Photo: taxi cab city night
Chance encounters, like those with taxi drivers, are the focus of Contact!

Photograph by Atlantide Phototravel, Corbis

By Don George

April 2010

Book of the Month:
Contact!,
by Jan Morris

Last fall, before a book reading, Jan Morris delighted my wife and me by sharing selected passages of her work in progress, Contact! A Book of Encounters, over dinner at San Francisco's Tadich Grill. Intrigued then, I am absolutely enchanted now that I have read the finished product.

One of the English language's keenest observers and depicters of place, the legendary writer turns her eye on people, collecting impressions from a half-century of encounters around the globe. Her pithy portraits, most just a single paragraph and the longest a page and a half, present a tapestry of humanity, from a Fijian taxi driver, London nannies, and a street musician in Zagreb, to Yves Saint Laurent, Peter O'Toole, and Jordan's King Hussein.

The glimpse of the Jordanian king, entitled "Caravan of Martyrs," is a moving example of Morris's art: "In the summer of 1958 the young King Feisal of Iraq was assassinated, leaving his contemporary and close relative King Hussein of Jordan isolated upon his own threatened throne. I was in Jordan when, a few days later, Hussein made a public declaration about the tragedy. His face was lined and tired, and moisture glistened in the corners of his eyes. Ministers, officials, officers and security guards were grouped behind his chair. Clearing his throat huskily, the King said slowly: 'I have now had confirmation of the murder of my cousin, brother and childhood playmate, King Feisal of Iraq, and all his royal family.' He paused, his eyes filling, his lip trembling, a muscle working rhythmically in the side of his jaw, and then he said it again, in identical words, but in a voice that was awkwardly thickening. 'I have now received confirmation of the murder of my cousin, brother and childhood playmate, King Feisal of Iraq, and all his royal family.' And raising his head from his notes, Hussein added in his strange formal English: 'They are only the last in a caravan of martyrs.'"

Throughout this extraordinary collection, Morris's eye for detail, ear for dialogue, irrepressible curiosity, and exuberant spirit fashion personalized portals into the worlds she passes through—and into the human core at its heart.

On Love and Landscapes

Tatjana Soli's debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, presents a mesmerizing portrait of Vietnam during the Vietnam War through the lives, loves, doubts, and dreams of three photographers. Helen Adams is sent to Vietnam as the first woman combat photographer. There she meets fellow photojournalist Sam Darrow and his assistant Linh, an ex-soldier. Together, the three navigate the jungles and trenches of Vietnam and find that, even amidst tragedy, love ultimately prevails. St. Lucian-born poet Derek Walcott's love for the Caribbean shines in his newest collection of poetry, White Egrets. In his poems, Walcott describes the flora ("I watch the huge trees tossing at the edge of the lawn / like a heaving sea without crests, the bamboos plunge / their necks like roped horses as yellow leaves... turn into an avalanche") and fauna ("the elegance of those white, orange-billed egrets / each like a stalking ewer, the thick olive trees / cedars consoling a stream that roars torrentially / in the wet season") and leaves the reader yearning for more of the Caribbean.

Earthbound

In Grounded, Slate travel columnist Seth Stevenson and his girlfriend set off on a mission to explore the globe, with one important catch: they can't fly. Utilizing trains, ferries, buses, rickshaws, and bicycles, the intrepid couple journeys from Washington, D.C., to Antwerp, Tallinn, Beijing, Bangkok, and Brisbane, among numerous other stops, through a series of illuminating encounters and adventures, from the scary to the sublime. Stevenson's down-to-earth prose, perfectly complementing the nature of his quest, reveals just how vast the planet is—and how interconnected are its pieces.

If You Like...

... Precious Ramotswe, you'll likely fall under her spell again in The Double Comfort Safari Club, Alexander McCall Smith's 11th installment in his The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. This new book takes us to the majestic wilds of northern Botswana's Okavango Delta, where all of Precious's powers are called on to tame wildness of the human kind.

One Last Thing Pictures of Paris Past—and Present

Yvon's Paris, by Robert Stevens, presents a stunning collection of 100 iconic black-and-white photographs of Paris taken from 1918 to 1939 by Pierre Yves-Petit, who went by "Yvon." Yves-Petit was the very definition of a photographic flaneur, aimlessly wandering the city's back-alleys and boulevards in search of the serendipitous scene; his moody photos of bookstalls, bridges, barges, gargoyles, galleries, and gardens capture the quintessence of the City of Light. Living in Paris 30 years ago changed my life; this treasure-tome transports me deep into the heart of that singular city again.

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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