Book Review

Required reading for explorers (part 4)

Out of Africa seemed out of place.

The book jacket is lovely, no?

The book jacket is lovely, no?

I was surprised to find it listed among National Geographic’s top 100 adventure stories of all time.* I thought it was more of a swoony period romance that limped along like a broken cricket. It was certainly not the stuff of extreme adventure.

Of course, my knowledge of Karen Blixen’s (aka Isak Dinesen’s) Out of Africa was derived solely from Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film adaptation of the book. Even after all these years (and I only saw the film once) I could still hear the oddly accented voice of Meryl Streep repeating the phrase: “I had a faahm in Ahfrica.”

So I hesitated to pick up the volume.

But the determination to tackle NatGeo’s list overpowered what may have been the memory of an immature adolescent, so I threw myself into the recliner, tome in hand. Immediately several things became obvious. Let me highlight just two.

The film adaptation of the book cast Robert Redford as big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Meryl Streep as the author Karen Blixen. Image from    here    (accessed 3/14/2019).

The film adaptation of the book cast Robert Redford as big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Meryl Streep as the author Karen Blixen. Image from here (accessed 3/14/2019).

First, Blixen is a captivating storyteller.

Her first-person narrative whisked me away to British East Africa. I found myself confronted by the odd pairing of an unruffled existence and the primitive struggles of life on a 4,000-acre coffee farm. There in the Ngong Hills of Kenya’s yesteryear . . . I slowed down. I raised and released an orphaned fawn. I was introduced to the complexities of Kikuyu and Maasai cultures. I suffered a plague of locusts. Trembling, I squeezed the trigger on my rifle and shot a charging lion.

These stories are rolled out not as one narrative but as many, knitted together loosely in five “books.” All but the fourth is themed: they are vignettes elicited from a “dry and burnt” landscape “the colour of pottery.” Out of Africa is out of time, or at the least, not bound by it. Blixen gathered her experiences between the years 1914-1931 and published them as memoir in 1937. Nearly a century has passed and they are no less vibrant.

Second, Blixen is a bold survivor.

She tells her story without explanation or apology.

One must look elsewhere to find the details of her personal life—quite painful—highlighted in the Pollack film. In the book, she simply appears as colonial-era owner-manager of a 4,000 acre coffee farm. Only hints suggest how she acquired the farm, how painful her marriage was, how she physically suffered from her husband’s infidelity (neurosyphilis, heavy metal poisoning), and later, how her own affair with big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton developed and was tragically cut short. That is not the stuff of this book.

Karen Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton. Image from    here.

Karen Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton. Image from here.

What the reader does find is a person of privilege who struggles with repeated loss. She does so with the kind of ebullient courage that qualifies this book as a story of extreme adventure. She attempts to hold the farm together for her own sake and for the sake of the community of squatters and workers who occupy it. Blixen’s colonial mindset is evident in her choice of language, no doubt, but it is a mindset tempered by respect and affection for the cultures and people who labor around her.

One may be tempted to compare Blixen with Hemingway, but that would be a mistake. While the two moved in similar circles, shared a love for the same region, and clearly read each other (Hemingway praised Blixen’s work following his reception of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954**), they expressed themselves differently. Both dallied with tragedy. Hemingway did it using crisp and sardonic prose. Blixen is efficient as well, but is also fluid and warm and playful.

Blixen and her workers. From her farm, c 1920. Image from    here    (accessed 3/15/2019).

Blixen and her workers. From her farm, c 1920. Image from here (accessed 3/15/2019).

Pardon the long quote, but you must sample this:

“Out on the Safaris, I had seen a herd of Buffalo, one hundred and twenty-nine of them, come out of the morning mist under a copper sky, one by one, as if the dark and massive, iron-like animals with the mighty horizontally swung horns were not approaching, but were being created before my eyes and sent out as they were finished. I had seen a herd of Elephant travelling through dense Native forest, where the sunlight is strewn down between the thick creepers in small spots and patches, pacing along as if they had an appointment at the end of the world. It was, in giant size, the border of a very old, infinitely precious Persian carpet, in the dyes of green, yellow and black-brown. I had time after time watched the progression across the plain of the Giraffe, in their queer, inimitable, vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers slowly advancing. I had followed two Rhinos on their morning promenade, when they were sniffing and snorting in the air of the dawn,—which is so cold that it hurts in the nose,—and looked like two very big angular stones rollicking in the long valley and enjoying life together. I had seen the royal lion, before sunrise, below a waning moon, crossing the grey plain on his way home from the kill, drawing a dark wake in the silvery grass, his face still red up to the ears, or during the midday-siesta, when he reposed contentedly in the midst of his family on the short grass and in the delicate, spring-like shade of the broad Acacia trees of his park of Africa.”***

In the end, I am glad that I picked up this volume. I will proudly place it on my bookshelf of extreme adventure.

And drink some tea.

Karen Blixen pictured on the flap of the book jacket.

Karen Blixen pictured on the flap of the book jacket.


