Book of the Month: Access All Areas, by Sara Wheeler
Sara Wheeler is probably best known for her polar tomes, Terra Incognita about Antarctica and The Magnetic North about the North Pole, but the writer-adventurer has traveled widely between the poles as well, as the essays on Poland, Malawi, Colorado, Tierra del Fuego, India, Albania, Georgia, Bangladesh, Cuba, and Chile in this new collection rivetingly reveal.
Wherever she travels, Wheeler infuses her prose with intelligence, vigor and keen observation, whether she is writing about “the peaty light of early evening” in Tierra del Fuego, the “wolfy hinterland” of Albania’s Gramoz mountains (the adjective doubly laden by the region’s reputation as an “established robbery zone”), or a Colorado farmer “extending a hand like a root vegetable.”
She also brings a larger, context-conferring consciousness to her journeys. Traveling in India, for example, she portrays not only the rosewood groves, shimmering rice paddies, and misty peaks of Kerala, but also the heart-breaking war raging there between villagers and Asian elephants: “This is not a story of good against evil,” she writes. “It is more complex than that. It is about poor people and an endangered species, each fighting for survival in a shrinking environment.”
Wheeler’s other exemplary quality is an attentiveness to the interplay between inner and outer journeys. This trait, which poignantly layers all these pages, is especially moving in this afterword to her piece on Tierra del Fuego: “This was fifteen years ago. When I think of it, costive at a desk behind the rain-splattered windows of home, staring into the sulfurous halos of London streetlights, I see the ghostly outlines of beech-bark canoes paddling eagerly from Wulaia to Douglas Bay. And I look back not just at a landscape I loved deeply. Shipwrecked now in another life, here where the curve on the globe is barely perceptible, I can just make out too the hopes and dreams of a young woman I once knew, down there in Tierra del Fuego.”
Happily for us, those hopes and dreams are eloquently revived in this wanderlust-stoking collection.
New Book Roundups:
The North Woods
In Jim Harrison’s latest two-part collection of novellas, The River Swimmer, the author once again explores the land he loves best—rural Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. The first novella, The Land of Unlikeness, shows an aging academic returning to his rural Michigan roots and discovering there a past—an old love, an estranged daughter, and a long-ago discarded talent for painting—that offers him a chance for renewal. The second, Water Baby, set in the rivers and lakes of the Upper Peninsula, portrays a farm boy escaping the land-based realities of growing up by plunging into an aquatic world populated by fantastic creatures. In A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters, and Wildlife, Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea looks back on a life spent in the out-of-doors—hunting turkey in Vermont, fly fishing in the Connecticut River—and the rooting friendships that he made there.
End of an (Soviet) Era
Jose Manuel Prieto’s Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia is a snapshot of life as the Soviet Union collapses in 1991. The book is a series of notes taken by the main character for a novel he is writing about his new love. The seemingly random entries—on subjects from Dostoyevsky to Italian alligator shoes—soon form a picture of a country moving from the depredations of communism into the glare and flash of consumer culture. In The Taste of Ashes, Yale historian and award-winning author Marci Shore dives deep into the changes taking place in Eastern Europe and Russia during the fall of communism. Moving forward into contemporary times and backward into the past, Shore uses a first person narrative to portray the accusers and the accused, the interrogators and the interrogated, to illuminate how the fall of communism continues to impact Europe and Russia today.
The Rainbow Troops, by Andrea Hirata, is a series of stories about growing up and going to school on the small island of Belitong, Indonesia. Published in 2005, it became the best-selling Indonesian book of all time, with movie, theater, and television adaptations. A larger island, Taiwan, plays a prominent role in Eddie Huang’s Fresh off the Boat, his memoir of growing up Taiwanese in America and of his pursuits that eventually led him to becoming a successful restaurateur, writer, and TV personality by the age of 30.
Africa North and South
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Poet Gabriel Levin explores the physical and literary world of the Levant, the ancient crossroads of western Asia, the eastern Mediterranean and northeast Africa, in his collection of essays called The Dune’s Twisted Edge. In White Dog Fell From the Sky, Eleanor Morse portrays 1976 South Africa and Botswana through the struggles of Isaac Muthethe, a medical student who is forced to flee South Africa after witnessing a murder, and the white dog that adopts him as his master.
One Last Thing:
In my ignorant youth, I assumed that Antarctica was too monotonous to warrant a visit, but recently, as one traveler after another has described journeying there with a dreamy look in the eye and the fervor of a first romance in the voice, I have begun to reconsider. So I was excited to discover Gabrielle Walker’s new book, Antarctica. Walker’s wide-ranging account is based on her five visits over two decades. Especially notable are her descriptions of the wildlife that thrives in these inhospitable climes, from Emperor and Adélie penguins above land to giant sea spiders and ribbon worms under water, and the indomitable, impassioned humans who also thrive there, many returning to pursue their research year after year. Powerfully personalizing the allure, import, and variegated riches of this austere and beautiful place, Walker’s account has wonderfully whetted my own desire for a sojourn to the far south.