Perceptive Travel Book Reviews July 2012
by William Caverlee

In this issue: Food porn from Lonely Planet's stockpiles, another women's confessional travel book destined for Oprah and the cinema, and a 30-years-ago memoir of Alaska.

The World's Best Street Food
Edited by Paul Harding, Kim Hutchins, Charlotte Orr, Christopher Pitts

A buoyant offering from Lonely Planet, the heavy-laden travel conglomerate. Someday the powers and principalities steering LP will run out of themes for their lustrous pictorial compilations, but happily they've turned their attention to street food before those last days.

Savories and sweets are arranged alphabetically, but I flew straight to Italy (p. 128) for a delicious-looking pizza al taglio, "a rectangular piece of pizza in the Roman style." All the chapters in The World's Best Street Food comprise two pages: (1) main description of the item, its history, where to find it; (2) recipe. Color photographs are scattered throughout. For those keeping score, Italy rates four more entries: arancino (fried balls of rice, saffron, meat, peas, and cheese), cicchetti (bite-sized bar food), pane, panelle e crocchè (North African-inspired sandwich with chickpeas and potatoes), and gelato, a frozen dessert that needs no introduction.

World's Best Street Food

The Bahamas earn a sole entry: conch. Here I began to wonder about the real-world application of the recipes in the book. Obtaining "450g (1lb) conch meat, diced into small chunks" while in London or Des Moines sounds problematic, and brings to mind the famous, apocryphal opening lines to a recipe for rabbit stew: "First, catch a rabbit."

More tallies from my scorecard. . . . Vietnam (pop. 91,519,289) lands four winners: banh mi (baguette sandwich), bo bia (rice-paper roll), bún cha (noodles and pork), and pho (beef and noodle soup); meanwhile, China (pop. 1,339,724,852) ranks only five: baozi (steamed bun), douhua (tofu pudding), samsa (mutton pastry), spring roll (filled pastry wrap), and yangrou chuan (mutton on a stick).

Joining China and Italy as second-place finishers are a crowd of contenders: Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, Thailand, and the USA, whose iconic hot dog is joined by the breakfast burrito, knish, Maine lobster roll, and pretzel. (Given the chance, I probably would have nominated five different baseball-park hot dogs and left it at that.) The overall winner is India with nine selections. Among which is the kati roll, "a tinglingly tasty lamb kebab, rolled up inside a paratha with sauteed onions, chilli and spicy sauce."

Looking for a reason to travel? Pyramids, Greek isles—forget'em. Scarfing down street delicacies sounds as good a reason as any.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
By Cheryl Strayed

Before we've become acclimatized to high altitude in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, we've followed the author through her abandonment by an abusive father, her mother's remarriage, her teen years growing up in Minnesota, her too-early marriage at age nineteen, her mother's death from cancer, several adulteries (hers), divorce, years of psychological turmoil, sexual addiction (or, at least, a kind of exuberant taste in one-night stands and random hookups), and heroin use.

Heroin! Was that the money shot that sealed the book deal? Even when Cheryl Strayed is trekking the perilous heights of the PCT, she ruminates incessantly about her mother's death and her own troubled psyche, all the while finding time to imbibe a bit of marijuana and opium and to pick up a guy at a bar in Oregon. Well, she was twenty-six in the summer of 1995…A modern American woman.

Certainly a travel writer has every right to fill in the back-story and motivation for a journey, but lately, after reading a dozen or so such psycho-travelogues, I've found myself longing for a more stoical era—a time when mountaineers like Chris Bonington would begin a book along the lines of, Well, after climbing Annapurna, I thought I'd give Everest another go, so I phoned my mates and began drawing up a list of supplies. Next paragraph: arrival in Kathmandu.

Don't misunderstand me. Strayed's solo-trek of the Pacific Crest Trail is a stunning accomplishment; her account is written with a strong narrative pull: ice falls, rock cliffs, months of solitude, her shoulders, back, and feet nearly crippled from the weight of her backpack. Also, the ever-present threat of rattlesnakes, bears, lightning, high wind, hypothermia, crevasses, human predators. To have survived even a single day under such conditions receives my unalloyed admiration. And Strayed marched up and down those mountains for months. The sheer physicality of Wild bears a close resemblance to Jennifer Hanson's Hiking the Continental Divide Trail, reviewed here last year.

