download (1)Cheryl Strayed, 2012

Last fall I spent three days biking alone through Oregon’s Willamette valley. I road through a day of heavy heat sandwiched between two days of torrential rain carrying little but my camp gear on my bike. Leading up to the trip I had spent a few months researching the route, picking out gear, and even took a test-ride in the Bay Area with a friend to safely get a feel for what it was like to ride with a fully loaded bike. My trip was actually far less ambitious than I had originally planned because I had to cut the trip short due to the wet weather.

Despite the shortened route, that trip remains up there as one my most memorable and rewarding experiences. Prior to my solitary bike trip I have enjoyed numerous multi-day biking, backpacking, and river rafting trips through beautiful and scenic wilderness and backcountry roads. Although each of those trips has given me great joy and lasting memories, those prior trips were all group expeditions comforted by the support of reliable friends. My Willamette trip was special because it was a solitary trip, led by, organized, and completed completely by my own design and determination. On the final day of that brief trip I road 65 miles through a ceaseless down-pore that wore down my spirit. Half way through that day and far beyond any point of return I thought myself crazy for ever embarking on such a wet and wearying ride. Beyond my self-doubts I wouldn’t give up. At the end of that long and draining day I was rewarded with the pure bliss of knowing that I had made it. I had made it on my own and purely for myself.

I speak about this trip in opening my review of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to provide some context towards my deep respect for Cheryl’s accomplishment. I had biked nearly 160 miles in three days and although I had carried my breakfast and dinner and all my camp gear on my bike, I had the luxury to fill my water at parks and gas stations, the luxury of stopping for lunch, the luxury of using my GPS phone for guidance, the luxury to call or email my wife at the end of my long days or during my rest breaks. Cheryl had no such luxury as she backpacked nearly 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on her own relying on her compass and the trail and the infrequent kindness of strangers she stumbled upon from week to week. Though my ride was solitary and powered by my own energies, it was along a paved road and if I ever ran into trouble I didn’t have too long to wait before a car would pass me by. Cheryl’s hike was truly solitary with several days passing before anyone crossed her path and she ran the risk of dehydration since safe watering holes could be as far as 35 miles down the trail. Although her original plan was sidelined by snow, as mine by rain, she persevered and continued on, making her way to the Washington border from the Mohave desert while rediscovering herself in the depths of wilderness.

Despite my respect for her journey, despite my acknowledgment that her book is an accomplishment in itself, I haven’t been so annoyed at a book in as long as I can remember. From the opening prologue that depicted Cheryl losing one of her hiking boots at the edge of a cliff and then throwing the other I knew I was in for a raucous ride.

Much can be said about Cheryl’s ridiculous unpreparedness, how she never even packed her bag for a test run before her first day on the trail, how she assumed hiking was simply walking and therefore she didn’t practice her strength or endurance training, how she packed the wrong fuel for her stove, and how she clogged her water filter. These foolish actions are forgiven due to her youth and naiveté. Much can be said how she spent the months prior to her hike dabbling in heroin, completely distracting herself from a practical approach towards long distance preparation. This can also be forgiven since the purpose of her hike was prompted by her realization that her life choices had drifted her far from her roots. What can’t be forgiven is her ceaseless self degradation and whining about her life. Yes, I understand that her story has purpose, she did have a challenging and unique upbringing and her mother’s sudden and unexpected death impacted her greatly, but in reading about it, I wanted her to move on beyond her personal history and tell me more about the PCT and how its beauty impacted her. She did this on several occasions, but too often she turned back to herself with such navel gazing proclamations as the following:

You should see a therapist, everyone had told me after my mother had died, and ultimately – in the depths of my darkest moments the year before the hike – I had. But I didn’t keep the faith… I had problems a therapist couldn’t solve; grief that no man in a room could ameliorate.” (134)

I will say that Cheryl writes well, her style is engaging and despite my annoyance with her story, I finished the book: but that endeavor felt like an accomplishment in itself. This book should have been about 100 pages shorter to make it a fantastic book, but too often it returned to Cheryl’s self-analysis and felt more like a written therapy session than an adventure in the wild. I guess what distracted me was that I enjoy stories that have a universal quality to them, but Wild fails to reach out with a universal voice. Strayed speaks from her singular personhood, often repeating her regrets towards her adulterous behavior that ruined her marriage, her self destructive use of heroin, and her recurrent sorrow for her mother’s loss. I have no problems with anyone dealing with personal struggle and writing about it, but what fazed me by Wild was its complete lack of applicability to the human story. Even when Cheryl appears to move on and reach new achievements, she strays off the trail with a boy she just met to enjoy a few nights of relaxation and pleasure on the Oregon coast, hundreds of miles from the PCT.

