Michael Finkel's The Stranger in the Woods.

It's been a couple of weeks since I read a book I wasn't able to put down. The last book with which I had that experience was Michael Finkel's investigative/character portrait The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.

Stranger in the woodsFinkel relates the story of Christopher Knight, who walked away from his job, car, and life in 1986, and did not really reappear among society until he was arrested for multiple thefts in 2013. Where did he go? Well, into the woods in central Maine, but the fascinating part of the story is that he didn't really go very far; there were numerous cabins and people within walking distance:

"...Knight chose to disappear well within the bounds of society. Towns and roads and houses surround his site; he could overhear canoeists' conversations on North Pond. He wasn't so much removed from humanity as sitting on the sidelines. From the nearest cabin to his hiding spot is a three-minute walk, if you know where you're going." (p. 53.)

So how did he survive nearly twenty-seven years sleeping outside in Maine, when he had walked to his campsite carrying nothing? Well, he stole. A lot. His tent, his tarps, his supplies, his food, his clothing, everything came from the cabins and a summer camp facility not far away. He even stole National Geographics and used them (and other magazines) as a sort of floor for his site. He did not hunt or grow any food; that probably would have drawn notice long before his other activities. Nonetheless, the residents of the nearby cabins were more than a bit spooked about break-ins and supplies gone missing over the course of more than twenty-five years.

So what did Knight do? Well, in addition to stealing enough food and other necessaries to eat, he sat by himself and enjoyed the woods. A lot. This is a man who has sheer dedication to living outside, and to living apart from other people. You can see that when you read about how he survived some of the Maine winters:

"It's natural to assume that Knight just slept all the time during the cold season, a human hibernation, but this is wrong. 'It is dangerous to sleep too long in winter,' he said. It was essential for him to know precisely how cold it was, his brain demanded it, so he always kept three thermometers in camp: one mercury, one digital, one spring-loaded. He couldn't trust just a single thermometer, and preferred a consensus.

When frigid weather descended, he went to sleep at seven-thirty p.m. He'd cocoon himself in multiple layers of sleeping bags and cinch a tie-down strap near his feet to prevent the covers from slipping off. If he needed to pee, it was too cumbersome to undo his bedding, so he used a wide-mouthed jug with a good lid. No matter what he tried, he couldn't keep his feet warm. 'Thick socks. Multiple socks. Boot liners. Thin socks, thinking it was better to have my feet together, using the mitten theory. I never found a perfect solution.' Still, he did not lose a toe or a finger to frostbite. Once in bed, he'd sleep six and a half hours, and arise at two a.m.

That way, at the depth of cold, he was awake...The first thing he'd do at two a.m. was light his stove and start melting snow. To get his blood circulating, he'd walk the perimeter of his camp..." (p. 118-119.)

The author, Michael Finkel*, originally made contact with Knight by writing a letter to him in prison (Knight was convicted of several felony burglaries--although it is estimated that he performed more than a thousand break-ins over the course of his self-exile) and was surprised when Knight wrote back and agreed to let Finkel come to Maine to speak with him in jail. It's not a perfect book; at times I found Finkel's voice and persona a bit irritating, and I was never quite sure why Knight was allowing him to tell the story. But overall it was a good read. And I liked that Knight didn't really offer any explanation or justification for what he did (although Finkel tries to tie his story to historical examples of hermits and solitude-seekers); it seems that he really just wanted to sit around by himself, a lot, and that's what he went and did. Anyone looking for greater understanding than that will not really get it from this narrative, because Finkel didn't really get a whole lot of introspective answers from Knight.

I liked it. It's drawing a lot of comparison's to Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild, but that one was a lot longer and the main character died, so I much preferred this very odd story.

*Finkel admits to Knight and in this book that he has erred in his journalism ways; he was fired by the New York Times for creating a "composite character" based on interviews with numerous individuals.

Roberto Canessa's I Had to Survive.

One of the best nonfiction books I've ever read is Piers Paul Read's Alive. It's the account of the 1972 plane crash of a team of high school rugby players (and their friends and family) who, while flying from Uruguay to Chile, crashed in the Andes. (That description does not do it justice. Go read this review.)

A while back another book about the crash came out, this one by one of the survivors, Nando Parrado. So I got that too (Miracle in the Andes), and found it to be another interesting perspective on the crash. So when I saw a new book this year, titled I Had to Survive: How a Plane Crash in the Andes Inspired My Calling to Save Lives, by another one of the survivors, Roberto Canessa, I thought, well, I should probably just read it too.

