My Love Affair with Travel Guidebooks

The sad remains of my trimmed-down collection.

I recently culled my library of travel guides.

I set myself the goal of halving the shelf-full of books I’d accumulated. It was hard going. Some were guides to places I have been and so represented good memories. Some were for destinations I still hope to visit and so protected cherished travel dreams. Others sat on the shelf to remind me of places on my B list.

I must confess that a few were published in the previous millennium. <Blushing.> Yet I still clung to them and hated the thought of tossing any. What is more useless than an out-of-date travel guide? I told myself firmly. But (whispered another voice) who could let go of Insider’s London, a guide to delightfully quirky hidden spots and sights—even if it is over 20 years old? 

In the end, I achieved my goal. I started by arranging the books in date published order, then started cutting from the “written before cell phones were invented” end. Sometimes—as with Insider’s London—I took down the book with full intentions of heaving it into the bin, but after looking at it, I put it back. I had two old guidebooks purchased for a Galapagos Islands trip that never happened. I hesitated, then let go of the one with more time-sensitive info and kept the other.

As I said, difficult choices because, despite the huge amount of travel information available online, I still love my travel guides.

I enjoy the feel of a book in my hands and I like to get away from my computer when I can. I respect and understand the order that information is presented in a book. I like the fact that books are text-heavy, whereas websites tend to be image-heavy. I don’t mind that hard-copy content is not perfectly up to date—the things that interest me usually don’t change much over time and I can always use the Web to get recent info when I need it—things like opening times or ticket prices.

As soon as I start to consider a destination, I open the library website and order in two or three guidebooks for that place. Once I have them in my hands, I browse through them to get a general sense of whether the destination is going to make the A list. I read the “must-see” lists. Are these things that interest me? I look for special sections that might discuss niche topics like birding or lesser-known museums or regional foods. I stare at the maps of suggested scenic or themed driving routes. I might browse through the local customs sections

As I scan the guidebook(s), I insert Post-Its next to items that catch my interest. Eventually, I’ll transfer the info and any relevant URLs to my file of notes for that trip.

When possible, I try to check out a guidebook to take with me on the road. It seems somehow fitting that a travel guide should get the opportunity to visit the country it describes in such detail.

As a side note to using the local library resources, it’s always intriguing when I realize that someone else in my neighbourhood has taken out all the guidebooks for an area. I like the idea that this anonymous stranger—perhaps the fellow behind me in the grocery store line-up—is also dreaming about visiting my chosen destination. I wish I could sit down for tea with him/her and trade information: So what made you choose Argentina? When are you going? Where will you stay? Which tours are you thinking of taking? Maybe we’d even arrange to meet up and trade stories after our respective journeys.

Perhaps I should leave a note hidden in a library travel guide, prompting the next reader to get in touch. Hmmm…I think I see a future movie starting Jude Law and Helena Bonham Carter….

PS: FYI, all those guides on my shelf with library call numbers are not purloined copies. They are ex-library copies that I bought for 50 cents.

Am I the only crazy person with a collection of travel guides? Let me know in a comment.

Calidris Reads: England, 1665

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).

Year of Wonders:
A novel of the plague

Geraldine Brooks

Read for: Imaginary journey to England & pandemic pastime

Opening: “I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light.”

Although it is set in England, 1665-1666, Year of Wonders is a story for here and now. I first read it a number of years ago and liked it enough to stash it on my “might be read again” shelf. The characters are interesting and drawn well, the writing is just my style, with spare but evocative descriptions, and the premise, intriguing.

The plot is a fictionalized retelling of the true story of Eyam, a small countryside village like many others in the seventeenth century. The people live simple, sometimes harsh lives, but thrive through faith and community. When the Black Death arrives via a delivery of cloth from plague-stricken London, village life is shattered as every home is visited by horrific illness and agonizing death. The town’s religious leader urges the villagers to take the burden of the plague upon themselves and voluntarily quarantine so that the disease should not be carried beyond Eyam’s borders.

How the various characters respond to this challenge creates the drama and poses questions for the reader: What would you do if faced by this situation? Do people act better or worse when lives are at stake? Do you have a higher duty to your family or to society? Should one sacrifice personal freedom for the good of others?

One reviewer of the book wrote: “[Year of Wonders]…leaves us with the memory of vivid characters struggling in timeless human ways with the hardships confronting them….”

Does this strike any familiar chords? Anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, deniers, exploiters, haters, haranguers, heroes, and helpers. The great of heart and the small of brain.

Welcome to 2020.

While culling my library in October, I came across Year of Wonders and realized immediately that if there was a time to reread the book, it had to be now.

In an 2001 article published after the September 11 attacks, author Geraldine Brooks wrote: “Whether we also shall one day look back upon this year of flames, germs, and war as a ‘year of wonders’ will depend, perhaps, on how many are able…to match the courageous self-sacrifice of the people of Eyam.” She could have just as well have written that today.

Speaking in a subsequent interview, she said: “Eyam is a story of ordinary people willing to make an extraordinary sacrifice on behalf of others. Love, hate, fear. The desire to live and to see your children live. Are these things different on a beautiful autumn morning in a twenty-first-century city than they were in an isolated seventeenth-century village? I don’t think so. One thing I believe completely is that the human heart remains the human heart, no matter how our material circumstances change as we move together through time.”