Cheryl’s achievement as a young woman on her own is without a doubt an accomplishment, but after reading her story, I was disappointed in the book, because it felt less about being wild and more about being tamed by the trail in the wilderness. I wish that the book was filled more with the passages such as the following and less with the navel-gazing self analysis that so frequently annoyed and frustrated this reader:

“I was crying my first tears on the PCT. I cried and I cried and I cried. I wasn’t crying because I was happy. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I wasn’t crying because of my mother or my father or Paul. I was crying because I was full. Of those fifty-some hard days on the trail and of the 9,760 days that had come before them too.” (234)

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The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine: Reader Criticisms

download (2)

Jame Le Fanu, 1999, 2012

In my last post I was inspired to reflect upon my personal experiences relevant to a patient I had cared for.  I don’t read a lot of medically inspired books and this blog is primarily an outlet for my own memories and inspirations pertinent to the many books I read. I was reading James Le Fanu’s book, The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine during a challenging period in my nursing career and felt that it was appropriate to apply some of the discussion material of the book to a patient case that had deeply affected me.

If you, reader of this blog aren’t aware, I am a registered nurse at a large medical institution. And if you know me well, you are aware that I have been intimately involved with medicine most of my life since my career prior to nursing involved work at several large and small biotech companies associated with the “big” pharmaceutical industry. In many ways I have been self-aware for several years about the double edged nature of my involvement in the medical field. Medicine does great good but the business and high cost of medicine is slightly unsettling because the efforts of profits distract from my altruistic intent in being involved in medicine. I had left the pharmaceutical industry primarily because my ten plus years working in the industry failed to fulfill my inherent desire to help my fellow human kind. At the end of my workday I knew that despite the indirect knowledge that the my workaday efforts assisted the patients in need of the drug therapies my companies had manufactured, my daily efforts were ultimately and directly best serving the corporation and the shareholders of the companies that I had worked for. The choice to pursue nursing was one of the best and most formative choices of my life. However, I am not naive to think that in becoming a nurse I have morphed into an idealized altruist. As I have taken on leadership roles within my profession I am all to aware of the influence of reducing costs of care and lengths of stay, but these are necessary realities that are married to the great reward of working in a profession that intimately touches the lives of people whom I would never had contacted otherwise.

Now, with that aside and off my chest, I feel that I need to say a few things about The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine that weren’t appropriate to say in my last post about this expansive book. This book was originally published in 1999 and I read the 2012 updated copy of the book. For a book that argued so much about the lack of integrity in medical science, I was sorely disappointed in the format that Le Fanu had updated his book. The updated copy wasn’t really an updated in as much as Le Fanu had written a few new chapters that were applicable to the 13 years since his original publishing but the original content of the book was completely unedited from its 1999 presentation. This was most notable in the references to costs of medical expenditure in the 1990′s that could have easily been updated with 2012 figures without needing to add on new redundant chapters to cover the last decade.

Another drawback to this book is that in being British and enjoying the benefit of a single-payer medical service, Le Fanu completely omitted any reference to the debilitating influence of American style medical insurers as a downfall to the medical system. Le Fanu did make reference to the overall expenditure of the US economy, but he seemed to completely ignore one of my most influential factors in the US system, that being that a myriad of insurance providers have an overly influential power with regard to dictating care administered because the insurance providers influence the cost of care received. Furthermore, in ignoring the influence of insurance providers Le Fanu takes no notice of the plight of the uninsured who do not receive the benefits of preventative medicine because they avoid the cost of seeing a medical provider. Shannon Brownlee’s OverTreated provides a much more thorough analysis of the labyrinthian influence of the American medical system and I would recommend that book over Le Fanu’s if you have interest in the cause for the high costs of medicine.

On less of a criticism of content and more a criticism of style, I did feel that The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine was an easy and approachable read. I was able to breeze through its 500 pages in just under two weeks. However, after reading it I found my dissatisfied with the personal substance of its subject matter. Le Fanu’s book is fact heavy on the historical development of modern medicine and he does make reference to many of the key players that participated in the defining moments of medicine. However, as a story teller, Le Fanu stuck to the simple facts without adding any sense of personal appreciation for the characters that were the people involved in the development of modern medicine. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Emperor of All Maladies was a much more touching book that sought to achieve many of the same goals as Le Fanu’s he Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine. Mukherjee’s Emperor was entirely focused on the history of cancer and therefore its scope was not as encompassing as Le Fanu’s exploration of all of modern medicine, yet Mukherjee’s book was far more satisfying as a read due to the numerous personal anecdotes and interviews that were included in the text.

Despite these criticisms, The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine was a worthwhile and informative book that I would recommend as a good point of reference to anyone with interest in the applications of modern medicine.



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The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine


I love my job, but it isn’t perfect. Nothing is.

Over the past two months there had been a patient on my unit with a poor prognosis of thrombocytopenia, a condition that chronically wastes the body’s platelets, one of the components of the blood associated with clotting.  She developed this condition secondary to the treatment of her breast cancer diagnosis which had progressively metastasized to several of her organs, including her brain. She was on our nursing unit not for the management of her cancer, but for the thrombocytopenia as well as the cognitive decline as a result of her brain cancer.

