Perceptive Travel Book Reviews January 2017
by William Caverlee



In this issue: a novelist's observations on a whirlwind tour of Latin America, Travelers' Tales annual "best of" anthology, and a guide to free activities and entertainment around the world.





How to Travel without Seeing
By Andrés Neuman

In 2009, the Argentine-born Spanish writer, Andrés Neuman, made a book tour of Latin America and compiled a unique kind of travelogue. In the book's opening pages, he explains his approach: "to take notes literally on the fly."

And with that, we set off. Neuman, born in 1977, is an award-winning novelist, and makes for a dazzlingly literate observer and commentator on Latin America during this flash-voyage through nineteen countries. Each chapter begins with Neuman landing in a new airport, in a new country. Some of his comments take up half a page, but most are quite short, a sentence or two.

Waking up in Lima, I discover that my unconscious has also suffered jet lag: I dreamed I was still in La Paz.

The first time I flew into Quito, I remember my surprise at the dense fog wrapped around the peaks of Pichincha Volcano. I had formed a stereotyped image of the Ecuadorian capital as being sunnier, more tropical. But today it is sunny, with the same sun I expected to find on my first trip here.

Flying over Mexico City, slowly traversing its interminable gray cloud, is the closest thing I've ever known to landing on the moon.

Can we think of Trujillo without thinking of Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat? In the long run, fiction assails institutions more effectively than armies.

In such wisdom, Neuman leads us on his nonstop tour. His interests are multifold: politics, history, literature, soccer, language, hotel ambiance... The book's arrangement of short entries—wry observations, witticisms, nuggets of wisdom—makes for a perfect record of a dizzying book tour. The kind where you have to check twice to remember what country you're in. But Neuman also gives himself time for longer riffs, longer descriptions and reflections, on the disparate countries of Latin America, a part of the world that many of us in Europe and North America wrongly think of as a single entity.

Whether he's writing a brief note or a mini-essay, these observations are instantly recognizable as the work of a true writer and authentic literary voice.

Translated by Jeffrey Lawrence. Recommended.






The Best Travel Writing: Vol. 11
Edited by James O'Reilly, Larry Habegger, Sean O'Reilly

Twenty-seven travel writers have been selected by the editors of Travelers' Tales for their annual compilation, The Best Travel Writing. Several of the authors will be familiar to readers of Perceptive Travel, like James Michael Dorsey, Thomas Swick, and Darrin DuFord.

Anthologies of this sort run the risk of duplicating previous editions—one more memoir of an American in Paris—but I found that this year’s volume was filled with original, colorful, imaginative offerings.

Cathleen Miller's entry, "Sacrifices, Desires, New Moon," reads like a Jason Bourne episode. In Brazil for a freelance writing gig, Miller finds herself in the middle of a home invasion and has to leap from a balcony, in her bathrobe, in order to escape the gunmen. She then has to scramble through the darkness in search of safety. Miller makes it through the ordeal alive, but quickly heads to Italy to finish the project. Good call, we think.

Under vastly calmer circumstances, Amy Butcher travels to Nebraska to witness the annual migration of sandhill cranes, around 600,000 of which make a stopover near the town of Gibbon.

Meanwhile, Andrew Lees visits present-day Detroit; K.M. Churchill recalls her life running a restaurant in Ireland; Darrin DuFord explains how the Panama hat originated in Ecuador; Olga Pavlinova Olenich takes a night-time train ride from Venice to Nice...

I counted three Americans in Paris among the contributors, but, hey, I take back what I said a moment ago. There can never be too many remembrances of the City of Light.






The Best Things in Life are Free

The Best Things in Life are Free
By Lonely Planet Publishing

Once more Lonely Planet offers us a tour of the world, this time as a survey of free stuff: free tours, free tickets, free access to museums, parks, and events. A rather neat idea, actually.

The Best Things in Life are Free is not a coffee-table book like many other LP anthologies of the past few years. It's a book-sized book—around the size of the last novel you read. It's also not a hundred percent true to its title; some of the items listed have fees involved—but the costs are in the low range, affordable to most of us. And the great majority of the tours and destinations are indeed free.

Hundreds of color photographs, along with maps, sidebars, and other graphics illustrate every page of the book. This makes for excellent armchair traveling.

The book's major divisions are Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, and South America. Oddly Mexico—one of the world's top-10 tourist destinations—is omitted, along with all of Central America except for the city of San Salvador. Within these headings, the chapters are mostly arranged by city: from places like London, Paris, and New York through Tokyo, Rome, and Sao Paulo all the way to Reykjavik, Geneva, and Bruges. I counted sixty-four cities in all, in addition to "The Caribbean," which Lonely Planet designates as an entity of its own, a watery city-state, I suppose.

The editors have also composed a dozen or so bonus chapters for travelers seeking special bargains, with titles like "Safari without the big bucks," "Europe's best national parks, "Europe's best free museums and galleries," "Australia & New Zealand's best free walks."

Like many similar guide books and pictorials, The Best Things in Life are Free isn't meant to be read straight through. Rather, you flip pages until you find a city or region that interests you and then you take a closer look.

At the very end of the book was a bar graph, titled "Price Index," which compares "the price of an average day in each destination featured in the book." So what is the most expensive place to visit on earth? The Caribbean, it turns out. In second place, not surprisingly, was New York City. Third, Stockholm.

At the other end of the chart, San Salvador, Bangkok, and Delhi are the three least expensive destinations.




William Caverlee is a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including The Oxford American, The Christian Science Monitor, Aviation History, Cimarron Review, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. He's the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays.



See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee





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The Best Travel Writing, Volume 11

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Best Things in Life are Free

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