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Far Appalachia:
Following the New River North

Noah Adams
Delacorte Press
238 pp.


Noah Adams, the co-host of National Public Radio's All Things Considered, did something that appeals to many of us in our idle moments (though we never act on it): he parlayed his interest in the New River into a series of journeys downriver by bike, canoe and whitewater raft from North Carolina's Snake Mountain to the Gauley Bridge in West Virginia (the site of the internationally renown Bridge Day, when, among other things, hardy souls leap from the bridge and hope their parachutes open up before they hit the water).

As Adams writes in Far Appalachia, a casually paced, enjoyably relaxed account of his trips, "One day, looking at the atlas, I noticed the thin, blue traces of the New, and realized the river could be the slower way into the country that I'd been looking for." Slower, that is, than the lamentably fast pace by which the river is passed by motorists on the Interstate, and slower than the pace which Adams had to set when he returned to his native Appalachia for ATC stories on coal mine strikes, strip mining and the like.

The fact that Far Appalachia is drawn from several different trips rather than a single, climatic one doesn't hurt the account. Far Appalachia isn't about Adams taking a metaphorical journey in which he learns something New Agey about himself. True to his journalism background, he delivers a simply if elegantly written book about the river itself, and, in keeping with ATC's pronounced interest in the sounds inherent in a story, Adams often focuses on the music of the river and its inhabitants: the roar of whitewater rapids; women singing harmony over a gospel guitar; the imagined sounds of a now abandoned textile mill running at full tilt. Together, the essays--anchored around thirty-two points along the river--have a quietly poetic, meditative quality that captures quite wonderfully the river's beauty.

This being a book about Appalachia, Adams would be remiss if he didn't address Appalachia's poverty--and in particular, its mining industry. Coal has been, at best, a double-edged sword for the region. Here, Adams recounts an ATC interview he did with the director of West Virginia's Environmental Protection Department:


At the airport I thanked him for the tour and asked an oh, by the way, question. What would have happened if coal had never been discovered in the state? He paused. My meaning was clear: the real money from the minerals had been made by out-of-state business people and West Virginia was finding it tough to even clean up the mess. I had a tape recorder running so I was surprised by his answer: "I've thought many times about what West Virginia would be like if Mother Nature or God had not put coal in these mountains, and I frankly have had to conclude that perhaps the state would have been better off without the coal."


Fittingly, Adams's trip ends at the Gauley Bridge, down the road from the Hawks Nest Tunnel, whose construction began in 1930 and which became the site of the nation's first recognized industrial disaster: the mountain through which the tunnel was drilled, blasted and dug was almost pure silica, and the dust that filled the tunnel caused silicosis.


The company denied there was a problem with silica dust, even though [Union] Carbide officials who toured the job site would have to wear respirators. The company blamed poor nutrition and said the men would stand around in bad weather in front of open fires, gambling, and that Negroes were especially prone to catch pneumonia.

Pneumonia was indeed a cause of death. The tiny silica particles are absorbed by cells in the lung. The lungs are scarred. Breathing becomes difficult, disease comes easily.

Martin Cherniak, a physician and occupational medicine specialist, wrote a book about the project, The Hawk's Nest Incident. He sums up his research with this estimate of death: "Within five years after its completion, the Hawk's Nest Tunnel would have claimed a total of 764 victims to silicosis, or to other less provocatively named causes of death from dusty lungs."

The legal struggles for settlement stretched on for decades. But soon you won't be able to find people, the old people in Gauley Bridge, who can tell you about the ambulances and their silent daily trips up over the mountain.


(Full disclosure: my paternal grandfather was one of the hundreds of workers who died from exposure to Hawk's Nest silica dust.)

The juxtaposition of the area's natural beauty and the economic strife its residents have suffered through is telling, and Adams rightly takes time away from a beautiful setting to explore it.

--Doug Childers

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The Adversary
Emmanuel Carrére
translated by Linda Coverdale
Metropolitan Books
193 pp.


On January 9, 1993, a fire broke out at the home of Jean-Claude Romand, a high-ranking physician with the World Health Organization in Geneva. His wife and two children were found dead in the house; the doctor himself was unconscious and taken by ambulance to a local hospital. It seemed like a simple, tragic fire until the doctor's grief-stricken best friend (a doctor himself) ran his hand through the dead wife's hair and found a suspicious wound at the base of her skull. A fireman thought it had been caused by a beam falling in the fire. Then an uncle went to break the news of the fire and deaths to Romand's parents...and found them both shot to death in their home. Medical examinations subsequently found that Romand's wife had been bludgeoned to death, and his children shot to death--before the fire broke out.

At first, police suspected unknown enemies had struck out against Romand, but once they began to search for suspects, they made a startling discovery: Romand did not, in fact, work for WHO, and he wasn't a doctor at all. As it turns out, he'd never even finished medical school--and he'd successfully fooled family, friends and neighbors for eighteen years. But, as investigators slowly discovered, the ruse had been about to run its course, and rather than accept the shame, Romand had simply killed the people he couldn't face with his secret truths.