I had admitted this patient to the nursing unit the first day she arrived and over the weeks and months that she was with us I watched her progressively decline. On admission she was very frail and week, but she was able to walk with assistance and communicate freely but several weeks later she was unable to walk and had developed uncontrollable and impulsive fidgety movements as she constantly rolled around her bed due to lack of cognitive focus and loss of motor control. Ultimately she became non-communicative, had experienced a fall in an attempt to get out of bed and was at high risk for aspirating the food that here family provided for her. Her dedicated husband and father were always at her side and her father stayed overnight six out of seven nights a week.

During the many weeks that I and my colleagues cared for her I found myself questioning the ethical principles of the care we were providing her. I saw a woman that was suffering a slow and prolonged death whereas her family saw a woman that was battling for survival. Her case was a challenging conundrum for all of my colleagues, both nursing and medical doctors alike. The medical team had conducted several ethical meetings to discuss and evaluate her plan of care because there was little diagnostic evidence that showed that her prognosis would do anything but deteriorate. Despite the medical recommendation to withdraw treatment and to focus on palliative care, the patient’s family adamantly maintained hope that she would improve and were unwilling to comply with the medical team’s proposed plan of care. They had even threatened to sue if the treatment plan was modified. So, for weeks on end she continued in a state of progressive decline that may have ended much sooner with far less suffering as we continued to administer chemotherapy and daily infusions of platelets. Each time I entered her room I found myself lost in her deeply engaging eyes: the eyes of a soul trying to reach out and communicate after her voice had long since failed.

The feeling communicated through those eyes will remain with me for years to come.

Many a night I walked home from work after having looked into those eyes burdened with thoughts that questioned the philosophy behind the care provided to her. I saw a women that deserved the right to die whereas her family argued for the right to continue treatment indefinitely. My perspective is obviously from the other side of the patient’s bed since the right to die is not something that is often considered by the patient or family members that seek medical care. The modern medical system has developed technologies that prolong life far beyond the limits of the physiological time table. The presence of these technologies has altered our cultural perception of death to the point that the dignity of the inevitable end of every living soul is often exchanged for an artificially prolonged existence that can hardly be considered life. Because we can prolong life, the cultural expectation is that we must.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not questioning my career nor am I lambasting medicine in general. Modern medicine has given many individuals a second chance at a life that would never have been possible without the drugs and technologies available and care provided. However, there are always going to be difficult cases such as this woman with thrombocytopenia that I had cared for, and these difficult cases stretch the limits of what it is that providers of medicine can do and what it is we should do. When faced with cases such as this woman’s, I find myself questioning who it is that ultimately receives the benefit of the medical care provided. Is it for the patient or is it for her family? And if it is for her family, is the extreme cost of keeping this woman in the hospital for two months the best that our society has to offer to appease their emotional and spiritual needs? Have we reached a point in our societal evolution that delaying a family’s inevitable grief of loss is the best good that can be provided for them?  Such questions are difficult to answer, especially when medicine’s goal is to do good and not harm. The root of these ethical questions are buried in our society’s definitions of those words: good and harm.

It was with these thoughts in my mind that I turned to James Le Fanu’s expansive work, The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine, a book that I had first noticed on the shelves of Oxford’s Blackwell’s Books. Le Fanu’s book isn’t exactly a book on medical ethics as it is a book on medical history. However, in its discussion of medicine’s many problems Le Fanu adeptly criticizes the costs associated with medicine, especially the high costs of cancer survival as he notes that “the doubling of survival from one to two years has been accompanied by a 340-fold increase in the cost of treatment” (488). Many may shrink at the mention of cost when considering the care for the ill, especially for those with an unfortunate cancer diagnosis, but the fact remains that by 2010 medical expenditure in the US alone “has soared past the trillion dollar mark to a staggering $2.6 million” (439) with no foreseeable tempering of these rising costs. Looking at the staggering cost from the ground up, it is easy to forget that all of those costs translate to substantial human effort and labor. The question in my mind, and Le Fanu’s is why is so much effort focused on sustaining a low quality of life that is ultimately unsustainable?

Aside from my reflection spawned by challenging care for the patient I discussed above, I found The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine an informative and engaging read. Le Fanu provides a lengthy prologue that catalogs what he sees as twelve definitive moments in the rise of modern medicine. These moments include commonly understood hallmarks such as the accidental discovery of penicillin, the development of chemotherapies that ultimately prompted the treatment and cure of childhood cancer, and the first open heart surgery. These twelve definitive moments also included not as commonly recognized or celebrated achievements such as the development of corticosteroids and the discovery that peptic ulcers were caused by bacteria and not stress. Without listing all twelve definitive moments ad nauseam, I’ll say that in cataloging them with historical progression, Le Fanu provides a concise synopsis of the significant events and key players involved in the rise of modern medicine in the form that we recognize it today. His discussion of each historical event characterizes a theme that medicine’s rise came about as it rode upon a wave of post-war enthusiasm and serendipitous scientific enquiry that exponentially benefited and prolonged the lives of the developed world.

