The Granary

Book Reviews

3/19/99


The New Illustrated
Encyclopedia of Motorcycles
Edited by Erwin Tragatsch
Revised by Brian Woolley
Wellfleet Press
110 Enterprise Ave.
Secaucus, New Jersey 07094
ISBN 1-55521-809-1
I paid $25

Book originally produced by Quarto Publishing of London

    It’s the oldest question on earth: what are women thinking?  In particular, when we announce we’re going for a ride.
    My friends say that when the subject comes up, they either stamp their feet and say “No!” or launch into a big argument.  But that’s not my experience.  With me they get this little smile and let it be.  What does that mean?
    Sure, babe: go for a ride.  Fine by me.
    Impossible.  There must be an ulterior motive.
    Maybe they’re being indulgent: Let baby have his fun.  Or strategic: Let the dumb stud burn off his energy wrestling iron, and maybe later on he’ll leave me alone.
    No, that’s too negative, and besides, the feminists are going to hate me.  It’s probably something much more pedestrian:  Let him have his ride, and later it will be that much easier to guilt him into doing the laundry.
    Yeah, that’s probably it.  Although in the back of my paranoid imagination there always lurks the grim “breakup” scenario.  You both want it over and neither one of you knows how to say it.  In fact she wants it worse than you do.  So when she smiles and says Sure, babe, go for a ride, what she’s really thinking is:  And maybe I’ll get lucky and you’ll come home in a bag.
     No, no, no!  This is much too gloomy.  Besides, when women have been dissatisfied with me, they’ve let me know it.
     I’ve been slapped, had wine thrown in my face, got shouted at in restaurants (twice), have even had the bird flipped at me from the deck of a departing ocean liner.  I’ve been hung up on, had my letters returned unopened but torn in half, and many times been locked out.  But then, I don’t date milquetoasty little chickadees.  So what’s up?
    Most likely, they realize that this is the one subject that’s off limits to arbitrary law-giving.  Every boiler needs its vent, after all.  Much as we hate to admit it, they’re often right when they bitch about bad driving, coarse table manners, excessive drinking, poor plumbing skills, sloppy lawn care, or the presence of oil-spattered friends.  But not the Sunday morning ride.
    Which is why I like this book.  It’s where I go when I need a ride but can’t.  Such as, in winter.
    I found the book at a strip mall in Cleveland, Ohio, one horrible winter night when it was pitch black and the snow was blowing horizontally.  Cars would accelerate at stoplights and instead of going forward would go sideways.  There was no sound in the air but the howl of the wind and that horrible zizz-zizz-zizz of broken traction on iced asphalt.  I was stir crazy and walked a mile and a half to the book store just so I wouldn’t have to look at those same four walls any more.
    That’s when I found this savagely wonderful encyclopedia.
    It’s black and white, 320 pages and loaded with beautiful detailed photographs.  There’s a history and an homage to great designers followed by an A to Z encyclopedia just rich with detail.  Every marque I’ve ever heard of is discussed in here, and the writer’s fondness seeps through when he praises an oddball engine design, or gives credit to some long-forgotten ‘Works Manager’ in a British factory who first designed a component we now take for granted.  At thegranary.com we’re very big on giving credit where it’s due, and this book does it in spades.  I read it every winter and enjoy it anew.
    She doesn’t mind.  At least - if she does, she hasn’t said anything.

Georg Duke


2/26/99
 
 

The Perfect Vehicle                    Purchase from Whitehorse Press
What It Is About Motorcycles
by Melissa Holbrook Pierson
ISBN 0-393-04064-X
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Copyright 1997
$24
 

 This book is a must-read.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is a young woman who’s smart as hell and deeply in love with motorcycles.  Unlike most of us at TheGranary, she’s not content to throw one leg over, rev the motor until the neighbor’s dog goes berserk, and head for the hills.  She thinks about things - and the result is a really interesting, 237-page book.  She chats about the machines, their history, the nature of our passion for them, and how they’ve intersected with her own life.  I found it really engrossing and it’s full of all kinds of fascinating facts.

