Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

mayesFrances Mayes nurtures a sense of home wherever she travels and writes, frequently envisioning herself buying the rented house and settling in even while just visiting. Literal homes seem to blend and expand with a myriad of temporary residences as she reflects upon flavors, tastes, scents, scenes, poetry, cultures, and histories. She and husband Ed explore a rich variety of exotic as well as ordinary destinations, sweeping a wide radius from their Tuscan epicenter through a European, Mediterranean, Asian, and African playground.

Everything I pick up seems to lure me away. … A desire to go runs through me equally with an intense desire to stay at home.

The memoir hints that this year’s travel in the world is a means for Frances and husband Ed to escape the dust and chaos of the ongoing contracted work at their perpetually-being-restored ancient Tuscan home named Bramasole. Or maybe it’s the growing sense of danger, with the possibility of random violence invading their domicile in northern California that pushes them away from home.

I didn’t know how deeply refreshing the landscape could be. The place does seem familiar, perhaps at a genetic level, but in a a nourishing way. Or maybe I’m just familiar with these friends, and when one is at home with friends, the surrounding world becomes friendly, too.

Whether traveling with newly made friends or rendezvousing with dear old friends, Mayes reflects on their friendships and fond memories, predicting potential relationships with new acquaintances or expressing relief that she won’t have to sit next to such boors as some of the cruise ship passengers at each meal. I found her most humorous when describing the absurdities of cruise ships and their tendency to transform passengers into cattle, driven through crowded tourist traps. Mayes’ first choice for travel is definitely not the cruise, preferring to rent homes and literally plant roots for a while in one village.

My early impressions of A Year in the World were tainted by my annoyance with what seemed constant obsession with food, especially meat and meat by-products, all forms of dairy and excessive indulgence in pastries on the part of Ed. I could assume he is quite rotund, despite his apparent energy and enthusiasm for daily excursions, even long strenuous walks in extreme heat such as their daily hikes to see the architectural and earthly wonders along Turkey’s Lycian coast. Could they possibly eat such meals while at home and shouldn’t they be more cautious with regard to health? My perspective did begin to soften once I reached the chapter on the British Isles—as they romped through English garden after English garden, I became so interested in garden tours. I love, and now wish to adopt, their habit of taking notes for use in the improvement of their home veggie, fruit, and flower growing techniques and varieties of plants. She describes serendipitous moments, such as finally coming across roses similar to a mystery species thriving in their Tuscany garden that was inherited after 30 years of neglect.

The book comprises about a dozen or so travel essays. Each may be dipped into separately or in sequence, yet it’s not the type of book you’ll read straight through. I started it months ago and picked the book up for just a chapter or two at a time, escaping to fascinating travel spots such as Andalucia, Scotland, and Mani. Mayes’ brief yet insightful reviews of books she travels with tempt me to add her inspired selections to my personal reading list. You may find it surprising that the title belies the format; you’ll seldom be aware of the month or year of her travels, and it’s never clear whether each of these trips occurred within a single year. That doesn’t matter, since you will be mesmerized by the poetic and lyrical way in which she transports you to a place and a moment, enveloping you in her experiences.

Check the WRL catalog for A Year in the World.

WRL also owns this title as an e-book.


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blyIn 1873 Jules Verne published his novel Around the World in 80 Days in which Phileas Fogg wagers his fortunate that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.  In 1889 a brash young female reporter who went by the pseudonym Nellie Bly convinced her bosses at the New York World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer) to send her around the world.  Her goal was to complete the trip in under 80 days.  Reading about the trip the morning of Bly’s departure, Cosmopolitan magazine owner John Brisben Walker, convinced Elizabeth Bisland to undertake a similar trip.  Both women left New York within hours of each other on November 14, 1889.  Bly sailed east and Bisland trained west.  The “race” was on.  Eighty Days is a well researched, truly enjoyable, retelling of their travels, triumphs and defeats.

This is a captivating and fascinating story.  First, neither traveler had more than two days to prepare for their amazing adventure.  Second, both traveled alone at a time when very few women did so.  Third, the publications sponsoring the tours did so entirely for their own profit.  Fourth, the race around the world became a national sensation and made the names Bly and Bisland world renowned for a time.  In 1890, when woman’s equality was shunned by most, these ladies became international celebrities.

Goodman bases his text entirely on the words of the protagonists, using their writings and published articles.  He goes to great lengths to provide useful and interesting background information to help the reader see the whole picture.  Eighty Days helps the reader comprehend how exciting this undertaking was to Americans across the country.  This was akin to any major modern sporting event in terms of the enthusiasm of the fans and excitement it generated.  The anticipation of the outcome is palpable as you read.

There are numerous details that make Eighty Days a wonderful read for anyone interested in history.  The nature of their trips ensured contemporary discussions about Victorian mores and gender roles, as well as constant instances of ingenuity, romance, greed, and intrigue.  It is fascinating to consider how technological advances made it possible to complete the rapid tour.

Both women made it around the world in under 80 days, however, you will have to read the book to find out who won and how the race changed their lives.  The fact that few of us know about this great race proves the adage that history is quickly forgotten, but relearning it is worth the effort.  If you want further proof consider the following:

As I read this book, I recalled that early in this library’s history a donation of quality books was given to the Williamsburg Public Library.  After finishing Goodman’s book I confirmed my suspicion that it was none other than Elizabeth Bisland Wetmore (she married Charles Wetmore in 1891), and one of Bisland’s relatives, who made the gift of 250 books to our library in 1910.  How cool is that?

