Armchair Explorations

Timothy J. Knab

Anthropologist Knab's highly personal and compelling narrative on the magico-religious belief system of contemporary Aztecs has the excitement of a mystery novel yet is interspersed with rich ethnographic detail on Aztec cosmology, magic, and ritual. Through his fieldwork with two Mexican curanderos (healers/witches) Knab uncovers the survival of ancient Aztec religious beliefs and practices thought to have been long wiped out by colonial conquest and Catholicism. Caught between the worlds of academia and Aztec witchcraft, Knab recounts how he found himself subject to his informants' magical devices and began the journey to recover his tonal (soul). Knab's experience challenges traditional assumptions about ethical involvement on the part of the researcher and blurs the boundaries between informant and researcher, science and magic, and healing and murder. This book will appeal not only to anthropologists and students of Aztec religion but to anyone interested in reading a captivating real-life mystery.” (Library Journal)

Edward Rice

Beginning his career as a spy for the East India Company, Burton (1821-1890) visited the "forbidden" cities of Medina and Mecca disguised as an Arab, made a yet more perilous trip to the secret city of Harar in Somalia, discovered Lake Tanganyika in his search for the Nile's source, and had sundry adventures in West Africa, the New World and the Levant. One of the great Arabists of his time, a master of 29 languages, he translated a mass of Oriental literature, mystical and erotic. Upon his death, his wife, in a spasm of piety-cum-prudery, burned his heavily annotated translation of The Perfumed Garden and much else. Explorer, swordsman, linguist, scholar, writer, lover of women and pursuer of hidden knowledge, Burton was par excellence the Victorian version of Renaissance man. (Publishers’ Weekly)

Windsor Chorlton
Approximately 400,000 Bhotian tribesmen live on the fringes of Tibet, grazing herds of yaks in the summertime and moving to the lowland areas of Nepal in the winter. The team of researchers arrived after an 11-days march at the remote village just in time to witness an exorcism ceremony. Includes amazing photos throughout. Part of Time-Life's Peoples of the Wild series.
Helen Whybrow
Here are 32 adventures written by passionate pilgrims who traversed wild America, the Alps, West Africa, Mecca, Malaysia, and more.
Steve Saint

Steve Saint was five years old when his father, missionary pilot Nate Saint, was speared to death by a primitive Ecuadorian tribe. In adulthood, Steve, having left Ecuador for a successful business career in the United States, never imagined making the jungle his home again. But when that same tribe asks him to help them, Steve, his wife, and their teenage children move back to the jungle. There, Steve learns long-buried secrets about his father's murder, confronts difficult choices, and finds himself caught between two worlds.  Later made into a feature film.

Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air is the definitive account of the deadliest season in the history of Mount Everest. Five climbers died, and another was badly injured in the rogue storm that swept Everest in May of 1996. This book is available on audio and was also adapted into a movie version.

Tudor Parfitt
In a mixture of travel, adventure, and scholarship, historian Tudor Parfitt sets out in search of answers to a fascinating ethnological puzzle: is the Lemba tribe of Southern Africa really one of the lost tribes of Israel, descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba? Beginning in the Lemba villages in South Africa, where he witnesses customs such as food taboos and circumcision rites that seem part of Jewish tradition, Parfitt retraces the supposed path of the Lembas' through Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Tanzania, taking in sights like Zanzibar and the remains of the stone city Great Zimbabwe. The story of his eccentric travels, a blend of the ancient allure of King Solomon's mines and Prester John with contemporary Africa in all its beauty and brutality, makes for an irresistible glimpse at a various and rapidly changing continent. And in a new epilogue, Parfitt discusses recent DNA evidence that, amazingly, lends credence to the Lemba's tribal myth. (Book summary)
Thor Heyerdahl

Am going to cross Pacific on a wooden raft to support a theory that the South Sea islands were peopled from Peru. Will you come? Reply at once.

That is how six brave and inquisitive men came to seek a dangerous path to test a scientific theory. On a primitive raft made of forty-foot balsa logs and named Kon-Tiki in honor of a legendary sun king, Heyerdahl and five companions deliberately risked their lives to show that the ancient Peruvians could have made the 4,300-mile voyage to the Polynesian islands on a similar craft. On every page of this true chronicle from the actual building of the raft through all the dangerous and comic adventures on the sea, to the spectacular crash-landing and the native islanders hula dances each reader will find a wholesome and spellbinding escape from the twenty-first century. Actual film from the expedition is available on an Academy Award-winning documentary.

