Perceptive Travel Book Reviews May 2017
by William Caverlee

In this issue: Three thoroughly researched and well-written wandering books on tidal patterns, obscure historical travelers, and diverse U.S. national parks.

Tides book review

By Jonathan White

In researching his survey of tidal motions across the globe, the author of Tides, Jonathan White, traveled to Nova Scotia, Normandy, China, London, and Venice, among other places. In addition to being a world traveler, White is a teacher, adventurer, and blue-water sailor.

Although Tides is not strictly an academic tome, it includes considerable scientific data and analysis. There are discussions on Isaac Newton, gravity, astronomy, Copernicus, and Galileo. (Also included are a glossary, notes, and bibliography.) As a non-scientist, I was able to follow much (well, parts) of the technical sections, but I found myself more at home in White’s excellent travel writing as he voyaged from place to place, meeting locals, and observing the rising and falling of tides on coastlines. Early in the book, White explains that tide levels can vary greatly according to where you are on the planet.

In the town of Yanguan on the Qiantang River in China, White attends the “Bore-Watching Festival,” where a twenty-five-foot tide rises from Hangzhou Bay and roars upstream, consuming anything in its path that isn’t tied down or protected by dikes. It is known as the Silver Dragon. Thousands of people have drowned there over two and a half millennia. In Mont Saint-Michel in France, White meets some of the Benedictine monks who live at the famously photogenic UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the far north of Quebec, a couple of hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, he drops through a hole in the ice and hunts for mussels underneath a frozen tidal sea. In Venice, he dons rubber boots to traverse the Piazza San Marco, on one of the days that the incoming tide floods the square.

White’s far-ranging list of topics to discuss includes California surfers, continental shelves, tidemills, renewable energy, the author Italo Calvino, and the Orkney Islands…

Tides is filled with sketches of the scientists, naturalists, and local guides who befriend White and escort him on his amazing jaunts into coastal zones and raging seas. Readers of a scientific bent will gain a vast wealth of knowledge in Tides. For the rest of us, the travelogue that White has created makes for an excellent overview of our planet and its oceanic mysteries. With numerous maps, photographs, and diagrams.

Essays on Unfamiliar Travel-Writing: Off the Beaten Track
By John Butler

John Butler is an author, scholar, and university professor, who has lived in England, Nigeria, the Sudan, Japan, the United States, and Canada. In Essays on Unfamiliar Travel-Writing, he has compiled seven detailed accounts of seven obscure travelers, describing journeys that took place from the seventeenth century to the early twentieth.

His subjects include an American woman born in Iowa in 1856, the king of Hawaii, and an Indian maharajah. Many of Butler’s world travelers are the authors of their own travelogues. Hendrik Hamel’s Journal/Description of the Kingdom of Korea is an account of his thirteen years in Korea in the 1600s as a prisoner/guest, after making an accidental landfall there due to a shipwreck.

The titles of the remaining chapters are representative of the book’s subject matter: “Akiko Yosano: A Japanese Poet with one Husband takes a very long Railway Journey,” “Arthur Leared: An Irish Doctor in Morocco,” and “ ‘Have You Seen the Shah?’ Nasr al-Din Qajar in Europe.”

At the outset, Butler admits that his subjects are not well known. Still, Essays on Unfamiliar Travel-Writing is a work of prodigious research, densely written, with rafts of historical and cultural data for the reader to absorb. It includes a six-page bibliography and numerous footnotes. It’s possible that historians and academics will make up a large part of the book’s readership, but armchair travelers with an interest in history will find much to discover here. Also, anyone planning to travel to or live in one of the regions dealt with in the book can amass a rich trove of background information before setting forth. With vintage black-and-white photos of historic scenes and people.

Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks
By Mark Woods

In 2012, Florida newspaperman Mark Woods visited a number of sites in the American National Park System. His travelogue is an account of that year—a year in which he visited the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and other natural wonders from Maine to Hawaii.

Sadly, soon after Woods embarked on his journey, he received news that his mother had been given a cancer diagnosis. By necessity, the travelogue he was writing became a family history and the story of his mother’s illness and eventual death. Two overlapping stories, in other words—a journey into American natural history and a journey of grief, both of which the author documents with tact, dignity, and heartfelt emotion.

Lassoing the Sun is also a collection of profiles of the many people Woods meets along the way: park rangers, campers, backpackers, vacationers… 

At the onset of his year, on New Year’s Day, he hikes to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Maine’s Acadia National Park to join others in a celebration of the risen sun atop the mountain’s frigid granite peak. In Olympic National Park in Washington State, he meets “an acoustic ecologist,” who leads Woods high into the park to a place called One Square Inch of Silence.

Among the author’s other stops are Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City; Haleakalā National Park in Hawaii; and the Dry Tortugas, in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida Keys, “a national park that includes a hundred square miles of water, none of it drinkable, and less than a hundred acres of dry land.” There are also brief stops in Big Bend National Park and Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Lassoing the Sun leads us on a fine tour of the country’s national parks, while touching on the history of the park service, as well as recent American history. A first-rate journalist, Woods fills his travelogue with portraits of friends, family members, and the new acquaintances he makes along the way. With numerous color photos of scenes in national parks.

William Caverlee is a freelance writer who has been published in numerous magazines and literary journals, including The Oxford American, Cimarron Review, Flight Journal, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. His work appears in The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings, and 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:


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

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Essays on Unfamiliar Travel-Writing: Off the Beaten Track

Buy Essays on Unfamiliar Travel-Writing: Off the Beaten Track at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America�s National Parks

Buy Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK