Perceptive Travel Book Reviews March 2016
by William Caverlee

In this issue: Looking back on a pivitol post-Peace-Corps journey, Paul Theroux tours the rural Deep South in depth, and Lonely Planet attempts the ultimate wine travel book.

Crocodile Love
By Joshua Berman

Crocodile Love is an excellent travelogue in which a young, just-married American couple skip the honeymoon in Hawaii and choose instead to embark on a gritty, backwater, danger-skirting, sixteen-month tour of Pakistan, India, Southeast Asia and Africa.

Joshua and Sutay were already seasoned travelers—they'd both served in the Peace Corps—when they became engaged and began planning their "off the grid" honeymoon. Early in the book, author Berman pauses a moment to explain his wife's name:

"Sutay" is the Mandinka name that my wife's adopted father, Baba, had given her in West Africa several years before we met. She'd grown up with a more typical name in a more typical setting—suburban Colorado.

The first stop on the honeymoon was Pakistan, which in 2005, was not exactly a vacation magnet for Americans. In fact, the "U.S. State Department was advising against 'nonessential travel' anywhere in the country." In response, Berman told himself "that a place was never as bad as people made it out to be," a pronouncement that sounds like wishful thinking.

And sure enough, Sutay fell ill soon after arriving in Pakistan, was groped by a taxi driver in Islamabad, and suffered altitude sickness during a trek in the Himalayas.

Throughout the journey, the couple endured terrifying bus and airplane rides, over-crowded train trips, miserable heat, mosquitoes, squat latrines, fly-coated meals in dubious restaurants, dicey border crossings, grimy hostels, and all the rest of the discomforts of a Westerner's close-up immersion in the Third World.

They also experienced joy, hospitality, and friendship beyond their imaginings.

In a deeply moving account, they visited the village in The Gambia, where, ten years earlier as a Peace Corps volunteer, Sutay had lived and worked and received her African name as the adopted daughter of village elder, Sarjo Njara Sabally, called Baba.

Baba had watched over Sutay, ensuring her shelter, food, protection, and honor. He had saved her life once, arranging transport to the clinic in Farefenni after Konko, Sutay's adopted brother, had found her deathly ill, sprawled unconscious behind her hut, in vomit and diarrhea and raging with fever.

Baba turned to me and spoke in Mandinka with Sutay translating, "Sutay Sabally is my daughter. Now you are her husband, so I give you the name 'Lamin Sabally.'"

Baba never stopped looking me in the eyes as he took my hands in his and pressed them. Lamin was the name given to all firstborn Mandinka sons. And so it was.

With maps and numerous black-and-white photos. Recommended, though I wish the title explanation didn't require reading nearly to the end…

Deep South
By Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux is probably the most famous travel writer in the world. A novelist and short story writer as well, he appears regularly in The New Yorker and other eminent journals. Deep South is his report of a year-plus, on-and-off, driving tour of the American South. (Full disclosure: I live in the South.)

Theroux announces at the onset that he plans to stick to back roads and small towns, thus bypassing Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, Austin, Houston (he skips Texas in its entirety). Thus omitting almost any semblance of art and culture that the region has to offer.

That said, Theroux logs an astonishing number of miles, meets every sort of small-town Southerner, visits churches, gun shows, cafés, and hamlets—all the while taking on the role of outsider, a stranger in a strange land, the traditional role of a visitor to an unexplored territory, which in the case of Massachusetts-born Theroux, happens to be true.

Again and again, he finds himself shocked by the poverty and despair he encounters in places like the Mississippi Delta or certain burned-out villages of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina.

These poor folk are poorer in their way (as I was to find) and less able to manage and more hopeless than many people I had traveled among in distressed parts of Africa and Asia. Living in the buried hinterland, in fractured communities and dying towns and on the sidelines, they exist in obscurity.

In parts of Arkansas, he encounters more poverty, where "one in four of Arkansas's children were classified as hungry—'food deprived.'"

This was the sort of statistic you might encounter in Sri Lanka. And when I checked, the figure for food insecurity in Arkansas was exactly the same as that for Sri Lanka, an island that was struggling to overcome the effects of a recent and long-lasting ethnic war.

Deep South is not exclusively a tale of woe. Theroux is often moved by the quiet heroism of many of the people he meets, as well as their openness and hospitality to strangers (a case of the old stereotype coming true). Deep South is over 400 pages long, and Theroux makes room for meditations on William Faulkner; on Southern literature; on the Emmett Till murder; on the etymology of the N-word.

Theroux isn't the first visitor to confront the gnarly, possibly insoluble, enigma known as the South. The persistent theme of racism and poverty in Deep South leaves the reader in a state of profound sadness, alleviated in part by the author's clear-sighted prose and ability to connect with his large cast of characters.

Recommended. With an addendum of photographs by Steve McCurry.

Wine Trails
By Mark Andrew, Robin Barton, Sarah Bennet et al.

Wine Trails is a high-concept, photo-filled survey of fifty-two wine-growing regions of the world. The travel publisher Lonely Planet specializes in anthologies of this sort, and Wine Trails is representative of LP's output, filled with useful maps, sparkling photography, sidebars with travel tips, and so on.

At 320 pages, it tours twenty countries, a number of which (France, Italy, Australia, Spain, USA) receive multiple sub-chapters. Wine Trails isn't the kind of book you read straight through; rather, it is meant to be dipped into from time to time, to be consulted before a journey, or to simply browse during a session of armchair traveling.

I am the least of oenophiles, but I was surprised to find Bordeaux missing from France's seven subchapters (Alsace, Burgundy, Champagne, the Jura, Languedoc, the Loire, and the Rhône). Isn't that a bit like writing a history of cinema and omitting Hollywood?

Speaking of which, readers can look for the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in the Sonoma chapter of the USA section. Also, a reference to the popular wine movie, Sideways, in the Santa Barbara chapter.

I preferred the photography in Wine Trails to the text—the latter sometimes sounds like generic ad-speak. ("Take your time and explore the crisp white wines and fairy-tale chateaux of the languid Loire River in central France by boat, bicycle or car.") Fortunately, the book contains hundreds of shots of gorgeous rolling vineyards, charming villages, mountains, food-laden tables, beautiful wineries, ripened grapes—the kind of earthy, Euro-scenes that travel brochures have tantalized us with for years to make us want to instantly move to Tuscany or Spain or France.

The suggested wine tours range from mighty vineyards like Robert Mondavi in Napa Valley to the tiny tracts (2.5 acres) in Cantine Di Orgosolo in Sardinia:

'We make one wine that has stayed in the barrel for only three months, easy to drink straight away, and a Riserva that ages for three years,' says one viticoltori. 'And if we don't sell them, then we'll just drink them ourselves!'

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.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

Crocodile Love

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

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Deep South

Buy Deep South in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Wine Trails

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