Check the WRL catalog for Eighty Days

Also available as an ebook

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Priceless is a memoir about the true crime undercover investigations carried out by FBI Agent Robert K. Wittman. Since the late 1980s, Bob Wittman was the original solo art crime investigator for what became the FBI’s Art Crime team in 2004, now numbering 14 agents who are well-versed in the fine arts, skilled with undercover work, and are prepared to rapidly deploy to any worldwide site for art theft recovery work and sting operations, often in cooperation with international law enforcement agencies. The FBI updates an online top-ten listing of art crimes and maintains a database of stolen art.

The book is arranged so that you’re following developments in FBI Agent Wittman’s career as well as some pivotal events in his personal life throughout the book. However, each chapter neatly portrays a particular case and its wrap-up. There is one thread running from the beginning through the end, the notorious unsolved 1990 case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft. Wittman’s frustrating battle with the restrictions under which he had to work in the FBI’s bureaucracy, including power struggles with senior officials, seems to provide some clues as to why this case might have been solved long ago had it not been so botched by red tape.

The stories truly bring the high-stakes investigations of art theft to life for the lay reader, and open up our eyes to the realities of art crimes. The biggest revelation in this book is the fact that those who steal art are seldom glamorous, handsome and powerful art connoisseurs, as they have been portrayed in films such as Dr. No or The Thomas Crown Affair. That characterization may be true in some cases, although they are usually your typical thugs who can’t resist taking something that seems incredibly valuable yet easy to steal for even the dumbest of crooks. Some of the book’s photos of captured thieves make that contrast startling. As security systems and staffing have become more sophisticated today, even better organized art theft rings have staged some thefts on the level of Ocean’s Eleven style drama, but most of the crimes investigated by Wittman and told in Priceless are more a case of your average guy taking advantage of an opportunity to get away with something for money.

These are very interesting and sometimes thrilling tales.  They’ll take you behind the scenes of the FBI and around the world to exotic locations and scenarios, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Look for Priceless in the WRL catalog.

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Kakapo rescue

Some book titles exaggerate to attract readers, and the subtitle of this book, “Saving The World’s Strangest Parrot,” sounds like hyperbole, but in the case of the kakapo, it is simple fact. The New Zealand Kakapo is the world’s only nocturnal parrot. It is also the heaviest parrot, often weighing eight pounds. Of course, a bird that heavy can’t fly, so it climbs trees using its claws and beak, only to spread its wings and drop to the leafy forest floor like a stone when it is time to get down. To attracts mates in the dense New Zealand forest the male kakapo digs himself a bowl and booms like a drum. And if that isn’t enough, they smell so strongly from a fungus that grows in their feathers that humans can easily pick up their musty, honey-like scent. Sounds like the world’s strangest parrot? It does to me!

Not only is the kakapo strange, but the combination of flightlessness and friendliness mean that it is extremely vulnerable to predation by carnivorous mammals that have been introduced to New Zealand, such as dogs, cats, weasels and stoats. Unwilling to allow the extinction of the bird that once thrived in millions all over New Zealand, the New Zealand government and private charities are scrambling to save it. Kakapo Rescue describes a thrilling story with the bird going from a population of millions in the 1800s to presumed extinction in the 1950s. Over sixty expeditions searched for kakapos in the 1970s, and they found eighteen birds, which was great news for a bird assumed to be extinct, but they all turned out to be male. Finally in 1977 scientists found a surviving population of two hundred on Stewart Island, to the far south of New Zealand. But kakapos breed slowly and they were still struggling, until  by 1995 there were only fifty-one kakapos left. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has set up a remarkable breeding program on tiny Codfish Island, off the coast of Stewart Island. Up to fourteen people live in a hut year-round solely to help the birds. The happy news is that according to the Kakapo Recovery website there are now nearly 150 kakapo, although the number goes up and down a little as some kakapo die while some eggs hatch.

In our library, both copies of Kakapo Rescue are shelved in the children’s department. This book is definitely interesting and detailed enough to capture the attention of bird- and nature-loving adults, while being accessible to older children. Every page has dazzling photographs by renowned wildlife photographer Nic Bishop. I strongly recommend Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot for people enraptured by dramatic conservation stories and those fascinated by bizarre birds, such as penguins. It will also grab travel buffs who want to learn about the soggy and windswept beauty of southern New Zealand.

Check the WRL catalog for Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot.

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Subtitled “A portrait of American food — before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation’s food was seasonal, regional, and traditional–from the lost WPA files,” you must at least read the extremely interesting Introduction to this treasure mine sampled from what remains in the archives of America Eats, five dusty boxes of manuscript copy on onionskin.  Here Kurlansky showcases the best of what he uncovered, just as writer Merle Colby had hoped when writing the final report before the unedited, unpublished manuscripts were tucked away in the 1940s: “Here and there in America some talented boy or girl will stumble on some of this material, take fire from it, and turn it to creative use.”

The entries are informative and amusing excerpts from food writing and recipes gathered regionally for a federally funded writing project that employed out-of-work writers.  When spending priorities changed after Pearl Harbor, the unfinished project materials were abruptly preserved in the Library of Congress, and we can thank Kurlansky for digging out its most fascinating gems for our enlightenment.

