Archive for the Books Category

On Rimbaud’s Trail

Posted in Africa, Books, Geography of Madness, Travel, Uncategorized, Writers on July 19, 2016 by frankbures

From Longitude Books:

One of the places I remember most clearly (and fondly) is Obock, Djibouti, a town on the edge of the Red Sea where I traveled several years ago for a story for Nowhere Magazine. Obock is hot and miserable and there is nothing to do. At night thousands of migrants stream through the area on their way from Ethiopia and Somalia to the Middle East where they hope to find work. When I got there I found that the hotel the tourism office in the capital recommended had closed long ago. On my first day I was harassed by the local police for being there.

What I remember best, though, was how refreshing it was to be so uncatered to, so far from everything. It didn’t matter to anyone (except a few curious folks) whether I was there or not. This must have been something like was the French poet Arthur Rimbaud felt when he first arrived there in the mid-1880s to escape his former life and become an arms dealer: It was like the whole world could slip away.

Read the rest hereIMGP3480.JPG.

Empty Tombs: A Q&A with Tom Bissell

Posted in Books, Clips, Travel, Travel Writers, Writers on March 29, 2016 by frankbures

apostle-cover_250From MinnPost:

For five years, writer Tom Bissell worked on a novel about the Apostle John, before he resigned himself to the fact that his “half historical, half contemporary” account was not going to work.

He set it aside, but one fact stuck in his mind: John’s tomb was located in Turkey and was supposedly empty — the only remains of the Twelve Apostles unaccounted for. Later while he was serving in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan he heard rumors that Matthew’s remains were in nearby Kyrgyzstan. Where were the others?

From this question grew the idea for a travel book on the Apostolic tombs, and for the next few years Bissell traveled through Jerusalem, Greece, Italy, Turkey, France, Spain India, Turkey and Kyrgyzstan as a sort of doubting pilgrim who wanted to “explore the legendary encrustation upon twelve lives about which little else is known and even less can be historically verified.”

Read the rest here.

The End of the World as We Know It

Posted in America, Art, Books, Clips, Culture, Science, Uncategorized on February 24, 2016 by frankbures

imagesConsensus is growing that we have entered a new geological era called the Anthropocene. As it does, so does anxiety about our fate as a species. This was the subject of a recent piece I did for Aeon on our love of apocalyptic fiction, film and stories. We fear the end might be near, but we also fear we are part of something from which we have no way to extricate ourselves. If you feel this too, read on.

One day in the early 1980s, I was flipping through the TV channels, when I stopped at a news report. The announcer was grey-haired. His tone was urgent. His pronouncement was dire: between the war in the Middle East, famine in Africa, AIDS in the cities, and communists in Afghanistan, it was clear that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were upon us. The end had come.

We were Methodists and I’d never heard this sort of prediction. But to my grade-school mind, the evidence seemed ironclad, the case closed. I looked out the window and could hear the drumming Hugh-Howey-WOOL-COVERof hoof beats.

Life went on, however, and those particular horsemen went out to pasture. In time, others broke loose, only to slow their stride as well. Sometimes, the end seemed near. Others it would recede. But over the years, I began to see it wasn’t the end that was close. It was our dread of it. The apocalypse wasn’t coming: it was always with us. It arrived in a stampede of our fears, be they nuclear or biological, religious or technological.

Read the rest here.

Live Well, Die Fast

Posted in America, Books, Culture, Geography of Madness, Science on January 22, 2016 by frankbures

1215_CoverThe business of longevity is massive in America—land of perpetual youth. One of its most ardent boosters is Dan Buettner, who has created a minor industry around the so-called “Blue Zones,” where people are reported to live extra-long lives. Most of his advice qualifies as common sense: Eat plants, exercise, be part of a community. I don’t have any problem with most of this. In fact, I do most of it.

What I do have a problem with is the way the Blue Zones capitalizes our refusal to accept death as part of life. And even if we allow that some Blue Zones exist (though many have been debunked), the idea that you should try to replicate those in your own life strikes me as naive and sad and beside the point. The science of longevity is extremely complex. How long you live depends not only on what you eat, but on what you believe—something I write about in my new book, the Geography of Madness. For example, one study found that those with a more positive view of aging live an average of 7.5 years longer than those with a negative one. If that’s true, it means the very people most desperate to stave off the end (the natural market for the Blue Zones) would be the least likely to benefit from such advice.

In any case, if you care, you can read my short critique here.

On Frankenwords or The Love Song of David Shing

Posted in America, Books, Clips, Culture, Language, Writing on January 8, 2016 by frankbures

rotarian_jan16These days, we’re all becoming Humpty Dumpty:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean— neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)

In The Rotarian this month, I have a column about the growing distance between words and their meanings, something that often fills me with despair. It’s not a new phenomenon: Orwell wrote about it in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” But it is, I fear, a problem that has ballooned with the Internet and the surplus of words in our lives. Today we live in a world where “shredding papers” is “document management,” where “failure” is “deferred success,” and where “surveillance” is  “data collection.” Maybe that’s just the invisible hand at work, but for what it’s worth, read on here.

A Few of my Favorite Books, 2015

Posted in Africa, America, Art, Books on December 23, 2015 by frankbures

KitchensAs usual, reports of the death of printed books have been greatly exaggerated. There were lots of incredible works published this year (on paper and otherwise), too many for anyone to read, let alone know about. I spent a good chunk of the year reading post-apocalyptic fiction, for reasons that will be clear in the near future. A few standouts from that bunch (not all published this year) are Ben Percy’s The Dead Lands, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Hugh Howey’s Wool, and Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, which sort of took my breath away. Back in the the present day, the best novel I read Two Hoursthis year was one that I never would have picked up, but for some trusted recommendations: J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest. It was brilliant and generous and moving in all the best ways. In the factual world, I loved Ed Caesar’s Two Hours, about Kenyan runners, the likes of which I have been wanting to see for a long time. In it he delves into not just the technical side of East Africa’s running boom, but also the rich, complicated, compelling stories behind the runners themselves.

On The Pitfalls of Self-Promotion

Posted in America, Art, Books, Clips, Culture, Uncategorized, Writing on December 17, 2015 by frankbures

jf16_coverI’m not sure that I should be considered any sort of “branding expert,” but I do have an essay in the current Poets & Writers on my ambivalence about self-promotion, and the struggle to balance promoting your work with promoting yourself. See the print edition if you can get it!