Category Archives: Travel

Narrow Road to the Interior – Matsuo Basho

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Basho is a favorite poet of mine and, apparently, of Sam Hamill, too. Nearly 325 years ago, Basho yielded to his wanderlust and left his home by the plaintain tree to walk across Japan’s interior. He kept a record of his adventures, mostly events of spiritual insight and pilgrimage but some harsh rains, perilous mountain paths and encounters with kindness. The jewel-like book to survive Basho’s walkabout is called Oku-no-hosomichi, translated by Hamill as Narrow Road to the Interior

Hamill reveals that Basho’s account of his travails is not wholly reliable. The old poet was famous and welcomed by wealthy patrons into their homes along his journey. But the odd night or so of roughing it gave him plenty of inspiration for the spare, arduous tale he published. Basho’s words are as unadorned as his haiku–and the tiny travelogue is sprinkled with haiku.

All night long

listening to autumn winds

wandering in the mountains

And

Intense hot red sun

and this autumn wind

indifferent   

Solitary journeys like Basho’s (he was accompanied for most of his trip by one friend) were dangerous in 17th-century Japan. Basho was in poor health and in his forties when he set out and he wasn’t sure he would ever return. That seems to have heightened the exquisite clarity of the adventure for him–how much more intense to live in each moment when it might be your last? But he did return and he organized his notes and calligraphy and left an evocative record of one man’s search for something larger than himself.

Sam Hamill’s translation respects Oku-no-hosomichi’s simplicity. Basho’s personal quest has an honored place in the Japanese canon. Narrow Road to the Interior makes its graceful insights and encounters accessible to us. It reads like a really great trip.

Narrow Road to the Interior (Shambhala Centaur Editions)   Basho | Shambhala   1991

Tibet Through the Red Box – Peter Sis

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Peter Sis creates a spellbinding tale of magic and terror, the memories of a small boy filtered through the journal of his father during a remarkable experience. Tibet Through the Red Box tells the story of the invasion of Tibet as witnessed by a filmmaker and revealed in the book locked away in the red box. When Sis was very young his father was hired by the Chinese government to teach documentary filmmaking to students in Beijing. He left his wife and two young children in post-war Prague, a city in  a country occupied  by the Soviet Union.

It was the mid-1950s–many things observed could not be spoken aloud.  Sis’s father did not return home that Christmas, or the next Christmas. Nothing at all was heard from him. He disappeared. And then, when the boy was drifting in and out of consciousness after a serious accident, his father was suddenly at his bedside, bringing him back to health, telling him endless stories to explain his absence. The stories were connected to the mysterious red box that no one opened.  

Many years later, Sis gets a letter from his father telling him the box is now his. He returns to Czechoslovakia, to his father’s room, and opens the box with a rusty key. Inside he finds a book–a cross between a field journal and a diary, with entries in pen and specimens of flowers and butterflies pressed between the pages. His father spent the missing time in Tibet, in the tense period of the Chinese invasion, lost in the mountains, trying to reach Potala and tell the boy-God-king about the threat to his kingdom, magicked by all manner of apparitions and legends.

Tibet Through the Red Box is an oversize book filled with exquisite art and a kind of poetry. There are beautiful mandalas and terrible Tibetan dieties and pages of cursive on parchment and the boy’s memories of the gentle stories his father told him to help him heal. In those times, events the father lived through could not be discussed, so he turned his adventures into fables. The art is Tibetan-inspired, the musings on colors, deities, enchanted characters and a confusing and sometimes frightening world seen through the eyes of a small boy, are dreamlike and reflective.

This isn’t a children’s book although you could easily explore it with a child who is curious and–well, intelligent, open to the unexpected,  maybe a bit of an old soul. It’s a book full of lessons and information but it is first an experience–of words, colors, textures, dreams and sorrows. Very, very beautiful and intriguing–impressions of a lost place and time. The Dalai Lama is there and not there in the pages of the book. But it called him vividly to mind and made me wish I could see him again and hear him laugh.

Tibet Through the Red Box (Caldecott Honor Book)   Peter Sis | Farrar, Straus and Girous  1998

Every Day in Tuscany – Frances Mayes

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A staycation is the summer option this year and I decided to spend part of mine in Tuscany. Frances Mayes obligingly produced a book of daily reminiscences and daytrips that chronicles the seasons in Cortona. Her celebrated Bramacole, the restored house in Cortona that was the setting for two previous books, is the center of this story but she also restores a thirteenth-century stone cottage up on a mountain overlooking Cortona. The old place is a tumble-down ruin that becomes a retreat in a wilder part of the countryside. That doesn’t stop her from building a hive-shaped pizza oven in the yard and entertaining hordes of friends in the open, hospitable Tuscan style.

Mayes writes poetically and rapturously about food, wine–lots of wine, flowers, day and night skies, her gardens and the piazzas of the towns she lives in and visits.  Her excursions take her to churches and museums in search of paintings by a “local” Renaissance artist, Luca Signorelli, and to picture-postcard Italian tourist icons like Portofino where she and her husband stay in an apartment owned by a friend.

A terrorist warning–a real grenade (not live it turns out) with an ugly note left on her property–shakes her faith in her Tuscan idyll and has her thinking about selling out. But, conversely, the incident and its aftermath reveal deeper layers of the life of Cortona and act as a sort of baptism, annointing her as an insider, after seventeen years. Life in Tuscany is never so sweet as when it is bittersweet.

