Monday, June 02, 2008

Best of Sunday's book reviews

** Here are two interesting book reviews from Sunday's NY Times. Good publishing timing with recent news stories. If we can't read the whole book, at least finishing the whole review is nice!

TREE OF RIVERS
The Story of the Amazon.
By John Hemming.
Illustrated. 368 pp. Thames & Hudson. $39.95.



Although John Hemming has long been a widely respected scholar of the Amazon — its forests, rivers and people — the roots of his knowledge are much more than academic. When Hemming was just 26, his first full-scale expedition into the Amazon was cut short when the expedition’s leader, a friend of Hemming’s from Oxford, was ambushed by a group of PanarĂ¡ tribesmen. The Indians riddled the young man with eight arrows and crushed his skull with a handmade club. Hemming helped carry the embalmed and canvas-wrapped body out of the rain forest so that it could be buried in a British cemetery in Brazil. Before he returned home, however, he left gifts for the PanarĂ¡ at the site where his friend’s body had been found.

Exceedingly rare in the blood-soaked history of Amazon exploration, Hemming’s attempt to end the centuries-old cycle of violence has become one of the defining moments of his career. In the nearly 50 years that have followed his first, ill-fated expedition, he has become a powerful advocate for the rain forest and, even more, for its native inhabitants. He has visited dozens of tribes, four of whom had never before had contact with the outside world; served as president of Britain’s renowned Royal Geographical Society; and written several books on South America, including a trilogy about Brazil’s indigenous people that has become a classic.

Hemming’s most recent book, “Tree of Rivers,” covers ground familiar to anyone interested in the history of the Amazon. What makes the book important and, in many ways, even remarkable, are the breadth of the author’s experience and the depth of his understanding. Throughout, Hemming scatters modest references to his own extraordinary journeys. As an aside, while discussing the river’s multitude of swift, rapids-studded tributaries, he recalls that he was once nearly swept to his death in one. When explaining the potentially deadly diseases that Amazon explorers and natives alike have long suffered, he casually mentions that he has twice endured the searing fever and bone-grinding chills of malaria. Having cut trails through dense, remote rain forest, and having felt the sickening and very real danger of becoming hopelessly lost, he understands much better than most the extraordinary skill it takes for indigenous people to navigate their world.

While Hemming has a deep appreciation for the beauty of the rain forest, he also understands why explorers fighting for their lives might be forgiven if they did not often stop to admire it. “Occasionally a shaft of sunlight pierces the gloom, illuminating huge blue morpho butterflies or rare colored plants that brighten the prevailing browns and greens,” Hemming writes. “But the beauty is lost on explorers having to hack through such foliage. ... After a few weeks of such toil, nonindigenous men are pale, with clothes torn and boots disintegrating. Their skin is covered in bites, thorns and festering scratches, and the glands that filter insect poison from arms and legs are swollen and sore.”

Outsiders’ helplessness in the Amazon, particularly in comparison with the deftness of its native inhabitants, is a recurring theme in “Tree of Rivers.” The vast difference between the two groups is immediately apparent from the earliest European explorers to arrive in South America. Francisco de Orellana’s legendary descent of the Amazon River in 1541, for instance, is a story less of triumph than of utter disaster. “These young Spaniards were the finest fighting men in Europe,” Hemming marvels. “They were invincible in the Caribbean and open parts of the Andes. But as soon as they descended into the Amazon forests they became helpless incompetents.” Although they were traveling through the richest ecosystem on earth, seven of Orellana’s men starved to death, and the survivors were reduced to eating the soles of their shoes. “One race blundered around, torn, bitten and starving,” Hemming writes, “while the other slipped through the vegetation in good health and with a balanced diet.”

For thousands of years, Indians have survived in the Amazon much more effectively and gracefully than any outsider could hope to. Unfortunately, since the 16th century, their survival has depended largely on avoiding not poisonous snakes or razor-toothed fish, but white men. In “Tree of Rivers,” Hemming charts the near wholesale destruction of Amazonian Indians by men who saw no value in the rain forest beyond rubber and slaves — and stopped at nothing to acquire them. Villages were repeatedly attacked, the men kidnapped, the women raped and the children savagely murdered. Once enslaved, the Indians were tortured or worked to death.

