Calidris Reads: Less

Reading and traveling are two of my favourite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Less

Andrew Sean Greer

Read for: A quick and pleasant break from a round of historic novels I’d been ploughing through.

First sentence: “From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

A while back, I wrote about books that found me on my travels. As a perfect example of this, picture me and my stalwart companion noshing down at a trendy café during a recent trip to Lynnwood, Washington. One wall of the restaurant was covered with shelves and a couple of those shelves housed books, the kind of random mix of used volumes that usually signals a take one/leave one collection. I wasn’t really looking for anything, but as I gazed idly from my table, one book caught my eye.

Only the spine was visible, but it called to me from across the room, seducing me with its soft, retro-turquoise colour and enormous letters L-E-S-S.

Look at me, it whispered. I am beautiful. I am mysterious. I am intriguing. You will love me.

Resistance is futile. Drawn to the shelf like a puppet on a string, I pull down the book. Am I influenced by cover, celebrity endorsements, awards won? Yes (a clearly comical drawing of a man falling through the air while scribbling on paper), yes (Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant, whose work I admire, says she recommends it), and yes (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Wow.).

Good comic novels are hard to find and this one is about a writer who goes travelling. Too perfect, eh? Picaresque is the word that springs to mind (defined by Wikipedia as “an episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road.”) There are brief but evocative descriptions of the places Arthur Less visits, including Mexico City, Paris, Berlin, Italy, Morocco, India, and Japan, as well as accompanying transport: airports, airplanes, buses, and camels.

It struck me mid-way through the book that this might be the first book I’ve read about a gay main character where that is not the central feature of the book. Certainly, Less is gay and has homosexual romantic/sexual adventures throughout, but that’s just one facet of his character among many. In other words, he is a character who is a writer and a traveller and a person turning 50 and a man who believes himself fluent in German when he is not, who also happens to be gay. At least that’s the way I see him. I’d be curious to know what a gay reader would say.

There wasn’t anything about this book I didn’t like. Less the character grows on you: the more you get to know him, the more you like him. His foibles become endearing rather than pompous. I enjoyed the travel tales and I found the writing both clever and engaging.

A good read, whether you’re on a journey or in your own comfy chair at home.

5 knots: Highly recommended (I’m sure the Pulitzer Committee is relieved to know that I agree with their decision.)

Books That Found Me

Compulsive reader: n. A person who cannot refrain from reading.

Situation: We pull into a gas station in Mexico to use the restroom. I jog across the tarmac to the ablution block only to pull up short in dismay at the large sandwich board sign displayed outside: Baños cerrados. Even with my tiny bit of Spanish, I get this: Toilets closed.

I slink back to the car and sit with legs crossed while Mark pays for the gas, contemplating the baños with resentment and some anxiety. Who knows how far to the next place of relief?

I see another driver stride purposefully toward the baños door. Any moment now, I think (somewhat smugly), he’ll see the sign and turn back. But no, he simply pushes past it and continues on. Is the door locked to thwart non-signreaders such as this brash fellow? No, it opens easily and he disappears inside. A second man follows the same path.

Clearly, the baños are not closed. Had I simply not read the sign or ignored it, I would have been blissfully employing papel higienico at that very minute.

My compulsive need to read every bit of text I see has often gotten me into similarly inconvenient circumstances.

On the other hand, being ready, willing, and able to read anything can be a blessing when travelling. I used to leave home with three or four novels stashed in my suitcase, irrationally worried that I would run out of things to read on the road. God forbid I should have to endure a moment at the airport or a rainy day confined to the hotel without reading matter.

However, as we stayed less often in big chain hotels where available text is inevitably restricted to the New Testament and the room service menu, I discovered a world of reading possibilities.

Many smaller hotels, inns, and hostels keep a shelf of books under the rule of “Take a book, leave a book.” Often, the selection will include many tempting choices in languages that you cannot even identify, much less decipher. There will also be dog-eared travel guides that predate the Internet and provide essential information for visits to the U.S.S.R., West Germany, or the Ottoman Empire on $5 a day.

