Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio


Some travel books tell more than how to reach destination

One of the few benefits of the 250-mile commute to our chinker-style log cabin in Michigan's north woods each summer is that we get to listen to a lot of Public Radio.

In fact, it was on Ann Arbor's station that we first heard about a book called Four Wings and a Prayer (Pantheon Books, $23) by Sue Halpern. During an interview on Terry Gross's lunchtime program, Fresh Air, the author enthusiastically related the amazing tale of the Monarch butterflies who annually migrate from the northern U.S. thousands of miles to a mere 50 acres of forest in Mexico.

And then four generations later, they make their way back exactly to where they started. Talk about travel!

To research her riveting story, Ms. Halpern traveled down to the Monarch wintering sites in Mexico, attended butterfly enthusiast conventions, followed the academic bickering among biologists, monitored the many Monarch-watcher Web sites ... and even rode the thermals in a glider to get a Monarch-eye view of the world!

Splendid writing by a keen observer of nature, Four Wings and a Prayer combines science with travel into an absorbing memoir. Read it and you'll get a new appreciation of these colorful and intriguing creatures.

THE SOUTH of France - Provence, to be precise - is the setting for another beautifully crafted travel book. The Olive Farm - subtitled A Memoir of Life, Love and Olive Oil in the South of France - (The Overlook Press, $24.95) tells the story of how acclaimed British actress Carol Drinkwater and her French husband-to-be set out to tame 10 acres of a dilapidated farm and transform it into not only a place to live but also a money-making olive producer.

Part of that endearing genre that brought us A Year in Provence (Peter Mayle) and Under the Tuscan Sun (Frances Mayes), we found The Olive Farm particularly touching and charming for two personal reasons: Carol Drinkwater played James Herriot's wife in our all-time favorite TV series, All Creatures Great and Small, and we've spent a lot of time recently traveling in the very region that she describes so vividly.

The book works well on a number of other fronts as well - as a travel book in which we get a splendid tour of Provencal countryside above Nice and Cannes, and meet many of its quirky personalities; a drama in which a family of fairly limited means attempts to fulfill a lifelong dream of living near the sea; a delectable memoir for food lovers, and as a true-life drama highlighting the difficulties and petty bureaucracies involved in setting up housekeeping in a foreign country.

A simply lovely book by a lovely lady. And our favorite read of the summer.

WHILE VISITING Bay City, Mich., to see the tall ships in July, we dropped into a newly opened art gallery on the riverfront and found in its shop a beautiful little soft-cover volume by local writer Mary Blocksma called Lake Lover's Year (Beaver Island Arts, $25).

No one has better credentials to write about the Great Lakes than Mary Blocksma. She lived on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan for the better part of eight years, and also wrote an absorbing account of a 1994 driving and camping trip along the entire 5,000 miles of Great Lakes coastline in The Fourth Coast.

But the new volume is more than another stroll on the beach. In this journal, we watch as Blocksma for the first time combines watercolor with words to illustrate the Great Lakes' many moods. From her first tentative brush strokes to her emergence as an accomplished artist with her own one-woman show, Blocksma's text and art (more than 100 watercolors), is a joyful compendium of Great Lakes colors and sounds that can be dipped into anytime you need another splash of surf.

THERE'S NEVER a shortage of books about the city of London. We have a dozen or so ourselves, and some are much better than others. But a newly published “biography” of London by Peter Ackroyd that is about to show up in U.S. bookstores is a must for anyone who loves London town.

Differing from its predecessors in both range and diversity, Ackroyd's animated account covers every aspect of city life that you can possibly think of ... and many you hadn't. Under headings such as “Cockney speech,” “The history of drink,” and “What lies beneath,” London, The Biography (Chaatto & Windus, $36.75) entertainingly weaves together the color, texture, and peculiar qualities of one of the world's most fascinating destinations.

The only downside we could discover: with 822 pages and weighing in at 3 pounds, it's too heavy to read in bed!

Readers may write to travel advisers Roger Holliday and Claudia Fischer at P.O. Box 272, Bowling Green, OH 43402. If a reply is desired, please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

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