Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Gates of Africa

The Gates of Africa: Death, Discovery, and the Search for Timbuktu
by Anthony Sattin
$27.95 at Bn.com ISBN: 0312336438
In 1788, the year our story begins, no European had ever been more than a few miles inland from the African coast. Cartographers often made things up: imaginary mountain ranges, forests, and lakes to fill the continent's interior on maps. It was either that or empty space. The white man's knowledge of Africa hadn't really expanded since the days of Plato. For this reason the African Association was formed, the world's first geographical society, which hired explorers to find out what exactly is in there?
There are several obstacles to contend with. Foremost is the fierce geography: thick jungles, terrifying mountain ranges, and of course the vast, deadly Sahara Desert. The lack of navigable rivers (except for the Nile) presented an additional challenge. Aside from this there were virulent diseases, hostile natives, and a host of other difficulties for any hero who sets out on this quest. Napoleon's invasion in 1797 complicates things still further. A story like this can't possibly be boring!
There are actually several explorers covered here, not just one. Some die almost as soon as they arrive, succumbing quickly to malaria, yellow fever, or just disappearing whereabouts unknown. Others, like Mungo Park, are a bit more impressive: he followed the Gambia River and eventually found the city of Timbuktu. Until then no one knew for sure if it was a real place or purely legendary.
The first step was usually to travel to one of the African port cities and spend several months learning the language and mastering how to pass as a native. Eventually an explorer would join a caravan for the security of traveling with a group. Notes, maps, and other proof of one's European origin had to be kept carefully hidden. Gifts were brought along to exchange for assistance or buy favor with chiefs. Sometimes there was a specific objective: to find out if the Niger and Nile River systems connect (they don't) or to map the easiest route across the Sahara.
Overall, you can't expect more from a book than this one gives you. It's loaded with excitement, you'll learn about history and the geography of Africa, and it's not too long or too hard to get into. An ideal choice if you read adventure-based pop-fiction and are looking for a springboard into non-fiction. It took me about a week and a half to finish, not trying to race through. In fact, I was sorry when it was over. For some reason this book does not seem to be too popular, which is a shame. It's out of this world, and fills in a gap in many people's knowledge about this least understood continent. Find out if Timbuktu, the mythical City of Gold, lives up to all the hype; and get all the fun of traveling into the unknown without the grueling inconvenience. Four stars!

Eye Candy

The Lost Language of Cranes

The Lost Language of Cranes, by David Leavitt
$14.95 at Bn.com ISBN: 1582345732
There's a lot of "gay fiction" out there. Most of it, in my opinion, isn't very good. This novel, along with most of Mr. Leavitt's work, is a most wonderful exception. The story revolves around a shy young gay man named Philip, who is in his early 20s and lives in New York City. After years of isolation and loneliness, he's finally found love in a happy-go-lucky young stud named Eliot. How this relationship will work out is anyone's guess: on one level this book is built around their romance. But there's a lot more to this story than just two gay guys falling in love.
The second most common theme in gay writing is here, too: coming out. Philip tells his parents he's gay, unaware that they're somewhat preoccupied with problems in their own lives. His father, especially, is nurturing a secret life of his own, and Philip's revelation couldn't come at a worse time. The novel's other characters are just as rich: Eliot's lesbian roommate, working on her doctoral thesis while estranged from her snobbish, upper-class parents. Eliot's parents, a gay couple who wrote a famous series of children's books, welcome their son's quiet new lover into their lives. Overall, the cast will feel like your own friends and families, because Leavitt develops characters just like the people in our own lives.
This is why I enjoyed this novel so much: it's not built around corny drama! No one dies, AIDS is somewhat inconspicuously absent, no one's addicted to drugs, and so on. Instead, we spend poetic nights at home with Philip, waiting to see if his boyfriend calls. Sounds familiar, right? It seems his best efforts to "fit in" with the gay community and Eliot's family only alienate him further. In other words, he's trying too hard; a situation any introverted, mild-mannered gay boy who's used to feeling like an outsider even with his own kind of people can relate to. Big-man-on-campus, life-of-the-party types needn't bother. Loaded with muted male emotions: remembering your first love, trying not to cry. This is more than just a dime-store romance novel for gay guys. Light-hearted and fun, sometimes weird, a terrific first choice in gay fiction.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Eye Candy

