The best books on Papua New Guinea

2 authors have picked their favorite books about Papua New Guinea and why they recommend each book.

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Under the Mountain Wall

By Peter Matthiessen,

Book cover of Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in Stone Age New Guinea

Matthiessen is best known for The Snow Leopard, but to me this book, written fifteen years earlier, rivals and in some ways exceeds it. It's a unique imaginative project: as part of an anthropological expedition to the remote highlands of New Guinea, Matthiessen was among the first people from the western world to describe the lives of the Papuan farmers who lived there. It’s an extraordinary book, full of beauty and drama, and though it isn’t a journey to the distant past—all life, as someone said, is modern life—it often feels like it: this was a place where the men of neighboring villages fought ritualized wars against one another every week or so. And Matthiessen wasn't an anthropologist; he was a writer, and he presents this insular world from the inside, in the third person, with his trademark understated lyricism. The last line alone is worth the price of…


Who am I?

If you’re curious about the world, you can find secret doors that open onto unexpected vistas. For me, exploring the lives and origins of the caracaras in A Most Remarkable Creature revealed a vast and surprising story about the history of life on Earth, and about South America’s unique past—stories as wonderful and absorbing as any fantasy. These books are some of my favorite revelations of hidden marvels in the world we think we know. 


I wrote...

A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey

By Jonathan Meiburg,

Book cover of A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey

What is my book about?

In 1833, a young Charles Darwin met a species in the Falkland Islands that astonished him: tame, curious birds of prey that looked and acted like a cross between a hawk and a crow. They stole hats and other objects from the crew of the Beagle, and Darwin wondered why they were confined to a few islands at the bottom of the world. But he set this mystery aside, and never returned to it—and a chance meeting with these unique birds, now called striated caracaras, led Jonathan Meiburg to pick up where Darwin left off, sending him on a grand and captivating odyssey across thousands of miles and millions of years. “To call this a bird book,” wrote The Dallas Morning News, “would be like calling Moby-Dick a whaling manual.”     

War at the End of the World

By James P. Duffy,

Book cover of War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight For New Guinea, 1942-1945

I thought I knew a thing or two about the history of World War II. Somehow, the battle for New Guinea escaped me, despite the role played by the American General, Douglas MacArthur. Significant as a turning point in the war and enabling MacArthur's return to the Philippines, the fight in New Guinea deserves mention in the same breath as the stepping-stone battles of the Pacific islands. The fighting was brutal and the conditions for both Japanese and Allied troops were horrid—trails ascending rugged mountains, supply-chain difficulties, diseases that diminished the abilities of troops to fight. I have been to New Guinea twice. Duffy captured the ruggedness of the land and his telling of the stories made me feel the place, the people, and their challenges.


Who am I?

I am not a historian. I am a retired entomologist with a love for history. My first real experience with history was as a child, reading about Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic adventure on the Endurance—a story I must have re-read 50 times. I have come to recognize that much of the history I learned growing up was either incomplete or was just plain wrong. I am drawn to the arcane aspects of historical events, or that illustrate history from a different angle—which is shown in my list of books. The Silken Thread tells about the history that occurred because of, or was impacted by, just five insects.


I wrote...

The Silken Thread: Five Insects and Their Impacts on Human History

By Robert N. Wiedenmann, J. Ray Fisher,

Book cover of The Silken Thread: Five Insects and Their Impacts on Human History

What is my book about?

The Silken Thread shows how five insects—just five—have impacted human history. This is not a science book; it is a history book. These five insects have caused sharp turns in history in ways that are usually ignored or unknown. Everyone knows about the plague, and that it was caused by rats and fleas. Except it wasn't that simple. They did not completely play the roles that we learned—or taught in our classes. And that is just one example. All five insects intersected with humans in multiple ways, and our telling of their tales reminds us that it really is the little things that run the world.

Air Combat at 20 Feet

By Garrett Middlebrook,

Book cover of Air Combat at 20 Feet: Selected Missions from a Strafer Pilot's Diary

I consider Garrett Middlebrook to be the Wilfred Owens (poet) of WWII. He is a man with a conscience and a moral code who explains what it meant to be a combat pilot in New Guinea. He describes various life-threatening mission against a superior enemy. But on the other hand, struggles with the fact that he is killing other men, in other uniforms, who like himself are just doing their jobs. He chafes at orders to kill civilian contractors (conscripted Chinese) working for the Japanese in New Guinea. He recoils from celebrations after the battle of the Bismarck Sea because he felt no joy after witnessing the vivid destruction of enemy men and equipment. 