*If you would like to see the list of 100 extreme classics, see National Geographic Adventure Magazine (May, 2004). http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0404/adventure_books.html (accessed March 11, 2019).

**Clara Juncker. “After You, Baroness!”: Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen). The Hemingway Review 35/2 (2016): 87-109. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed March 11, 2019).

***From chapter 4.

Required reading for explorers (part 3)

One week from now, God willing, I’ll be winging it back across the Big Pond. I’ll have a day to get my business in order before meeting a group of ministry residents at the Tel Aviv airport. We’ll take them on the loop-de-loop in the Heartland, cruising up the Mediterranean coast, across Galilee, down the Jordan Valley, and concluding in the highlands around Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Hopefully I can wear them down before they wear me out.

The only reason I bother you with such details is because it was on this exact trip one year ago that I had my little “animal encounter.” Should you have a strong constitution and care to read about it, you can find the story in a series titled “Rabies is not the way to go” beginning here.

The good news is that while I do gnash my teeth and foam at the mouth from time to time, it seems to be more related to my work as college administrator than something prompted by a stray Lyssavirus (the “fury” virus from the Greek λύσσα).

Nonetheless, to prepare for the journey, I thought it might be useful to study a book that my kids got me for Christmas. Aren’t they stinkin’ hilarious? Here’s the cover.

The book has been hanging around my table since Christmas. I’m reading it now with a chuckle.

The book has been hanging around my table since Christmas. I’m reading it now with a chuckle.

Rachel Levin’s first book, Look Big and Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2018), offers an interesting take on our North American friends from the wild side. The author chooses 50 animal species and devotes a page or two to each of them. Some of her choices are expected: bears, jellyfish, rats, and ticks. Others are surprising: cockroaches, bison, whales, and woodpeckers.

In the case of each Levin offers tidbits on where these critters can be found, what size or shape they come in (black bears are “as big as a sofa” and rabbits are “the size of a pineapple, but softer”), sounds they make (the elephant seal “snorts and grunts, like a long and epic burp”), why they are dangerous (owls can “stab your head,” geese squeeze “out two to three pounds of poop every day,” donkeys “will bite your butt with their big-ass donkey teeth”) and what one could possibly do to avoid or survive an encounter.

All illustrations in the book come from the hand of Jeff Östberg. Even in the case of rats (p. 103), his art is mellow and creamy and delightful.

All illustrations in the book come from the hand of Jeff Östberg. Even in the case of rats (p. 103), his art is mellow and creamy and delightful.

It is this last category that sells the book. Levin wryly pitches it as a guide, but the volume is more entertainment and less reference. In the case of a black widow spider bite, don’t try to suck out the wound. Call the poison center. Attacked by a swarm of bees? Run! Tackled by a grizzly? Fight for your life. Confronted by a wild hog? Do what you must but don’t get knocked down.

For reasons already described, I took great interest in the section devoted to dogs. I found it surprising that “man’s best friend” kills more people than sharks, alligators, snakes, and bears put together (p. 55).

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Levin’s advice to “avoid eye contact or smiling” when encountering a stray seems reasonable. The same is true with her “don’t run” command. It is a “total trigger.” I do take issue with her wisdom that if you are bitten, “curl into a ball, wait for it to be over, and admit you might be more of a cat person” (p. 55). This tip is ludicrous for one clear reason: cats are of the devil.

If you haven’t figured it out already, the book is front-loaded with humor. Some of it hinges on the author’s neuroses about all things wild (Levin is a food critic in her other life); other bits of it are suspended from the stupidity of humanity “like the dad who smeared peanut butter on his toddler’s nose, then waited for bear to lick it off (p. 18).

Between the lines is a moralistic edge. Dangerous animal encounters seem to be more frequent today because the human population is increasing, animal habitats are shrinking, and social media rewards asininity.

The Florida turnpike. Looking big is of little help in these parts. You become a yummier target.

The Florida turnpike. Looking big is of little help in these parts. You become a yummier target.

Even if these trends are true, I suspect that the chances of being killed by one of your human neighbors is astronomically higher than the possibility of being killed by some foraging critter. This is especially true if you have lots of wind chimes, cats, or are the president of your HOA.

By the way, can you guess which wild animal is responsible for 200 deaths annually and is hands-down the most deadly in North America?

Big-eyed Bambi. Those dang deers.

Our greyhound, (Turbo High) Dutch, is fawn-colored, has big eyes, and at times resembles a deer. He may even contemplate danger between naps and meals.

Our greyhound, (Turbo High) Dutch, is fawn-colored, has big eyes, and at times resembles a deer. He may even contemplate danger between naps and meals.


Look Big lists for $14.99 in the U.S. You can find your copy on Amazon.com right here. You need to have it on your bookshelf for smile-value reasons.


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I’ll keep you posted on how our upcoming trip pans out. While I offer stories on this website irregularly, I try to post a picture-of-the-day almost daily. See the tab marked POTD at the top of our home page here.

For a complete list of upcoming travel opportunities in the Lands of the Bible in 2019, see our schedule here. Some seats are still available. Contact me at markziese@gmail.com if interested.