Perceptive Travel Book Reviews January 2020
by William Caverlee

In this issue: a look at the rugged and wild coasts of Canada in photographs, the latest book about Italy from Frances Mayes, and a guide to voluntourism around the world.

The Wild Coasts of Canada
By Scott Forsyth

At 288 pages, the photography book, The Wild Coasts of Canada, is an armful. But the book's dozens and dozens of spectacular full-page color photographs deserve its large format.

Photographer and author Scott Forsyth logged many daring miles—via tall ship, Zodiac, helicopter, an eight-story ocean-going vessel, as well as on foot—during expeditions to Canada's three coastlines to capture his images: mountains, fjords, forests, glaciers, sky, and ice. Also: grizzly bears, polar bears, orcas, birds, and sea lions. Nor does he omit the human face of Canada: Inuit, Haida, fishermen, kayakers, islanders, as well as numerous tiny ports and settlements.

The book is divided into three sections: Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic. In each, Forsyth has included several pages of history and description. In addition, every photograph in the book has a detailed paragraph of background information. In short, there is plenty of text here to teach us about Canada, its history and geography. For me, nearly every sentence was an introduction to a new world.

Victoria Island, or Kitlineq, is the eighth-largest island in the world, larger than Great Britain and nearly double the size of Newfoundland.

In the Pacific Ocean lies a chain of islands several kilometres offshore along the edge of the North American continental plate—Haida Gwaii. The Haida people have lived here for more than 12,500 years.

Still, it is the magnificent photographs that are the heart of the book. Here are hyper-green rainforests and eerie, wide-angle Arctic landscapes. The author seems to intuit that we might become overwhelmed by so many unearthly, albeit gorgeous, landscapes, and so he has included houses, fishing boats, an Arctic hare (its bright white fur is like a small explosion of light after so many pages of ice and rock). There is a shot of the members of a six-piece brass band from the town of Nain in Newfoundland and Labrador, who are playing their instruments, for some reason, while seated on the roof of a house.

My favorite photo covers two pages (which makes for a stunningly huge image, 10 inches high by 22 inches wide) of a collection of houses along the waterfront of St. John's Harbour. The houses hang precariously at water's edge with a foggy mountainside directly behind and a stretch of calm, blue-green water in front—calm for now, you might say, since some of the wooden structures look to be in need of repair. Others appear sturdier, painted blue, yellow, red, white. I suppose it is the human evidence in the photo that appeals to me, the buildings and the splash of wishful color against the rocks and cliffs.

See You in the Piazza
By Frances Mayes

Frances Mayes is the author of the best-seller, Under the Tuscan Sun, plus six other books with the word "Tuscany" in the title. In other words, she's forgotten more about Italy than you and I will ever know. See You in the Piazza is a tour of Italy in the company of Mayes and her husband, who journey the length of the country from the Piemonte region in the north down to Puglia in the south, then onward to Sardinia and Sicily. They are tireless travelers, seeking out Italy's art and architecture, but especially its food and wine, and at times the book reads like a nonstop, jubilant banquet. The author has even included twenty-three recipes from restaurants she visited along the way.

The book's subtitle is "New Places to Discover in Italy," and indeed Mayes mostly skips over the over-famous cities of Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome, and Naples in order to linger in smaller places with names like Alba, Merano, Asolo, Lucera.

What amazes me most about Italy is that I travel a few kilometers and everything changes. A different pasta, a dialect incomprehensible from the last town's. Different artists...

Much of the tour is an auto journey in the couple's Alfa Romeo, sometimes with their fifteen-year-old grandson in tow, other times meeting up with a few good friends along the way. Mayes is always on the lookout for the next delicious meal, for local wines and cheeses, for small hotels and country inns, and for great works of art in quiet churches where she and her husband are the only visitors. The book includes notes and directions, but Mayes hasn't written a guidebook—rather a journal, a true travelogue, written with a far-ranging curiosity on many subjects: history, literature, architecture, language, in addition to her over-arching theme of food.

I couldn't detect the exact dates that Mayes and her husband traveled—a riddle common to many travelogues. No matter. I was happy to tag along on their ramble, all the while wishing I could join them at table.

The plain pasta bowls arrive and the woodsy scent of the truffles rises. The ravioli is light, not chewy. Taleggio is one of my favorite cheeses, and this has melted to a creamy richness that marries the generous shavings of truffle.

"This is good?" the waiter asks. No, it's heaven.

Travel With Purpose: A Field Guide to Voluntourism
By Jeff Blumenfeld

In Travel With Purpose, Jeff Blumenfeld has written an introduction to voluntourism, a relatively new word used to describe a type of travel. He tracks down the origin of the word to "travel writer Alison Gardner who wrote a feature article in 1994 about volunteer vacations for older travelers." Today, the term covers a large array of opportunities for people, both young and old, to merge their travel activities with a stint of volunteer work, either abroad or in one's own country.

In the book's appendix, Blumenfeld lists forty-seven organizations that a reader can contact about opportunities in voluntourism: for example, the Sierra Club;; Responsible Travel; Earthwatch Institute; VolunteerMatch; Habitat for Humanity...

The author illustrates his subject through numerous personal stories. Examples of these are a New York businessman who travels regularly to Honduras as part of Honduras Outreach, transporting supplies and working with his own hands on construction projects; a former Maine state representative who travels to Kenya, Uganda, and Sierra Leone; a Rotary Club member in Florida who works with ShelterBox USA, providing emergency aid during natural disasters; and a PR executive who founded Sylvia's Children, which benefits a school in Uganda, raising funds and organizing volunteer trips for others.

Blumenfeld himself has traveled on eye-care missions to Nepal, has worked with Habitat for Humanity, and has made numerous other journeys over the years, combining travel with work for others. His book is filled with "how-to" tips, suggestions, links, and references. One of the book's chapters is entitled "Stay Safe Out There"—about issues of health and personal safety. In another chapter, "The Dark Side of Voluntourism," he writes about a number of very serious criticisms of the subject.

Travel with Purpose sets out to provide an overview of voluntourism and to provide information for those who wish to learn more. In the end, the author holds by his thesis that this form of travel is a force for good in the world, both for the recipients of aid and for those who go forth to offer that aid.

William Caverlee is a freelance writer who has been published in numerous magazines and literary journals, including The Oxford American, Cimarron Review, Flight Journal, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. His work appears in The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings, and 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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See You in the Piazza

Buy See You in the Piazza at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Travel With Purpose: A Field Guide to Voluntourism

Buy Travel With Purpose: A Field Guide to Voluntourism at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon
Amazon UK