one, was very glad Frazier did this trip for me. While I am curious about Siberia post-USSR, I really cannot see myself hiring a van and a translator...Later in the book we read about Dervla Murphy who shows up in Severobaikalsk on a BICYCLE. I made a note to look up that trip report.

By we time we get to the last chapter (Chapter 30) in Travels, we have been steeped in Russian lore for so many pages that the litany of bald facts regarding Russia selling off its enormous resources of natural gas, oil, rare earth minerals, and rare animal parts is sickening and disheartening. We have come to care for Siberia, mistreated and remote as it is, and respect it's plucky population. The exploitation of it's riches seems imprudent, careless, and short-sighted--perhaps even grotesque. We would hope that such an outsized country would have outsized leadership, but this is earth, not heaven. God bless us, every one.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Even Silence has an End by Ingrid Betancourt

As an example of its type, the hostage memoir, this book will go down as one of the best. It is a towering achievement to have conceived and written a book like this after one's release, for as fellow captive Clara Rojas wrote in her memoir Captive, "going back isn't easy", even in one's mind, to remember and relive the period of captivity. However, the level of detail about one's daily life in the Amazon jungle is patently fascinating, even to those of us who have no intention of spending any time there. For an explorer, scientist, or government operative, this is required reading.

That a public figure,Ingrid Betancourt, long-shot presidential candidate, could write a book of such power and clarity and filled with personal observations and motivations, reminded me of the only other memoir of similar power in recent memory written by another long-shot presidential candidate, Barak Obama Dreams from my Father. Equally riveting, though entirely of a different character, Even Silence has an End tells us much about the nature of the individual who could observe dispassionately (and sometimes passionately) in the face of complications difficult to imagine: terror, sickness, pain, and boredom.

As I read I became aware of the sometimes poisonous relationships that developed among the hostages and between the hostages and their FARC captors. An earlier memoir I'd tried to read, Out of Captivity became immediately relevant, as each book references the authors of the other. As a result, I subsequently read Rojas' Captive, which reminded me of the mind-numbing boredom of my earlier attempt with Out of Captivity. The fight in Colombia between government forces and FARC rebels has always felt out of my realm, and those two books did not make make our worlds intersect in any significant way. Betancourt's book, however, brought that whole world right up close and personal, and I am there: involved, interested, engaged. Clearly Betancourt arouses strong emotions, both support and opposition, even as she did as a captive. But until the opposition can speak with such a clearly rational and obviously humane and--this is critical--a truly interesting voice, Betancourt's version of events is the one I will choose to remember.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Every Man in This Village is a Liar by Megan Stack

Stack uses language like a paintbrush in this memoir of her time covering the Middle East and South Asia as a reporter for the L.A. Times. In fact, she became a foreign correspondent by accident: being in Europe when the Twin Towers fell, she stumbled into Afghanistan. Throughout the book I have highlighted passages that capture light:
"I left Afghanistan--the light that falls like powder on the poppy fields, the mortars stacked like firewood in broken-down sheds at the abandoned terror compounds, the throaty green of the mineral rivers. In the back of the car, I stared into a scrubbed sky as empty plains slipped past."
And then this:
"And then I was at my mother's house in Connecticut, walking known floorboards, the same naked trees in the windows, blocked by familiar walls. The silence of the house screamed in my ears, and my bones and skin hung like shed snakeskin that wouldn't fall away."
But Stack also captures the sense (or the nonsense) of the Middle East, and in a gut-wrenching final analysis makes the divisions between countrymen in Lebanon sound so much like the deadlock in the current U.S. political situation one wants to wail in sorrow. Instead of transforming the Middle East in our image (George W. Bush's raison d’ĂȘtre), we are becoming more like them.

The final chapter of Stack's mideast tour introduces us to a young man in Baghdad in 2006, and if her description of his wasted life doesn't make you grind your teeth in frustration and fury, you have already passed to the netherworld.