West on Books: 4 Great Travel Books for Christmas Stockings
By Richard West
Anybodyanybodyanbody, don’t click and leave, give this a read, how ‘bout you now, one minute of your time, one 60th of an hour, we got some winners, right here, anybodyanybodyanybody, I miss a few, I get a few, no book’s easy. In fact we got four recent travel book winners so pour a cuppa and settle in for armchair travel:
…After last year’s Fado, Andrzej Stasiuk, Poland’s finest travel writer, is back with On The Road To Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe, by which he means forgotten villages in the outback of Ukraine-Romania-Slovakia-Hungary-Albania. A typical day’s drive: “Leaving Hortobagyfalva, I drove into Altina, drove out of Alzen…and ended up in Szentagota.” These are places of no future, of the used-to-haves and the never-hads, donkey carts, the smell of damp harnesses and pig excreta. Other worlds like Sfantu Gheorghe, a village entirely built of reeds on the Romanian coast where the Danube flows into the Black Sea. All utterly fascinating.
…In the gaudy carny world of travel literature we all win when the master, Colin Thubron, publishes, and his To A Mountain in Tibet not only takes us to western Nepal and Tibet but serves as a chapter of autobiography. There’s an air of melancholy here as this aging, childless Englishman, who has recently lost his mother, sets off on a tough pilgrimage to Mount Kailas, the mystic mountain of Hindu scriptures, sacred also to Buddhists, Jains, and Tibet’s Bon faith. As always Thubron’s thorough research permeates his lyrical language, especially on the allegedly sin-cleansing 32-mile circular path at 18,000 feet , past sky burial terraces, Chinese army guards, and gorgeous flora and fauna.
…”Doctors and teachers, I ask you what is Hell?” wrote Dostoevsky. “I submit it is the agony of being unable to love.” Nice try, Fyodor, but the correct answer is the outbacks (and a few towns) of South America’s Guianas—Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana– as you learn reading John Gimlette’s wonderful Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge. Creepy Jim Jonestown country of past mass death, giant rats, huge snakes, enormous spiders, caiman, fevers, tenacious ticks, murderous smugglers, and the Makushi forest people whose homebrew consists of fermented cassava, purple potatoes, and human spit. The adventurous Gimlette loves it, goes everywhere, suffers, endures with bravado. Don’t miss this book so you can give the places themselves a pass.
…Sicily’s ur-travel narrative remains Mary Taylor Simeti’s On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal, published 29 years ago, but John Keahey’s new Seeking Sicily: A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality In the Heart of the Mediterranean, is a worthy successor. He tours the ancient island, savors its grand cuisine, interprets it through its writers like Giuseppe di Lampedusa and Leonardo Sciascia, and, best of all, explains the sense of Sicilian separateness, the so-called Sicilitudine. Who knew the Arab influence was so pronounced, that there’s no future tense in the Sicilian (or Arab) languages, that sweet lemons grow near Mt. Etna, that the only place in Europe where papyrus grows is near Siracusa? This is a fine overview of an island that has attracted visitors for 30 centuries.
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.