Perceptive Travel Book Reviews July 2013
by William Caverlee

In this issue: a transplanted Pakistani returns to her homeland at the worst possible time, a poet walks from Scotland to England relying on strangers, and a book celebrating an unlikely great art museum in unlikely Arkansas.

Dizzy in Karachi: A Journey to Pakistan
By Maliha Masood

Maliha Masood was born in Pakistan in 1971 and spent her first eleven years there in a Westernized Muslim family. When her parents moved to the U.S., she grew up in Seattle—she was no naïf, but she found herself pulled between parental strictures and the inevitable siren call of American pop culture. Then, in 2003, in her thirties, she made a trip back to Pakistan, the first time she'd seen her homeland in two decades.

Dizzy in Karachi is an account of those travels in Pakistan in 2003. It goes without saying that, in the ten years since Masood's visit, there has been a steady, terrible ratcheting of violence and turmoil in the region. When you open Dizzy in Karachi, you have to pause a moment to fix the year 2003 in your mind: Only two years had passed since 9/11. U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan began in October 2001. The Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq began in March 2003.

Not exactly the ideal climate for an expatriate's return home. Deeply conflicted about her homeland, Masood doesn't hesitate to dive straight into Pakistan's politics, culture, corruption, history.

Masood travels from Karachi to Islamabad, Multan, Peshawar, and the Northern Areas. She hikes in mountains, argues with princes, dances at a rural wedding, shops for clothes, fends off gun dealers and matchmakers, constantly has to deny that she is a spy, takes buses, cabs, and rickshaws. Everybody considers her a foreigner.

Arshee is going on and on about some incident at her farm to which I am only half listening. The passing scenery does not live up to Multan's reputation as an ancient dusty city bounding with burial grounds. The place looks thoroughly modern with billboards advertising bottled water, the ubiquitous Nestlé with its Urdu slogan piyo aur jiyo (drink and live), Coca Cola and TNT Worldwide Shipping. We even drive by a Pizza Hut and a Holiday Inn.

Dizzy in Karachi is both a deeply personal memoir and a sprightly travelogue. The tone ranges from absurdity to unrelieved grief. That Masood finds herself dizzy when confronting her homeland seems only too plausible. In fact, we readers find ourselves reeling with confusion, anger, and hopelessness. What could it be like for someone born there?

Walking Home: A Poet's Journey
By Simon Armitage

The Pennine Way is a 260-mile hiking trail from the Scottish border to the village of Edale in the English Midlands. It's no stroll in the park. There are plenty of tough hauls in moorland, bog, hills, and crags, and long lonely stretches where you become lost in the fog, the rain begins to pelt down, your boots come off in the mud, the GPS won't work, and you left your map at the last bivouac shelter.

Poet and author Simon Armitage was born in Marsden, a village on the trail, and in 2010, at age forty-seven, he decided to give all 260 miles a go. His plan was to walk about ten or fifteen miles a day, stopping in villages and hamlets and giving poetry readings each night in a pub or barn, asking for contributions from locals to pay his way.

Amazingly, the plan worked. At the end of each day's hike, he would drag himself into the next tiny town, meet his hosts, be shown to the spare bedroom that would be his home for the night, then let himself be escorted to some dubious venue for the night's performance.

The reading has all the ingredients of a fiasco, being outside, in a flapping marquee, between bouts of rain, midges and folk music. . . A woman plays the Northumberland pipes; from where I'm sitting, on a wall at the back, it looks like she's giving physiotherapy to a small marsupial wearing callipers and smoking a bong, but the sound is haunting and hypnotic, mournful and melodic at the same time, every note somehow harmonising with the low, droning purr. And I read my poems. Attendance 76. . . .

Walking Home is a cheerful, literate, witty account of Armitage's days and nights on the trail. For backpackers, there are plenty of details of the actual hike: suggested maps to bring along, gear to leave behind, descriptions of weather and wildlife. For Anglophiles, there are the usual peerlessly improbable village names straight out of Monty Python: Horton-in-Ribblesdale, Knarsdale, Ickornshaw. For armchair travelers, one couldn't ask for a more clear-eyed and alert narrator than Armitage. For many readers, the author's self-deprecating tone and intelligent prose will summon memories of Bill Bryson's classic, A Walk in the Woods.

With numerous black and white photos, two pen-and-ink maps, and four poems. Highly recommended.

Celebrating the American Spirit: Masterworks from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Edited by Christopher B. Crosman

As a target of scorn, Walmart is far too easy. In every corner of the world, it lies there in transcendent awfulness, both a symbol and an actuality of American banality. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, has siphoned off a few zillion from her inheritance to open a world-class art museum.

No less than the New Yorker has praised the Crystal Bridges Museum, located in northern Arkansas, which opened its doors in 2011. "In its mission, Crystal Bridges has something in common with the great institutions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which sought to infuse a populace with high-cultural literacy."

Celebrating the American Spirit is a handsome 356-page coffee table book, filled with reproductions from the museum's estimable collection: Gilbert Stuart, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Frederic Remington, George Wesley Bellows, Georgia O'Keefe, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol. Et cetera.

I've included Celebrating the American Spirit in this month's book reviews since a voyage through its pages makes for a virtual travelogue of America, from colonial scenes to Western vistas to the swirling deliriums of the New York art world. In addition, a traveler coming to America might want to add a side trip to Arkansas to see this fine new museum in its unexpected setting among the normally forgotten fly-over states.

Still, there's a stunning Freudian slip in editor Christopher B. Crosman's introduction: "The museum is located just steps from a town square that once hosted an agrarian community of small farms and support businesses and now is home to the world's largest retail merchant."

Does any large retail merchant come to mind that has dedicated itself with more demoniac energy to the destruction of small agrarian communities across the globe?

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:

Dizzy in Karachi

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

Walking Home

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

Celebrating the American Spirit

Buy Celebrating the American Spirit at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Sign Up