In this issue: a serious tome about past and present troubles in the outer regions of the former Soviet Union, plus a heavy book for families full of light top-10 lists.
Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire Between Moscow and Beijing
By Jeffrey Tayler
"...their most visible and lasting legacy here consists of the standardized ugliness of almost everything they built—a curse on all the former Soviet lands that no one has the money, time, or energy to lift."
If you were on the fence about going to Russia or Central Asia, Murderers in Mausoleums will certainly not make you want to leap off and book a flight. It's one long, pounding litany of hopelessness and joyless drunkenness, of lingering hatred and suppressed anger, of dictators and decimated ethnicities. The author purposely moves through some of the least popular parts of the former Soviet republics—from Kushchevskaya to Urumqi to Genghis Khan's Mauoleum—dedicating the last 60 pages to China.
Along the way we come to see the history of Russia and the Soviet Union as one blood-soaked travesty after another, with fleeting references to the death and ethnic cleansing stories that would fill several books this size. In these "blank map" areas of the Asia he encounters endemic corruption, a hopeless infrastructure (except in the oil wealth towns), and a resigned population that reveres its iron-fisted tyrants. With environmental and social devastation a part of every story, after a while the reader's mind is numb to more officially sanctioned depravity.
So of course this is a political or social sciences book as much as a travel book, attempting to shed some light on Russia's rising influence, built almost entirely on power gained from its wealth of natural resources. But Jeffrey Tayler is definitely the consummate loner travel writer, drifting across the plains and mountains, documenting who and what he runs into along the way, recording what he hears with a historical expertise and a keen eye for visual detail. The long-time resident of Russia and correspondent for The Atlantic and National Geographic moves as someone who constantly attuned, always looking outward, and carrying just a small bag. He'll sleep among sheep or in a yurt to try to dig into the culture and surroundings, while still making it seem the natural course of action rather than something to be hammed up for a video camera. (He carries no video camera of course. There's no mention of even a cell phone and he certainly wasn't searching for an outlet for a laptop. Old school for an old world.)
The result is a book that feels real, feels hefty, has serious mental weight. It's an experiential Russian history class, with local teachers giving slurred lessons over shots of vodka. The focus is only seldom on the experienced and multilingual narrator and there's very little whining despite a hundred reasons to to vent. Instead Tayler just paints a good picture, no sugar allowed:
"Away from its historic center, Astrakhan is a foul spread of mechanics' shacks and cement vendors; rubbish-strewn lots of yellowish earth; Caucasian migrants, low-browed and hairy backed, in tracksuits; and hulking Russian women with heat-frizzled hair. We crossed bridges over the Volga and its delta effluents, and reedy marshes closed in on the road, emitting fetid vapors."
The 10 Best of Everything Families: An Ultimate Guide for Travelers
By Susan Magsamen
How do you feel about Top-10 lists? That will largely determine whether this American family travel book annoys you to death or is a valuable resource. If your bookshelf is already filled with travel books that have numbers in the title and you habitually click on the ubiquitous articles promising the "Top-5 Beaches of Boreatia," this this book is for you Mom/Dad. Click on one of those links to the right and buy it post haste.
Hopefully you'll get free shipping as this 2.2 pound brick from National Geographic is a 457-page top-10 list. The format is this: Category (like Ten Best Public Sculptures), a list of those ten spanning two pages, phone and web info, and a one-paragraph description under each. If that sounds like something better suited to an in-depth website, you're right, but then nobody would pay for it would they?
The whole problem with top-10 lists that are subjective (as opposed to say, the 10 best batting averages of all time or the 10 tallest buildings in the world) is that you're constantly thinking to yourself, "Says who?" Are three of the country's best carousels really in one amusement park? Are those 10 amusement parks listed really the best? You could find plenty of detractors for Hershey Park and Coney Island. On some lists a guest expert takes the reins. This sounds good in theory, but in reality it results in major personal biases, like Rick Ridgeway's ten best naturalist's favorites: only one of them is east of the Rocky Mountains.
In all fairness though, the lists here are as good as you could expect overall, with most of them containing the key sites/places that most knowledgeable people would mostly agree on. I was amazed to find some places in my home town that are not as well-known but are indeed the best, including a neighborhood ice cream shop I can walk to. While I would quibble with some entries here and there, the "ten best" are if nothing else, "ten good places" worth checking out.
Most parents will probably use this as an exhaustive treasure trove of ideas. There are the "10 best" of practically anything you can imagine, first split by region and then branching out further. So you get the best zoos, fishing spots, and yes—beaches—in each part of the USA. Then it moves on to some useful and some very obscure examples: botanical gardens, places for stargazers, famous trees, prehistoric sites, roller coasters, colonial landmarks, and family art camps—to name but a few.
The "something for everyone" part makes this one very overwhelming book though, and one that probably could have been cut in half and still appealed to the masses. I don't know about your kid, but mine is going to give a big thumbs down to author's homes, places to stay current, and autograph collecting. At least half the regional specialties listed in the food sections are way too adventurous for the average child. The mere 21 pages devoted to "See the World" come off like a book binding error, with the giant continent of Asia reduced to a few listings in India, Hong Kong, and Japan.
Trying to do too much is better than not trying hard enough though, even though no parent will be able to see or do more than a fraction of what's inside. For just a $21.95 list price, this is both a worthwhile reference book and an insurance policy. Consult this while planning a family break and you've got a pretty good chance of experiencing plenty of highlights.
Editor Tim Leffel is author of the books Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and The World's Cheapest Destinations (now in its 3rd edition). He is co-author of Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America.