Among the southern and eastern sections where I focused my perusal, I really got a kick out of the anecdotes and details on preparing such delicacies as squirrel, [o]possum, chittelins, and corn pone, how the hush puppy got its name & why some forms of cornbread were once much lower in status.  Of course, Virginians will find some definitive yet highly opinionated historical notes on the famed Brunswick Stew.

The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was a government agency that sprung up as one of  many efforts to alleviate poverty in 1930s America.   Some WPA projects designed programs according to individual skill, field of study or expertise. Remarkably, these included plans for the fields of art, music, drama, and literature. The Federal Writers’ Project commissioned writers to research, write, edit, and publish works and series on particular topics, usually with American themes or interests in mind; writers employed included Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty. Following the successful production of numerous travel guidebooks, the concept for America Eats provided a means for capturing the distinct regional and cultural uniqueness of food and how it was prepared, served, and eaten in an America on the cusp of immense change. America’s culinary differences were destined to be homogenized through the diverse means that food production would soon become so heavily industrialized and globalized.

If you’re one of the many readers eagerly devouring information on real food, whole foods, traditional foods, or even paleolithic foods, in what seems like a mass revolution against modern food (in which I’m still trying to figure out what works best for my lifestyle), you’ll find much to inform and inspire you in Kurlansky’s book.  Some will reminisce; others will find a lot of eye-opening and useful knowledge about the way we once were; all we be entertained.

Check the WRL catalog for The Food of a Younger Land

I read the title in the e-book version.

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Sea of GloryNathaniel Philbrick is one of our most readable chroniclers of American history. While less well known than his breakout book, In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex and focused on a more obscure event than later works like Mayflower, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and 2013’s Bunker Hill: a City, a Siege, a Revolution, his book Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 is one of his best. The fact that the history of this expedition has mostly been forgotten by modern Americans only makes the book more astonishing.

The Exploring Expedition, often known as the U.S. Ex Ex, would journey down the U.S. and South American coasts, continue into Antarctic waters, then cross into the Pacific and chart South Pacific islands and portions of America’s Northwest coast, including the mouth of the Columbia River before returning via the reverse route over four years later. It would make contact with many native populations, create sea charts that would be used well into the 20th century, and bring home an astonishing number of scientific specimens that would ultimately form the start of the Smithsonian’s collection. It would do all of this in an era when propulsion was still by sail, cold weather gear was substandard, and navigation was hazardous. Pretty good for an expedition unknown to most modern Americans!

But what makes the story even more astonishing is that it succeeded despite the inept, self-aggrandizing leadership of young Charles Wilkes. Wilkes was barely 40 years of age, only a lieutenant, but won command of the expedition through diligent campaigning and the general opposition to the expedition of most of the Navy’s officers. When political wrangling back at home refused him the honor of a Captain’s rank even after he was away with the expedition’s five ships, Wilkes became ever more of a martinet, pretending to have achieved rank that he didn’t have so he could play the other young officers of the expedition against each other. He would often arrange the traveling order of the ships so that he could claim personal discovery of major sites or ignore the successes of other officers. He resorted to corporal punishments at the least offense and subverted the work of the expedition’s scientists.

I’ll let you discover the expedition’s many events for yourself, but I will hint at a bit of the ending. Wilkes returned home to find a different president than the one who backed his expedition, many dismissed officers waiting to level charges against him, a Navy determined to have him court-martialed, and powerful enemies in the country’s political leadership. The last part of the book considers the events of the case made against him. Wilkes may have been a disaster, but modern readers will be enthralled by the adventures of this little known expedition. This is an enthralling history that reads like a suspense novel.

Check the WRL catalog for Sea of Glory

We also have Sea of Glory in large print or audiobook on compact disc formats

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BehindtheBeautifulForeversReading this book was like watching a car accident, I was compelled and horrified at the same time.  Katherine Boo spent almost four years interviewing and living alongside some of the world’s poorest people in the slum of Annawadi near Mumbai’s international airport. She has written the results of her researches into an un-put-downable book that reads like a novel.

A myriad of characters from different religions and at different places in the hierarchy of the slum, come living, smelling, fighting, struggling and striving off the page. But don’t get too attached, as several of them die in sordid, pointless and horrible circumstances. Others are entangled in a web of police corruption that just keeps on getting worse. I found myself wanting it to be fiction so that it could have a happy ending for some of the characters, but Annawadi is a place with few happy endings.

Katherine Boo says that when she gave a character thoughts, she has based this on extensive interviews where her subjects revealed their actual thoughts about life in general or a particular incident. What makes me uncomfortable is the extremely personal nature of some of the thoughts she puts in the book. If I revealed to a friend in quite crass terms that I was annoyed with my father for being too sick to work, but not too sick to get my mother pregnant ten times, then I don’t think I’d want my annoyance–perhaps understandable, but definitely tactless–revealed to my father in a New York Times bestseller.

This book has won lots of prizes, and was suggested to me in my book club as a must-read. I agree that is an important book because it paints a picture of a life that I cannot imagine, but a real life that these people often cannot escape through no fault of their own. It is a book that puts human faces and lives on news stories of India’s growth or India’s problems of TB. This is a great book for fans of fiction about the poor of India like A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. I also recommend it for readers who want to get a glimpse of a whole society through the lives of some of the most powerless, like in Margaret Powell’s  Below Stairs,  or readers of popular sociology books like The Big Necessity by Rose George.  It is essential reading for anyone who wants to learn more about the underside of India. Just don’t expect to feel comfortable after you finish the book.