You wouldn’t walk past it in a bookstore, by the way: the cover is gorgeous.  It shows a 1954 500cc V8 Moto Guzzi racer and you can only imagine what it must sound like at ‘the full song.’  Guzzis are Pierson’s passion, by the way: she owns a Lario which she’s put 35,000 miles on.

The book is hard to summarize because it’s all so interwoven.  Pierson grew up in Akron, went to graduate school, and not surprisingly has had some success as a commercial writer.  She’s also had some love affairs (admit it - so have you!) and we get to hear about the ones related to motorcycling.  But most of the book is not about her, it’s about the machines, and what they mean to us.  She talks about the mystical fraternity of bikers on the road, the boredom of the Interstates, the awful sensation of losing traction on a paint stripe that’s wet and oily.   She talks about dealing with breakdowns, and with motel owners who look at her leathers and tell her to get lost.  You’re going to find a lot to relate to in this book.

I don’t like to use the word “poetic,” because it suggests arrogant people self-consciously using fancy language to impress one another.  But true poetry is available to anyone’s ears, and this book is sometimes truly poetic.  She has lived a lot and her way with language can be magical.  I underlined a fair amount and would quote it to you, but can’t do that without getting in dutch with her publisher.  So I suggest you buy it yourself.

Maybe we can get her to make the 1999 Granary run.


Georg Duke

2/26/99

Lieutenant Hornblower                    Go To Books on Tape
by C.S. Forester
Books on Tape Library Edition
Unabridged
Book # 1612
Read by Bill Kelsey
Books on Tape: 1-800-626-3333
P.O. Box 7900
Newport Beach, CA 92658

 I know this isn’t about motorcycles, but Oh, my God, is it good!

It’s the start of the 1800’s, and a very junior naval officer is bracing his feet on the deck of one of those huge oak ships which had as many sails as a DC-10 has windows.  The ship is pitching and yawing and cutting through the open sea, bound for the Spice Islands, where privateers are ripping off British merchant ships.  Back in Europe, the half-mad, bloodthirsty Napoleon is plotting England’s downfall.  In America the colonies are under attack.  The British Empire needs attention - but that’s not all.

The ship’s captain has lost his mind.

What does it matter?  He can have men hung at will for real or perceived offenses, and he has decided that Hornblower is a ‘conspirator.’  If you’re lucky, this means you get to “kiss the gunner’s daughter”, i.e., get bent over a cannon and beaten with an oak stick that has steel rings at regular intervals.  If you’re unlucky, your neck gets stretched.

Below the decks are a restive crew of 720 men, many of them ‘pressed’ into service.  This was a prehistoric form of the Draft, where you’d be dragged out of a tavern, knocked out with a wooden billy club, and wake up aboard ship.  They don’t like authority.  Hornblower has the job of getting them into shape.

Forget about his name sounding a little silly - no doubt Forester wanted it that way, the better to dramatize the character.  This book is just a hell of a gripping read, and on tape it’s far better.  The narrator is British and honestly makes you feel you’re on board ship.  I recommend that you get it today.  I can’t wait to hear the next one.

Georg Duke
 
 

2/15/99
The Alluring Target, by Kenneth Wimmel - Purchase @ All Direct Books
1996, Trackless Sands Press
Palo Alto, California
ISBN 1-879434-48-2
$16.95, Paper

Along the north of India is a wall of mountains that includes K2, Nanda Devi, Annapurna and Everest, the last one taller than most jets fly.  Beyond these mountains lies Tibet, and beyond Tibet, in the westernmost reaches of China, there is a vast desert whose name most westerners have never even heard.  It is called the Takla Makan, and the story of its exploration around the turn of this century will make your hair stand on end.  It’s the subject of a fascinating, short book entitled The Alluring Target , by Kenneth Wimmel.

Wimmel was in the American Foreign Service and was posted in Calcutta, where he happened on a dusty text entitled Through Asia by a Swede named Sven Hedin.  As a 30 year old in 1895, Hedin was the first westerner to travel into the Takla Makan.  He marched off with four men, eight camels and a dog, and staggered out alone a month later, barely alive. Wimmel was captivated by his story, and went on to research not only Hedin, but the small number of other extraordinarily brave people who traveled to that part of the globe around the turn of the century. Each of their journeys is remarkable for naked bravery as well as a contribution to scholarship.  Wimmel’s book is lively and cleanly written and well-researched, and we recommend it highly.