And after a chapter or two of it, I thought I wouldn't continue--after all, I've read about this story before, and Canessa seemed to be taking the book in the direction of inspirational or self-help, exploring how his time on the mountain and his trek to find rescuers with Parrado shaped his life thereafter. After the crash, Canessa continued his education and medical training and eventually became a world-renowned pediatric cardiologist. Much of this book is about his experiences working with the families of babies with heart issues, and many of those stories are told not only by Canessa but also by the individuals in question.

But I stuck with it, and found that I got sucked into the story all over again. Canessa's account of the first few days after the crash, the screams and moans during the nights stuck in the crashed plane fuselage, and the slow dying of their hope that they would of course be rescued, is just as unbelievable as everything else I've read on the subject. Likewise, his story of the trek out, battling subzero temps, snow blindness, weakness, not knowing where they were, and even one night having to sleep while standing up, perched on a nearly vertical ledge, well, again: unbelievable. As Canessa tells his story, eventually he intersperses more stories of his life after the ordeal, and his professional experiences as a doctor, and those parts are interesting too--to see how the crash and trek perhaps changed him (or more likely highlighted certain aspects of a personality and will he already had), provided yet another valuable viewpoint on the whole story and history.

The book is written with (or by? who knows), another author, Pablo Vierci, and also includes chapters told by the families of babies whom Canessa has worked with over the years.These chapters were really a bit more inspirational than I typically like to go, but by then I was 180 pages in and figured I had to finish. One woman who has been his patient for more than twenty years reported that Canessa told her that her "heart condition wasn't a disability but simply a series of life's hurdles to be overcome one at a time." (p. 276.) And you know what? Just for today, I did find that a little inspirational. Don't tell anyone, 'kay?

I can't say it's a great book. It's written with someone and it's a bit odd the way it jumps around in viewpoint. If you haven't read anything on this subject you really shouldn't start here; you should start with Alive. But if you have read that book, and feel interested enough to continue, this was a different take on the subject, and could be worth a read to you.

And what an American life.

Wow, talk about living hard, dying young, and leaving a good-looking corpse: did everybody here know that author Jack London (of Call of the Wild fame) died at the age of 40? After packing more action and adventure into that short lifetime than most people do who live twice as long?

I read The Call of the Wild a million years ago, and remembered liking it, although I think that is the only piece of London's writing that I've ever read. My sister has referenced him before, though, so when I saw Earle Labor's new biography, Jack London: An American Life, in my library catalog, I placed it on hold, thinking I would lend it to her to read.

I made the (happy) mistake of reading the first few chapters of the book myself, and then I kept it for myself to read, rather than passing it along. Sorry, sis.

I couldn't stop reading this book simply because of the sheer momentum of London's life. From his illegitimacy to his hardscrabble childhood, his dedication to Socialist causes to his young adulthood filled with hard labor, his unstinting efforts to educate himself to his drive to become a published author, and his first unhappy marriage to a fulfilling second one, complete with a sailing voyage around the world, this story just never gets the chance to be dull. Labor's writing is straightforward and not nearly as flashy as its subject, and I periodically wished for some more juicy details*, but overall this was a quick read for how much ground the author had to cover.

A great biography, complete with notes, bibliography, and index, and a great read, about a truly unbelievable life. And a great book to read during this time of the year, trapped as we all feel by weather and the doldrums of January and February.**

*I forgot to place bookmarks at the places where I thought, huh, I'd like some more detail here. You'll just have to take my word on this one.

**Or am I the only one feeling this way?

Who doesn't enjoy Dame Agatha Christie?

No one, that's who.

Recently I plowed through the travel diary The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery, in which Christie's grandson Matthew Prichard has gathered together her travel diary entries, letters, photographs, and snippets from her autobiography in order to re-create her 1922 world tour. Then a mother of a young toddler (Rosalind, who stayed home with Christie's mother), Christie and her first husband, Archie Christie, were invited to "join a trade mission to promote the British Empire Exhibition."

Even after reading the book, I'm not really sure what the deal was with the British Empire Exhibition. Don't you just love the early twentieth century? Trade missions! Empire Exhibitions! World's Fairs! Sure they didn't yet have antibiotics, but it sure seemed like people in those times knew how to enjoy themselves.