But hidden among the flotsam, there will be jewels.

On the shelf of a nature lodge in the jungles of Mexico, I discovered a novel—The Name of the Wind—that I was actually planning to read anyway, as it had been recommended to me by a friend. Curiously, it was clearly brand new, and appeared unread. It was such an odd coincidence that I felt the book was meant for me, that it had somehow found its way to me.

In Ecuador, I browsed an inn’s bookshelf that stretched from floor to ceiling, covering an entire wall. Out of several hundred books, I pulled one called The Year of Pleasures, scanned the back cover and knew instantly this story about a woman trying to find a new life after losing her husband would go straight to my own grieving heart. I almost put it back, not sure I could handle it, but I promised myself I could put it aside it if it took me in the wrong direction. I galloped through it in three days, cried many times, and marvelled at passages that made me ask “How does she know?”

One of the best things about found books is that they challenge and tease you to read things you might never otherwise choose. Sometimes that means you are condemned to the only English-language volume available, which is usually a thriller by the uber-popular hack writer of the day, the one you never read. But other times you may be led to an unexpected place. Like the slim hardcover sporting a photo of a man wearing a dress and purse and the quirky title Kennense Noch Blümchenkaffee? Die Online-Omi erklärt die Welt. With my rudimentary German I puzzled this out to be: Do you still know flower coffee? The online grandmother explains the world. I guessed that the reference to flower coffee hearkened back to the war, when luxuries like coffee were in short supply and inventive Germans turned to making hot beverages from a variety of sources such as flowers. This is one of those almost-forgotten facts that has passed or is passing from common knowledge.

I still don’t know if my guess was accurate, but it intrigued me enough to flip through the pages. The book turned out to be a tongue-in-cheek “dictionary” of outdated terms and concepts that only an “omi” (affectionate term for grandmother) would still be able to explain–with a generous dash of humour and some social commentary. Example (rough translation): “In olden times, we already had ebay. Only it was without computer and it was called the church bazaar.” Reading this in German and then struggling through to a lightbulb moment when I finally got the joke was so much more fun than reading it in English, and a perfect way for me to stretch my foreign vocabulary.

There have been many other books that found me along the road. I must confess, however, that I have occasionally been known to take a book without leaving one, rationalizing such inexcusable behaviour with the thought that the universe seeks equilibrium and if I am caught without a book to leave, then somewhere there must be someone who has reason to leave a book without picking one up.

Even worse, while I usually conscientiously leave the books behind on another traveller’s shelf once I’m done, sometimes a volume begins to possess me and I take it home to hoard, pawing it lasciviously and mumbling My Preciousssssss! This is a bad habit. I need to remind myself that books need freedom to find new readers who will flatter and appreciate them. To paraphrase Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly!:

“Books are like manure: They’re no good unless they’re spread around, helping things to grow.”

Calidris Reads: Mexico

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

The Hummingbird’s Daughter

Luis Alberto Urrea

Read for: Mexico

First sentence: “On the cool October morning when Cayetana Chavez brought her baby to light, it was the start of that season in Sinaloa when the humid torments of summer finally gave way to breezes and falling leaves, and small red birds skittered through the corrals, and the dogs grew new coats.”

As I prepared for my trip to Mexico, I was having difficulty finding an appropriate book to take along. Curiously, it seemed that every book I considered—mostly gleaned from “best Mexican authors” or “best novels set in Mexico” lists—included the word devastating in its description, as in: “A devastating accounting of many people through several generations dying in variously cruel and graphic ways,” or “A multilayered tale that sweeps to a terrifying and devastating conclusion.”

Somehow, devastating is not the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of books to read on the beach, in the airplane, or beside a pool while sipping “piñadas” (non-alcoholic piña coladas).

