Clean Breaks — Richard Hammond and Jeremy Smith


In Pulp’s caustic 1995 anthem Common People,” singer Jarvis Cocker delivers what has to be one of the best lines in any pop song: “Everybody hates a tourist.” Ironically, I bought the album when I was visiting London as a tourist. I’d never heard of (or heard) Pulp at that point, but our tour guide (it was a high school class trip) told me that they were the best Britpop band to date, better than my beloved Boo Radleys, he assured me. He had great taste; the album is fantastic and “Common People” became a dance party classic (this same tour guide took our entire group of high school juniors, seniors, and chaperons (teachers and parents) to a screening of Trainspotting, which had just come out in Great Britain. Many of the students and chaperons got quite upset, but for me it was kinda sorta life-changing (I was 15 or 16). Later, in Heidelburg, Germany, this same tour guide took a small group of six or seven of us out to one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been to, and laughed about the whole Trainspotting incident. He said he told our teachers that it would be an important “cultural enrichment experience” for us, but in reality it was just a great movie that he thought some of us would like to see).

I realize that this is a long, overly-personal lead-in to a book review, but Clean Breaks, from Rough Guides, embodies the spirit of the trip I discussed above. Richard Hammond and Jeremy Smith’s travel guide is not so much about how to avoid looking like a loathsome tourist, but about how to engage in the real culture of the place you are visiting while getting to know the real people who live there. In this sense, the book is not for everyone, but if you want Disney World or Las Vegas, I’m sure you won’t have any trouble figuring out what to do. However, if you’re interested in, say, hearing the desert music of Mali, or volunteering on a ranch in Brazil’s Patanal wetlands, or fishing for prawns in Kerala, then Clean Breaks is a great starting place for you. As the authors put it in their introduction, a “clean break” is essentially “about minimizing your environmental impact–on your journey and at your destination–by choosing carefully how you travel and the nature of the place you choose to stay at.” To that end, the book concentrates not just on eco-friendly hotels and restaurants that specialize in locally grown food, but also on the type of adventure trekking and activities that put you in real contact with the real people of the place you are visiting. There’s an emphasis on bicycling and walking, guest houses and natural parks, and volunteering.

Again, the adventures in Clean Breaks are certainly not going to be every tourist’s cup of tea, but they aren’t all exactly uncomfortable either. I’m lucky enough to have actually experienced a (very) small fraction of the 500 trips suggested, and can attest to their awesomeness. Taking The Ghan train from Adelaide to Alice Springs, for example, was a highlight of my young life, as was visiting a glacier in the Otago province of New Zealand. And did I mention that there are lots of pretty, pretty colorful pictures and maps accompanying the book’s 500 suggested trips (with key info like email addresses and phone numbers, of course). While Clean Breaks‘s emphasis on “ecotourism” did seem a bit suspect to me at first–just another marketing ploy, perhaps (I’ve attacked the rhetoric of “going green” in the past”)–the  authors’ intentions and tone seem wholly sincere. They acknowledge, for example, that terms “such as ‘responsible,’ ‘sustainable,’ and ‘ethical’ are becoming . . . overused (and abused) by websites and tourism companies looking to ride the green wave,” and their repeated emphasis on localism and action over passive “sight-seeing” is admirable. And even though most people will never have the money and time to complete the 500 trip wish-list that Hammond and Smith present here, the book still makes for a great fantasy. Good stuff.

Clean Breaks is now available from Rough Guides.

Roughing It

The American cover isn’t bad…

Simon Mason’s The Rough Guide to Classic Novels covers “a selection of 229 novels . . . from 36 countries, published between 1604 and 2002.” Roughly pocket-sized (if you have big pockets), Classic Novels provides short, simple summaries of each of the books, outlining the plot as well as contextualizing the relative importance of the novel. Mason also recommends the best English translations and discusses film adaptations (quite even-handedly), where applicable. He also includes a “Where to Go Next” bullet for each novel. Sometimes these suggestions work: liked Brave New World? Then check out Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Other times, they’re a bit nonsensical–does anyone really go to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man after they’ve made it through Ulysses?

...but we prefer the British cover
…but we prefer the British cover

But this criticism is mere quibbling; Mason does a great job with an almost impossible task–after all what books would you cover in such a limited space (and you’d have to include Ulysses, and you’d have to give it pride of place over the Portrait, right?). Simon admits in his preface that inevitably “the selection is a personal one, and not likely to be the same as anyone else’s.” Of course he includes the “classics” that will jump to anyone’s mind–Jane Eyre, War and Peace, Moby-Dick, etc., but he also includes works by Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, and Haruki Murakami, along with dozens and dozens of books I’ve never heard of, but now feel that I simply must read. And in exposing a potential reader to a book they’ve never heard of, Classic Novels is a success.


