Perceptive Travel Book Reviews July 2014
by William Caverlee

In this issue: Frances Mayes long before Tuscany, 30 years in Venice, and an "urban nature diary" from gray northern Scotland.

Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir
By Frances Mayes

Although the best-selling author Frances Mayes owns and rules Tuscany (Under the Tuscan Sun, Bella Tuscany, Every Day in Tuscany …), she was born and reared in a small town in the American south. Under Magnolia covers her childhood in Fitzgerald, Georgia, then follows her through her college years, first at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia then at the University of Florida, ending with her marriage in her twenties when she set off for California and her destiny as a writer.

Mayes acquits herself well in telling an old tale. There's a happy/unhappy childhood with a violent father and an alcoholic mother. Then a tight-fisted, perennially ill-tempered grandfather named Daddy Jack. And an African-American family employee named Willie Bell. All the rigidities of small town life—served Southern style.

The network of women existed in a world as private as purdah. Among themselves, my mother's friends were brutally frank, raucous, and never oblivious to compromise. Talk was of should, of standards, local gossip, and, at least five times a day, of how each person looked. Judging every nuance of appearance was part of our chromosomal makeup. They went out as if disguised by veils. Appearance. And feigned innocence, the vise that keeps women "girls" well into their sixties.

Mayes's story comes into its own during her college years in the early 1960s, when the future author was a sorority girl and a gifted student, seeking love and romance—and escape from her suffocating family.

Her descriptions of 1950-60s dating rites, with parlors, dormitories, and tyrannical housemothers, will sound like something out of Jane Austen to the hook-up generation of college students today.

All the while, Mayes was negotiating her independence from her widowed, disintegrating mother and that sadistic miser Daddy Jack. Bit by bit, the memoir takes on the contours of a Bildungsroman, and I found myself pulling for the young heroine. In the end, Mayes marries a graduate student and the young couple heads west.

He will study physics and math. I will … I don't know what I will do. Something. We sell unreliable Old Blue, and make a down payment on a new VW bug, bright red, with seat belts. At night we plot a long journey through New Orleans, the Painted Desert, Big Sur. Because of the heat, we will drive from three a.m. until ten, find a motel, and see all there is to see. We set off with $500 and no place rented on the other side of the country.

A happy ending. She has escaped.

My Venice and Other Essays
By Donna Leon

The American crime novelist Donna Leon has lived in Venice for thirty years. Her essays in My Venice are short, personal, opinionated, and fierce, offering readers an inside view of this humid, over-visited tourist destination.

As a best-selling author, Leon takes the occasion here to do a little venting, both positive and negative. She likes: Venice's absence of cars, urban walks, opera, Handel, Maria Callas, Anne Sofie von Otter, Italian men (well, with the ordinary reservations, the way one loves a scamp of a nephew who somehow grows up to be a remarkable human being).

For a woman to spend an evening with an Italian man, whether he is a friend or a lover, a colleague or a husband, is for her repeatedly to be made aware of the difference that exists between the sexes… . Whatever the cause, she will find herself enveloped in the warmth that comes of being with a person who likes her, who finds the simple gift of her company a source of pleasure, and who makes no attempt to disguise that pleasure… .

She dislikes: Venice's garbage tossed blithely into its canals, Italian bureaucracy, tourists, hunters ("I hate them in their multipocketed jackets, their stout boots, their flap-eared caps, their hand-tooled gun cases."), American hegemony, the endless idiocies of men (pornography, guns, etc.), Saudi Arabia.

It's been twenty-five years since I worked there, but I still am not to be trusted on the subject of Saudi Arabia. The mere mention of the name of the place brings out the worst elements in my character and I become vengeful, spiteful, and violent.

Leon notes that her loathing is not directed at Arabs or Islam, but solely at the males of Saudi Arabia who treated her with universal scorn, violence, exploitation, and sexual aggression.

Leon's other essays range afield, both in tone and subject matter, touching upon her Venetian neighbors, dogs, cats, Gypsies, and the writing life. In the end, My Venice makes for an engaging, highly personal portrait of a singular city.

Field Notes from a Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary
By Esther Woolfson

Like Venice, Aberdeen lies on the sea … that being said, the comparisons quickly peter out. Located in frigid, faraway northern Scotland, the Granite City, as Aberdeen is called, makes Venice sound Amazonian. Then there's the oil business, the city's modern-day raison d'être: all those tankers, offshore rigs and enlightened oil & gas companies (including BP!), which, we're told, hold our best interests at heart.

From gray Aberdeen comes Esther Woolfson's bright and handsome naturalist's journal, recounting a year in her life. An award-winning short-story writer, Woolfson lets us follow her through four seasons in her home in Aberdeen, a home that she and her family share with a crow, a cockatiel, and a rook, along with a dovecote full of doves (called a "doo'cot"). When the children were young, the Woolfson house had been even noisier.

These days, no magpie passes me, shouting, on the stairs. The rooms are silent and empty, all the places where once birds and creatures lived. No rabbit climbs through the kitchen window to glissade down my printer as I work. The only rats are wild ones who, from time to time, take up residence in the space under the house, or ones brought for visits by Bec, who still keeps them as pets… .

Woolfson is graceful in her prose, erudite in her learning, wide-ranging in her interests. She has read closely in Charles Darwin, Konrad Lorenz, Bill McKibben, Stephen Jay Gould, E.O. Wilson and everyone in between. Along with writing about dozens of bird species, Woolfson writes on bats, rats, snails, foxes, rabbits, weasels, squirrels, frogs. Also: poetry, travel, movies, fiction, philosophy. She brings an acute intelligence to each new subject she addresses, and there's not a dull page in a year's worth of entries.

I've always had an amicable relationship with spiders, if 'relationship' is the correct word. I fully accept that it's one-sided, that their sole requirement is for me to stay as far away from them as possible, but I like and admire them as I'd admire anything described as 'small upon the earth but exceeding wise'…

Readers meeting Woolfson here for the first time will find a remarkable writer and a remarkable book. Highly recommended.

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:

Under Magnolia

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

My Venice and Other Essays

Buy My Venice and Other Essays in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Field Notes from a Hidden City

Buy Field Notes from a Hidden City at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Sign Up