I wrote the following book reviews for the May 2015 issue of La Civetta, so I thought I’d cross-post them here.
Travelling can be a real hassle sometimes. Planning, booking, packing (and if you’re some people I know, unpacking and repacking several more times), how would it be if you could get someone else to do the travelling for you, and report back their findings? Here are three authors who have done just that, writing about their experiences in the bel paese.
Peter Moore – Vroom by the Sea
Pro: Like the best travel companions; this book is fun, easy-going and full of interesting anecdotes.
Con: It won’t change your life, merely brighten up a few hours of it.
Verdict: An enjoyable, easy read. 4/5
This – Peter Moore’s second book on Italy – is a personal favourite. It sees Peter return to Italy for one final fling before fatherhood (nothing scandalous, the object of his desires is a Vespa he christens Marcello). Armed with nothing more than Marcello, some holy fridge magnets and a vague idea that he’d like to see Sardinia, Sicily and the Amalfi Coast, he spends his time getting swept up in whatever suggestions are put to him with a good-natured spontaneity which is to be admired. This is travel writing at its simple best; some really good, light-hearted fun.
Tim Parks – Italian Ways
Pro: it’s well written, and the book is rich in detail…
Con: …if a train-spotter’s guide to Italy is your thing.
Verdict: If you’re interested in infuriating train networks, spend your money on a journey with East Midlands Trains instead. 2/5
When Italian Ways was published in 2013, it received almost universal praise. A 30-year veteran of Italy, and already a successful author, Tim Parks had apparently written a masterpiece, at times a homage to and at others railing against (geddit?) the Italian ferrovie. Only here’s the thing; Parks doesn’t seem to enjoy travelling at all. More than once on his journey around lo stivale by train, whilst sat in an empty compartment, he prays that nobody come and disturb his peace, so that heaven forbid he won’t have to talk to other people. The best travel writers learn as they go, hearing about and experiencing the local culture, and allowing the reader to learn alongside them. They’re endlessly curious, open to experiences and adventures, and wanting to learn. Parks, on the other hand, is content to simply tell the reader (and the people he meets along the way) things that, to him, are obvious. To give just one example, a black woman in a short, bright dress on an early morning intercity train automatically becomes a prostitute back from a night on the streets (this particular encounter is referenced on the books blurb under “Along the way, Parks meets a prostitute…”, when in reality, he sees her sleeping on the other side of an empty carriage, and then projects his version of her life story onto her). He comes across as the sort of person you wouldn’t want to meet while travelling, and if you wouldn’t want to talk to them, why would you want to read their views? He does say the book is not intended as a travel book, but if you’ve written a book detailing your experiences travelling around a country, then what you’ve written – when you get right down to it – is a travel book. It’s just one written by someone who seems like he would have been much happier staying at home.
Jan Morris – Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
Pro: A real work of art, a beautiful portrait both of the city, and of Morris herself.
Con: The language is very poetic, which isn’t everyone’s taste, but then again, it’s not usually mine, and I loved it.
Verdict: Not a travel book so much as a biography of a city, but one with so much depth and detail, and so wonderfully brought to life. 5/5
Towards the end of World War II, a young soldier named James Morris was stationed in Trieste. Years passed and James Morris became a well-respected journalist and travel writer, publishing books on places ranging from New York to Oman and Hong Kong to Venice, as James until 1972, and then, post-op, as Jan. In 2001, Jan decided it was time to write one final book before taking retirement, and it was back to Trieste that she found herself drawn. The result, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, is a masterful story of a city with an incredibly rich and varied history, but which is not nearly as well-known as its status suggests it should be. The writing is descriptive and reflective, and brings the city to life in a way unrivalled by any of her contemporaries. So often travel writing is seen as “disposable”, nothing more than a pleasant form of escapism. Reading Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, you feel like it should be leather-bound and given pride of place in an oak-paneled library somewhere. A real work of art.
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-The Wandering Jew-