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West on Books: Ode To Lawrence Osborne

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Lawrence Osborne

Lawrence Osborne

By Richard West

The British novelist and travel writer, Lawrence Osborne, writes in The Naked Tourist, “Few writers have a real voice, and when one does, the effect is nothing less than amorous…Mead [Margaret] has a voice in the act of travel.” Exactly what I vastly admire about Osborne’s five works of travel, a singular voice that’s a bit world weary, that of a true skeptimist  (all fine reporters are skeptical optimists), Oxbridge-level learned, and of a world-class hedonist. Been there, done all of that, what about a bit more?

O 1

In his first book, Paris Dreambook, (1990) he did the impossible by writing originally about the most written city in the world where he lived for several years.  Do they still slit the throats of live chickens in the Cite Veron? Between the arch of St. Denis and the rue de Turbigo do prostitutes still wear “Wouldn’t You Like To Squash Me” outfits that Osborne noted? He saw it all. Since dreambook, his unique style and eye has taken us through wine vineyards, one of the most primitive places on earth, ex-pat life in Bangkok, and drinking his way through the Mid-East.

O 2

… In The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World (2004) Osborne no doubt agrees with Diogenes that his favorite wine is another man’s. With Ahab-like determination and concentration, he swirls, spits, and swallows gallons of refined grapes as he works his way through vineyards in California, France, and Italy. No surprise that Burgundies triumph, as the Belgians say, like “the baby Jesus dressed in velour pants sliding down your throat.” Oh yes, Osborne also is very funny, especially on the silly wine jargon perfected by the all-powerful wine critic Robert Parker. Tastes like “crisp stones”? “Melted asphalt”? “Crushed seashells?” Get outtaheah.

O 3

The Naked Tourist: In Search of Adventure and Beauty in the Age of the Airport Mall (2006). In a world where tourism has replaced travel, Osborne’s destination is to escape the former, get to the unknown as he heads east, first ambling through Dubai, Calcutta, the Andaman Islands, Bangkok, Bali, finally to the back of beyond: the impenetrable central rain forests of Irian Jaya, the Indonesian-held western part of New Guinea Island. Where his G.P.S. reads “No data”, thus “our dubious paradise did not even exist.” Where natives have never seen whites, live in large tree houses (where only men sleep), get aggressive when they smell shampoo,  eat mouse tails and “Capricorn beetle grubs, the caviar of the Kombai people, that taste like biting into sausage skins filled with explosive pus.” How did he get there and survive this place? It’s a page-turner.

O 4

Bangkok Days: A Sojourn In the Capital of Pleasure (2009) is simply the best book of life in a modern city written since Jan Morris’ Sydney, Hong Kong, and The Great Port (New York), books written from 1969 to 1992. “Hedonopolis” he called Bangkok in a previous work and the man revels in Bangkok’s erotic mise-en-scenery. Never in a sleazy way, never to the nasty tourist trap of the Pat Pong area, Osborne’s more the observer who does no harm and passes no judgment regarding the cheerful No Hands Restaurant (you’re fed by charming lady hostesses); the Dead Artists Street with racy theme bars named after Dali, Van Gogh, Goya, etc; the bar devoted to jilted lovers where you pin up a photo of the faithless one and hurl glasses at it while listening to music of despair. More, however, is a superb account of ex-pat day-to-day life in this fascinating city.  His motto seems to be Nunquam Dormio, I never sleep.

O 5

The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey (2013) is Osborne’s latest and best-written work. He wants to bridge “the West and the East, the alcoholic and prohibited.” He begins in Lebanon where alcohol is legal and even has vineyards; hymns arak and vodka martinis at Beirut’s Albergo Hotel’s rooftop bar; has no trouble in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, before learning alcohol’s rare as cat’s tears in Muscat, only downing orange juice on New Year’s Eve with his disappointed girlfriend. He finds  one of only three bars in Islamabad (“like buying unwrapped pornography in a Walmart Supercenter in  Salt Lake City”); experiences the real danger of drinking in southern Thailand thanks to Muslim extremists; and ends in Cairo’s Windsor Hotel bar, his favorite watering hole in the Middle East.

Osborne explains the Koran’s prohibition of alcohol: it takes one out of one’s normal consciousness, thus falsifying every human relationship and to God as well. He disagrees and is eloquent on the pleasures of drinking:  it is “life giving, exultant, sense enhancing, liberating…increases spontaneity and frankness, affection, and temporary selflessness.”

