Saturday, August 13, 2011


The Tiger: A true story of vengeance and survival by John Valliant 352 pages (New York: Knopf; 2010)     ISBN-10: 0307268934 ISBN-13: 978-0307268938 $26.95

There is nothing more terrifying to the top predator – us - than the whisper of the word, “man-eater.” It rings of dark legends and horror movies. But for those in the remote Russian province of Primorye, in the wasteland of Siberia, it is all too real. It makes no difference that humans kill far more tigers than tigers kill men. All is takes is one, or as John Valliant (The Golden Spruce) has written in his excellent new book, The Tiger, maybe a few more than two to roil the region. The Amur tiger, of which a tiny remnant still exists, can be found a week by train from Moscow in Russia’s most south eastern province wedged into China. Populated by gulag survivors, their descendants, refugees and remnants of native peoples, most live a marginal existence. Those who live on the edge of the forests barely get by hunting tigers and other exotic animals to sell to the voracious Chinese medicine market. But here the tigers hunt too. And here the tiger still has a slight edge.

Primorye is, Valliant tells us, a refugium, a place that remained ice free during the last ice age allowing a strange coexistence of species so here wolves, tigers, poisonous snakes, reindeer, and kiwis, fir trees, magnolias, birch are among the species who share the land where the forest and the jungle meet. King of it all is the Amur tiger, conditioned for the cold, a giant superb killing machine equally adept at taking seals in the surf, humans in their homes and everything else in between. The native peoples of the Taiga region revered and respected the tiger. But under Stalin many of these people were purged and their belief systems suppressed. But a few people can still speak to the past and Valiant found and profiled them in the book.

Recognizing that the tiger had to be protected from widespread poaching which raged in the lawless time after Perestroika, in 1997 several conservation groups joined to found Inspection Tiger. The heroes of the story are a team from Inspection Tiger who patrol remote stretches of forest, track down poachers, and investigate human-tiger ‘encounters’.

Reconstructing several gruesome encounters allows Valliant to follow Inspection Tiger as they piece together the story of the terrifying fate of the hunters. He weaves into the story much of what is known about the tigers by naturalists, historians, and shamans. This is a compelling tale of survival, of the uneasy truce worked out over millennia between tiger and man in a part of the world truly off the grid.

The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2
Jennifer Jordan 304 pages ( New York: W. W. Norton & Company 2010)
ISBN-10: 0393077780 ISBN-13: 978-0393077780 26.95
Author and filmmaker Jennifer Jordan was camping at the base of K2 researching the life and dramatic death in 1939 of climber Dudley Wolfe when she made a gruesome discovery. She stumbled upon what was left of Wolfe. He had been left for dead at the top of K2 63 years before. Her ensuing book, The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2 draws out a vivid portrait of the first climber lost on K2. Through deft research Jordan resurrects the man, suggests what drew him to the mountain and describes the details of his last haunting days.

Through Jordan’s sympathetic portrait of the short restless life of Dudley Wolfe, Andover graduate, gentleman, husband, yachtsman, French Foreign Legionnaire, secret Jew, we begin to understand why he jumped into his last adventure when he was clearly not fit and too old to be assailing one of the most challenging mountains in the world. This is not only the story of Dudley and his adoring wife Alice, but also the story of an expedition. The leader, whom Jordan calls a “controversial genius,” Fritz Weissner, made many questionable decisions during and after the expedition playing rough and loose with the lives of others. Jordan’s forensic analysis uncovers much of the darker side of mountaineering. This is a sad yet grand hurrah of the first person claimed by K2.
Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt By Zahi Hawass and Franck Goddio , 256 pages (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic; 2010) ISBN-10: 1426205457 ISBN-13: 978-1426205453 $28.00
Cleopatra VII Philopater, last Queen and Pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt, has loomed large in historical memory since her self inflicted death by the bite of an asp at age 39 in 30 B.C. Renowned for her brilliance, beauty, political acumen, power, affairs with Marc Antony and Julius Caesar, two of the most powerful men of her day and untimely death to avert the public humiliation of her defeat by Rome, Cleopatra VII, is the subject of a new exhibit and a spate of biographies. Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt by Egypt’s premier archaeologist, Zawi Hawass and Franck Goddio renowned French underwater archaeologist illuminates not only her story but also the quest to discover the physical remains of her empire.
    Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty after he seized the crown of Egypt upon the great Commanders death. Based in Alexandria his Greek descendants controlled Egypt for the next 300 years. Alexandra was one of the great cities of the Western world, home of the unparalleled library founded by Ptolemy, where Cleopatra herself was said to have participated in debates. Alexandria went into a slow decline after its glorious heyday under the Ptolemies. The famous library is thought  to have been burnt by invading Arabs in the 7th century AD. The Lighthouse – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world stood until the 14th century. Numerous devastating earthquakes and tsunamis claimed ancient Alexandria and the interlinked cities of Bousiris, Canopus and Herakleon along the Bay of Abukir. The cities Cleopatra knew have disappeared beneath the waters of the Mediterranean. Even her final resting place, like that of Alexander the Great, has vanished.
    Enter Franck Goddio. He has excavated a number of ancient wrecks including Napoleon’s Flagship, Orient, which sunk in the Bay of Abukir in 1798. In 1996 while diving off Alexandria he discovered what turned out to be the Royal Quarters of the Ptolemy’s, the paved island retreat called Antirthodos. Nearby they found Julius Caesar’s palatial retreat. Northeast of Alexandria, Goddio discovered the submerged city and temples of Heracleion once a great commercial center and Canopus, famed for its festive, some say hedonistic rites of renewal.
    Cleopatra  is full of breathtaking underwater images of Goddio’s discoveries. Goddio  and Hawass’s running commentary bring to life  Cleopatra and her world. Intriguingly Hawass describes his ongoing search for the burial site of both  Cleopatra and Marc Antony. Long believed to be underwater, archaeologist Kathleen Martinez believes them to be in the Taposiris  temple complex south west of Alexandria. She theorizes that Cleopatra realizing the Romans would probably desecrate her body chose this temple as it was then controlled by Egyptian priests. Excavations continue now at all these sites with more clues uncovered every season. Cleopatra is lavishly illustrated with some of the most stellar undersea discoveries including a coin that maybe the only portrait known of Cleopatra. For now Cleopatra remains a tantalizing mystery that lures Hawass and Goddio onward. 
Brazza in Congo: A Life and Legacy by Idanna Pucci 240 pages (New York: Umbrage Editions; 2009) ISBN-10: 1884167942 ISBN-13: 978-1884167942 $40

