BOOK REVIEW: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True StoryThe Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Preston tells the story of his participation in an expedition into the Mosquitia region of Honduras in search of a lost city, alternately called the White City (i.e. La Ciudad Blanca) or the City of the Monkey God. Preston was acting as a correspondent for National Geographic and was part of a larger team including a photographer, filmmakers, archaeologists, and a team of ex-Spec Ops escorts. It’s not a simple and straightforward tale of Indiana Jones types chasing after the artifacts of a long collapsed civilization (though it does capitalize on that sense of intrigue greatly from the title to the telling of both the historic and contemporary searches for this fabled lost city.) The book tells several stories that occur about and around this search, and they are arguably more interesting.

One of these side stories is the historic accounts of past explorers who searched for the White City. Those were the individuals who more closely corresponded to Indiana Jones–both because they didn’t have an airplane with a state-of-the-art Lidar system (lidar is the light/laser version of radar or sonar), and because they were more likely to engage in tomb-raiding and artifact robbery. This isn’t to say that the expedition that Preston was on didn’t have its share of snakes, quickmud, and other hazards that are the only reason that a huge city from a past civilization would remain undiscovered in the present day. The region in which the expedition took place had not only all the natural hazards of dense jungle, but the human hazards posed by operating in territory controlled by drug cartels. That said, they didn’t have to machete through hundreds of miles of jungle with no idea of where they were likely to find their objective.

One of the most interesting side stories occurred when Preston and many of the members of the expedition came down with leishmaniasis, a nasty tropical disease vectored by sandflies. The disease has a treatment that’s almost as likely to kill one as is the disease. It’s almost impossible to completely get rid of the disease. One can be cured in the sense of being made asymptomatic, but one may remain a potential carrier waiting to be bitten again and to pass the nasty parasite onto another sandfly so they can infect someone else. There are several elements of the disease story that are intriguing. The most interesting is speculation about the role that disease might have played in the sudden evacuation of this lost city. This is informed by a broader discussion of how “Old World” diseases spread through the “New World” with crippling effect. Another is how diseases are neglected when they almost exclusively infect poor and rural people (until a National Geographic correspondent tracks it back to the continental US, that is.)

For those outside of archaeology, one of the least interesting, but still interesting, side stories is that of the intense controversy in the field. Preston is very forthcoming about his talks with scholars who were angered and outraged by the use of terms like “Lost City” which hearken back to a period in which tomb-raiding was the norm and Westerners stole and shipped priceless artifacts back to the West by the ton. These internecine wars of academia reinforce the idea that this isn’t just musty history, but involves questions that many people feel intensely passionate about.

There is a photo section that provides images of both the cast of highly discussed people and a few of the artifacts uncovered. There’s also a section of sources and citations.

I found this book to be fascinating and I’d highly recommend it. Those interested in exploration and adventure tales will find it of obvious interest, but those with a curiosity about public health may find it unexpectedly of interest.

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BOOK REVIEW: Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian Smith

Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and AdventureCrossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure by Julian Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book tells two tales in parallel, connected by one theme: travel for love. The author, Julian Smith, recounts the experience of Ewart Grogan, an English explorer whose life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries. Grogan traveled the length of Africa from South to North and recounted his experience in a book entitled “From Cape to Cairo.” The purpose of his grand endeavor was to prove his worth as man. Grogan was in love with a woman whose family was of higher station, and he believed that if he could only do what had never been done before, then the objections to his “marrying up” would dissolve.

The other story is Smith’s own attempt to retrace Grogan’s route across the length of the continent. While Smith doesn’t have to prove his worth, his motivations are more complex and tied up with his engagement to be married. Maybe Smith’s motivation is best summed up as a desire to prove to himself and / or his fiancé that he had sufficient commitment and fortitude to get him through rough times—a characteristic relevant to both marriage and crossing some of the world’s least developed countries.

