Perceptive Travel Book Reviews December '09
by Tim Leffel

In this issue: David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries, The Darwin Experience coffee table book, and The Ethical Travel Guide

Bicycle Diaries
By David Byrne

The former lead singer and songwriter of the Talking Heads takes his bike with him when he travels and talks about what he sees and experiences.

That would be an accurate one-sentence summary for a catalog, but of course this book is more than that. It has gotten a mountain of press, as most books by celebrities do. This celebrity is a wordsmith though, not an actor or politician. The lyricist comes out to play sometimes, painting a picture without saying too much.

"On the table are some tiny books. One is no bigger than an inch from top to bottom...They are bite-sized. I could eat one."

There are many deeper meditations of course, on urban planning, bike lanes, why various nationalities are the way they are, and how some cities have evolved like a living organism. This is always tempered by passages that feel like a nice bike ride on a perfect autumn day though, filled with the pure joy of life and discovery. Byrne is a curious traveler, which always makes 300 pages more fun to read than a book by a traveler who is a jaded cynic. Plus as someone who is seeing most of these cities from two wheels instead of four, he truly sees more than most observers. This is especially true when he rides through abandoned sections of Detroit or the market streets of Manila that are too crowded for anything wider than a pushcart. He cycles through Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Sydney, London, the fast food suburbia of the USA, and many more spots around the globe. He includes quirky snapshots taken along the way, ones that I'm sure led to fights with editors who tried to strike the ugly ones. But some accompany a great story, like the Philippine love hotel chain owner who found religion. The banner across one of his love hotels says, "Closed for the Glory of God."

Much of this book is anecdotes and observations from Byrne's travels, but he does have some prescriptions about making cities more bicycle-friendly, advice he has shared often in the articles appearing around this book's release. Much of it concerns allowing us&mdash:or maybe forcing us for our own good&mdash:to drop the walls and mingle more. "A neighborhood that has many different kinds of people and businesses is usually a good place to live." Like a line in a great song, that says it all.

The Darwin Experience: The Story of the Man and His Theory of Evolution
By John Van Wyhe

Celebrating both the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, this immensely enjoyable guide brings Charles Darwin to life in a new way. It was produced by Darwin scholar John Van Wyhe, historian of science at Cambridge University, and combines explanatory text with reproductions of maps, letters, drawings, and pull-out extra items.

I was fortunate enough to receive this review copy right after I returned from the Galapagos Islands, so I devoured it in two sittings. This is a graphic biography, illustrating Darwin, his voyages, and his findings through a variety of interesting visuals. Pages on his childhood and university days in Edinburgh include a pull-out page of his chemistry notes. A page on his time in Cambridge includes a grocer's bill and an 1828 letter to his cousin.

Soon he sets off on his historic voyage on The Beagle, after captain Fitz Roy talks young Charles into coming along and his father convinces him it's a historic opportunity. There's a map of the voyage from 1831-6, which incuded the pivotal times in South America and the Galapagos Islands. The voyage is broght to life with a ship's diagram, a watercolor of the ship, and the story of how Darwin reacted to the "savages" of Tierra del Fuego and the unique fearless creatures he observed in the Galapagos. Period drawings and notes let us in on how the scientist's theories and realizations progressed over time as he gathered more evidence.

The latter part of the book moves back and forth between the development of The Origin of Species (and the reaction to it) to his personal life and health. Enclosures include a program from one of his scientific presentations and a French newspaper with a caricature of him swinging from a tree as a monkey.

The Darwin Experience really is an experience, a tactile expression that shows us the man and his work instead of just telling us about it in straight text. It's a great education that is also pleasurable to read through and explore, page after page. This is a book produced with love and care, something that deserves a hallowed place on the library shelf or the coffee table. It would be a great gift for that evolved someone who appreciates the historic impact of a curious scientist and his findings.

The Ethical Travel Guide: Your Passport to Exciting Alternative Holidays
By Polly Patullo and Orely Minelli

The noble goal of The Ethical Travel Guide is to make you think about the impact of how you travel and try to channel that impact in ways that benefit the communities of the places you are visiting. Much of the advice in the first section is general, including some dubious advice like using natural bug repellent in malarial areas instead of far-more-effective DEET. The meat of the book is made up of capsule listings of companies and organizations that practice responsible travel in more than a superficial way. Encompassing trips on a wide variety of dots on the map, it's a good guide to choosing vacations that will benefit more than just international travel conglomerates.

Of course it's really hard to to do this without the advice coming off as holier-than-thou, so there are parts are going to make all but the most dedicated do-gooder bristle. One writer explains how "Don't fly" is simplistic advice that can do more harm than good. After all, those working in eco-tourism in the Amazon or other remote areas have no income if nobody flies there. So goodbye rainforest, hello logging trucks. But then another writer says to only take one big trip a year on an airplane. Explanations about how flying far contributes to global warming have enticing color photos on the facing pages featuring Peru, Bolivia, the Galapagos Islands, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Are we supposed to get to those overland on a smoke-belching bus or boat? (Oh, and there was an empty seat on that plane we were going to take. It left anyway without us.)

The tour and accommodation listings that are here are excellent though and this is the main reason to buy The Ethical Traveler. In this book there is also at least a designation of which trips are budget or deluxe. The selection seems more haphazard than it could be and as usual in these books there are gaping holes. It's hard to find a reputable Sacred Valley trekking company in Peru for instance that is not operating responsibly and supporting community projects these days, so the authors seem to have responded by punting on the whole area and including nobody. The whole USA has all of four listings, China one.

It's a worthy attempt overall, and hopefully one that will sell more than a handful of copies. If everyone who purchases this title books just one trip like those listed instead of a package holiday at a vacation factory, the world will certainly be a better place.

Related review: Clean Breaks: 500 new ways to see the world

Perceptive Travel editor Tim Leffel is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations, now in its 3rd edition. He once wrote bios and marketing copy for now-forgotten rock bands, but he currently spits out more heartfelt raves on the Cheapest Destinations Blog and the Practical Travel Gear Blog.

Also in this issue:

Bicycle Diaries

Buy Bicycle Diaries in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

The Darwin Experience

Buy The Darwin Experience in your local bookstore or online here:
National Geographic Store
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

The Ethical Travel Guide

Buy The Ethical Travel Guide in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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