Perceptive Travel Book Reviews September 2012
by William Caverlee



In this issue: The futile attempt to avoid acting like a tourist in Europe, visiting the world's most polluted places, and an anthology from travel writing's all-stars.



Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day
By Doug Mack

In his quick-witted, sprightly travelogue, Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day, author Doug Mack addresses a common dilemma of travelers: how to see the famous sights—Paris, Rome, Venice—and not feel like one more brainless tourist, camera in hand, queued up at the ATM machine, and wondering why there are so many foreigners everywhere you look.

There's no solution, of course—although Mack offers a brief history of mass tourism, with its roots in the Grand Tour of the seventeenth century:

The term "tourist" dates to around 1780, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The pejorative usage followed shortly after, with the English diarist Francis Kilvert grousing, in 1870, "Of all noxious animals . . . the most noxious is a tourist."

Naturally, after reading that, most of us will attempt to escape the crowds of Mont St. Michel and the Trevi Fountain by searching for an undiscovered village in Provence or a rustic Greek isle. There, we hope to experience the "real" Europe, maybe meet a few locals, be invited to a rural wedding, drink wine with the bride's father, dance, sing, and store up a summer's worth of colorful Old World memories.

Sorry, but that doesn't work either, Mack explains. At best, we replace one set of clichés with another. The more desperately we seek an "authentic" traveler's experience, the greater our inevitable disappointment. Once, when Mack was riding the bus from Pisa to Florence, he saw that:

The people, the landscape, the architecture: everything matched the stereotypical representations put forth by Hollywood, tourist brochures, wine bottle labels, and other purveyors of fantasies and half-truths. . . .

It was postcard-perfect, as though contrived by the local tourism board—"Giovanni, here they come! Go drive past them on your Vespa! Carmela, hide the satellite dish and put your delightfully scruffy goats out in the field! Quickly! Prego. Ciao. "

In other words, each step off the beaten path is just one more gesture of futility. This is the existential Möbius strip that the American writer, Walker Percy, analyzed in his essay, "The Loss of the Creature." Percy invents an ordinary family on vacation at the Grand Canyon, a family that arrives at the famous site, snaps photographs, peers over the edge, returns home, and almost assuredly never saw the canyon. Doug Mack's book idea—a modern-day reenactment of Arthur Frommer's classic guidebook, Europe on Five Dollars a Day—is thus a Percian retro-move, a stratagem of deep irony.

Still, in Frommer's dusty old tome, Mack has found an ingenious hook for a travelogue. Mack offers us a series of modern-day profiles of Florence, Paris, Berlin, Venice, eleven cities in all. He's a young writer; he was in his twenties when he made his tour. As a result, Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day is peopled with intrepid backpackers, Brits running wild in Amsterdam, noisy roommates in over-crowded hostels. The book is written in an improvisatory, blog-like style, but Mack is invariably cheerful and literate, and he makes for good company in this breezy traipse through today's Europe.






Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places
By Andrew Blackwell

The American muckrakers of the early twentieth century were relentless crusaders, calling society to account for its sins and explaining the evil of its ways. In the aftermath of modern-day catastrophes like Chernobyl, author Andrew Blackwell tours our self-created cesspools like a gleeful undergraduate poking among the ruins. What other approach serves to describe the Chernobyl Museum, complete with disaster memorabilia, which Blackwell visited before heading to the Exclusion Zone itself, where Geiger counters are essential travelers' gear?

A tireless gadfly, Blackwell crisscrosses the planet. He signs on as a deckhand aboard the 150-foot-long Kaisei to search for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He revels in deforestation in Brazil; lauds Linfen, China, "the most polluted city in the world," (coal); hikes with sadhus in sewage-befouled India. In Alberta, Canada, he tours the Suncor and Syncrude oil-sand processing plants, which not only consume staggering quantities of natural gas and water (drawn from a local river), but create mountains of sulfur as a byproduct—sulfur which naturally has to be parked somewhere. The resourceful Canadians have stacked up enormous piles of it, "building what is now a trio of vast, flat-topped ziggurats fifty or sixty feet tall and up to a quarter mile wide."

