Perceptive Travel Book Reviews September 2020
by William Caverlee

In this issue: The work of Japanese artisans, an American's life in Paris, and classic grand American theaters captured before their final curtain.

Craftland Japan
By Uwe Röttgen and Katharina Zettl

Craftland Japan is a handsome, finely produced book on Japanese artisans—composed of both photographs and text. The authors have traveled the length and breadth of Japan, visiting individual studios and workplaces, which are often family enterprises that date back hundreds of years.

The featured artisans include ceramicists, woodworkers, metalworkers, cabinetmakers, weavers, bamboo artists, calligraphers, papermakers, and others—twenty-five in all. I found myself amazed at the many different crafts and creations documented here: from intricate tiny sculptures made of bamboo to lacquerware to copper pots to indigo dyes to marquetry to pottery.

It was engrossing to work my way through the chapters, with so many color photographs of the artisans themselves, their studios, and examples of their work. Sometimes the workshops were small and ordinary looking, perhaps on a quiet lane in some unremarkable neighborhood that you'd hardly give a second glance. One was nestled into a beautiful woodland. One was a former noodle factory.

In each chapter, there's a description and history of the family business; then a profile of the owner/artisan; then a series of photos of the tools and processes used. There is plenty of highly interesting text for us to read as we tour the various workplaces. All in all, the book is packed with so much photography and written detail that I don't advise trying to read it straight through like a travelogue. Rather, I suggest dipping into chapters here and there; then returning later for another immersion into this world of craft and creativity.

In the Hamada region, families traditionally combined two seasonal activities: in the warm months they grew rice and in the winter they made the strong and durable Sekishū washi paper, using the particularly long and stable fibres of the kōzo (paper mulberry) shrub. Steep, winding roads lead quickly from the rough and hilly coast into a hidden, deeply incised side valley. Here the Kawahira family live, surrounded by dense forests.

We learn that the paper made at Atelier Kawahira becomes, among other things, "calligraphy paper, sheets for certificates, papers with watermarks and postcards." There's something wonderful in the thought of a long-held family enterprise and tradition dedicated to the production of fine paper.

My copy of Craftland Japan is a high-quality softcover volume, intricately and richly designed, about 7 inches by 9½ inches and 288 pages. It was a great pleasure to learn about these extraordinary artisans and their inspiring lives—for me, a hitherto unknown world that the authors have honored via this book.

French Like Moi: A Midwesterner in Paris
By Scott Dominic Carpenter

An American in there's a well-worn theme. Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast covers the Golden Age of the 1920s with its neon cast of famous writers and artists. Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer takes us into the 1930s with a view of Paris at its seediest. Even Woody Allen got into the act with his 2011 film, Midnight in Paris, complete with scenes of time travel that allow Hemingway and the gang to come to life, as if they were citizens of Brigadoon.

French Like Moi is a humorous, engaging memoir by Scott Dominic Carpenter of his sojourn in Paris with his wife and young daughter. Carpenter is an American university professor who bought a small apartment on Rue Bobillot in the thirteenth arrondissement on the Left Bank. He and his family lived there for—well, I don't know for how long, but the sense you get from the book is that it was at least a couple of years. Nor could I discover exactly when the story takes place, but I'm guessing that it took place within the past ten or so years.

Carpenter's account of Paris is modest, witty, domestic, and self-deprecating, and is set in a neighborhood several Metro stops beyond the glitzy precincts of Boulevard Saint-Michel and the Champs Élysées. The book is all the more appealing for its quiet everydayness—in contrast to the standard Paris memoirs of haute cuisine, art, and literary name-dropping.

In the book's opening pages, we follow along as Carpenter negotiates the purchase of his tiny apartment on Rue Bobillot. Here are aged neighbors in the crowded apartment block, with its thin walls and all too audible coughs and television sets. Carpenter has to weave his way through a maze of French banking laws, real estate laws, visa regulations, and platoons of bureaucrats devising one more obstacle for him to overcome.

At times, Carpenter is a French sit-com dad, buying the wrong kind of lightbulb at the hardware store or attempting to remodel the cramped apartment. We meet the clochards of Carpenter's neighborhood, Parisian hoboes who have attained a kind of legendary status. We learn what it's like to go to a doctor in Paris and to confront throngs of tourists during the annual summer siege. Carpenter writes of French education versus American, of genial French friends who invite the Carpenters for a home-cooked meal of coq au vin, of the numerous civil protests and strikes that pop up across the city almost daily, and of the bombings and violent attacks that make news around the world. Still, in the end, Carpenter's good humor and perseverance win the day.

No photos, but the book is sprinkled throughout with fine Thurberesque drawings that perfectly capture the charm of Carpenter's stories.

© After the Final Curtain: America's Abandoned Theaters

After the Final Curtain: America's Abandoned Theaters
By Matt Lambros

How many ways are there to take a tour of the United States?

A few years ago, America celebrated the founding of the National Park Service and many travelers set out to visit natural wonders across the country—Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, Yosemite, et cetera. Meanwhile, a trip down Route 66 is still a popular draw—all those photogenic diners and gas stations from Chicago to Los Angeles, best toured in a 1960 Corvette just like the two guys on the old TV show. Then there are motorcyclists who set out to attain the Four Corners—Key West, Florida; Madawaska, Maine; Blaine, Washington; and San Ysidro, California. Hikers, of course, have their own main events—the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest Trails.

In After the Final Curtain, Matt Lambros offers us a tour I haven't thought of until now: classic movie theaters. These are the grand movie palaces of the first half of the twentieth century. For someone today who has known only a boxlike, twenty-screen multiplex with all the charm of an auto-parts warehouse, a vintage movie theater is as extraordinary as a European cathedral.

Most of Lambros's excellent color photographs depict interiors—which, sadly, are in various states of decay, thus giving his project an elegiac air. He writes that he spent ten years photographing around 150 theaters in the United States. He has winnowed that list down to twenty for After the Final Curtain. States represented include California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

The names of the theaters are themselves rich in movie nostalgia: Orpheum, Loew's, Majestic, Roxie...While the photographs here are mostly images of ruins, it is possible to envision former glories. Nearly every theater once had a towering proscenium arch, a stage and curtain, tall ceilings, private opera boxes, a balcony, a mezzanine. Here were sconces, statues, paintings, plasterwork, murals, balustrades, medallions, gallons of gold paint. Famous architects created these wonders in the 1910s and 1920s, in styles with names like Beaux-Arts, Art Deco, Neo-Colonial, Neo-Renaissance, and Art Nouveau.

Often, the theaters had their start as concert halls and vaudeville stages, then moved on to screening movies, first with silent films then later with talkies. Then, as movie audiences shrank, they sometimes tried to re-invent themselves as community halls and rock'n'roll arenas. Sadly, nearly every chapter here has a similar final act: a city government or a private developer announces plans to restore the old hall and yet nothing comes of it. Over and over, I found sentences like "The theater is currently unused; there are no plans for re-purposing or renovation." Or, "It is currently unused, with no public plans for its revival." Or, "The current site of the theater will become a parking garage."

But, happily, the author has found one or two theaters among the twenty he has depicted whose communities have rallied to save them, and, according to the book, restorations are underway. And while few travelers will be able to view the interiors of the theaters that Lamdros has so painstakingly documented, we can be grateful that he has made this unique American tour in our stead.

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

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French Like Moi: A Midwesterner in Paris

Buy French Like Moi: A Midwesterner in Paris at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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After the Final Curtain: America's Abandoned Theaters

Buy After the Final Curtain: America's Abandoned Theaters at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon
Amazon UK
Amazon Canada