Perceptive Travel Book Reviews January 2021
by William Caverlee

In this issue: A travelogue that takes you on a viking adventure, a travel memoir of a Russian family, and a detailed history of forgotten peoples worldwide, helpful reading for anyone planning to visit their former homelands.

Gone Viking: A Travel Saga
By Bill Arnott

Reading a travelogue has long been a pleasurable form of escape. Comfy on your sofa, a hot cup of tea nearby, you lose yourself in the meanderings of a stranger touring some distant land. With Gone Viking, Bill Arnott has given us a multi-country travelogue.

For his hook, Arnott follows the trail of the historic Vikings, those far-ranging Scandinavians with their many explorations, invasions, raids, settlements, and artifacts. Naturally, he traveled widely in northern countries—England, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, along with the North Sea islands—all of which have deep evidence of a Viking presence.

But, according to the author, viking can also be spelled without capitalization, with a meaning given to it by the Scandinavians, "describing the pursuit of wealth or land—legacy-building quests, known as going a-viking, or simply to go viking."

I kept this lower-case meaning in mind, as Arnott opened up his journey, taking side trips to the Pacific coastal islands near his hometown of Vancouver, even to Hawaii. In addition, Arnott takes us to Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, the principal Viking origins. He also visits Newfoundland, Spain, Turkey, France, and Italy. A true saga.

Still, much of Arnott's journey is European, northern, and cold. He begins in the United Kingdom, moving briskly from town to town. Arnott weaves plenty of history throughout his account, but he is simultaneously a modern-day traveler, like you and me, touring a country by train, bus, or car.

Our train arrives at St Ives around midday under threatening sky. From the station we walk a jagged route along beach and cobble streets into town. A maypole dance is taking place just off the foreshore, the familiar music played by a brass band with an oompah sound. Children skip and weave ribbons in a twisting rainbow. I remember doing that as a child and wonder if every kid forced to participate since it began in the Middle Ages has felt equally stupid.

Arnott's prose is often jocular in this vein, poking fun both at himself and the inevitable travel quandaries he meets along the way. He never loses sight of his historical narrative; yet at the same time, this is a true day-to-day account, filled with airplane boardings, scary car rides on twisty roads, ferry crossings, museums, good meals and bad.

There's a breezy quality to Arnott's itinerary (He tours the U.K. twice), and, along with his history lessons, he peppers his text with literary references as well as pop culture references: Game of Thrones; Russell Crowe; Saturday Night Live; the British TV comedy, Detectorists; Kirk Douglas in The Vikings; the Beatles; the Euro Championships; and on and on—all making for a sprightly read. He even offers us several poems he's written.

In short, Arnott provides us with many pages of historical background for anyone interested in the migrations of the sea-going, warlike Vikings—all the while, offering the reader a colorful travelogue.

One Hundred Years of Exile
By Tania Romanov

The subtitle of this memoir is "A Romanov's Search for Her Father's Russia." Some readers might initially think that such a book concerns Tsar Nicholas II, the last crowned head of Russia, murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, along with his wife and children. Or perhaps one might think that this is a historical mystery—in the vein of an Anastasia story, with claims and counter-claims to royalty. It is neither.

The author's full name is Tania Romanov Amochaev, and her roots in Russia are found in the Don Cossack area south of Moscow among sturdy, rural Russians who had to flee their homeland after the revolution in the face of the approaching Red Army. They were a family committed to the tsar but far from royal.

As it happens, a descendant of Nicholas II does make an appearance in the book. Our author, Tania Romanov, briefly meets Marina Romanov, the granddaughter of the sister of Nicholas II, in the United States where Marina was born and today lives. But this is a sidebar to the main story.

One Hundred Years of Exile contains several journeys, embedded in its family history. In the first, the author recounts the harrowing flight of her grandparents and their four young children (the youngest was the author's father) in the 1920s from war-torn Russia across the Ukraine to Crimea, then to Istanbul, eventually settling in Serbia, where the author was born years later.

