Foreword Reviews

An Eclectic Journey

Winter 2016 Travel Books


Brave travelers undertake wild adventures in our Winter 2016 travel book selections: to Ukraine, in the name of love; across the world, foolish, curious, and hungry; into highly dramatic modern Indonesia. One title brings to life the “unapologetic provincialism” of a seaside people in Japan; another traces the footsteps of samurai. There’s even some poetry thrown in, guaranteeing an eclectic literary journey, no passport required.

A Brief History of Indonesia

Sultans, Spices, and Tsunamis: The Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation

Book Cover
Tim Hannigan
Tuttle Publishing
Softcover $16.95 (288pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Indonesia, the largest nation in Southeast Asia, is an enigma. The nation is not a singular landmass, like most other nations. It is some 17,500 islands, about half of which are uninhabited, scattered along the equator above Australia. It is the so-called Spice Islands of history and, in the present time, has the fourth largest population in the world (237 million and growing rapidly), with a Muslim majority and tangled mix of other religions and ethnicities.

It’s a yeoman chore to sort out its geography and history—it didn’t officially become a nation until the end of World War II—and bring it to the present day, with its unsettling political climate and ambitions to evolve into an economic superpower.

Tim Hannigan presents Indonesia as a place of high drama, with a past marked by European trade battles, explorers like Magellan and Christopher Columbus, and waves of immigrants. He guides the reader through the reign of Sukarno (1945-1967) and others of lesser, but no less corruptible, reputation, to settle with guarded optimism with the current president, Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi.

THOMAS BEVIER (November 27, 2015)

Love & Vodka

My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine

Book Cover
R.J. Fox
Fish Out of Water Books
Softcover $16.99 (286pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

So Bobby from Dearborn in Michigan and Katya from Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine (“never the Ukraine,” she scolded) meet on the E.T. ride at Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, flirt for an hour or so, exchange email addresses, say goodbye, and go their separate ways. Time passes and countless messages are exchanged until one day, Bobby tells his parents that he is in love and will be flying off to Ukraine. And so he does.

With parting words from his mother (“be careful”) and father (“I think you’re nuts”), he flies off to a country of grim-faced customs officials where about the only thing that’s familiar is a McDonalds. Cops demand bribes, motorists are combative, and nobody understands baseball. At dinner, early in his visit, there is a toast from Katya’s father: “Today we celebrate the arrival of a visitor from the United States—our former enemy.” An icebreaker, to be sure, but after days of befuddlement over traditions strange to him, failing to grasp the point of Katya’s relatives’ jokes and vice versa, eating too much watermelon and nearly raw fish, and drinking way too much vodka, he is still in love. And therein lies the heart of the story.

R. J. Fox, who teaches English and video production in the Ann Arbor public schools and also writes stories, poems, and screenplays, is no dilettante when it comes to courting, judging by his charming chronicle.

THOMAS BEVIER (November 27, 2015)

No Touch Monkey!

And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late

Book Cover
Ayun Halliday
Seal Press
Softcover $17.00 (272pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

So is it true, as jokester-man Stephen Colbert attests, that there is a laugh to be gotten on nearly every page of Ayun Halliday’s book about her pre-internet world travel misadventures? A random test is called for. Open book. Page 89. There is this:

Our second night in Paris, we woke to the unmistakable sound of extended copulation. The acoustics of the airshaft were such that our neighbors’ every gasp and groan reverberated with crystal clarity. We lay rigid in our beds, my mother and I, unable to ignore what was happening. … I couldn’t help observing that at least someone was getting her money’s worth out of a Paris hotel room.

Nation, you’re welcome. The book, a second edition after twelve years, takes its title from a sign Halliday saw in Ubud, Bali. It warned, “Do not touch or tease the monkey as the may react with unprediktable manners.” Halliday says in a foreword that the book, more a memoir than a travel book, is a “record of what it was like to be young, foolish, curious, unfettered, stupid, hungry, untethered, amazed—and offline.”

