Monday, March 10, 2008

Travel books #1--winter, summer

Alas, fell off the wagon, slipped off my schedule...was hoping to post at least once a month here. But, I'll try again. I'm going to take on travel books. I love 'em. I read travel guides, not just narrative travel books, for fun. I'll try writing about some of my favorites, which are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of which ones I've read, and the genre as a whole.

I probably got hooked on travel literature when my dad read to my brother and me from Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels when we were kids. I don't think I've finished a Halliburton book, but I remember with fondness my dad reading this one to us.

Even though it's March, here in Wisconsin we've still got plenty of snow on the ground. My first two choices are books I've read during this long, long winter. One book embraces a cold, snowy winter; another is about a warm Mediterranean summer.

Sjoholm, Barbara. The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007.
I've been trying to sum up this book in one sentence. It's tricky. Here's a try: Sjoholm examines efforts to make northern Sweden a winter tourist destination, from the perspectives of the promoters and the Sami people who have lived in the region for centuries.

Sjoholm heads to the Icehotel, in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, 200 kilometers north of the Artic Circle, after the end of a relationship. Can't remember why she picks this place, except for a lifelong fascination with snow. Her first visit to the Icehotel occurs during the construction phase of the complex. She returns to the area several times over the years, during mid-winter, when the Icehotel is at its peak and at the end of winter, as it's melting. She writes about the structure, the building of it, the artists who work there and how they create, as well as the origins of the hotel, and how it's becoming a destination.

The bigger part of the book, however, is about the indigineous people, the Sami--their history but especially how they live today, and how they deal with the influx in tourism. She takes a couple of side trips to Norway and Finland, to other parts of Sapmi (the Sami name for their lands; we used to call it Lapland). But most of the book focuses on Jukkasjärvi and Kiruna, a mining town not too far away.

I liked the descriptions of ice, snow, and cold. The Icehotel is a fascinating idea, and place. But I really liked Sjoholm's consideration of the Sami. She compares her experiences to those of Brits and Scandinavians who wrote about the Sami in the 1900's. She attends an indigineous film festival hosted by the Sami, and featuring films about indigineous people in Brazil. She visits Sami parliaments and museums, interviews Sami activists, artists, and entrepreneurs. She touches on a lot of ideas regarding this uneasy relationship between the Sami and the Scandinavian tourism business. The way of life for most Sami people has changed so much--what makes them still Sami? Are their traditional crafts (more than crafts, really) being commodified? How can Sami provide tourists with "authentic" Sami experiences--sometimes involving customs or activities the Sami no longer practice--without turning themselves into museum exhibits?

Shalleck, David, with Erol Munuz. Mediterranean Summer: A Season on France's Cote d'Azur and Italy's Costa Bella. New York, Broadway Books, 2007.
One of those reading experiences that was enhanced by reading it during a very snowy, cold, Midwestern winter. Shalleck writes about his five seasons (merged into one for the sake of the book) cooking on a yacht based in the northern Mediterranean. I loved the descriptions of the food, the markets, and the challenges of cooking aboard a ship. His descriptions of the crew are good. He includes a little description of each place the ship visits, but that's not the main focus. Every so often, I was just astounded at the behavior of his very wealthy bosses. It may well be the norm for such wealthy people--I don't think I know anyone that wealthy! I don't think, at least from reading the book, that Shalleck's bosses were any worse than your standard corporate boss. It's just weird to read about people who expect and demand that treatment from people taking care of their personal needs. And whether people deserve to treat others like this based on their wealth is a good question.

Stone, Tom. The Summer of My Greek Taverna: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.
In the case of this book, I listened to it during a cold, dreary winter. So that may have colored my opinion. I read it a while ago. Most of it takes place over a summer that Stone, with little or no restaurant experience, in fact runs a taverna on the Greek island of Patmos. But Stone also writes about other experiences as a U.S. citizen living in Greece and teaching English. Filled with memorable characters and observations of local and tourist life. This has some similarities to one of those "Well-to-do American/Brit moves himself and family to "quaint" country and struggles with the "quaint locals" as they rehab an historic home." But Stone and family aren't so well to do. The accounts of running a business, and cooking, also distinguish it some from Year in Provence clones.

And one that covers both...
Whittell, Giles. Extreme Continental: Blowing Hot and Cold through Central Asia. London: V. Gollancz, 1995.
It's been a while since I read this book, but I remember loving it. Whittell visits the former Soviet central Asian republics shortly after 1989 (I think). He does some biking and hitchhiking, as well as hiking. He does travel during some weather extremes. A few episodes I remember: sneaking into a highly guarded compound to watch a rocket launch; traveling around a dying sea; and ending up at some cross-country-ski training camp. And I remember the book was funny. I'm looking forward to re-reading it.