Traveler’s Bookshelf: A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean

When I see a book written by someone associated with a graduate writing program, I generally avoid it. There’s something about that culture that encourages carefully crafted, elegant prose that never manages to say anything. Gary Buslik, who teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Chicago, manages to avoid this all-to-common pitfall. Sort of.

A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean, published by Travelers’ Tales, is a refreshing antidote to the overly precious writing of most English professors and MFA students. Even Buslik advises in an interview with Vagablogging that any aspiring young writer should get as far away from college as possible.

Buslik’s book is a collection of short tales of his adventures through the Caribbean, usually accompanied by his long-suffering yet completely unforgiving wife. Our hapless hero accidentally pees on ousted dictators, pukes during a guided tour, and gets into arguments with beggars. While the writing is funny enough that it made me actually laugh out loud in places (a hard thing to do) Buslik’s self-portrayal as an uneducated, oafish tourist rang a little hollow considering he has a Ph.D. in English and teaches at a major university. He is much more convincing when he gets serious, like when he tracks down an old friend of his literary hero Hemingway, or when he is shocked by the brutality of a cockfight. Then we’re with him, seeing his trepidation at meeting Hemingway’s aged friend, feeling his stomach turn as the cocks rip away at each other behind some West Indian shack. These pieces really grip the reader and hint that this is the real Buslik. They are well worth the cover price; the funny bits are just an added bonus.

I wished there had been more of the serious pieces and less of the silly (yet genuinely funny) romps through Touristland. I came away with the impression that Buslik has compensated too far in the other direction and sometimes forgets what so many of his colleagues also forget–that the best writing comes when the writer is being genuine.

Traveler’s Bookshelf: Hidden Treasures of England

I’ve been to 25 countries and I’ve never seen any place with so many overlooked treasures as England. Maybe that’s why I keep making excuses to work here. A wonderful new book by Michael McNay, Hidden Treasures of England, reveals some of England’s lesser-known artistic and historical highlights.

McNay spends much of his time exploring churches in search of rare stonework and fine Medieval stained glass, and he’s had some fun along the way. When he visited Eyam to see a ninth-century cross outside the famous plague church, he relates, “I asked Mrs Furness, the duty parishioner on the church bookstall, how Eyam should be pronounced: Eeyam? Iyam? ‘Eem,’ she said severely, ‘as in redeem.'”

In Durham Cathedral he lavishes praise on the elegant tomb of St. Cuthbert, with its unique Anglo-Saxon wood carvings, and the stunning pectoral cross of the saint himself, now in the cathedral treasury. The omission of the somber and imposing tomb of the Venerable Bede, also in Durham Cathedral, is a bit strange, but highlights the fact that for every jewel McNay shows us, England has several more hidden away.

It’s not all churches. We get the “mildly erotic” tapestries of Newby Hall, Yorkshire, an impressive promenade at Bridlington, Yorkshire, seaside from the days before the easyJet generation, even an old milestone at Brampton, Cambridgeshire, with carved hands pointing the way to London and other towns. Such milestones used to be a common sight in the English countryside but were buried during World War Two to confuse the Nazis in case they invaded. McNay knows just when to throw in an interesting anecdote.

McNay also has an eye for overlooked elements of famous places. The section on Trafalgar Square skips Nelson’s Column in favor of the monument to King Charles I, the first bronze equestrian statue made in England. You can often see it in photos of the square, but it’s rarely the focus of attention.

The book is richly illustrated with color photographs and while its 550 hardcover pages will make you think twice about putting it in your suitcase, it makes an engaging read for armchair travelers and a useful guide for those planning their next trip. Hidden Treasures of England is published by Random House and distributed in England by Guardian Books.