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The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
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107 of 114 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
You know how you feel when you've just finished a really good book and want to tell everyone you know about it? That is how I feel about THE SEX LIVES OF CANNIBALS. During the first few chapters I was laughing out loud so much and reading passages to my husband so often that he mentioned he wouldn't even have to read the book. However since he formerly lived in the Marshall Islands, this book hits home to him and he could hardly wait until I was done to grab it from my hands.

Maarten and Sylvia have no idea what they're getting themselves into when Sylvia agrees to a two-year contact to work on Tarawa, a remote island in the equatorial Pacific islands also known as Kiribas (The Gilbert Islands).

This was LOL funny in so many places! Maarten's turn of a phrase is so clever that he makes one laugh in the face of a nearly intolerable situation living on this remote island - part of which is so crowded it rivals Hong Kong in population density. The 20th century wasn't kind to these islanders. Their unique culture juxtaposed with the creations of the 20th century is very nearly ruining their culture. But Troost is able to find nearly everything funny (even though one wonders if he felt it was that funny at the moment) including the bowel habits of the natives. On the back of the book in Maarten's brief bio, it is revealed that he and is wife are living in California. One can only hope that he is becoming the writer for a sit-com. He makes other authors of humor/travel memoir seem dull in comparison. If I would compare him to anyone it would be Erma Bombeck-the way he is able to find hilarity in even the most mundane things.

This book deserves to be a bestseller and hopefully by word of mouth it will be.
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31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2005
Format: Paperback
Troost and his wife truly do go to the end of the world, to a tiny country in the equatorial Pacific, and live in an alternate reality. Troot's misadventures with the town's hygiene and sanitation, the toxic fish, a complete lack of vegetation, limited dry goods, cannibalistic dogs, a rundown airplane, high seas on a plywood boat, and the like are relayed to the reader with humor and wit. Beer is popular because it "tends to be parasite-free and calorie-laden, two very useful attributes on Tarawa." At first, Troost is an outsider, shocked by the island going-ons, but over the course of his two years there, he truly adopts the island lifestyle, so much that America is a complete culture shock for husband and wife when the part ways with Kiribati.

Troost makes some insightful comments on infrastructure--he took for granted in his previous life that water and electricity came to your house by magic. On Kiribati, he has hilariously eye-opening experiences ensuring a supply of both.

Throughout the book Troost recounts the history of Kiribati, its culture, and its relationship to the outside world. He actually does a real service to the island by recording the oral tradition and myth, and placing it in context with the slim amount of published literature on Kiribati. Over the course of his stay, he grows to be a real defender of the nation. When Kiribati sincerely accepts the offer of a British drunkard to become their Poet Laureate, the global media has quite a laugh at the nation's quaint nature. Troost is certain to set the truth straight about the lout who only lasted a few months in Kiribati.
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52 of 64 people found the following review helpful
on October 16, 2004
Format: Paperback
The author describes living for two years in Kiribati, an ex-British colony in the Pacific Ocean that is now independent. He thought he was moving to a tropical paradise, but instead found that even in the national capital, people would regularly defecate in the lagoon, the grocery stores couldn't keep basic staples in stock, and water and electric supplies were irregular at best. He speaks of the Kiribati people with enormous and sincere affection, but a reader can't avoid the conclusion that these islands would be better off if they were still a British colony.

Troost writes in a light, humourous tone, making this book a pleasure to read, although there are places where Troost is a little too cute for his own good. A few photos would have been a nice touch, and is it asking too much for the publisher to include a map? And by the way, the title is misleading - there is very little here about sex and nothing about cannibalism. A book this good does not need the cheap gimmick of a misleading title.
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26 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on September 20, 2006
Format: Paperback
One would think that "The Sex Lives of Cannibals" was a psychological reference book about the libidinous habits of Hannibal Lector and friends. Actually, it refers to the historical beginnings of the peoples on a remote Pacific island called Tarawa. The ancesters of those native to the atoll apparently lost their men to invading cannibals who went on to procreate with their women through force, creating a non-descript race of islanders. Not exactly what immediately comes to mind upon reading the title of J. Maarten Troost's first novel, a true story about his two year adventure on a small piece of land in the middle of the an endless bowl of water.

