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The book also reflects the sweet side of small-town USA, with columns about post-office parties, dining at diners, and Thanksgiving--when the only goal is to "get your stomach into the approximate shape of a beach ball" and be grateful. And grateful we are that the previously peripatetic Bryson has returned to the U.S., turning his eye to this land--while living at home and near his wife. Under her benevolent influence, he entertains through thoughtful insights, not sarcastic stabs
The Colombo Bay by Richard Pollak - Amazon.com says: Container ships lack the literary appeal of other, more romantic vessels, such as pirate ships and sail boats, and as a result their stories aren't often told. But as Richard Pollak demonstrates in The Colombo Bay, there's plenty to talk about. After all, a quick glance around your living room probably reveals numerous items imported from overseas and container ships are how they got to you. In 2001, after securing passage as an observer aboard a massive container ship bound from Hong Kong to New York via the Suez Canal, Pollak was just about to begin his journey when the 9/11 attacks struck, throwing the world into tremendous uncertainty. Pollak chose to go ahead with the trip but his trepidation serves as an appropriate undercurrent to the uncertainty that the crews of these ships face every day. Though the ships are enormous and strong, they live under a constant cloud of potential disaster. Piracy, far from being the stuff of old movies, is very much alive in the modern world, often with container ships being the victims. Storms, the threat of running aground, stowaways, and the possibility of being an unwitting accomplice to global terrorism are always top of mind for the people operating these massive, and massively important, pieces of machinery. Pollak approaches his journey with a dogged curiosity and a refreshing dash of naivité that, combined with his skilled storytelling, make for a compelling read. He finds the accommodations more civilized than one might expect from such a utilitarian craft and a crew that, while they are used to the hardships of nautical life, are real people trying to cope with a profession that keeps them from their families for months at a time. Aside from a near miss with Hurricane Karen off the North American coast, nothing much dramatic happens during Pollak's ride on the Colombo Bay. But that inactivity, coupled with the constant possibility of palpable danger, provides an accurate depiction of life aboard a container ship. --John Moe
A French Affair: The Paris Beat, 1965-1998 by Mary Blume - Amazon.com says: Even the most dedicated expat rarely manages to completely fit into an adopted foreign culture. It's precisely this quality that allows American Mary Blume to so thoughtfully observe and record Paris, the city that's served as her home for over three decades, though its ways may still mystify her. In A French Affair--a collection of essays published in the International Herald Tribune--the columnist deftly captures the quirks and changes that are visible only to those who live in France, though they may be most interesting to those who don't.
In these commentaries--ranging from the opening of invention conventions to the mire of bureaucracy that accompanies the naming of a street (which may only be named after dead people, preferably deceased for at least 15 years)--Blume unveils the French quest for perfection in a world that's perfectly imperfect because of French design, and how the logic of Descartes's descendents--regarding such points as grammar--is sometimes extreme to the point of being irrational. She captures trends, from the fashionable la ratte potato to the metric system. She records notable moments---the death of a designer, the opening of a charm school for men--and notable people, such as Renoir's jet-setting son and Simone de Beauvoir. Of course, this being a book about France, Blume occasionally delves into food, be it the inner workings of a soup kitchen or the launching of cooking classes taught by royalty. With these witty and insightful short snippets, Blume provides small, crystal-clear windows into true French life--a rare accomplishment from an expatriate or a native. --Melissa Rossi
Holidays in Hell by P. J. O'Rourke - It's about 20 years old, but still has a few valid comments. Amazon.com says "No doubt about it: P. J. O'Rourke has a bizarre sense of fun. "What I've ... been," he writes in his introduction to Holidays in Hell "is a Trouble Tourist--going to see insurrections, stupidities, political crises, civil disturbances and other human folly because ... because it's fun." Forget Hawaii or the Poconos--O'Rourke gets his jollies in places like war-torn Lebanon where he is greeted at the border by a gun barrel in his face, or Seoul, just in time for election-day violence. Wherever he goes, however, O'Rourke takes his quirky sense of humor, laser eye for detail, and artful way with words: a Philippine army officer is "powerful-looking in a short, compressed way, like an attack hamster," and the Syrian army is described as having "dozens of silly hats, mostly berets in yellow, orange and shocking pink, but also tiny pillbox chapeaux.... The paratroopers wear shiny gold jumpsuits and crack commando units have skin-tight fatigues in a camouflage pattern of violet, peach, flesh tone and vermilion on a background of vivid purple. This must give excellent protective coloration in, say, a room full of Palm Beach divorcees in Lily Pulitzer dresses.
O'Rourke's flip, sarcastic style isn't for everyone, of course; the concept that anyone could find sightseeing in the Beirut or El Salvador of the 1980s fun might prove offensive to more than a few readers right off the bat. But love him or hate him, P. J. O'Rourke knows how to tell a good story, and if you like your travel writing laced with more than a little cynicism, Holidays in Hell could be just the book you've been looking for."
