Perceptive Travel Book Reviews May 2014
by William Caverlee

In this issue: a non-observant Jew's return to her roots in Ukraine, a strong collection of food-oriented travel essays, and a guide to crossing Morocco by motorcycle.

The Spoon from Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands
By Judith Fein


When the travel writer Judith Fein was growing up in Queens, she loved to visit her grandmother in Brooklyn. It was there that she first heard of Minkowitz, the village in the Ukraine where her grandmother had once lived. Minkowitz was a Jewish shtetl, straight out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story. The youthful Fein wanted to hear everything she could about life in a colorful, Eastern European village, but her grandmother had come to America in 1910 as a young girl and didn't really want to talk about it.

Thus began Fein's lifelong search for her roots—a subject that many readers might steer clear of, since such stories have been told countless times. The Spoon from Minkowitz, however, becomes a fine memoir and travelogue in Fein's capable hands.

Fein describes herself as a nonobservant Jew, yet during the course of her journey, she's as alert as a pilgrim to signs and premonitions. After years of gathering clues and contacts, she and her husband finally fly to L'viv in the Ukraine to begin the search.

Fein plots her book as a mystery and a psychological quest. She visits the Museum of Jewish Heritage, numerous synagogues, the Carpathian Mountains, the tomb of Baal Shem Tov, "the rabbi who began the Hassidic movement in the eighteenth century." She meets the Gypsy Baron of Moldova and Rabbi Kofmansky of Chernivtsi; tours the castle of Kamenetz-Podolsk; spends the night in the Hotel Kleopatra.

Fein's grandmother emigrated to America long before World War II; thus, the family journey described in The Spoon from Minkowitz is not specifically a Holocaust story. Yet, once in Europe, Fein, unsurprisingly, comes face to face with the Holocaust at nearly every turn she makes.

I remembered a story a man told me about ten years ago. He said his father had been one of the American soldiers who liberated an extermination camp. His father never spoke about it. One day, fifty years after the liberation, the father told his son, "We dug a hole and buried the bodies. Those of us who dug never said a word. We never looked at each other. We were so ashamed of being human."

Fein eventually makes it to Minkowitz, speaks to its citizens, tracks down relics of her grandmother's life. She weeps more tears than she believed were possible. For the reader, as well, the emotions wrought by the author in this final scene are powerful.

See an adapted excerpt in Perceptive Travel here: Kishka and Kasha in the Ukranian Countryside.

A Fork in the Road: Tales of Food, Pleasure & Discovery on the Road
Edited by James Oseland

An anthology of food memoirs, we've traveled this road before, but this one is a good journey. As usual in books like this, a cadre of big-shots heads the list of authors: Frances Mayes, Francine Prose, Giles Coren, Michael Pollan, Rita Mae Brown, Gael Greene.

My favorite essay is the very first, "Consider the Twinkie," by Giles Coren. It's a hilarious memoir of an English boy's dream of America: Big Macs and big breakfasts, Coca-Colas and Lucky Charms.

Ah, Hostess Twinkies. The tastiest thing I never ate. These I knew about from comics, specifically the American DC comics I bought secondhand for 6p a throw because that four pence off the new price could be spent on 1p cola chews, with their slow-dissolving chemical tang of the New World, to be chewed while I read about Superman and Batman, Flash, Green Lantern …

My second favorite is "The Oyster Men" by Jay Rayner, another Brit, who visits a popular shellfish eatery called The Company Shed, "on Mersea Island off the coast of Essex."

At last we are there. The Company Shed is a simple, single-storey, black-painted slat-board building. It looks like nothing. It looks like the annexe for something else that is also nothing. In the summer, queues an hour or more long build up outside it. The cafe was opened more than a quarter of a century ago by Heather Haward, wife of a legendary oysterman in these parts called Richard Haward. He can trace his family's involvement in the oyster business back seven generations… .

Thirty-four essays in all: Francine Prose introduces her sons to cassoulet in Provence, while the husband-and-wife owners of a country restaurant implode in marital strife. Marcus Samuelsson risks death eating fugu in Tokyo. David Kamp remembers modest family vacations at "Maple Cottage" in New Hampshire, presided over by "Mr. Fletcher."

Jane and Michael Stern visit the Adam and Eve Diner in Roselawn, Indiana, "surrounded by naked and semi-naked cooks, waitresses and customers." Alan Richman eats his way through Cairo during the Arab Spring uprising. Australia's M.J. Hyland finds herself nearly broke after impulsively flying to Helsinki and has to resort to filching leftovers at restaurants. A Fork in the Road is a jaunty collection of food tales from every corner of the globe.

Morocco Overland: Route Guide—From the Atlas to the Sahara
By Chris Scott

A friend of mine is a motorcycle drag racer—which means that he pilots two-wheel land rockets at 200 miles per hour. His bike consists of little more than a frame and an engine—it's not built to maneuver or take curves, just to blaze straight ahead until it wins or loses the race and then, one hopes, comes to a safe stop. Once, I asked him what kind of motorcycle he rides in ordinary life—Honda or Harley or Yamaha. He said he didn't own one, "They're too dangerous."

Thousands of motorcyclists think otherwise and set out on their noisy machines to traverse every corner of the earth. Along with bicyclists, hikers, and blue-water sailors, they make up a doughty subdivision of the travel industry. And you have to admit that outfitting a motorcycle for touring involves a certain precise elegance—like the austere beauty of a boat cabin, everything in its rightful place.

Chris Scott's Morocco Overland is a detailed guide to this branch of travel in an ultra-sandy country in the extreme northwest of Africa. It includes information for operators of four-wheel drives, vans, and mountain bikes, but you quickly sense that motorcycles are the author's first love. (He's the author of Adventure Motorcycling Handbook. )

Morocco Overland is a how-to book, not a travelogue; thus, it's doubtful that general readers or armchair travelers will be lining up to buy it. Still, as in the case of the South American Handbook, reviewed here earlier, there are always pleasures to be had for GRs and ATs in browsing a technical manual.

If you leave the UK on a Friday night, by Monday afternoon you could be in Morocco and a day later south of the Atlas. Depending on where you start, you'll have covered nearly 2000 miles across up to four countries, taken two sea crossings and may well feel a bit frazzled. In bad weather a solo driver in a 25-year-old Land Rover or the rider of an XR400 will feel very frazzled indeed.

No one in their right mind would drive over dunes like these, but many try.

Time to address the elephant in the room; the reason why many swear never, ever to return to Morocco. Incessant and seemingly opportunistic begging, persistent hassle from touts which can turn nasty; being treated as a dumb, gullible tourist or worse still, the terrible feeling of discovering you've just acted like one.

While Morocco Overland is written for off-road adventurers, anyone considering a trip to North Africa will benefit from its wealth of information, including numerous maps and photographs.

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:

The Spoon from Minkowitz

Buy The Spoon from Minkowitz in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

A Fork in the Road

Buy A Fork in the Road in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Morocco Overland

Buy Morocco Overland at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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