Reefer Madness

Reefer Madness, by Eric Schlosser
$11.70 at Bn.com ISBN: 0618446702
Eric is an investigative reporter more famous for his first book, Fast Food Nation, on the hamburger business. This book is just as interesting, and involves three separate topics: marijuana, migrant laborers, and pornography. With the introduction the book is a collection of essays on the black market economy in America, and sheds some light on our vices, how we get them, and how we resist other people using them. It's non-fiction, but very easy to read and so interesting! Full of stunning facts and surprising revelations. For example can you believe more than 10% of the money in this country is spent on "illegal" products and services?
It all begins with marijuana, illegal in the US since the 1920s, there are now almost 50,000 people incarcerated primarily due to possession of this plant. Schlosser gives you the sweeping story of Americans and pot from every angle. First he describes the plant and its affects, and goes on to interview pot farmers with vast, secret, underground growing facilities; cancer patients who use the drug for pain relief, activists trying to legalize the drug, and the DEA agents who hunt and prosecute the offenders. Where exactly does America's supply of marijuana come from, and who's buying it? Whether or not you're a user, the arms race between the purveyors and the feds makes fascinating reading. Considering pot is non-addictive and has been used since ancient times without a single case of anyone overdosing, Schlosser's point quickly becomes clear: that America's "War on Drugs" is overwhelmingly unjust and in need of reform. Not convinced? Check out the details for yourself.
The other essays are interesting in their own way. Immigrants who sneak in from Mexico and Latin America to pick fruit are illegal yet, unbelievably, critical to the US economy. The story of how pornography became legal (thus ensuring the future success of the internet) is told through the life of one early entrepreneur who set up some of the country's first peep shows, dirty magazines, and adult theaters. This early champion of personal rights and free speech became the model for all the web-based smut we enjoy today.
Overall, this book comes highly recommended! It's a breeze to get into, and has managed to make what is useful to know interesting. Experienced readers should be able to finish it in a couple of days, while less ambitious pot-heads should be able to glean a few impressive facts from the first chapter to pass on while handing off the bong. Learn about the seedy underbelly of the US economy and who lives there from a great piece of easy non-fiction that's lively and relevant.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Eye Candy


Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
$11.20 at Bn.com ISBN: 0060987103
How, exactly, does one become Wicked? The kind that throws fireballs at lovable Scarecrow and then laughs as he screams? Perhaps if you heard the story from her side, it would all seem perfectly reasonable.
Fans of the movie with Judy Garland or, lately, the Broadway musical should know in advance that there's less sugar-coated singing and dancing in this macabre and gritty work of fiction. For example, we learn that people do indeed have sex in the merry old land of Oz. Adulterous sex, time and time again. There are assassins who slash one character's throat. And, as it turns out, her side of the story does seem quite reasonable and will make the 1939 film seem like Munchkin propaganda.
This is a wonderful book; but the first part can be a little bit confusing. Don't worry about it. It involves the witch's birth and childhood (Elphaba. She's not a witch yet, and her first name is Elphaba). She and her sister are both just infant girls so the first part of the story revolves mostly around their parents. Their father is a priest and the townspeople have started practicing some creepy, idolatrous religion; if you find it difficult to follow and it doesn't remind you of Oz, stick with it! Each chapter is mostly self-contained, so you needn't really keep track of lots of details. I found the trick to getting into it was to stop trying to focus on Wizard of Oz connections, and instead just enjoy the story. The revelations about her character will come in due course.
There are plenty of Wizard revelations, though! For example, the story of how the Witch of the West and Glinda knew each other before the showdown with Dorothy, and what other magic the ruby slippers had besides Kansas-transporters. I quickly found I liked Elphaba and actually related to her. For example, her years in college studying witchcraft actually brought back school memories for me. Weird, huh? Living in an apartment in the Emerald City, meeting the Wizard for the first time, and lots of adventures give a classic villain the feel of a real person you might invite to your barbecue. The life story of a fascinating lady which gives a familiar story a new spin, this will no doubt one day be considered a masterpiece of feminist literature.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Eye Candy

