Perceptive Travel Book Reviews October 2010
by William Caverlee

A deep look at a changing China, classic travel photos from Burton Holmes, and the lower Mississippi River as experienced by Oliver A. Houck.

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory
By Peter Hessler

In 2001, American writer Peter Hessler, living in Beijing, rented a Chinese–built Jeep Cherokee, loaded it with snacks, Gatorade, and Cokes, and set out on a road trip into northern China, roughly following the course of the Great Wall.

"The Wall" is the first of three sections of Hessler's Country Driving, and it's the truest to his title: a classic car–trip into unknown territory. Hessler wasn't supposed to take his rental car outside of Beijing, but he embarked anyway, hoping to wriggle out of potential trouble by relying on the Chinese adage that "forgiveness comes easier than permission." And, indeed, he's hassled by police on several occasions, but each time manages to talk his way back into his car and on to the next town.

He learned another saying, Mei banfa—"Nothing can be done"—in the book's second section, "The Village," set in Sancha, a two–hour drive north of Beijing. "The Village" is the heart of Country Driving, an account of Hessler's long sojourn in rural China. When Hessler arrived in Sancha, millions of Chinese had lately been fleeing the boondocks to search for work in factory towns on the coast. Over the course of several years, Hessler is adopted by the Wei family—husband Wei Ziqi (who is Hessler's age; they were both born in 1969), wife Cao Chunmei, and their young son Wei Jai. In describing the saga of this family and the astonishing changes that come to Sancha, Hessler reveals his chief genius as a reporter: a kind of humane, quiet knack for rapid connections with strangers, villagers, tradesmen, farmers, passers–by.

The resignation in the phrase Mei banfa is driven home for us when five–year–old Wei Jai becomes seriously ill. Hessler helps the family drive to a Beijing hospital, loans money to Wei Ziqi, and phones physician friends in the U.S. to ask for advice. What else could he do when faced with the massive, scary bureaucracy of a Chinese state hospital? Hessler's panic, and our panic, when little Wei Jai appears close to death, is the climax of Country Driving. Happily, Wei Jai survives. Hessler will stay close to the Wei family throughout Country Driving, and we follow along as if reading a novel. Wei Ziqi becomes a businessman, an entrepreneur, and a Party member. There's trouble at home, however, as he spends more and more time on the road, working on business deals, drinking, coming in late. By the end of the book, we feel that we know this family as well as any in literature.

Hessler describes dozens of other characters in Country Driving—it would be impossible not to, in this nation of 1.3 billion souls. We meet intrepid, fifteen-year–old Tao Yufeng, who bluffs and blusters her way into a factory job in Zhejiang Province. And the Red Star Acrobatic and Artistic Troupe, members of a bedraggled carny show. Zhejiang Province is a factory owner's mad dreamscape, and Hessler wonders what products are made there:

In the town of Wuyi, a man responded by reaching into his pocket and pulling out a handful of playing cards. I subsequently learned that Wuyi manufactures one billion decks a year: half of China's domestic market. Fifty miles away, Yiwu makes one quarter of the world's plastic drinking straws. A place called Yongkang produces 95 percent of Chinese scales. In another part of Zhejiang, Songxia turns out 350 million umbrellas every year. Fenshui specializes in pens; Shangguan manufactures table tennis paddles. Datang produces one–third of the socks on earth. Forty percent of the world's neckties are made in a place called Shengzhou.

Finally, a small complaint from this reader: in a travel book of 438 pages, the publishers have included only three maps—each legible with a magnifying glass—and no photographs or illustrations at all, other than three postage–stamp size drawings. A few more maps, an index, and some photographs would have made welcome additions to this engrossing, handsome, and intelligent book.

Early Travel Photography: The Greatest Traveler of His Time
Edited by Genoa Caldwell; Directed and produced by Benedikt Taschen

What's not to like about TASCHEN books? … With dozens of excellent, affordable art anthologies and a line of glossy, high–concept skin books. Lately, TASCHEN scholars have compiled The Big Book of Breasts, The Big Book of Legs, The Big Penis Book, and their magnum opus, The Big Butt Book. Lately, when I browsed their limited editions, I thought I was seeing things with the Christo & Jean–Claude, Art Edition, at $5000, but further investigation found a copy of Norman Mailer, Moonface, Lunar Rock Edition, No. 1,967, which comes with its own authenticated moon rock, for only 480,000 euros.

Well … back to something approaching reality… TASCHEN'S Early Travel Photography is a finely produced, beautifully–printed art book, which compiles hundreds of Burton Holmes's photographs and magic lantern slides. Chicagoan Holmes (1870–1958) made his first grand tour at age 16, and soon after embarked on a career as a professional traveler, financing his summer expeditions via elaborate travelogues—lectures and slide shows (and later, motion pictures) presented in concert halls and theaters in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

There's a touch of Phileas Fogg in Holmes's spiffy performances: his carefully modulated narration, his Van Dyke beard and tuxedo. In a scene in the 1991 film A Dangerous Man, Lowell Thomas offered Londoners a lecture series on T.E. Lawrence's romps in Arabia. Burton Holmes, it seems, begat Lowell Thomas, just as Thomas begat, well, everyone and everything else: Lonely Planet, the Travel Channel, Rick Steves, this website…

