Perceptive Travel Book Reviews September 2014
by William Caverlee

In this issue:Riding the seas on a gargantuan warship, going from the top of Everest to the sea, and apparently we need one more pictorial list book from Lonely Planet.

Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush
By Geoff Dyer

Another Great Day at Sea by British author Geoff Dyer isn't technically a travel book. But perhaps it can be called a "city guide," the city at hand being an American aircraft carrier, population 5,000, armed to the teeth with F-18 fighter jets, with which, at a moment's notice, Top Gun aviators can assert U.S. dominance anywhere on earth.

Universally praised, Another Great Day at Sea is compulsively readable, especially if, like me, you love documentaries and behind-the-scenes accounts. It calls to mind the 2008 public television series Carrier (which, curiously, Dyer doesn't deign to mention, even though his book is filled with pop culture references).

Dyer leads us on a sprightly tour of the USS George H.W. Bush: Captain's mess, hangar deck, flight deck, dentist, psychiatrist, movie night, onboard sex, the chapel, the brig. His writing style is idiosyncratic, personal, witty, erudite, slangy, international, and entertaining. Here he is, taking a tour of the bakery:

'You're not troubled by the heat in here?' I said.
'Uh-uh,' said one of the bakers. 'Sometimes it gets pretty hot.'
'This is not hot?'
'This is a really cool day.'
The visit was as near as I was ever likely to come to being a touring politician or a member of the royal family. I actually found I'd adopted the physical stance of the monarch-in-the-age-of-democracy (standing with my hands behind my back) and the corresponding mental infirmity: nodding my head as though this brief exchange of pleasantries was just about the most demanding form of communication imaginable.

Still, many times while reading Another Great Day at Sea, I found myself questioning the pleasure I was taking in such a book—i.e., every time I called to mind the ultimate purpose of a warship. At one point, Dyer visits one of the thirty-four magazine rooms on the carrier, each filled to the brim with 500-pound bombs. Ordnancemen Jim and Dave take special pride in their bombs, and Dyer joins in their macho banter:

'You can fly fast and track somebody. But when you've flown fast and tracked them what you gonna do?' asked Dave.
'You're gonna blow the living shit out of them!' I said, getting the hang of things.
'If you got ordnance,' boomed Dave and Jim together.

Flying Off Everest: A Journey from the Summit to the Sea
By Dave Costello

Everest books never cease to amaze. The trick, of course, is in the planning: all those international permits to acquire, climbing dates to set, weather to watch. Is your ascent going to be a full-scale assault or a two-man dash? Then there's getting everyone to Kathmandu, the trek to base camp, hiring Sherpas, fixing ropes, the dreaded Khumbu Icefall, the South Col, the Hillary Step … finally, the push to the summit and … you're the king of the world! This latest Everest book concerns two Nepalese, Sano Babu Sunuwar (Babu) and Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa, who in 2011 set out to paraglide off the mountain's northeast ridge (alt. 28,896 feet), then "continue on to fly south across the Himalaya and kayak nearly 400 miles on the Sun Kosi and Ganges Rivers out to the Bay of Bengal."

The takeoff from the summit ridge had gone surprisingly well, all things considered. Lakpa couldn't breathe for the first thirty seconds of the flight. "It felt like someone was choking me," he says. After inflating the wing, an updraft ripping up the North Face had launched him and Babu 50 feet straight into the air—their crampons dangling beneath them along with 10,050 feet of exposure, the Rongbuk Glacier stretching off into the distance nearly 2 miles below.

Author Dave Costello treats this improbable story with great tact and understanding, for Babu and Lakpa come across as a pair of innocents. Their expedition is comically underfunded and nearly without sponsors. Yet somehow they succeed in their quest and go on to receive the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Award.

Throughout Babu and Lakpa's invigorating tale, Costello weaves the history of Everest. Here are the familiar names of George Leigh Mallory, Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay. All the while, Costello reminds us of the dubious results of Western adventurism.

Since foreigners first started climbing in Nepal in the late nineteenth century, over 174 climbing sherpas have died while working in the country's mountains. At least as many sherpas have been permanently disabled by rockfalls, frostbite, and altitude-related illnesses like stroke and edema while on the job.

Add to that: the sixteen Sherpas killed this year on the Khumbu Icefall, the deadliest single-day accident on the mountain.

Costello's excellent Flying Off Everest combines a thrilling adventure tale with a meditation on the mountaineering industry. Reading it, one asks if anything can be done to make amends to Nepal after a century of foreigners bringing their tidings of death. Perhaps a permanent ban on climbing Everest?

Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Adventures
Edited by Catherine Naghten and Justin Flynn

Pity the new intern at Lonely Planet: "Brianna, we'd like you to come up with an idea for a world-travel pictorial book. Bear in mind that we've already covered several topics: Great Adventures, Great Escapes, Great Journeys, Lonely Planet's Beautiful World, Lonely Planet's Best in Travel, Lonely Planet's Ultimate 1000 Sights, One Planet, The Travel Book, The World's Great Wonders."

On the other hand, the world's a big place, and discovering a new angle for a book may not be as hard as it sounds. Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Adventures is a plausible variation on the theme, even if there's a strong echo of previous titles.

All the usual suspects are present in this collection: from "Trace the Silk Road through Central Asia" (No. 1) to "Discover Peru's Finest Alpine Trek" (No. 1000). In between, you can "Sleep among Polar Bears, Canada," go "Abseiling in Lesotho," drive the "Trans-Siberian Highway, Russia," go rafting on the "Colorado River, Arizona, USA," and on and on.

1000 Ultimate Adventures is ideal for armchair travelers. It's filled with excellent photographs, and readers won't be taxed by the paragraph-long entries. And, no doubt, there are one or two actual travelers who need a book to tell them where to take a trip.

Part of the fun is picking the absolutely worst destination in the world, the trip you wouldn't take if they paid all your expenses and got you a date with the male/female supermodel of your choice. For example: Afghanistan, about which Lonely Planet blithely notes, "Afghanistan's raw landscapes and unique cultural blend may be the ultimate off-the-beaten-path adventure but the current lack of security means that independent travel is officially discouraged." Lack of security?? Well, there's always "Diving with Tiger Sharks in the Bahamas" or the "Canadian Deathrace" or "Cliff Diving in La Quebrada, Acapulco, Mexico."

Meanwhile, for travelers who've just won the lottery, consider a submarine dive to the Titanic for a mere $59,680 per person. Also, don't forget to reserve your seat on Virgin Galactic's Pioneer Astronaut program and be the first one on your block to take a ride on a spaceship, a bargain at $200,000.

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:

Another Great Day at Sea

Buy Another Great Day at Sea in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Flying Off Everest

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

Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Adventures

Buy Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Adventures at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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