Check the WRL catalog for Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

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One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide…

In 1870, the English diarist Francis Kilvert complained that, “Of all noxious animals…the most noxious is a tourist.”  But despite this scathing criticism, Doug Mack, author of Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day, desperately wants to be one.  Unlike the trailblazers of recent decades seeking to explore new and uncharted parts of the globe, Mack wants to undertake a journey on the very firmly well-beaten path, hoping to obtain “full immersion in the modern tourist experience.”

And so he decides to backpack around Europe using only a 1963 edition of the quintessential Europe on Five Dollars a Day by Arthur Frommer that he found at a secondhand book festival in Minneapolis.  To add to the retro charm, he also brings with him the postcards and letters that his mother wrote to her fiancé (Mack’s father) during her own Grand Tour in the late 1960s.  And that’s it.  There would be no Internet research, no competing guidebooks.  As much as possible Mack planned to stay in the same hotels recommended by Frommer, eat in the same restaurants, and visit the same sites – although perhaps not on the same budget.

On his Not-So-Grand Tour, Mack visits eleven of Europe’s great cities, including Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, and Venice, boldly going  “where millions have gone before, relying only on the advice of a travel guide that’s nearly a half century out-of-date.”  Setting out on this well-beaten path, Mack’s goal was not to live on $5 a day in some kind of “gimmicky challenge,” but to explore the ways the traditional tourist experience has changed–and hasn’t–during the last fifty years.

Just like any traveler, he enjoys some cities more than others (a big fan of Madrid, not so much of Venice).  But of course, as Mack travels around Europe, he finds most of Frommer’s suggestions are either closed, have been converted into a giftshop, or serve food so expensive that if Frommer were writing this guide today (adjusted for inflation, of course!) they would never have made the cut.  Other differences include Frommer’s choice of seventeen “must-see” cities, which leaves out destinations that are very popular today, such as Prague and Barcelona.  And let’s not forget that Berlin was a divided city in 1963.  But in 2009, Mack finds the American and East German soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie are now played by Russian and North African actors, demanding tips for photos.

Europe on 5 Wrong Turns A Day offers an interesting analysis of the culture of travel, the changes that have taken place since Frommer’s seminal work was published, and the changes that the book caused (e.g. cheap travel as something you could boast about).  To flesh out the travel narrative, Mack includes some history of American tourism to Europe, the evolution of guidebooks, Frommer’s success story, and how politics affect the travel decisions of Americans.

If you have ever traveled abroad, particularly in Europe, you will see yourself in this book.  But Mack’s teasing is kind and you won’t be able to help laughing at yourself.  I freely admit to doing the “Tourist Dance” myself:

Hold out your camera, smile sheepishly, point to yourself.  Half the time the other person is already performing the same gestures to you…”

The book is sweetly charming, with laugh-out loud moments, but it also has some serious points to make about modern travel and the effects of globalism over the last half-century.  Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day is an amusing, self-effacing, and very wry travel memoir, told by an observant and affable narrator.  The book is an entertaining mix of social commentary, history,  ode to Frommer’s “manifesto for the common traveler” and exoneration of your average, much-maligned tourist.

Check out the WRL catalog for Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day


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This week’s reviews are from WRL’s Development Officer, Benjamin Goldberg.

I cannot recall why I picked up this audio recording, but whatever the motivating factor, I am glad I did listen to Eat, Pray, Love.  Elizabeth Gilbert’s 30-something memoir of discovery and discussion is entertaining and educational.  Her life experiences are vastly beyond what most of us will ever encounter, yet the clarity of soul she develops as a result of her travels is something from which I think most people could benefit.

The title of this book refers to the author’s year-long journey filled with epiphany, serendipity, and equanimity.  Following a horrible and devastating divorce, Gilbert has the opportunity to travel for a year.  She spends four months in Italy, four months in India, and four months in Indonesia.  On each leg of her trip she focuses on herself in a different way, enjoying wonderful food first, then delving into meditation and self-awareness and eventually finding love in Bali (Indonesia).

Gilbert is upfront about how fortunate she was to be able to experience this year of exploration.  Had she failed to acknowledge how extraordinary her opportunities were, the book would have been more a travel log of a privileged woman than a discourse of revelation.  In Italy she pursues her lifelong desire to learn to speak Italian.  Living in Rome, she soaks up the culture through the people, food and language.  Before heading to her second country, two changes in Gilbert’s are evident.  Her path to healing has begun and she’s gained weight from eating delicious food.

In India, Gilbert has arranged to visit the Ashram of her guru.  During her time at this temple of meditation and prayer, the author transitions from a person haunted by her demons, to a woman who has conquered much of her darker side.  With humility and beauty, she describes her spiritual experiences that bring her more peace of mind than she had previously ever known.

The author’s final destination is Indonesia. In Bali, her life’s paradigm shift is completed.  Not only does she improve the lives of the people around her through acts of personal charity and gain the friendship of a ninth-generation medicine man, but she also finds the love of her life.  Bali is the final puzzle piece in her jigsaw journey of discovery.