Prize winning author Idanna Pucci, (The Trials of Maria Barbella, The Epic of Life: A Balinese Journey of the Soul, and Against All Odds: The Strange Destiny of a Balinese Prince) has written a superb illustrated biography of her great uncle explorer Pietro Paolo Savorgnan di Brazza. Brazza in Congo: A Legacy and A Life chronicles the extraordinary life of this Italian explorer and prescient champion of African rights. Contributions by Congolese and European experts make late 19th century Congo come alive. To this day the Congolese still proudly call their capitol after Brazza in honor of his enlightened accomplishments. Brazza was an early champion of African rights at a time when European courts were still debating the humanity of Africans. One of his accomplishments was the signing of a treaty with the powerful King of the Batéké tribe, Makoko Iloo I which put his kingdom under the protection of the French flag. The treaty was signed and the flags flown in the nick of time as a Belgian army was fast approaching threatening to over run the Kingdom. Young Brazza possessed an authority that stopped the three thousand strong army under the leadership of Anglo-American Henry Stanley, then working for the Belgian king, from continuing his cruel swath through the Congo. Brazza then rushed back to France to persuade the French to ratify the treaty to save the Batéké from the Belgians.
Nearly a century later descendents of both men would work together to return the remains of Brazza to the Congo to be laid to rest next to his friend, King Makoko. Pucci was delighted that her ancestor would be honored this way. But on visiting the Congo she smelled a rat. Certain governmental officials were using this event to line their own pockets, forge stronger links between the Congolese dictator and the French at the expense of the impoverished population. But what really rankled Pucci was that the Congolese government was using her ancestor to white wash their crimes. Wanting to keep the event true to the original players she and her husband Terrance Ward played a cat and mouse diplomatic game with the Congolese and French governments and with her own family. As a way of forging a new peace for the ravaged Congo in the spirit of Brazza she sought out a long neglected art school, Poto-Poto and invigorated the artists to create works to celebrate friendship and peace. Pucci’s story and lovely book shines a ray of hope and dignity on this ravaged land. 
The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean's Are One by Sylvia Earle Foreword Bill McKibbon 304 pages (Washington, DC: National Geographic; 2009) ISBN-10: 1426205414 ISBN-13: 978-1426205415 $26.00

If you can only read one book this year, The World is Blue should be that book. Sylvia Earle, probably the best ocean advocate of our times, former NOAA chief scientist, prolific author, inventor, and Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society, eloquently and urgently paints a dark and sobering portrait of the well spring of all life on earth, our Ocean.

Earle, who has spent more than fifty years diving on scientific quests all over the world, is witness to the precarious state of the ocean today. Drawing on her own experience and pulling together the latest information, her message is clear: we are standing on a precipice. Human population thanks to great strides in health, technology and food production has burgeoned out of control voraciously consuming the resources and species on land and in water. Our industrial advancement has poured uncounted tons of poisons into the oceans creating hundreds of dead zones throughout worldwide coastal waters. Our human refuse and the detritus of modern life is swirling in massive garbage islands. The plastic and trash are being consumed by the web of ocean life from the smallest to the largest choking life. Corals, the spawning ground of fish are dead and dying across the world as a result of man made global warming and acidification.

Don’t despair! Earle does offer hope, but only if we all act now. She says, “what we do—or fail to do—in the next ten years may well resonate for the next ten thousand”. Earle has also created, thanks to her Ted Prize wish, Google Ocean. Google Ocean allows everyone to sail beneath the waters on the computer seeing the amazing things that lie beyond sight. She also invites people to upload their own information on places throughout the Ocean. Google Ocean is her gift to us all and a portal for understanding and appreciating our life source. This is an essential book for everyone who cares about tomorrow.