nonfiction · review

Lands of Lost Borders, by Kate Harris

31146782Kate Harris says near the beginning of her book, Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road, by explaining that she believes she was born in the wrong era. After reading her informative and impressive blend of travelogue and history of science and ecology, I agree—but I’m also glad that people with an undaunted desire to go out into the world and bring back their impressions for the rest of us still pop up from time to time. I would never be able to do what Harris and her fried, Mel Yule, did and spend ten months biking (biking!) along parts of the old Silk Road from Istanbul to Leh, in Ladakh. This book gave me the opportunity to tag along, like a Go Pro on their shoulders, on this remarkable journey.

The book opens with a prologue set about five years before Harris and Yule’s epic bike trip. Harris had always wanted to go to Tibet from China which, at the time, was hard to get to. She and Yule sneakily make their way through the checkpoints (mostly under). Once on the other side, Harris marvels at the landscape. She frequently feels an almost mystical connection to the mountains and sky while she pedals away. The trance-like feeling returns when she comes back with Yule from the other direction. For Harris, bicycling is meditative. It eases the restlessness she’s felt since childhood, when she wanted to travel to Mars.

After the prologue, Harris takes us back to her days growing up in Ontario and explains how she ended up on a bike in some of the most desolate places in Asia. It’s partly the fault of Marco Polo and partly Harris’ drive to go places no one else has gone. At first, Harris wanted to go to Mars, until she realized that she loves this planet and its people too much to leave forever if the opportunity arose. She started traveling extensively in college, taking every chance and grant she could to go to the Utah desert, a glacier in Alaska, and dozens of other places. While working on her Master’s at Oxford, Harris starts to study the Siachen Glacier, a contested area claimed by India and Pakistan. The glacier got Harris thinking about how arbitrary borders are and the effects of humans on delicate environments.

Harris breezes quickly through her biography to get to the good stuff: the trip. (The biographical section is very well written, though.) While she talks about the hardships of the road, Harris talks about the history of the Silk Road, flight, pollution, the history of Central Asia, endangered species (plant and animal), space exploration, and much more. I was engrossed by all of it. Most of all, I was profoundly impressed by Harris and Yule’s mental and physical fortitude. They put up with freezing and boiling temperatures, hunger, thirst, and fatigue—as well as doing battle with bureaucracy. But the book zips along so fluidly that I kept forgetting that it took them ten months to do this.

Lands of Lost Borders is one of those rare nonfiction books that I could have happily devoured another couple hundred pages once I finished. (Happily, Harris and Yule created a ten minute video with highlights of their journey that gave me a little more time to ride along on their shoulders.) This book was so full of interesting ideas and events that I would have had a good time. What really made this book for me was Harris’ sense of humor and accessible writing style. She never dwells too long on any one point. She avoids getting preachy, even when it would be very easy to do so. She leaves in just enough of the hard parts to make the book feel real without making us as miserable as she and Yule were on parts of the journey. Best of all, she is great at describing the best parts of the trip: seeing Marco Polo sheep and Caucasian peony, making connections with people when they shared no common language, and following in the footsteps of the brave people who trekked across mountains and deserts over the centuries. I am well away that I’m gushing, but I really enjoyed reading this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 21 August 2018.

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Map of the Silk Road network (Image via University of Redlands)
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nonfiction · review

In the Restaurant, by Christoph Ribbat

35382482In the Restaurant, by Christoph Ribbat and translated by Jamie Searle Romanelli, is one of the strangest nonfiction books I’ve ever read. Most nonfiction books are set up chronologically. It’s the most logical way to tell a lot of stories. In the Restaurant, however, is served up to readers like tapas. It jumps from topic to topic, telling the story of restaurants with side dishes of sociology, literature, crime, and commentary about what the institutions show us about society.

While the short segments that comprise In the Restaurant seem disjoined, I noticed that they slowly develop a theme of high versus low. For every scene or short discussion of restaurants becoming the realm of ultra-high class eating and service, there is a look at the rough, dirty conditions in lower restaurants (or sometimes the same ones) that dish up barely acceptable fare for the punters. Back and forth, Ribbat uses this tension to explore the dichotomies that the food industry reveals under close scrutiny.

A history of restaurants, one would thinks, would be all about food. There is a lot of food in this book—discussions of molecular gastronomy at El Bullí, the development of nouvelle cuisine—but Ribbat is equally interested in the way that food service is also about more than plates of food. When a customer arrives at a restaurant, they have certain expectations. They expect that they will, for lack of a better word, be catered to. The waiter is expected to make any substitutions the customer wants, to deliver the food at the right temperature, and so on. By referencing sociologists who studied restaurant workers, Ribbat also covers the discovery of emotional labor.