Indeed, sir. Thanks Lawrence Osborne for all your work. As the Irish say, drink as many cups as the years you wish to live.

Visit Amazon.com to purchase Lawrence Osborne’s books.

richard-west-300x225  Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.

West on Books: Colombia Rediscovered

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short walks from bogota

Reviewed by Richard West

Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent spate of travel articles on Colombia, hitherto a pariah country of ab ovo civil war and bad Karmageddon-esque drug creation, using, exporting, and killing. Most of us have avoided it or thought of Colombia as an imaginary land like Swift’s Lilliput. Now it seems the government has, perhaps temporarily, quelled the internal revolution and the drug violence has ebbed, though there seems to still be the occasional el paseo de los millonairios, the millionaires’ stroll when Senor Gorganfeller is driven across town with a pistol stuck in his ribs as his ATM accounts are emptied.  Given the new interest in the country, two travel narratives  appeared late last year in London, both purchasable via www.amazon.co.uk.

The best by far is Tom Feiling’s Short Walks From Bogota: Journeys in the New Colombia, whose first book, appropriately, was The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World.  Feiling’s Colombia remains a “sunny place for shady people” as General Sir George Erskine described Kenya in the 1920’s. Consider: it still leads the world in cocaine production, planted mines, most internal refugees (four million, one in ten), home of FARC, the world’s largest guerilla army, and has the world’s worst human rights’ record thanks to deaths and disappearances of Colombians by government-supported para-military forces—173,000 murders the past 25 years.   Oh yes, Colombian chefs have an aversion to using herbs and spices.

Anything positive besides the sun still moving 15 degrees an hour? Well, Columbia is the world’s most biodiverse nation, and it makes sensational juice-drinks, especially mango and passion fruit. No country has more species of birds or frogs. Its lakes and rivers contain more freshwater than those of the U.S. and Canada combined. Colombian women are legendarily beautiful, perennial winners of beauty contests. Feiling’s report also is a winner, a perfect blend of now, history, opinions, and research.


Not so perfect is Michael Jacobs’ The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia. The waterway being the country’s main riverine highway, the Magdalena, a river Jacobs describes bittersweetly as “an open drain, albeit still a very enticing drain” thanks to years of sewage, waste, and as the last resting place for one-third of the civil war’s victims. His trip along the sluggish river, the color of cream-tea , is a bore with its unchanging jungly banks dotted with poor villages.

Once on land for the last half of the journey the book greatly improves.  With Dr. Francisco Lopera, one of the world’s Alzheimer’s experts, Jacobs visits the sad village of Angostura, home of the paisa mutation, a form of the terrible disease found in the central cordillera of the Andes. Later on his way by horseback to the river’s source, his party is stopped, questioned, and held for a time by an armed outback group of FARC . Luckily, no harm’s done but the interruption was very unpleasant.

Confession session: given all the other upper shelf places on earth and because the place still seems like a Frankenstymied golem, I’ll remain an informed Colombian armchair traveler thanks to these two books.



Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.


The Best Travel Books of 2011

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"Estonia" by Alexander Theroux

By Richard West

 Welcome to  Everett Potter Travel Report’s 4th Annual Best Travel Books of the Year choices, a selection of opinions and quotes from previous reviews that whirls and dips like a drunkard’s bedroom.
One of the main themes in 2011’s travel narratives is exploration of the back of beyond: East Prussia, South America’s Guianas, Estonia, the almost unchartable, unfindable east central Europe of Romania and Albania.
Another is the paucity of fine books on traveling the U.S.A. William McKeen’s excellent “Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West” is more history than travel.  Without further ado’s or adon’t’s:
1. John Gimlette’s  Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge ranks as our best of 2011, “The adventurous Gimlette goes everywhere, suffers, endures with bravado. Don’t miss this book so you can give the places themselves a pass.”
2. Alexander Theroux’s  Estonia” A Ramble Through the Periphery, as he wrote, “seeing Estonia—disrobing her—was my focus.”   Mine was “an astonishing dissection of this little-known country but the ramble was more through Theroux’s head than the countryside.”
3.  Max Egremont’s Forgotton Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia, where Kant  taught, where Herder and Hamann studied, where Copernicus revolutionized science. “an extremely intelligent trip through a ‘vanished kingdom’ of Teutonic orders and the history of the Baltic.”
4. Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands.  “The subtitle reads ‘Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will’…99 per cent of them are dots in vast oceans that amaze with astonishing stories. The result  here is literary and graphic beauty.”

