Saturday, April 23, 2016

Book Club: Near Death in the Desert

Near Death in the Desert
True Stories of Disaster and Survival
Edited by Cecil Kuhne
Random House, 2009

I picked up this book in a used bookstore not long ago, realizing the useful niche between fiction and long-form non-fiction a set of short non-fiction stories like this occupies in my reading-for-entertainment habits. Cecil Kuhne has also edited a series of apparently similar volumes, listed in the front matter of this book with titles like "Near Death in the Arctic".

I assume Cecil Kuhne, in addition to choosing stories to include and separating out parts he wished to include from longer works (i.e., the work of assembling this volume) wrote the 1-paragraph texts that introduce and post-script each story. He does a very poor job at this, over-sensationalizing all of the stories (as much as the title does - few disasters are involved anywhere) and, more seriously in my opinion, opening one story with a bit of frankly racist nonsense. The oldest story fragment here is from the account by J.W. Powell of the 1869 expedition to explore the Colorado river and a part of the Grand Canyon. Kuhne states "Major Powell set out from Green River, Whyoming, to explore territory and rapids never before viewed by human eyes." (emphasis added by me) The story, which I can only assume Kuhne read, includes multiple mentions of the discovery by Major Powell of the remains of native American habitations, and plenty of description of such artifacts found overlooking the river as abundant broken pottery and the outlines of house foundations.

Overall, this wasn't a great read. The variety of voices was a strength, certainly, but despite covering adventures separated by more than a century (the most recent story takes place in the early 1980's) I found more in common among these authors than their voyages across hot sand and rock: none of them were particularly likeable or relatable. I think it's probably a hazard of this kind of extreme travel-writing that the author-adventurers start out as people of a tiny minority, who feel such a strong wanderlust that they set out on near-suicidal and deeply uncomfortable voyages (the squidgiest part of this book for me was the description of attempts to remove lice from clothing). They don't relate well to most "normal" people in their home societies, so they don't come across as particularly relatable in their day-to-day concerns or their long-term goals to most "normal" people, either. I don't consider myself particularly "normal" in this sense, and I like to imagine that I am actually closer to these authors along some hypothetical "stay-at-home / see the world" spectrum, but I don't like them. Perhaps I'm subconsciously worried that I will fall into some of their more unpleasant habits as I pursue my own adventures (lice aside, there is a general acceptance among these authors of some pretty blatant human-rights violations happening around them. Sure, what can a foreigner do, especially alone in a strange culture? But, that to me does not extend to slavery).

I'm leaving this book in the informal library at the hostel I'm staying at in Munich this weekend, perhaps one of my fellow travellers here will enjoy it more than I did.

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