Tens of thousands of Indians were killed and entire tribes wiped out during the rubber boom of the early 20th century and the hundreds of years of slaving expeditions that preceded it. Those who survived either moved so far up the river’s tributaries that no outsiders could possibly reach them, or they fought back. As early as the 18th century, the Mura, enraged by the enslavement of some of their own, became, in Hemming’s words, “brilliant guerilla fighters. They used large bows and long arrows, and by holding one end of the bow to the ground with their toes could fire missiles with enough velocity to pass clean through a man.” As skilled in strategy as they were in combat, the Mura patiently waited near rapids, attacking when their enemies were at their most vulnerable and helpless in the roiling waters.

By the time Brazil established the Indian Protection Service in 1910, the Amazon’s people were, as Hemming describes one group, “implacably hostile and justifiably suspicious of all whites.” Explorers throughout the 20th century — everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to Hemming himself — learned this lesson firsthand as expeditions were attacked swiftly and silently. The Indian Protection Service attempted to make peaceful contact with the Amazon’s most isolated tribes, but in the end, it did more harm than good. “The first encounter was often done by skilled and well-intentioned officers,” Hemming explains. “But, almost inevitably, there was soon a terrible epidemic — measles, influenza or tuberculosis — for which there was no remedy or for which inadequate medical provision had been made. Also, all too often, when a feared tribe ceased to fight, its forests and rivers were invaded.”

Near the end of “Tree of Rivers,” Hemming invites readers to look at the Amazon through his eyes. As his title suggests, what he sees when he considers a satellite picture of the sprawling river is the outline of an enormous tree. “Twigs join branches that thicken as they move down towards a massive central trunk, which in turn broadens at its bole,” Hemming writes. The trunk of Hemming’s tree is the Amazon, the branches are its tributaries, the twigs their streams. After centuries of exploration and exploitation, the trunk of this great river system has been largely abandoned by its native inhabitants. The branches, however, are still home to scattered groups, some of whom have had no contact with the outside world. “Tree of Rivers” is a powerful reminder that it is our responsibility not only to protect them by leaving them alone but, if our paths do cross, to leave gifts rather than destruction behind us.

Candice Millard is the author of “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.”

THE FRUIT HUNTERS
A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession.
By Adam Leith Gollner.
279 pp. Scribner. $25.




he coconut is technically a fruit, and every now and then it grows a pearl. The pearl-bearing coconut is one of some 30 surprising fruits that caused me to pencil an exclamation mark in the margins of “The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession.” Though I did not rank them, I would place the coconut more or less equidistant between the orange that tastes like chicken noodle soup and the exploding variety of pomegranate (“grenade means pomegranate in French”), but some distance below the miracle fruit, which makes everything eaten afterward taste sweet, including “boyfriends.” Adam Leith Gollner possesses a talent as rare and exotic as a coconut pearl. I opened this book, Gollner’s first, expecting the standard nutmeat of competent nonfiction and found instead something lustrous and exhilarating. Gollner’s is not the sort of talent one can develop. It is genetic, physical — an exquisite sensitivity of tongue, nose and eye. He describes one variety of the stinking durian fruit as tasting like “undercooked peanut butter-mint omelets in body-odor sauce”; langsats are “tangy-sweet detonations of citric perfection”; biting into a monkey tamarind is “like eating cloud.” Here is the Kuching market in Borneo, through the prism of Gollner’s gifts: “Balmy effluvia rising off the sidewalk clamp down on your sinus cavity. ... Writhing, roiling masses of fat sago worms are sold out of tree trunks. Men shout death threats at one another over corridors littered with squid tentacles.”

