8.17.2006

what i'm reading

I've just started The Places In Between, an incredible book by Scottish writer Rory Stewart. It's been out in the UK for a few years, but only recently released in paperback in North America.

The Places In Between is Stewart's account of his walk across Afghanistan. Walk. As in, on foot. Across Afghanistan. In winter. And that Afghan crossing was only the final leg in his journey, on foot, across Iran, India, Pakistan and Nepal.

I was moved to pick up this book from this run-don't-walk review in the New York Times (still my preferred place for book reviews, conservative columnists notwithstanding).
Rory Stewart's first book, "The Places in Between," recounts his journey across Afghanistan in January 2002. Even in mild weather in an Abrams tank, such a trip would be mane-whitening. But Stewart goes in the middle of winter, crossing through some territory still shakily held by the Taliban — and entirely on foot. There are some Medusa-slayingly gutsy travel writers out there — Redmond O'Hanlon, Jeffrey Tayler, Robert Young Pelton — but Stewart makes them look like Hilton sisters.

Paul Theroux once described a certain kind of travel book as having mainly "human sacrifice" allure, and how close Stewart comes to being killed on his journey won't be disclosed here. He is, however, sternly warned before he begins his walk. "You are the first tourist in Afghanistan," observes an Afghan from the country's recently resurrected Security Service. "It is mid-winter," he adds. "There are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, and this is a war. You will die, I can guarantee." For perhaps the first time in the history of travel writing, a secret-police goon emerges as the voice of sobriety and reason.

Recalling an American journalist who wondered if Stewart thought what he was doing was dangerous, he writes, "I had never found a way to answer that question without sounding awkward, insincere or ridiculous." He's then asked if he has read "Into the Wild," Jon Krakauer's account of a well-meaning young man's doomed trek into the Alaskan wilderness. It is, Stewart is told, more than a little pointedly, "a great piece of journalism."

So is "The Places in Between" — a pipsqueak title for what is otherwise a striding, glorious book. But it's more than great journalism. It's a great travel narrative. Learned but gentle, tough but humane, Stewart — a Scottish journalist who has served in both the British Army and the Foreign Office — seems hewn from 19th-century DNA, yet he's also blessed with a 21st-century motherboard. He writes with a mystic's appreciation of the natural world, a novelist's sense of character and a comedian's sense of timing.
I can confirm the reviewer's judgement. Stewart's writing is brilliant - witty, moving, poetic without ostentation, minutely observed, but concise and streamlined. Each short chapter is like a little journey in itself, drawing you to the next step, and the next. It's positively addictive.

By coincidence, while I was reading Collapse, a book I had requested came in at our local library: The Kite Runner, a popular novel about Afghanistan. I read it, impatiently (partly because I wanted to get back to Jared Diamond) and with little enthusiasm. Although The Kite Runner is a good book, especially for a first novel, I couldn't escape the feeling that I was reading a coming-of-age story grafted onto the history of modern Afghanistan.

For many people, a fictional narrative is the best way to learn about another culture. And it's not that I won't read books like that - I've enjoyed many of them. But in this case, the joining of history and fiction seemed too obvious; the seams were showing. I didn't find the fictional tale very compelling, and found myself wishing I was reading nonfiction about Afghanistan instead.

Enter The Places In Between, available here from Chapters.

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I have some interesting plans this afternoon and evening. Now to get some work done so I can enjoy them. If all goes well, I'll bore you with the details tomorrow.

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