Fortunately, I finally came across the name of Luis Alberto Urrea and from there, found my way to The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

Based around the true-life story of Urrea’s relative, the woman known as Santa Teresita or The Saint of Cabora, the book is beautifully written, with the kind of language that makes you stop in awe and go back to reread passages. I also appreciated the complexity of the characters, who are much more than cardboard representations of morality/sin/good/bad. Although the novel isn’t set in the parts of Mexico where we were travelling (Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, and Chiapas), the fascinating mix of Christianity and traditional indigenous beliefs that underpins the story seems to be pan-Mexican.

History, geography, culture, and a good story all contribute to making The Hummingbird’s Daughter a perfect travel read. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Queen of America, set in Arizona, when I travel to that state in a few months.

5 knots Highly recommended

PS As we motored across the Yucatan, I was bemused to note the name of Urrea on a variety of products, including a bathroom sink. No idea if the company is related to Urrea the author or St Teresita.

Calidris Reads: U.S. Virgin Islands

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read books written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Night of the Silent Drums

The true and gripping tale of
the St John, Virgin Island slave rebellion

 

John Lorenzo Anderson

Read for: U.S. Virgin Islands

3 knots Recommended

 

First sentence: “In the hush before this moonlit tropic dawn not even the gecko stirs.”

Have you ever heard of the slave rebellion that took place in 1733 on the tiny Caribbean island now called St John? Neither had I until I found this nonfiction book. It is not a happy or pleasant story, but it details the horrific place of slavery in the history of this seemingly idyllic island. Probably not what you want to read while relaxing on the beach; maybe tackle it before you go as a bit of background history to the sugar-mill ruins that are scattered around the Virgin Islands.

Calidris Reads: Worldwide

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Reading on Location

Great books set in top travel destinations

Luisa Moncada & Scala Quin

4 knots: Recommended

First sentence: “At some point in our lives, we have all been armchair travellers, whether it be sitting by a log fire in the depths of winter and dreaming of exotic, steamy locales, or sweating away in the maddening heat of a tropical forest and imagining a much cooler place.”

I came across this title when I was Googling something completely different, but which the search engine obviously thought was related. Sometimes those scary algorithms actually connect to a useful strand on the Web. A book about books set in travel destinations; this one was tailor-made for me!

The book is arranged into major divisions by sort-of continent, some of which are a bit odd. Africa stands alone, logically. North and South America are lumped together but the Middle East gets its own tiny section. Russia is part of the Europe section, but not in the accompanying map. Obviously some kind of communication glitch between the image editor and the text editor.

Within the major divisions, countries are listed alphabetically. Larger countries (or perhaps those with a broader literary culture in English) are given more space, with books categorized by region or city. For example, nine pages are devoted to India, with subgroupings of North and Indian Plains, the South, Mumbai, etc. I like this, because it allows you to find stories that are set right in the area you’re visiting.

Both fiction and nonfiction works are included, but only books available in English.

Each listing includes a short summary of the plot/theme as well as some supplementary information via icons that indicate whether the book has been made into a movie or TV series and if there are websites, tours, museums, author houses, etc. associated with it.

Whether your destination is Albania or Zanzibar, It’s a fun reference that could generate some intriguing choices for travel reads.

The only reason it didn’t rate 5 knots is because it’s now seven years old and there has been no second edition to list really recent books that might be pertinent. Sometimes it’s interesting to read something that reflects on the current situation in a region rather than its history.

 

 

Calidris Reads: Atlantic Canada

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

The Shipping News

  1. E. Annie Proulx

Read for: Nova Scotia

5 knots Highly recommended

First sentence: “Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.”

I cheated a bit on this one, because the book is actually set in Newfoundland, but I couldn’t find a book that interested me and that was set in Nova Scotia. Had already read Barometer Rising and didn’t want to read another about the Halifax explosion. This was one of those novels I had always resisted because when it came out, it seemed that everyone was reading it, so, being contrary, I didn’t want to. I was afraid it was going to be a dreary slice of life thing, but it was a good solid read, with well-rooted characters that you wanted to know more about.