Getting to the Takla Makan would be hard today, much less back then.  It’s south of Siberia and west of Mongolia. Afghanistan and Iran guard the western flank.  You could get to it by crossing China, but the desert is as far from Hong Kong as Baltimore is from Los Angeles.

The Takla Makan is part of the lore of the ancient “Silk Road”, a trade route that was first traveled in the second century B.C. by a Chinese named Chang Chien.  The road split at the Takla Makan, one path going north and the other south. Marco Polo traveled the southern route in 1274, but by the 1300’s it was off-limits to westerners. As late as 1895, no westerner had yet entered the desert.
It is a classic sandy desert and the dunes shift every night.  It is infamous for the kara buran, or “black desert blizzard,” like a snow whiteout, only made with sand.  The kara buran can last more than 24 hours and all you can do is sit still and try to breathe.

The Swedish adventurer Sven Hedin crossed Russia to get there, camping out in a canvas tent in weather that was almost 40 below zero.  He had energy to spare.  When he came to the 25,600-foot Muztagh Ata Mountain he tried four times to climb it and got as far as 20,160 feet with neither oxygen nor Gore-Tex.  He had to turn back because of extreme altitude sickness.  A howling mountain snowstorm came out of the sky and blinded him, and he descended part of the mountain on the back of a yak, a beast that looks like a rhinoceros with a buffalo’s coat.  He was 29 at the time.  A few months later he would turn 30, enter the Takla Makan desert, and discover the buried city of Dandan Oilik, part of the fabled kingdom of Lou Lan that thrived around the time of Christ’s birth.  This discovery would forever change our understanding of the ancient world.

In his footsteps came a 37 year-old Hungarian-born college principal named Aurel Stein who searched Hedin’s lost city and found another called Niya, and subsequently discovered the oldest paper known to man.  Then, in the ruins of a city known as Miran, he found frescoes that show Greek influence, from the days when traders traveled by foot or horse.  The desert is as far from Greece as Canada is from Africa; this find shocked archaeologists.

Kenneth Wimmel’s book tells of others as well, including a ravishing French beauty named Alexandra David-Neel, who in 1895 performed at the opera houses in Hanoi and Haiphong and fell in love with Asia.  Incidentally, both of these opera theaters survived the Vietnam war and are incredibly beautiful architectural jewels.  David-Neel spent much of the rest of her life criscrossing Tibet and China, and chronicling her journeys in 3,000 pages of letters to her long-suffering engineer husband back home.  She was no wimp; like a true Frencwoman she carried a wine steward’s knife with a corkscrew, and alongside it a nasty little pistol with a folding trigger.  She didn’t leave Asia until she was almost 60.

There are others in the book, equally colorful: Roy Chapman Andrews, who discovered the skeleton of the largest mammal ever to walk the earth, the Baluchitherium; and Arnold Henry Savage Landor, whose tales of adventure some suspect to be largely imaginary.  And there is an account of Clydesdale and Blacker’s 1933 flight over Everest in a single-engine biplane that will make you hold on to your chair.  Flying over the 29,000-foot summit they were caught in a violent downdraft and came within 100 feet of being splintered on the rocks.  The expedition photographer was so terrified he couldn’t even press the shutter button.

There’s something reassuring about tales of human courage and curiosity for its own sake.  These people weren’t acting out their lives in front of television cameras; they were living them for themselves.  And the desert’s still there.  Just because one cannot be the first man in it, doesn’t mean it isn’t still worth seeing.

Georg Duke

Postscript from Chris Jacobs - I purchased this book after reading Georg's review and it is an engrossing read.  It has stoked my passion to get on the bike and check out the road still undiscovered by me.  Granted the world of exploration offers far less than it once did when these adventurers lived (and my life seemingly far more compromised by my responsibilities) but the spirit is the same regardless of the times.

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