Burmese Days

Burmese Days, by George Orwell
$11.70 at Bn.com ISBN: 0156148501
*** (moderate)
Orwell is best known for the apocalyptic novel 1984, and his fairy-tale manifesto Animal Farm. Born British, Orwell served as a police officer as a young man in what was then the colony of Burma. He used these experiences in this, his very first novel, and one of my personal favorite works of fiction. The story revolves around a country club where white overseers can relax together after a day of supervising their Burmese workers in nearby lumber camps and military training facilities. The British, of course, were not famous for excessive kindness in dealing with colonized people, and for this reason the novel has all the turbulence and intrigue that come with political instability.
The tragic anti-hero, a middle-aged, middle management type named Flory, is beginning to feel that he's all used up, has given the best years of his life to getting ahead in Burma, and is wondering where it's all headed. Enter Elizabeth, an eligible young bachelorette fresh in from the mother country, staying with her aunt and uncle. Flory, naturally, falls instantly in love, but can he win over a dainty young lady from high society after years with the natives in the steamy jungles of Southeast Asia?
But the story isn't driven on romance alone! While Flory courts Elizabeth, dissatisfied Burmese plot a revolt against the imperialist British. Flory feels torn between his loyalty to his "own people" and the native culture he's grown to love. Meanwhile, U Po Kyin, a sinister and corrupt official plays the British and Burmese against each other to achieve his own ends through murder and subterfuge. Everyone loves an awesome villain!
Orwell has an knack for creating beautifully developed characters in a single chapter. Flory, Elizabeth, and the arrogant Brits at the country club feel like real people you could make friends with, if you wanted to (which you almost never will). The exotic setting gives the story an exciting flavor, and thanks to the violence and political upheaval, it's never boring. Filled with shady dealings, prostitutes, desperation, and class warfare, you'll feel like you're actually in Orwell's Burmese village as a visitor.
This is story-telling at its best! One of the first "serious" novels I read (it was eleventh grade), this is an excellent springboard into a higher class of literature. A fast-paced 287 pages that's exciting to the end, please give a chance to this widely overlooked gem. It's not hard to get into at all, with a familiar author and an unforgettable setting. A light classic with an awesome story that you're sure to enjoy!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Eye Candy

Cabin Pressure

Cabin Pressure, by Josh Wolk
$18.36 at Bn.com ISBN: 1401302602
** (pretty easy)
Sadly, this book is not yet available to buy. It's come across the desk of Hansisgreat.com in the form of an Advance Reader Copy (a special version of the book for people in the book business before it's sold in stores). If you're reading this after June 4, 2007 then this book is now available in stores and online. Otherwise, you'll have to wait a while. You can pre-order it, I guess.
I'm writing it now because I think this book is really good, and want to start plugging it. In fact, I'm using it to try out a new book review format. One book at a time instead of three. And I added pictures to make it interesting, like the glossy pages of a magazine.
Anyhoo... Josh is a guy in his early 30s (roughly my age) who is getting married in the Fall. Before that happens he decides to spend one last summer as a counselor at his boyhood summer camp. Did you go to summer camp, gentle reader? I was fortunate enough to go for two weeks each year of my boyhood! Once to Bible camp and once to Cub Scout/Boy Scout camp, I looked forward to them both. No hard feelings from this homo: it was a perfectly idyllic childhood.
I personally, therefore, couldn't help connecting with this guy: a man in his 30s looking for one last summer as a boy swimming in the lake and hanging out with his friends. He seems to have had a good time: it was a mostly carefree and fun time with all the appropriate male-bonding (Josh is entirely heterosexual, this is the kind of male bonding anyone can enjoy).
It's a very common theme: a man wishing to be a boy again. Told with such charming aplomb and with a charming cast of boys as the campers: naturally one or two try to get into a little trouble. Not too much, though. The chapters are read like anecdotes: he and the boys jump off a rope swing, some of them kinda afraid of heights. Lots of dick and fart jokes, what you'd expect from a group of fourteen-year-olds who are somewhat obnoxious but still too naive to be truly offensive. You're sure to be won over. A very reasonable 288 pages, so summer camp won't go on forever. Funny at times, with muted male emotion, and light-hearted suspense. Generation-X loses its youth with quiet dignity and a sad smile: we'll always remember the good times.