I loved the cover art on this edition because it’s intriguing and you go through a good part of the book puzzled, waiting to find out what it means. Then you get to enjoy an Aha! moment.

Have you read The Shipping News? What did you think?

Calidris Reads: Australia

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

In a Sunburned Country

Bill Bryson

5 knots Highly recommended

First sentence: “Flying into Australia, I realized with a sigh that I had forgotten again who their prime minister is.”

My first, and still favorite, Bryson. Literally laughed out loud reading this. His descriptions of the many and varied ways that Australia can kill you are priceless. “I was particularly attracted to all those things that might hurt me, which in an Australian context is practically everything. It really is the most extraordinarily lethal country.” All three of us traveling together read this book and we all loved it.

5 knots Highly recommended

A Fringe of Leaves

Patrick White

First sentence: “After the carriage drew away from the Circular Wharf Mr Stafford Merivale tapped the back of his wife’s hand and remarked that they had done their duty.”

Author Patrick White had already claimed the 1973 Nobel Prize in Literature (“for an epic and psychological narrative art, which has introduced a new continent into literature”) when this novel was published in 1976, but it’s generally regarded as one of his masterpieces.

Based loosely on the story of Eliza Fraser, who was shipwrecked off the eastern coast of Australia in 1836 and taken in (or taken prisoner, depending on whose version of the story you read) by Aboriginal people. Not an easy read, but compelling in a strange way. The heroine is strongly painted and White’s writing is intriguing.

4 knots Recommended

I couldn’t imagine two books more different than these. Hey, it’s a long flight to Australia. Why not read both; I can guarantee at least there won’t be any overlap!

Calidris Reads: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

A Guide to the Birds
of East Africa

Nicholas Drayson

Read for: A longed-for return visit to Africa

First sentence: “’Ah yes,’ said Rose Mbikwa, looking up at the large dark bird with elegant tail soaring high above the car park of the Nairobi Museum, ‘a black kite. Which is, of course, not black but brown.’”

The comparison to Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is inevitable, so let’s tackle that straight off. This book is very similar in length and in style to Smith’s hugely successful franchise. A Guide is equally character-driven and provides the same fascinating glimpses into the idiosyncrasies of African life. So if you are a fan of Mma Ramotswe and her world, you will very likely enjoy Mr. Malik and his.

There are some differences, however. I welcomed the fresh perspective of a “person of colour” (that is, in African terms, someone who is neither black nor white; in this case, Indian in origin). And, being a birder, I enjoyed the link to the often-wacky world of “twitching,” although I would have been even more impressed if the characteristics of the many bird species mentioned somehow contributed to the plot rather than simply being catalogued.

I found fewer laughs in A Guide, either because there was less humour intended or because I didn’t find the writing particularly funny. The book is quirky and amusing but has less out-loud chortle moments. The picture painted of Kenya—and Nairobi in particular—is darker than Smith’s bucolic Botswana. I suspect that Botswana tourism tripled in the wake of the No 1 Ladies’ TV show, as busloads of fans who had never previously heard of Botswana eagerly sought out the dusty roads, sleepy towns, and friendly people drinking bush tea who feature so prominently in Smith’s books. A Guide, however, is more likely to make visitors shy away from Kenya. (Unless they are birders, of course. But birders are crazy, and have no survival instinct, as we all know.)

I really liked the way Drayson slowly unfolds the character of Mr. Malik throughout the novel and I’m looking forward to more adventures arising from his various strengths and weaknesses.

4 knots Recommended (non-birders) 5 knots Highly recommended (birders)

Calidris Reads: World Heritage Sites

In my house, there’s a book that never gathers dust on the shelf.