Anyhoo, the long and short of the matter is that Agatha got to accompany her husband on an around-the-world tour to various locations in the British Empire (South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada among them, with time for a side trip vacation to Hawaii), along with various other British dignitary/bureacrat types, in order to finish planning for the British Empire Exhibition. And the lively accounts she gives of her travels, both in her letters and in her autobiography, should not disappoint fans of Christie's mysteries. In fact, particularly while in Africa, you can see how she was already honing her descriptive style of her surroundings, which is a facet of her mysteries I think I always underestimated. And the chapter on Hawaii, when she's obsessed with surfing? Awesome:

"First you have to recognize the proper wave when it comes, and secondly, even more important, you have to know the wrong wave when it comes, because if that catches you and forces you down to the bottom. Heaven help you!" (p. 266.)

Of course she goes on to describe how she once caught the wrong wave. Scrappy gal.

The pictures of Christie herself are a lot of fun, particularly in her surfing get-ups, but most of the other snapshots are of people (mostly other bureaucrats and ex-pats) she met along the way, and are not that exciting. It's a fun book, if you're looking for something a little different in the travel line. (And if you're looking for something a little different in the review line, consider RickLibrarian's.)

War nonfiction hiatus.

If American readers try to plead ignorance about how wars affect the soldiers who fight them, they're big fat liars. I have now officially read so many nonfiction narratives from American soldiers' points of view, or which tell their stories, that I can't read any more. I am done. I don't even know why I kept reading them in the first place; I keep thinking maybe at some point I'll understand our love for all things military in this country. But I never will.

Junger The latest entry in this canon was Sebastian Junger's War. It's been getting a lot of press attention, so I wanted to see it, but I should have quit reading last week when I was in the middle of it and couldn't tell you why I was still reading it. Junger is best known for his runaway bestseller The Perfect Storm, and he brings a lot of his skill in relating telling details, as well as for describing situations in which hope is pretty much lost, to this book. For a year (2007-2008) Junger was embedded with soldiers fighting in one of the most violent regions in Afghanistan, and this book is his account of, as the jacket copy exclaims, "what war actually feels like."

The book is divided into three sections: Fear, Killing, and Love. What I couldn't discern was how Junger was telling his story; anecdotes in the Love section, for example, seemed like they could just as easily have gone in Fear (etc.,) and I couldn't tell if the narrative was purely chronological, or what. Perhaps that was by design, proving how disconcerting war can be to your sense of time and continuity. Perhaps it was my fault, because I started reading the book pretty fast after page 100 or so. Either way, I couldn't keep hold of any sort of story arc.

What Junger does do well is share his personal observations on how the American soldiers withstand and actually come to love their ordeals. These are the tidbits that started to scare hell out of me after a while. Consider:

"War is a lot of things and it's useless to pretend that exciting isn't one of them. It's insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency of its use and the consequences of almost everything about it are the most excting things anyone engaged in war will ever know. Soldiers discuss that fact with each other and eventually with their chaplains and their shrinks and maybe even their spouses, but the public will never hear about it...In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else. Combat isn't where you might die---though that does happen--it's where you find out whether you get to keep living. Don't underestimate the power of that revelation. Don't underestimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time." (p. 144-145.)

"It's a stressful way to live but once it's blown out your levels almost everything else looks boring. O'Byrne knows himself: when he gets bored he starts drinking and getting into fights, and then it's only a matter of time until he's back in the system. If that's the case, he might as well stay in the system--a better one--and actually move upward...We are at one of the most exposed outposts in the entire U.S. military, and he's crawling out of his skin because there hasn't been a good firefight in a week. How do you bring a guy like that back into the world?" (p. 233.)

Cripes. This book saddened me like few have. Can't humans find larger meaning in anything except killing each other? Perhaps this book was just a little too much from the soldiers' point of view for me. If you'd like to read something on the subject, but not this book, I would highly recommend Theodore Nadelson's Trained to Kill: Soldiers at War, which was also depressing, but not quite as testosterone-soaked.

War...what IS it good for?

Right now in my house there's more than 1500 pages of information and history about war waiting to be read, spread out over four different titles. I am not going to have the time to get all of those pages read, nor am I going to have the stomach for it, so I will have to pick and choose.

The first book is titled Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq, by Susan A. Brewer. This book looks interesting, and I have always been interested in the uses and effects of propaganda (it's the former Communication Arts major in me), but it's a more scholarly book and I'm just not up for it right now. I did read the introduction last night, and must say I lost interest after this sentence: "As we will see, propaganda can promote a legitimate war such as World War II or a flawed conflict such as Vietnam." (p. 7.) Now, "legitimate" is a better word than "good" or "valid," but I still think it itself constitutes propaganda, and, if thought about, only continues to stigmatize veterans of later, more "flawed" conflicts. People think I'm nuts when I say things like this: but can any war really be called "legitimate"? I just don't know.