Who am I?

I grew up just north of Chicago, took courses at the University of Madrid (La Complutense), and graduated from Marquette University.  I speak 5 languages and have written for such diverse reviews as The Journal of the American Revolution and Atlantic Coastal Kayaker. Nothing has possessed me like my father’s Navigation Case. Besides learning how this young college graduate helped pioneer the nascent aviation industry training in 11 different types of aircraft, I take pride in the astonishing role he played in American history. He was a combat pilot in the first-ever demonstration of air superiority over an enemy, leading to the greatest campaign victory in the history of the US Air Force. 


I wrote...

The Navigation Case: Training, Flying and Fighting the 1942 to 1945 New Guinea War

By John E. Happ,

Book cover of The Navigation Case: Training, Flying and Fighting the 1942 to 1945 New Guinea War

What is my book about?

I lived 18 years under my father’s roof. In all that time he never spoke about what he did in the Pacific War. After he died I inherited a mysterious, crusty leather case, found in our long-ignored attic: my father’s pilot Navigation Case. In there I was shocked to learn that he flew 64 violent and deadly attack missions as a combat pilot in New Guinea. But if we were fighting Japan, what was he doing in New Guinea of all places? When he was rotated off the front lines he flew Battle of the Bulge wounded to hospitals closer to their native homes. It was called Medical Air Evacuation Transport. And in that role he went missing, lost, completely unaccounted for...

Macarthur's Victory

By Harry Gailey,

Book cover of Macarthur's Victory: The War in New Guinea, 1943-1944

This book gave me a basic understanding of the New Guinea war into which my father was sent. It gave me the framework with which I could piece together the timeline of my father’s service. It gave me an idea of the progress of the war and a context for all of his military orders, his stacks of correspondence, and all of his photos, long stored away in his Navigation Case.


Who am I?

I grew up just north of Chicago, took courses at the University of Madrid (La Complutense), and graduated from Marquette University.  I speak 5 languages and have written for such diverse reviews as The Journal of the American Revolution and Atlantic Coastal Kayaker. Nothing has possessed me like my father’s Navigation Case. Besides learning how this young college graduate helped pioneer the nascent aviation industry training in 11 different types of aircraft, I take pride in the astonishing role he played in American history. He was a combat pilot in the first-ever demonstration of air superiority over an enemy, leading to the greatest campaign victory in the history of the US Air Force. 


I wrote...

The Navigation Case: Training, Flying and Fighting the 1942 to 1945 New Guinea War

By John E. Happ,

Book cover of The Navigation Case: Training, Flying and Fighting the 1942 to 1945 New Guinea War

What is my book about?

I lived 18 years under my father’s roof. In all that time he never spoke about what he did in the Pacific War. After he died I inherited a mysterious, crusty leather case, found in our long-ignored attic: my father’s pilot Navigation Case. In there I was shocked to learn that he flew 64 violent and deadly attack missions as a combat pilot in New Guinea. But if we were fighting Japan, what was he doing in New Guinea of all places? When he was rotated off the front lines he flew Battle of the Bulge wounded to hospitals closer to their native homes. It was called Medical Air Evacuation Transport. And in that role he went missing, lost, completely unaccounted for...

A Few Months in New Guinea

By Octavius C. Stone,

Book cover of A Few Months in New Guinea

Stone, writing in the 1880s, describes the unexplored mystery, foreboding tropical weather, and long-ignored people of New Guinea. Since its “discovery” by European explorers, the New Guinea climate was known to be inhospitable to westerners. This book began to inform me of the world into which my father was sent as an Army Air Corps pilot. Even as late as 1944 he flew with emergency survival maps with vast swathes of the country completely blank, marked “Unexplored.” 


Who am I?

I grew up just north of Chicago, took courses at the University of Madrid (La Complutense), and graduated from Marquette University.  I speak 5 languages and have written for such diverse reviews as The Journal of the American Revolution and Atlantic Coastal Kayaker. Nothing has possessed me like my father’s Navigation Case. Besides learning how this young college graduate helped pioneer the nascent aviation industry training in 11 different types of aircraft, I take pride in the astonishing role he played in American history. He was a combat pilot in the first-ever demonstration of air superiority over an enemy, leading to the greatest campaign victory in the history of the US Air Force. 


I wrote...

The Navigation Case: Training, Flying and Fighting the 1942 to 1945 New Guinea War

By John E. Happ,

Book cover of The Navigation Case: Training, Flying and Fighting the 1942 to 1945 New Guinea War

What is my book about?

