Perceptive Travel Book Reviews March 2015
by William Caverlee

In this issue: A classic tale goes big for Hollywood, another anthology of travel stories edited by Don George, and a memoir of the "Two Italies" that has two meanings.

Inside Tracks: Robyn Davidson's Solo Journey Across the Outback
By Rick Smolan

A coffee table book on steroids, Inside Tracks is the biggest book I own. Well, Webster's Third New International outweighs it, but Inside Tracks is wider and taller and won't fit on a bookshelf. That said, it's a handsome brute, filled with stunning color photographs of Robyn Davidson's awe-inspiring 1977 trek across the wilds of western Australia in the company of four camels and a dog.

No surprise about the timing of the book's publication: It coincides with the release of the feature film, Tracks, based on Davidson's best-seller of the same name. In fact, Inside Tracks is divided into two parts: 1) a photo record of the original trek with an introduction by Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer who took the shots, along with a postscript by Davidson herself. 2) A photographic companion piece to the movie aimed at fans and potential ticket buyers.

Whatever your opinion of modern-day adventurers like Davidson, Cheryl Strayed, Richard Branson, or other risk-taking, Everest-climbing, crowing-in-victory self-promoters, the photos here of Australia are spectacular, especially when the images cover two pages, and you're staring at a huge print of Ayers Rock or an impossibly blue Indian Ocean.

Of the book's two sections, I found myself more interested in part one, consisting of Smolan's photos from the actual journey, with its color-saturated landscapes and close-ups of Robyn Davidson in moments of bliss, exaltation, grief, or unimaginable duress.

Part two contains astounding photography as well, although I found it slightly annoying to have to take part in a Hollywood publicity campaign. We're inundated with movies and movie chatter everywhere we turn. Does Hollywood have to write all the books as well?

An Innocent Abroad: Life-changing trips from 35 great writers
By Don George

In two of Don George's recent anthologies, reviewed here and here, he asked food writers and fiction writers to compose travel essays. Now, in An Innocent Abroad, he has again rounded up a busload of all-stars, this time asking them to rummage in their memories and re-visit a travel adventure that was a turning point in their lives.

The resulting collection is a lively hodgepodge. Contributors include such literary eminences as David Baldacci, Dave Eggers, Richard Ford, Mary Karr, Ann Patchett, Jane Smiley, Cheryl Strayed, and Simon Winchester. And atop the marquee, shine the familiar names of Pico Iyer and Jan Morris, travel writing superstars who have appeared in all three books.

Once again, there's a crowd of somewhat lesser-known authors (well, less known by me) to fill out the cast. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the essays from this second tier are the brightest in the bunch.

For her tale, Candace Rose Rardon walks alone across Turkey—for the most part without incident, encountering only kindness and welcome, except for the day that two scary-looking young men follow her ominously. "But here there was no mistaking it—the pulse-quickening, blood-thickening instinctual feeling of fear, pumping a steady surge of adrenaline into every cell in my body." Fortunately, a pair of middle-aged Turkish men appear from out of nowhere and escort her the next few miles to safety.

Jenna Scatena seeks out the "Cave Master of Thailand" and, to her peril, finds him. Virginia Abbott endures nausea, dehydration, vomiting, and migraines from a case of altitude sickness while touring the Puna desert of Argentina. Lavinia Spalding confronts a thief in her apartment at 2 a.m. in South Korea. Jim Benning accompanies his World War II combat-veteran father on a battlefield tour of Europe.

These stories and others (admittedly less dire) make An Innocent Abroad an enjoyable read. Editor Don George is no doubt already working on his next anthology. I look forward to it.

*Postscript There's a list of contributors' bios at the end of An Innocent Abroad. Nice touch, I thought, while riffling pages to learn something about those authors whose names were new to me. Yet the list was arranged alphabetically by first names! Is this the latest thing in publishing? Can we look forward to phone books arranged by first names? Encyclopedia entries? Albert Einstein, Britney Spears, Cleopatra, Dizzy Gillespie…

My Two Italies
By Joseph Luzzi

My Two Italies is a family memoir and a meditation on identity. The author, Joseph Luzzi, is an American university professor, whose parents were born in southern Italy and emigrated to Rhode Island in the 1950s.

Luzzi's two Italies are, first of all, the Old Country of his ancestors and the new one of Italian Americans, making their way in the New World. But, more pointedly, there's a further division: between that of northern Italy and southern Italy. It's a division that, according to Luzzi, has long existed between the culturally sophisticated, high-art north and the rough-edged, sun-drenched south.

When I finally made it to Italy for the first time, as a college student in 1987, it was Florence and not Calabria that beckoned. I yearned for the Italy of Dante and Michelangelo, not the one of sharp cheese and salted anchovies.

Yet the south is Luzzi's ancestral home, "that blasted Calabrian landscape," which persevered in Rhode Island during his childhood, kept alive by his parents and relatives: "Their broken English, canned tomatoes and slaughtered pigs, homemade wine and cured meats—it all reeked of the Old Country."

As Luzzi wrangles with these issues of family and culture, we readers benefit from his wide-ranging interests: Dante, Tuscany, Florence, Italian cuisine, Silvio Berlusconi, Aldo Moro, World War II, linguistics, The Godfather, The Sopranos, Shelley, Botticelli… . About the only things Luzzi doesn't touch on are opera and the Catholic Church. Then, in the midst of these divagations, the author begins his third chapter with a shock.

On November 29, 2007, I lost my wife, Katherine Mester, suddenly, in a car accident. This book is not the place to dwell on this tragedy and the long season of grief and mourning that followed. It is enough to say that for a full year afterward, I needed an extraordinary amount of help, and not just to take care of myself. The day of my wife's death, she was eight and a half months pregnant. After an emergency cesarean, our daughter, Isabel, was born at eleven a.m.; Katherine died forty-five minutes later.

Needless to say, like most readers, I had to put the book down for a moment after reading that passage—due to my sadness for the author and the sense that the book in my hands was becoming something else. I tried to imagine the discussions between Luzzi and his publishers about how to deal with this subject. Perhaps a short paragraph was the solution they had agreed upon. So I kept reading.

As it turns out, Luzzi doesn't follow his own advice, for succeeding chapters contain numerous passages about Luzzi's life with his wife: their courtship, wedding, Katherine's pregnancy, finally the terrible tragedy of her death. In my opinion, a heartbreaking story like this deserves a book of its own and the publishers made a mistake in including an abridged version here.

Still, My Two Italies is an excellent introduction to a country that continues to attract throngs of travelers. Italy, both north and south, is revealed to us through the wisdom and erudition of an acutely intelligent author.

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, published by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

Inside Tracks

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

An Innocent Abroad

Buy An Innocent Abroad in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

My Two Italies

Buy My Two Italies at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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