Of his own admission, Smith’s journey was to be far less arduous than Grogan’s by virtue of the fact that he’d be traveling by taxis, motorcycles, buses, and ferries. Grogan and other 19th century explorers were subject to hazards far graver and more ever-present. For one thing, in Grogan’s day virtually everybody who spent any significant time in Africa got malaria. It wasn’t a question of if but when and how seriously. Even if you escaped malaria, there were myriad other tropical diseases to bring one to one’s knees. Next, there was the tribal environment in which one would travel through dozens of tribal territories, all of whose chiefs expected tribute and many of which were outright hostile. For Smith, rule of law was present in some form or fashion along most of his route, such that no one could just murder him and get off scot-free. There was also the risk of crew desertions that could cripple an expedition. Traveling parties had to carry huge amounts of goods from surveying equipment to gifts to medicines to food stuffs. Still, they had to obtain many of the party’s needs along the route. Among other things, this meant hunting animals that weren’t as docile as livestock. Anything less than an instant kill meant having to trudge into tall grass after a wounded creature that had a far greater killing capacity at close range.

This isn’t to say that Smith’s journey was adventure free. Anyone who has traveled in Africa knows that getting from place to place remains a slow and exhausting process. And many of the things that undermined Grogan’s trip also undermined Smith’s, e.g. the author suffered extended fever. But the most devastating factor for Smith’s travels was the fact that parts of Sudan were lawless and a brutal war was being fought. While Grogan barely managed to drag himself through the swampy landscape, Smith was unable to proceed overland because of the conflict. In telling of his travels, Smith discusses many of the dilemma’s that traveler’s face today (e.g. to give people money or not, how to contend with bureaucrats.) Among the travels that modern-day readers might be interested in is Smith’s visit to a gorilla sanctuary.

I enjoyed this mix of travelogue and history. The book gives one insight into the changing nature of the world and, particularly, what was once called the Dark Continent. [Note: while that may sound either racist or awash in a negativity bias, I’ve read that the reason it was called that was that when the 19th century explorers were traveling through much of the continent was unmapped, i.e. blacked out.]

I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in travel in Africa—past or present.

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BOOK REVIEW: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Vol. 1) by Alan Moore

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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For those unfamiliar with this series or the movie featuring Sean Connery, this graphic novel assembles a team of heroes from 19th century science fiction and adventure novels. Specifically, the team includes: Mina Harker (of Bram Stroker’s Dracula), Allan Quatermain (of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mine series), Captain Nemo (of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and other Jules Verne novels), Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel featuring their names), and Hawley Griffin (of the H.G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man.) The team’s principle nemesis is Professor James Moriarty of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series.

Interestingly, this book follows the same general plot progression as the movie, but is much different in tone, settings, and character details. The plot progression of which I refer is that the team is assembled (with no small amount of mutual animosity) and they bond into a team as they face a grandiose threat of steampunk industrialization run amok. That plot progression aside, you’ll find an entirely different story otherwise. First, those who favor gender equality will appreciated that Mina Harker is in a leadership role in this volume, the role played by Quatermain in the movie. (That being said, this isn’t a group of individuals who take readily to being led.) Second, those who like darker, grittier tales will find this book more appealing than the movies. Allan Quatermain is found by Harker wasted in an opium den. Griffin is captured after having moved into a girl’s school to use his invisibility to lecherous advantage and the head mistress of said school is decidedly dominatrix like. I generally liked the grittier tone better, though it was hard to reconcile Griffin’s abhorrent behavior with heroism—anti-heroes are a challenge, particularly one who can disappear at will. Third, the team in the book is smaller and more manageable, with the movie having taken on two more characters (Dorian Gray and Tom Sawyer.) Finally, the book doesn’t get around so much. The movie features at least four major settings—not counting the high seas, but the book takes place mostly in Victorian London.

You don’t have to have read all the classic works from which the characters derive to get the story, but it does make it a little more fun. (Yes, I realize that I’m using “classic” for books–some of which–were considered the pulp fiction of their day. However, if your book is still in print after 100 years, I’d say you deserve the status and respect.) Those who’ve read the books will get some subtleties that aren’t critical to the story but are kind of nifty. That being said, don’t expect the characters to match their originals perfectly. The novels covered are wide-ranging, some rely on supernatural elements and others are more realistic, some are futuristic while others reflect the times more accurately. One can’t bring all these individuals into one world and have them be exactly as they were in their original domains.

There are some extra features at the end including a short story featuring a time traveling Allan Quatermain and some art from the series.

