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Book Recommendations from the Zegrahm Expedition Team: Part 3

Zegrahm Expeditions|June 22, 2020|Blog Post

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Welcome to the third installment of book recommendations by the Zegrahm expedition team! We hope you have enjoyed being transported through reading and possibly found a new favorite book or author. 

In this final reading list, climb aboard for another literary flight around the world—travel to Madagascar and discover the Jane Goodall of lemurs with Merel Dalebout, get a fascinating glimpse into the life of an art forger with Art Historian Matthew Whyte, learn about the intricacies of Japanese culture with Amy Loewen, and join Marine Biologist Madalena Patacho and set sail with Magellan.

Enjoy the journey!

Nadia Eckhardt, Expedition Leader

My favorite book is Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. The well-known host of The Daily Show, Trevor was born in South Africa, his mother a black South African, and his father a white Swiss-German. Trevor was born during the apartheid era in South Africa and considered of mixed race, which meant his existence was a crime. During the apartheid era, the black community had no legal rights as humans and had to remain separated from white South Africans. As his parents created a child together, both of them broke the law and could have been imprisoned for up to 5 years! 

This book is about the struggles of a mixed race young man trying to exist in South Africa during a challenging time with the assistance of his fearless and very religious mother who loves him dearly. His mom was determined to protect her son from poverty, abuse, and violence—even putting herself at risk and even threatening her own life. Trevor is hilarious and witty and downright honest. This is an excellent book about the multiracial life of child growing up struggling against society and government. 

Merel Dalebout, Naturalist

My favorite book is Thank you, Madagascar: The Conservation Diaries of Alison Jolly, which was published posthumously. I first read this book in 2015 when I was leading my second trip to Madagascar. I was already broadly familiar with Alison Jolly’s work in that country. She is one of the first ladies of conservation in Madagascar (the other is Patrica Wright—also worth reading) and this book provided me with my first opportunity to learn about her adventures in detail. Her words are alive with her passion, enthusiasm, and ongoing excitement about all she was involved with during her long life in Madagascar. Alison made a name for herself through her postdoctoral research on the ring-tailed lemurs at Berenty Reserve in southern Madagascar. She discovered that it is the females who are the leaders in these lemur groups, which was totally at odds to the conventional thinking in primatology at that time. Yes, Alison Jolly is essentially the Jane Goodall of lemurs!

Ring-Tailed Lemurs, Lemur Island

Terence Christian, Archaeologist

I would like to share a couple of my favorite books by region: Island Fortress: The Defence Of Great Britain, 1603-1945, by Norman Longmate, and The Rising Sun: The Decline And Fall Of The Japanese Empire, 1936-1945, by John Toland.  

Norman Longmate’s landmark treatment of British post-medieval military history dispels and dissects many common myths embedded in British national myth. Far from being an island both geographically and culturally isolated from Continental Europe, Britain was subject to foreign troop landings, hosted foreign armies, and engaged with its European kin for centuries. Beginning with the succession of James I/VI in 1603, Island Fortress examines the changing threats, opportunities, and influences of the great European political challenges: the Union of the Crowns, the English Civil War, the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highland Clearances, Napoleonic Wars, and the World Wars. Longmate’s entertaining, journalistic style—honed during his time as a journalist and BBC History producer—make the extended text a thoroughly enjoyable, engaging read.

John Toland’s The Rising Sun, winner of the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, is the seminal text examining the dramatic, sudden rise of the Japanese Empire and its cataclysmic fall during World War II. The book is one of the only works in English examining the Pacific War from the Japanese point of view, a feat accomplished through Toland’s access to high level Japanese military and government officials. The Rising Sun charts how Japan's entangled domestic and foreign relations gave rise to a concurrently logical and yet runaway foreign policy which drew surrounding nations into a pan-Asiatic/pan-Pacific war made up of interlinked colonial conflicts.

 Matthew Whyte, Art Historian

One of my favorite books is The Art Forgery by B.A. Shapiro. This fantastic book blends historic fact and thrilling fiction to tell the story of a young aspiring artist who is propelled into a world of theft and forgery. Taking as a backdrop the large-scale art heist of 1990 in which 13 masterpieces were stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston, the book tells a Faustian tale of Claire Roth, who enters into a dangerous bargain which sees her uncovering the illicit truths that lie behind the paint of a priceless Degas. This book combines my favorite literary subjects: history, art, and the well-crafted thriller. Not to be missed!