If Danny Fingeroth’s The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels is less successful than Mason’s Classic Novels, that shortcoming is in his attempt to sanctify a canon in a medium that is still often misunderstood as a genre. While most of us will readily agree that Don Quixote and The Catcher in the Rye are classics, the canonical works of the comic book medium still need some sorting out, and many fans of graphic novels will find Fingeroth’s language a bit too-definitive. After a great first chapter that asks “What Is a Graphic Novel?,” a brief history of the comic book story-telling medium, and his own comic, “For Art’s Sake,” (a fun but forgettable overview of the graphic story-telling arts from an artist’s perspective), Fingeroth initiates the bulk of the book, “The Canon: The Sixty Best Graphic Novels.” As if his language weren’t definitive enough, he kicks the section off with “Ten Graphic Novels Everyone Should Read.” And while Fingeroth’s “Canon” and top-ten list are full of obvious choices that should certainly be there–Spiegelman‘s Maus, Satrapi’s Persepolis, Charles Burns’s Black Hole, Clowes‘s Ghost World–there are also gaping holes on one hand and complete over-representation on the other, as well as some real head-scratchers thrown in to boot. Why, for instance, does Fingeroth include Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again over its vastly superior and more influential predecessor, The Dark Knight Returns? Why is Sin City canonized at all? Although Alan Moore’s From Hell is canonized, why is his controversial recent novel Lost Girls included over work like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, or Saga of Swamp Thing–all books that had a tremendous impact on comic book storytelling? Why does Dave Sim’s massive contribution Cerebus get glossed over in a single sentence, while Kyle Baker’s trifling missive Why I Hate Saturn is given pride of place on the top ten list? Fingeroth could’ve saved himself a lot of nitpicking by simply changing his language a bit to at least admit that his choices are subjective. Far more satisfying is the next chapter, “The Icons,” covering some of the most influential persons in comic history, including Robert Crumb, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, and the Hernandez Brothers. I would’ve liked to have seen this chapter expanded quite a bit (perhaps at the expense of the superfluous chapter on manga); if The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels is to be a starting place for new readers interested in this medium, “The Icons” best represents that starting place. Those interested in discovering graphic novels they haven’t heard of will also be pleased with the many full-page art reproductions throughout the book, probably its best feature. Despite its flaws, however, there is something admirable about Fingeroth’s attempt to create a canon out of a medium that has for far too long been marginalized.

The Rough Guide to Classic Novels and The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels are now available from Rough Guides,

After the jump: Fingeroth’s top ten list vs. Biblioklept’s top ten list–

Continue reading “Roughing It”

Summer Reading List: Tales of Adventure

Indulge yourself this summer by taking a fantastic voyage–literary or literally. To help you get started, check out the following tales of adventure.

William Vollman’s The Rifles, part of his as-yet-unfinished Seven Dreams series is a brilliant engagement of history, colonialism, identity, and all of those Big Profound Issues that we so adore in our modern literature. It’s also a really cool adventure story, the tale of John Franklin’s nineteenth-century exploration of Inuit territory. Sad, beautiful, breathtaking.

If you prefer your adventure tales uncomplicated by postmodern gambits, check out John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a journalistic account of the writer’s 1996 ascent of Mt. Everest, and the disasters that befell his expedition. The word “harrowing” fits well, gentle readers.

On the lighter-but-not-too-much-lighter side, Jeff Smith’s self-published comic Bone is fantastic; even better, you can get the entire 1300 page run of the whole series in Bone: One Volume Edition. We use the word “delightful” here in an absolutely unpejorative sense, friends: the adventures of Fone Bone, his cousins Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone, and Thorn, Granma Rose, and the Red Dragon are epic in scope yet retain an honest humor that will keep in the most cynical folks laughing. A major literary accomplishment that has been unjustly overlooked.

Also somewhat overlooked is Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. In Bone, protagonist Fone Bone lugs around a massive copy of Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick everywhere he goes–and while that book is undoubtedly a desert island classic, Benito Cereno is an underappreciated gem of a tale. Revealing the strange secret at the heart of this book would spoil it, so suffice to say that the short novel enigmatically investigates slavery and colonialism in ways that beg for closer analysis. Good stuff.

Perhaps, though, you beg for the real thing. In that case, we recommend Ultimate Adventures (from Rough Guides) for all your camel-trekking-in-the-Sahara, rock-climbing-at-Joshua-tree, Pacuare-River-rafting needs. Beautiful photography and tantalizing descriptions are coupled with informative “Need to Know” sections that spell out the who-what-when-where-and-how that will help you get your adventure under way.

Also in the exploratory vein, Where to Go When: The Americas, from DK’s Eyewitness Travel, serves as a kind of travel almanac–the kind that makes you wish you were very, very rich with an excess of free time. If that were the case, you’d be spending nine days in May on the Amazon River, spotting pink river dolphins, gorgeous macaws, and darling squirrel monkeys instead of reading this blog right now. Even if you’re not excessively rich with nothing more pressing to do other than trek the Alaskan fjords, The Americas is fun daydreaming material–perhaps the realist response to Vollman’s Seven Dreams. In any case, Ultimate Adventures and The Americas both come out at the end of this summer, giving you plenty of time to plan that awesome adventure getaway for next year.