After presenting a clear argument that celebrates the triumph of modern medicine, Le Fanu proceeds to switch gears and criticize the medical establishment for losing the enthusiasm of post-war discovery and succumbing to capitalistic greed that has stifled the spirit of inquiry. Le Fanu argues that the vigor and excitement that was once thriving in medicine has wained due to the inherent nature that much of the “low hanging fruit” that plagued mankind for millennia such as the infectious bacterial diseases have now been solved by the advent of antibiotics and other such therapies.  “Medicine is no longer as satisfying in the past. Many of the most interesting diseases that tested the doctor’s clinical acumen have simply disappeared” (423). Despite the advancement of genetics and the mapping of human genome, medicine has not received the benefits promised by these achievements due to the difficulty in applying the basic understanding of genetics to the diverse biological complexity that is still predominantly misunderstood.

Medicine’s further “downfall” can be partially attributed to the capitalistic nature of the pharmaceutical industry that reaped enormous profits with blockbuster drugs that are often simply rebranded or reimagined therapies for previously treated diseases. Drugs like lipitor and prozac have become household names and the constant bombardment of advertisements have created a culture of “worried well” that seek treatments for benign symptoms due to the influence of the pharmaceutical industry. These symptom management drugs have become blockbusters but there is a dearth of new drugs that actually cure disease because the pharma industry is more interested in developing drugs that promote health maintenance rather than curing disease simply because medical maintenance requires a long-lasting and profitable reliance on therapies whereas cures do not provide the same level of profit. The cycle of capitalistic influence has also affected the quality of medical science since most research projects are funded by the very industry that benefit from the research, creating a conflict of interest that promotes profit over scientific integrity.

The influence of capitalism and the loss of academic integrity are just some of the merits of medicine’s downfall, as outlined by Le Fanu. The most influential component of the downfall is ironically the cultural influence that medicine’s benefits have achieved. The accomplishments of the past century have the benefit of prolonging life through the prevention of common infectious diseases, but in prolonging life for all members of society, our culture has come to expect medicine to continue the miracle of ever-lasting life. The risk is that a culture that thrives while being removed from the suffering of death may be a culture that is all the more troubled by death’s arrival when it inevitably comes. Doctors and nurses must constantly practice their craft in fear of a litigious backlash because any failure to prolong life is at risk of being misconstrued as negligence.  True negligence does exist, of course, but the expectation that medicine can cure all ailments has falsely influenced the population’s expectations of their provider’s medical powers.

When the women with thrombocytopenia finally did pass away, I wasn’t on shift. I came to work the following day and when I walked past the room that she had lived in for the past two months I did a double take as I recognized that it was not she, but another patient occupying the room that was hers. Based upon the steadfast denial of her palliative state, my colleagues and I were expecting a dramatic scene from her family when the day finally would come, but thankfully, I was told, she passed peacefully when she finally left us and her family accepted her passing with peace as well.


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The Adventures of Augie March


Saul Bellow, 1953

What started as a slow-paced and confusing mess grew into a beautiful and engaging novel depicting the coming-of-age experiences of a young man living through the depression and the beginning of the second World War. The protagonist, Augie March, represents the self-made man who pursues a true and examined life while meandering from job to job and from woman to woman in order to develop his self-realized potential despite several wrong choices and fading interests. My reading was reminiscent of a matured On the Road without all the drug induced spiritual excitement of Kerouac. Bellow’s singular voice offers a sober, introspective view of the wander’s life that is both inspiring and motivating.

The Adventures of Augie March is told from the first-person voice of young Augie March, the second son of three boys raised by their tyrannical landlord-grandmother.  His father is out of the picture and his nearly blind mother is too preoccupied with work to be involved in his life. His elder brother, Simon, is ambitious and conceited. His younger brother, George, is mentally disturbed and is sent to an institution early in his life. Augie must fend for himself and takes up several odd-jobs and floats from one situation to another, including working as an assistant to a crippled millionaire, smuggling Canadians across the border, stealing books and selling them cheap to college students, working as a union organizer, then a union buster, training an Eagle to hunt Lizards in Mexico, joining the Merchant Marines to be shipwrecked at sea, and eventually as a black market dealer in post-war Europe. He experiences several ups and downs such as the luxuries of country-club lifestyle and a penniless cross-country hitch-hiking and train-hopping voyage from Buffalo back to his home in Chicago that briefly lands him in jail in Detroit. Through his experiences he is constantly reading the classics but never quite achieves a formal education as he is more interested in gaining a self-directed education and developing a personal philosophy that is influenced by his life’s experiences.