Not to be outdone by their neighbors to the north, Americans in the oil town of Port Arthur, Texas, have created a cozy Chamber of Commerce hell:

The downtown is literally encircled by steel forests billowing sulfurous air day and night. It smells like rotten eggs. Then there are the occasional upsets—accidents or malfunctions that sometimes result in the emergency release of fuel and other refinery goods into the atmosphere. . . . And once in a blue moon—seriously, only very occasionally—the plants self-annihilate. They explode. In Texas City, ninety miles to the west, a 2005 refinery explosion killed 15 people and injured more than 170.

Blackwell doesn't mention that the Texas City explosion occurred courtesy of oil giant, BP, before it turned its talents to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion off the coast of Louisiana. (Eleven killed, seventeen injured, and 4.9 million barrels of crude oil released into the Gulf of Mexico.) This is the same BP, of course, that performed a rehearsal for Deepwater with the Prudhoe Bay oil spill of 2006. Three for the record books!—they always come in threes, don't they? Those of us who live in Louisiana get to watch BP's surreal, post-Deepwater commercials on television: "This was the Gulf's best tourism season in years! . . . This year was great, but next year is going to be even better! . . . Sun's out, the water's beautiful. . . . A birdwatcher's paradise. . . ."

I'm sure that such demoniac ad-speak would please Andrew Blackwell to no end.






The New Granta Book of Travel
Edited by Liz Jobey

In this 429-page anthology, the London-based literary journal, Granta, has assembled a dream team of writers including Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Jonathan Raban, and twenty other international all-stars. Posthumous contributions are from Bruce Chatwin, Pierre Clastres, Ryszard Kapuściński, and W.G. Sebald. The essays, whether short or long, cover every subject that the word "travel" might be conceived to define: post-Soviet Siberia, an endless war in Kashmir, sex tours in Thailand, a dive aboard a research sub at 5,000 meters. Throughout, the level of the writing is remarkable, easily surpassing that of the last dozen or so books I've reviewed for this webzine. The New Granta Book of Travel is not a guidebook, not meant to be lugged along on your next vacation to Ireland or India. Read it at home over a long winter—while snowed-in, if possible. Here are excerpts from Redmond O'Hanlon and James Hamilton-Paterson.

This is a very effective display, I thought, patronizingly. Then, I thought, (less patronizingly), these apes are big. And then I remembered Jane Goodall's account of the chimpanzee's idea of a maximum excitement, a really good day out: you grab a young baboon or colobus by the foot, bash its brains out on a tree, rip it to bits and eat it. I had a sudden twinge of fear, and in the maelstrom of whirling sound waves it was not amenable to reason. [O'Hanlon]

Despite the occasional fish and the ubiquitous signs of other life being lived at a pressure of 500 atmospheres, the world beyond our titanium sphere was somehow pre-Genesis. The Garden of Eden was yet to come. I was an anachronism, a time traveler, non-existent. We were more than lost: we were expunged from the record. And yet I felt secure. [Hamilton-Paterson]

W.G. Sebald's long account of a tour of Vienna, Venice, and Verona reads as if a member of the doomed were describing three of Dante's circles of Hell. Sebald has written an anti-travelogue, terrifying, relentless, morbid, yet oddly inspiring (even at times humorous) by means of his graceful, ghostly prose: "The staff, remarkably restrained as they appeared, had a way of setting down the glasses, saucers and ashtrays on the marble surface with such vehemence, it seemed they were determined to all but shatter them."

Paul Theroux's short masterful essay, "Trespass," takes up only 5 of the book's 429 pages. It is a reminiscence and anecdote of his youthful days as a teacher in Africa, when sexual escapades with locals were every young man's prerogative. The quasi-kidnapping he recounts becomes a lesson for all first-world travelers in the third world. No mere cautionary tale, however, even less a wistful remembrance of youth, "Trespass" is a concise evocation of shame.




William Caverlee is a contributing writer for the Oxford American magazine, and the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, www.ulpress.org. His feature articles and short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals.



See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee





Also in this Issue



Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day

Buy Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)









international travel






Visit Sunny Chernobyl

Buy Visit Sunny Chernobyl in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)














The New Granta Book of Travel

Buy The New Granta Book of Travel in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)