- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006

Call it extreme adventuring or a sense of curiosity gone wild — certainly none of the books highlighted here represent conventional travel accounts.

Perry Garfunkel in Buddha or Bust (Harmony, $24.95, 336 pages), subtitled “In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found Them All,” goes looking for elusive matters of the spirit in spite of the gung-ho title. We never really expect him to “bust” his quest for enlightenment, which he undertakes by traveling in the footsteps of the centuries-old guru. Nevertheless, his personal story, which begins in despair and ends with the credo of the true believer, is a worthy journey and a useful compendium for anyone curious about Buddhism in its many guises around the world.

Mr. Garfinkel had an assignment from National Geographic and made it to nine countries on his search for the essence of what many call a religion but which is most correctly a philosophy of life — a spiritual idea 2,500 years old that takes many forms, depending on the culture in which it takes root. To readers for whom Buddhism is merely a cult containing a number of confusing words, the book provides a useful “Basic Buddhist Vocabulary” and list of resources for further exploration.

He isn’t the first modern man to undertake such an exploration and the beginning of his epic venture has a very familiar stepping stone, rooted in an epic back ailment and a writer’s emotional black hole. He spares us none of his ups and downs, including the questions he didn’t get to ask the Dalai Lama. His romance is a bust, but he learns a key lesson about impermanence and the necessity of living in the moment — a bit of wisdom that he probably could have acquired at home as well. Photos and illustrations are included.

With mountaineer and rock climber Ed Viesturs, we get a firsthand look at devotion of an entirely different kind in No Shortcuts To the Top (Broadway Books, $23.95, 368 pages): the need to succeed up against some of nature’s most demanding challenges. He set himself the goal of climbing the world’s 14 highest peaks, all of them more than 8,000 meters or 26,247 feet high, and do it without supplemental oxygen.

As we learn in a final chapter, and the final summit, entitled “Nemesis: Annapurna,” (first climbed by Frenchman Maurice Herzog and considered one of the toughest challenges of the sport), the closest he ever came to fatally damaging himself was mishandling a saw and nearly cutting off his leg while building a deck on his house in Washington state’s Bainbridge Island. What would Freud say?

The efforts of this trained veterinarian and the technical matters involved are spelled out in full for anyone who hungers after heights and the thrill of physical endurance tests. The less enamored may fall prey to fatigue. He details them all, 30 expeditions in 18 years, relaying in a lengthy epilogue the lessons learned from Sherpa culture and its Buddhist belief “To climb with humility and respect.”

It will take a strong stomach to get past the first few pages of Christopher Ross’ Mishima’s Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend (Da Capo Press, $26, 272 pages) in which he details the ritual suicide, known as hara-kiri or seppuku, of Japanese writer Yuko Mishima at the height of his fame in 1970. A last note in the glossary at the back offers further clinical information on what was a botched job, in several respects. So much for the ideology of stoicism, which strives for a degree of inhumane perfection.

The book is written as a series of vignettes about the author’s explorations of samurai practices as well as the many-faceted life of the bizarre character of Mishima and his followers. Mr. Ross considers the nature of Mishima’s quest to raise himself to superheroic status and finds the drama wanting. The result is an arresting look at the ancient and often frightening cultural norms of a perverse cult that takes a reader through the underbelly of present-day Japan.

Some of the author’s most fascinating passages are his encounters with those closest to the late Mishima, a three-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and his search for the sword used in the debacle.

For sword lovers, it is a compelling and thorough study of a weapon perceived as having both a practical and artistic purpose. The theme encompasses a number of engaging, and occasionally disheartening, aspects of a philosophy that seems to embrace the notion of “live by the sword, die by the sword.” This is not a book likely to be recommended by Japanese tourist officials.

Not so Dragon Rising: An Inside Look at China Today (National Geographic Books, $35, 264 pages) by journalist Jasper Becker. Quite the opposite, given that it serves as a handbook for readers interested in the achievements and complexities of modern China. The photographic images alone make the book worthwhile. Many of the observations about the people and the effects of government policies are familiar. Such statements as “China’s rise as an economic power is, therefore, based on the nearest thing to unpaid labor” hardly are startling, but the Beijing-based Mr. Becker is abel to put them in context.

“Chinese exports have grown so fast that they seem to overwhelm one industry after another. China now accounts for 60 percent of global trade in textiles, 70 percent of the trade in toys. Even the British Empire at its peak never dominated the world marketplace like this,” he writes, reminding us that America’s current trade deficit with China now has reached more than $200 billion.

The map preceding Mr. Becker’s introduction shows what a tremendous land mass the country occupies in the Asian continent. More than dragon, to which its shape somewhat vaguely resembles, the burgeoning empire looks ready to obliterate its neighbors to the South and West.

The chapters are organized by — what else? — geographic regions in which the author has traveled to provide firsthand accounts to help him tackle the question of where China is headed. Chapter one offers a brief history of the country in the 20th century and key events that led to the Communist regime as we know it today. Given the tremendous price being paid in the quality of life, the lesson of the final chapter, titled “China and the World,” is instructive. He travels to Myanmar, better known as Burma, to ascertain the influence of its dragon neighbor to the north, now Myanmar’s most important ally and trading partner.

Pitting the sublimity of a handsome hardback, such as the Becker book, up against the ridiculing buffoonery of Lost Cosmonaut: Observations of an Anti-Tourist (Scribner, $13, 288 pages), from Daniel Kalder, is instructive. What better purpose can such a negative satire serve than to make us appreciate the qualities of good travel writing and the necessity for travelers to do their homework before embarking? Otherwise, they may fall prey to the likes of Mr. Kalder and his kin, armchair travelers of last resort who infuse their world with fake names and experiences as a way of avoiding making sense of the one outside the window.

A cute but overlong tack, it celebrates the notion that staying home may really be the best revenge after all.

Ann Geracimos is a reporter on the features desk at The Washington Times.

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