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Reading is Elemental
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Reading is Elemental

I have always appreciated the thoughtful book reviews over at A Mingled Yarn, and a handful of other blogs on my list.  Over the past two months, I have been reading an inordinate amount of books – probably spurred by my head-over-heels love for Good Reads, and my “slow” approach to this summer and the challenges that it has brought.   In those storied and undocumented days before the blog and before the knitting, I read books and wrote reviews immediately following.  Since the books and my desire to read them has increased so much in recent days, I plan to share book reviews here in the same way.  As you can see, my reading interests have focused on nature/adventure with heavy cultural influences.  I read mostly nonfiction, but I do add a fiction book in every once in awhile for some variety.  I hope you find them of interest!


Cruelest Journey: Six Hundred Miles To Timbuktu by Kira Salak

Following in the footsteps of Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who traversed the land and the river in the eighteenth century, Salak sets out to kayak down the Niger River in the west African country of Mali. Unlike Park’s ill-fated -and ultimately fatal- journey, Salak makes it to Timbuktu, the ancient “city of gold” right below the Saharan desert. Her journey was funded by the National Geographic Society, and she often runs into the hired photographer who is documenting her travels at stops along the river. (His photographs of Salak’s journey can be seen on her website) She sets out from Old Segou with only a few vocabulary words of local tribal languages and a working knowledge of French. She has her inflatable red canoe, and a backpack of supplies.

Salak’s writing style is very engaging – her strength and her fortitude come across in her writing, though never with a tone of arrogance. Each trial or trouble she encounters (and they are many: ripping a bicep muscle on the first day, hostile tribes, hippopatomi, dysentery) is documented clearly and unbiased. Any other person would have called it quits – but Salak finds courage and prevails in all of the circumstances.

(My review continues on my Good Reads page…)

Salak is coming to the National Geographic Society next month, and I am planning to see her speak.  She has definitely had some amazing adventures in many remote and “dangerous” parts of the world – all the more notable as she goes to these places by herself.  Her newest book is her first work of fiction, The White Mary, and I already have it on hold at the library.

I wanted to read Salak’s account of the Niger River expedition during the Project Spectrum Water month to see and understand the power of this river.  While the river was a large “character” in the book, I felt that Salak could have talked much more about it.  She describes aspects of the river, but really only how they relate to her – when her kayak overturns and she must dredge through the river gathering her belongings, etc.  I would have loved more explanation about the river and the ecology itself…

Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures
by Wade Davis

Due to the dimensions of this book, many would simply think of it as a coffee table photography book. While the photos are quite stunning, all captured by Davis himself over the last 25 years in the field, it is the text that is the real gem. Davis currently researches as a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, but his career has led him to very remote areas of the world to learn about the distinct “ethnosphere”, and the modern phenomenon of these vanishing cultures. With amazing detail, gathered first-hand and through interviews, he discusses his research in British Columbia, the Andes of Peru and Bolivia, the Amazon basin (Peru, Brazil, Ecuador), lowland Orinoco settlements in Venezuela and Colombia, Haiti, Malaysia, Kenya, Tibet, Australia, and Nunavut (among others with less detail).  He notes that great effort has been put towards protecting biodiversity, while cultural diversity, as well as language is being lost everyday. With nods to many of the great anthropologists and scientists of the 19th and 20th century, he recognizes that modern nations can enrich themselves by accepting and encouraging the inherent diversity, “not as failed attempts at modernity”, but as new opportunities to see the human experience in full color.

I have had the great opportunity to see Dr. Davis speak twice at the National Geographic Society, both times sharing stories and his research in Peru. His insights have enriched my own travels, and reading this book made me long for Peru even more! We were there nearly a year ago (as you may recall…) and I do plan to go again very soon. I think the country has a way of calling you back to experience more.  It was in this amazing book that I found one of my favorite quotes – one that any fiber enthusiast can love.  Davis is describing the mythology of the Andean peoples…“The surface of the Earth itself is an immense loom upon which the sun weaves the fabric of existence.”

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

I made my way through this book slowly, and I am glad I did, because each short story felt like it needed reflection time. The stories weren’t what you would call “uppers” as many had sad/melancholy themes. Like Lahiri’s other works [Interpreter of Maladies & The Namesake] the protagonists of the stories are usually second-generation (sometimes first-generation) Bengali immigrants to the US. Many of her stories in this book focus on Bengalis that settle in the Boston/Cambridge area of Massachusetts. In an interesting twist, Lahiri uses a white male as the protagonist in one of the stories, telling about his attraction and need to protect his Bengali housemate from heartbreak.

The last trilogy of tales entitled “Hema and Kaushik” was the stand-out story of the book, weaving together a tale spanning thirty years of loss, love, and tragedy. Lahiri uses real world events to add depth to the characters. A very moving book – I give it 4.5 stars.

