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The tale of a British ship called the Bounty and the subsequent mutiny of some of its sailors has been endlessly scrutinized, romanticized and depicted ever since the event occurred in the late 1700s. With so many memoirs, historical accounts and fictional tales based on the Bounty’s story, it’s easy to assume that nothing new could be unearthed or written about it. But in his debut book, The Far Land: 200 Years of Murder, Mania, and Mutiny in the South Pacific, travel journalist Brandon Presser does exactly that, and brilliantly. By sifting through many of these prior texts, as well as other resources such as captain’s logs and interviews, Presser has managed to create a fact-based book that reads as grippingly as any thriller.

As a travel writer, Presser has crisscrossed the world to report on memorable locales and adventures. When he was offered the chance to do a story on Pitcairn, the tiny, isolated isle in the South Pacific that became the home of the Bounty’s mutineers, and where 48 of their descendants still live, he knew he had to take it, driven by his need “to know what happened when you fell off the map.” Visiting Pitcairn, a full month’s journey from his home in New York, certainly falls into that category.

Presser spent three years researching and writing this thorough account of the mutiny on the Bounty and its aftermath. In the process, Presser spent time on both Pitcairn Island and Norfolk Island in Australia, where some of the mutineers’ descendants later migrated. His narrative toggles between past and present, fleshing out the timeline of events—epic in nature and sprawling in scope—and cast of characters, particularly the Tahitians who accompanied the mutineers to Pitcairn and whose roles have previously been underrepresented.

Although some facts remain a mystery (such as the breaking point that made Fletcher Christian snap and take over the ship from Captain William Bligh), Presser’s detailed interpretation allows many of the formerly fuzzy pieces to fall into place. His personal experience on the islands combined with fastidious research make The Far Land such an incredible, unforgettable tale that Presser had to stress in an author’s note that it is “indeed a work of nonfiction.”

Brandon Presser's brilliant book about the infamous 1700s mutiny aboard the Bounty is as gripping as any thriller.

Journalist Karen Cheung’s intimate memoir of Hong Kong explores what it means to live in and love a complicated city. In The Impossible City, Hong Kong frequently appears as a temperamental partner described in body horror-like terms: It’s a city that’s dying, a city “on the verge of mutilation,” a city ready to disappear. But Cheung’s Hong Kong is also vividly multifaceted, at once marked by the constructed “Hong Kong cool” glamorized in Wong Kar Wai films and yet full of people yearning for a more equitable future built through collective action and protest.

Though Cheung was ambivalent about Hong Kong as a child, an outsider in both the elite international school and public secondary school she attended, she eventually embraced her hometown as a second family after her beloved grandmother died and her father’s home became too abusive to remain in. Alongside her evolving personal relationship with Hong Kong, she narrates the city’s most significant and turbulent moments from her lifetime, including the Handover in 1997, when the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to China; Occupy Central in 2014, also known as the Umbrella Movement, when crowds occupied Hong Kong for 79 days to demand more transparent elections; and both the SARS and COVID-19 pandemics. In Cheung’s hands, the problems, charms and complexities that characterize the city are illuminated with grace and intelligence. She refuses to write from a distance or cater to a white audience, dismissing the bland both-sidesism of modern journalism.

Cheung explores gentrification not just through statistics and citations but through a summary of the six different residences and 22 different roommates she lived with in just five years. An ongoing and citywide mental health crisis is discussed through her own struggle to access reliable psychiatric care. Most powerfully, The Impossible City asks how we can belong to and believe in a city and world that are frequently disappointing, and how we can continue to care about a future we may never see.

Cheung’s luminous memoir will appeal to both those familiar with Hong Kong and armchair travelers hoping to better understand the roots of the city’s political movements. Beyond that, The Impossible City will resonate with anyone who has struggled to love their city of residence in a time characterized by political dissent, racial strife and pandemic.

In Karen Cheung’s luminous debut memoir, Hong Kong’s problems, charms and complexities are illuminated with grace and intelligence.

★ Grist

James Beard Award-winning chef Abra Berens and her collaborators have created a most magical combination of aesthetics, soul and practical guidance in Grist, a cookbook focused on humble stuff: beans, legumes, grains and seeds. Let it be said that I love beans, and I really love the way Berens provides, along with specific recipes, a number of templates to follow for any combination of ingredients you crave or happen to have on hand. For example, a bean + vegetable + flavor + texture chart starts with beans (any kind), then lists four suggested ingredients for each step: add veg, add flavor, add extra texture and serve. Elsewhere, she walks us through a week’s worth of lentils without boredom, and her recipes regularly include three or more variations. Topping it all off are Lucy Engelman’s beautiful illustrations, which make this a true work of cookbook art. 

