The Yangtze Valley and Beyond


The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, by Isabella Bird, introduced by Dervla Murphy
The Folio Society, 2018. 420 pages.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid

Are you prejudiced against Folio Society books? I was. I thought they were strictly “collectors’ books,” the kind of thing Jay Gatsby would have. Physically heavy, each with its own box, each with miles of decorative lala not always in the best taste. Gaudy, in a word. And not meant to be read.


It’s not like there’s nothing to that theory. A few Folio Society books really are ostentatious, and heaven knows they’re all expensive. But just the same, in some instances the Folio Society version of a book is THE desirable version, for the not-fucking-around reader. For example, the 1996 Folio version of Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That is much better than the usual Vintage or Cassell or Anchor editions. The cover is handsome and understated, and the editor has hunted up twenty-six interesting and relevant photographs, not one of which appears in any other edition I’ve ever looked at. And the Folio version isn’t even expensive, provided you buy it used. Mine’s near-fine, and I paid $13, and that’s with the shipping.


The worthy artifact presently under review is a similar deal, except with regard to the money. It’s a classic travel book. It was originally published in 1899 and was ramjam with sepia photographs taken by the author. These are fascinating pieces, and they need to be reproduced properly to have their effect. They need to be big, and the colors and the paper need to be right on the money. This is precisely where Folio Society books shine. 


I know what you’re thinking. Rather than drop $112 on the Folio version, why not get a copy of the original John Murray, 1899—gotta be cheaper than $112, right? Wrong. First editions of this little guy will run you twice that. There might be some way around this, but I haven’t found it. It appears to me that the Folio version is the one to beat.


However, if you don’t care about the photographs, you can save big. There’s a ’80s paperback that reprints the text just fine. Ten bucks get you that. And it wouldn’t be a wasted ten bucks, ’cuz this Isabella Bird is a nifty writer. Deliciously understated, always intelligent, stylish. I’ll throw you a sample from near the beginning of the book:


All day long the life on the two-storeyed open-sterner boat in front of mine was exposed to view. It was occupied by three generations, nine souls in all, under the rule of a grandmother. They rose early, lighted the fire and their incense sticks, kowtowed to an idol in a gilded shrine, offered him a small bowl of rice, and cooked and ate their morning meal. The smell of their cooking drifted for much of the day into my boat, and “broth of abominable things was in their vessels.” The man sat in the bow smoking and making shoes. The grandmother lived below in blissful idleness and authority. The wife, a comely, healthy, broad-shouldered woman, with bound feet, worked and smoked all day and contrived to steer the boat as she stooped over the fire or the washtub by holding its heavy tiller under her arm or chin or pressing her knee against it. Four young children lived a quiet life on a broad high shelf, from which they were lifted down for meals. A girl of thirteen helped her mother slightly. Cooking, washing, mending, eating, and watching my occupation with far less interest than I watched theirs, filled up their day. Evening brought fresh kowtowing and burning of incense sticks, the opium lamp was lighted, the man passed into elysium, and they wrapped themselves in their wadded quilts and slept till sunrise.


Are you curious about the quotation there (“broth of abominable things was in their vessels”)? I Googled it; it’s from the Bible, Isaiah 65. Which reminds me. If you feel the need, as I did, to annotate this thing in the margins, you’ll want to use those Staedler “pigment liners,” .05 mm nibs, ’cuz the pages have that plastic-type texture. Most regular inks, you’re just gonna make a mess.


Before I go, I’m going to do something a little unorthodox. I’m going to refer the reader to a different review of the book, which indeed turned me on to it. This piece, which appeared in the New York Review of Books’ 19 July 2018 issue, is better in every way than what I’ve done here, partly because I don’t have as much space to work with, and partly because Colin Thubron is just better than me.


ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called TRY NEVER (Canarium Books, 2017).