I often measure a good fiction book on my emotional response after reading it. It isn’t uncommon to hear me say, “Yes, it was amazing. It made me cry.” I feel that this response is one of the strongest things an author can do, however; whether it is crying or laughing hysterically, or feel some other emotion so deeply. When I pick up a book, I want to be “moved” in some way. I want to learn something about the world and something about myself. These books that bring on the emotions tend to do both.


Many many more of my book reviews over at Good Reads – there are a few recent reads that I have not talked about here, but if you are interested to see what I am up to, please check that page out. It is such a great tool (almost like a Ravelry for book, I dare say!)

For Project Spectrum ~Water~, I have several themed books lined up to read.  If you are interested in doing the same, please feel free to share some titles over on this Ravelry thread

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19 Responses

  1. --Deb

    Ooh, that Timbuktu book sounds amazing. (And, of course, I’m thinking of the fictional journey in Dorothy Dunnett’s 14th-century “House of Niccolo” series, but that’s another story–though that journey to Timbuktu was pretty harrowing, too, though completely fictional. But then, that series was so amazing, my brain connects as much to it as it possibly can!)

  2. mick

    Thanks for these, Lolly. I teach “Interpreter of Maladies” every semester, and I’ve been meaning to check out some of her other work during my limited me time. I’ll have to bump this one up on the list.

  3. Josiane

    Thanks for sharing these reviews; those books sound really interesting.

  4. suzanne

    I love GoodReads too! I describe it as Ravelry for books (only a good description for knitting librarians, but there are a lot of us….!) I love the way GoodReads has the “Currently Reading” and “To-Read” listings. I tend to forget what I want to read next (and what I want to knit next) so having books in my Q is a great reminder.

    Read on!

  5. Catherine

    You should add “Water Witches” by Chris Bohjalian to your list for this part of Project Spectrum. I read it years and years ago and can’t remember the exact story line, but I do remember loving it (and his storytelling). It’s about a family of women who can find water the old-fashioned way: with divining rods! Happy Water Season!

  6. tiennie

    Yay! I love when people tell me about good new books to read!

  7. cici

    Sounds like some good reading, thanks for the reviews:D

  8. Kristin

    Thanks for sharing the reviews – they’re really interesting (and of course well-written, but then I would expect nothing less from you).

    I don’t usually read non-fiction at home (being a PhD student that’s what I do all day long). I read silly books at home. Silly books with pretty covers!

    I must look into goodreads – everyone seems to be hooked on it now!

  9. stacey

    They all look so interesting!!!!!

  10. caroline

    Wow, great recommendations, Lolly! I’ve been in need of some new reading material and these all sound fantastic (also, I had no idea Jhumpa Lahiri put out a new book– I must really be out of the literary loop!).

  11. Elizabeth

    Thanks for the shout-out, Lolly, and the great reviews. Speaking of books about water, my husband highly recommends Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water, by Marc Reisner. (He’s a historian who teaches courses on the West, among other things). I’m sad to say I haven’t read it (unlike you, I am a slooooow reader of nonfiction) but from what he’s told me it sounds quite fascinating. I think there’s also a documentary version out there, too.

  12. mai

    thanks for the reviews, i haven’t heard of any of them! you spend so much time reading and knitting, i don’t know how you do it! i can’t seem to find a balance between work, knitting, reading, working out, and regular everyday life. i’m working on it!! :)

  13. courtney

    I love Jhumpa Lahiri, and I’ve been wondering about this book…I’ll have to check it out of my local library, thanks for the reviews!

  14. Moni

    yay for book reviews! I’m always looking for something good to read. And it’s nice to have things in the back of my mind to recommend to patrons, too!

    I’ll have to check out Good Reads! Sounds like it’s right up my alley :)

  15. Terra

    I borrowed the cruelest journey from my father in law last summer and haven’t picked it up yet- but am much more enticed after reading the description and realizing its a true story!

    I went through a big outdoor adventure book phase where I read every account of Everest I could…I tend to have the outdoor phases more in the summer though when the weather here in Canada is a little nicer to be in!

  16. Sarah G

    Hehe, I always look forward to my daily “Lolly update” from Goodreads. I have been inspired to look up several of the books you have added. Thanks!

  17. Anna

    Thanks for the heads-up on Good Reads – I hadn’t heard of it before, but can see from a quick look that I will be spending a lot of time there now! I appreciate your description of reading as elemental, I’ve always found reading to be a necessary part of my life.

  18. Tally

    Thanks for pointing me to that Mali-book. For the last weeks I’m pondering on an inflating kajac – not for the Niger, rather for discovering the Hamburg harbour and other waters in the neighbourhood.
    If you are interested in reading more travel-adventures in the area I would like to name Bettina Selby’s “Timbuktu”. Quite some years ago she travelled that area on her bicycle. From what I remember it is also more about herself and travelling than on ther river itself, but for sure Selby’s are worth a check-out. Quite an amazing travelling woman.

    Thanks for your profound blog-posts.

  19. Lolly Knitting Around » Storytelling

    [...] — I was familiar with Salak’s nonfiction work [The Cruelest Journey, which I reviewed here] about her own travels and experiences, and her first novel had many of the same elements that draw [...]

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