Another journey takes place in the 1950s, when the author is a young child and her family must once more go into exile, fleeing Communist Yugoslavia, when their Russian heritage has become a dangerous liability. The family makes it to the United States and settles in San Francisco, among an expatriate Russian community that worked hard to preserve its language, culture, and religion.

The third journey occurs in 1977, when Romanov, now an American business executive, travels to Moscow on a business trip and uses the occasion to seek out whatever evidence she can find about her father's life.

The final journey takes place in 2019. The author travels to Russia in the company of several of her American relatives—seeking out obscure villages, cemeteries, farmland, towns. The travelers are hosted by a Russian family they met over the internet, one that shares their name, Amochaev, and who perhaps are their distant relatives. Happily, the two families hit it off quickly—with joyful meals, friendship, hospitality, and good cheer. This unexpected connection between the two families is the heart of the book, as they embark on an auto trip through Russia, deep into the hinterlands, and, indeed, they locate houses and villages and terrains where the author's father and grandparents once lived.

When I first opened this book, I knew that it wasn't a traditional travel book, but I was soon engaged by the author's deep-felt search for her roots, and the background of the Russian Revolution, World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and a family's arrival in America. Soon, I was rummaging through my world atlas—seeking out the countries, towns, and villages that Romanov describes.

322 pages. With maps, a family tree, a glossary of Russian terms, and numerous photographs.

peoples of the ancient world

Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World
By Philip Matyszak

Travelers to the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Europe will find a detailed historical overview of the region in Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World. This book isn't a travelogue or a travel guide—it's straightforward history—but it should be of keen interest to anyone touring the area, to be used either before departure as a kind of preparatory homework or after one's journey as a way of reviewing the sights one has just visited.

The book is organized by chronology, in four main sections, beginning with "The First Civilizations, 2700-1200 BC" and ending with "The Fall of Rome in the West, AD 235-550." The author has profiled forty ancient worlds in all. Some of the names will be recognizable by many readers: Hittites, Philistines, Vandals, and Visigoths. Many of the other names perhaps less so: Akkadians, Hyksos, Epirots, Arverni, Alamanni...Author Matyszak does a good job of introducing us to these obscure peoples, by sprinkling well-known stories, myths, and legends throughout the text to help us connect the historical dots.

For example, we learn that the famous black stone upon which the Law of Hammurabi is written (currently residing in the Louvre) derives from the Amorites, ancient rulers of Babylon. Matyszak goes on to tell us that we have received both the story of King Midas and that of the Gordian Knot from the Phrygians, who resided in what is now modern-day Turkey. The Lydians are said to be "the first people to make and use gold and silver coins." Moviegoers and Stanley Kubrick fans will perk up at the mention of Thrace, home of the Thracians and the birthplace of Spartacus.

No doubt, many students and historians will read Forgotten Peoples straight through, absorbing all forty kingdoms, one after another. Such a reading can leave one with a more or less unrelieved narrative of war, invasion, enslavement, rebellion, massacre, and death. Fortunately, amid the historical mayhem, there's another reading available: that of art, language, architecture, engineering, creativity, and law.

In the chapter titled "The Nabataeans," for instance, the author describes the city of Petra, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, visited by countless tourists who want to gaze upon the awe-inspiring, carved stone facade of the "Treasury" building. (Along with all the actual visitors to Petra, there's no telling how many millions of people will recognize the Treasury building from Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.) As the author relates, between 550 BC and AD 600, in an isolated desert, the Nabataeans created a major trading center, a fertile oasis, and a prosperous city.

288 pages. Hardcover, with index, bibliography, maps, and numerous photographs of artifacts, landscapes, and ancient structures.

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

Sign Up

One Hundred Years of Exile

Buy One Hundred Years of Exile at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon
Amazon UK
Amazon Canada
Kobo Books

Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World

Buy Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon
Amazon UK
Amazon Canada
Kobo Books