I lived 18 years under my father’s roof. In all that time he never spoke about what he did in the Pacific War. After he died I inherited a mysterious, crusty leather case, found in our long-ignored attic: my father’s pilot Navigation Case. In there I was shocked to learn that he flew 64 violent and deadly attack missions as a combat pilot in New Guinea. But if we were fighting Japan, what was he doing in New Guinea of all places? When he was rotated off the front lines he flew Battle of the Bulge wounded to hospitals closer to their native homes. It was called Medical Air Evacuation Transport. And in that role he went missing, lost, completely unaccounted for...

Euphoria

By Lily King,

Book cover of Euphoria

Add to the list of extraordinary women mentioned above, the anthropologist Margaret Mead. I’m embarrassed to say that I knew little of Mead and her ground-breaking work before reading this book. The novel centers on (another) love triangle between three scientists studying the Kiona tribe in New Guinea in the 1930s. The personal struggles of these three anthropologists living in sometimes harrowing circumstances cover profound emotional territory. I also found the rituals of the tribe fascinating. And the inherent conflicts that abound when observing while living inside a community make for page-turning intrigue. Despite renaming her main character Nell Stone, I heard King speak about her detailed research. This novel offers a rare glimpse into the life of yet another woman for the ages.


Who am I?

I was never much of a history student. Facts and figures rarely stick in my brain until I have a character—their feelings, hopes, fears, and dreams—to pair them with, so I rely a lot on historical fiction to understand different places and times. I’m also a believer that our culture too often serves up the impression that marginalized people have forever hopelessly struggled, held back by those in power. But there are so many true stories that reveal the opposite, in this case, women fighting for their dreams and winning! I aim to bring these stories to light in a way that keeps the pages turning. 


I wrote...

Leaving Coy's Hill

By Katherine Sherbrooke,

Book cover of Leaving Coy's Hill

What is my book about?

Leaving Coy’s Hill is inspired by Lucy Stone, an abolitionist and the first woman to speak out on women’s rights in the US. While she was perhaps the most famous woman in the country in the mid-1800s, she was rather purposely erased from history by her own friend, Susan B. Anthony. In writing this novel I wanted to breathe new life into a woman driven to create change in a deeply divided nation and determined to stand on the right side of history despite painful personal costs. NY Times best-selling author Caroline Leavitt says, “What could be more timely than Sherbrooke’s gorgeously fictionalized and page-turning account of Lucy Stone?... A stunning look at timeless issues…all told through the lens of one extraordinary heroine.”

Throwim Way Leg

By Tim Flannery,

Book cover of Throwim Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums, and Penis Gourds

Throwim Way Leg is an otherworldly account of a country I’ve come to know well in recent years. Biologist Tim Flannery travelled far and wide in this land of mountains and jungle throughout the 80s, when ancient and unsavoury practices were still widespread, or at least existed in very recent memory. The book is a hilarious, non-judgemental, and open-minded account of New Guinean tribal life. Everything from cannibalism to courtship is related alongside a fascinating look at the mammalian life inhabiting some of the world’s deepest recesses of jungle.


Who am I?

I started solo travelling as soon as I left school, and since then I’ve spent many years doing so. I came of age while cycling, kayaking, hiking and skiing across distant lands. The bittersweetness of being alone on the road has become a source of constant fascination for me. The on-again-off-again loneliness creates a state of mind where you’re that much more willing to throw yourself in at the deep end, to meet strangers, and to look, listen and learn. At its very best, solo travel writing seamlessly encompasses two journeys: the physical journey in a foreign land, and the psychological journey within the author.


I wrote...

Through Sand & Snow: a man, a bicycle, and a 43,000-mile journey to adulthood via the ends of the Earth

By Charlie Walker,

Book cover of Through Sand & Snow: a man, a bicycle, and a 43,000-mile journey to adulthood via the ends of the Earth

What is my book about?

This was an intensely personal book for me. A coming-of-age tale played out against an ever-shifting backdrop of wild landscapes and intriguing cultures. Aged twenty-two, I left home in search of adventure. Fleeing the boredom that comes with comfort, I set off on a secondhand bicycle with the aim of pedalling to the furthest point in each of Europe, Asia, and Africa. I didn’t train or plan. I just started. 