Another favorite is Young Michelangelo: A Biography, by J.T. Spike. In the world of Michelangelo biographies, Spike’s recent contribution rises above the rest. Covering what he deems the ‘path to the Sistine’ (a period between 1475-1508), Spike presents us with a portrait, not just of the famous artist, but of the exciting, crucial, foundational early-modern period in which he lived. Spike’s historical study reads almost like a novel, engrossing the reader in the world of 15th-century Italy by comprehensively capturing the political, spiritual, ideological, and economic crises of the time. Spike balances the minutiae of the artist’s life—his travels, interactions, personality, whims, failures, and mammoth achievements—with the key events which formed his context. The result is an exciting look at one of history’s greatest figures among one of the most important moments in the foundation of the modern world.

Amy Loewen, Lecturer

Pico Iyer has always been one of my favorite travel writers on Japan. When I first lived in Kanazawa between 1993 and 1995, Iyer had just released The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, a memoir about his year in Kyoto. It quickly became my favorite book, made all the more special because as my boyfriend (now husband) was walking around Kyoto on his way to meet me, he ran into Iyer with his girlfriend (now wife), Sachiko. In Iyer's latest book, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells, he picks up the story 26 years later and continues his cultural insights into the everyday rituals and rhythms that make Japan so compelling. I love the way he strips away the mystique that people often associate with Japanese culture and shows us that one can learn as much, if not more, about the culture's priorities and values from a game of ping pong as from a geisha performance.


Iyer's other book, A Beginner's Guide to Japan, also came out last year (2019) and is a collection of observations and musings on Japanese culture. After 32 years in Japan, Iyer still finds some aspects baffling, while others have always felt like home. According to Iyer, the title has a double meaning: although beginners traveling to Japan can learn a lot from it, he also considers himself to be the beginner. I love the way Iyer keeps an absolutely fresh perspective on a culture he’s become so familiar with, and he does perfectly what I strive to do in my Zegrahm lectures: shine a spotlight on the little moments of everyday life in Japan that unexpectedly illuminate what’s really beneath the surface, and show us why things are the way they are.

Madalena Patacho, Marine Biologist

I highly recommend Magellan by Stefan Zweig. In this book, Zweig brings to life the Age of Discovery by telling the tale of one of the era’s most daring adventurers. His typical elegant prose takes us on a fascinating journey of discovery ourselves. It’s about an incredible navigator, Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521), one of the most famous navigators in history, who was the first man to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, and led the first voyage to circumnavigate the globe.

Being raised around the moments of the discovery times, on my way to school I would see Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and Torre de Belém. Often I would wonder what it would be like to be part of one of these expeditions, discovering new worlds. This book takes us on an incredible journey to the unknown.

Tip: Since it is the 500 year anniversary of this great voyage (from 1519 -1521), the notes from the Italian scholar that wrote the journal during this voyage are being reprinted. His name was Antonio Pigafetta, and you may find also the Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation. It’s also a great read—going around the world without leaving home. 

Kelsey Simmons, Director of Expeditions Staff and Field Operations

The book I’m reading at the moment, We Are Displaced is about Malala Yousafzai’s story of displacement and what it was like for her and her family to be forced to leave a home they loved out of fear for their lives—not knowing when or if they would ever return. The book also includes stories of other young refugee girls from around the world that Malala met while on her campaign for girl’s education.

Malala Yousafzai is such an inspiration to me. I first really learned about her when I was on a long-haul flight and watched the film, He Named Me Malala. Malala is a Pakistani activist for female education who, in 2012, was shot by a Taliban gunman while on her way home from school. She survived this assassination attempt and continued her fight for rights to education. Just nine months after she was shot, she gave a speech at the United Nations centered on education and women’s rights. Then, in 2014, Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of seventeen.

“If you don’t raise your voice, it is unlikely anyone will hear you” – Malala

Kelsey Simmons