Archive of books, etc.

This is an archive of the books that have appeared, in the past, in the right sidebar of the blog.

Grand Centaur Station, by Larry Frolick. An offbeat travel memoir to Central Asia. The author goes in the early 2000s, ostensibly to investigate whether nomadic invasions underlie our concept of the state. The first half of the book is entirely in Ukraine and Russia, and all of Frolick’s responses are turned up to 11: incredulity, wonder, exasperation, lust, bewilderment, outrage. It’s a really enjoyable read. And it continues that way right on through Central Asia and on into Mongolia.

Hero of Two Worlds by Mike Duncan (who is the host of the Revolutions podcast). A recent biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution and then hero again of the French Revolution. Beautifully and engagingly written and read (audiobook).

Islamic Geometric Patterns by Jay Bonner. A massive textbook-like tome on the mathematics, history and classification of Islamic geometric patterns. I may never finish it, but it will be a constant reference.

Beyond the Northwest Frontier, by Maureen Lines. This is a British traveller and photographer going to a variety of destinations in northern Pakistan in the 1980s. It’s sparsely told, with excellent photography and some very good maps.

Adventure Road, by E. Alexander Powell. Bit of a lark, this one. Powell was an American war correspondent in WW1, who then had a successful career writing over 20 books as an adventure travel writer in the 30s and 40s. Born in 1879, he was a contemporary of my grandparents. In this book, published in 1954, he recaps some of the best stories from his many books. He roves from Europe to the Indian Ocean to northern BC (yep, he drove to Hazelton in 1913). He does play a bit fast and loose with the facts: I’ve found a few errors. The storytelling is capital, simply capital.

The Wolves At Evelyn, by Harold Rhenisch. A memoir of growing up in southern British Columbia, beautifully told, with a tie-in to Evelyn, not far from where I live in Smithers. This is a phenomenal book! British Columbia seen through the eyes of German immigrants in different periods, and it invites us to look beneath the story we tell about what British Columbia is, and see the unnamed experiences we have of it.

The Lady Queen, by Nancy Goldstone. This is an engaging history of Joanna I of Naples, who ruled from 1343 to 1382. It’s that confusing (therefore interesting) period after the Mongols and before the fall of Constantinople, when the central Mediterranean is contested by Angevins in Naples and Hungary, and Aragonese in Sicily, and there are popes in Avignon. Lots of interesting stuff, lots of dusty corners of history to peer into.

Names for the Sea, by Sarah Moss. This is a delightful memoir of a couple with two young children moving from Kent, England to Reykjavik, Iceland in 2009. All of your assumptions (my assumptions, really) about life in Iceland are proven wrong! A good example of how a place you have visited can seem entirely different when you move there.

The Buried, by Peter Hessler. Can’t say enough good things about this book. Peter Hessler is a long-form journalist who moved from Durango, Colorado in 2011 to Cairo with his wife and two baby daughters, to learn Arabic and see what was going on in Egypt. Already I love this family. What’s going on in Egypt is the Arab Spring, so he writes about this, but mostly through his relationship with his garbage man, who knows everyone and everything that goes on, and his Arabic classes. It is mind-bogglingly good, and I not only appreciate the merits of his writing, but also am impressed that he pulled off the gamble of selecting the right place and language to go to and invest years in, that there would be a story, and that he would get it to press before some other clever journalist did something similar.

The Valleys of the Assassins by Freya Stark. First published in 1934, this is Stark’s classic account of her journeys in the mountains of Iran in the previous two years. It should perhaps instead have been titled “Memoirs of a Grave Robber,” since her primary goal seemed to be digging up ancient burials without any kind of archaeological rigour. Much of this takes place in Luristan, the geography of which place takes centre stage.

A Tale of a Tour in Macedonia by G.F. Abbott. A 1903 book by a Cambridge folklorist about a trip undertaken through the Ottoman Balkans in 1900. specifically Ottoman Macedonia. Very nice piece of late Victorian travel writing, full of generalizations about various peoples but containing much first hand observation which is valuable.

