Perceptive Travel Book Reviews May 2016
by William Caverlee

In this issue: An anthology on city squares, another with fiction writers telling true stories, and a Silk Road travelogue.

Photo by Oberto Gill

City Squares
Edited by Catie Marron

Editor Catie Marron has gathered eighteen writers to delve into the multifold meanings of urban centers — city squares. While such a topic might initially bring to mind a sleep-inducing academic tome, this is a highly readable and handsome volume, illustrated with page after page of spectacular color photography. Among the contributors are David Remnick, Ann Beattie, Zadie Smith, Adam Gopnik, George Packer, Evan Osnos, and Alma Guillermoprieto.

Alert readers will notice that this list includes the editor of the New Yorker magazine, plus a number of New Yorker staff writers and regular contributors — a high-toned crew to join the rest of Marron's all-stars.

Michael Kimmelman opens the book with a long essay on city squares in world culture.

Feeling in the middle of things, at the place to and from which streets flow, where people come not to escape the city but to be inside it: This is usually what defines a successful square. It is a space around which the rest of a neighborhood or town or city tends to be organized.

The squares in City Squares range across the globe and come in all shapes and sizes: Place des Vosges in Paris, Red Square in Moscow, Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Harvard Square in Boston...

Many are not square at all. And they go by different names: piazza, maidan, campo, platz, plaza. For Adam Gopnik, some squares are small and quiet, "the inner courtyard within the city." Evan Osnos describes the opposite kind in his essay on Tiananmen Square, a five hundred-year-old site which Mao Zedong enlarged to its present extraordinary and terrifying dimensions. Such squares are the sites of history: of upheaval, armies, death, speeches, and mass movements.

The essay on Italy by fiction writer Zadie Smith is personal, idiosyncratic, and lively, built of memories, weather, dogs, restaurants, and a fire.

In the book's last chapter, Gillian Tett announces the existence of the virtual square — internet sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. A depressing note on which to end this fine book. Let us flee then: back to the Campo de' Fiori in Rome with its outdoor market, or the Place des Vosges in Paris with its cafés and shops, or the Piazza San Marco in Venice where Zadie Smith once "paid twenty-one euros for orange juice, twelve euros of which turned out to be a music surcharge: Someone nearby was playing a violin."

Better Than Fiction 2
Edited by Don George

Don George, Lonely Planet's travel editor extraordinaire, has rounded up thirty new essays for Better Than Fiction 2, the sequel to Better Than Fiction, reviewed here in 2013.

George's authors represent nearly every corner of the globe and can boast of numerous books, awards, and honorifics. As in the first book, a short list of well-known writers gleams from atop the marquee — in this case, Jane Smiley, Francine Prose, Alexander McCall Smith, Dave Eggers — while the supporting cast includes many names I had never heard of; well, at least not before I read the first Better Than Fiction. (A few of the authors made both books.)

As before, the idea is to have fiction writers tell a true tale, a real-life adventure they experienced while out on the road: perhaps a close shave in a war zone, perhaps a recollection of youth and innocence.

Karen Joy Fowler kicks off things with "An Italian Education," a witty reminiscence of her first trip abroad at age sixteen, when boys were very much on her mind. And when keeping her away from boys was on the minds of the Italian nuns in whose convent she was domiciled.

Meanwhile, Catherine Lacey hitchhikes across New Zealand. Francine Prose meets a sadhu in India. M.J. Hyland flees from transit cops in a train station in England. Lloyd Jones sees a man collapse and die in a park in Smolensk.

On a trip to the Grand Canyon, Sophie Cunningham runs across an odd bit of park-service signage:

When I arrived at the entrance to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park late last year, I had no desire to walk to the Colorado River and back in a single day, but nor was I aware of the dangers of doing so. All the first sign at the gate warned us of was the fact that there would be no refund if weather conditions meant there wasn't a good view. My partner and I looked at each other. Do people really do that? Demand refunds if the canyon doesn't display its extraordinary dimensions, its subtle light shows? Apparently so. . .

And Alexander McCall Smith, author of over a hundred books and Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), contributes "A Trip to Some Islands," his account of a visit to a group of islands off the coast of Scotland, during which the bestselling author is so taken by the charming little isles that he buys them.

The Silk Road: Taking the Bus to Pakistan
By Bill Porter

The Silk Road is an excellent travelogue based on a journey from China to Pakistan that the author made across the famed overland route of Asia. Bill Porter makes for a witty, intrepid, companionable narrator on this long road trip. Traveling with him is Finn, a friend he invited to join him on the trip.

The sub-title, "Taking the Bus to Pakistan," is a tad misleading since the guys occasionally find themselves traveling aboard trains and planes; not to mention hiking, even riding a pony or two.

Included are a detailed map of the route and dozens of fine black-and-white photographs taken by the author. And he even reveals the year things took place — 1992 — unlike so many travel writers who hide their time settings like military secrets.

Porter is a first-rate historian as well as a travel writer. In nearly every town, city or crossroads, he stops for a moment to inform the reader of local legends, myths, and backgrounds: "Over the next two centuries, the Western Hsia proved to be a thorn in the side of the Mongols, and Genghis Khan made its destruction his last task..."

The Silk Road is filled to the brim with historical anecdotes and digressions — some of them quite long — testifying to Porter's enormous work of research. All of these back-stories were interesting, but at times I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data Porter has collected. More fun was riding along with the two road buddies as they outwitted border guards, risked their necks during insane bus passages, and imbibed life-giving beer at whatever inn they dragged themselves to after another long day on the road.

So there we were sipping suds across the street from the Flying Asparagus, when suddenly we realized we hadn't eaten all day. We saw potatoes in the kitchen and asked the cook to chop up a few and deep-fry them. He looked puzzled, but he followed our instructions to perfection. And over the next few days we ordered so many plates of chips, he added them to the restaurant's menu. It was, perhaps, our one contribution to East-West exchange on the Silk Road: French fries.

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

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Better than Fiction 2

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The Silk Road: Taking the Bus to Pakistan

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