West on Books: 5 Best Travel Books of 2012
Reviewed by Richard West
Employing retrospective clairvoyance, i.e. Monday-morning quarterbacking, we find that, with the exception of our number one walkaway hit, this year’s nonfiction travel narratives have not been memorable like a great love affair but satisfactory like a good tailor. The A-list Americans—Paul Theroux, William Least Heat-Moon, Tony Horwitz—didn’t publish, thus, currently, two of our best are available only in Britain, most easily bought via www.amazon.co.uk. Still, our five selected this year recognize and expand on Imam al-Shafi’s five advantages of travel:
“Arise and go a-roving if you’re in the mood
To earn the money, and the manners, to live well;
To feed your brain, to free your mind from cares that brood;
Not least to meet with other men whose mind excel.”
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, by Robert Macfarlane (Viking, $27.95). Far and away the best of the year is Macfarlane’s lyrically beautiful prose on the joys of putting one foot in front of the other, mostly in his native England, but also in the eastern Himalayas, the occupied Palestinian territories, and Spain’s Camino de Santiago. I can’t improve on a rapturous mention in a recent Sunday “New York Times Book Review”: “He wears his polymath intelligence lightly as his mind roams across geology, archaeology, fauna, flora, architecture, art, literature…retrieving small surprises everywhere he walks.”
A Journey To Nowhere: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Courland, by Jean-Paul Kauffmann (MacLehose Press, London, L18.99). Courland? Nowhere indeed. Well, a Latvian duchy in the 18th century, now most of that Baltic nation that trembles on the brink of the archaic like silent films the year sound appeared. Arguably France’s finest travel writer, Kauffmann, at the wheel of a Skoda, motors through this Baltictude discovering the planet’s best rye bread, the world’s northern most vineyard near Sabile on the 57th parallel, and a former KGB prison where tourists can undergo for about eight Euros a night the “K.G.B. extreme experience.”
Looking For Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, by Noo Saro-Wiwa (Soft Skull Press, $15.95). My fervent thanks to Ms. Saro-Wiwa for writing this perfect armchair travel book. I’d rather eat worms than visit this dangerous, crumbling country run by corrupt nincompuppets, where 90% of its people survive on less than $2 daily, that in a quarter of a century will have 300 million people in an area the size of Arizona and New Mexico. In the Muslim north, markets sell Saudi Arabian hand amputation machines. Transwonderland? Nigeria’s pitiful Disney World, a chair-o-plane, dragon rollercoaster, dodge-em cars, and Ferris wheel, all rusting in tall grass near Ibadan.
In Another World: Among Europe’s Dying Villages, by Tom Pow (Polygon Press, Edinburgh, L12). Who knew? In the next 30 years, Europe will lose almost a third of its population. One hundred of Spain’s 5,000 villages face imminent extinction; since 2005, 11,000 Russian villages have disappeared; one-third of Italy’s farm land is fallow. Pow, a Scottish writer and poet, travels to Italy, Spain, France, Greece, and Russia discovering landscapes described in Gogol’s “Dead Souls” as “desolate and splendid.” The defining feature, as he writes, is absence which is not emptiness but loss.
Naples Declared: A Walk Around the Bay, by Benjamin Taylor (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27.95). No year’s best is complete without a book set in Italy and Taylor’s is fine indeed. The place has been chronicled since Aeneas’s arrival, yet Taylor rediscovers with charm and scholarly learning the “visitable past” in Henry James’s phrase. And he’s kind enough to mention several cafes and restaurants no one would want to miss on the next visit: Naples’s La Locanda del Grifo, the Inn of the Griffin; Capri’s Le Grotelle; and, of course, Naples’s famous Caffé Gambrinus (est. 1860), “sacred ground like the Flore in Paris, the Central in Vienna, the Pedrocchi in Padua, the Quatre Gats in Barcelona.” Well said, sir.
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.