It is tempting to see all this travel and wine-tasting and strolls in the hills as the trappings of privilege, unappealing in an era which is so hard on dreams and so relentlessly serving up hardship. But Mayes isn’t the least smug about her lovely life. The roof leaks and should really be redone. The screens flap. An owl invades the attic and spiders scuttle across the kitchen. The neighborhood is much noisier than one might expect, or want. Mayes is frank about some uncharming aspects of her life as well as unfailingly appreciative of the small and large moments that delight her.

This Tuscany isn’t at all neat but it’s very civilized, nonetheless. Life is slower, deeper, richer. People are more connected and caring in the intimacy of a small place where families have lived for half a millenniun.  Mayes knows how to drop out, savor a brodetto, a grappa, an uninterrupted dive into a good book, a meal with two dozen friends. It’s very personal travel writing. She describes both meticulously and imaginatively and makes no secret of her love affair with all (most) things Tuscan. A peaceful, hassle-free armchair excursion–pity I can’t hop on a plane, restore a ruin or two and lift a glass of prosecco myself.

Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life   Frances Mayes | Braodway Books 2010

The Vintage Caper – Peter Mayle

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Peter Mayle is back with a non-threatening, delicious mystery that opens in opulent, nouveau riche Hollywood and rapidly transitions to Paris, Bordeaux and Marseilles. It’s always about fine wine and it’s always about the South of France for Mayle and that’s fine. In The Vintage Caper, we witness a multimillion-dollar wine heist, the game plan of a philanthropic and egotistical billionaire, the seedier alleyways of Marseilles, the Mediterranean rendition of a McMansion with a wine cellar as capacious as a small town, and plenty of illegal activity that must be outwitted but never really threatens.

Mayle’s books are comforting in that a reader is certain his likable characters will come to no serious harm. That does remove any possibility for edge-of-the-chair chapters but it’s okay. You can actually relax reading a oenophile’s romp through vintages and cellars and tastings and spectacular scenery.

Danny Roth is a repugnant entrepreneur and collector with a $3 million-dollar cellar of rare Bordeaux. Elena Morales is a claims adjuster at Knox Worldwide, the unfortunate insurers of the Roth collection which has been removed from its premises sans permission by the end of chapter one. Sam Levitt is a private eye who lives at the Chateau Marmont and was once involved with Elena. Sophie Costes is a knock-out wine insurance expert in Bordeaux who speaks excellent English and shepherds Sam around wine country. Francis Reboul is the unofficial king of Marseilles, a self-made gazillionaire who restores a crumbling estate overlooking the harbor and is the city’s biggest booster.

How the rather thin plot spins out holds no real surprises but, as always, the meals are described in loving detail, the wine is catalogued expertly, the women are savvy and irresistibly attractive, the men poke around and uncover clues that lead to a resolution of the crime, and the end is a graceful cover-up that harms no one and acknowledges all the players in an international game of intrigue and skill. Rainy afternoon read. The Vintage Caper is vintage Mayle. Read it while sipping a glass of decent Bordeaux.

The Vintage Caper   Peter Mayle | Alfred A. Knopf   2009

A Good Year — Peter Mayle

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Peter Mayle’s A Good Year is mystery-lite. It’s a very good glass of wine—fragrant with the scents of the Provence, Mayle’s beloved niche as resident and writer—and easy to imbibe, like a smooth blend of grapes. So the book is a mini-vacation, a travel-free trip to a lovely, warm destination where not a lot happens and people are fine with that.

Max Skinner works in finance in London but his own finances are a mess. He likes his job, more or less, but hates his boss, and with good reason. The weasel hijacks Max’s ready-to-pay-off big deal and Max quits and is unceremoniously turned out of his cubicle without a dime in severance. Unfortunately, the bonus from the deal was supposed to pay off his creditors and right his listing fiscal ship—all off now.

But a solicitor’s letter saves the day with a convenient inheritance of a chateau and vineyard in Provence, the place where Max spent his childhood summers. His friend Charlie, a major real estate shark and all around cheerful guy, loans him a wad of cash and Max sets out to claim his vineyard and a new life.

Not so simple, but not too much more complicated, actually. The local lawyer is a dish and is worth far more than a modest village practice might indicate. The vineyard caretaker has a secret he is desperate to hide. The new housekeeper is a non-stop talker with a heart-of-gold and a bossy streak. The proprietor of the village bistro is hotter than her delectable cuisine and seems interested in Max. The chateau’s wine, however, is tant pis—or maybe pisse, worse than vinegar.

Into this sunny land of lovingly described meals and lively characters comes a long-lost relative with her own claims to the estate. Christie happens to be a tour guide in a Napa Valley winery, with a skill set that will come in very handy to resolve the plot. As she pokes around the estate, her questions reveal some inconsistencies that could mean fortune or disaster for the future of the property and whomever owns it. Best Friend Charlie drops in for a visit just in time and the local fabrication of lies begins to unravel.

Charlie and Christie find some common ground, leaving Max to pursue the sexy restaurateur. The glamorous local lawyer is still very much in the picture and the greed- and status-driven international  boutique wine trade edges in along with a couple of nefarious villains. Criminals and conspiracies mix with revelries at the village festival. More local comestibles are consumed, wine is tasted, an odd patch of rocky land holds an important clue.

A Good Year is a good escape book for a dreary day or an unclaimed evening when a visit to Provence is the perfect way to kill a few pleasant hours. The author’s impeccable credentials allow you to relax and enjoy vicarious imbibing, ingesting and investigating even when the clues seem a little heavy-handed and the Provenceaux too readily accepting of outsiders.   

 A Good Year     Peter Mayle | Alfred A. Knopf  2004