I indicated above that the book starts off slow and confusing and I say this because the telling of the early days of Augie’s life are more focused upon depicting his family’s and neighbor’s lives with Augie acting primarily as a distracted observer. This perspective is true to a young teenager’s attention but from a narrative voice the story telling for the first one hundred or so pages was disjointed and hard to follow.  However, this line did give me some focus as to what Bellow was doing with these early years of Auggie’s life:

“All the influences were lined up waiting for me. I was born, and they were to form me, which is why I tell you more of them than of myself.” (51)

It isn’t really until the the introduction of Einhorn, the crippled millionaire, that the book begins to find focus. Einhorn is both successful as an entrepreneur and womanizer with a keen interest in literature and history. He acts as a father figure for Augie and helps the young man develop his philosophical identity. We witness Einhorn lose much of his wealth through the depression, but Einhorn’s vibrant spirit is little affected by his material loss since he had already thrived despite his physical weaknesses. Einhorn is but the first of several father-figure advisors to Augie and Augie does eventually turn against him, but I found that this first advisor was the most influential.

My favorite moment of the book was the period when Augie was working with his successful brother, Simon, at a coal yard briefly after Simon had married into a wealthy and influential family. Simon had encouraged Augie to become engaged to his wife’s cousin so that both brothers could partner together. During this period Augie was providing financial assistance to a friend of his who needed to obtain an abortion due to a an unexpected pregnancy from another man. After the abortion, his desperate friend, Mimi, becomes terribly ill and Augie’s increased investment in time with this woman caused both his fiance and brother to grow suspicious and angry towards Augie’s actions and decisions. Augie sets aside their concern to act out of human kindness rather than get overly caught up in his brother’s indulgent lifestyle. The experience influences him greatly and he discovers that what he thought was love for the fiance was only a fleeting emotion and he gladly forgets her to pursue his true love and follow his old flame, the wild Thea, into Mexico. The writing in this period of the book is extremely engaging and uses powerful imagery such as the following to depict the depth of emotion experienced:

“There have great things been done to mitigate the worst human sights and teach you something different from revulsion at them. All the Golgothas have been painted with this aim. But since probably very few people are now helped by these things and lessons, each falls back on whatever he has.” (311)

It is Bellow’s use of beautifully engaging passages such as the one above that makes this an amazing book. In reading the The Adventures of Augie March the reader is presented with a believable depiction of a young man’s growing world view. Augie is self-aware that he is born with inherent imperfections, yet he is capable of making the best of his life’s situation. His world-view grows through the experiences he lives through and only a well-lived and time-weathered soul is capable of stating something such as this:

“Everyone tries to create a world he can live in, and what he can’t use he often can’t see. But the real world is already created, and if your fabrication doesn’t correspond, then even if you feel noble and insist on there being something better than what people call reality, that better something needn’t try to exceed what, in its actuality, since we know so little, may be very surprising. If a happy state of things, surprising; if miserable or tragic, no worse than what we invent.” (430)

This world-view shines throughout the Augie’s retelling of his life’s wandering and there are several notable passages worth savoring, such as the following:

“You invent a man who can stand before the terrible appearances. This way he can’t get justice and he can’t give justice, but he can live. And this is what mere humanity always does. It’s made up of these inventors or artists, millions and millions of them, each in his own way trying to recruit other people to play a supporting role and sustain him in his make believe.” (456)

At 607 pages this is an ambitious and thorough retelling of one man’s life. Bellow doesn’t leave much out, but despite the early pages of the book where I found myself lost and disinterested The Adventures of Augie March was a deeply satisfying read. I feel that I read this at a good point in my life. Most coming-of-age stories feel directed at a younger reader who can identify with the experiences of the protagonists. Augie continues to grow and live on beyond the coming-of-age years of the early twenties and he acts as the representation of a man who lives with the focused desire to live fully without resignation.


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The Scramble for Africa

downloadThomas Packenham, 1991

If not for a gleaming recommendation on the shelves of Powell’s Books, Packenham’s massive book would never have found its way into my hands. At 680 pages, this is a daunting and lengthy historical text on a subject not often discussed or reflected upon in my daily thoughts and conversations. Despite this, The Scramble for Africa lives up to the recommendation that persuaded me to pick it up, as this was a surprisingly enjoyable and informative read. After having completed this book over the past month I feel more informed regarding both African and European history and have a much deeper respect for the ongoing struggles faced by the African people. The civil strife that echoes throughout the continent is not merely a result of the fractured and divided borders set up by the European powers. As is apparent in this book, Africa is a continent of extreme geography with few navigable bays, meandering and marshy deltas, rivers that are difficult to navigate due to waterfalls, dense jungles, parched deserts and expansive planes that altogether make travel and commerce difficult despite all the promises of modern technology. The European explorers and colonists had a difficult time making profit in these conditions; it is no wonder that Africa continues to struggle in our modern era.