It all begins with Troost's lethargic approach toward his job. He's fed up with it. When his girlfriend Silvia is given the opportunity to work in a program designed to benefit the health and environment of the Gilbert Islands, Troost joins the unemployed and goes with her. Thus begins their whirlwind island lifestyle amid searing heat, lackluster living conditions, consistent health problems and just overall doing without. Many of their trials are humiliating, frustrating, inhuman and sad.

Tarawa has no waste disposal system so people relieve themselves in the ocean. Refuse piles up along its narrow roads and beaches, ignored. The author's cement, vermin-infested dwelling place is considered prime living compared to the thatched homes of the natives. Other countries bully them, depleting their only revenue of tuna by greedily fishing in Tarawa's coveted waters. They have no working fire trucks, have to use sticks instead of toilet paper and four hours of electricity isn't only a rare gift, but a pleasant surprise. Dogs are disease-ridden predators that prowl in huge packs, eating their own in sheer desperation. The daily menu is fish, fish and more fish. Boil your water and you might just go a day without parasites polluting your insides. These are the things poor city-dwellers Maarten and Silvia dealt with on a daily basis from the moment they stepped off the rickety plane that had to abort its first landing because pigs were on the runway.

The best way to experience the hardships of others is to walk around in their shoes. Troost did this with reluctant gusto and there's a feeling of dread in every chapter that most of us can't identify with. The descriptions are harrowing, from Tarawa's ridiculous do-nothing government to the I-Kiribati's (pronounced Kee-ree-bas) unusual preoccupation with the song "Macarena." The people seem amicable enough, just dealing with the cards fate dealt them in that laid-back island way. Most of them don't know what it's like to have a vcr or to use a toilet or have air conditioning. They don't steal, preferring to rely on the "bubuti" system of just saying, "I bubuti you for your shirt," or "I bubuti you for bus fare." It sounds like an agreeable way of life at first, but it's also a good way to go broke. Luckily(?) most of the people don't have much anyway.

That's just one example of Troost's depiction of his own culture shock after settling in Tarawa. He goes on to show us much, much more. And he does it in a funny, clever prose that sometimes veers off into rambling or preaching. He benefits from his time away from the states, even when he complains of being harassed by drunken villagers. The only real drawback of the piece is the lack of personality or character in his wife-to-be, Silvia. Wasn't she the reason they were there in the first place? Troost mostly writes about the heinous living conditions and his interactions with the I-Kiribati. Silvia is often ignored and gives very little to the experience. But that can be overlooked - those people have experienced enough as it is.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 28, 2006
Format: Paperback
"It is one of the small pleasures of living in Kiribati that the foreigners one meets tend to live life in a vivid and eccentric sort of way, and when you listen to their tales.......you find that you are ruined from a conversational point of view, that you can no longer even pretend to be remotely interested in someone's trip to the mall....." J. Maarten Troost is so right. Living large, as he did on Kiribati, does ruin you for oh so many things oh so many people think are important.

THE SEX LIVES OF CANNIBALS was recommended to me by a friend who had lived in Tonga for a couple years, and having met another who had actually lived in Kiribati, I did know where the country was long before reading Troost's rich tale. It does help. But Troost's informed and descriptive storytelling could enlighten (and bring cheer) to even the most geographically deficient, I am sure.

While I laughed out loud repeatedly at Troost's observations of life on Tarawa and his self-effacing recollections, (and quoted him all too frequently) I also shuddered at the ugly truth of all that has been done to and allowed by the I-Kiribati. Troost introduces the reader to the seemingly absurd; and for the first chapters his recollections allow the reader to enter lightly, to laugh, to find humor in the eccentricities of Kiribati and Troost's life. But in time the harsher side of honesty begins to feel rather uncomfortable, particularly uncomfortable for those of us who have lived among the aide agency mentality in "developing" countries. Yet this harshness is not pointed out without caring, real caring for the people of Kiribati. Caring and a real sense of humor, Troost has them locked up.

