Perceptive Travel Book Reviews May 2011
by William Caverlee

In this issue: Another collection of reminiscences from writers' sojourns in Paris, an academic's travels through Russia and its history, and India as seen through the eyes of a prodigal son.

Paris Was Ours: Thirty-two Writers Reflect on the City of Light
Edited by Penelope Rowlands

Is anything less needed than another collection of reminiscences of Paris? For many readers, Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast will suffice. Of course, for a grittier take, there's always Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer published in 1934 under a cloud of scandal that hasn't dissipated in seventy-seven years. Nevertheless, the thirty-two writers gathered by Penelope Rowlands in Paris Was Ours are determined to give the old city a new take.

Rowlands' cast of contributors includes a number of big-shots: Diane Johnson, Joe Queenan, Stacy Schiff, David Sedaris, Judith Thurman, Edmund White, C.K. Williams. Other contributors are less well known, like Julie Lacoste, whom Rowlands describes as "a homeless French blogger."

Most of the essays in Paris Was Ours are memoirs of the authors' stays in Paris—when they were in their twenties, in love or alone, happy or unhappy, seeking la vie bohème; in other words, fulfilling every cliché of the American-in-Paris handbook. The liveliest chapter is from the Cuban-born novelist, Zoé Valdés: "It was the first time anybody had ever given me French perfume; the fact is, it was the first time I'd seen a bottle of French perfume, or smelled it. Till then the only thing I'd worn was Red Moscow, which stank, and Paris, a Bulgarian cologne named for the hero of the Iliad."

Valdés was only twenty-three when she accompanied her diplomat-husband to Paris. Her sentimental education took off with a jolt, and soon she was selling Cuban government rum in the Métro.

I figure the dossier they have on me in the offices of the Sureté is as thick as a brick. The ambassador, playing dumb, would praise my job performance—and in every conversation with his illustrious visitors he would say that I'd learned more than anybody in the embassy about this city. At one of those moments I was wearing a tulle skirt I had found in the marché aux puces at Porte de Clignancourt and a velvet jacket I'd bought for almost nothing at a Guerrisol—an Arab shop that sells dead people's clothes—and Alberto Moravia, his hand beneath my tulle, was stroking my behind.

During her sojourn, Karen Schur had to climb seven stories a day to a tiny maid's room in the 16th arrondissement. No matter—she was blissfully shacked up with her boyfriend… Curiously, it appears that the tattered old handbook still works, and at the end of Paris Was Ours, a reader can't help but feel that the worst fate imaginable is not to have spent at least one season of youth in the famed city.

Molotov's Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History
By Rachel Polonsky

The Cambridge academic, Rachel Polonsky, spent a decade in post-Soviet Russia—at one point living in an apartment in the historic No. 3 building on Romanov Lane (known as "the House of the Generals"), a block or two from the Kremlin. A previous tenant in No. 3 had been Vyacheslav Molotov, one of Stalin's henchmen—he of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact during World War II. A dour, self-assured, unrepentant bureaucrat of the Stalinist era, Molotov consigned countless victims to execution, torture, or the Gulag—and he hovers over Polonsky's pages like a malign specter.

From her base in Moscow, Polonsky ranges afield, visiting outposts like Novgorod and Staraya Russia in the north, and Rostov-on-Don and Taganrog in the south, also Ulan Ude and Kyakhta near the Mongolian frontier. Her principal travels, however, occur within her startlingly formidable brain—she's read everything.