In discussing this book, I must point out that this is not a broad summary of African history, but rather a focused analysis of European intervention into Africa during the thirty year period spanning 1876 to 1912. Yes, there was a long history of European presence in the African continent during the centuries prior to this period with the awful slave trade being the main export from the continent and there were a few colonies established in the beginning of the 19th century by the Dutch, the Portuguese and later the French and British. However, prior to the 1870′s most of the African interior was unexplored and untouched by Europe until the later quarter of the 19th century. With the end of the slave trade in the middle of the 19th century and much of the rest of the world already colonized and spoken for, European explores began to look towards their closest continental neighbor as an opportunity to further expand wealth, Empire, and routes of trade.

The intense thirty-year “scramble” for the European conquest of Africa was sparked by the English Explorer Livingstone, the Italian-born French explorer Brazza, and the American-born Belgian explorer Stanley. These three men sponsored by their British, French, and Belgian authorities traveled up the Nile, Congo, and Niger rivers searching for wealth and safe routes of commerce in order to promote the the “three C’s” of Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization in a region of central Africa that was still mired in a culture of tribalism that continued to thrive on internal slavery and brutality. The hope inspired first by Livingstone and later Brazza – and to a lesser extent Stanley – was to modernize the continent and transform the culture towards the ideals of European society. Unfortunately, the ideal pursuits of explorers are often lost in the mud slinging that is inherent in the politics and economics between ruling powers. After the initial decade of exploration in the 1870′s the major powers of Britain, France, and Germany swooped into the continent, scooping up land through treaties and rights of conquest. The less powerful Italy made its mark as well with several colonies near Ethiopia and Eritrea. As the major powers developed true colonies, the tiny country of Belgium developed the most unique relationship towards Africa as Belgium’s King Leopold invested his private capital in the Congo and developed not a colony but a commercial endeavor that did not provide any sort of governance that benefited the Congolese people.

After the scramble got underway obviously their were periods of war and conflict between the Europeans and the African people. Africa is a diverse continent that is too often generalized as a single entity due to lack of understanding about the rich diversity of human culture spread across the huge continent. In each region the separate European powers faced distinct struggles such as the Mahdist Muslims in the Central Eastern region now known as Sudan, or the Boers in South Africa, or the multitude of tribal kingdoms in the dense rain forests of the Congo basin. Packenham’s book gave light to these distinct peoples and increased my appreciation for their history as his book expertly weaved each of the conflicts, treaties, and conquests in a smooth chronological telling of the continent’s developing relationship with its European influence. There are also chilling periods of violence from both African and European hands as Packenham reveals tribal power one by disregard for human life with heads and skulls often on display as trophies and warnings to encroaching powers. Europeans would often use African labor as though the men were beasts of burden that could be easily shot or had their hands severed as punishment for minor infractions. And most chilling of all was the first Reich’s genocide of the Herero people of south western Africa that foreshadowed the German capacity for systematic extermination.

Through the many conquests that occurred, the European powers lived dangerously on the edge of war with one another due to limits of the patchwork accord of agreements between the nations. During this period France and Britain were persistently pushing the boundaries of war, using the African people as pons in their expanding presence across the continent. If the European powers didn’t directly go to battle with each other, they used the African nations to wage the wars that London and Paris would not exact against one another. Oddly, at the end of the period of scramble these two rivals found peace with one another and became allies in less than a decade before the dawning of the first world war.

After having spent so much time rehashing the historical events discussed throughout the The Scramble for Africa I must give credit to the authorial style that made this such an engaging read. Packenham’s writing is deeply charismatic and he brings to life the historical characters as though they were fictional heroes with depth of character and conflicting motivations that influence their actions throughout the scramble. For example the following passage introduces the British statesman Alfred Milner:

“It was easy to underrate Milner…He was a bachelor of forty-six and looked older, with his long, thin face and melancholy grey-brown eyes…He appeared to epitomize the dullest ideals of civil service…Inside Milner, repressed but not extinguished, was the spirit of his father, romantic, bohemian, restless – and reckless as well.” (563)

Such writing characterizes all of the influential politicians, royalty, explorers, and militiamen that Packenham discusses throughout his greatly detailed and engaging Scramble for Africa. This writing created a sense of narrative urgency with climatic tones not readily observed in most historical writing. The Scramble for Africa impressed me with the book’s ability to read as a fictional house of cards, ready to fall apart in the hands of the men that shuffled the deck.



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Eyewitness Travel: Brussels & Bruges

9781409385905HWhile visiting my wife during her extended business trip in Oxford, we decided to take a weekend holiday to Belgium. Choosing a travel book for a four day, three night excursion wasn’t too challenging at Oxford’s Blackwell books with their extensive selection of European travel books. I decided to go with the Eyewitness Travel book that covered Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp because it provided a broad coverage of each of the four cities with several maps and brief historical coverage of the country’s architecture.  Our planned trip was to only cover Brussels and Bruges but the book was slim enough that the Ghent and Antwerp coverage wasn’t too overbearing.

