Perceptive Travel Book Reviews November 2020
by William Caverlee

In this issue: A guide for taking good street art photos, the streets of megacity Tokyo, and a travel guide about boldly going beyond our planet.

The Street Photographer's Manual
By David Gibson

These days it's hard to imagine a traveler who embarks on a journey without some kind of camera in hand, at the very least, a smartphone. Thus, unless such a traveler is exclusively a landscape lover or an astronaut, a course in street photography would seem to be just the ticket.

David Gibson is a British-born photographer and teacher, and his book, The Street Photographer's Manual, derives from the many workshops and classes he has given over the years in numerous countries around the world. It has been revised here as a new edition for 2020.

Gibson addresses the first question on our minds in his introduction: "What is street photography?" He answers us a page or two later.

A short description is any kind of photography taken in a public space. It is usually of ordinary people going about their everyday lives. Street photography's core value is that it is never set up; this aspect is 'non-negotiable' because the guiding spirit of street photography is that it is real.

As you would expect, The Street Photographer's Manual is filled to the brim with photographs—both color and black-and-white—many of them the author's own, along with dozens by others. The book is also a collection of profiles: of twenty contemporary street photographers, whom Gibson admires and describes in one-or-two-page bios. Here are names like Melissa Breyer, David Gaberle, Merel Schoneveld, Matt Stuart... The birthplaces of the twenty give us a good idea of the international flavor of street photography today: Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Japan, Oman, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States.

In a sense, with so many images from around the world, The manual can also do double service as a general book of photography. In addition to the featured contemporary photographers, Gibson has comments on several world masters: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Vivian Maier, Garry Winogrand. . . .

Of course, the heart of the book is Gibson's wealth of teachings, offered to us from his lifetime as a professional photographer. The instructional chapters have intriguing titles like "Sequences," "Waiting," "Looking Down," and "Reflections."

Browsing through the many terrific photos in the book, I was especially struck by an image by Henri Cartier-Bresson called "Hyeres, France, 1932," in which a bicyclist spins past us, as we look on from above, a twisting staircase leading to the street below. The photo takes up two pages—the book fully open so that we can take everything in.

Another two-page image was taken by David Gaberle in 2015. It's called "Hong Kong International Commercial Centre" and is a wide-angle view of skyscrapers, waterfront, and a massive, cloud-filled dark sky—everything eerie, gray, shadowy and half-hidden, except for a single tower in the center of the frame that has been completely lit by a shaft of light from somewhere and gleams like a vertical silver-white spaceship. Extraordinary.

My review copy of The Street Photographer's Manual is a high-quality softcover, about 7 by 9 inches and 192 pages. It includes a bibliography, index, and a glossary of basic photography terms.

© Jezael Melgoza

Tokyo Megacity
By Donald Richie, Photography by Ben Simmons

For many people like me who have never visited Tokyo, the city resides in a realm of the imagination somewhere between the old Richard Chamberlain mini-series Shogun and the shimmering neon dream-towers of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. Not exactly a solid foundation for getting a take on the place.

Tokyo Megacity isn't a city guide; rather, it's a kind of biography or natural history of this phenomenally populated city. So, no maps or daily "places to see," no lists or sidebars with hotel rankings or restaurant reviews. Rather, Tokyo Megacity is part coffee-table book and part highly literate prose description. It is bursting at the seams with color photographs, offering us a bright overview of the city's streets, sites, and people. All the while, Donald Richie's lucid, interesting text weaves stories of Tokyo's history, along with commentary on its modern-day form. The book's very first sentence snaps us awake:

According to the 2008 United Nations Report on World Urbanization, Tokyo remains the largest city in the world, at its daytime peak containing 36 million people, considerably more than in all of California, more even than in all of Canada.

The mental image of everyone in California pressed into a single city is unsettling, although the author notes that Tokyo "is also ranked as one of the world's most livable cities, topped only by Copenhagen and Munich." (I hadn't heard that about the two European cities, but—no argument from here.) Tokyo Megacity repeats this livability theme several times; it is one of the book's recurring motifs, and is said to be exemplified by the city's excellent transportation system, shopping, urbanity, entertainment, food, modernity, nightlife, and civic energy.

In a way, Tokyo Megacity can be seen as a celebration of a city's survival and continuous rebirth. One chapter, "Rikugien," features a 25-acre park and garden, in the center of the city that was built in 1702. Here are shots of pine trees, ponds, a boathouse, a footbridge. The book has plenty of other photos of traditional Japan: small shops, bridges, cherry trees, teahouses, a Buddhist monk, women in kimonos...

Yet modernity will have its day, and Tokyo Megacity has all you could ask of youth, manga, anime, gleaming subway stations, ubiquitous vending machines, electronics, girls with blue hair, dazzling high-rise business districts, as well as Chanel, Cartier, and Louis Vuitton.

Hardcover, about 8 by 10 inches and 176 pages, with hundreds of photos.

The Universe: A Travel Guide
Published By Lonely Planet

Most travelers find it hard to resist a nice fat guidebook—The South American Handbook, for example, or Camino de Santiago: Sacred Sites, Historic Villages, Local Food & Wine—lush, overpacked reference books with a million facts and factoids.

But The Universe? Has Lonely Planet gone a galaxy too far?

True, twelve earthlings have walked on the Moon, and several hundred have flown in space, from stout-hearted Yuri Gagarin in 1961 to all those astronauts who have rocketed high and far, or have flown in the space shuttle, or lived aboard the International Space Station. And not just professional astronauts, but payload specialists, plus a politician or two, and even seven space tourists. And as Elon Musk and Richard Branson move forward in their private rocket ventures, who knows how many ordinary citizens will one day take a spin in space. Not to mention those brave souls who will be the first to travel to Mars.

Still, it's hard not to wonder who exactly the target audience of The Universe is, especially if your idea of travel is a backpacking trip in Europe or a beach vacation in Florida. On the other hand, what's wrong with taking the long view once in a while?

Our Universe began in a tremendous explosion known as the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago. We know this by observing light in our Universe which has travelled a great distance through space and time to reach us today. Observations by NASA's Wilkinson Anisotropy Microwave Probe (WMAP) revealed microwave light from this very early epoch, about 400,000 years after the Big Bang.

From there, The Universe sets out on a photo-rich, 608-page jaunt through our Solar System, the asteroid belt, the dwarf planets (where poor Pluto is now consigned), comets, stellar objects, and galaxies, to name just a few of the book's chapters.

Meanwhile, for diehard terrestrial travelers, it's possible to sift through the book for attainable travel opportunities on earth. Here's a section called "Earth Highlights," with pages on Mt. Everest, the Atacama Desert, Mauna Kea, Death Valley, Antarctica, the Great Barrier Reef, and other wonders. Other sections deal with solar eclipses, those increasingly popular travel destinations. And for amateur astronomers, there are references to the annual Perseid and Leonid meteor showers, plus notes on the five planets which can be seen with the naked eye.

In short, The Universe is a rich, colorful, highly interesting reference work, packed with spectacular photography—which just might lend perspective to your so-called dream vacation, whether it be a trek in the Himalayas or a trip on the Orient Express. Next time you've got a bundle to spend (well, $250,000), why not book a ticket aboard Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Two for that day in the future when Richard Branson will take you faster and higher than you've ever been before.

Hardcover, about 5 by 8 inches. 608 pages.

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:
Sign Up

Tokyo Megacity

Buy Tokyo Megacity at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon
Amazon UK
Amazon Canada

The Universe: A Travel Guide

Buy The Universe: A Travel Guide at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon
Amazon UK
Amazon Canada