SEX LIVES is a must read for anyone who has spent time in the South Pacific, or any really-warm-climate-developing-nation for that matter. More importantly it is a book that those of us who are interested in learning more about the world we live in will have great fun reading at the same time as actually broadening our perspective. I have just shared my precious copy with a friend who lived in the Solomon Islands.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 24, 2007
Format: Paperback
I grew up on Tarawa in the 1970's when it was still a British Colony and my parents were working out there. This book brought back so many wonderful and horrible memories and is so very true to life. My family still operate a 'bubuti' system amongst ourselves!

I am incredibly saddened that such a beautiful place has become so squalid and rundown. As a child the island was so safe we were allowed to run wild. Crime was so low that theft of a bottle of my father's whisky was the main item on the news for 2 days - and there was no Macarena...

Troost captures the warmth, kindness and humour of the I-Kiribati perfectly. His descriptions of the deprivations - water, electricity and the incredible heat (and no air conditioning) and lack of food are perfect. My mother remembers taking my [...]sister to an UK supermarket on a visit home and her announcing loudly "Look mummy, the ship has come in" at the sight of full shelves!

Best book I've read in ages - hilariously funny and a real eyeopener to anyone who believes that Blue Lagoon is the reality of life on a pacific island.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
ROMAN HOLIDAY is one of my favorite films, and, after having seen it on multiple occasions, I visited Rome for the first time. You know, compared to the Hollywood version, the real Rome is a dump. Maybe it's just because I didn't have Audrey Hepburn on my arm. In THE SEX LIVES OF CANNIBALS, I gather that author J. Maarten Troost's collision with the South Seas reality of "tropical paradise" was somewhat similar.

In mid-1990's, Troost follows his girlfriend Sylvia to Tarawa, capital of the Equatorial Pacific country of Kiribati, otherwise known as the Gilbert Islands. Kiribati, comprising 33 islands roughly the area of greater Baltimore, is spread over an expanse of water the size of the United States. Sylvia had gotten a job as the new country director of the FSP (Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific), a do-gooder organization working out of Washington, DC. Maarten and Sylvia lived on Tarawa, specifically South Tarawa, for two years.

Troost has the humorous style reminiscent of another of my favorite travel essayists, Pete McCarthy. It has bite, as when Marteen describes the shenanigans of Kiribati government officials:

"As far as I could tell, the government spends a lot of time drinking and brawling. No workshop on global climate change is complete until the assistant secretary of the environment has passed out in a pool of beer barf ..."

And sometimes, he's right on, as when he mulls the fate of History in the United States:

" ... history is largely paved over, abandoned, and relegated to textbooks so shockingly dull that they could only have been written by politically correct creationists whose sole objective was to offend no one." Hear, hear!

Troost is also not above wry self-deprecation, as when he introduces himself to an island group according in the Kiribati tradition:

"Maarten, son of Herman of Holland, had a medieval ring. True, it wasn't as evocative as say Vlad the Impaler, but still, Maarten, son of Herman of Holland, suggested trouble."

Troost learns early on that Tarawa, the site of the bloody WWII assault by the Second Marine Division on the occupying Japanese garrison, is no tropical paradise. True, there are the glorious sunsets, crystal clear lagoons, and the achingly radiant colors of ocean, sky and palms, but there are also the feces-strewn beaches, piles of garbage, a monotonous diet (mostly fish), the suffocating heat, bad water, unreliable electrical service, no availability of mainstream print media, wretched airline connections, diseases, intestinal parasites, poor health care, a disinterested government bureaucracy, and, perhaps worst of all, no place to go. Yet, despite all this, Maarten and Sylvia discover a life, or rather a quality and pace of life, more genuine than is found back in the States. Indeed, two years after returning to Washington from Kiribati, the two return to Oceana - first to Vanuatu, then Fiji - for several years before relocating permanently to the original Land of Make Believe, California.