Eyewitness Travel isn’t a travel book that I’ve seen before on US bookstore shelves, but it looked like a common book for UK travelers. It was filled with several mini maps and color pictures that made it an enticing and eye-pleasing guide for our short trip. Traveling from London to Brussels was remarkably easy via the Eurostar bullet train that traversed 225 miles in just under two hours and made me envious with the ease of travel within the European continent and I could see why there are plenty of slim weekend travel books to choose from for the European traveler.

L1080790The first night in Brussels I found myself staying right in the heart of the Grand Place Grote Markt with a gorgeous full moon behind the stunning backdrop of the square’s ornate 17th century architecture. During the late night arrival into Brussels the market square was abuzz with youthful drunken excitement with a vibrancy that that was welcomed after a week in the sobering studious atmosphere of Oxford. The apartment on the square was on the forth story of a three hundred year old building and climbing the narrow winding stairs was a bit overwhelming for my acrophobia, but a night at the Delerium Cafe helped ease my concerns.

L1080890The following day we explored the streets of Brussels, strolling through Europe’s oldest domed glass roof of the Galeries St-Hubert, wandered around the Parc du Bruxelles Warande, and enjoyed the Magritte Museum. Brussels definitely has a quirky artistic sense, and the most memorable sight was the famed Manequin Pis, a small fountain statue of a urinating boy that is routinely dressed up in a new costume each day. We stumbled onto a ceremony with several film crew cameramen gathered around the small fountain as it was being dressed in the Belgian FIFA soccer jersey. I had learned the previous night at Cafe Delerium that the Belgians had recently qualified for the World Cup, so dressing up the fountain was quite the celebratory event with 20-30 older Belgian men with awe-inspiring facial hair singing in celebration as the fountain would shoot 30 feet into the crowd each time they hit the final note as they sung Man-Ah-Kin-PISH. It was bizarre and laughable and a great time.

L1080927After a full day exploring Brussels, we took the train to the northern coastal town of Bruges, a quaint and quiet medieval city. I found the cobblestone streets and winding canals utterly charming. We had a full two days to sightsee and taste the flavors of Belgian chocolates and beers to our heart’s content. Our first full day started with a boat ride through the canals and we were pleased to learn we arrived on the first day of the boating season, just as the weather was warming up.

L1090020The canal boat ride was an excellent opportunity to orient ourselves to the city. After our ride we took a several hour walk through the streets, taking the sites in and exploring the interior of some of the 15th century churches. We also fit in a tour of the Brewery of the de Halve Man, the only brewery still currently brewing within the city’s internal perimeter (although they did admit that they bottle just outside of town). We also had a great time sampling several “pubs” sampling several beers that I’d never seen or sampled in the US. My favorite place was the Staminee, which was hard to find since it was located off a nondescript alley near the main market place. Once we entered the cafe Craenberg we stumbled up a narrow stairwell to sit above an open balcony that viewed the drinkers on the ground floor. The place was probably four or five hundred years old and while sitting back and enjoying a beer with some cheese I felt transported to a simpler time of long ago.
L1090118On our second and last day in Bruges we enjoyed my favorite pastime, biking! Riding over the cobblestone streets was quite bumpy but it allowed us to quickly reach the city perimeter and view the wooden windmills and many of the old stone guard towers that protected the city during the medieval years. After our bike ride we enjoyed some beer and cheese and then my wife climbed up the 272 foot 13th century Belfort tower to gain an astounding view of the city that I enjoyed from the screen of her camera.

L1090050The two full days in Bruges was just enough time to take in the city and I don’t think that my belt could have lasted any more time consuming all the chocolates, cheeses, and beer that I enjoyed. There is something to be said about traveling with an travel book to help guide your adventures. Using a paper book with pictures and maps instead of an electronic guide on the phone definitely helps this traveler forget the novelties of modernity and absorb the culture and tangible history visible on the ground of my explorations. The Eyewitness Travel guide for Brussels and Bruges was a simple but likable companion to our weekend adventure and I’m glad to have picked it up.


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Fodor’s England 2014

At this stage in my life of travels I have come to rely on Fodor’s as my dependable travel book. I know what to expect from Fodor’s: good thorough explanations of both sights and eateries, plenty of mini-maps broken down into the applicable burroughs and neighborhoods, and enticing pictures that prepare the traveler for the highlights of a new adventure. I also know what I don’t like about Fodor’s: the choppy organization that focuses on sights, places to stay, and where to eat in specific sections that causes the traveler to flip back and forth in sections when looking for a place to eat after seeing one of the sights. From my first exposure to Fodor’s I found this an annoyance, but after using their books on several different trips I have come to understand their unorthodox organizational format.

