Perceptive Travel Book Reviews July 2016
by William Caverlee



In this issue: A comprehensive U.S. national parks rundown, the joys of travel anticipation and exploration, and a novel with a detailed window into India.





National Parks of America
Edited by Karyn Noble and Ali Lemer

At 20,237 feet, Denali, in Alaska, is the highest mountain in the fifty-nine national parks of the U.S. National Park Service—a government agency which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Lowest point? Death Valley in California (282 feet below sea level). The largest park is Wrangell-St. Elias, in Alaska, which covers an astonishing 20,625 square miles (an area larger than the states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined). Smallest? Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas at 8.6 square miles.

I gleaned these facts from Lonely Planet's coffee table/guide book, National Parks of America. Like many books of this kind, National Parks contains page after page of terrific color photography and highly useful data. Also, plenty of jaunty, somewhat bossy, sidebars with names like "Stay here..." and "Do this!" and "Itineraries." This last feature, a day-by-day schedule, sends us out like obedient campers to see the obligatory sights and hike the essential trails.

Set your alarm for very early—and don't you dare hit 'snooze.' Depending on where on the island you're staying, it'll take two hours or more to drive to the volcano's summit. You'll want to be standing on the crater rim well before dawn breaks, when the sun performs its light show among the clouds and cinder cones. Evade the crowds huddled at the summit overlook by climbing a short way up Pa Ka'oao (White Hill) for a better perch...

Of course, few people actually read a guidebook straight through. Most of us browse here and there, before setting out on a journey or while recalling a family trip out west when we visited Carlsbad Caverns, the Grand Canyon, and every souvenir stand between the Mississippi River and California. Snake Farm 10 miles ahead! 3-D Postcards! See Pikes Peak!

In each chapter of National Parks, I was drawn to the sidebar called "What to spot," with its examples of interesting wildlife: like the ring-tailed cat in Nevada; the yellow-bellied marmot in Utah; and the musk ox in Alaska. Musk ox?! I thought they were mythological, or else extinct, and here they are, alive and well in North America.

Oldest park? Yellowstone, 1872. Unless you credit the claim of Hot Springs in Arkansas, which President Andrew Jackson named Hot Springs Reservation in 1832.

Filled to the brim with facts and photos, National Parks makes its way from Maine to California, even ranging to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Samoa. For those seeking solitude, Yellowstone might not be the best choice. It receives 3 million visitors a year. But the grand prize goes to Great Smoky Mountains with more than 10 million.

The most exotic place might be American Samoa National Park, located "2600 miles (4184 km) southwest of Hawaii" in the Pacific Ocean. To get there, you have to fly fourteen hours from Los Angeles—a bit off the beaten trail but then you avoid all those long lines of cars at Yellowstone and Yosemite.






The Joys of Travel
Edited by Thomas Swick

Journalist and author, Thomas Swick has been a long-time travel editor for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, from which post he roamed far and wide. In The Joys of Travel he has compiled a collection of his travel pieces divided into two parts: first, a group of general essays on travel (with titles like "Anticipation," "Break from Routine," "Discovery"); and second, a group of reports from specific journeys he made. The writing in part one tends toward abstraction and reflection:

The road trip has long been an American ideal, and its apotheosis is the one that goes coast to coast. We come in two types: those who've driven cross-country and those who dream of doing so...

There is an uncertainty about travel that affects even seasoned travelers. For us it's mostly exciting, but there's always a feeling of anxiety in abandoning (even for a short time) what we know (even if it's tedium). To travel is to make yourself vulnerable... .

After this first batch of introductory essays, Swick gets down to his newspaper and magazine reportage. Here, we travel to Warsaw, Burma, Bangkok, Key West, Sicily, Bavaria. Here, we join Swick on perilous train trips, or tracking down Hemingway legends, or being jostled by boisterous revelers at Oktoberfest. Like every good journalist, Swick is alert, observant, and always curious.

Going out to explore, I found Palermo in a deep sleep. It was mid-afternoon on a Sunday in mid-August. Streets narrowed and darkened, at one point opening up to a sunlit intersection of stupendous decay. Abandoned buildings, sick with graffiti and boarded-up windows, seemed in competition to see which one could hold up the longest.

I preferred the richly detailed travel dispatches in part two over the remembrances and reflections in part one. The early essays were certainly readable and valid but my interest grew markedly when I got to the travel stories, which, for me, were the heart of the matter. When a first-rate travel writer like Swick sets us down in a new city, in a new country, we know we've landed on firm ground.






The Yoga of Max's Discontent
By Karan Bajaj

The Yoga of Max's Discontent is a novel about spiritual self-discovery set largely in India. Such a work of fiction might seem like a stretch for readers of travel books, but I include it here because of its gritty descriptions of present-day India along the guru-trail.

At the novel's outset, the protagonist, Max Pzoras, who works on Wall Street, has a chance meeting with an Indian food-cart vendor, quits his job, leaves New York, and flies to India to begin his quest.

From New Delhi, he travels north by train to the foothills of the Himalayas, in search of a place called Bhojbasa and a mysterious Brazilian doctor who has become a famous yogi. Max's plan is as half-cocked as it sounds and he nearly dies of cold and exposure in a solo trek into the mountains. Eventually, Max makes his way to an isolated ashram in the south of India, where he trains under a yogi named Ramakrishna.

It is during Max's crisscrossing trips by train and bus that we are given a colorful, detailed immersion in modern India, with its sounds, smells, crowds, markets. At times, there seem to be gurus and yogis on every corner, eager to exploit the earnest westerners arriving daily in search of their destiny.

Along his journey, Max finds time for a couple of romantic encounters, but the greater part of the novel is devoted to mystical practices and to Max's laborious path toward enlightenment. There is much talk of asanas, pranayama, meditation, silence, kundalini, and so forth.

It will be up to the reader to determine how much of this is interesting. For travel-book readers, the novel exerts its own pull: frozen mountains; stupendously crowded cities; desolate, sun-scorched villages. Also: motorcycles, internet cafés, cell phones, malaria pills, cobras, drought, shops of every description. A portrait of India through the eyes of a novelist.




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





Also in this issue:






National Parks of America

Buy National Parks of America at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Kobo


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Joys of Travel

Buy The Joys of Travel in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Kobo











The Yoga of Max's Discontent

Buy The Yoga of Max's Discontent at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Kobo