Perceptive Travel Book Reviews November 2018
by William Caverlee

In this issue: A delightful compendium of travel facts and wisdom, a collection of travel stories from dicey road trips worldwide, and a miniature coffee table book highlighting important architecture from around the globe.

Atlas of Untamed Places

The Wayfarer's Handbook: A Field Guide for the Independent Traveler
By Evan S. Rice

The Wayfarer's Handbook is both a workaday guidebook (small-sized for easy carrying) and a rich serving of catnip for the armchair traveler. In his introduction, the author takes pains to explain that he wrote this guide for the independent traveler, by which he means the backpacker, student, retiree, anyone, it seems, who eschews the prepackaged tour but might find that setting out alone on the open road is a bit daunting and could use some encouragement.

With this in mind, Rice has compiled a highly readable, idiosyncratic handbook, filled to the brim with dozens and dozens of charts, lists, maps, drawings, and explanatory texts. He has included quotes from writers and famous travelers (Graham Greene, Christopher Columbus, e.g.), poems, anecdotes, plus acres of statistics, trivia, and facts. All in all, The Wayfarer's Handbook is a breezy pocket-sized encyclopedia, chockful of travel advice, plus an entertaining read for the stay-at-home would-be tourist.

Rice gets things started with a discussion on just how many countries there are in the world. Depends on who's doing the counting, it seems. He decides to go with the 193 member-countries of the United Nations, plus Vatican City. All of which are listed in a sixteen-page chart along with capitals, currencies, and other vital statistics. In another chart, Rice informs us that Vatican City is the smallest country by area. As for population, one turns a few more pages to discover that Monaco is the most densely populated country in the world, fairly bursting at the seams with 49,236 people per square mile.

All in all, the author has packed his book with more information than I can begin to outline. There are tips on what to do if an animal attacks, how to avoid street crime, recommended vaccinations, hotel prices, electrical outlets, visas, air travel, traveling with pets, plus hundreds of other subjects. And luckily for us, Rice writes with humor, brio, and intelligence, leading us into the big scary world not as a know-it-all, but as a companionable co-traveler.

A Travel Junkie's Diary
By Dina Bennett

Dina Bennett's lively travel anthology is comprised of episodes from her many journeys across the globe, from 2004 to 2016. She and her husband favor long car trips, in far-flung territories like Morocco, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Chile, India, Iran, and Afghanistan. For Bennett, a journey that doesn't involve dust, dirt, mountain passes, and dicey border crossings is hardly worth the trouble.

The book is arranged by topic (Eating, Etiquette, Borders, etc.) and, within each topic, the chapters skip around blithely, both by geography and date. In 2007, Bennett and her husband completed the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, an overland race that they drove in a vintage car, and which she described in a previous book. She tells us that it was that experience that kicked off her life of travel and adventure. In this, her current book, she recounts dozens of additional travel moments and encounters with people from all over the world.

Once, in 2012, for example, she and her husband drove across the border from Nepal to India without realizing they'd sped right past the border guards. A wild chase ensued with Bennett afraid that bandits were after them. When finally confronted by Indian border agents, Bennett and her husband spent an anxious hour hoping things could be worked out, short of arrest or massive fines or bribes. Luckily, they were set free with a stern warning.

The stories zig and zag, taking us on a freewheeling world adventure. In 2011, Bennett describes driving alongside the Oxus River, the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In China, also in 2011, she crossed the desolate Taklamakan Desert. In Sikkim, India, she visited a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. While visiting the Mursi in Ethiopia, in 2011, she questioned her own tourism of tribal peoples. On a ferry-boat passage to Puerto Natales in Chile in 2008, she dined with the captain, an upgrade that sounded like a much better deal than queuing up with two hundred passengers in the ship's cafeteria. But the V.I.P. treatment turned out to be not so posh in the end—only three tables in a small room.

Amazing Architecture
Published by Lonely Planet

Amazing Architecture is a slender (128 pages), small format (7 inches by 7 inches) coffee-table book, which is a delight to browse. The book offers us 113 international works of architecture with an excellent color photograph of each, plus a brief paragraph or two of description.

This kind of "Best Of" list is sure to generate barroom arguments. Which of your favorites was left off? What glittering, superstar-designed mega-tower do you find uninspiring? As you'd expect, Lonely Planet ranged the globe in making their selections, with the oldest site being Skara Brae, a Scottish settlement, dating from 3200 BC to 2200 BC. The newest is the Nanchang Wanda Mall in China (2016), which, in the book's photo, resembles a cluster of huge Easter eggs, or maybe spaceships.

Anyway, roll the highlight reel: Note that a solid group of traditional fan favorites made the list: Angkor Wat, the Bilbao Guggenheim, Fallingwater, the Colosseum, Hagia Sophia, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Sydney Opera House, the Taj Mahal....

(But no Chartres Cathedral, Empire State Building, or Arc de Triomphe....)

Still, the fun of Amazing Architecture lies in discovering sites and buildings that you have never heard of, even those that might strike you at first as dubious or improbable. For example, here is the wonderfully strange, curving and tilted Crooked House in Poland—and on the facing page, there's the egg-topped Dali Theatre-Museum in Spain.

In Graz, Austria, you can visit the Kunsthaus, an art museum built in 2003 that, to some, looks like a gigantic hot-water bottle. Then there's Seville's huge, soaring Metropol Parasol, which apparently is a parasol; then, Brussels' Atomium, a series of interconnected silver spheres reaching 300 feet high; and Beijing's enormous "Bird's Nest" National Stadium, and dozens of other weird and beautiful creations. Of course, a traveler would have to win the lottery to afford a trip to see all the book's marvels.

In the meantime, back in the barroom, a popular game is to pick one of the structures you'd like to own—or, at least, like to have an up-close-and-personal guided tour of. I'd choose Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, his 1937 miracle in Pennsylvania, which never fails to lift the spirit.

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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A Travel Junkie's Diary

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A Spotter's Guide to Amazing Architecture

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