Why didn't he simply escape--leave his family and flee with whatever money remained from his embezzlement schemes? It would have been a heartless act, of course, but certainly nothing compared to killing his family. So why not? "The problem," Emmanuel Carrère suggests in his brief but fascinating account, The Adversary, "was that he would still be alive and that alone, even with money, he wouldn't know what to do with his life. Shedding the skin of Dr. Romand would mean ending up without any skin, more than naked: flayed."

Carrère, a critically acclaimed French novelist best known in English translation for his psychological suspense novels Class Trip and The Mustache, found Romand's story so compelling that he wrote to him directly and asked how he would feel about being the subject of an extended Carrère study. Two years passed before Romand responded (his lawyer had thought it was a bad idea to write during the preliminary investigation). They struck up a correspondence, and as Carrère followed the trial, at least some of the pieces came together.

Far from a standard, bloodthirsty True Crime account, The Adversary is a contemplative study of character, an attempt to understand the 'why' behind the 'what.' It's obviously a novelist's work; questions of motivation and backstory and the urge to visualize emotionally intriguing scenes (where did Romand go during his 'office hours'?) drives the text far more than do the lurid details of Romand's crime (which Carrère passes by so squeamishly--if movingly, nonetheless--that he makes Ann Rule's books look like autopsy reports). In place of gruesome details, Carrère gives us the sort of stuff Raymond Chandler famously suggested was what most crime-genre readers are really after, whether they know it or not. Here, for example, Carrère describes the death of Roland's mother:


Then he went to get his mother. She hadn't heard the gunshots, fired with a silencer. He had her go into the sitting room, which they never used. She was the only one who was shot from the front. He must have tried, by showing her something, to make her turn around. Did she turn back sooner than expected to see her son aiming the rifle at her? Did she say, "Jean-Claude, what's the matter?" or "What's the matter with you?" as he stated during one of the interrogations, only to claim later that he didn't remember that anymore and knew of it only through the case file? With that same uncertainty, trying like the rest of us to reconstruct the scene, he says that his mother lost her false teeth when she fell and that he put them back in for her before covering her with a green bedspread.


The Adversary is a lean text, and it's often rather coldly analytical, particularly when Carrère isn't actively musing over motivation. It reminded me of how French New Wave directors--thoroughgoing romantics, all of them--managed to inflect a scientific rationalism into their projects. (Alain Resnais's Mon Oncle d'Amerique particularly came to mind.) The rational / romantic juxtaposition is chilling, to say the least.

For readers who are used to more traditional True Crime efforts, The Adversary is eye-opening. Readers who prefer more rarified intellectual texts will happily find it's as riveting as any Ann Rule title without ever feeling like a guilty pleasure.

--Woody Arbunkle

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Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan
Will Ferguson
Soho Press
435 pp.


"In the late nineteenth century," Will Ferguson writes in his delightfully entertaining Hokkaido Highway Blues,


a British scholar noted that if one could just reconcile the lofty heights of Japanese ideals with the earthly limitations of its people, one would truly understand the essence of this beguiling nation. Not surprisingly, he left Japan a bitter and frustrated man. Me, I don't even begin to understand the countless contradictions of Japan, but when the cherry blossoms come every spring I am swept away nonetheless.


Indeed, he is so swept away that he once announced to his fellow teachers (they worked on the remote Amakusa Islands) that he intended to follow the Cherry Blossom Front as the cherry blossoms bloomed north up the 1,875-mile length of Japan. He was drunk at the time, he reports (cherry blossom viewing parties tend to revolve around alcohol), but his supervisor held him to the announcement. After three years, Ferguson was thus shamed, finally, into making the month-long trip north--by hitchhiking. "Now, I will admit," he writes, "that mooching rides across Japan is not a major achievement--I mean, it's not like I paddled to the Amazon or discovered insulin or anything--but I am the first and so far only person to do this, so allow me my hubris."

Ferguson, who is the great-great grandson of Doctor Livingstone ("the legendary explorer of 'I presume' fame"), manages to make travel decidedly more humorously entertaining that his ancestor did. Among a variety of comically charged encounters, he is mistaken for a Brazilian soccer star, visits a sex museum and drinks shõchu, "a form of alcohol so pure it shows up on some Periodic Tables."

Hokkaido Highway Blues is the sort of book you expect to deliver a joke on every page, and Ferguson doesn't let his readers down. Best of all, there's a decidedly Edwardian sparkle to Ferguson's wit. Read this passage, for instance, and ask yourself how out of place it would be in Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat:


The boat was paint-peeling white, and the motor was disproportionately loud for such a slow putt-putt of a vessel. Our captain had to yell to be heard above it.

"There are about ninety monkeys on the island," he shouted. "They are called the Wisest Monkeys in Japan."

"How so?" I shouted back.

"Well," he said, "they wash their potatoes before they eat them."

I was going to ask him how washing potatoes qualified them as "wise." I mean, I wash my potatoes all the time but no one refers to me as being particularly wise. Maybe "the Cleverest Darn Monkeys in Japan," might be a more accurate title. But I felt I had annoyed enough people for one day, and I wisely decided to keep my comments to myself. It is one thing to be kicked out of a car, it is quite another to be kicked out of a boat.


The Edwardian wit is slightly updated, of course. Of one man who gave him a ride, Ferguson writes, "He was a repulsive little man, and I will change his name to--ah, fuck it, he'll never read this. His name is Sukebe Hashimoto." (Click here to read WAG's online edition of Three Men in a Boat.)

Hokkaido Highway Blues isn't all feather-light fun. Where the waggish Edwardian traveler assumes a cloak of ignorance of 'the foreign,' Ferguson offers an impressively well-informed take on his environs. He knows Japan, and he quietly offers intelligent takes on both its landscape and its sociological patterns. (The ambivalence he feels as an outsider--a status the Japanese seem unable to stop pointing out--is particularly interesting.)

Ferguson is a natural storyteller, and his writing is stunningly smooth and effortlessly readable. And he has a special knack for amusing cliffhanger endings. An example: the tenth chapter of the Sado Island and Tohoku section ends thus: "And that's when I was captured by leprechauns."

Now, I defy you to reach over and cut off the nightstand's lamp immediately after reading that.

--Charlie Onion

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Looking for Lovedu
Ann Jones
Alfred A. Knopf
268 pp.


On a press junket canoe trip down the Zambezi, the American travel writer Ann Jones and a British photographer named Kevin Muggleton hatch the idea of together driving the length of the African continent. The two hardly know each other, yet what begins as something between a joke and a dare somehow coalesces into an agreement and then a plan.

"The Queen," writes Jones in the opening sentence of her book, Looking for Lovedu, "was an afterthought."

The Queen in question is Modjadji V, Queen of the Lovedu, a people said to live by traditionally "feminine" values of cooperation, compromise and peace and ruled by a Queen with the power to call forth the rains.

A road trip--particularly a road trip with sponsors and a book contract--needs a point, and the Queen of the Lovedu (pronounced "Low-BAY-doo"), whom Jones learns of by accident, in "a tiny dependent clause buried deep in the middle of [a] paragraph" of a caption on a display case in the Hall of African Peoples in the Museum of Natural History in New York city, becomes the Jones-Muggleton Expedition's point. Sort of. Because from the start Jones is animated by the idea of looking for a "land where women rule," whereas Muggleton seems at best a reluctant convert to the idea.

And in truth, there isn't much searching to the search; by the time the trip begins, Jones already knows where to find the Lovedu, "in the northeast corner of South Africa." The only question remaining is whether there are any Lovedu left to be found.

The Jones-Muggleton expedition starts badly and goes downhill from there. Contrary to their initial expectations, hatched on a leisurely guided canoe trip, the "aging female" Jones and the gung-ho Muggleton (who, as Jones points out, is half her age and twice her size) make lousy travelling companions. Jones wants to meander. Muggleton wants to conquer. Jones hankers after community and a spirit of mutual cooperation with everyone they meet along the way. Muggleton wants to prove they can do it alone, angrily charging through country after country as though settling a score with the entire continent. They roar south, Muggleton almost always at the wheel, rattling their 1980 army-surplus Land Rover to pieces on--and off--badly maintained roadways, before miring miserably in a seemingly endless series of deep mud wallows in Zaire. Muggleton is stricken with malaria. Jones's feet turn gray and her toenails fall off. The expedition, like the Land Rover, comes asunder.

Although the book jacket gives away pretty much the whole story, I'll refrain. Suffice it to say that Jones discovers unexpected ironies and still less expected epiphanies on her journey. The last line is lovely. And it seems a piece of generosity very much in the spirit of the Lovedu that the line is not Jones's own.

Looking for Lovedu, ostensibly a travel-adventure narrative, is surprisingly hard to categorize. Since no one dies or even loses a limb, it's a quieter book than some that have topped the bestseller lists in recent years. Jones is willing to pass judgement, repeatedly revisiting the point that Africa is a continent where women have virtually none of the power yet seem to do most of the work; some (Muggleton, for one) might find the theme wearing after a while.

Yet in the midst of their helter-skelter southward scamper (Muggleton's word), Jones also manages some poignant observations on a land and a dignified people struggling to endure despite the ravages of colonialism, post-colonialism, despotism, drought, environmental devastation, civil strife, bloodshed, AIDS and a thousand other insults. To a reader comfortable in all the trappings of Western civilization, Africa seems like a hard place to love. Clear-eyed, never romanticizing, Jones somehow manages nevertheless to show us the ravaged beauty of the place. When they cross the border from ruined "bloody Zaire" and enter the recovering nation of Uganda, Jones writes, "And the elephants, which had fled, were wisely returning from Zaire. I could imagine the great creatures, coming on in long files, the matriarchs in the lead, their trunks swaying, their huge feet rising and falling steadily, soundlessly, moving out of the dying forests of Zaire, crossing the border, whispering themselves as we had, 'Yes.'"

--Caroline Kettlewell

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