People magazine’s review of the book included this comment: “[Year of Wonders]…subtly reveals how ignorance, hatred, and mistrust can be as deadly as any virus.”

Wow. The wilful stupidity and bigotry of some segments of the population during the current pandemic plus the deliberate deception practiced by some of our leaders certainly proves that point.

Published almost two decades ago, Year of Wonders is still worth seeking out. O, The Oprah Magazine called it “a vividly imagined and strangely consoling tale of hope in a time of despair.”

Isn’t that what we all could use right now—a tale of hope in a time of despair?

Five knots: A must-read

Calidris Reads: Denmark

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 about other writers’ travels. 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 Year of Living Danishly:
Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country

Helen Russell

First sentence: “It all started simply enough.”

Indeed, it all starts simply, when Russell’s husband, fondly dubbed “Lego Man” in the book, receives a job offer to work for the toy company at their home base in Denmark. Despite a successful if exhausting career in London publishing, Russell decides to take the plunge and move with him to the tiny country (pop. 5.7 million; smaller than Toronto).

Living Danishly, she soon learns, can be challenging, baffling, frustrating, and rewarding. Danes are both freethinkers and rulemakers and are not shy about letting you know when you’ve stepped out of line. Each month of the year leads to new discoveries about the Danish way of life and questions about how aspects of it contribute to Danes’ high level of happiness. From traditional food to modern furniture, raising children to celebrating Christmas, Russell shares info and anecdotes that are always illuminating and often funny.  As when the two Brits visit their first Danish bakery and are confronted by an unhelpful clerk:

“The place is empty, so we stand expectantly, waiting to be served. But the woman behind the counter remains expressionless. ‘Hi!’ I try, but she averts her eyes and busies herself rearranging a crate of buns….We smile. She does not. Instead, she points to an LED display above her head that shows the number 137. Then she points at a deli-counter-style ticket dispenser behind us….Is she seriously telling me that I have to get a ticket?…Bakery woman has now folded her arms resolutely, as if to say, ‘Play by the rules or no buttery pastry goodness for you.’ Knowing when I’m beaten, I turn around, take three paces to my right, extract a small, white ticket with the number ‘137’ on it from the machine, then walk back. The woman nods, takes my ticket, and uncrosses her arms to indicate that normal service can commence.”

Or when they naively hoist the revered Danish flag up a pole without consulting the flag laws and a disapproving neighbour presents them with a comprehensive list of rules that he has helpfully printed off his computer and laminated for them.

I must confess, I shared Russell’s curiousity about why Danes consistently rank themselves so high in happiness, so I found all the factoids fascinating and I thought she threw in enough humour to help the medicine go down in a most delightful way. Even if you have no intention of visiting Denmark, The Year of Living Danishly will have you wondering whether the Danes are really onto something and you’ll be asking yourself: Would I be happier living Danishly?

5 knots Must-read

Calidris Reads: France

City of Darkness and Light

Rhys Bowen
4 knots Recommended
First sentence: “Like many Irish people I have always been a strong believer in a sixth sense.”

One in a series of light mysteries set in the first years of the 20th century that centre on the adventures of an Irish woman. This installment has the protagonist in Paris among the artists and philosophers of the period, trying to track down some missing friends and solve a murder. It’s fluffy stuff, but takes you into the fascinating neighbourhoods of Paris and drops lots of famous names. A good plane read.

Five Nights in Paris

John Baxter
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from Chapter 1): “Some years ago, as a change from spending all my time writing, I began taking people on literary walks.”

This book is a mash-up of essays on a wide variety of topics loosely connected to the idea of “Paris at night.” I found the arrangement of the essays baffling and odd. There’s a prologue, followed by five pieces on random subjects. The rest of the book is organized by the five senses: sound, taste, touch, scent, and sight. An intriguing premise, especially when you consider experiencing each of these by night. However, the essays often seem to have little or no relation to the sense they are grouped under. Despite this, I found myself enjoying the book. Baxter’s writing conjures up little-known and fascinating aspects of the famous city. I found the best approach was to simply savour each essay on its own without attempting to make it fit a larger pattern.

Loire Valley:
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide

5 knots Highly recommended

This travel guide series focuses on presenting information in visual formats: maps, site and building plans, photos, sketched-out comparisons between architectural styles, etc. Smallish bits of text are balanced by lots and lots of images. Comprehensive, no, but the format makes for a quick and fun introduction to the chosen area. We used this guide extensively because it is very specific for the area we were covering. Being an old-school bookie, I admit partiality for the thick, glossy pages and high-quality image reproduction.

Portraits of France

Robert Daley
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from the prologue): “There are a thousand years of French history in this book, but it is not a historical treatise; there is much about France’s wars, but only the one battle that changed her forever is described in detail; there is much about religion, but it is not a catechism; much about food and wine, but it is not a cookbook; much about places of interest, some of which may be worth a detour or even a journey. However, it is not a travel guide….Each portrait had to bear on France as a whole. Apart from that I would write about places, things, and people I had stumbled on or gone looking for that had seemed notable to me, that had impressed or in some cases shocked me.”

Confession: I didn’t actually read the entire book but not because I didn’t like it. I simply ran out of time during the trip. However, I did scan sections and read parts of it, really enjoyed the writing and would definitely return to it to get “in the mood” for another trip to France.

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?