Throughout her travels Gilbert collects a bevy of personalities and characters that move her own story forward.  She admits that she is blessed with an outgoing, welcoming personality that helps her find friends anywhere.  There seems to be divine providence at work during her year abroad.  From the coincidences of travel to the people she meets, everything comes together to make her transformative story work.

I know Eat, Pray, Love was made into a movie, but I missed it and have no interest in seeing it.  The book is so well-crafted, I do not believe any film could do it justice.  Gilbert’s style is clear, gentle and enlightened.  Not only is this book written in Gilbert’s voice, as a definite bonus, she also reads it to the listener.  This brings a special element to the memoir because you can hear her emotions and her honesty.  If you want a book about self-discovery, travel and celebration of life try Eat, Pray, Love.

Check the WRL catalog for Eat, Pray, Love


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Mary Bly has published a charming memoir and travelogue of her family’s one-year sabbatical in Paris under her pen name, which has been selling romance novels since the late 1990s. As herself, Mary Bly is a Harvard, Oxford and Yale educated literature professor teaching Shakespeare at Fordham University who secretly published romances (successfully enough to pay all of her graduate school loans!) until she obtained tenure. Eloisa James is now regularly on the bestseller lists.

Paris in Love is a compilation of snippets from her carefully-composed Facebook entries along with some longer essays reflecting upon her carefree year in the “city of love” without deadlines and with few obligations. This makes it a perfect book for picking up and dipping into any page for the amusement of reading just a few paragraphs whenever you’re waiting somewhere, or just keeping it on the bedside or coffee table like you would a magazine. I found that I easily kept turning the pages.

Both parents are college professors, so they found it easy to take time off from work. Mary really wanted to make this drastic change because she had just survived breast cancer and was trying to force herself to savor life a little more fervently. Paris had also been on her bucket list since she was little. Emboldened with this second lease on life, they even sold their New Jersey home and gave away many of their possessions before flying off to France. Some of their time is spent in Italy, where Mary’s Italian husband Allessandro has family. Their children, 15-year old Luca and 11-year old Anna, who did not want to leave her friends in the states, provide excellent fodder for laugh-out-loud moments throughout the book. The reader gets to know each family member’s idiosyncrasies as well as a lot of interesting detail about Paris life, people, and culture.  My favorite parts are about the daughter’s rebellious nature and her exploits at school.

Two things appealed to me about this little memoir: the extravagant idea of spending an entire year living quite whimsically from day to day in a famously romantic and decadent city like Paris, and the author’s background as an Oxford scholar and Shakespeare professor. I’d love to know what it’s like to feel so free from deadlines, and I find inspiration in Mary Bly’s success story for my teenaged daughter, who has her heart set on attending Oxford University and becoming a literature professor.

Eloisa James has an official web site where you can match her delightful descriptions with photographs of her family members, including the obese Chihuahua named Milo.

Check the WRL catalog for Paris in Love: A Memoir.


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Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia lives up to its name. It is definitely an encyclopedia, with 17 huge volumes. I don’t necessarily want to admit to being a nerd who reads the encyclopedia for fun but this one is worth a second look, particularly for animal lovers. Our library has two sets of Grzimek’s and the set shelved at the James City County Library in Croaker Road can be checked out (and requested for library users who prefer to go to the Williamsburg branch), so I challenge anyone who is fascinated by books like Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat or anything by Jane Goodall to try Grzimek’s for the sections on animal behavior. If you love to watch Cesar Milan work his magic with dogs or are moved by Dogtown, you’ll be fascinated by the section on canids. If you’ve a passion for birdwatching, tropical fish, or you just love animals, try these great books.

Grzimek’s is a standard for both public and academic libraries and it is prominent in any standard list of essential science reference titles. The academic library where I previously worked considered them so essential for undergraduate students that we bought them both in print and online. We told biology students starting their important essays that they always needed to start their animal research with Grzimek’s.

This said, these books have a lot to offer the everyday reader. They are beautiful volumes with lots of stunning photographs, drawings of individual species, and species distribution maps (although I have to admit, they are large volumes and I didn’t have much success trying to read them in bed). The first volumes are about invertebrates, and then they go up through fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. I am a sucker for cute, fluffy animals so I pulled out volume 12 about mammals. It starts with general chapters on topics like “Ice Age Giants,” “Migration,” and “Mammals and Humans,” then the accounts of individual species starts with Australian marsupials. For more obscure species, this information may be difficult to find elsewhere. For example, did you know that some species of quolls (carnivorous marsupials in Australia) always die young? They live in an extremely harsh environment and the males die soon after their first breeding season.

Grzimek’s has a lot for bird lovers, including four volumes covering birds from all around the world. I was charmed to learn the one of my favorite childhood birds, the New Zealand Tui, is described as “among the best singers in the world. The song is rich, melodious, and includes soft liquid warbling notes, bell-like calls and chimes.”

We know that our library users are intrigued by animals because circulation is constant on books by  Marc Bekoff, or any DVDs featuring marine life or dogs. So if you are one of the people moved and bewitched by animals and the natural world then these underused library books are well worth another look.