French Lessons by Peter Mayle - Twelve chapters recounting Mayle's journeys to twelve food or wine festivals throughout France. The book amusingly answers many questions, such as why a five pound Poulet de Bresse costs $20 in the market and how one should eat frog legs, or indeed, if one should.
French or Foe? : Getting the Most Out of Visiting, Living and Working in France by Polly Platt - This book created some heated discussions. Amazon says: Let's face it: the French have gotten a bad rap. Mention that you're considering a trip to France and everyone will warn you about rude waiters, supercilious shopkeepers, and snooty concierges who won't give you the time of day--and worse, pretend not to understand your high-school French. Not so, says Polly Platt, author of French or Foe?; "The French are generous, exhilarating friends," but they are different--wonderfully so. The trick to getting along in France is understanding the culture and learning to accept it on French terms instead of your own. Though the book is designed primarily for people who will be living or working in France for extended periods, the lessons Platt teaches about manners, attitudes, and culture are invaluable for even those visitors just passing through.
Around the World in 20 Days : The Story of Our History-Making Balloon Flight by Bertrand Piccard, Brian Jones - About $12 - It's a different travel plan and a different way to travel, but it's an interesting read. On the 9th of March, 1999, eight days into their flight, Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard were approaching Myanmar's air space. They had the following exchange with an air-traffic controller:
Air traffic control: Hotel Bravo-Bravo Romeo Alpha, what is your departure point and destination? Brian Jones: Departure point, Chateau d'Oex, Switzerland. Destination, somewhere in northern Africa.
Air traffic control, after several seconds' silence: If you're going from Switzerland to northern Africa, what in hell are you doing in Myanmar?
Twelve days later the Breitling Orbiter 3 made a hard but safe landing in the Egyptian desert. Their successful circumnavigation, the first, put Piccard and Jones into the record books for distance (25,361 miles) and duration (477.47 hours aloft). Around the World in 20 Days tells the story of their flight, and the obstacles--both natural and manmade--they had to overcome. Struggling to get the balloon back into the jet stream when they had strayed too far south was one thing, but negotiating with dozens of countries for the right to fly in their air space was just as challenging. Even choosing a landing site was problematic: "Mali is mainly desert, and has lions, leopards etc.," while the Nigerians were hesitant, the Libyans wouldn't allow rescue planes to be brought in, and Egypt gave the balloon permission to overfly its borders but not to land. On the ground, the team's support system spelled out the situation to the Egyptians: "Listen--the balloon is running out of fuel. If the pilot doesn't have permission to land, he'll have to declare a full emergency, and you'll be obliged by the international rules to deal with it." The Egyptian controller replied, "In that case, I give you permission."
Man Flies : The Story of Alberto Santos-Dumont, Master of the Balloon, Conqueror of the Air by Nancy Winters - About $23, but much less used - If you fly down, like most of us, this is an interesting twist on the Wright Brothers. From Book News: Tells how wealthy Brazilian heir Santos-Dumont (1873-1932) came of age in Paris determined to live out the novels of Jules Verne by developing human flight. Describes how his airships gradually improved so that he was counted brilliant as well as dashing in the world's capitals until he learned that the Wright brothers had been there first with the most. Includes many old photographs, a chronology, and a glossary
Little Museums : Over 1,000 Small (And Not-So-Small) American Showplaces by Lynne Arany and Archie Hobson This state-by-state listing of weird museums will help break the tedium of long drives. You could live in Fairbanks, Alaska and grow tired of the the Dog Mushing Museum during a long winter, so a quick trip Palo Alto to visit the Barbie Hall of Fame would be just the ticket. You may find the Museum of Ordinary People in Huntsboro, Alabama a bit boring, but surely the 24 Hour Church of Elvis in Portland, Arizona would thrill and enlighten. To aid in these quests, the museums are cross referenced by categories. You can buy it for about $15. Don't leave home without it.
World Guide to Nude Beaches & Resorts by Lee Baxandall This is the best source for nude beaches the world over. I'd say it was on my desk, but I can't find it because somebody borrowed it.
North American Guide to Nude Recreation from the American Sunbathing Assn Another choice, especially for North America.
Hot Springs and Hot Pools of the Southwest, 1996 by Marjorie Gersh-Young This is more like it, but still, a fine beach in the caribbean is better.
Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais, translated by Burton Raffel This is the ribald satire that ends with our heroes seeking the Oracle of the Holy Bottle, whose advice is, "Drink."
Innocents Abroad or the New Pilgrims Progress: Being Some Account of the Steamship Quaker City's Pleasure Excursion to Europe and the Holy Land by Mark Twain This was written early in Twain's career before he came to believe everything he said about himself.
The Journals of Lewis and Clark by Meriwether Lewis, Bernard Devoto (Editor), William Clark If you liked the PBS series, read the book.