Where They Purr

A bedroom decked out in lush linens and pillows—and a cat, luxuriating on the bespoke duvet. A kitchen with floor-to-ceiling windows—and a cat, nonchalantly surveying the room from atop the dining table. This is the fabulous world of Where They Purr: Inspirational Interiors and the Cats Who Call Them Home, in which images of sleek interiors foreground the homes’ feline overlords. Photographer Paul Barbera got the idea for a cat-centric home design book while working on a previous project, Where They Create, and the result takes those “how they styled it” shots we’ve all seen while shopping online—a sofa, say, captured with the owner’s pet proudly lounging—to the next-next level. The homes featured here are mostly high-end and very modern, full of sharp angles and long lines. You might be inclined to call some of them cold, except how could you when fluffy Pud or Pippi or Gustov is lurking or perched or sprawled in their midst? As a cat lover, my only quibble with this purrfectly delightful book is that there are too few orange tabbies in the mix. I suppose we all, like our cats, have our own prefurences.

Wanderess

As I prepare for a solo journey to the Southwest, I’m happy to have in my pocket Wanderess: The Unearth Women Guide to Traveling Smart, Safe, and Solo, a guide for women, by women, and geared toward solo travelers. Whether you’re going it alone for the first time or planning a girls’ trip, the editors from Unearth Women have assembled in this colorful book all the resources, hacks and advice you could ask for, including tips for traveling while pregnant and specific recommendations for women of color and travelers who are trans, lesbian or queer. The writers also offer an outline for creating your own Feminist City Guide, which centers women-owned businesses; if you like, you can pitch your guide(s) to Unearth Women for possible publication.

From the humble bean to the high and mighty feline, the books in this month’s lifestyles column colorfully celebrate the joys of food, art and travel.

Jordan Salama, a 2019 Princeton University graduate and journalist, comes by his travel instincts honestly. His great-great-great-grandfather led a thousand camels along the Silk Road to trade goods in Iraq, Syria and Iran; his great-grandfather, a Syrian Jewish immigrant to Argentina, rode on horseback through the Andes as an itinerant salesman; and his father became a physician in Buenos Aires before migrating to New York City. Their stories, passed down through generations of a family that spoke “a spellbinding mix of English, Spanish, and Arabic,” have inspired Salama’s own explorations, including the one he describes in Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena.

The Magdalena River, which is over 900 miles long and Colombia’s principal waterway, links the country’s diverse interior to the Caribbean Sea. It has long been a vital transportation mainstay, used and abused by the Colombian government, global industry, paramilitaries, guerillas, migrants, fishers and environmentalists alike. In 2016 the government signed a wobbly peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and other guerilla armies, but the river’s future viability remains as unclear as its sediment-stacked waters. Salama is intent on learning everything he can, while he still can, about this endangered, legendary river that threads its way through Colombia’s history and people.

The Magdalena is central to many tales, both in fiction, as in the novels of Colombia’s revered author Gabriel García Márquez, and in the true stories Salama hears as he follows the river’s course from beginning to end. The people he meets and travels with share their experiences—from a jeweler selling silver filigree flowers, to a teacher delivering books to rural children via his two donkeys (Alfa and Beto), to the ill-fated anthropologist and activist Luis Manuel Salamanca, to Alvarito, the village kite master. They are, Salama writes, “ordinary people working tirelessly to preserve the natural/cultural treasures of a country much maligned by war,” and their fates are interwoven with the Magdalena.

Then there are the runaway hippopotamuses. Imported from Africa for the private zoo of notorious drug king Pablo Escobar, the hippos fled after Escobar’s murder in 1993 and now make the Magdalena and its tributaries their home. They have multiplied and spread over the past three decades, and they will pursue and attack any intruders. As Salama ventures deeper into Colombia, he can’t wait to find them.

By the time Salama ends his riveting journey, scrambling across the treacherous rocks where the Magdalena River meets the Caribbean Sea, he has already enticed readers to follow him on his next one.

Jordan Salama is intent on learning everything he can about the legendary Magdalena River, which threads its way through Colombia’s history and people.

