Around the World in 80 Minutes, Pt. 1

The staff book group here at Williamsburg Regional Library took on the theme of travel in a meeting today. One thing that I love about thematic discussions is that they allow consideration of books and ideas that wouldn’t work as single book discussion titles. It makes for a much more diverse meeting, as our travel discussion shows.

Cheryl is an inveterate walker and even enjoys perusing walking tour books when she’s not traveling. The combination of history, architecture, and descriptions of sights, food, and hints, really create a sense of place.  To that end, she brought two books: John Baxter’s memoir of giving walking tours in Paris, The Most Beautiful Walk in the World and Richard Jones’s Walking Haunted London.

Cheryl also had Mark Twain’s Following the Equator. It’s a book from his later life, undertaken under some duress as Twain worked to cover his debts after some bad business decisions, so it’s not as well known as some of his earlier travel tales like Roughing It or The Innocents Abroad. Still, it exhibits some of Twain’s trademark wit and provides an interesting historical perspective on travel by boat to places like Australia, New Zealand, and Africa at the turn of the 19th century.

Cheryl also brought Summer at Tiffany, Marjorie Hart’s sweet memoir of travelling from Iowa with her best friend to take a job at then male-dominated Tiffany in the summer of 1945. It was a heady time, with celebrity encounters, romance, and tales of VJ-Day and the crash of a plane into the Empire State Building. She builds a light, positive story with plenty of happy nostalgia.

Cela was just back from travels of her own and hadn’t had time to do any reading, but the flexibility of this format allowed her to share brochures from some of her favorite destination discoveries on her recent trip in England and Scotland. Check out the beauties of the Chatsworth House, the industrial living history of the Beamish Museum, or the unusual tradition of well dressings. The traditional single-book format would have kept Cela on the bench for this meeting, but her travel tales mixed in perfectly with our discussion.

Connie had Sarah Vowell’s latest book Unfamiliar Fishes. Vowell brings a smart-alecky voice to history, and this time she turns her attention on the annexation of Hawaii in 1898. She explores the arrival of the first white missionaries, the imperialist land grab that was controversial even in its time, and characters like Hawaii’s last queen, Liliuokalani. Connie’s description of Vowell as the Mary Roach of history is apt. She digresses, jokes, and inserts herself into the story, but always ties it back together. Her early book Assassination Vacation, about travels through the sites associated with presidential assassinations, is one of my all-time nonfiction favorites.

Connie also shared a book that was less travel-related, but still created a strong sense of place. Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone is a story collection about women waiting for their husbands’ return from deployment in Fort Hood, Texas. These compassionate, insightful, and often moving, linked stories would make a great discussion choice for groups that have members who are part of military families.

That’s enough for one post. I’ll tell you about the rest of the books at this adventurous meeting in a follow-up next week.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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