Travel is one of the things Judy and I really enjoy doing together. We’ve done a lot of it, and if our health keeps up, we’ll do a lot more. I love reading about travel and places. Ironically, I often read more about a place after having visited it. And of course it usually makes me want to go back again. But that’s as it should be: a place worth visiting is worth visiting again (and again, in some cases). I will eschew travel guides here, though may make some high level comments about them. But it’s especially great to read things that give historical and cultural context to a place. Every place has them. They are almost always interesting.
Adam Gopnik. At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York. New York: Vintage, 2017.
This book is not easy to classify, at least in the categories I’ve included. It is about a place and time, New York in the 1980s, viewed from nearly 40 years on. So it is history, memoir, art, a place. I’ve put it here so it is next to the sequel, about Gopnik and his wife in Paris. The present volume is about Gopnik and his new wife moving to New York. They first live in a tiny 11′ by 9′ basement room, then move to a loft in SoHo, which during the period under review, is a major hotbed for art and artists. They recount their many adventures, including the remarkable array of people they get to know. He moves from having part time jobs at the Frick and the MOMA, to being a full-time fashion writer at GQ, to finally landing a staff job at the New Yorker. He writes about his deep loving relationship with his wife, Martha, herself a constant persona in this volume. He also writes extensively about art in that period. I found one of his later chapters on writing itself to be especially insightful. By the way, both Judy and I had trouble parsing the cover, but he reveals in the book that on his wedding day his wife surprised him as he was sitting in a chair by leaning over from behind and kissing him. We both had thought it was him sitting with a very unusual hat on. The volume ends with Adam and Martha heading off to Paris, thus the sequel, reviewed next.
Adam Gopnik. Paris to the Moon. New York: Random House, 2001.
In 1995, Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for the New Yorker. decamped with his wife and infant son to Paris. They spent five years there, during which Gopnik wrote periodic pieces about the place and the people for the New Yorker. This volume collects these within one cover, and makes for a great read about Paris and Parisians. Gopnik, who is one of my favorite New Yorker writers, brings both wit and erudition to his accounts. The pieces cover numerous aspects of living in Paris with a young son. Toward the end of their stay a second child, a daughter, is born, and through that learn of the peculiarities of Parisian Obgyn. He has a surreal experience at the new grand library. He participants in an ongoing protest as a favorite Paris restaurant is taken over by new owners who are agents of change. He even cooks a meal for Alice Waters, who is visiting Paris to explore a possible new restaurant. We watch his son grow up, and toward the end see the Paris reaction to the emergence of the new Millenium.
Scott Lankford. Tahoe Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Stories of America’s Largest Mountain Lake. Berkeley, CA: Heyday, 2010.
For several years we have gone to a Memorial Day weekend camp at the Stanford Sierra Camp on Fallen Leaf Lake, just south of Lake Tahoe. We picked up this book at their gift shop. It is a most unusual introduction to the history and culture of the Lake Tahoe region, told by means of the stories of a series of remarkable people who in one way or another spent time in the area. John Frémont, Samuel Clemens, John Steinbeck, Bertrand Russell, Frank Sinatra, Maxine Hong Kingston, Michael Ondaatje, and Gary Snyder all are connected with the Lake. We also meet Sarah Winnemucca, the granddaughter of Chief Truckee of the Paiutes, who wrote a history in English of the Paiutes, and Datsolalee, a Washoe basketmaker, whose baskets now sell for thousands of dollars. We read about the terrible Donner Pass tragedy. The TV show Bonanza was set in the Lake Tahoe area, though filmed mostly in Hollywood. Along the way we learn about the enslavement and slaughter of native Americans even after California was admitted to the Union as a “free” state, and the persecution of the Chinese, whose role in helping build the transcontinental railroad was critical. Lankford himself has spent a lot of time in the area. Steinbeck worked at the camp that is now Stanford’s, and Russell stayed there. It’s a rich, complex history, quite startling in its variety and human drama.
Stephen O’Shea. The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond. New York: W.W. Norton, 2017.
I love the Alps. Judy and I have traveled there extensively, mostly in Switzerland, but also in France, Italy, Germany, and Austria. So when I found this book at a local bookstore, I was intrigued. When I started reading it, I nearly abandoned it because of what I took to be the author’s somewhat snarky, insouciant style. But thankfully, I persisted, and was well rewarded. It traces a drive he took from Geneva to Trieste, focussing on the many interesting mountain passes in the Alps. Along the way he shares all kinds of fascinating stories about history, culture, geology, and the like. Even for the places I know well in Switzerland I learned a lot from his narrative. And either I got used to his style, or I overreacted to the earliest encounters with it, because I soon was reading it with enjoyment and fluidity. It makes me want to reproduce much of his journey.
Simon Winchester. Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers. New York: Harper Collins, 2015.
This book caught my attention, both because I’ve enjoyed Simon Winchester in the past, but also because we now live on the Pacific. It’s a book that could easily end up in other categories on this Bookshelf: History, Current Events the most likely. The scheme he uses is ingenious. He uses January 1, 1950, as a starting point for the period he wants to cover, and he chose ten topics, many of which are listed in the subtitle of the book. It’s extremely engaging, as he masters a wealth of details about each topic, and its associated places in the Pacific. Incredibly, many of the places he discusses are places he’s visited, including North Korea, the many Pacific islands, and China. The vastness of the Pacific is a central theme, and the skills of the Polynesian navigators in traversing the vastness with accuracy and without modern navigational tools is recounted in his last chapter. His accounts of the atomic bomb tests on Bikini, and the imperial callousness with which the US treated the inhabitants of that region, is poignant. The discovery of the ocean hot vents and the strange creatures that live in that environment under radically different conditions than most living things on the planet is striking. There’s the surprising story of the Sydney Opera House, whose controversial Danish designer never saw the completed structure, that is now the most iconic man-made thing in Australia. I have a much greater appreciation for all the drama and richness of this vast ocean, which I think about when I stand on its nearby shores.