Perceptive Travel Book Reviews November/December '08
by Tim Leffel

In this issue: Nepotism, schnepotism. When one of our contributors has a new book out, we like to let you know. We highlight three great ones just came out: Napoleon's Privates, Marco Polo Didn't Go There, and a late U.S. paperback release of Rory MacLean's Next Stop Magic Kingdom. It doesn't stop with that group hug though: also up is Ultimate Adventures from Rough Guides.

Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped
By Tony Perrottet

History doesn't have to be dry. Under Tony Perrottet's scrutiny, history is dripping with bodily fluids.

Napoleon's privates play only a supporting role in this collection, dozens of three and four-page vignettes that cover the gamut from Roman orgies to JFK's revolving door of bimbos and hookers. In between are enlightening unearthed tales and debunked myths. Was Cleopatra really such a hottie? Was Hitler really a flatulent vegan with only one testicle? What was up with those chastity belts? Where did that whole "Virgin Mary" story come from?

Napoleon's Privates is not all about sex and debauchery, but you don't have to read for very long before returning to a story of titillation (or just tits). In between the examinations of whether Alexander the Great, President Lincoln, or J. Edgar Hoover was gay, and the changing attitudes about masturbation, there are short essays on strange but more mainstream questions. If you ever wanted to know if Custer is really buried in Custer's tomb or whether the Impressionists really made any money, you'll find those answers here as well.

While parts of the book serve as a scholarly, others just make you stop and think. Sure Casanova was a pretty face and he bedded some 122 women, but who knew that he also translated The Iliad into Italian, wrote plays in French, penned a history of Poland, gained a law degree, trained as a friar, was a violinist in an orchestra, managed a theatrical group, worked as a spy, and pulled off a bold escape from prison?

Informational tables are scattered throughout with "Boy Toys" (gay British imperial leaders), "Know Your Robber Barons," "Imperial Roman Sleaze," and my favorite, "Top Ten Papal Lechers."

So how did Napoleon's privates end up in a suitcase in New Jersey? Well for that you'll have to read the book and check out the video. For an excerpt from the book, see the previous issue of Perceptive Travel for Before Travel Was Tamed.

Next Exit Magic Kingdom: Florida Accidentally
By Rory MacLean

Next Exit Magic Kingdom is not MacLean's newest book, but it just came out in paperback in the U.S., where the story takes place. The "accidentally" part of the title refers to the way the author's trip to Florida came about. After months spent researching a book he was going to write on Germany, he scrapped the whole idea and caught a plane the next day to Orlando. No plans, no appointments, no agenda. Just a vague goal of following the road where it takes him and seeing the strange state of Florida from multiple angles.

He rents a car and takes off, following random whims rather than any itinerary. Soon he is getting punched in the face by a German tourist, helping out at a halfway house in the most crime-ridden town in the state, staying in a town full of psychics, and visiting an off-the-map place that one author insisted was the original Garden of Eden.

In going after "the real Florida," MacLean spends a lot of nights in cheap and ugly motels, eats a lot of fattening fast food, and sees a lot of deadeningly ugly landscapes. "Palm Harbor blurs into Holiday which dims into New Port Richey, no town distinguishable from the next, each unworthy and unattractive, replicating itself for mile after mile like some rampant plastic fungus." Welcome to paradise.

He eventually parties all night in Miami though and gets propositioned by both sides of the couple he's club-hopping with. Then it's visiting a wildlife rehabilitation center vainly trying to preserve the "wild" part in a state full of subdivisions, retirement condos, and golf courses.

If this all sounds like kind of a downer, well maybe, but it feels more real than most of what you read about Florida. In the next to last chapter though, MacLean finally bows to the temple of Disney and reports to the Magic Kingdom. The section on Disney weddings is itself worth the purchase price of the book. Day after day, to the tune of 10,000 of them total when MacLean visited nearly a decade ago, Disney sets up weddings. They are open to those of all religions and those with no religion, but mostly, he finds, they're for the Japanese.

For an excerpt from the book, see Sun-bathing with Ghosts in Cassadega.

Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and revelations from one decade as a postmodern travel writer
By Rolf Potts

After a decade of good work, Potts deserves to have his best pieces in one place. While more people probably know him as the author of the successful book Vagabonding or that guy who answers travel questions on World Hum and Yahoo, he is one of those rare writers who is as skilled at narratives as he is with helping you find your way.

With a subtitle like "stories and revelations from one decade as a postmodern travel writer," there's obviously going to be a good bit of emphasis on the writer. So rather than just a collection of stories, this is more the literary equivalent of the DVD director's cut. Each tale comes with its own extensive commentary track.

The stories stand well on their own and in some cases this is their third appearance. The first was their original magazine or web publication, the second was some type of anthology. One example: Tantric Sex for Dilettantes, which appeared here first and then was featured in a Best American Travel Writing collection. The 19 other articles come from the likes of Islands, Condé Nast Traveler, Outside, and It starts with the Thailand story that got Potts his big break a decade ago: "Storming the Beach." Others move through Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America, veering from a lone desert hike in Libya to getting drugged and robbed in Istanbul and feeling conflicting emotions among the trashy villages of the Australian Aboriginals. Tales of travel letdowns and travel bliss come alive through stories that are both refreshing and insightful.

For some, that's probably enough. The real fans and aspiring writers that want to dig in further to the story behind the story get a bonus, however. Each article is followed by a few pages of explanation and commentary. Individually, these are background notes, writing craft explanations, and admissions that something needed to be left out or something needed to be altered in order to make the final piece sing. Collectively, the comments are like a master class on the skills required to turn a journey into something worth reading, plus an inside look at the internal debates and tiny decisions that can sometimes have a major effect on how a travel article twists and turns.

Ultimate Adventures: A Rough Guide to Adventure Travel
By Greg Witt

Think of this as a counterpart to Lonely Planet's book, A Year of Adventures that we reviewed here last year. While the organizational structure of that one was to point out the best options for each time of year, this one aims to cover "the world's best travel experiences."

I'm not sure anyone on the planet is qualified to make that call, but most of the greatest hits of adventure are here—and then some. Still, I only had to go a few pages to start seeing holes. That's when I opened up the map of adventures in the U.S. and Canada. Of the 48 listed, there are exactly three in the U.S. that are east of the Mississippi River. Apparently the Canadian Rockies aren't good for much either and there's nothing to do in Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, or the Middle East. (An adventure guide without Petra or Wadi Rum?)

Quibbles of omission aside, you can't really go wrong buying a book packed with this many tantalizing outdoor experiences. None of us will get to more than a fraction of the options anyway. There are a slew of choices on each continent, some well-worn (walking the Camino de Santiago, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro), some true battles with danger (skiing to the South Pole). Each is rated on categories that determine, "Is this for me?" There are star levels corresponding to "physical, psych, skill, and wow." For the tours I have actually done myself, the descriptions and information were accurate, but the target reader is obviously someone with far more money than me. The recommended outfitters are often the most expensive ones out there and apparently people who do adventure tours are scared of public buses: the recommendations of how to get to the start-off point involve a plane more often than they need to.

If you're looking for ideas though or just want to stoke your wanderlust, this will get the heart pumping. Packed with great photos, plenty of instructions, and bonus helpings of fun facts, this is a book worth savoring during your cubicle daydreams.

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:

Napoleon's Privates

Buy Napoleon's Privates in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Buy Next Exit Magic Kingdom at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

National Geographic's Store has great gift ideas.

Marco Polo didn't go there

Buy Marco Polo Didn't Go There in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Rough Guides Ultimate Adventures

Buy The Rough Guide to Ultimate Adventures in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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