I was completely hooked by In the Restaurant. I loved the way it was told, most likely because it is organized a bit like my brain is. One fact is connected to another in a seemingly tangential way, except, the more to read, the more one realizes that looking at disparate things can create a larger picture. Stepping back to think about why, for example, front of house staff in restaurants are almost all white or how long it took to solve a series of doner kebab vendor murders show us how segregation is still alive and well in food service.

In the Restaurant was an incredible read, entertaining and enlightening.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration

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nonfiction · review

Lament from Epirus, by Christopher C. King

36236097Years ago, I read a long essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan about his discovery of the music of Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas. Finding their records after they were lost for decades sent Sullivan on a quest to find out who these women were, where they came from, and where they went. The essay sent me on my own dive into early blues and hot jazz, a dive I still haven’t really come up from yet. So reading about Christopher King’s moment in which he discovered Epirotic music, preserved on 78 records from the 1920s and 1930s. In Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Surviving Music, King tells us about his dive into a strange music that captured his soul.

King found out about Epirotic music on a trip with his family to Istanbul. On the Asian side of the city, he found the Street of Gramophones and luckily stumbled on 78s from before World War II, rare ones that he’d never heard of and in a language he couldn’t read. When he got home to Virginia, King put on record and it changed his life. This music offers a connection to the mystical, the ineffable, and the past—so King argues in this freewheeling and erudite book about the history of Epirus and its music. There are parts of King’s book that lose me. I was only in band for a few years and I barely learned how to read music. When King talks about scales and majors or minors and such, I have to skim because I have no idea what he’s saying.

Kistos Harisiadis is one of the Epirote musicians King chases.

In the first chapters of Lament from Epirus, King draws connections between Epirotic music and Delta blues. Both genres express deep sorrow in a way that no other music can. Their ability to tap into that emotion comes from centuries of hardship and violence, but also faith and tradition. Later in the book, King writes about how music is not an aesthetic, philosophical experience—at least not in Epirus or in Mississippi. Instead, this kind of music can heal. It can also connect us to our pre-Christian past, remind us of our ability to wordlessly commune with each other over potent alcohol and cathartic dance moves. For King, music is a religion and he tends to get a bit poetic about it.

What I found most compelling about Lament from Epirus is King’s argument that music and culture are inextricably tied together. Music can be enjoyed without its cultural context, but it’s missing something. Epirote Greeks have been listening and dancing to their laments for centuries. Because the music is so tied up with religion, mythology, and local history, there are levels to it that outsiders will never fully understand it. It’s like the way white people can enjoy Delta blues, even love it, but will always know that the music is not really for us.

I enjoyed Lament from Epirus even more than I expected when I requested it from Edelweiss. King wanders from musical theory to anthropology to Ottoman history to the proper methods for making tsipouro, in just the kind of interdisciplinary mishmash I love. Like the laments he has come to love, King repeats little details—like the time he lost all the skin on his right forearm at a festival—before launching off on another tangent that becomes relevant after a few pages. This book is very well done.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 29 May 2018.

nonfiction · review

Damnation Island, by Stacy Horn

35489149It’s an old saw that the measure of a society is how they treat it’s poorest members. If this is true, then nineteenth century New York has a lot to answer for. As we learn in Stacy Horn’s Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York, being poor and/or suffering from a mental illness and/or being a criminal at this time and place meant a trip to Blackwell’s Island. The island was home to an insane asylum, a prison, and a work house from the second half of the nineteenth century into the early decades of the twentieth. Horn dug through archives and newspapers to tell the appalling stories of all of these institutions.

The first third of the book covers New York Lunatic Asylum. Nineteenth century mental health care was appalling compared to today, though I suppose this asylum was a step up from London’s Bethlehem Royal Hospital (Bedlam), where keepers would charge admission for people to see the patients. The rooms at the Lunatic Asylum were essentially cells—small, dirty, and overcrowded. As a special bonus, the attendants were inmates from the nearby Penitentiary and the doctors were undergraduates, sometimes in their first year of medical school. The place was a miserable hell on earth. It was so bad that it was the subject of one of journalist Nellie Bly‘s exposés. Even though there were calls for reform, nothing ever happened for the patients. They were poor and there was never enough funding to build them something better.

After discussing the Asylum, Horn moves on to the Penitentiary, the Work House, the Almshouses, and the island hospitals. The situation at these buildings was dire. Hundreds of people would die in epidemics of cholera or typhus. Hunger was endemic. But I think, even worse than the deprivations of the island was the attitude of the people in charge of the island’s institutions and its funding. Even though the idea of all of the island’s institutions was to provide a place and care for people who had no where else to go, costs were cut everywhere. At one point, one of the buildings was literally bolted together before it fell apart and had to be rebuilt. Pennies were pinched because, as Horn quotes from the annual report for 1876, which reads:

Care has been taken not to diminish the terrors of this last resort of poverty [the Almshouse], because it has been deemed better that a few should test the minimum rate at which existence can be preserved, than that the many should find the poor house so comfortable that they would brave the shame of pauperism to gain admission to it. (n.p.*)

Horn also quotes Alexander Macdonald, a physician who worked at various of the island’s hospital, who wrote, “To be sure some of them will die, but so much the better for the tax-payers!” (n.p.). He was writing sarcastically but, given the attitudes of the commissioners in charge of the island and philanthropists like Josephine Shaw Lowell, he was essentially telling the truth. They are some of the most hard-hearted people I’ve ever read about.