Stripping The second book is a monster titled Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War, by Mark Danner, and it looks really fascinating. In fact, because I would probably never get through this one in the four weeks allotted me by the library, I have been thinking about buying it, just to have it around and to support Mark Danner, who has written several interesting books based on his reporting career. In this book his journalistic pieces from a number of the world's hot spot--Haiti, Sarajevo, Iraq, Afghanistan--were chosen to reflect what the book jacket promises: "it tells the grim and compelling tale of the true final years of the American Century, as the United States passed from the violent certainties of the late Cold War, to the ideological confusions of the post-Cold War world, to the pumped up and ruthless evangelism of the War on Terror and the Iraq War, and the ruins they have left behind." Please note this book's cover, which I find scary as hell.

No judgment yet on David Finkel's book The Good Soldiers, as I have been waiting for it on hold for a long, long time, and still hope to get it read before it has to go back to the library.

But will I be in the mood for that one when I'm done with Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death, by Jim Frederick? I don't know. I only started it yesterday, but it's pretty chilling. In this one, reporter Frederick describes the activities of one specific platoon of soldiers--the 1st Battalion of the 502nd Infantry Regiment the 101st Airborne Division--who were deployed in late 2005 to try and maintain order in the violent triangle between the Iraq cities of Mahmudiyah, Lutufiyah, and Yusufiyah (just south of Baghdad). Under ridiculous amounts of threats and stress, some of the soldiers in this unit engaged in war crimes that I really don't even want to describe, but which involve the murder of an Iraqi family. Atrocities were also perpetrated against them; this is the same unit from which several servicemen were taken, killed, and their bodies mutilated.

I may be ready for some lighter reading when I'm done with any of the above books.

Loving Stephen Fry wherever he is.

Normally I don't have a lot of time for travel books written about the United States. But every so often I like to make an exception--particularly so when the author of such a book is British.

Fry Stephen Fry (better known to American audiences for his role as Jeeves in the BBC series Jeeves and Wooster, or for his appearances on Blackadder) set out to set foot in every one of America's fifty states, and to learn a little something about what makes each of them unique. My next research task is to track down the television series he made (on which this book, Stephen Fry in America, is based), but even if I don't find it, I've already enjoyed the book immensely.

Be prepared: although Fry seems quite fond of America and Americans, there are times when he won't pull any punches. For instance, when he spent some time in Oregon camping out with a man who firmly believes in the Sasquatch legend, this is what he had to say: "I have to spend hours camping out with Matt, listening to completely unconvincing stories of Bigfoot sightings, accompanied by weird and inappropriately tearful mentions of his wife and children. His particular blend of aggressive family sentimentality*, macho gun-toting and childish superstition is not something I find it easy to respect or like." (p. 284.)

Now that's a bit churlish. But I love churlish. I think the churl is what lends more weight to Fry's many other kind words about the majority of the states and their residents. And, of course, as Fry said I would in his introduction ("human nature, after all, dictates that you turn straight to the entry in this book that covers your own state..."), I went right for the chapter on Wisconsin and was proud to learn that he thinks that we, in contrast to the rest of the U.S., really get cheese. I'll take that.

It's a fun read, with beautiful pictures. Do check it out.

*I totally love this phrase, as aggression and sentimentality are two of my least favorite personality traits.

What exactly are people loving about this book?

I was completely annoyed by Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea. A little background:

Tea I kind of knew I was going to be annoyed by this book. I've avoided reading it for years, even though it was a big crowd-pleaser when I worked at the library, and I can't recall that I've ever read a bad review of it. As noted earlier this week, I am one of those nasty people who often dislikes the crowd pleasers, so I thought I'd save us all some time and skip it. But then my dad asked for it, as a neighbor had told him to read it, and he wanted to know what I thought of it, so I had to explain to him why I hadn't read it.* Then, because he was going to read it, I thought I might as well listen to it on CD and then we could at least chat it over when we were done.