Still, while reading Wild, I searched vainly for accompanying photographs, illustrations, charts, and maps (I found only one map). Nor is there an index, or list of suggested readings, or a note on equipment, or recommended travel dates. These were not omissions, I finally realized. For Wild is not a travel book; it's an Oprah book, written for the author's talk-show career, for her career as a self-help lecturer (there's even an advertisement for this on the book jacket). For most travel readers, a trek on the Pacific Crest Trail—even one billed as a journey of self-discovery—would make for an ideal subject, and indeed Strayed tantalizes us with plenty of high altitude derring-do, but by the end of Wild, I'd had my fill of confession and autobiography. In the book's last lines, the author tries to sum up things with a string of Oprah's Book Club clichés:

To believe that I didn't need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life—like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.

How wild it was, to let it be.

Later, when I visited Strayed's website, I found that Reese Witherspoon had optioned the book for a movie. Doubtless, it will be a hit.

Alaskan Travels: Far-Flung Tales of Love and Adventure
By Edward Hoagland

In his fifties, while his New York marriage foundered, the esteemed American novelist and essayist, Edward Hoagland, had an affair with a nurse in Alaska, seventeen years his junior. Okay, we ask, what's so newsworthy in that? Maybe recalling John Cheever's compact dismissal: "The autumnal loves of middle age are well publicized…"

When I first opened my review copy of Alaskan Travels, I thought for a second that it was a re-release of a Hoagland classic from the 1980s. The account that the author is relating took place almost thirty years ago. (Hoagland is seventy-nine.) But I was wrong; Alaskan Travels is indeed a new release—a memoir of ancient times.

Yet another question arose: How does a writer create so many living and richly detailed scenes from a distance of thirty years? As a reviewer, I've lately railed against travel authors who refuse to lay out the simple facts of their narratives: When was this book written? How old were you during the events described? What year did the story take place? What's the name of the country you're visiting, for God's sake? I have no idea why such rudimentary facts are guarded like military secrets. Have travel authors turned into CIA agents?

I had to read nearly to the end of the book before discovering that Hoagland had transcribed "handwritten notes" in writing Alaskan Travels—notes that he presumably made thirty years earlier. The author also mentions magazine assignments from Vanity Fair and other New York slicks that he utilized to bankroll his Alaskan journeys, when, as he admits, the real reason he wanted to travel north was to see his girlfriend.

Apparently those articles were published contemporaneously and later served as another source of material for Alaskan Travels. Irritants like these only serve to distance a reader from what is otherwise a first-rate narrative: one that is both a portrait of Alaska and a love story. And what excellent writing! If there's anyone left in the lower forty-eight who still envies Alaska as a brave new world and a paradise of second chances, Hoagland will soon undeceive him:

"You know how it is," an Eskimo woman confided to me on the Vanderpools' front porch. "Being a woman, they'll beat us when they drink. But they beat us if we say not to, or if we don't drink, too." She said she'd left her husband to live with a white man in Bethel for a time, yet came back so as "not to shame the children."

At the New Year's party at the school, I talked with Paul Genne, a Gussack vocational teacher of welding, woodwork, and small-engine repair (as for a chainsaw, outboard, or Ski-Doo), who plowed the Crooked Creek airstrip as a sideline, and scrimshawed fossil walrus or mammoth ivory and fashioned gold nuggets into jewelry… Migrating caribou you'll spot on a mountainside in bands of twenty to seventy, with a wolf following you can "outlaw" (shoot) with your .270. "These Eskimos ought to shine it on" (walk away from), he said, their Welfare, Energy Assistance, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children checks or food stamps and just go trapping, fishing. When bear-hunting, he said, a black will run and shy away, but a grizzly comes around on you. You trail him and he'll swing right onto your back track.

Alaskan Travels is packed with the grit of daily life, with shrewdly drawn characters, and with cheerful iconoclasm; it lies as solid in the hand as a gold nugget. No photographs, illustrations, charts, or index, however. And only one map—legible to teenagers and adults with jewelry loupes.

William Caverlee is a contributing writer for the Oxford American magazine, and the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, His articles have appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals, and in the anthology, The Writer's Presence (Bedford/St. Martins, 2012).

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

The World's Best Street Food

Buy The World's Best Street Food in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

international travel


Buy Wild in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Alaskan Travels

Buy Alaskan Travels in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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