Perceptive Travel Book Reviews September/October 2008
By Tim Leffel

In this issue: Dear American Airlines, Under the Protection of the Cow Demon, and Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine–soaked Journey from Grape to Glass.

Dear American Airlines
By Jonathan Miles

This sounds like, and easily could have been, a gimmicky exercise stretched into the length of a book. An angry letter written to a lousy airline while delayed overnight at O'Hare in Chicago—"Heck I could have written that!" every frustrated traveler must think when hearing about Dear American Airlines for the first time.

Instead this is a great American novel that is masterfully written, engrossing, and filled with memorable characters. Can a book that is framed as one long customer complaint letter be called "cinematic"? Somehow Jonathan Miles, a New York Times cocktail columnist and a freelancer for the likes of Men's Journal manages to make that happen. In the space of 180 pages, a man's whole sordid life and last attempt at redemption—thwarted by a "weather delay" under perfectly clear skies—unfolds before us.

There are still plenty of good shots at the miserable experience of domestic flights though. (At one point he says to American Airlines, "Insert your own curse words here. Make sure they're your favorites because they're all for you.") But page after page, Miles delivers great lines that come from a whole other area: human relationships. The protagonist, Bennie Ford, hasn't seen his daughter since she was a little girl and finding that she is getting married to another woman, he writes that he doesn't know if his daughter, "will be the bride or the groom and I suspect it's poor form for me to ask." Observing the t–shirt of a teen in the airport, he wonders, "Why does this young generation talk endlessly of rage but never succumb to it? I haven't heard a bonafide howl in years."

At times this is a story within a story within a story, moving and hilarious at once. The second–rate Polish book Bennie is translating moves in and out of the story, as does Bennie's own childhood, his failed marriage, and his days of alcoholic haze in New Orleans. After a decade and a half of creative nonfiction and book reviews, Miles seems to have poured all his accumulated skills and stored–up great sentences into this slim book. The result is as pleasurable as a lie–flat first class seat on a non–U.S. airline.

Under the Protection of the Cow Demon
By Edward Readicker–Henderson

Edward Readicker–Henderson's writing has graced the pages of Perceptive Travel a few times and he is no stranger to awards and recognition for great and groundbreaking travel articles. This compilation of stories is an overview of his favorites, interesting and literary works that appeared in Sierra, National Geographic Traveler, a few Travelers' Tales anthologies, the defunct travel site and even Modern Bride. Strangely enough, they still flow together nicely, which perhaps shows the difference in a writer with a clear voice and one that's just a good chameleon.

The subjects here are all over the globe—though with a professed preference for cold places—and run a thematic gamut that's equally refreshing. There's a personal essay on birdwatching from a car, an instructive piece on the distinctive tastes of honey from different locales, a quest for a truly quiet place, a rumination on the Vikings then and now, and a pilgrimage route on the smallest of Japan's islands. We learn a lot about bears, the Arctic, and the inexplicably thick swarms of mosquitoes in the Yukon and Alaska. At times, there are also inside looks at the underbelly of the travel business. ("Guidebook writing pays a little less than cleaning grease out the Frylator at McDonald's. Show me any guidebook and I'll show you where the author cheated.")

What also sets this collection apart is the personal nature of the notes following each story. Like a Nashville songwriter explaining all the ways she got wronged before writing the song she's about to perform, the notes here are part background, part addendum, and part therapy session. Appropriately, many of these are poetic nuggets on their own.

The one drawback is that this rich collection is out on a small press (Walkabout Publishing) and is not widely available. Order it online, get your local store to get it, or track down the author and tell him to bring one with him for you to purchase. Wherever you live, his restless feet will probably make it there eventually. The wait will be worth it.

Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine–soaked Journey from Grape to Glass
By Natalie MacLean

How much can you really say about wine? How much do non–obsessive people really want to know before they get bored? I've pondered these two questions every time I've written an article involving wine, the fermented grape juice that seemingly inspires more poetic text than all the other quaffable liquids added together. Natalie MacLean has earned a whole wall of food and wine writing awards and has plenty more to say about the subject. But how many people need 33 pages about Zinfandel and a 35–page chapter on "A tale of two wine stores"?

The book hits on all the big issues and themes at some point. The seemingly nutty (but brilliant) owner of Bonny Doon winery, the tireless debate about whether European wines are better because of superior terroir, the rankling influence of American wine critic Robert Parker, the role of a sommelier, what kind of wine to serve at Thanksgiving, and Riedel's attempt to make us buy different expensive glasses for every kind of wine. Thankfully, MacLean seldom buys the company line without skepticism. After a Riedel presentation using glasses that keep getting larger she comments, "By all means, move beyond a golf ball on a stick, but not to a fishbowl on a mast."

The ongoing humor keeps this book from feeling like just a textbook with characters and the reader will learn a lot about wine without feeling like it's a lecture. MacLean skillfully weaves the people behind the vino with the product itself, so most of the book reads like in–depth nonfiction with real people rather than a series of surface–level articles about a winery or style. Some of the best character quotes are allowed to stand on their own without comment, even when the maker of Cristal champagne derides the influence of rappers saying that Jay–Z "hasn't sold one extra bottle for us." (Ummm, right. Can we get a second from Courvoisier?)

But I found myself yearning for shorter chapters, for the "Journey" part to move beyond the big money of France and California. I also missed the kind of lush photos we're conditioned to seeing in every magazine article and coffee table book focused on vineyards and wine country areas. Most of all, I wanted to stop reading and go open a good bottle of wine from a place I've never been to, which is perhaps what it's all about after all.

Editor Tim Leffel is author of the books Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and The World's Cheapest Destinations. His latest book, co–written with Rob Sangster, is Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America.

Also in this issue:

Dear American Airlines

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

Buy Under the Protection of the Cow Demon at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US

Red, White, and Drunk All Over

Buy Red, White, and Drunk All Over in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Book lights and magnifiers – a huge selection of stylish and smart designs!

Sign Up