I’d recommend this book for those who read comics and graphic novels—especially if they’ve read the stories of at least a few of the 19th century characters. (If you haven’t read any of the novels, you should probably go back and hit some classics before you read anything else. Just my opinion.) It’s an intriguing concept, and it’s done well.

The movie trailer is here.

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BOOK REVIEW: Travels in Siam, Cambodia, Laos, and Annam by Henri Mouhot

Travels In Siam, Cambodia, Laos, And AnnamTravels In Siam, Cambodia, Laos, And Annam by Henri Mouhot

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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If you can stomach the blatant racism and false notions of the virtue of Imperialism, reading the journals of 19th century naturalists and explorers can be fascinating for modern-day travelers. I will say that Mouhot’s work is less offensive than many of his contemporaries in this regard (e.g. the eugenicist polymath Francis Galton.) That is to say, he tries to be objective, and—when he fails–his condescension is as likely to be vaguely complimentary as not (e.g. noting certain “savages” are surprisingly intelligent.) However, one should remember that this is the journal of a journey that took place in years corresponding to the lead up to the American Civil War. (I should note that these snooty inclinations toward superiority aren’t uniquely Western, the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan also viewed the Southeast Asian people with condescension.)

Alexander Henri Mouhot left London on April 27th of 1858, traveled to and throughout Southeast Asia, and died in the jungle on November 10, 1861. The journal was received by the explorer’s brother, Charles Mouhot, who is responsible for seeing it published, and for adding some front matter as well as tying up the end of the journal because Henri Mouhot died fairly abruptly of a feverish ailment that he contracted in the jungle.

In many ways, Mouhot’s work is similar to Daguan’s 14th century Record of Cambodia. Mouhot covers a lot more ground, but they both chronicle the natural, cultural, and commercial environment of these lands. Mouhot prides himself in being a naturalist, and he writes quite a bit about the diverse flora and fauna of these lands as well as of the geography. Mouhot collected many specimens of plants and animals that were unknown in his native France. About mid journey, he lost his collection to a maritime accident. However, he was able to reacquire some of these specimens in the latter portion of his journey.

Mouhot writes extensively about the locals and their customs. As I already suggested, these descriptions are often highly biased. For example, he tends to refer to the indigenous spiritual beliefs of the locals as “superstitions” while he bemoans the fact that these people are “living and dying in utter ignorance of the only true God!” However, for the most part he tries to maintain a scholarly detachment, and often he is complimentary of the local people (e.g. his apparent surprise that some of hill people would be offended by being referred to as savages is an example of his benign condescension.)

Also like Daguan, he discusses the possibilities for trade. It’s clear that one of his intended audiences are those interested in the commercial potential of the region. He writes both about what natural resources these nations contain, and what products they might be sold. He is ambiguous about the local market for European goods, first skeptical and then sanguine. He says that the locals don’t have much need for the goods produced in Europe, but then he suggests that the wealthier individuals do like to emulate European style and fashions. Perhaps, he is saying there are potential consumers among the small slice of wealthy individuals, but that is a limited market. Of course, the desire for commodities from Asia in conjunction with the wish to avoid drawing down precious metals reserves (i.e. forcing Asians to buy Western products) was no small cause of Imperialist shenanigans during that time period.

Among the most interesting chapters are those on Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. In these chapters, one receives an account of the state of Angkor between Daguan’s era (when the Angkor civilization was still active) and a modern-day Angkor that exists in the wake of successive waves of pillaging by the French (and other treasure hunters), the Khmer Rouge, and Vietnamese soldiers.

Mouhot was also interested in whether Jews had settled and integrated in the area. His theory was that there likely were. He says he sees a “Hebrew character” in some faces, but he acknowledges there is no hard evidence to support his belief and that the locals deny such a presence.

I guess the intrigue in Mouhot’s journal is a picture of this region during an era in which the world was not yet homogenized. Now when one travels to “remote villages,” one often sees people wearing the same mass-produced Western clothing that one sees at home, and they sit around with their smart-phones ignoring each other as at home. Mouhot’s era was one in which one traveled by elephant, boat, or by foot and often advanced no more than ten miles in a day in the jungle. It was an era of discovery. This may account for some of the xenophobic biases of that time; the ways of other people were new.

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