In her own prose, she often employs free association: a character or circumstance in the book she's reading reminds her of another obscure book or bit of history which reminds her of an even more obscure item, and on and on. Well, footnote surfing is one of the sub-joys of reading, but when endless allusions and references overwhelm the text of a book, a reader tends to get bogged down. Molotov's Magic Lantern is not strictly a travelogue or a work of scholarship—it's an omnibus, a literary meditation, and a tour de force. Here's Polonsky on a day in the country, west of Moscow:

The Lutsino colony lies along a hill above the Moscow River. We often took the hour-long walk through the colony, down a narrow path to the riverbank and back along the opushka, as the edge of the forest is called, under the steepening slope. Light and matter often changed roles here. In late summer the river water would look glazed, exhausted in the last heat, in some places no colour at all, just a surface of light with a dull beaten sheen. Downriver, a rowing boat lay motionless on the water, its fisherman a silhouette in the haze. After the violent rainstorms of the night, the earth still steamed. Thousands of spider-spun threads webbed the grass, trembling. The lush clover was weighted with large globes of rainwater. Vapour hung in the rushes on the opposite bank. The villages across the dark ploughed fields were lost in mist.

Molotov's Magic Lantern contains dozens of such mellifluous passages. I only wish that the author had given herself a break from her incessant scholarship and gotten out to the country more often.

India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking
By Anand Giridharadas

In 2003, American-born Anand Giridharadas flew to India to spend a long sojourn in the country from which his parents had emigrated in the 1970s. For a couple of years, he worked as a management consultant; eventually in 2005, he acquired his dream job of correspondent for the International Herald Tribune.

A wall of wet, smoky night air hit me as I came out of the terminal in Bombay. The orange of the streetlamps' glow, ripened by smog, told me at once how far I had come. A quarter century had passed since my parents left India, and now I was reentering it to fulfill promptings of my own.

These promptings are manifold—overly so—and India Calling suffers from them. Giridharadas has written a history of his family; a journalist's portrait of modern-day India; a cultural history of a nation; and a philosophical reflection. I wish he'd stuck with the journalism—at which he's superb.

The quarters were tight. A baby lay across her mother's lap sipping bottled milk, her legs dangling across a strange man's thigh; he said nothing. Two men facing each other had drifted off to sleep. They appeared not to know each other, but one suddenly woke and nudged the other with his foot to request, wordlessly, some room to rest his legs. The other man reciprocated, and they returned to sleep, their feet now on each other's seats. Throughout the journey passengers switched seats, moved from the benches to the bunks and back. Strangers used one another's backpacks as pillows. As an outsider, I found it hard to tell which clusters of passengers were journeying together and which had met on board.

In India Calling's central passage, Giridharadas travels to the small town of Umred, "a speck in the dead center of India." Here he meets Ravindra, a hyper-energetic young entrepreneur and rising star, an Indian version of the American cliché, the self-made man. (Ravindra's favorite book is Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. ) To Giridharadas's credit, he doesn't lampoon Ravindra—though at times he groans upon hearing of another of Ravindra's frantically convoluted business schemes.

The twenty-two contestants for the Mr. and Miss Umred Personality Contest sat anxiously on white plastic chairs at the front of the gymnasium. The eight women were dressed as if for their own weddings, with gold decorating the center partings of their hair, clunky necklaces on their necks, and sequined saris in pink, green, and orange draped around them, pinned with white laminated contestant-number tags. The men had taken their inspiration from Bollywood gangster movies, with leafy collars drooping over the lapels of their ill-fitting suits. Their belts, the belts of the Indian underclass, were too long for their waists, traveling all the way around their backs, such that two belts would have furnished enough leather for three men.

It's hard to fault Giridharadas for returning again and again to his family's history or for philosophizing about India—India Calling is filled with analysis and abstraction—but his detailed and cinematic reportage is the heart of the book. Fine scene-painting like the passage above allows readers to make their own conclusions.

William Caverlee is a contributing writer to The Oxford American Magazine, and the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Louisiana Cultural Vistas, Flight Journal, Aviation History, World War II Quarterly, and The Writer’s Presence-Sixth Edition.

Also in this issue:

Paris Was Ours

Buy Paris Was Ours in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Molotov's Magic Lantern

Buy Molotov's Magic Lantern in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

international travel

India Calling

Buy India Calling in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)