Perceptive Travel Book Reviews January 2015
by William Caverlee



In this issue: Three new books from authors who have graced the pages of Perceptive Travel: an old-school adventurer, a man who straddles both fiction and non-fiction taking on Berlin, and the Signspotting series author presenting a "best of" edition.



Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails
By James Dorsey

Reading these stories of wilderness and derring-do in Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails, it soon becomes clear that author/photographer James Dorsey is the real thing: an old-style adventurer willing to risk life and limb to reach some hidden village in Africa or Asia or the other side of the moon.

Time and again, he comes close to dying of thirst or being killed by animal attack or gunfire. As our guide on these sometimes terrifying, often inspiring, adventures, Dorsey writes with a humane, enlightened, intelligent voice. His journeys are as much spiritual journeys as travel tales.

I particularly liked his black-and-white photography: a Mursi tribesman in Ethiopia wielding knife and AK47; an ancient wood-carver in Kashgar; a benevolent Buddhist nun in Cambodia.

Dorsey rides camels with Tuaregs in the Sahara, dines on goat with Maasai in Kenya, and confronts a ferocious baboon with Bushmen in Tanzania. (Some of these stories first appeared in Perceptive Travel: search "Dorsey" in the archives.)

In describing his encounters with village headmen, voodoo priests, Greek monks, and dozens of others, he writes with decency, humor, and open-mindedness.

The jungles of Cambodia are filled with ornate shrines, massive stone edifices with a larger than life carved Buddha, colorful prayer flags, incense burners and candles, all in danger of being reclaimed by the jungle. . . . They dot the remote countryside in the most unlikely places; small islands of beauty in a land devastated by 2,000 years of war and monuments to the indestructability of the human spirit.

*

The Hadza Bushmen of western Tanzania are a dying race, isolated from the rest of Africa by language, culture, and an absolute refusal to update an ancient way of living. They travel light, with minimal possessions, sleeping in caves or on the ground in overnight grass shelters, as feral as the land itself.

Unfortunately, the book is riddled with typos and grammatical errors. Also: misspellings, misuse of words, errors in punctuation, capitalization, and the use of numerals and dates.

I mention this because the number of mistakes goes far beyond the ordinary typos every writer makes. To tell the truth, I have no idea how a book could make it to publication with errors like beaurocratic; entre; quiloquial (??); I-pod; faux-paux; Galois (for the French cigarette); and on and on. My copy of Vanishing Tales did not indicate that it was a proof or pre-publication copy. Whatever the case, it is in dire need of editing.

Still, I greatly enjoyed the stories in this book, and I admire its courageous author and its entrée into so many new worlds.






Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries
By Rory MacLean

As a Francophile and lover of Paris, I am woefully ignorant of most things German. In truth, the prospect of spending a season in Berlin leaves me cold, but I found Rory MacLean's Berlin to be a prodigious, if idiosyncratic, history. MacLean freely utilizes a fiction writer's techniques in this collection of profiles of both historical and imagined characters.

We begin in medieval Berlin in 1469 with a poet named Konrad von Cölln, an invented character, it seems. We jump to 1618 in the next chapter, then on to Frederick the Great in 1762 and so on. MacLean offers us nothing in the way of introduction to his historical fictions (or fictionalized histories), and for those of us without the author's erudition and deep base of knowledge, these highly elliptical reveries are difficult to follow, at times nearly unintelligible, like finding yourself inside someone else's fantasies.

He never liked to scribe the words, never liked to clip their wings, to fix them in time like the poor, glass-eyed songbirds stuffed and mounted in the Kurfürst's Room of Wonders. Words spoken were thoughts alive, unfettered, tracing ever-changing patterns in the air and mind, blown to and fro by a breath of fancy or gust of laughter. A gilding here, an embellishment there, the deed of a hero or the tender-hearted longing of a shepherdess tweaked and tailored for Cölln, Berlin, Spandau or Treptow.

Thus begins chapter one, "Marienkirche, 1469," about the above-mentioned medieval poet. Many of MacLean's early profiles left me unmoved due to his over-stylized prose and his often breathless tone. Things began to gain traction when the book entered the twentieth century and recognizable names began to appear: Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, Albert Speer, Joseph Goebbels. Hitler doesn't receive a chapter of his own, but he pervades these chapters like a poisonous fume.

MacLean's storytelling approach to history isn't for everyone, but I praise the considerable research, reading, and wisdom evident in these pages. Born in Canada, MacLean now lives in Berlin and clearly he loves his adopted city. Still, he does not shirk in naming the unprecedented evil synonymous with this city in the twentieth century: the evil of Nazism spreading outward upon the world with the demoniac results that have been so well documented. Berlin includes an index and numerous black-and-white illustrations. 421 pages.

*Postscript: Berlin contains an epigraph credited to German writer Christa Wolf. What's this? I thought, being a resident of the American South, and somewhat shocked, because the quote is a version of a famous line by William Faulkner: "The past is never dead; it's not even past."

It didn't take but a single Google click to discover that Wolf had used the Faulkner line as an homage in one of her novels. Fair enough, but why didn't MacLean or his publisher make note of this fact for those readers who might not make the connection?






Ultimate Signspotting
By Doug Lansky

Doug Lansky

Ultimate Signspotting is a slender, pocket-sized collection of funny photos depicting road signs, store signs, and traffic signs from around the world, with zanily inaccurate English translations and improbable advice. It reminds you of the old Tonight Show bit called "Headlines," in which Jay Leno recited newspaper screw-ups. Quick, easy, effortless jokes, which take the form here of 160 pages of comic photographs and malapropisms culled from the others in this series.

A bagatelle like this is nothing to make a fuss over, whether you are a reader or a reviewer. Rather, it makes for a cheerful last-minute backpack addition for your inevitable fifteen-hour layover at an airport in Cleveland or Kathmandu. If, like most of us, you don't mind a few harmless jokes now and then, this book can be the occasion of chuckles when you need them most. But don't expect much more.

I liked the photo of a health club in California, "24 Hour Fitness," with a pair of escalators alongside the front steps. And the traffic sign in a desert in Namibia helpfully explaining, "Sand." Then there's the existentialist sign on the door of a building in Missouri that says, "This is not a door"—a perfect stage prop for a performance of Waiting for Godot.




William Caverlee is a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including The Oxford American, The Christian Science Monitor, Aviation History, Flight Journal, World War II Quarterly and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. He's the author of a collection of essays, Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays, published by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.



See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee





Also in this issue:


Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails

Buy Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Kobo



Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries

Buy Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Kobo





Ultimate Signspotting

Buy Ultimate Signspotting at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK







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