Red Sands, by Caroline Eden. This is an absolutely brilliant travel book. Based on the premise that she can come to understand Central Asia by focusing on food, Caroline Eden travels through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan talking to cooks, visiting markets, collecting recipes and occasionally getting drunk. Initially you think it’s a nice, humanistic alternative to the usual travelogue where the writer is looking for political unrest or ominous trends, but in fact all of that interesting geopolitical stuff is right here too—in the food. Narrative and recipes alternate. I’m so impressed.

The Border, by Erika Fatland. A Norwegian traveller/journalist sets out in 2017 to circumnavigate Russia by travelling along (and outside) its borders with the 14 countries that are its neighbours. Her mission: to find out what the experience is of living next door to Russia. Just translated into English last year. She’s a great observer of people, and manages to get herself into and out of a surprising number of edgy situations.

Blood and Soil by Ben Kiernan. This is a massive account of genocides since 1400. While each has its own history, character and details, Kiernan identifies four common ideological features of genocides, and which we can use to recognize a genocide in the making: racism; cults of antiquity; cults of cultivation; and agriculture and expansion. If only understanding what underpins genocide were enough to stop it.

The Psychology of Pandemics by Steven Taylor. During the pandemic have you been surprised by people who refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated, quack cures, conspiracy theories, and panic buying? Steven Taylor was not. But you won’t find “COVID-19” in this book, because it was published before covid. Taylor, who teaches at UBC, is not a medical expert on infectious disease. He’s a psychological expert on how people feel about disease, specifically disease anxiety. So he was uniquely positioned to understand what would happen in a pandemic

First Russia, The Tibet, by Robert Byron. This is an obscure Byron text, written before he went to Mount Athos or Persia. He is in the Soviet Union in the 1930s to see what all the fuss is about. He has some excellent insights which are still worth reading in a post-Soviet world. Then he makes an impulsive journey into Tibet, via Sikkim, in November, and gives some excellent first-hand descriptions of both altitude sickness and severe sunburn..

The Big Red Train Ride, by Eric Newby. One of my favourite travel writers. Here riding the Trans-Siberian in 1977, trying to make it funny and erudite, and generally succeeding.

Yemen: Travels In Dictionary Land, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. Another outstanding example of the I-moved-there-and-twenty-years-later-I’m-writing-to-tell-you-all-about-it genre. Mackintosh-Smith moved to Yemen to master Arabic and is a superb guide to (the male side, at least, of) Yemen. Different chapters profile different parts of the country, and there is a lot of history and language. Published before the present civil war, but it gives insight into the Zaydi heritage lying behind the Houthi rebels.

The Whispering Land, by Gerald Durrell. A 1960s memoir of collecting animals in South America. Durrell is kind of a James Bond zoologist: drinking, smoking, hanging out with beautiful women and driving in fast cars. Perhaps this is what was expected of a writer in the 1960s. Very entertaining.

On Persephone’s Island, by Mary Taylor Simeti, I so enjoyed this. It’s an outstanding example of the I-moved-there-and-twenty-years-later-I’m-writing-to-tell-you-all-about-it genre. Mary Taylor goes to Sicily as an American university student, stays, marries, has children and runs a farm. It’s all about Sicily, but it’s Sicily as she sees it, with a particular emphasis on food.

Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran, by Michael Axworthy. A super-comprehensive history of Iran.

Buffalo Days and Nights, by Peter Erasmus. The account of the years from 1850s to 1900 in what would become the province of Alberta (western Canada) from a Metis interpreter, who worked for missionaries, government and indigenous chiefs.

A Journey to Arzrum,Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin’s account of his illegally slipping across the border in 1828 to accompany Russian troops (during the Russo-Turkish War) into the northwestern Ottoman Empire and the siege of Erzurum (“Arzrum”).

From the Bosphorus, Rhonda Vander Sluis. A wonderful account of what you see on the shore when travelling on the Bosphorus, all the way up to the Black Sea.