But it's not going to happen. I have listened to six CDs (of an 11-CD set) and I can't listen to any more. The subject matter is fine: Mortenson tried to climb K2 in Pakistan in tribute to his sister, who died at too young an age; failed in his attempt because he rescued someone else; was assisted in his descent by some of the Pakistani locals; and was so touched by their generosity and their stoic acceptance of their harsh environment that he pledged to return and build a school for their community. Which he did, and then did in other communities. I'm bailing out of this narrative right after he got a bridge built in Pakistan (he had to build that before he could build the school) and married his soulmate, so I'm going to have to live without knowing what happened with all the other schools.**

So what is the problem(s)? Well, for me, they are, in no particular order:

1. A large part of the first chunk of the book describes Mortenson's climbing exploits. I do not like mountain climbers. Just thinking about them (not all of them, but enough) leaving their spent tanks of oxygen all over the worlds' mountains annoys me.

2. Mortenson seems to have a bit more self esteem than I enjoy in a person. He introduces himself to some Pakistani children as "Greg" and "good." Who does that? I'd quibble less with the word "friendly," and sure, maybe I'm being overly picky, but the fact remains that I like people with a little more doubt in their soul. ("Citizen Reader. Hopefully good, but, you know, given the right circumstances, I'll bet I could do some pretty petty and/or scary shit.")

3. When he meets his soulmate and future wife, they go back to her apartment together, where she tells him "Welcome to my life," and he tells her "Welcome to my heart." At that point I snorted with laughter, said to the dishes I was doing, "Who are these people?", and then turned off the CD.

Please note: I am not against inspiring personal stories or philanthropists in general. It's just that there are many better books out there about people trying to make the world a better place: Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, for one, and Melissa Faye Greene's There Is No Me Without You for another.

*Trying to explain to your father that you're a bitter and snobby person is always just a bit awkward.

**I'm pretty sure I can live without knowing.

Rick Steves, bad boy?

Normally I think Rick Steves is the most boring travel writer/presenter on the planet. I often watch his shows on PBS because I like travel shows, and because every time Mr. CR and I see his "Back Door" productions logo, we giggle, because we are immature. But if I want witty travel talk, I watch Burt Wolf.*

Politicalact So I was pleasantly surprised by Steves's new travel narrative, titled Travel as a Political Act. Although Steves makes his living writing straightforward tour guides and running tours, this is more of a thoughtful book on travel, explaining how the cultures of other parts of the world differ from our culture in America. He strikes a nice balance; he's unabashed about saying he loves being American,** and he's actually thankful to be operating his small business in America, but he's also generous about pointing out how other cultures may have figured out different and very valid lifestyles; in Denmark, for example, residents pay much higher taxes but are also highly content with the health care, education, and other services their government provides. He also describes a number of Islamic countries, including Turkey, Iran, and Morocco, and is particularly interested that Morocco seems to be prospering while largely ignoring America and its cultural mandates (he found that Tangier had three languages on all of their street signs: Arabic, French, and Spanish). I also liked his idea, stated in his concluding chapter, that the "ultimate souvenir is a broader outlook."

But perhaps my favorite part of this book was reading about Europe's different approaches to drug use and their emphasis on "harm reduction," particularly where hard drugs (like heroin) are concerned. By pointing out that other first-world nations can and indeed do function, even in countries where you can go to "coffeeshops" to smoke marijuana, I think Steves is providing some valuable insight. I was also just tickled to find out that he is a former board member of NORML and sometimes speaks to groups in America about Europe's approach to drug laws and enforcement. Rick Steves, bad boy. Who knew?

*I have a huge crush on Burt, which disturbs Mr. CR.

**Steves's patriotism doesn't particularly bother me, as he seems to have developed it by learning about other cultures and giving it some independent thought, which is not a typical hallmark of patriotism (or so I've found).

Charmed, I'm sure.

Here's a short list of things in which I am completely uninterested: hunting, Western Americana and American history, camping and outdoorsy stories of any kind, and buffalo (or bison; they're the same thing).

Buffalo And yet? I managed to make it a good way through Steven Rinella's new book American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon. It's Rinella's travelogue/history/outdoor adventure memoir, in which he tracks both the history and lore of the American buffalo, as well as (more literally) an actual buffalo that he's hunting in the wilds of Alaska. Although he was interested in buffalo and the history of the West for a long time, the impetus for Rinella's narrative was his winning one of twenty-four annual permits issued to hunt a buffalo in Alaska.

