New on the Bookshelf

By Chris Springer
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by Chris Springer, Contributing Editor

“The Rivers of the Mandala: Journey into the Heart of Buddhism” by Simon Allix and Benoit de Vilmorin (2004, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0500284954 — 112 pp., $21.95 paperback).

Two young explorers, their faces weathered by the elements, gaze agog at Tibet’s Mount Kailash. This book-cover image suits a work that itself inspires a sense of wonder.

Brothers Simon and Thomas Allix travel through Tibet and India in a quest to understand Buddhist and Hindu spirituality. They’re hardly the first Westerners to embark on such an expedition. What makes this record of their journey so distinctive is its bold graphic design. Montages on each page-spread combine photos, drawings and reproductions of found objects. The photos alone are startling — funeral pyres, a slaughtered buffalo, intimate portraits of the destitute. . . Here even the image of a desiccated dead rat becomes an object of fascination.

Mesmerized by the visuals, some readers might give short shrift to the text. That would be unfortunate, for it’s a rewarding read. Diary entries from the trip are interspersed with encyclopedia-like explications of things like prayer wheels and Hindu gods. It’s rare for foreigners to show such an intuitive grasp of Eastern mysticism but still rarer for them to present it to their home audience without pretense or patronizing.

If there’s a weak link here, it’s the relationship between images and text. Not all the images are explained, though some cry out for context. But that’s a minor quibble against a powerful work. In these pages, just as in traveling, the shock of the unfamiliar is addictive indeed.

“Time’s Magpie: A Walk in Prague” by Myla Goldberg (2004, Crown Journeys. ISBN 1400046041 — 144 pp., $16 hardcover).

Crown Journeys’ books pick up where the guidebooks leave off: they look beyond the landmarks and depict living cities as they really are. So in Myla Goldberg’s stroll through the Czech capital, she stops to observe street vendors, traffic police and fast-food restaurants. She strives for an all-inclusive portrait of the city, one that records much of what we tourists willfully overlook.

At times, Goldberg comes close to capturing the zeitgeist of post-communist Prague. Dozens of books already describe Old Town Square, but what other writer has remarked on Prague’s dingy gambling parlors, where “catatonic men feed coins into slot machines”? But some of the scenes described are too fleeting to have any larger import. A description of a protest against the Iraq war, for instance, tells us next to nothing about the city.

Also afflicting this text is an allegiance to the Marcel Proust school of literary detail. (Three whole pages are devoted to a description of sweets sold at an amusement park.) And the accompanying droll observations are too often belabored. Perhaps other Crown Journeys authors can make more of their assignment. As for Prague, the guidebook that Goldberg cites as a reference, “Cadogan Guide Prague,” remains the best read on the city.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Chris Springer, Contributing Editor

“The Rivers of the Mandala: Journey into the Heart of Buddhism” by Simon Allix and Benoit de Vilmorin (2004, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0500284954 — 112 pp., $21.95 paperback).

Two young explorers, their faces weathered by the elements, gaze agog at Tibet’s Mount Kailash. This book-cover image suits a work that itself inspires a sense of wonder.

Brothers Simon and Thomas Allix travel through Tibet and India in a quest to understand Buddhist and Hindu spirituality. They’re hardly the first Westerners to embark on such an expedition. What makes this record of their journey so distinctive is its bold graphic design. Montages on each page-spread combine photos, drawings and reproductions of found objects. The photos alone are startling — funeral pyres, a slaughtered buffalo, intimate portraits of the destitute. . . Here even the image of a desiccated dead rat becomes an object of fascination.

Mesmerized by the visuals, some readers might give short shrift to the text. That would be unfortunate, for it’s a rewarding read. Diary entries from the trip are interspersed with encyclopedia-like explications of things like prayer wheels and Hindu gods. It’s rare for foreigners to show such an intuitive grasp of Eastern mysticism but still rarer for them to present it to their home audience without pretense or patronizing.

If there’s a weak link here, it’s the relationship between images and text. Not all the images are explained, though some cry out for context. But that’s a minor quibble against a powerful work. In these pages, just as in traveling, the shock of the unfamiliar is addictive indeed.

“Time’s Magpie: A Walk in Prague” by Myla Goldberg (2004, Crown Journeys. ISBN 1400046041 — 144 pp., $16 hardcover).

Crown Journeys’ books pick up where the guidebooks leave off: they look beyond the landmarks and depict living cities as they really are. So in Myla Goldberg’s stroll through the Czech capital, she stops to observe street vendors, traffic police and fast-food restaurants. She strives for an all-inclusive portrait of the city, one that records much of what we tourists willfully overlook.

At times, Goldberg comes close to capturing the zeitgeist of post-communist Prague. Dozens of books already describe Old Town Square, but what other writer has remarked on Prague’s dingy gambling parlors, where “catatonic men feed coins into slot machines”? But some of the scenes described are too fleeting to have any larger import. A description of a protest against the Iraq war, for instance, tells us next to nothing about the city.

Also afflicting this text is an allegiance to the Marcel Proust school of literary detail. (Three whole pages are devoted to a description of sweets sold at an amusement park.) And the accompanying droll observations are too often belabored. Perhaps other Crown Journeys authors can make more of their assignment. As for Prague, the guidebook that Goldberg cites as a reference, “Cadogan Guide Prague,” remains the best read on the city.