Check the WRL catalog for Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia 


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Anyone who is tired of watching the typical Hollywood blockbuster movie should see this rare gem about the power of transformation. Tom (Martin Sheen) is a doctor from California who gets the news that every parent dreads—that his estranged son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) has died in an accident in the mountains of southern France while attempting to walk the famous El Camino de Santiago. When Tom visits France to recover his son’s body, he is helped by a local police captain, Henri (Tchéky Karyo, who played General Lafayette in The Patriot). Henri explains to Tom that pilgrims have walked this 500-mile trail for over a thousand years, seeking transformation on the journey and at its end, the Santiago de Compostola, where the bones of St. James are said to be buried. After going through Daniel’s personal effects, which include little more than his backpacking gear, Tom decides to walk the Way himself, using his son’s gear,  and he honors his son in a special way as he walks the trail.

Along the way he meets and walks with three very different people, all of whom have their own reasons for walking El Camino. There is a jovial Dutchman, Joost,  who is undertaking the journey to lose weight. There is the bitter Canadian, Sarah,  who wants to quit smoking. And then there is the comical Irishman, Jack, who wants to write the big novel but has been suffering from a bad bout of writer’s block. As they progress on the 500-mile journey, they learn much about themselves and each other as they experience the sights and sounds of the Camino. As they get to know each other, they slowly build a sense of community, helping each other find the transformation that they all seek. And together they learn the difference between the life they live and the life they choose.

There are many qualities that make this movie stand out. The acting is excellent. One of the reasons I saw this in the theater was because of Martin Sheen. I had just finished  watching all seven  seasons of  The West Wing, a TV show about the White House, where he figured prominently as President Josiah Bartlett. I wanted to see him act in a  different and much more demanding role. He doesn’t disappoint. Emilio Estevez is great as Tom’s son (and is Martin Sheen’s oldest son in real life), and also directs and produces the movie. They are supported by a fine cast of actors: Yorick van Wageningen as Joost,  Deborah Kara Unger as Sarah, and James Nesbitt as Jack.

As an avid traveler, I loved to see what the El Camino was like in the movie and would love to experience it for myself some day. The many scenic views of the El Camino were well chosen and were often breathtaking. The movie is enhanced by the wonderful music of Tyler Bates and songs from the likes of James Taylor and Alanis Morissette.

Williamsburg Regional Library has some resources you should check out if you want to know more about the Camino. They include Jack Hitt’s book  Off the Road: A modern-day walk down the pilgrim’s route into Spain which was used as a basis for the movie, but there are several others, including The Road to Santiago by  Kathryn Harrison, Travels with My Donkey: one man and his ass on a pilgrimage to Santiago by Tim Moore, and  Walk in a Relaxed Manner : life lessons from the Camino by Joyce Rupp. And coming up in May 2012, Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez will be releasing their book Along the Way: The Journey of a Father and Son.

Check the WRL catalog for The Way


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This companion guide to the excellent DVD series by the same name presents so much new information about the great classical composers and the places where they lived that I thought it deserved its own post here on BFGB.

One of the first things you will notice about this book are the hundreds of beautiful and sometimes stunning photographs of Wendy McDougall. Her pics of indoor concert halls and palaces (like the Hermitage in St. Petersburg) are just as impressive as her panoramic pics, like those of the Norwegian fjords and the old city of Prague.  I was especially taken by her photograph of the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, where you can see many of the ornate details of a Russian orthodox church, so different from the churches you see in Western Europe. Her many fine pictures go well with the HD images in the series and make this book an excellent choice for a coffee-table book.

The book also serves as an excellent source of travel information about these destinations.  Every destination city has a “City at a Glance” section with many of the same features that you will find in hundreds of other travel guides, features like climate, top 5 tourist attractions, and popular shopping locations. But what makes it unique is its emphasis on classical music. It has a “Composers” section that lists the composers who lived and worked in that city (Vienna and St. Petersburg tie for the most composers who lived in their city, with 14 each).  It also has a list of composer museums/ homes that you can visit in the city.

Most importantly for the traveler, though, is a list of annual musical events held in that city, with a brief description of each event, time of year it is held, and the event website where you can go to get more information. It’s too late if you want to attend the world famous Salzburg Festival, a tribute to the music of Mozart which is held in July and August of every year. But it’s not too early to plan to see Salzburg’s Mozart Week, held in January, when it can be cold and snowy in Salzburg.

One of my favorite features of the City at a Glance section is the “Top 2 Coffee Houses” feature. The Café Tomaselli is one of the top 2 in Salzburg, though be forewarned, Mozart often went there and complained on more than one occasion about the quality of the coffee. But the authors insist that the quality of the coffee has improved considerably since then, and the café is now one of the best in Salzburg. Drinking coffee and hanging out in coffee shops was a popular pastime, as many composers besides Mozart frequented them. Johann Sebastian Bach liked his daily cup of joe so much that he composed one of his very few secular cantatas in praise of the beverage and, not surprisingly, called it the “Coffee Cantata.” It is one of my all time favorite choral pieces (think of it as Bach in a good mood) and it is definitely worth seeking out.

The book also has a useful “Composer at a Glance” feature that highlights the lives of 16 composers mentioned in the DVD series.  It includes basic biographical information and mentions some of their greatest musical works. It highlights some of the challenges they had to face in their lives; many of them, like Mozart and Vivaldi, had extreme financial challenges; others, like Grieg, Schubert, and Beethoven, had to cope with severe health problems.

