Perceptive Travel Book Reviews September 2017
by William Caverlee

In this issue: An eclipse-chasing scientist details a lifetime of eclipse-chasing and two anthologies highlight talented women writing about the world and about Paris.

Eclipse book review Creative Commons photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

By Frank Close

Recently, in case you missed the news, on August 21, the American solar eclipse of 2017 attracted untold numbers of eclipse watchers, who made their way to prime viewing spots from Oregon to South Carolina to witness the extravaganza.

The author of Eclipse, Frank Close, is professor emeritus at Oxford University and a physicist. He first learned about eclipses in childhood and has spent a lifetime tracking them down across the globe.

Eclipse is an introduction to this astronomical phenomenon, as well as a travelogue of Close’s many eclipse expeditions: to England in 1999, to Zambia in 2001, to Libya in 2006, to Tahiti in 2010, to Fiji in 2012, and to Morocco in 2013.

The author has done a good job in composing Eclipse for the general reader, although there are plenty of charts, diagrams, and extended scientific and historical discussions for those seeking a greater understanding of how and why eclipses occur. Simultaneously, Close has written a fine, humane, witty, and engrossing travel narrative of his adventures in search of total eclipses.

Close crosses paths with many varieties of eclipse chasers. Among them are fellow scientists, photographers, amateur astronomers, super-fans with their t-shirts and buttons proudly announcing how many eclipses they have witnessed, and various “believers in UFOs, alien abduction, or that they themselves are in communication with aliens.” But no distraction can compete with an actual moment of totality, such as this eclipse that Close viewed in Africa in 2001:

Our shadows took on a split personality, showing strange bifurcations as the crescent remnant of the fast disappearing sun illuminated us wanly in the deepening gloom. As totality approached, there was an intense sense of anticipation. The air cooled, and then in the west, a wall of darkness, like a gathering storm, dimmed the bright blue sky: the moon’s shadow rushed towards us. No wonder the ancients were terrified...

Next up for the United States: the eclipse of April 2024. Save the date.

The Best Women's Travel Writing, Vol. 11
Edited by Lavinia Spalding

The reliable publishing house, Travelers’ Tales, has brought out a new anthology—its eleventh collection of women’s travel writing, consisting of thirty-one essays from around the world. The places these writers have visited include Nepal, Mongolia, Pakistan, Cuba, Russia, Japan, Italy, France, the United States, and nearly every other corner of the planet. Taken as a whole, the dispatches in The Best Women’s Travel Writing can be seen as a kind of documentary on the state of our world in recent years.

In “You Teach American Way,” Jennifer Kelley travels to Strakonice in the Czech Republic to play professional basketball. She’s the first American to do so. Awkward days follow her arrival: shopping for groceries when you don’t know what you’re buying; exhausting practices with her new teammates; watching Jurassic Park when every voice in the movie sounds like a single Czech voice; dropped phone connections when trying to phone her father back home.

In Switzerland, in “The Interpretation of Sighs,” Jill K. Robinson is assisted by a blind man at a train station.

What I’ll remember about Michel isn’t what he looked like, but how he could interpret a sigh, anticipate the arrival of a silent train, leave the Alpkäse cheese for me after learning how much I loved it.

In “Curandero,” Catherine Watson seeks out a healer in Mexico City’s Sonora Market. Finally, in a tiny room, a husband-and-wife team, Don Hector and Doña Hector, perform a cleansing on her, using leaves and flowers, along with prayers and chants:

I had been given half an hour of intense, concentrated, professional attention aimed at healing both body and spirit. I felt refreshed, at ease and cared for. No wonder the old ways had survived, I thought; they made you feel better. They helped.

Meanwhile, Anna Vodicka confronts a bull shark while scuba diving in the Pacific near Palau. Zora O’Neill meets Syrian refugees in Lesvos in the Aegean Sea. Christine Loomis visits a zany, decrepit theme park in Montana that was created to honor American farm life. Colleen Kinder travels to Iceland in mid-winter. Katharine Harer takes a solo auto trip through southern Italy.

The other stories in The Best Women’s Travel Writing are tales as equally intriguing as these, from places both familiar and exotic, written in a wide range of voices.

A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light
Edited by Eleanor Brown

Again an anthology—this time a collection of eighteen essays on Paris by women writers, all of whom, as the book’s sub-title indicates, have previously written bestsellers.

It’s difficult to conceive of a book of recollections of Paris without thinking of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. And sure enough, the classic is mentioned on page one of the introduction.

In fact, Paula McLain’s trip to Paris in 2010 is a search for Hemingway’s haunts of the 1920s, the Paris immortalized in A Moveable Feast. As it happens, McLain had written The Paris Wife, about Hemingway and his first wife Hadley, a year or two earlier. Written in Cleveland. Be that as it may, off she goes, exploring the Left Bank, in search of “74 Cardinal Lemoine, the address of Ernest and Hadley’s first apartment in Paris,” the Luxembourg Gardens, the Dôme, the Closerie des Lilas, Shakespeare and Company, rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, and other venues mentioned in A Moveable Feast. I wonder how many Hemingway fans have made that very same search.

As you’d expect, A Paris All Your Own is comprised of many other memories of Paris; many other attitudes. Julie Powell, the author of Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, recalls her first trip there, in the company of an American family, when she was the nanny to the family’s two young boys.

Susan Vreeland, researching a novel, is given a behind-the-scenes tour of the Louvre. Cara Black finds inspiration for her career as a mystery novelist via Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret. Cathy Kelly recalls her life as a book reader, with special emphasis on French novels: The Three Musketeers, Candide, Bonjour Tristesse, La Nausée, Chéri.

The authors who contributed to A Paris All Your Own have given us a welcome addition to the literature of stories and descriptions of the ancient city.

William Caverlee is a freelance writer who has been published in numerous magazines and literary journals, including The Oxford American, Cimarron Review, Flight Journal, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. His work appears in The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings, and he's the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:


Buy Eclipse at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon

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The Best Women's Travel Writing, Vol. 11

Buy The Best Women's Travel Writing, Vol. 11 at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon

A Paris All Your Own

Buy A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon