Perceptive Travel Book Reviews May 2013
by William Caverlee

In this issue: Kayaking remote corners of the Earth, yet another Lonely Planet travel food book, and a superlative collection of wildlife photographs in Africa.

Encounters from a Kayak
By Nigel Foster

Ungava Bay in the isolated far north of Quebec lies at the same latitude as southern Greenland. The sea kayaker Nigel Foster and his wife Kristin Nelson were once taking a 675-mile paddle from nearby Kuujjuaq over to Nain in Labrador when Foster had to pull on shore for a pee break.

I suddenly spotted a patch of ivory-white fur that appeared over a low ridge of rock about sixty feet away from me. In moments a polar bear came into full view. With its head held low, the bear walked straight toward me in long easy strides, its long fur swinging heavily around its legs and huge body.

Foster called out to his wife, still in her kayak to back off into deep water, but she had run aground in the low tide. Foster fired his flare gun as the bear reached his wife's kayak—Her response during this vastly too close encounter was to stand up and command, "Bear! Bear, be gone!" A stunning example of grace under pressure.

Miraculously, the polar bear did not attack, and Foster and Nelson continued their offshore journey, more or less stalked by bears every day—those peerless predators, who can swim as well!

Foster's "Encounters from a Kayak" is a memoir of thirty-five years of paddling fjords, bays, coastlines, and canals. Chapters skip across the globe as Foster cruises the waters of the Shetland Islands, Newfoundland, Iceland, Alaska, Sweden, Canada, pausing momentarily to cross France by canal, to duck under medieval bridges in Delft, Holland, and to dodge alligators in Florida.

A kayak designer, teacher, naturalist, and historian, Foster is engaging, humane, and fluent, allowing those of us who are not his equals in derring-do—not arctic explorers or X-15 test pilots, in other words—to visit far-flung shores like the Faeroe Islands in the North Atlantic or the Queen Charlotte Islands west of British Columbia.

After scaring us half to death with so many scenes set on the foam of perilous seas, Foster embraces quiet times as well.

Lunga is a favorite island of mine. I could spend a whole summer here just watching birds. To begin with there are puffins (Fratercula arctica). They land on the cliff edge within a couple of feet of you when you lie there on the short grass. Then they turn and give you what could be construed as a disapproving look from mournful painted eyes—and walk toward you! The cliff edge is peppered with puffin burrows. Birds pop in and out incessantly.

With photos, index, and map. Highly recommended.

Food Lover's Guide to the World
By Carolyn Bain, Sarah Baxter, Andrew Bender, Joe Bindloss, et al.

That humans, in order to live, have to murder and ingest their fellow beings is all rather creepy and vampirish when you think about it. Why such a bloody business has given us Julia Child, parmigiano reggiano, and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups is beyond me.

On the other hand, when I was in my twenties, I had the supreme good luck to spend a season in France, living with a family in Vendée just outside the village of Montournais. Every morning, I awoke with a thrill in my breast and a short prayer of thanksgiving, "O Lord, what will Madame T. be serving today?" All summer I thought of nothing else: roast chicken, mussels, crab, tomatoes, haricots verts, baguettes, omelets, camembert, pâté de compagne, and bottles and bottles of Bordeaux. Spend a summer in France when you are young and you're hooked for life—you'll end up as useless as Bertie Wooster whose mouth begins watering at the mere mention of Anatole, his Aunt Dahlia's French chef, "God's gift to the gastric juices."

It's not surprising, then, that Lonely Planet issues two or three food books per year. Their latest, Food Lover's Guide to the World, is a handsome 320-page coffee table book filled with sumptuous photographs, "best of" lists, and recipes. Highlights include:

An outdoor paella party in Mallorca (p. 157), with two or three guys using boat paddles to stir a pan about ten feet in diameter.

A recipe for rilletes (p. 40)—a kind of delicious shredded meat, heavy on pork—that is spooned onto bread out of tall jars on Sunday picnics in some farmer's field in France.

A bowl of Japanese noodles (p. 107) in a rāmen restaurant, "served with toppings such as chashu (sliced roast pork), moyashi (bean sprouts) and negi (leeks)." This is the same dish featured in the sublimely zany 1985 Japanese film, Tampopo


Food Lover's Guide to the World ranges from Thailand to Finland, from street food to haute cuisine. Its descriptions and photos are so mouth-wateringly attractive that you probably shouldn't send a copy to your uncle, the Trappist monk. He'll straightaway jump the wall and hike into town for a triple cheeseburger and fries.

On This Earth, A Shadow Falls
By Nick Brandt

The term "coffee table book" is ludicrously inadequate in describing Nick Brandt's collection of wildlife photographs from Africa. Sized at 15½ x 13½ inches, On This Earth, A Shadow Falls is enormous, to begin with, but it is the 190 full-page, sepia-toned, black-and-white photographs that make the book a magisterial accomplishment.

Elephants, lions, cheetahs, rhinos, giraffes . . . the images are so large, startling, detailed, and close that you sometimes jerk backwards looking for cover. For most of us amateur photographers, a day in the woods trying to snap a couple of birds leads us to lust for longer and longer telephoto lenses: 200mm, 300mm, 500mm. (Of course, we'd have to win the lottery to afford one of those behemoths.) Likewise, if we ever went to Africa, we'd want a 1000mm lens to zoom in on a lion from the safety of our photo-blind a mile or two away.

Thus, we're astonished to learn that Brandt did not use telephoto lenses in his Africa shoots. "I want to get a real sense of intimate connection with each of the animals—with that specific chimp, that particular lion or elephant in front of me." Meaning: when the close-up photo of a bull elephant makes you feel that you're about to be trampled—Brandt was taking the shot a few feet away, about to be trampled.

In accompanying text, Brandt describes the complex, interconnected economic forces that have brought Africa's wildlife to so perilous a state; for example, the Maasai cattle herders, who, in trying to make a living, further erode wildlife habitat. He's much less sympathetic to Asian traffickers in ivory:

The Chinese have become the new economic colonialists of Africa, plundering the continent for its assets on a scale never seen before. Some of the elephants photographed in this book are already dead, poisoned and poached for their ivory. For those beautiful bulls with big tusks, it is now not a matter of if they get poached for their tusks, but when.

On This Earth, A Shadow Falls is a project of Brandt's Big Life Foundation, which he began in 2010 to preserve African wildlife. At the very least, we can vow never, ever, to purchase an ivory trinket from China.

William Caverlee is an American freelancer who has written for numerous journals, such as The Oxford American, The Christian Science Monitor, Aviation History, Flight Journal, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. He's the author of a collection of essays, Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays. One of his articles, on Flannery O'Connor, was reprinted in The Writer's Presence, 7th Edition.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

Encounters from a Kayak

Buy Encounters from a Kayak in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Food Lover's Guide to the World

Buy Food Lover's Guide to the World in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

On This Earth, A Shadow Falls

Buy On This Earth, A Shadow Falls at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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