Book of the Month:
Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape, by Raja Shehadeh
What comes to mind when you hear the word "Ramallah"? Probably not gazelles, white asphodel, and a dinosaur footprint—but those are among the attributes we first meet in this illuminating new book.
Palestinian Walks presents six sarhat—aimless wanderings designed to nourish the soul and rejuvenate the self—taken in the hills around Ramallah and the nearby wadis of the Jerusalem wilderness and the ravines by the Dead Sea from 1978 to 2006. Author and human-rights lawyer Raja Shehadeh has lived in Ramallah his entire life, and his account is imbued with a quiet passion to preserve—in memory if not in fact —this wild landscape that has been increasingly demarcated and developed before his eyes.
The book begins with a transporting walk to his family's palatial countryqasr (stone structure). The scenery in the surrounding hills is wild, unkempt, free. In subsequent chapter-walks, as the years go by, the hills become increasingly hemmed in by Jewish settlements. Where old roads amble along the contours of the land, new highways are blasted straight through; once wide open spaces are covered with concrete buildings. Still, Shehadeh continues to pursue pilgrimages of solace and serenity in the wild hills.
As the natural landscape changes, the contours of Israel–Palestine relations changes as well, and Shehadeh records this evolution too. Initially an idealistic lawyer battling to save what he feels are legitimate Palestinian claims to land, he becomes embittered as case after case is decided against his clients. Honest people disagree profoundly over the history, legitimacies, and injustices in this region. What I love about this book is that it reveals a side of the region that we never hear about; it builds natural and human connections to Ramallah that will forever change what I imagine when I hear the word on TV or read about it in the news.
The other gift of this book is how it illuminates the way landscapes become part of people and help define them. I grew up taking my own New England sarhat in the woods behind my Connecticut home, and now I feel like the rocks, bare fall branches, and green spring buds are a part of me wherever I am.
The sense of love and loss that permeates this poignant book transcends the brambly politics of the region, and Shehadeh's deeply felt accounts become lessons for us all on the fundamental value of unbridled nature in the landscape of our lives.
Short List: New & Noteworthy
That Summer in Sicily—Marlena de Blasi's enchanting account of the Cinderella-like life story of an aristocratic villa owner she and her husband meet while traveling through the interior mountain regions of Sicily.
The Other— David Guterson's latest, about two childhood friends: one living a conventional life as a Seattle school teacher, the other ditching modern life entirely to live off the grid in the Olympic mountain wilderness.
The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars— Andrew X. Pham's moving memoir of his father's experience of turmoil and change in Vietnam.
New Book Roundups
CSI: Travel Edition
Vineyard Chill is the final installment in the late Philip R. Craig's 19-novel mystery series set in Martha's Vineyard. In this finale, it's January and the year-rounders have the island to themselves—until ex-cop J. W. Jackson gets a call from an old friend from Boston who shows up needing help, and who may have people following him. In Finding Nouf, by Zoë Ferraris, the body of 16-year-old Nouf is found in the desert outside Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Palestinian desert guide Nayir al-Sharqi helps investigate the murder. But his devout adherence to Muslim strictures presents challenges when he has to join forces with Katya Hijazi, a female medical examiner at the coroner's office.
In France the equivalent of window-shopping is window-licking (faire du lèche-vitrine). Two handsome shopping guides make it possible to window-lick without even leaving your armchair. In Chic Shopping Paris, Rebecca Perry Magniant reveals a well-edited selection of Paris boutiques, accompanied with insider text and charming photos. Made in France, by National Geographic Travelercontributing editor Laura Morelli, focuses on artisanal French goods from Limoges porcelain to perfume, with tips on how to spot quality craftsmanship and where to get them throughout the country.
Eyes on Beijing
In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in August, a pack of China books vie for literary attention. China's Great Train: Beijing's Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet, by Abrahm Lustgarten, vividly tells the behind-the-scenes story of the challenges and human costs of building the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which opened in 2006. The Last Days of Old Beijing, Michael Meyer's memoir of living two years in a Beijing hutong in the city's oldest neighborhood, evokes an area and a way of life threatened by modernization. Ma Jian's massive and compelling new novel Beijing Coma moves between the past and present life of a student who has been in a ten-year coma after being shot in the head during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest.
Reading Matchmaker: If You Liked...
...Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, check out Mark Kurlansky's The Last Fish Tale. In Junger's true-life thriller, the fishing boat Andrea Gail sets out from Gloucester, Massachusetts, and never returns—ambushed by the "perfect storm" of October 1991 off the Atlantic coast. If the salty setting of Gloucester in the Junger book sparked your interest (as it has that of many travelers, especially since the release of the film version), Kurlansky's account will fill you in on, as the subtitle indicates, "The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America's Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town." The book is packed with colorful details about the town's history, fishing vessels, quirky traditions, and even local recipes (Kurlansky is the James Beard award-winning author of culinary reads Cod, Salt,and The Big Oyster). Ultimately, the tome tolls a warning bell about a threatened way of life:
"It took four hundred years to build this culture, and it could all be lost in a few decades. Fishing and the culture of fishing, an ancient trade and a way of life that has defined coastal towns throughout history, are vanishing from the Atlantic. Today in Gloucester an old proverb has a new twist. They now say, 'If you give a man a fish, you feed him. If you teach a man to fish, he will starve.'"
One Last Thing: An Intrepid Grandmother's Russian Adventures
Feisty and indefatigable, Dervla Murphy is a treasure. From her first audacious journey—traveling alone from Ireland to India by bicycle—Murphy has made a 50-year career of adventuring solo around the globe and writing off-the-beaten-track accounts full of wisdom and humor. In Silverland, her latest odyssey, the 77-year-old embarked on a trip from Moscow to the furthest corners of the Russian Far East, in winter. This time she opted to travel by train, but otherwise her account is quintessential Murphy: bursting with unexpected encounters, from roadside robbers to shamans; graced with lyrical descriptions of remote villages and landscapes; and pulsing with impassioned observations about Communism, pollution, and the World Bank.