Perceptive Travel Book Reviews December 2013
by Gillian Kendall

In this issue: Chocolatour, The Coat Route, and Travel Tales I Couldn't Put in the Guidebooks

Chocolatour: A Quest for the World's Best Chocolate (Volume One)
By Doreen Pendgracs

This book is a compendium of information on chocolate world-wide, with photos. I swallowed my envy and appreciated every sweet morsel despite a bitter foretaste, as I've been meaning for about 35 years now to write a book like this. But Pendgracs beat me. She did the global research, writing, crowd-funding, and self-publishing, with a soft launch of Volume One in summer 2013, right smack about the time I was about to start thinking of an outline of a proposal …

The planned three-volume series will be a lightweight reference and generous guide to the great chocolates of the 21st century. Since Pendgracs covers places and chocolate that she personally knows, she had to meet the best chocolatiers in Europe and sample their wares, poor thing.

Volume One focuses on Europe; later ones will detail the Americas and beyond. Meant as much for inspiration as information, Volume One's most helpful sections for the traveling choco-connoisseur include a 30-page A to Z (Acticoa to Zurich) guide and the first-chapter overview of the manufacturing process ("How and Where Cacao Becomes Chocolate"). The most edifying section is a quick hit of the health benefits of our favorite bean, including this significant declaration from the author:

"For me, [enjoyment] is the first and most important health benefit of chocolate: it gives intense and memorable moments of pleasure."

One choco-caveat: the medium-format paperbacks of the first print run contained distracting errors, likely due to self-publishing hiccups. The book was to be corrected before release on Amazon (and this review). I hope that the success of the first volume means that volumes 2 and 3 get an upgrade in format, layout, and photo quality, so that the physical book is as attractive as the chocolate it so deliciously describes.

The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury and Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat
By Meg Lukens Noonan

What Bill Bryson's encyclopedic Home does for houses, Noonan does for coats. A relatively dry topic — haberdashery — is rendered sensationally interesting through lurid detail and lovely language. In examining something as ordinary as an overcoat, Coat Route gives both microscopic detail (width of vicuna hair, anyone?) as well as an overview and historical context.

The "coat trail" is a detective-style story of how and where dozens of skilled workers and artists spared no expense or trouble to put together a bespoke, handmade overcoat that cost $50,000 in 2006. Noonan devotes chapters to "The Fleece" (for which she visited the highlands of Peru), "The Lining" (she went to Florence), "The Buttons" (England), "The Tailor" (Australia), etc. Each chapter is a compelling, surprising story of the individuals who shear, dye, weave, cut, sew, make, and market various components of the coat and the long traditions of "bespoke" clothing. The final chapter, "The Coat," gives a glimpse of the coat at home in Vancouver.

This excerpt from "The Tailor" shows one of the tailor's clients at home:

"Karl Sussman is a lean man in pressed tan pants and a navy cashmere V-neck, who radiates a yogi's quiet intensity. Though he is welcoming, I sense that he … would not appreciate being interrupted while he is trimming the perfectly spherical potted topiary trees that border one side of the swimming pool in his landscaped rectangular back yard. … When lunch is served, we sit at a dining table that has been set with goblets, silver, large exotic-looking blooms, and gray damask linens. There is a chilled bottle of 2008 Savaterre Chardonnay on the table. It is eleven-forty in the morning."

Gracefully written and soothingly laid out, the hardback's form reflects its content of excellence of workmanship. In the manner of a consumer of high-end goods, though, I might request one adjustment to the fit. I wish that the photos could be less understated. The black-and-white images that start each chapter are the size of icons, not illustrations. While the overall design looks lovely, I'd prefer bigger, clearer images.

Sensibly leaving her own sensibilities out of the way, Noonan's personality is available to the reader mostly through her choice of observations, her use of language and her humor, not via self-promotion or declarations of emotion. Because she's not dwelling on her personal reactions to events, the focus is on the material (yes), a refreshing change from so much contemporary travel writing where the psyche of the writer seems as important as the locale.

With its impeccable research, clear-eyed commentary, and pleasantly professional tone, this book could have been written by anyone with enough imagination, travel endurance, and writing skill, but it wasn't. It took Meg Noonan to conceive of, research, and write it: I look forward to whatever she does next.

Travel Tales I Couldn't Put In the Guidebooks
By Lea Lane

Charming, quirky, colorful, understated, and expressive — Sheila Reep's full-page illustrations divine the heart and imagination of these stories. The text, though, is less satisfying.

Or maybe my expectations were too high. I thought Travel Tales I Couldn't Put in the Guidebooks would offer the earthy, earnest, often outré stories like the ones travel writers dish to each other about the destinations that we are paid to promote. But I was disappointed. "Crossing the Atlantic, Not Like Columbus," the first in the collection, could have been astute and/or funny, like "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" (the late David Foster Wallace's account of his Bahamian misadventures with Celebrity); instead it comprises an annotated list of a day's activities on an ordinary transatlantic liner. I wanted to sit Lane down and ask her what she really cared about on the trip she took with her fiancé.

Most of the 34 short narratives are snazzily titled, clichéd descriptions of nice, tame trips. Lane writes, "As a travel writer for over 40 years I've had to push myself to do some out-there things: racing a Formula One at 150 mph, taking to the air in everything from balloons to gliders to blimps, trekking through jungles, walking through tough neighborhoods. I've usually sucked it up." That quote and the questions it begs precede "Wild Dogs or a Stranger in Romania?" a hyperbolic account of the time when Lane and a friend cautiously accepted a short lift from a "suspicious-looking" man, which, due to the presence of some wild dogs a mile distant, she considered a life-or-death choice.

"Witnessing Auschwitz" is the best in the collection. Tracing the life and steps of a Holocaust survivor, Lane drops the snappy patter and upbeat observations for a straightforward account of her visit to the death camp.

"It was so quiet. The tourist buses had long gone. By myself, with Cecile's descriptions in mind, I walked through the gatehouse along the tracks and entered Auschwitz-Birkenau. Among wildflowers and butterflies, in the stillness of a warm late afternoon."

Because she's been to so many places, I bet that in Lane's journals or private thoughts, there's great material she's still holding back from publication. Next time, I hope to see more of it.

Gillian Kendall is the author of Mr Ding's Chicken Feet, a New York Times Review of Books "notable" book. She edited the anthology Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing, and co-authored How I Became a Human Being, the subject of the film The Sessions. Her work has appeared in The Sun, Glamour, Curve, Girlfriends, and many other magazines, and she's won a number of obscure awards. See her latest blog posts on Ireland, adopting cats, and more:

Also in this issue:


Buy Chocolatour in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US

The Coat Route

Buy The Coat Route in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Travel Tales I Couldn't Put In the Guidebooks

Buy Travel Tales I Couldn't Put In the Guidebooks at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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