Perceptive Travel Book Reviews June 2021
by William Caverlee

In this issue: An annual anthology of great narrative travel writing, stories about glaciers in western Canada, and a pop-up book about historic train journeys.

The Best Women's Travel Writing, Vol. 12
Edited by Lavinia Spalding

Anthologies of travel stories are an excellent way to gain a sense of the present age. Who is doing most of the traveling? What countries are popular to visit? What countries are not? What means of conveyance is popular? Hot-air balloon? Harley-Davidson? SpaceX?

Travel anthologies also make handy reference guides and pocket surveys of the world. And if a particular chapter doesn't pique your interest, well, flip a few pages and there's probably another chapter coming up that will. In this, its twelfth edition, The Best Women's Travel Writing proves again that it has found a formula that works. It contains thirty-four true stories of travel, in settings from all over the globe. Among the accounts, we read about:

A car trip in Cuba where the author tracks down someone she had encountered thirteen years earlier when she was an American student at the University of Havana. . . . A trek deep into the Himalayas by an author who hopes to see a snow leopard—with a nod to Peter Matthiessen's famous book from 1978... A teacher's stint in a junior high school in Japan—a sojourn in which, as the saying goes, the teacher receives as lasting an education as her students.

Other stories take us to Petra, the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Jordan... To Cartagena, Colombia, where a traveler writes of the time she managed to retrieve the $50 that a con man had stolen from her...To Paris, the day Notre Dame caught fire—where the author was present, among the shocked, grief-filled crowds looking on.

With 34 different authors, this book contains every sort of narrative and theme: reminiscence, adventure, family history, personal challenge... And, as mentioned, the stories are set in dozens of places: Canada, Finland, France, Greece, India, Mexico, Nepal, Tanzania, the United States, and many others. No doubt, it is this wide range of locales, allied with a wide range of voices and writing styles, that makes a travel anthology like this an intriguing portrait of the world.

Stories of Ice

Stories of Ice
By Lynn Martel

Stories of Ice is a comprehensive study of glaciers in Canada, specifically in British Columbia and Alberta. Lynn Martel weaves stories of her own adventures, skiing and hiking in the icy mountainous West, along with a historical and scientific overview of glaciers. She describes 19-century explorers, reports on scientific expeditions, introduces us to fearless photographers and filmmakers, traces out the physics and geology of glaciers—all the while reminding us of the critical state of Canada's icy northlands due to climate change.

In 1985, there were 1,155 glaciers in the mountain national parks of Alberta and British Columbia. By 2005, there were 1,006. That means 149 glaciers disappeared in just 20 years. Jasper National Park lost 135 of its 554 glaciers; Banff National Park lost 29 of its 365, and its total glaciated area shrank by 20 per cent...

While this is not a travel book per se, Stories of Ice compiles a vast amount of natural history, cultural history, and personal memoir in its 336 pages—all of which makes for a tour of Canada that backcountry travelers and outdoor lovers can gain from. The author has been exploring, hiking, and skiing in the Canadian mountains for many years, and she has plenty of stories to tell us of frigid campsites, snowstorms, ski trails, and terrifying encounters with crevasses.

The adventurers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and artists that Martel writes about are so numerous they nearly crowd each other off the page. For example, she tells us about two intrepid mountaineering cousins from England: the Reverend William Spotswood Green and the Reverend Henry Swanzy. We read of John Clarke, legendary soloist of the Coast Mountains: "He travelled light and eschewed modern technology and its sweat-shedding fleece and processed energy foods, choosing instead to wear cotton long underwear and eat homemade granola." And we're told of a present-day program, "Girls on Ice," that takes sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girls into the mountains for twelve days of camping, climbing, study, and research. The book is rich in similar profiles and narratives.

Martel makes a point of noting that long before Europeans began exploring Canada's mountains, "at least a dozen different First Nations peoples inhabited the Rockies and surrounding ranges; evidence dates back nearly 12,000 years to seasonal hunting sites just a few kilometres from the present-day town of Banff."

Throughout the book, the author addresses the science of glaciers, particularly in a long section called "Study of Ice," with many chapters of detailed science. Readers will be introduced to words and terms like accumulation zone, ablation zone, moraines, ice cores, ice caves, and geomorphology.

My review copy is a handsome softcover edition, around six-and-a-half inches by nine-and-a-half inches. It contains a very large number of photographs of landscapes and wilderness scenes (I counted over 200), both color and black-and-white—fine images, especially those which are full-page-sized or half-page. I only wish that there weren't so many small photos in the mix. Also, the book's one map has place names that are so tiny as to be illegible.

That aside, I found Stories of Ice to be a highly interesting, very readable and worthwhile book. The sheer quantity of information compiled here is daunting. The author deftly weaves many pages of human stories—exploration, travelogues, tales of derring-do—amid a detailed background of science and history.

A Train Journey
By Gérard Lo Monaco

This ingenious offering is a pop-up book—targeted, no doubt, for children. But pop-up books are well-liked by many adults, the same who go in for Peanuts comic strips, WALL•E, and The Cat in the Hat—artworks purportedly created for children, but containing plenty of payoffs for the young at heart of any age. A Train Journey consists of four brightly colored, richly detailed panoramas, illustrating four famous trains in history and given the titles: "Stephenson's Rocket at the Rainhill Trials," "The New York El Train," "The Flying Scotsman," and "High Speed Rail: The Shinkansen Bullet Train and the TGV."

Covering only those four subjects, the book is compact, measuring around nine inches by six-and-a-half inches. But, when opened, the book's classic pop-up designs each ascend to around an inch-and-a-half tall, complete with locomotives, passenger cars, tenders, as well as crowd scenes, street scenes, train stations, and buildings. Amazingly, the entire assemblage can also fan open to stretch out horizontally like a scroll. Here are revealed reverse pages of explanatory text for each of the four trains. In other words, you can read the book in ordinary fashion, opening the pages, one after another, to display each pop-up scene. Or you can pull everything out, accordion-style, to discover the backs of the pages with their accompanying text. It's like turning a book inside-out. How'd they do that? I don't know, but it's a neat trick.

For myself, I easily recognized the Flying Scotsman, a storied name in railways. In Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 classic, The Thirty-Nine Steps, the hero undergoes thrills and spills during a trip from London to Scotland.

Over the years, I've seen a number of large-format pop-up books, intricate marvels that are the size of encyclopedias, with unfurling, towering creations that mushroom eight or ten inches high. Well, compared to those swirling inventions, A Train Journey is compact, brief, down to earth. Still, it is a book of very high quality, quite beautiful in its graphic art, ingenious in its design—a book that can bring enjoyment to both children and adults.

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:

The Best Women's Travel Writing, Volume 12

Buy The Best Women's Travel Writing, Volume 12 at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Stories of Ice: Adventure, Commerce and Creativity on Canada's Glaciers

Buy Stories of Ice: Adventure, Commerce and Creativity on Canada's Glaciers at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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A Train Journey

Buy A Train Journey at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon
Amazon UK
Amazon Canada