L1080369I found myself in England for the first time in my life during the first week and a half of this past March. Of course you might say that this trip seemed quite sudden after my most recent trip to Iceland in January of this same year, however this UK trip was a last minute add-on to my life’s adventures only planned after my wife had accepted a short-term two month assignment for her work in Oxford. She had left the first week of February, only a week after she had returned from Iceland and I luckily had a 11 days off from work at the start of March to head out to visit her to break up our time apart. She had had chosen the very extensive Fodor’s England travel book to permit her some opportunity to travel through the country during her weekends and she did have the opportunity to see Cambridge, take several trips to London, and head up to Edinburgh Scotland for a long weekend. With my short trip I only got to see London and Oxford, in addition to a weekend trip to Belgium with my wife (but more on that later).

L1080756I had arrived on Saturday morning and my wife and I spent the weekend in London to explore and enjoy the dining in the big city before heading into the quiet college town of Oxford for her work week. I’ll be honest and say that before this trip I never had much interest in London or any of the UK; of course there is plenty of history to explore but the country just didn’t have enough of an exotic appeal to draw me to on my own accord. However, now having spent some time there I must admit that I was completely enamored by London’s charms. The city is highly organized with nearly eight million people hardly ever bumping elbows. I never waited more than 3 minutes for a subway, the pathways through the city and the underground tunnels were always clearly directed, and all the museums were free. Of course London is a metropolis with big city costs, and it didn’t help that the dollar is weak compared to the pound, but despite the high cost of moving around and eating, I felt that for what I spent my money on, it was well worth the slight pain to my pocketbook.

L1080383As we normally do in our travels, we packed in quite a bit in a small amount of time. Just in the first weekend we went to the Tower of London where we saw the medieval castle and prison torture chambers as well as the crown jewels, we walked along the Thames to Westminster Abbey, walked through Piccadilly Circus, went to the British Natural History Museum, and sampled several nice pubs and restaurants. All of our attractions and eateries were directed by our Fodor’s guide (and my wife’s several experiences in London during this trip and in from her younger years). For a quick weekend it was a lovely time and the only rain I saw I began to fall only as we began our travel to Oxford late Sunday night.

L1080507The next two days I explored Europe’s oldest college town of Oxford. My wife’s apartment was located just on the edge of the town center within a stones throw across the river from the thousand-year-old Oxford castle. At my wife’s suggestion I took the guided walking tour (our Fodor’s guide made no mention of it) and was thankful to get a good introduction to the city’s many colleges and libraries. Oxford is truly a quaint and beautiful place and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring Blackwell’s Bookstore and the many pubs that dotted the streets. I overheard people talk about their student’s latest book on the shelves of the bookstore and pub conversations were more academic than intoxicated. The second day I explored the Ashmolean Museum’s collection of ancient world artifacts as well as the Oxford Science Museum where I got to see early medical equipment including the first microscopes and surgical hacksaws.

L1080782I enjoyed Oxford a lot, but after two full days on my own I felt that I saw what I could see and took a day trip on my own to London. My goal was to see the Tate Modern and, if I had time, the British Museum. I did manage to head out early enough and see both as well as have a lovely lunch in the Borough Market. The Tate had an impressive collection, but my thirst for modern art has been satiated many years ago and I found that I moved through the museum quickly enough to spend the afternoon at the British Museum and was I ever glad that I did.

L1080696From the moment I walked into the Egyptian hall of the BM I was awestruck at the museum’s impressive collection. The day prior I had been impressed by the Ashmolean museum’s presentation of a reconstructed Egyptian tomb and display of an opened mummy’s sarcophagi, but little did the Ashmolean prepare me for the immensity of the British Museum’s awe inspiring collection that included massive busts of Egyptian statues, a spectacularly rebuilt original ancient Grecian temple and a pair of enormous Assyrian temple guard statues, just to name a small sample of the museum’s collection. I found myself lost in the museum for hours, in awe at the history of the world and mankind’s accomplishments and failings through the millennia all on display under one roof all due to the spoils of the British Empire’s once extensive impact on the commerce of the world. For a museum titled the British Museum it is really a museum of the world collected by Britain’s empire and is a testament of the country’s significance and power in our world’s history. In reflection of the mummified remains presented in front of me in the museum I thought to myself how the once powerful pharaohs have actually achieved the true immortality they believed in for their legacy continues on through our long-standing recognition and awe towards ancient Egypt’s impact upon the many cycles of civilization. The British Empire was distinct from ancient Egypt and yet its impact is just as historically significant and this was all on display through the museum’s vast representation of the artifacts that kindled the enlightenment.

L1080488London and Oxford aren’t only a series of museums and pubs, but in my short time there I did tend to focus on these two gathering places of culture and libation. Of course this trip wasn’t all sightseeing and adventure, most of it was intent on visiting my lovely wife and spending valuable time with her during her work trip, which tended to include some needed relaxation. However, I did manage to fit in quite a bit and gain a renewed interest and appreciation for the British culture and lifestyle.

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