Monday, August 31, 2009

Reading Across Rhode Island and The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

It is hard to imagine a time when explorers – people who went on long, dangerous journeys to as yet undiscovered places, were really famous, looked on as celebrities and whose exploits were reported in all the news media of the day.

“No Olympic games contender was ever trained down to a finer edge than these three reserved, matter-of-fact Englishmen, whose pathway to a forgotten world is beset by arrows, pestilence and wild beasts.”
[Los Angeles Times, 1925]

That’s the kind of notoriety that Percy Harrison Fawcett, explorer extraordinary, and other adventurers of the early 1900’s received. These were the days of T. E. Lawrence, Teddy Roosevelt, Shackleton, etc. Exploration was also of vital concern because there were really still places to explore - places that no one had ever gone before – where no one had mapped accurately.

The main story is of Fawcett, his mania for exploring the Amazon and his last expedition in search of the lost city of Z, aka El Dorado. Collected around the tale of Fawcett’s 1924 doomed expedition is the story of David Grann, a writer for the New Yorker magazine - a city-dweller who had never even gone camping before - and his attempt to follow in Fawcett’s footsteps, find the bones (literally) of the explorer – and maybe even the lost city itself.

This is not a tale for the faint-hearted. The living creatures, both big and small, that populate the Amazon jungle (or at least did in the 1920s) are directly out of your worst science fiction nightmare. That anyone would freely choose to enter into this arena of crawling beasts, starvation, disease and dangerous populations is beyond me. But it is still fascinating to read about what these men (and there were many Amazon expeditions, several to find Fawcett) attempted.

I will not reveal whether Grann actually found Fawcett or the lost city. Pick the book up and become an explorer yourself! Meg

Monday, August 17, 2009

Always Look Over Your Shoulder - Conspiracy Thrillers

When I think conspiracy thriller I think of two things almost immediately: 1) the television show X-Files, wherein FBI agents Mulder and Scully did their best to investigate and prove the existance of one of the largest conspiracies imaginable (i.e., aliens had landed and were even now engaged in a gigantic effort to take over earth) and 2) Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – wherein conspiracies perpetrated through the ages by certain societies within the Catholic Church kept secret the true nature (and number?) of Jesus’ apostles.

Our friendly neighborhood Wiki article defines the conspiracy thriller as a book “in which the hero/heroine confronts a large, powerful group of enemies whose true extent only he/she recognizes.” They give as prime examples the works of Robert Ludlum, and I would especially recommend the titles about Jason Bourne, recently made into movies – The Bourne Identity; The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. These are excellent books and full of double crosses, covert agencies and everything you could want from a conspiracy thriller.

David Baldacci has written a series of books that could be considered conspiracy thrillers. This series begins with The Camel Club, and follows (in reading order) with The Collectors, Stone Cold and Divine Justice.

And finally, a book I would like to recommend that I just recently read is The Eight by Katherine Neville. The Eight features a exceptionally complex plot focusing on action in two distinct time periods. To quote from a review, “A young novice, during the French Revolution, risks her life to preserve a jeweled chess set that the Moors gave Charlemagne, and in the 20th century, a computer expert and a chess master try to solve its mystery.” There is a sequel – entitled The Fire – that follows one of our protaganists, Alexandra Solarin, as she tries to solve, once again, the mystery of the Charlemagne chess service.

If you have any favorite conspiracy thrillers that you would like to share with us, please do so. Meg

[By the way – one of the best conspiracy thriller movies I have ever watched is Sneakers, starring Robert Redford, Dan Ackroyd and River Phoenix. It has been called the “last great hacking movie” and it is quite the ride – even if it was produced in 1992.]

Thursday, August 13, 2009

An Armchair Visit to Cape Cod

Cape Cod – the “bared and bended arm of Massachusetts. The shoulder is at Buzzard’s Bay; the elbow, or crazy bone, at Cape Mallebarre; the wrist at Truro; and the sandy fist at Provincetown.” H. D. Thoreau

Do you like to read travel memoirs? Or books by folks who live in a certain area and want to share a love of their surroundings with you? Here are a group of titles about our near-by Massachusetts neighbor, Cape Cod. If you have never been there, used to go there as a child, or just like to be an “armchair” traveler, these books should give you a sense of the Cape and its culture. Two picture books begin our list.

Cape Cod National Seashore by Andrew Borsari
This is a small book, recently published that presents full color photographs of the national treasure that is Cape Cod accompanied by literary quotations. A little gem.
Thoreau’s Cape Cod (with early photographs of Herbert W. Gleason) is based on Henry David Thoreau’s long essay on Cape Cod and is illustrated with some fascinating, early black and white photographs.

Special Places On Cape Cod and the Islands by Robert Finch has very few photographs, but contains some wonderful essays about some very unique Cape Cod locales.

For those of you who really want to really dig deep, The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket by Paul Schneider is a thoroughly researched and complete history of the entire area.

And to conclude, two titles that are more memoir than travel guide -
The Salt House: A Summer on the Dunes of Cape Cod by Cynthia Huntington tells of the special feeling the author has for her small, unique “house,” and
A Walk on the Beach by Joan Anderson is more about the feelings of peace and satisfaction two women found by simply walking on the beach together.

Henry David Thoreau said it best, “a man may stand there and put all America behind him.”

Monday, August 3, 2009

Dick and Felix - the odd couple?

I am not one of those people who are in love with horses. I did not grow up loving them. I did not grow up wanting to read about them. Horses are just not my cup of tea (or bucket of oats) or whatever. But I really must confess I love a Dick Francis mystery.

I was reluctant to even try one at first – for the above mentioned reasons. But Francis’ mysteries – although set firmly in the horse-racing milieu in England (for the most part) are not just about horses and horse racing but about all aspects of this interesting and unusual world. And his books are peopled with characters that I often come to admire and respect and villains that are just plain bad.

One of my favorite titles is In the Frame which is actually about a gentleman, Charles Todd, who paints horses. Some of this book takes place in Australia at one of the biggest races there, the Melbourne Cup. There is one memorable passage wherein Todd is trying to distract some thugs who have arrived at the hotel room of his friends and the only thing he can think to do is send everyone from every service imaginable at the hotel to his friends’ rooms – room service, the maids, the chauffeurs, the hairdressers, the barbers – whatever – and as all these curious hotel workers arrive at the room Todd manages to smuggle his friends out. It is riotous: I laughed till I cried.

Other good titles include: Whip Hand (about Sid Halley, jockey turned detective); Proof (with Tony Beach, a wine merchant who caters racing parties); and Risk (with Roland Britten, an accountant).

As Mr. Dick Francis ages (born in 1920, he is currently 89 years young) he has enlisted the help of his son, Felix, as co-writer. Felix is a former teacher (of physics!) and onetime researcher for his father’s books. Now they are writing in collaboration and the two titles they have produced thus far, Dead Heat and Silks, have been just as popular and just as fascinating as previous titles. Check out their web site for more information on this collaboration and on both of them.

Their new title in collaboration, Even Money, about bookmaker and amateur investigator Ed Talbot, is due out this month.


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