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Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary (Image via Wikicommons)

Last year, I read a history of Bellevue Hospital, which overlaps the history of the New York Lunatic Asylum. Bellevue was and is a charity hospital that treats anyone who comes through the doors. They suffered from some of the funding issues that the Blackwell’s institutions did, but there is a fundamental difference between the two—at least the way the authors present it. There were people who cared at Blackwell’s, just not enough and with not enough clout to fight back against the commissioners. Where Bellevue could triumph in the face of adversity, Blackwell’s just stumbled along, drowning in people they couldn’t help.

Damnation Island is a fascinating, albeit depressing, look at what Americans did to house their poor, their criminals, and their mentally ill instead of caring for them. The prevailing beliefs that these people deserved the terrible conditions that they suffered on Blackwell’s were working against them even before they got off the ferry. Reading this book made me wish things were better today for poorest among us, but I take a little bit of encouragement from the fact that we no longer ship them off to a wretched island.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 15 May 2018.


* Quotes are from an advanced reader copy without pages.

nonfiction · review

1,000 Days on the River Kwai, by Cary Owtram

35568518To date, most of what I know about the experience of Allied prisoners of the Japanese in the Far East comes from novels like The Narrow Road to the Deep North and A Town Like Alice, movies like The Bridge on the River Kwai, and what I’ve gleaned from assisting two World War II classes. The novels presented the experiences of enlisted men, while The Bridge on the River Kwai is more removed from historical reality. Colonel Cary Owtram’s memoir, 1,000 Days on the River Kwai: The Secret Diary of a British Camp Commandant, however, is a unique look at the particular challenges of a man who finds himself tasked with keeping order among the Allied prisoners and protecting them from the deprivations and cruelty of their captors.

At the time of his capture, Owtram was a lieutenant colonel. (He was later promoted to colonel and even received the Order of the British Empire, though for unrelated reasons.) Because he was often the highest ranked officer on the ground in many of the places he ended up as Japanese officers marched their prisoners to and fro across southeast Asia, Owtram was often designated camp commandant. The Japanese officers issued orders for their prisoners through him, while he did his utmost to secure supplies, negotiate punishments down to the minimum, and keep his men as healthy as humanly possible. Few men, I think, would have had the grit to manage this difficult role. He watched so many men suffer and die while he could do very little to improve camp conditions. Owtram doles out credit to dozens of officers and enlisted men for getting supplies and keeping up morale, but it’s clear that he did a lot to save lives and make life bearable for the British, Australian, American, and Dutch prisoners he was in charge of.

Owtram writes exactly like one would expect from a man who clearly belongs to the old school. Slang terms are written with single quotes. He is very humble, with the stiffest of upper lips, and glosses over the worst of what happened to him and his fellow prisoners. He is also paternalistic toward the enlisted men and casually racist about the Japanese and the Thai people alike. In the afterword written by his daughters, they remark that he had a virulent hatred for the Japanese after the war. Curiously, this intense hatred doesn’t really appear in the memoir; Owtram is more likely to toss around around terms like “little yellow men” and native to refer to Asian people.

1,000 Days on the River Kwai reads like sitting down with a grandparent and listening to what they’re willing to say about their experiences. Owtram hints at the appalling conditions he and his men lived through (with frequent references to tropical ulcers), but he is quick to move on to an amusing (sometimes actually funny but sometimes grim) anecdote or talk about the camps theatrical efforts. As such, it feels like a correction of sorts of the novels I’ve read and movies I’ve seen. Anyone who wants to use it as primary source material should pair it with other nonfiction that takes a broader view of the Allied POW experience during the war, of course. That said, I found this to be an fascinating look at an experience I’ve never seen discussed or portrayed before.

nonfiction · review

Ivan’s War, by Catherine Merridale

1241678It seems appropriate that I finished this book on the eve of Veteran’s Day. Merridale’s relentless Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 is a powerful narrative of the realities of the experience of Soviet soldiers during World War II. Like American soldiers during the second World War, the “Ivans” have been mythologized in the decades since the end of the war. American kids, like Soviet and Russian kids, learn about the veterans as larger than life heroes. We learn that life as a soldier was bitterly difficult. We learn that, without them, it would have been impossible to defeat the Nazis. But it isn’t until later (if ever) that we learn about the complexities and failures of our heroes. Merridale’s book is sympathetic but unflinching in this respect.

