Monday, April 29, 2013

Book Review: The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost



Title: The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
Author: J. Maarten Troost
Publisher: Broadway
Publication Date: June 8, 2004
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

At the age of twenty-six, Maarten Troost—who had been pushing the snooze button on the alarm clock of life by racking up useless graduate degrees and muddling through a series of temp jobs—decided to pack up his flip-flops and move to Tarawa, a remote South Pacific island in the Republic of Kiribati. He was restless and lacked direction, and the idea of dropping everything and moving to the ends of the earth was irresistibly romantic. He should have known better.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals tells the hilarious story of what happens when Troost discovers that Tarawa is not the island paradise he dreamed of. Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles through relentless, stifling heat, a variety of deadly bacteria, polluted seas, toxic fish—all in a country where the only music to be heard for miles around is “La Macarena.” He and his stalwart girlfriend Sylvia spend the next two years battling incompetent government officials, alarmingly large critters, erratic electricity, and a paucity of food options (including the Great Beer Crisis); and contending with a bizarre cast of local characters, including “Half-Dead Fred” and the self-proclaimed Poet Laureate of Tarawa (a British drunkard who’s never written a poem in his life).

With The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Maarten Troost has delivered one of the most original, rip-roaringly funny travelogues in years—one that will leave you thankful for staples of American civilization such as coffee, regular showers, and tabloid news, and that will provide the ultimate vicarious adventure.


My Review:

The region of interest for this month's Around the World Challenge is the South Pacific islands.  I've read several rather serious books for my ATWC selections in previous months, so I figured April was a good time to try a new tone.  Thus, this entertaining travel memoir, set in the far-off island of Kiribati.

Before reading this, the only reason that I had heard of Kiribati (pronounced kir-ee-bas) was because I've played a lot of sporcle.com geography quizzes that require you to know the names of all 197 countries in the world. (Yes, I know them, and I can list them alphabetically, because as you would expect, I'm a little bit of a freak.)  However, beyond the name, I knew nothing.  I mean, what was there to know?  My picture of the South Pacific was largely based on my friend's honeymoon photos in Fiji: gorgeous beaches, crystalline waters, beautiful weather at all times, and lots of quaint oversea huts.  That's it, yes?

Apparently, no.  Maarten Troost and his girlfriend Sylvia trekked to Kiribati for 2 years while Sylvia worked for a government agency.  That two years was full of rabid dogs, feces-infested waters, and drought...rather unlike those Fijian photos of my mind.  Luckily, Troost took the entire experience in stride (quite unlike how I might have done), and wrote this lively memoir to commemorate it.

I got sucked into Troost's narrative right away, as he has a lighthearted and sarcastic writing style that I immediately enjoyed.  He has no problem poking fun at the many (many, many) mishaps that he and his girlfriend endured before, during, and after their time in the tiny Kiribati town of Tarawa.  I think the humor was important here, because in reality, Kiribati is rundown and quite full of poverty--a situation that could easily lower the tone of the memoir.  But I think Troost did a nice job of illustrating Kiribati's economic difficulties in between the humor, without making light of the country's problems.

Troost does also offer some historical chapters, which give you a lot of important background about the island's colonial roots.  He continues the humor in those sections too, which keeps the emphasis from changing too much throughout the book.  I will say that the last 30 pages or so of their time in Tarawa started to drag for me as a reader.  I almost felt like Troost started running low on funny anecdotes, and some of those final sections began to feel like filler.  However, it picked up again when he and Sylvia left Tarawa, leading to a well-crafted ending...one that makes me curious to check out some of the follow-up memoirs that Troost has penned.

Overall, if you enjoy travel memoirs that don't take themselves too seriously, this is a great choice.  (Bill Bryson fans?  This may be a good one for you.)  While I did find a few slow parts towards the end, as a whole this book manages to be both funny and informative...and I like my information funny, when possible.  (Seriously, history textbooks, where are you on this?)

Other reviews of The Sex Lives of Cannibals:
Reading Through Life
Small World Reads
The Book Lady's Blog

Have you read any travel memoirs lately?  Especially humorous ones?

17 comments:

  1. Yes! Amusing information is the way to go!

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    1. I would have enjoyed high school history classes so much more if my teachers followed this theory...

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  2. Ooh, "The Sex Lives of Cannibals" is on my to-read list in Goodreads. Great review! I finished "Pushups in the Prayer Room" by Norm Schriever this month—in which he recounts his year backpacking around the world getting into crazy mischief. Another good one! Here's my review: http://mylittleheartmelodies.com/2013/04/16/pushups-in-the-prayer-room/

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    1. Oooh that sounds like one I would enjoy. Thanks for sharing your review!!

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  3. Oh, this definitely sounds like my kind of travel book! Thanks for the review.

    I haven't been around in a while, so this is the first time I've seen your theme and I'm loving it =)

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  4. It took me a while to realize this isn't fiction, cool! I definitely think I'd enjoy this one.

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    1. Yeah the title doesn't really lend itself to nonfiction, does it?

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  5. Oohhh yes, this sounds like something I could definitely get into!

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  6. Ok...based on the title, I'm going to have to read it. I personally have lived on a tropical island for 18 months, so I can relate to the author's point of view. Lovely! This is going straight to the top of my reading list! Another great nonfiction book is called, "Ring EXchange - Adventures of a Multiple Marrier" by author Pam Evans. The author imparts realizations, insights, and wisdom to others who are caught in the multiple marriage syndrome. LOVED IT! http://ring-exchange.com/

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    1. Oh wow, what island did you live on? I was fascinated by his journey.

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  7. I enjoyed this book a lot! I though it was unique and an interesting read because I was able to learn so much more about a place that I had never been to (or actually even heard of!)

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    1. Yes, that's one of the things I loved about it. It wasn't just "let me tell you all these funny things that happened"...he really made an effort to help you get to know the place.

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  8. You know all the countries in the world? For freak, more freaking awesome :D The story sounds random but it's real... wow. Must be a pretty great read.

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    1. It is really good/humorous. That one slow section was kind of a downer, but otherwise it's a good memoir pick.

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