“The Fruit Hunters” is a paean to the overwhelming diversity of fruits on this planet, both botanical and human. People who are passionate about fruits — hunters, cultivators, smugglers — are often as eccentric as their quarry. A wealthy fruit aficionado in Bel Air has plans to stock his garden pond with fruit-eating piranhas and makes pool-party guests take Chinese Viagra and don penis sheaths made from the shells of fried-egg fruits. When Gollner begins taking notes during an early morning drive with the “Fruit Detective,” David Karp, Karp jams on the brakes and asks what he’s doing. “What if I were to say something off color?” he snaps. The rest of the drive unrolls in silence, Karp “jabbing at the gas pedal and the brakes like a tap-dancing circus bear.” Gollner endures it all in high spirits.

Fruit obsession is nothing new. Here and there in their unexpectedly engrossing history, fruits have held as powerful a sway over man as has gold or myrrh. Cacao fruits were a form of currency in Mesoamerica. Queen Victoria is said to have offered knighthood to anyone who brought her fresh mangosteens from Asia. Gollner encounters fruit hunters so deeply in the thrall of their pursuits that they tackle the Amazon in a wheelchair or trek naked through the Nicaraguan rain forest after their clothes are stolen.

Though Gollner touches down in Borneo and Thailand, this book is not adventure-travel-with-fruit. The best fruits aren’t found by lighting out for virgin rain forest, but by heading only as far as the jungle’s perimeter, to village markets, and asking the locals. The best edibles are not those untouched by man, they are those that have been fussed over for hundreds or thousands of years, selectively bred to be sweeter, bigger, fleshier. The wild peach, Gollner writes, is “an acrid pea-sized pellet.” And “feral bananas are filled with tooth-shattering seeds.”

Having bred fruits to the pinnacle of sweet, plump perfection, we then proceeded to breed them back into unpalatability. Supermarket-bound fruit has been engineered for looks, durability and a long life span. It’s bred to be hard and picked before it’s ripe, so that it holds up on the trip to the store and the long stay in the produce department. “The result is Stepford Fruits: gorgeous replicants that look perfect, feel like silicon implants and taste like tennis balls, mothballs or mealy, juiceless cotton wads.”

The fruit industry and fruit marketing constitute the third of the book’s four sections. “Commerce,” says the heading, promising dreary times ahead. But Gollner has a prospector’s eye for the absurd, and can mine it from most any terrain. Scurrilous health food claims are nothing new, but Gollner unearths an attempt to sell condoms dipped in pomegranate juice as an H.I.V. preventative. The ill effects of pesticides are well known, but Gollner drives home the point as few others could, telling us that when a worker is hospitalized from organophosphate pesticide exposure, E.R. workers must treat his vomit as a “hazardous chemical spill.” Though the burden of reporting is heavier in this section, the writing never slackens. Here’s Gollner’s description of oxygen- and carbon-dioxide-controlled cold-storage facilities used to store apples: “With an atmosphere similar to Neptune’s, these warehouses are the sort of gelid death chambers befitting Walt Disney’s head.” Especially jaw-dropping is the section on fruit-based drug smuggling and money laundering.

Some of the things in this book strike the ear as so improbable — a “cannibal tomato” used in Polynesian “headhunter sauce” — that you wonder at times, Is he making them up? Or, more banally, Did he get it wrong? Occasionally he did. Borneo has no “deer the size of mice” (though it has a “mouse deer,” up to 30 inches long), and astronauts aren’t growing strawberries on flights to Mars. Yet I don’t see these statements as byproducts of sloppiness, but rather as those of an enchanted imagination. It’s a small price to pay.

At one point early in the book, the author explains how it’s possible to graft branches of different, say, citrus species onto one plant. A Chilean farmer, he writes, recently made headlines with a tree that bears plums, peaches, cherries, apricots, almonds and nectarines. It’s how I see Gollner: the talents of a food writer, investigative journalist, poet, travel writer and humorist grafted onto one unusual specimen. Long may he thrive.

Mary Roach is the author of “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex,” “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” and “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.”

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