Anita Jain

Is arranged marriage any worse than Craig's List? After all this effort, there had to be something easier. After announcing in a much-discussed New York magazine article her intention to try arranged marriage, Jain moves back to India—the impoverished, backward land her parents fled—to find a husband. At age thirty-two, and well past the cultural deadline for starting a family, Jain subjects herself to a whole new onslaught of expectations.Marrying Anita is an account of romantic chance encounters, nosy relatives, and dozens of potential husbands. Will she find a suitable man? Will he please her parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins? Is the new urban Indian culture in which she’s searching really all that different from America? With disarming candor, Jain tells her own romantic story even as it unfolds before her, and in the process sheds new light on a country modernizing at breakneck speed.
(from the publisher's description)

Farley Mowat

"Mowat is dropped alone onto the frozen tundra, where he begins his mission to live among the howling wolf packs and study their waves. Contact with his quarry comes quickly, and Mowat discovers not a den of marauding killers but a courageous family of skillful providers and devoted protectors of their young. As Mowat comes closer to the wolf world, he comes to fear with them on onslaught of bounty hunters and government exterminators out to erase the noble wolf community from the Arctic."

Wade Davis

In the 1940s, biologist Richard Evans Schultes uncovered many of the secrets of the rain forest, relying not only on his own prodigious investigations, but on the wisdom passed down by local tribes. Thirty years later his student, Wade Davis, followed in his footsteps. Two interwoven tales of scientific adventure bring to life the riches of the Amazon basin and bear witness to the destruction of its indigenous culture and natural wonders over two generations. (From the summary)

Ruth Benedict

For more than a generation, this pioneering book has been an indispensable introduction to the field of anthropology. Here, in her study of three sharply contrasting cultures, Benedict puts forward her famous thesis that a people's culture is an integrated whole, a "personality writ large." Her other famous book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, is a case study of Japanese culture during the World War II period.

T. E. Lawrence

“This is the exciting and highly literate story of the real Lawrence of Arabia, as written by Lawrence himself, who helped unify Arab factions against the occupying Turkish army, circa World War I. Lawrence has a novelist's eye for detail, a poet's command of the language, an adventurer's heart, a soldier's great story, and his memory and intellect are at least as good as all those. Lawrence describes the famous guerrilla raids, and train bombings you know from the movie, but also tells of the Arab people and politics with great penetration. Moreover, he is witty, always aware of the ethical tightrope that the English walked in the Middle East and always willing to include himself in his own withering insight.” (Amazon)

Mark J. Plotkin
“The thrilling account of the 13 years Plotkin, vice-president of Ethnobotany at Conservation International in Washington, spent in the northeastern Amazon's primeval rain forest is a first-rate travel and adventure tale in which scientific lore, passionate advocacy of conservation and literary gifts are combined. Thanks to the trust and friendship the author inspired among the declining number of powerful shamans ("witch doctors") and other Indians who considered him a "harmless oddball," they welcomed him at tribal rituals and assisted him in identifying plants (60,000 yet unknown species, used to treat ills from testicular cancer to earache). They even shared secrets for making curare poison and other hallucinogens (which he tried). The author has also succeeded in having the indigenous people share in the profits from their plant-derived wonder drugs, and encouraged them to preserve their heritage of botanic lore and customs.” (Publishers’ Weekly)
Stephanie Saldaña

A romantic memoir of a young woman's year in Damascus. In 2004, 27-year-old Stephanie Saldaña traveled to Syria on a Fulbright fellowship to study the role of the prophet Jesus in Islam. She was also fleeing a broken heart. It was not an ideal time to be an American in the Middle East--the United States had recently invaded Iraq, refugees were flooding into Damascus, and dark rumors swirled that Syria might be next to come under American attack. Miserable and lonely, Stephanie left Damascus to visit an ancient Christian monastery carved into the desert cliffs. In that beautiful, austere setting, she confronted her wavering faith and met Frédéric, a young French novice monk. As they set out to explore the mysteries entwining Christianity and Islam, Stephanie slowly realized that she had found God again--and that she was in love with Frédéric. But would Frédéric choose God or Stephanie? (from the publisher's description)

