A LABYRINTH OF KINGDOMS: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa
By Steve Kemper
Norton, 415 pp., illustrated, $28.95
European explorers in Africa were some of the 19th century’s celebrities. One of the period’s most accomplished travelers, the German Heinrich Barth, spent more than five years traversing north-central Africa, from Tripoli south through the desert to the great Islamic empires, many of them previously unvisited by Europeans. He was only the third European to visit Timbuktu, where he lived for nearly a year and forged a deep friendship with Ahmad al-Bakkay al-Kunti, the great city’s sheikh. Upon Barth’s 1855 return to Europe, he published a 3,500-page account of his observations, including vocabularies of two dozen African languages, which Barth had learned while traveling (a natural linguist, he had taught himself Arabic and English while still a schoolboy in Hamburg). Book sales were poor, and over time, due to “shifting politics, European preconceptions about Africa, and his own thorny personality” Barth’s reputation dwindled to obscurity.
Steve Kemper’s elegant, richly rewarding biography should go a long way toward correcting that. On one level, the book is a superb chronicle of Barth’s travels, from the harrowing heat and physical danger to the dazzling diversity of people he encountered on his path. It’s also an astute character study of a relentlessly curious scientific personality; Barth could be “peculiar and chilly,” Kemper admits, but his open-minded approach to Africa and Africans was unusual among European explorers and resulted in a richer, more complex view of the region’s people, culture, and history. At a time when the typical English visitor came bearing “that popular Christian duo, Bibles and liquor,” Barth’s attitude was unpopular back home. For those with colonial ambitions, Africa was a blank slate to be tamed; for Barth, it was “a vibrant multidimensional place with a long and complex cultural history worth studying.”
By Elin Hilderbrand
Little, Brown, 392 pp., $26.99
Whenever Demeter Castle’s mother heard the helicopter that airlifted emergency patients from Nantucket to Boston, she would cross herself and say, “God bless the patient. God bless the mother of the patient.” Recalling this while in the hospital after a car wreck that killed one of her friends, Demeter grasps the lesson: “that it was even worse to be the mother of the hurt person than it was to be the hurt person herself” In Elin Hilderbrand’s new novel, the pain following a fatal accident falls most heavily on the victim’s mother, to be sure, but it also radiates throughout the community, from loved ones to classmates to bystanders.
Among the well-observed details is the large cross erected at the crash site, at which a group of high school girls sing at sunset, a gesture seen as beautiful, then in poor taste, than downright wrong — especially to the summer people.
The tension between the island’s year-round residents and its vacation visitors is a persistent presence here; some sections give voice to a Nantucket seldom seen by outsiders. Similarly, Hilderbrand imagines her way inside the worlds parents and teenagers hide from one other (and themselves). A sensitive, humane chronicle of the work it takes to move forward in deep grief, “Summerland” is as readable as any beach book, but with a much bigger heart.
LIFE EVERLASTING: The Animal Way of Death
By Bernd Heinrich
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 236 pp., $25
A representative line from “Life Everlasting” — “I left the bloated squirrel in a clearing in the woods, then made myself comfortable on the couch next to the window in my cabin” — demonstrates the respectful, no-nonsense curiosity its author aims at the natural process of death, as well as his shockingly blasé attitude toward animal remains (he later remarks that “[i]t seemed a shame to let the deer carcass go to waste” ). Biologist Bernd Heinrich’s exploration of death, bodies, and way they are recycled (through birds or bugs or bacteria) is both a field guide of exquisite detail and a thoughtful meditation on the connectedness of all things.
Heinrich details the processes by which dead bodies are converted into sustenance for the living, including an ingenuous strategy by one species of beetle that buries found corpses to provide a larder for their larvae. He argues for the reassessment of scavengers, historically hated for their association with death; instead of burying or removing roadkill, Heinrich says, we should allow nature to take its course: “Vultures would do the job better if we let them.” Pointing out the prevalence of religious references to recycling (of souls, if not bodies), Heinrich ends by reflecting on interconnection: “The metaphor that we are part of the earth ecosystem is not a belief; it is a reality.”