"To a Mountain in Tibet" by Colin Thubron

5.  Colin Thubron’s To A Mountain In Tibet. “As always Thubron’s thorough research permeates his lyrical language, especially on the allegedly sin-cleansing 32-mile circular path at 18,000 on Mt. Kailas… a beautiful travel work that also serves as a chapter of autobiography.”
6. Andrzej Stasiuk’s On The Road To Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe.  “By which he means forgotton villages in the outback of Ukraine-Romania-Slovakia-Hungary-Albania…places of no future, of the used-to-haves and the never-hads…all utterly fascinating.”
7.  David Downie’s Paris, Paris: Journey  Into the City of Light.  “All 31 essays are beautifully written, combining history, personal thoughts, facts. Don’t leave your hotel without it.”

Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.

Artful Traveler: Last Minute Books (For You)

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By Bobbie Leigh

Call them personal presents, something special for  you not for those on your holiday lists.    Here are some  2011  choices  among  hundreds of  great new books…  but these  are ones not to give away, to keep  handy on your  bookshelves as each has special charms and flair.

THE FOOD 52 COOKBOOK; 140 Winning Recipes from Exceptional Home Cooks by Amanda Hesser & Merrill Stubbs (William Morrow)  is crammed with  recipes. They have been  collected by two women with busy professional lives who still have fun in the kitchen.  Together they have tested  recipes and  described them  in casual, easy-to-follow language. In a recipe for creamy mushroom soup,  you are reminded to “ beautifully and  precisely  chop mushrooms.”  The “Tips and Techniques” little additions are  witty and fun such as “ we halved the spices in the sauce because we’re wimps.”   Another is “Make this (a great beef stew  with  a secret ingredient- anchovies) a day ahead—its flavor will  improve and you can  enjoy the stew without thinking of all the dishes you have to wash.”



 SERIOUS EATS,  A Comprehensive Guide to Making & Eating Delicious Food Wherever  You Are by Ed Levine ((Clarkson Potter)  is not serious at all. Instead, it’s a handy guide to great places to eat across the country and 50 recipes ranging  from breakfasts and burger to barbecue and bakeries.  Levine gives you one more example- as if you needed one- to go to Martha’s Vineyard—Mrs. Blakes pies  or to Portland, Oregon, for Apizza Scholls for pizza with just the right blend of creaminess and tang.  (One disagreement—New York’s Shake Shack burgers, immensely popular but  in contrast to Levine’s opinion,  they don’t set the standard in the Big A.)



THE PERFECTLY IMPERFECT HOME: How to Decorate and Live Well  by Deborah Needleman  with illustrations by Virginia Johnson(Clarkson Potter) is another must-keep. Needleman’s approach is almost Tolstoyan. The great Russian master once wrote that “art begins where that ‘tiny bit’ begins.”  Needleman’s  focus exactly.  Just make a few tiny changes and the room looks new.   Instead of photographs,  the  “tiny” as well as big bits are fancifully illustrated with  watercolor images.  One of the best sections is on lighting. “Beautiful rooms tend to have soft pools of light that come from a variety of sources.,” she says.  Read that chapter and your overhead  lights  will  surely  have a tragic afterlife.

A HISTORY OF DESIGN FROM THE VICTORIAN ERA TO THE PRESENT: A Survey of the Modern Style in Architecture, Interior Design, Industrial Design, Graphic Design, and Photography by Ann Ferebee with Jeff Byles (  Norton Professional Books)  is  a compact  survey volume.  Each chapter starting with “Victorian Design, The Industrial Revolution Precipitates a Crisis in Style”  to the final one about  “Late Modern Design, Remaking Modernism for the Information Age”  explores  how modern design has molded  how we live.  Ferebee  demonstrates the ways evolving modern design has reflected  global  societal and political change. The approach is chronological,  global, definitely not- academic,   and especially interesting for anyone who  is fascinated by the new challenges  of green building  and a new urban topology.

Most of the new artbooks promoted for Christmas are coffee table tomes meant to be admired but not read in bed.   Probably the most impressive is the new Phaidon Press THE ART MUSEUM, more than 1,000 pages, featuring 2,500 works of art.  Almost three-inches thick,  you need a sturdy  coffee table to support this 20 pound behemoth.