The 43,000-mile solo journey was an escape from an unremarkable existence, a pursuit of hardship, and a chance to shed the complacency of Middle England. From the brutality of winter on the Tibetan plateau to the claustrophobia of the Southeast Asian jungle, the quest provided me with ample opportunity to test my mettle. Ultimately, though, the toughest challenge was entirely unforeseen.

The Works of Inazo Nitobe

By Inazo Nitobe,

Book cover of The Works of Inazo Nitobe: Volume III Japan: Some Phases of Her Problems and Development

This book began to help me understand why my father was sent to New Guinea. It taught me a lot about how Japan saw herself in the world at that time and what she thought she could do about it. My conclusion is that Japan felt threatened and feared being colonized. The Europeans had been colonizing the Asian Pacific for centuries: France in Indo-China, Britain manipulating China; Germany held various Chinese ports; Russia pushing into Korea, the Dutch in Indonesia (The Dutch East Indies)… all milking those countries of their natural resources with oppressive control of indigenous peoples. Japan in turn sought to build her nation into an Empire along the British model. 


Who am I?

I grew up just north of Chicago, took courses at the University of Madrid (La Complutense), and graduated from Marquette University.  I speak 5 languages and have written for such diverse reviews as The Journal of the American Revolution and Atlantic Coastal Kayaker. Nothing has possessed me like my father’s Navigation Case. Besides learning how this young college graduate helped pioneer the nascent aviation industry training in 11 different types of aircraft, I take pride in the astonishing role he played in American history. He was a combat pilot in the first-ever demonstration of air superiority over an enemy, leading to the greatest campaign victory in the history of the US Air Force. 


I wrote...

The Navigation Case: Training, Flying and Fighting the 1942 to 1945 New Guinea War

By John E. Happ,

Book cover of The Navigation Case: Training, Flying and Fighting the 1942 to 1945 New Guinea War

What is my book about?

I lived 18 years under my father’s roof. In all that time he never spoke about what he did in the Pacific War. After he died I inherited a mysterious, crusty leather case, found in our long-ignored attic: my father’s pilot Navigation Case. In there I was shocked to learn that he flew 64 violent and deadly attack missions as a combat pilot in New Guinea. But if we were fighting Japan, what was he doing in New Guinea of all places? When he was rotated off the front lines he flew Battle of the Bulge wounded to hospitals closer to their native homes. It was called Medical Air Evacuation Transport. And in that role he went missing, lost, completely unaccounted for...

The Tin Can Crucible

By Christopher Davenport,

Book cover of The Tin Can Crucible: A firsthand account of modern-day sorcery violence

Christopher Davenport, who later became a Foreign Service Officer with the U. S. Department of State and served in various countries including Vietnam, Guatemala, Tajikistan, and Georgia, was a Peace Corps volunteer in 1994. In Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands, he was placed with a local family in a village of subsistence farmers. Except when attending classes in town (a hike and a long car ride away) with other Peace Corps volunteers scattered through the area, he worked, attended village gatherings, ate, and slept with his host family who treated him like an adopted son. The Tin Can Crucible—the title refers to the ingenuity of the local people—tells an honest, unsettling, and thoughtful story about what happened when the rhythm of this peaceful life was shattered by an accusation of witchcraft and examines the moral and ethical ambiguities and complexities of the role of philanthropy and the well-meant intentions…


Who am I?

Although two of my nonfiction books—The Dream of Water and Polite Lies—are about traveling from the American Midwest to my native country of Japan, I'm not a traveler by temperament. I long to stay put in one place. Chimney swifts cover the distance between North America and the Amazon basin every fall and spring. I love to stand in the driveway of my brownstone to watch them. That was the last thing Katherine Russell Rich and I did together in what turned out to be the last autumn of her life before the cancer she’d been fighting came back. Her book, Dreaming in Hindi, along with the four other books I’m recommending, expresses an indomitable spirit of adventure. 


I wrote...

The Dream of Water: A Memoir

By Kyoko Mori,

Book cover of The Dream of Water: A Memoir

What is my book about?

In 1990, at the age of 33, I traveled to Japan to revisit the landscape of my childhood. I had fled the country at 20 to attend an American college and never went back. My hometown of Kobe hadn’t felt like home after my mother’s suicide and my father’s remarriage. I had no intention of living there again. But when I received a travel grant from the small college in Wisconsin where I was a tenured professor, I decided to spend the summer in Japan to work on my second novel.

I wanted to reconnect and hear the family stories I hadn’t fully understood. The Dream of Water is the book I wrote instead after uncovering a handful of secrets from my own lifetime.

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