THE SEX LIVES OF CANNIBALS contains no photos of Maarten, Sylvia, or Tarawa, or even a map of the atoll; this is its biggest deficiency. Otherwise, the author entertained me with tales of an exotic place that I shall never find the time to visit. I couldn't ask for more.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 1, 2005
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
If John Donne had ever been to Kiribati he would never have written that bit about a man never being an island. God wanted to get home early the day he made this steamy hell hole.

Who should read this book? If you are interested in international affairs, global health and sanitation, the fishing industry, sun-block, dogs gone wild, air and sea travel in this part of the Pacific, alcohol consumption in conditions of intense heat, risk-taking, or perhaps you are just longing for a break from steroids in baseball, Dr. Phil and the dysfunctional, the Nanny person, or have just about had it with Neverland: this is your book. It would have been easy for Troost to have written a book on some serious global issue and how it affects the island and how we are to blame for it and so on. To be sure, there's some of that (his occassional digression on the U N and WHO ought to be required reading for public health students). Yet, his "voice" is perfect; it allows readers to see how farcical life on the island can be when seen from the vantage point of a young man and wife transplanted from the nation's capitol.

People, it seems, have been and remain fascinated with the prospect of surviving an island that seems untouched by the "modern" world. Robinson Crusoe, Castaway, Lost, Gilligan's island: all feed this desire in some way. Troost's book is within this multi-media genre, but it is by far the funniest, and quite likely the most realistic guide to such an experience yet. Lest you think Troost exemplifies the civilized outlook disparaging some lesser culture -- the funny side of the "White Man's Burden" -- read this book to the conclusion! His view of re-entering civilized atmosphere after his far flung exploits demonstrates his ability to see madness wherever it rears its irrational, little head.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2007
Format: Paperback
I picked up this book as an impulse; the title was intriguing.

It's a very funny read; I laughed out loud numerous times which I rarely do when reading. With the humor there were some social/political issues that did get one thinking. I appreciated the fact that Troost never preached or got on some political band wagon. Regardless, there were issues explored that caused me to ponder man's existence on this planet.

It is a quick read; it's hard to put down.

Troost's writing style is somewhat academic; even he makes comments on his long sentences. However, once the reader gets used to his style, it's engaging.

I can not recommend this book any more highly.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 20, 2010
Format: Paperback
At the advanced age of 26, author Troost was struggling with the angst of an as yet undefined career path that seemed on a fast track to nowhere. So when his lovely wife, Sylvia, was given the opportunity to take over the administration of an NGO located on Kiribati, an almost impossibly isolated collection of atolls located in the western equatorial Pacific, the opportunity to collect his thoughts and create a literary masterpiece in the peace and contentment of a tropical paradise seemed heaven sent. He was convinced that his opus magnum would virtually write itself.

Of course, the rest, as they say, is history. Kiribati was anything but a tropical paradise and the result was not the great American novel. And it certainly didn't write itself. Instead, after numerous false starts, at the cost of copious sweat and blood, J Maarten Troost, drawing on previously untapped wells of insight and skill, wrote an absolutely enchanting masterpiece of travel literature called "The Sex Lives of Cannibals".

Travel, adventure, sociology, anthropology, ethnography, history, geography, politics, culture - it's all here! "The Sex Lives of Cannibals" is also an almost bewildering but thoroughly enchanting collection of polar extremes - mind-numbing tedium and boredom versus nail-biting adventure; erotic hedonism versus the most curious instances of prudishness; virtually complete periods of isolation contrasted with an island that has arguably the highest population density in the world; stunningly beautiful tropical scenery occasionally marred by the most egregious instances of filth and pollution.

My guess is that most of us have no real idea what the term "culture shock" really entails ... but, having read "The Sex Lives of Cannibals", I'm beginning to get the idea!

Laugh-out-loud humour; outrageous profanity pitched at exactly the right levels in exactly the right places; informative, scholarly side-bar essays on an incredibly rich variety of topics related to Kiribati's story; travel advice for those tempted to dip their toes into a Van Gogh beachcomber lifestyle; and much, much more. If you can imagine a style that is a North American hybrid of Bill Bryson and Simon Winchester, you've probably got a good idea of what to expect.

A fabulously entertaining read from first page to last. Highly recommended.

Paul Weiss
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