In this issue: two portraits of America that cross paths in Marfa, Texas, then an attempt to stuff the continent of Europe into a big, colorful Lonely Planet book for the coffee table.
A Road Trip Through the Land Art of the American West
By Erin Hogan
This slim book pitches itself as both a travelogue and a piece of art criticism. If it's more successful as the latter than the former, it's because Hogan is a thoughtful critic, but a maddeningly naïve traveler. When the 30–something Hogan sets out from Chicago on her first solo trip, to see some icons of land art, she heads West without so much as a map or a compass (or the skills to read one), nor even the name of a non–sleazy motel. Completely preventable paranoia and aimless driving ensue. It's almost as if Hogan intentionally made her trip difficult, in order to get a few more stories out of it.
When Hogan does finally make it to the artwork, such as Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty and Walter de Maria's Lightning Field, the book gets a bit more interesting. Hogan does a good job of summarizing the various threads of critical thought surrounding the monumental artworks carved into the Western landscape of the 1970s. And her own analysis is welcome, as, on the spot at the earth sculptures, she revamps the assumptions she had based solely on college–class slides and textbooks. Theory meets reality.
The book peters out a bit in Marfa, Texas, as Hogan and a friend (the solo trip doesn't last too long) confront Donald Judd's inner taste for frilliness—a comical moment that unfortunately isn't matched by Hogan's random snarky commentary on her fellow art tourists.
For all its flaws, Spiral Jetta is worth the quick read it is—perhaps after you've visited the same artworks she has, so her travails and disappointments don't color your own experience too much. But before you set out, do flip first to the logistical section in the back, with detailed directions (learned the hard way) to all of the sites. If anything, Spiral Jetta and Hogan's misadventures are proof that you can't yet plan your entire trip via the Internet—sometimes a printed guidebook, however brief, is vital.
State by State
A Panoramic Portrait of America
Edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey
This collection of essays about the United States begins where Spiral Jetta leaves off: in Marfa, Texas. Editor Sean Wilsey's introductory piece relates a road trip from the art haven of the open West to the crowded streets of New York City. These twin poles of the American experience—dramatic wilderness and dynamic metropolises—are explored in fifty essays by an impressive roster of writers. Inspired by WPA guides to the states published in the 1930s and 1940s, the collection is ideal for armchair patriots and would–be domestic adventurers.
Essays range from first–person nostalgia—such as Anthony Bourdain's paean to teenage New Jersey or Ha Jin's adaptation to life in Georgia—to off–kilter travelogues (Susan Choi's tour of Indiana with her immigrant father) to odd historical footnotes, as in the Kentucky entry, about a little–known botanist. A few pieces, such as Dave Eggers's somewhat disappointing boast about Illinois, read a bit like encyclopedia entries, but even those are short enough to skim and absorb a few salient details.
While most states are covered by a writer with some personal affiliation, a few get the outsider's perspective. Sometimes this succeeds beautifully—Dagoberto Gilb's reportage on Mexican cornfield workers in Iowa is one of the strongest in the book. But more often this leads to rehashing state stereotypes: Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, fishing in Alaska, Mormons in Utah. At least the last, by David Rakoff, ends with a visit to Spiral Jetty—a comical counterpoint to Hogan's more intellectual trip.
The result is a definite patchwork, both in perspectives and quality, but the good, I–did–not–know–that! pieces by far outweigh the more humdrum efforts—odds are favorable that just a 20– or 30–minute dip anywhere in the book will be rewarding.
In fact, the book loses luster when read too much in a single sitting. Savor two or three essays, and the kaleidoscopic quirkiness of the United States comes to the fore. Read five or six at once, however, and it's hard to ignore the recurring theme of American Indians slaughtered and flimsy strip malls sprawling on once–wild land.
Despite this rather grim thread, State by State makes a good travel companion—pick up a copy to have at the ready for consulting before your next trip anywhere in America.
The Europe Book
A Journey Through Every Country on the Continent
Edited by Laetitia Clapton
A glossy, modern encyclopedia, The Europe Book makes a good conversation–starter on any coffee table. It's a successor to Lonely Planet's glossy blockbuster The Travel Book and follows the same model: Each country on the continent (and a bit beyond—Greenland and Azerbaijan squeeze in) is summarized in a few pages, with striking photos, essential data, quirky facts and the occasional answer to a nagging question, such as why so many Armenian names end in –ian, say.
The structure even toys with the old–school encyclopedia style. Along with the de rigueur stats like population, many countries also have their imports and exports listed—but this is no heavy analysis of mining and agriculture. According to Lonely Planet's research team, Sweden exports ABBA, and Britain imports Madonna (though the latter may no longer be true). This clever take is offset by the earnest Ecotourism box, shown for every country, and a back section gets even more serious, with meatier essays on history, economy and politics.
But all this is secondary to the photos, which are by and large gripping and not too familiar or stereotypical—though, predictably, the largest photo for Turkey is of men praying in a mosque. I also suspect that Lonely Planet's photo researchers had an in–house contest for digging up the oddest photo of a bikini–clad body: There's an inordinate amount of naked flesh in the book, which isn't a bad thing…just a noticeable one after flipping through five countries and seeing five ways of bathing in the out–of–doors.
Unfortunately, some of the photo captions suffer from the same weakness that some of Lonely Planet's guidebook photos do: an irrepressible wit, at the expense of facts. Not to harp on the Islamic stereotyping, but I doubt that two women at a school in Azerbaijan are in fact complimenting each other on their identical headscarves. Captions—especially in such a photo–centric book—should help the reader see more deeply into the photo, not reinforce a first impression.
But overall, the effect of the book is compelling—broadening the scope of Europe well beyond French chateaus and German castles, and inspiring future trips along the way.
A New Yorker by way of New Mexico, Zora O'Neill is a food and travel writer who has lived abroad in Cairo and Amsterdam. She is the author of several guidebooks for Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, and Moon Handbooks, including The Rough Guide to the Yucatán as well as Cancun & Cozumel Directions. She maintains the blog Roving Gastronome about her travels, and what she eats while she's at it.
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