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. 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.