105 Ways to Give a Book

The Sex Lives of Cannibals, or What’s In a Title?

I am a sucker for a good title, as I have mentioned before.

Sometimes a good title really outlines the content of the book. This is the case with my favorite adult funny book, Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About.

Or for one of my favorite kids’ books, How I Became a Writer and Oggie Learned to Drive.

Or the official White House briefing, Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S. But that’s for another blog.

The Sex Lives of CannibalsI was compelled to pick up The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific based solely on the title alone. How could I resist? What wonderful luck that it also happened to be an incredibly interesting and — my highest praise — funny book. It’s just that the title doesn’t really have anything to do with the book. I know, because I meant to skim it so that I could verify that fact, but I ended up rereading the whole book (I think I first picked it up some time last year). And you know what? I am glad I did, because I found it just as funny, just as fascinating, the second time around.

Troost was twenty-six when he decided to join his girlfriend on an island in the Pacific. The island was Tarawa. Never heard of it, right? How about the larger country of Kiribati. Still no? Then you can understand just how isolated this island is from the rest of the world. The author’s girlfriend was there to help the government with the health of the natives on the island. He was there to write the great American novel, but instead found himself writing about his two years in the middle of nowhere.

Most travel writers wax poetic about the lovely natives and the beautiful land and the peaceful existence. Not Troost. This guy tells it like he sees it, as a young man on an island where there is trash and crap (literally) everywhere, because on a tiny island in the South Pacific there is nowhere for the trash and crap to go. The native I-Kiribati have their own cultural norms that stand directly against their own progress. For instance, the custom of bubuti, whereby an I-Kiribati will go up to another and say, “I bubuti you your goat,” and the person hands over their goat. Now the next day that person, presumably, could go to the first and bubuti his chicken. But you can see how no one wants to advance past their village friends because they would just have to give it away again. Fascinating. They live in some of the richest tuna fishing waters in the world, but their government has leased the fishing rights to other countries for a pittance. Amazing. Coconut trees are the only food-producing plant that grows on a coral atoll in the middle of nowhere, so the average I-Kiribati eats about 400 pounds of fish a year — which they generally catch without a fishing pole, but just a line and hook thrown in the ocean. Unbelievable.

Though Troost is often harsh in his description of his new, temporary home, he isn’t disrespectful of the people who live there or their history. He is more appalled, in fact, by what encroaching “civilization” has done to these poor islands. Troost does give tribute the the beauty of the islands, the impressive glory of the Pacific ocean, and the warmth of the people. Otherwise, the book would read as pretty snide. But he never shirks from reporting the deprivation and the challenges of living in this forgotten part of the world, and he does it, remarkably, with humor and style.

So, I’ve had a bad couple of days. My kid called home crying over something that doesn’t seem to be her fault. I’m feeling a bit unappreciated in my job. Then, my same kid gets sick on Friday night, making it impossible for her to go to the Baltimore aquarium with her Brownie troop — a trip she has looked forward to for six months. I was up all night with her that night, and then Saturday morning had a birthday party (on the down-low) for her sister. Then feeling a little sicky myself, I started on Sunday to prepare the oldest’s room to paint, only to find out that the border won’t just peel off like it did in her sister’s room. Oh, no. This one is going to take a chemical suitable for warfare to get this puppy off, and delay the beginning of the actual painting until 8:00 Sunday night. Did I mention that everything the oldest girl owns is piled in the room of the youngest girl, making it impossible for either girl to use their rooms until the painting is complete? I’m feeling a bit put upon.

My point being, if it feels like life is crashing down around you, what better way to break out of your funk then reading about people for whom electricity, clean water, food variety, and books — yes, even books — are luxuries.

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