Category Archives: books

Travel guide buyers beware

I have had the argument over best travel guide book many times with people who are loyal “Lonely Planet” afficianados.  I have only twice had a normal Lonely Planet book and I hated them in both instances;  I am now quite loyal to the glossy and colorful DK Eyewitness guides.  I am nothing but bemused at the article on today’s BBC about a Lonely Planet writer who did all sorts of wild things while working as a travel writer including writing about places to which he had not been.  IMHO that’s easier with the Lonely Planet guides than with others since they’re so dry and dull.  But even more interesting is the note at the bottom of the page:

Lonely Planet is 75% owned by BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC.

I had no idea about that one, shall have to investigate further.  Regardless, their little disclaimer aside, this is one of the most read articles on the BBC website today. 

Not since the Boston tea party?

OK, I have to admit it, I seem to have missed the Harry Potter boat entirely.  I have not read the books and I have not seen the movies. Yeah, everyone tells me to jump aboard the bandwagon, but that would interfere with my own preferred reading materials (at the moment “Kate: The Woman who was Katharine Hepburn” by William J. Mann, highly, highly recommended!)

I was, however, quite puzzled and bemused to find that the uproar over an early review of the book, published in the NY Times, seems to have re-invigorated the ages-old feud between the US and the UK.  Who knew that dribbling information about the latest in a series of childrens’ books could ignite the same sort of fury as the events leading up to the revolutionary war!  I quote:

“The New York Times review said its copy was purchased from a New York City store on Wednesday.

A Bloomsbury spokeswoman called the review “very sad”, adding that there was only one more day to wait until the official release in book stores around the world. Twelve million copies of the book have been printed for the U.S. market alone.

She likened the events in the United States to the Boston Tea Party, a protest by American colonists against Britain in 1773.

‘But over here it is blockades as usual, with the embargo being enforced unflinchingly and without exception by all our customers,’ she said.”

Perhaps we are taking Harry Potter just a little bit too seriously?

Books in the genre “travel memoir”

I just finished re-reading one of my favorite books, “An Italian Affair” by Laura Fraser. I am literally on my third copy of this; I had ‘loaned’ out the previous two. I was reading it recently for two reasons, (1) this new copy came courtesy of my sister when she visited earlier in the merry month of May, and (2) I am finally going to visit Italy for the first time, in about six weeks, and I am starting to get really excited about that trip.

This book is my very favorite of three books I love in this genre of “travel memoir,” all three of which involve a single woman travelling alone in Europe. Here are my one sentence summaries:

  1. Laura Fraser, “An Italian Affair,” An American divorcee meets a French art professor in Italy, and meets him for romantic interludes in different cities around the world over the course of the next few years.
  2. Sarah Turnbull, “Almost French,” An Australian woman spending a year travelling meets a Frenchman in Bucharest and eventually moves to Paris to start a life with him.
  3. Alice Steinbach, “Without Reservations,” An American divorcee meets a Japanese man in Paris and meets him for romantic interludes in different cities around the world over the course of the next few years. (There’s a sequel, “Educating Alice” with the continuing adventures)

In all three cases, I read the books before I had ever even visited Europe, so on some level these were fantasies and on some level they became slightly prophetic when I started travelling alone in Europe. (Except that I never managed to meet either a handsome French or Japanese man along the way…) In all three cases there was an obvious romantic component but the real and primary themes of the books were self-discovery. Although I have optimistically gone on to read other books in this genre (Italy and France seem to be particularly well-represented) I have never found another that I like as well as these three.

America and the Creationist Museum

Just when I start to feel safe in identifying as an American in the UK, something comes along to make me cringe. The big news from yesterday concerned the opening of a “Creationist Museum” in Kentucky in the US. The idea that there is sufficient support and resources available to encourage such an effort–the museum is listed as costing $27 million and that’s a lot of money in any currency–is somewhat shocking given the pure propaganda context of the place. The whole thing plays into the hands of those who wish to dismiss Americans as nuts in general and American Christians as strange outliers in the developed world. There are shocking statistics about the way that American society as a whole does not actually benefit from religion, and although I take most social science research with a grain of salt, I think there is some scope for serious thought here.

In a strangely timed coincidence, I was at a discussion last night concerning the book, “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins (which is probably the book mentioned at the close of the article). The book has gotten mixed reviews but been very popular, and I do plan to read it when time is available (perhaps on an upcoming long-haul flight). It seems to me that there is a decent point made by Dawkins about the religious indoctrination of children and I suspect (but don’t know for certain) that this is a major factor in things like the Creationist museum. A strange sort of peer pressure in the US makes it not just okay to believe in things like this (young-earth pseudo-science) that contradict common sense, science and experience, but also mandatory to demonstrate these “values” publicly and boldly–with a $27 million Creationist museum as a good example of money that could have been better spent on something to help with the actual ills in American society.

Update: See a nicely complementary piece on the Onion.

England, Celebrity and Biography

I had a bit of a shock when perusing the “biography” section at my local Borders. (Yes, I go to Borders and not some nice UK store like Waterstone’s… my bad. Another great example of the convergence of globalization and homesickness.)

I love reading biographies and have a reasonable collection on my own book shelf. They tend to feature strong women through history, including feminists and monarchs up to and including matinee idols like Lauren Bacall and my very favorite hero, Katharine Hepburn. But I can honestly say there was not a single biography that caught my interest on this UK Borders expedition. Why?  Here are examples of the biographies of females that rested on the shelves:

  • Jordan aka Katie Price, “Jordan: A whole new world” (note this is the second in her autobiographical series, the first was “Being Jordan”)
  • Kerry Katona, “Too much, too young: My story of love, survival and celebrity”
  • Collen McLoughlin, “Welcome to my world”

OK, first of all, these are women of a tender age who are currently alive. These are all autobiographical titles, and thus not really “biographies” as per the signs in Borders. (Note this is not unique to the female subjects; the male subjects on the shelves were all either recent football/soccer players or cricketers).

With the possible exception of Jordan, it is extremely unlikely that anyone would have ever heard of these people off this tiny and clearly crazed island. These are not biographies in the true sense, but merely long-form articles from OK! magazine. And while I sheepishly confess to occasionally purchasing OK! myself (no, really, it’s cultural research, I don’t actually enjoy it!) I can’t imagine that the lives and stories of these particlar women are more than a few pages long up to this point. The UK fascination with celebrity, or really infamy, has propagated this drivel to the point that actual historical figures are absent from the “Biography” shelves and all we are left with is ingenues who are notoriously “famous for being famous”. I’ll stick with Kate Hepburn.