So think  thin and consider the  remarkable  new book by the Frick’s Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator, Colin B. Bailey: FRAGONARD’S PROGRESS OF LOVE AT THE FRICK COLLECTION.  Fragonard (1732-1806) was commissioned to create four large canvases by Louis XV as an expression of love for his mistress the Comtesse du Barry.  The panels are the prize of  The Frick Collection and lovingly described by Bailey. They also offer a little window into understanding the complex worlds of  art, royal patronage, and whose taste counted in eighteenth-century France. The panels,  as Bailey writes, establish a sequence of chase, courtship, to  the final panel, “Love Letters”  where the mood is tender and suffused.  “The statue of an unshod matron holding  a heart in her hand was a familiar trope for friendship; the ivy combing the pedestal symbolized friendship and fidelity in marriage as did the spaniel,” writes Bailey.  The messages intended by the artist become much clearer with Bailey’s explanations.  The illustrations, especially the details are stunning. If all you know about Fragonard is his  1767 “Swing,” you are in for a great treat.

And just in case  you are wondering where to place your order,  please  keep in mind that in 1945 we  had 333 independent bookstores in this country; in 2011, fewer than 30.


Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.


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West on Books: Three on Bhutan

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Reviewed by Richard West

Imagine a  country  where astrologers  often  change the calendar, adding or subtracting days or months (no Mondays!); governed by a policy of Gross National Happiness,  where archery’s the national sport, traffic lights don’t exist,  stamps are sometimes made of steel or silk,  large, detailed,  painted phalluses  adorn many houses, and there’s no word for goodbye.

The Land of Cockaigne? Hobbitville?  Swift’s flying island in “Gulliver’s Travels” where Luputans try to extract sunbeams from cucumbers?

No, an actual member of the U. N. : Bhutan, the world’s only Buddhist kingdom,  half the size of Indiana, squeezed between India and Tibet, and the subject of three recent travel narratives that reveal more about this fascinating  place.

Kevin Grange’s  Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World tells you the most, not only about high-altitude hiking, but  the country itself.  Is the Snowman Trek really the world’s most difficult? Consider: 24 days, 216 miles, seven of the eleven  passes over 16,000 ft., one day’s ascent more than 2,375 ft. (more than twice the suggested rate), temperatures suggesting  cryogenesis before lunch.  I’d vote aye.  Except for the usual  corny campfire dialogue in trekking accounts, and  coy, soap-operatic episodes involving a winsome German trekker, Grange describes it beautifully.  Encounters along the way prompt him to teach us about this remarkable place: its flora and fauna , life in some of the world’s highest  and remote villages , where a bicycle would be futuristic,  national parks (Bhutan protects 34% of its territory), traditional skills, marriage customs, etc.

For an immersion in many things Bhutanese, this is the book  for you,  part of the University of Nebraska  Press’s excellent Outdoor Lives Series.



To learn of Bhutan’s urban life , I recommend Lisa Napoli’s Radio Shangri-la: What I learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth.  Napoli, a veteran NPR reporter,  was invited in 2006 to The Land of the Thunder Dragon to help jump-start  Kuzoo-FM in the capital, Thimphu (pop., 70,000),  a new  radio station,  part of the fourth king’s expansion of the country’s media which included two new newspapers. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck funded the station by auctioning off  the gift of a new BMW.

Napoli taught the new disc jockeys radio etiquette ( microphone on?, encourage listeners to call in or volunteer—“it’s THEIR  station”) and, along the way,  saw the capital’s changes: the first coffeeshops and fast-food joints (“Tsab Tsab”, fast fast in drongkha), the coming of a constitutional democratic monarchy, cable TV (thus the use of outdated satellite dishes to dry chili peppers), and more.



Kevin Grange trekked  in the early fall to avoid the monsoon season.  Martin Uitz chose to Snowman Trek during the summer monsoon & write briefly about his adventure in  Hidden Bhutan: Entering the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.  It’s also a fine overview of  Bhutan.

And those house phalluses? “We believe it is wrong to envy what someone else has,” Ngawang,  a  friend of Lisa Napoli explained. “When you have a phallus painted on the house, people will be too ashamed to look and to covet what they don’t have.”  One of the many reasons Bhutan indeed is one of the happiest places in the world. Om mani padme hum.





Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.

West on Books: Crossing the Heart of Africa

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Crossing the Heart of Africa

Reviewed by Richard West

Are you about to get married? Be careful what you read.  In a book on language evolution, Julian Smith, soon to wed Laura, his girlfriend of seven years,  ran across  a paragraph about Ewart Grogan’s 4,500-mile walk in the late 19th-century  from Cape Town to Cairo, the first human to traverse the length of Africa . Why? To prove to his prospective father-in-law he was worthy enough to marry daughter Gertrude, Ewart  being an adventurous –but-penurious young  chappie, Gertrude being wealthy and above his station.

An accomplished biologist and journalist, Smith had no in-laws worried about the merger. He was the problem.  Like many a prospective groom, he fretted about…wed lock. Commitment.  Life ever after preciously tempoed as a cotillion. Parenthood. So before crossing the Rubiconsciousness stream of marriage—Shazam!—why not retrace Ewart Grogan’s route through eight countries of East Africa, not only to highlight this forgotten explorer’s remarkable feat,  but prove to himself life held further adventures. Thus his new book, Crossing the Heart of Africa: The Odyssey of Love and Adventure.

Goodbye Laura, hello damp-towel-smelling Beira, Mozambique’s second largest city, also the start of Grogan’s trip, though Smith had to manage without the Englishman’s 150 porters and had only two months before the wedding, not two years.  From here north Smith endured the usual  trials of African travelers (not tourists):  days hotter than dollar chili, dust, riding buses filled to the point of metal fatigue,  insectile bedding,  food he despised like Beethoven would Sid Vicious.

And too many frustrating instances to count that brought to mind an acronym familiar to all African travelers: OWAWA, oh, well, Africa wins again.

But he did it with anchoritic zeal and the patience of old wallpaper while stumbling upon many kind people and earthly wonders.  I’ll bet he didn’t know Lake Malawi has more species of fish (1,000+) than any other in the world; or that Lake Tanganyika, only 45 miles across, would stretch from New York to Charlotte, N.C.;  or get to see, face to face in Rwanda’s Parc National Des Volcans, one of the world’s 700 remaining mountain gorillas. And he must have felt a sense of history squatting under the mango tree where Stanley famously met Livingstone in November, 1871, near the Tanganyikan lake port of Kigoma.

Like Homer’s Odysseus, Smith on his way home to his own Penelope avoided the Lotus Eaters (drugs), the Sirens (whores), a cannibalistic Cyclops (though Grogan fought his way past warlike Congolese  whose tribal name translated as “ eaters of flesh”), and goddesses like Calypso urging him to stay awhile.  But thanks to 21st century unpleasantness—the ongoing genocidal civil war in Sudan—he didn’t reach Cairo as did Grogan. What can’t be ended must be mended so 48 hours after reaching Juba in Southern Sedan, realizing farther travel was foolhardy, he was flying home to Penelope’s Portland, Oregon.

Grogan married his Gertrude two years after his adventure, honeymooned in Paris, and wrote his widely popular “From The Cape to Cairo: The First Traverse of Africa From South To North” before settling in  Kenya.  He finally died, age 92, in 1967, 24 years after his beloved Gertrude.  Julian Smith married his beloved Laura 107 years and nine days after Ewart’s ceremony.  To the Smiths we offer a popular toast of 19th-century Anglo explorers of Africa: “Broth to the ill, stilts to the lame.”

Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.

West on Books: Ted’s Conover’s Routes of Man

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Reviewed by Richard West

“Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms/Strong and content I travel the open road,” yawps Walt Whitman in his “Song of the Open Road.” After reading Ted Conover’s exhaustively-researched and earnestly-written The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today, I fantasize him musing, “Yep, verily, Uncle Walt,” and dashing out the door to be on the road again for several years, on several continents. Read the full story

West on Books: Visiting the Lost Villages of Central Europe

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Andrzej Stasiuk.

By Richard West

In Fado, Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk writes not of Portugal’s national songs of lost love but Central and Eastern Europe’s lost villages seldom visited by travelers. Should you happen upon the mining village of Rudnany in Slovakia, a Hogarthian jumble of the poor, you’d find a thousand or so gypsies living at the bottom of an enormous earthen pit no longer excavated for minerals looking “as if they’d been thrown there at the whim of some malicious demiurge” writes Stasiuk.

Read the full story