Merridale opens her book with an explanation of how she came up with the idea to write it. She had been interviewing Russians about life during the Stalinist era when she noticed that, whenever she asked about the war, many veterans and civilians were reticent to talk about it. There were some, of course, who would talk about their experiences, but many would repeat old, patriotic slogans or give bland accounts. Merridale dug deeper, traveling from archive to archive around Russia to find a more accurate picture of Red Army soldier life. What she found was astonishing—at least to me.

It is true that between June 22, 1941 and September, 1943, the Red Army was the only national army fighting the Third Reich. In the panic after the Nazi invasion in the summer of 1941, millions of volunteers, conscripts, and prisoners were thrown at the invaders. After successfully defending Moscow in the summer of 1941-1942, the Red Army slowly drove the Nazis back. Over the next almost three years, they drove the Nazis back to Berlin, which fell in late April 1945.

That’s the simple version of the history. Merridale’s research and interviews revealed the terror of life as an Ivan. The myth is that the men signed up to defend their rodina, their motherland. What we usually don’t hear about is that there were battalions of NKVD officers and troops who were more than ready to shoot anyone who deserted. The Red Army soldiers had no choice but to fight. Millions of them died. So many died that I am still surprised that there was anyone left alive between Oder-Neisse line and Moscow. Estimates vary but the number of Soviet military and civilian deaths is probably somewhere around 27 million. It’s impossible to say for sure because records were rarely kept and bodies were destroyed, etc.

Merridale shares the extreme hardships of life in the Red Army: lack of supplies, the weather, poor strategy, fear, and more. It’s little wonder that veterans don’t want to talk about it. Merridale also shares the dark side of the Red Army’s advance across eastern Europe. Hundreds of thousand German and Polish women were raped by Red Army soldiers. Red Army soldiers pillaged German territory; they stole everything they could to send back to the Soviet Union. What Merridale found was a deep sense of vengeance among veterans. At the time, soldiers were told that they were taking revenge for what the Nazis had done to their country, but much of what happened was actively suppressed during and after the war.

Ivan’s War is a harrowing read but, I think, a very necessary one. Unlike the American veterans’ experience, Red Army soldiers were fighting (at least at first) on their own soil against a seemingly invincible enemy. They faced death from all directions. Conditions were so terrible, supplies so rare, and leadership so disorganized (at first), that it’s a miracle that the Red Army succeeded. This book presents that miracle in its full complexity, sharing a truly epic history that might have been lost.

nonfiction · review

The Butchering Art, by Lindsey Fitzharris

33931044I’ve been following medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris on Instagram for months because, as I’ve probably mentioned before, I am fascinated by the bloody, brilliant history of trying to make people well (and how it frequently went awry). When I saw her book, The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine, listed on NetGalley, I leapt to request it. The Butchering Art is full of the kind of medical history that I find perfectly engrossing (heh) because it’s written in clear, honest language with plenty of case histories, and thoroughly documented from primary sources.

Fitzharris begins her book with surgeon Robert Liston performing an amputation using the newest medical innovation: ether. Liston had trained as a surgeon in the years when speed was the best attribute one could have. Liston was able, at the height of his career, to remove arms and legs in a matter of minutes. Ether allowed surgeons to take their time and perform more complicated procedures. Unfortunately, because ether encouraged surgeons to cut more often, the rate of hospital infections soared. Most surgeons—according to this very credible account—shrugged off infection as inevitable. The ones who were willing to experiment were usually reluctant to believe in the new germ theory of disease and would hare off in all sorts of wrong directions. As Fitzharris frequently points out, a lot of surgeons thought there was such a thing as “laudable pus.”

Joseph Lister was very much a proponent of germ theory, based on his own experiments and his reading of the work of Louis Pasteur. Lister had been interested in microscopes from a young age, which might have made it easier for him to believe the wild theory that floating, invisible creatures would cause disease and infection. After studying at University College London, Lister moved to Edinburgh to study at the Royal Infirmary and James Syme.

For the rest of his life, Lister would experiment with antisepsis techniques and wound dressing. His work really did revolutionize the medical world. While his articles for The Lancet and other journals mostly aroused anger and controversy, Lister’s teaching in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London created a new generation of surgeons and doctors who were thoroughly versed in antisepsis.

Fitzharris does a wonderful job of recreating the world of mid-Victorian surgery, with plenty of disgusting and fascinating details about filth, medicine, and innovation. (She is also careful about giving credit where credit is due to other early proponents of germ theory, like poor Ignatz Semmelweis.) The Butchering Art is so well done that it could have been longer and I wouldn’t have minded a bit. I am definitely going to recommend this book to other readers who enjoy reading about the highs and lows of medical history—and can handle the gory stuff.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 17 October 2017.