Book Reviews – Volcano, Bliss, Travel
Three books are reviewed below. One fictional book revolves around a catastrophe that changed ancient history. One non-fiction book tells of roaming the globe to evaluate happiness. The third book includes drawings and anecdotes that highlight the benefits of travel.
Pompeii by Robert Harris tells of days before and during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy, when spewing boulders and magma coated the landscape and entombed the city of Pompeii for centuries. This book is about a water engineer (an aquarius) name Attilus, who investigates why the Aqua Agusta – longest aqueduct in the world – has stopped functioning. This is a simple tale where engineering runs into politics and corruption, where a natural disaster challenges victims to break their habits to survive, and where a man’s determination to find his love will keep you turning pages.
Harris draws us into the story by coloring an engineer’s quest with historical details that capture our curiosity. The book will make readers want to veer back in time to Pompeii to see how the gears of civilization spun before this volcano erupted.
“A man could buy anything he needed in the harbour of Pompeii. Indian parrots, Nubian slaves, nitrum salt from the pools near Cairo, Chinese cinnamon, African monkeys, Oriental slave-girls famed for their sexual tricks…”
The book operates at three levels – providing admiration for Roman ingenuity, clueing us into colorful daily life in an ancient era around the Bay of Naples we likely knew nothing about, and keeping us focused on the story of an engineer trying to solve a technical problem while also trying to spare lives from a natural catastrophe. Genuine characters, including Pliny, enter the story. Harris writes:
“A sickle of luminous cloud – that was how Pliny described it…sweeping down the western slope of Vesuvius leaving in its wake a patchwork of fires. Some were winking, isolated pinpricks – farmhouses and villas that had been set alight. But elsewhere whole swathes of the forest were blazing.”
This is a captivating, easy read. It will increase your respect for how Roman society functioned, and how Roman engineering was a powerful factor in transforming that society.
Meanwhile, Back in Los Ranchos: An Illustrated Chronicle of Travel, Art, and Finding Home is an illustrated book written my sister, Patricia Ray. Below is the write up I provided on Amazon. It’s truly a visual treat.
The book is a superbly illustrated collection of short stories and vignettes that tell not only about living and working throughout the world, but of finding joy in simplicity. Whether the author is piloting a single engine plane over the Sahara Desert (“In a single engine?” the control tower operator called by radio, “Damn girl, you’ve got more balls than I have”) or eating ‘Undercooked Goat in Lemon’ or ‘Roasted Skunk with Fruit Wine’ in Vietnam, the overall emphasis is on finding fun and laughs in life’s everyday bizarre occurrences. The book lassoes tales of travels in the 70s (including buying a used car for ten dollars in Scotland, or showing up for dinner in Germany where everyone is polite, but completely naked) as well as working for an airline and cruising around the world, with comparisons to living at a quiet home in New Mexico – where joy comes from peaking at tadpoles or drinking wine while watching a thunderstorm.
This is an easy and fun read – enlightening and inspiring – and illustrated with watercolors saturated with vibrant colors, as well as photographs taken in Ireland, Iran, and Liberia in the 1970s and 80s. These include an old Irish farmer who rides his donkey because he never learned how to master a bicycle, a traffic cop with sunglasses who gives tickets for ‘reckless parking’ in West Africa, and hippies working as lumberjacks in Bavaria. This is the type of book you read either with a good mug or tea or pint of brew but also with a real paper map – because you will want to plan out your next travel adventure. Full marks on this book! It’s an excellent read and visually gorgeous.
In The Geography of Bliss – One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, Eric Weiner learns about the World Database of Happiness, and sets off across the planet to field check whether the data may be true. The book is filled with insight and wit. In Switzerland, he writes: “I’m reunited with my love. I’m back on a Swiss train. My next stop of Zurich, a city so clean it makes Geneva look like a slum.”
Weiner finds that the collective happiness of people depends at times on how much they are provided for, versus how much they are left alone, and how much choice they are afforded. But the more he seeks answers, the less the definition of happiness appears fixed.
“We need a new word to describe Swiss happiness. Something more than mere contentment but less than full-on joy.”
In Bhutan he finds that factors leading to overall contentment of the population include low crime and splendid geography, and explores the concept of how Gross Domestic Product (GDP) relates, or doesn’t, to happiness. He is surprised when sudden and unexpected bliss envelopes him after time spent in the country.
“Yet sitting here in this airport terminal that looks like a Buddhist temple, watching an archery match on a small TV screen and drinking bad instant coffee, I am overwhelmed with a feeling that is alien to me: calm.”
In Iceland he realizes that a ‘pinch of self-delusion’ may be important for the happiness of locals, but laments that so many artists in the country – unrestrained and uncriticized – ‘produce a lot of crap.’
Onward he travels, through Qatar and Moldova and Thailand and Great Britain and India and America. Especially memorable is his criticism of Moldova and the subsequent criticism of him by Moldovans. Weiner writes, “All around me, I see misery….is this place really so miserable, or have I fallen prey to what social scientists call confirmation bias?” At the book’s conclusion he mentions how Moldovans who read his book wrote and suggested that he kill himself, to which he reminds us that it was the Moldovan people themselves who reported being so unhappy when queried in a survey.
The entire concept of happiness often confuses Weiner. About Thailand and its people, he writes, “Thais, even those who don’t actively practice Buddhism, maintain a certain equilibrium that I find infuriating. They just don’t get flustered, even when life hurls awfulness their way.”
This is essentially a travelogue with the premise of happiness as a focal point. It’s a smooth and entertaining read that provides fresh insights on what we really value and cherish in life. It also provides decent laughs.