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Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl's Book Reviews for 7/13/09

Jeremy Richards
07/13/2009

'Travel without surprises is merely an agenda.' That's what writer Jim Malusa says about biking adventures, and that attitude may apply to any great book - the journey should be full of surprises. Today, writer and librarian Nancy Pearl brings us two new books that play on intrigue, discovery, and unexpected journeys. We'll hear more about Jim Malusa's bike treks. But first, Nancy reviews a novel called 'Admission,' by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Nancy Pearl talks with KUOW's Jeremy Richards.

In her novel, Admission (Grand Central, 2009), Jean Hanff Korelitz tells two intertwining stories: one is an inside look at the world of the admissions process at an elite American university; the other is about what happens when we consciously try to erase a part of our past. Portia Nathan has something in her past that she's kept secret for almost two decades. She's never told Mark, her partner of 16 years, she's never confided in her close friend Rachel, or her mother, the uber–feminist Susannah, and she's certainly never shared it with her colleagues at Princeton University, where she works as an admissions officer. There's never been a real need to. Not until, that is, she runs into John Halsey, a fellow Dartmouth grad and a teacher at an experimental school in New Hampshire (where she's gone on a recruiting trip) and meets his brilliant but eccentric student, Jeremiah, whom she encourages to apply to Princeton. Her encounter with John and Jeremiah sets into motion a series of events that eventually forces Portia to acknowledge that choices she made years ago are about to influence how she's going to choose to live in the present. I've always enjoyed Korelitz's novels. She's written three before "Admission," including "A Jury of Her Peers," "Sabbathday River," and her most lighthearted, "The White Rose." They are each marked by her warmth and her ability to make her characters real to us, so that we forgive them their flaws and their often less–than–perfect decisions.

I don't, personally, actually know any botanists, but I have to admit that I've never thought of it as an especially adventurous profession, so I certainly wouldn't have picked Jim Malusa, a scientist whose specialty is the biogeography of southern Arizona, as the guy–most–likely–to undertake (and write about) a series of very adventurous bike trips. Yet (to the good fortune of readers everywhere), he did. As described in Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents (Sierra Club/Counterpoint, 2008), he spent parts of six consecutive years riding his trusty bicycle to the lowest spots of all six continents, overcoming everything from extreme weather, extreme insects, and the very real possibility of land mines if he strayed off the road in Africa. His journey takes him from Darwin, in northernmost Australia, to Lake Eyre, deep in Australia's desert (my favorite part because I love reading about Australia) and, in Asia, from Cairo to the Dead Sea. In Europe, he goes from Moscow to the Caspian Sea, while in South America he bikes from Puerto Montt in Patagonia (bemoaning the ever–present winds), to Salina Grande in Argentina. In Africa, he toured from Djibouti to Lake Assal, and finally, he went from Tucson (his home) to Death Valley. Malusa has a knack for meeting interesting people, hearing fascinating tales, and seeing unusual sights. For example, there's an old state cafeteria in Volgograd, he tells us, "featuring perhaps the world's only aluminum bas–relief of dumplings." Malusa's philosophy of travel is summed up in this super sentence: "Travel without surprises was merely an agenda." I'll try to keep that in mind on my own trips.

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