Perceptive Travel Book Reviews May 2015
by William Caverlee

In this issue: Delving into an unsolved disappearance, terrible times in Asia, and an upbeat collection of travel aphorisms.

Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest
By Carl Hoffman

Not a book for the squeamish, Savage Harvest will teach you more than you ever wanted to know about headhunters and cannibals in New Guinea. In fact, although this is a work of serious journalism, its subject matter calls to mind a biography of Ted Bundy or a documentary about the Jonestown massacre, or perhaps a Vanity Fair article on some Cap Cod family murder. Is there a pathology at the heart of human curiosity?

Nevertheless, Carl Hoffman is an excellent writer and an intrepid explorer, who has revisited the fifty-year-old mystery surrounding the death of Michael Rockefeller, the son of Nelson Rockefeller. In 1961, the twenty-three-year-old collector of primitive art was shipwrecked off the coast of New Guinea, and against the advice of his sole shipmate decided to swim the ten miles to shore. The companion was rescued the next day, but Rockefeller was never heard from again.

Did he drown? Or did he make his way to land, only to be set upon by Asmat tribesmen, who killed and ate him?

The mystery made headline news in 1961 and over the years has attracted numerous authors, filmmakers, and would-be solvers. During the course of Hoffman's research and travels to modern-day Asmat villages (he spent a month in one), he offers us an engrossing historical and cultural portrait of the region, a waterlogged swampland which today is still far off the beaten trail.

Other than the passing of a boat once a day or so, there were no sounds of engines, just the constant shriek of children playing—and almost every day and night there was like this first one. A few men came by, sat and smoked with us. Packs of dogs loped along the boardwalks, through the swampy ground beneath the houses, sometimes attacked each other in a wild scrum of barking and howling and yelping. The air reeked of human shit—the moldy, always wet outhouse was in the kitchen and the hole dropped straight to the ground beneath the kitchen, with those widely spaced boards.

I apologize for inflicting such a quote on you, but be happy that I didn't choose one of the many graphic descriptions of butchery and cannibalism that Hoffman recounts, including the book's opening scene in which Michael meets his grisly fate. It's only after that initial shock, with the reader gagging, that the author confesses, "If they'd killed Michael, that was how it had been done." Nice trick.

In the end, Hoffman convinces himself that Michael did indeed die at the hands of cannibals. He finds no skeletal remains or other physical evidence, but a preponderance of written material, deductions, and oral testimony weighs the case for him. For many of the rest of us, things are not so clear. With numerous black-and-white photographs, but no maps.

The Worst Motorcycle in Laos: Rough Travels in Asia
By Chris Tharp

From his headquarters in South Korea, Chris Tharp has been roaming the back roads of Asia for years. In The Worst Motorcycle in Laos, he reports on trips to Vietnam, Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea, Cambodia, and Laos, from 2005 to 2014.

Right off the bat, Tharp mentions Hunter Thompson in his introduction and confesses that the great American oddball is a model for his writing. Sure enough, Tharp's travel writing recalls Thompson's famous "gonzo" style, heavy on fleabag hotels, dangerous companions, disastrous bus rides, rock music, gastrointestinal crises, and descents into the dicier quartiers of Asian cities.

At times, Tharp writes like a blogger—over-casual, over-slangy, over-vulgar.

Still, his dispatches from the front lines of Asia are anything but dull. He eats python in Vietnam, tours a pornography arcade in Japan, contracts food poisoning in Cambodia, and, in the excellent title essay, attempts to tour Laos on a tiny 100cc motorcycle that breaks down every ten miles or so.

For backpackers and other travelers to Asia seeking the grittier side of things, Tharp's tales will be essential reading. For milder travelers who seek their thrills in a café in Paris or a villa in Tuscany, these accounts will make Asia sound like the last place in the world you'd want to visit.

I liked Tharp's humor, best of all:

Despite all the attempts at chic modernity, Korea still keeps one toe firmly planted in the Third World. Dog soup restaurants, while technically illegal, can be found serving up steaming bowls of Fido on sketchy side streets.

The Directions to Happiness: a 135-country quest for life lessons
By Bruce Northam

Veteran travel writer Bruce Northam is an engaging, grizzled straight-shooter and has compiled a wisdom book in The Directions to Happiness—a collection of anecdotes, lessons, and brief memoirs of his (apparently) uninterrupted life on the road.

Most of the chapters here are very short—two or three pages—and skip blithely all over the globe from Antarctica to Canada's High Arctic. Northam is a stalwart traveler, who doesn't hesitate to hitchhike across the USA, or bungee jump off Victoria Falls Bridge, or imbibe kava in Fiji.

A handful of chapters run longer than the norm—these read more like traditional travelogues. In Utah, Northam attends a wilderness course and learns "stone toolmaking, munching dandelion greens (the yellow part too), tying knots, and setting animal traps," all the while surviving on a near-starvation diet. In the Philippines, he treks deep into the Cordillera jungle. In Great Britain, he and his 79-year-old father hike the 147-mile Viking Way.

In truth, I prefer these longer chapters, classic traveler's tales, whereby Northam's natural storytelling takes the reader into new territories.

On a solo hike, I met three thousand Gentoo penguins quacking like an army of trumpeting kazoos, all flapping their wing-fins merrily. Their kazoo/quack soundtrack melded with whimpering seals, yapping gulls, pleading terns, thundering glaciers, and the air-releasing phishes from whale blowholes.

You can see some of those longer pieces from Northam here in Perceptive Travel. Yet the bulk of The Directions to Happiness is, as I say, composed of vignettes and anecdotes, plus a seemingly endless supply of aphorisms—I didn't count them, but there must be hundreds of epigraphs, adages, proverbs and sayings here—often cited from people Northam has met along the road. I have nothing against pithy quotations, nothing against wisdom writing, but, as a reader, there comes a point when you've had your fill of life lessons, and you find yourself craving something cynical, transgressive, in bad taste.

A reliable, decent, and gracious writer like Northam isn't the place for that. For that, you need someone like Paul Theroux who can always be counted on for a rich serving of ill humor, dyspepsia, and misanthropy.

No such occasions arise with Bruce Northam. You read him for his clear-eyed prose and his sure hand in guiding you to far-off places. Still, I'll be glad when he gets off the wisdom trail and returns to pure travel writing. I can read all the moralizing I want in heartfelt best-sellers like Eat, Pray, Love and Wild.

William Caverlee is a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including The Oxford American, The Christian Science Monitor, Aviation History, Cimarron Review, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. He's the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays, published by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

Savage Harvest

Buy Savage Harvest at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

The Worst Motorcycle in Laos

Buy The Worst Motorcycle in Laos in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Buy The Directions to Happiness at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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