So why on earth did I pick up such a book? Well, the short answer is that some authors completely charm me, and when they do, I'm dedicated to tracking down all the books they write. Rinella is also the author of The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine, which was one of my favorite books of 2005, and in which he sought to hunt, trap, capture, or otherwise procure all the ingredients to be used in Auguste Escoffier's 1903 Le Guide Culinaire cookbook. So, even though this is not a book I would have gravitated to because of its subject, I did enjoy a large part of it (I didn't get the whole thing read, although it was very good, largely because I decided what I'd rather do is go back and re-read The Scavenger's Guide). But if you have any interest in the subjects I listed above, I'd recommend this one. Although, if you are not into graphic descriptions of preparing an animal to be eaten (i.e., butchered) then I'd skip it.

But Rinella is charming, no doubt about it. Consider: "The bulk of buffalo history is set in the geologic epoch known as the Pleistocene, which spanned from about two milion years ago to ten thousand years ago. Of the geologic epochs, the Pleistocene is by far my favorite. Its relationship to the modern world reminds me of my own relationship to my grandparents: their lives were distant and obscure enough that it's difficult for me to really know and understand them, but what I do know about them helps explain a lot about how I turned into the kind of person I am."

You just have to kind of like a guy who has a favorite geologic era, don't you? I do. Have a good weekend, all.

Gutsy babe.

Sometimes the bravery of other women astounds me. Perhaps because I am a huge scaredy cat.

A while back I reviewed Deborah Copaken Kogan's novel Between Here and April, and while I basically liked it, there were a few elements that rubbed me the wrong way. In the comments for that review, however, a friend of mine we'll call Minnesota Sarah (hi up there!) reminded me that Kogan has also written the memoir Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War, which I promptly went and got from the library. 

Shutterbabe Now, how anyone decides they WANT to go to war zones and take photographs among largely hostile crowds has always baffled me. But when a woman does it? Then I'm really stymied. For one thing, I'd say I personally place a pretty high value on my own safety. I'm a big believer in hoping to minimize trouble by not going out to look for it. This must be a trait that Kogan has never had, because the book opens with her traveling with a bunch of Afghani fighters in Afghanistan--by herself. Holy crap. Other chapters detail her experiences covering wars in Zimbabwe and snapping pictures in Romanian orphanages (photos are included throughout the book), and unless you have a high capacity to read about human suffering, I wouldn't say this is the book for you. She also, of course, dishes on the personal details of being a globetrotting photography correspondent, including a (what seemed to me) somewhat unhappy affair with another photographer.

But I digress. This is one gutsy woman. Consider her photography thesis project for college:

"[My] thesis was called 'Shooting Back,' and it was a series of photos of men who had accosted me in various red-light districts up and down the Eastern seaboard. New York's Forty-second Street. Boston's Combat Zone. South Philly. The whole project evolved as a sort of radical form of self-therapy after I'd fallen victim to a number of armed robberies (two) and assaults (four). It was the equivalent of an acrophobe tackling Mount Everest, or an agoraphobe facing down the mall at Christmas: I was a bad-guy-o-phobe, hanging out in the belly of the beast.

I'd troll the seedy streets outside the strip clubs and the porno shops and wait for the inevitable comment, which ran the gamut from 'Hey, baby, wanna get it on?' to 'Suck my dick, bitch.' To every proposition I would quickly and confidently reply, 'No, thank you, but I would like to shoot your photo.' This retort and the presence of my camera changed the entire dynamic of the encounter. My clunky old Nikkormat became my weapon, turning hunter into prey, and as I held my wide-angle 28-millimeter lens mere inches from these men's faces, distoring their images, I felt the universe tipping for a moment in my favor." (p. 44.)

I ask you: who does that? I stand in awe of the gutsiness of other women.

Shallow alert.

I'll admit it. I only checked out the book Long Way Down: An Epic Journey by Motorcycle from Scotland to South Africa for the pictures. Why? Because it's co-written by actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman.

And Ewan McGregor is SO CUTE.

Mcgregor I was not disappointed. There are three sections of photos in the book, in which McGregor and Boorman take turns telling the story of their motorcycle journey from the northern tip of Scotland to the southern tip of South Africa, and many of them feature Ewan looking very, very adorable. I also enjoyed the captions: (Between two photos, one of Ewan by his tent, one of Charley by his tent) "In the cuds in Tunisia. Ewan would like to point out that he often got his tent up before Charley. Charley would like to point out that not only is his tent up, he is already starting supper."

Okay, so I'm shallow. I looked at all the pictures, twice, and read here and there in some of the chapters, which were also quite amusing, but I'm not going to read the whole thing. I'd recommend it, though, especially if you're looking for a good adventure story that also has some laughs. If you'd prefer to watch the story,it's available on DVD, just like Long Way Round (the tale of the pair's first journey around the globe) was.