Ed Caesar’s irresistible book The Moth and the Mountain tells two essential stories. Its primary story is an account of Maurice Wilson’s ill-fated 1934 attempt to be the first solo climber to summit Mt. Everest. Wilson is barely a footnote in Everest climbing history, usually derided as a grandiose dilettante whose widely publicized ambitions were not only absurd but fatal. And yet, as he promised, the traumatized, highly decorated World War I officer did learn to fly, did elude British colonial authorities seeking to ground his efforts at every turn, did pilot a biplane to India (despite an absurdly wrongheaded takeoff), did sneak across the border into Tibet dressed in the elaborate garb of a suspiciously tall holy man and did climb to substantial heights on Mt. Everest.

The important second story Ed Caesar tells is about his own obsession with solving the mysteries of Maurice Wilson. What gave Wilson his bold determination? Was it his desire to romance Enid Evans, his supposed “soul mate”? Caesar, a terrific writer and a contributor to the New Yorker, introduces us to Enid this way: "Enid was slim, winsome, brown haired, stylish, vivacious, and married. Wilson was cripplingly in love with her, and not just because of her faith in his mission."

Or might it be because of Wilson’s wartime trauma? Wilson, the son of a provincial textile manufacturer, was not of the right class to be a British officer. But the decimation in the trenches of the war led to his elevation to leadership. He performed heroically and, as a result, experienced physical and psychological torments for years. Were these wounds what led him to try to prove himself on the mountain?

The frustrating thing for Caesar and for us is that some of life’s questions are unanswerable. Enid’s letters to Maurice are lost, presumably destroyed by her husband. Caesar discovers a relative of Wilson who reveals some information but says, provocatively, that other bits will go with him to the grave. The Moth and the Mountain has many, many riveting moments of storytelling and insight, and yet, some answers to the mystery of Maurice Wilson remain shrouded in the mists of Mt. Everest.

Ed Caesar’s irresistible book The Moth and the Mountain tells two essential stories. Its primary story is an account of Maurice Wilson’s ill-fated 1934 attempt to be the first solo climber to summit Mt. Everest. Wilson is barely a footnote in Everest climbing history, usually derided as a grandiose dilettante whose widely publicized ambitions were not only absurd but fatal. […]

Early in Pravda Ha Ha, author Rory MacLean notes that “we all like a good story. We all need a narrative for our lives. The most potent stories give us an idea or individual to believe in, as well as someone to blame when things go wrong.” This thesis sits at the core of MacLean’s book, which otherwise defies categorization. Part travel journal, part oral history and part political treatise, Pravda Ha Ha ultimately raises more questions about its subject matter than it answers. But the idea that people of all backgrounds use storytelling to bind communities together and tear them apart is a steady throughline in MacLean’s work. Interestingly, MacLean suggests that he uses narrative for this purpose, too.

Pravda Ha Ha is MacLean’s account of a recent journey across Eastern Europe—from Moscow to Berlin and ultimately back to his native Britain—which mirrored a similar trip he took from Berlin to Moscow back in 1989 as an idealistic young writer. That original trip follows him like a grim shadow throughout the book. The optimistic ideals of liberalism and democracy that inspired him in 1989 seem to wither in the face of the current bleak realities of Eastern Europe. MacLean observes with sorrow and considerable anger the greed and corruption that have taken over the countries he once traveled across as a hopeful young man. In doing so, he asks us to consider how idealism and hope are sometimes not enough, especially in the face of powerful, wealthy interests.

If this all sounds a little dense and bleak, be assured that it doesn’t come across as such. MacLean’s book is immensely readable. The history and politics of Eastern Europe are tackled here with humor and dry wit. MacLean is not writing a textbook but rather a series of richly detailed anecdotes about his experiences. This is perhaps the major fault of the book: MacLean assumes that his experiences of Eastern Europe are universal. His experience of Russia, for example, as solely corrupt and hopeless may not necessarily be fair to the people who actually make their lives there.

However, this might also be a lesson of the book. Memory, MacLean suggests, goes a terribly long way to shape the way we view the world around us. In other words, memory becomes narrative, and narrative becomes the deciding factor in who writes history, and how. Pravda Ha Ha, in this way, is less a history of Eastern Europe than it is a history of Rory MacLean, and there are certainly worse histories you could read.

Rory MacLean’s immensely readable, humorous account joins two parallel journeys across Eastern Europe—one in 1989 and one in 2019.

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