More than half of Early Travel Photography's reproductions are "colorized" photos, presumably made from lantern slides. Doubtless, TASCHEN editors wanted to create an accurate record of Holmes's pre–Kodachrome travelogues. Artists, we are told, hand–painted individual glass slides, millimeter by millimeter, according to Holmes's personal instructions: "a touch more red on that necktie, please; a deeper blue on the glacier, thanks." In the early 1900s, audiences may have swooned before such ersatz imagery, but, today, colorized photos remind you of your great–grandmother's postcards of Niagara Falls—or worse, a Ted Turnerized Casablanca. Still, after a few viewings, Holmes's color slides begin to grow on you, and many are quietly beautiful: the stained glass window above an entryway in "Flinders Street Railway Station, Melbourne, 1917." A street scene in "A Last Good–bye, World War I, Paris, 1918." In a stunning image, "The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, April 1906," pale yellow smoke boils out of the shattered mountaintop.

Early Travel Photography is filled with wonders: Victoria Falls; the Sphinx; the Panama Canal; Angkor Wat. Yet I found myself drawn to black–and–white shots like "An Italian Family, Burano, 1924"—three village women and a couple of children in a doorway; and "A Javanese Woman, 1932"—a beautiful young woman in classic profile, her hair pulled back, shoulders bare, with flowers in her hair.

Down on the Batture
By Oliver A. Houck

Oliver Houck, a Tulane Law professor and environmentalist, has lived in New Orleans for the past thirty years. During much of that time he has cycled or walked (usually with his dog) along the levees and roadsides of the nearby Mississippi River. The batture of the Mississippi is a narrow strip of heavily wooded scrubland that lies on either side of the river between the levees. During months of high water, the batture is submerged, as the swollen river stretches from levee to levee. But during much of the year, when the river lies at pool stage, the batture is accessible—to adventurers like Houck who don't mind getting muddy or meeting the river's strange inhabitants, human and otherwise.

Down on the Batture is written as a series of linked vignettes, mini–essays. Each brief chapter is a record of one of Houck's rambles. In "The Statue," the mysterious iron sculpture he stumbles upon suddenly moves:

She drew a sheath dress that she had tucked behind her neck down over her body in one move while he slipped his pants up as if they were stockings, no fumbling by either one.

Mostly, Houck's encounters are with the fully clothed: river rats, squatters, runaways, misfits, loners, and ancient woodsmen. Some of these become his friends: men named Ricky, Joe Louis, Paggio, and Alcide Verret. Other encounters are more fleeting: rabbits, owls, ducks, terns, raccoons, snowy egrets, wild pigs.

Surprisingly, within this format of slender chapters, Houck manages to pack an enormous amount of historical and geographical detail. We meet Carlos Marcello, Louisiana's mafia don; Edwin Edwards, the former governor and current felon, who brought gambling to the state; David Duke, the one–time Klan leader who nearly got elected governor; and the English–born boxers Tom Allen and Jem Mace, who in 1870 fought "the first heavyweight championship prize fight in America."

Before April 2010, Louisiana's record oil spill had been in 2008, when an apprentice tugboat pilot steered a barge into the path of a tanker, and "the slick closed down the lower Mississippi for a week." A whole week! The tugboat captain had had girlfriend trouble at the time and was in Illinois. Houck cannot disguise his outrage when writing about Louisiana's perfidious embrace of the oil and chemical industry. For decades, politicians and state protection agencies have rubberstamped these industries' every wish. According to Houck, Louisiana officials look upon industries as "clients" and the public as troublemakers. And today, as we now know, coastal parishes are falling into the Gulf of Mexico, the lower Mississippi River is a sewer, and "Louisiana colon and rectal cancer rates continue to lead the nation…" The recent British Petroleum catastrophe makes an apt coda to Down on the Batture.

Still, Houck resists turning his book into pure polemic. His joy as an adventurer and traveler is too great. His expeditions in Down on the Batture do not range across oceans or foreign countries—Houck is a traveler and investigator of his own backyard, like Thoreau. In "Malorie," he and his wife come upon a line of decaying river barges, stranded against the batture. On the side of one of these forgotten barges, hidden by a nearly impenetrable patch of jungle, is painted a huge mural of a beautiful woman, with an inscription, "Malorie, 1986–2007." Houck wonders who was the anonymous painter who made the difficult and improbable portage down to a lost corner of the Mississippi River to record a memorial that few would ever see:

It is cold out, my wife and the dog have moved away, but I stand in front of Malorie and take my cap off. I feel a little ridiculous, but it is the only way I can think of to pay my respects.

William Caverlee is a contributing writer to The Oxford American Magazine, where he has published articles on subjects ranging from Bonnie & Clyde to William Faulkner to Pistol Pete Maravich. He's the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Louisiana Cultural Vistas, Flight Journal, The Writer's Presence, and a number of literary quarterlies.

Also in this issue:

Country Driving

Buy Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Early Travel Photography

Buy Early Travel Photography: The Greatest Traveler of His Time in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Down on the Batture

Buy Down on the Batture in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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