Caroline Alexander

In August 1914, days before the outbreak of the First World War, the renowned explorer Ernest Shackleton and a crew of twenty-seven set sail for the South Atlantic in pursuit of the last unclaimed prize in the history of exploration: the first crossing on foot of the Antarctic continent. Weaving a treacherous path through the freezing Weddell Sea, they had come within eighty-five miles of their destination when their ship, Endurance, was trapped fast in the ice pack. Soon the ship was crushed like matchwood, leaving the crew stranded on the floes. Their ordeal would last for twenty months, and they would make two near-fatal attempts to escape by open boat before their final rescue. Drawing upon previously unavailable sources, Caroline Alexander gives us a riveting account of Shackleton's expedition--one of history's greatest epics of survival. And she presents the astonishing work of Frank Hurley, the Australian photographer whose visual record of the adventure has never before been published comprehensively.

Colin Turnbull

The Forest People describes the author's experiences while living with the BaMbuti Pygmies, not as a clinical observer, but as their friend learning their customs and sharing their daily life. Turnbull conveys the lives and feelings of the BaMbuti whose existence centers on their intense love for their forest world, which, in return for their affection and trust, provides their every need. We witness their hunting parties and nomadic camps; their love affairs and ancient ceremonies -- the molimo, in which they praise the forest as provider, protector, and deity; the elima, in which the young girls come of age; and the nkumbi circumcision rites, in which the villagers of the surrounding non-Pygmy tribes attempt to impose their culture on the Pygmies, whose forest home they dare not enter. (From the summary)

Robert Whitaker

At the heart of this sweeping tale of adventure, discovery and exploration is one woman's extraordinary journey, inspired by her love for a man she had not seen in 20 years. In 1769, Isabel Grameson - an upper-class Peruvian woman who had lived all her life close to home - set out across the Andes, and down the length of the Amazon in order to rejoin her husband in French Guiana. Her 3,000-mile trek through untamed wilderness was one that no woman (and few men) had made before. (Book jacket)

Colin Turnbull

This time Turnbull (The Forest People) turns his insight on another African tribe. The Ik, formerly prosperous, are now starving, and, as Turnbull observes, their society unravels into the proverbially vicious “state of nature.”

Wade Davis

“A Harvard scientist’s astonishing journey into the secret societies of Haitian voodoo, zombies, and magic.”
Not to be confused with the movie!

Philippe Descola

“The Jivaro Indians of Amazonian Ecuador have earned a somewhat sinister reputation among travelers and anthropologists because of their custom, only recently abandoned, of shrinking the decapitated heads of enemies. Descola, an anthropology professor in Paris, spent three years living among a Jivaro tribe, and this engrossing, minutely detailed chronicle of daily life gets past exotic stereotypes to delineate a band of individualists oscillating between gentle anarchy and factional solidarity. Obsessed with bloody vendettas against neighbors or relatives, the tribal group nonetheless reverentially communicates with a world of spirits, plants and animals, with the wandering souls of both the living and the dead. Descola explores Jivaro shamanism, dream interpretation, polygamy, marital violence against wives and the Jivaros' loose-knit, fluid cosmology, which makes no effort to impose coherence on the world. Sprinkled with Jivaro songs, chants, myths and the author's line drawings, this lyrically precise exploration of a people's lifestyle and consciousness is a work of enchantment.” (Publishers' Weekly)

John Haines
For 25 years the poet John Haines lived, trapped, and hunted on the windswept hills above the Tanana River east of Fairbanks, Alaska. In this remarkable collection of essays he turns a poet's eye on his existence there and captures a life lived for the sake of survival.
Richard Henry Dana

The narrative of the author's journey from Boston around the Cape Horn and landing at a port in the western coast of the United States. A classic work of non-fiction that inspired Melville.

Victor Perera

Spanning thirty years of civil war in Guatemala, Unfinished Conquest portrays an embattled country and traces the subjugation of the Maya population from the Conquest to the present. Victor Perera weaves personal narrative with reportage and oral testimony to reveal a society torn apart by violence, poverty, and injustice. (From the summary)

Kate Fox
A bestseller in the UK, Watching the English is a biting, affectionate, insightful and often hilarious look English Society. Putting the English national character under her anthropological microscope, Fox finds a strange and fascinating culture, governed by complex sets of unspoken rules and bizarre codes of behavior. Through a mixture of anthropological analysis and her own unorthodox experiments-even using herself as a reluctant guinea-pig-Fox discovers what these unwritten codes tell us about Englishness. (from the publisher's description)