It’s in almost constant circulation: sometimes in residence on the back of the toilet,* sometimes resting on my bedside table, ready to furnish a quick read before I nod off, sometimes shared out loud in the living room as we discuss our destinations.

Currently, I count six Post-It notes protruding from its pages, marking sites of probable or possible future destinations. If you flipped through its pages, you would notice the handwritten checkmarks sprinkled sparsely throughout; my way of keeping track of which sites I’ve visited, from Dinosaur Provincial Park in Canada to the Fossil Hominid Site Sterkfontein in South Africa.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) catalogues, names, and conserves sites around the world that have outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. Each year, they add to their list, and every few years, they publish a guide to all the sites on the list: World Heritage Sites: A complete guide to 878** UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Sample entry from World Heritage Sites.

In the guide, entries are given in chronological order by the year in which UNESCO recognized the site. Indices allow you to search for sites by country or site name. Each entry provides info on the year the site was recognized, in which country the site is located, a small map showing the site’s general locale, the criteria under which the site qualifies as a World Heritage Site, and a short description. Many, but not all, entries include a photo.

A typical opening sentence for an entry might be: “The karst formation of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park has evolved since the Palaeozoic era, some 400 million years ago, and is the oldest karst area in Asia.” Not exactly scintillating prose, but it does provide a very brief summary of why you might want to visit that site.

I use the book in two ways. When I begin to research a country that I might visit, I use the country index to discover which sites lie within that country. Some I already know—like the Galapagos in Ecuador. Others are an intriguing surprise, such as the works of Antoni Gaudi in Spain. (I knew of Gaudi, but didn’t realize his architecture had been recognized as a World Heritage Site.)

But for me, the real pleasure of this book is in the browsing, just opening it at random to any page and reading. Who knew, for example, that “[t]he Solovetsky archipelago comprises six islands in the western part of the White Sea….They have been inhabited since the fifth century BC and important traces of a human presence from as far back as the fifth millennium BC can be found there”?

Yes, I realize it’s a completely subjective list that is almost certainly culturally biased and I don’t care. It simply provides me with one more focus for my travel. I figure, hey, if a place has internationally recognized importance to the heritage of all humanity, it might be worth an hour’s detour. Besides, I’m just childish enough to get a kick out of ticking off the ones I’ve visited.

Rating: 5 knots Highly recommended

*You don’t want to know.

**The number changes with each edition. 878 was the number on the first North American edition in 2009, the edition I own. There are now 1073 sites on the World Heritage Site List and six editions of the guide.

World Heritage Sites is published by UNESCO Publishing (Firefly Books in North America).

Which books inspire your travel? Let me know in a comment.

Calidris Reads: James Michener

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Read for Hawaii (circa 1990) & Texas (2015) (natch)

Hawaii

First sentence: “Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others.”

The first sentence pretty much sums up the first chapter of the book, which goes on for a long time about the geological and topographical history of the islands. If you’re impatient, skip it and go straight to chapter 2. You won’t miss anything. And it does get much better.

Texas

First sentence: “On a steamy November day in 1535 at the Mexican seaport of Vera Cruz, a sturdy boy led his mules to and from the shore where barges landed supplies from anchored cargo ships.”

I like sinking my teeth into a good epic and Michener’s novels make for serious long-term commitments. Two problems: 1/ each chapter usually focuses on new characters and you sometimes hate to leave the old ones behind 2/ I can never finish these books because they are so massive. Despite this, they do make great, painless introductions to the location featured. I now know much more about the history, geography, and cultural mix that make up the states of Hawaii & Texas.

I’ve been through a bunch of Michener’s books and you always know exactly what you’re getting: interesting but not usually riveting stories. If you’re traveling to these places, Michener makes a good read, but don’t get too attached to the characters and don’t stress about finishing these tomes.

Both books: 4 knots Recommended

Have you read any of Michener’s books? What did you think? Did you like them? Let me know in a comment.