The book, written by Matt Wills, one of the co-hosts of the DVD series, serves as an excellent introduction to the world of classical music. Its combination of high-quality photographs with highly relevant information about these classical destinations and composers make it a very useful resource to those interested in classical music, and it is an excellent companion guide to the Classical Destinations DVD series.

If you want to hear some of the music mentioned in the book and DVD, you should listen to the companion Classical Destinations album, a 2-CD set of 24 pieces of music with over 2 ½ hours of music. It includes the wonderful Classical Destinations theme tune by Terracini played by the incredibly talented violinist and series co-host, Niki Vasilakis. The music of 17 of the great classical composers is arranged by region and includes many gems of the classical repertoire, including Mozart’s beautiful “Ave verum corpus,” the Largo movement from Dvorak’s “New World” symphony, and a rousing rendition of Sibelius’ Finlandia.

Check the WRL catalog for Classical Destinations: An Armchair Guide to Classical Music.


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Anyone with an interest in classical music must see this amazing travelogue, which explores some of Europe’s most beautiful cities and the composers whose lives and music had such a great impact upon them.  It includes 13 episodes (5 ½ hours total time) with over 14 major destinations, including my favorites, Salzburg, Vienna, Prague, and Venice. It features many well-known composers, like Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Vivaldi as well as some lesser-known composers, like Sibelius and Shostakovich.

Classical Destinations takes you on a grand tour of the places and the music that made these composers famous. The places include many of the famous buildings and landmarks of Europe where these composers lived and worked, including St. Mark’s Square in Venice, the Schönbrunn palace in Vienna, and the Old Town of Prague. You are also taken on a tour of some of the most beautiful landscapes of Europe, like the fjords in Norway and the Moldau River in the Czech Republic that inspired composers like Grieg and Smetana to compose some of their greatest music.

The music, of course, is glorious, and it is infused throughout the tour. When you visit St. Mark’s Square, you are treated to an excerpt of Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine and Vivaldi’s “La Primavera:” Concerto for Violin and Strings in E Major. When you tour Vienna, which was the music and cultural capital of the world for hundreds of years, you will get to hear music from several great composers who made Vienna their home, like Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, and Mahler.

Classical Destinations is narrated by the actor Simon Callow, with help from Matt Wills and Niki Vasilakis. Niki plays the violin part in the wonderful Classical Destinations theme tune and also plays her violin at many of the destinations. The series was filmed in HD (high-definition) quality video, so the picture and the sound are top quality.

I loved this travelogue and I hope you will take the time to watch, listen, and experience these classical destinations. My only regret is that it did not cover more of the great destinations of Europe, particularly Paris, where many of the great French composers like Berlioz and Saint-Saens lived and worked. Hopefully there will be a Classical Destinations 2 sometime in the near future. But this one is an excellent introduction to the world of classical music. Highly recommended.

Check the WRL catalog for Classical Destinations.


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This week’s posts are from WRL Development Officer Benjamin Goldberg.

Anyone who is familiar with British comedy shows likely knows of Stephen Fry. He is an accomplished comedian, writer, and actor. For more than two decades he has played characters in British and American television and cinema. Although born in London, England as a child Fry learned he was almost born in New Jersey (his father declined a teaching position at Princeton). Since then Fry’s fascination with the United States has been unyielding. Stephen Fry in America is his videographic effort to explore his nearly adoptive country, visiting both well known and obscure locations along the way (for anyone interested, there is a companion book also). Accompanied by a small film crew and driving a black London cab for most of the way, Fry motors through all 50 states, stopping in each one long enough to visit at least one notable location and offer commentary on his experiences.

Fry starts in the Northeast making his way from Maine to Washington D.C. He travels south from Virginia to Alabama, and then turns north again to follow the Mississippi River all the way to its source. The fourth episode focuses on the Great Plains and the fifth explores the American Southwest. Fry ends his travels going up the west coast, across to Alaska and resting finally in Hawaii.

By turns, his experiences are inspiring, poignant, disturbing, and hilarious. This series has elements that are similar to other travel videos, but Fry focuses less on America’s tourist destinations and more on the citizens he visits with throughout his journey. He examines race, homelessness, family, sports, religion, sex, music, hunting, food, death, charity, transportation, crime, holidays, education, and more. While the topics might seem divergent, through the series Fry emphasizes the humanity he finds that bind them together.

Along the way we learn important facts like he hates to dance, has a valid fear of horses, loves talking with people of all walks of life, and isn’t above sampling several different Kentucky bourbons just to be sure they are worth drinking. I had the impression he enjoyed them all.

Stephen Fry in America offers a view of the United States that is fun both because of its familiarity and because of the narrator’s outsider’s perspective. Fry praises the people he meets as generous and welcoming, while sometimes a bit quirky. He admits feeling awed by the beautiful and majestic landscapes and concludes that Americans are best understood in our own habitat. How can we disagree?

Check the WRL catalog for Stephen Fry in America


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Just a regular guy, raised in the American Midwest, Kelsey Timmerman journeys through four countries to discover where his favorite pieces of clothing were manufactured. His first venture is into Honduras to find the factory where his t-shirt was made.  Unfortunately, the trip is fruitless. Without any contacts, he is obviously denied access to the factory, but he briefly speaks with one of the workers after hours.  Although deemed a failure, this trip plants a seed to pursue further travels into Bangladesh, Cambodia, China and, finally, an American factory.

