Photo: Libya amphitheater women

Michael Mewshaw's North African odyssey includes historical sites in Libya.

Photograph by Martin Sasse, Laif/Redux

By Don George

March 2010

Book of the Month:
Between Terror and Tourism,
by Michael Mewshaw

To celebrate his 65th birthday, novelist and travel writer Michael Mewshaw decided to embark on an ambitious—and many would say, reckless—overland odyssey across North Africa, from the storied Egyptian port of Alexandria through Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria to Tangier, Morocco. Why? Because, as he wonderfully puts it, "I didn't understand why anyone would not want to travel across North Africa on a grand, sweeping passage through legendary cities, each with its deep historic and literary associations." The result is the riveting Between Terror and Tourism, a good old-fashioned travel narrative that transports you to a region you're not likely to visit, educates you about its history, religion, and culture, and vividly depicts the landscapes and people encountered.

Drawing inspiration and itinerary from the works of Durrell and Forster, Camus and Bowles, Mewshaw builds his journey so as to "pass through alluvial swamps teeming with wild birds; battlegrounds dating from antiquity to World War II and contemporary border skirmishes; ruins of Roman and Greek empires, preserved in desert sand; pilgrimage sites revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims; vertiginous mountain ranges inhabited by bellicose tribes; and vast, unspoiled expanses of the Mediterranean, once celebrated by Homer and now by hyperventilating travel agents." A thoroughly contemporary quest inspires him as well: As he writes, "If Islamic terrorism is the most pressing problem facing the West, if the world truly suffers from a clash of civilizations, what writer wouldn't want to witness and record events firsthand?"

As these sentences indicate, Mewshaw is an exemplary guide. Learned in literature, art, and history, he is adventurous, curious, and open-minded as a traveler, and daring and driven enough as a reporter to meet with fundamentalists in Egypt, venture to refugee camps in Morocco, and interview a repentant terrorist responsible for five thousand deaths in Algeria.

Through Mewshaw's keen eyes and ears, penetrating questions and explorations, and limpid, lyrical prose, North Africa's everyday riches and underlying complexities—from the liberations of the veil to the stabilizing roles of revolution—are etched with an edifying and unforgettably personal poignancy.

Out of Africa

Born in rural Kenya in 1938 to a father with four wives and 24 children, author Ngugi wa Thiong'o dreamt of escaping the hardships of poverty and war. In his memoir Dreams in a Time of War, the now-famous author sketches indelible pictures of the diverse Kenyan landscape, family culture, and the Mau Mau struggle for independence. In Eddie Signwriter, protagonist and outsider Kwasi Edward Michael Dankoh—born in Ghana and raised in Botswana—falls in love with Celeste. But when her aunt dies, scandal forces Eddie to leave and take on an apprenticeship as a signwriter. He eventually opens his own business and moves to Paris, where he joins a secret community of other African immigrants. Adam Schwartzman's debut novel follows Eddie as he struggles to find his identity far from his African roots.

Tea and Tuscany

Frances Mayes, the literary doyenne of Tuscany, creates a new sampling of sumptuous feasts and landscapes in Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of Italian Life, a concoction sure to evoke even more "why-don't-I-just-give-this-up-and-move-to-Italy" longings from her readers. In her new work, Mayes and her husband are restoring their second home in Cortona, Italy; they spend their days foraging for amarini, fennel, and figs while inhaling the scent of the olive and chestnut trees that cascade down her property's hillside. These charms of daily life in Italy become entwined with her search for the story of a Renaissance artist originally from her town. In For All the Tea in China, writer Sarah Rose steeps us in the story of Robert Fortune, a botanist, gardener, and industrial spy who went undercover in the tea fields of China's Wuyi Shan hills in order to steal the secrets of manufacturing the world's favorite drink.

One Last Thing: Missives from a Master

John McPhee is the reason you're reading these words. If I hadn't taken McPhee's legendary "The Literature of Fact" course as an undergraduate at Princeton, I wouldn't be here. As a teacher and as a writer, McPhee demonstrates—for starry-eyed undergrads and discerning post-grads alike—that non-fiction writers can be every bit as imaginatively engaging, detailed, meticulous, nuanced, and exalted as the novelists other literature courses extol. A staff writer for the New Yorker since 1965, the Pulitzer Prize-winner has crafted 28 books. His newest, Silk Parachute, once again affirms his unparalleled ability to capture characters and scenes in all their quirky richness. Whether describing canoeing as a child at summer camp or tracing as an adult the "chalk country" of England, Holland, and France, McPhee brings far-flung worlds to life through artful, exacting observation and evocation. Like his new book, this master is a treasure.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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