THOMAS BEVIER (November 27, 2015)

The Inland Sea

Book Cover
Donald Richie
Yoichi Midorikawa, photographer
Stone Bridge Press
Softcover $18.95 (320pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

The Inland Sea of Japan, described by Donald Richie, is “a nearly landlocked, lakelike body of water bounded by three of Japan’s four major islands,” a place where “history lives and superstition is truth.”

This is a welcome reissue of the book Richie published in 1971, which has been celebrated as a classic in travel literature. He was 88 when he died in 2013 after living most of his adult life in Japan. One can only wonder if he ever overcame his feeling of foreignness that he poetically described half a century before.

“I live in this country as the water insect lives in the pond, skating across the surface, not so much unmindful as incapable of seeing the depths,” he wrote. “This is because I am not Japanese and can barely imagine what it must be like to be so … but I should guess that the feeling is very special.”

His encounters with the people who live on the scores of islands in the Inland Sea provide lessons in civility and unapologetic provincialism. He delights in the variety of landscapes the islands present, from sublime flatness to rocky ruggedness, each with a distinctive temple.

He praises the seeming simplicity of many Japanese lives and bemoans the Westernization of Japan’s major cities, even as he confesses confusion over unfathomable complexities, such as, to pick one down-to-earth example, why the Japanese language has fifty-three words for prostitute.

THOMAS BEVIER (November 27, 2015)

Vagabond Song

Neo-Haibun from the Peregrine Journals

Book Cover
Marc Beaudin
Elk River Books
Softcover $15.00 (251pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

The metaphorical temptation is unavoidable when it comes to delivering critical judgment on Marc Beaudin’s wedding of prose and poetry in a near fanatical paean to hitchhiking, that most humble manner of travel. So here’s a thumbs up.

The literary device he uses is inspired by haibun, which originated in seventeenth-century Japan with the combining of prose and haiku. The fact that he’s familiar with such fancy writing sets him apart, it seems fair to say, from your ordinary hitchhiker in a clan he defends against what he sees as a conspiracy engineered by, among others, AAA, which ran a Thumbs Down on Thumbers campaign, and that “Gestapoist criminal J. Edgar Hoover” who, Beaudin alleges, planted newspaper stories of psychopaths, rapists, murderers, and sex fiends prowling the highways.

Beaudin is originally from Michigan and now lives in Livingston, Montana, where he is co-owner of Elk River Books and the artistic director of a theater company. He’s hitchhiked all over the United States, depending on his thumb whenever it gets so that “If I don’t get back on the road I’m going to lose my dog-damn mind howling mad and barking crazy like some burning saint.”

Not much bad happened to him except some unpleasant run-ins with the cops, and poetic moments win out as with

The night’s only star—
A moth caught in the streetlight
Still, I make my wish

THOMAS BEVIER (November 27, 2015)

Walking the Kiso Road

A Modern-Day Exploration of Old Japan

Book Cover
William Scott Wilson
Softcover $16.95 (288pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Fortunate is the man who has found his “favorite place on earth.” William Scott Wilson, noted translator of Japanese classic Samurai texts, is such a man. It is the Kiso Road, an ancient trade route that meanders through mountains and forests for some sixty miles in the Kiso Valley of central Japan.

Wilson has walked it a number of times. The hike he took in 2013, which is the basis for the book, was leisurely, with frequent stops at the small towns found every few miles. He visited inns where the proprietors are from the families that have run them for generations beyond counting. There are Buddhist temples, most of the Zen persuasion, including the Ochakuji, which means “the temple where the nightingale arrives.”

Warlords, samurai, and merchants walked the road, which leads to Tokyo, in centuries before Wilson, and he brings them along in his historical accounts of a narrow (rarely over thirty feet), winding way, along with the reflections of Japanese writers, philosophers, and poets dating back to the 700s. Basho, master of haiku, was charmed in the seventeenth century with the path.

THOMAS BEVIER (November 27, 2015)

Thomas Bevier

Load Next Feature