Timmerman is more successful during these other trips.  In Bangladesh, he goes undercover as a buyer to gain access to a factory.  Although it’s not the exact one that manufactured his boxers, he is able to observe the workers and the conditions in which they work. Cambodia is the home where his Levi’s jeans have been sewn.  He finds that with regulation, Cambodian factories are well run and there are few instances of child labor. In China, he is unable to tour a factory, but he speaks with a couple who make flip-flops similar to his own.  On the surface, it seems Chinese workers may have better conditions, with the highest pay of the countries he visits. But Timmerman soon finds that garment workers are often forced to work many hours of overtime without pay, and many of the regulations in place to protect them are not enforced.

Although Timmerman touches on the economics of the garment industry, his main focus is on the people and their difficult lives. A common thread among each of these workers is family.  Many of them leave small villages to work in the city and send money home to support their parents, siblings, and often their own children. With little opportunity back home, the small wages of manufacturing jobs bring some stability and hope for survival. Thought provoking and revealing, Where Am I Wearing? is a human interest story that gives us a glimpse of not only how our clothing is made, but also who makes it.

Check the WRL catalog for Where Am I Wearing?


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Siberia is known for the gulag, cold weather, and mosquitoes, none of which is a big tourist draw. Fortunately for those of us who are unlikely ever to visit Siberia, Ian Frazier has been there five times. As a traveler, he is omnivorous, investigating and reporting on the history, the people, the land, the language, the prisons, the trash, the bathrooms, and most of all the mystique of the place.

Frazier is an engaging, self-deprecating guide. For the longest of his five trips, he hired two Russian men to drive with him from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, about 6,000 miles. A typical safety-conscious suburban American, Frazier is aware of feeling less than manly compared to his traveling companions, who smoke, drink, and chase women; are able to fix anything that goes wrong with their clunker of a van; and who never, ever wear a seatbelt. When he notices a car being towed by means of a seatbelt, he observes that this is the only time he ever saw a seatbelt being used in Russia.

Like fellow travel writer Bill Bryson, Frazier has a fondness for odd facts and small, local museums. A native of Cleveland, he rather endearingly collects every possible scrap of information about fellow Ohioans who have visited Siberia, beginning with George Kennan, a famous explorer and cousin of the noted Cold War diplomat of the same name.

Siberia is a big place—encompassing nine percent of earth’s land mass—and it takes a big book to cover it. This is a rambling trip, full of personal and historical digressions. It takes in the Mongols, the tsars, and Stalin as well as today’s oil boom and climate change. At many points in his narrative, Frazier mentions that he has stopped to sketch, and the results, a series of delicate, expressive drawings, make fine illustrations for this quirky, eye-opening travelogue.

Check the WRL catalog for Travels in Siberia


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Life on a tropical island has got to be the ideal for most Westerners.  Warm sun, nothing to hear but the surf, nothing to see but palm trees, white sand, and the occasional sexy bathing suit.  Think of all those Corona ads—paradise, right?

According to Maarten Troost, the reality is far from the ideal.  On the island of Tarawa, that warm sun bakes to daily temperatures around 100 degrees, and air conditioning isn’t an option.  The surf is drowned out by “La Macarena,” which the i-Kiribati (as the residents are known) play nonstop.  The white sand is littered with debris, including guns and tanks destroyed during the 1943 invasion of the island. The i-Kiribati tend more to the plus size, and, as Troost puts it, it’s too hot to think about …well, anything else.  And as for beer, it is imported from Australia.  If the shipment gets on the wrong boat, chaos and public grieving quickly follow.

Space is at a premium.  Tarawa is only about 350 square miles, strung out along eight islands, some of which are barely wider than a four-lane highway.  Remove the uninhabitable portions, and Tarawa becomes one of the most densely populated places on Earth.  There is no place to put the trash, the water table is too high for wells or plumbing, and the coral of the atoll cannot be cultivated.  Still, Tarawa is the place to be for the i-Kiribati, who come from all over the country to live in its glory.  (In this instance, all over the country means from islands in both hemispheres and across the International Date Line.  As he describes it, Kiribati is like Baltimore, divided  neighborhood by neighborhood and spread from DC to LA.  You can’t even get a good satellite photo of the whole country.)

In a setting like this, you’d expect the book to be depressing, but there is at least a chuckle if not a belly laugh on every page.   Troost went to Tarawa with his girlfriend, who was hired by an international aid organization to develop health and agricultural programs, a Sisyphean task that she performed with dedication.  With nothing much to do himself, Troost began working on his novel (the chapter dealing with that is hilarious in its understated approach) and foraging for their daily meals.  He also learned to boogie board, tried snorkeling, hung out with other Westerners, and generally lived at loose ends.

Most of the book’s humor comes from Troost’s self-lacerating wit as he stands at the cultural crossroads. That means he doesn’t hold back from spotlighting the aggravating habits of the i-Kiribati (like the aforementioned national love for “La Macarena”).   Mixed in with Troost’s sardonic observations are stories of his travels to smaller islands and the experience of sailing on the Pacific.  Those sections have a sense of adventure and a kind of timeless bliss that approaches that Western ideal of the tropics —but even they aren’t immune from his zingers.

Check here for Rebekah’s review of Troost’s Lost on Planet China.

Check the WRL catalog for The Sex Lives of Cannibals.

Or place a reservation for the Gab Bag


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