Nepal Books

Namaste, the universal greeting in Nepal, means, “I bow to the divine in you.” It is used consistently for hello, good-bye, thank you, accompanied by palms pressed together and a slight nod or bow.

Shut off to the world until 1948 when a few groups were allowed in to climb the Himalayas, Nepal has been a secretive nation, led by a monarch until the royal family was massacred in 2001, the subject of Blood Against the Snows by Jonathan Gregson. It’s more likely that tourists will turn to books focused on the Himalayas or religion, as Nepal is the birthplace of Siddhartha, who became Buddha. Hermann Hesse’s classic novel (1922) traces the quest of a high caste young man for enlightenment. Kathmandu is central for exploring these belief systems. Pashupatinath is the sacred shrine for Lord Shiva for Hindus. It is an end-of-life setting with a hospice near. We saw several pyres and one funeral in progress. The feet are dipped in the water of the Bagmati River, the body itself covered in a white shroud and laden with marigold garlands. After cremation, tended by a lower caste, the ashes are sprinkled in the river. Rhesus macaques, considered holy themselves, live near the temple.

Flights to see Everest—appropriately on Buddha Air—depart when the weather is clear at 30,000 feet. Sir Hillary bought land from the Sherpa farmers for $2600 to build an airstrip at Lukla. The earliest flights of the day are to this village, which provides information on clarity of mountain viewing. Trekkers may walk “Toilet Paper Trail” to Base Camp, which says something about the amount of waste. Or, tourists may take a helicopter and touch down at Base Camp briefly for the experience. For mountaineers, a museum at Pokhara focuses on the attempts and successes to summit Everest. One of the successful climbers has made a mission of cleaning the refuse left by expeditions. Yeti Airlines and Tara Air help ferry out trash that cannot be burned. More than twenty tons of trash are airlifted annually, not surprising, as 50,000 visit the remote villages in these impressive mountains. The Hindu Kush Himalayas has 94 of the world’s 100 highest mountains, including all 14 of the world’s peaks above 8,000 meters (24,000’).

The domestic terminal of the Kathmandu Airport has an excellent bookstore, which helped in developing this list:

Everest 1953, the story of Tensing Norjay and Sir Edmund Hillary’s triumph, by Mick Conefrey

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer about the 1996 ill-fated expedition

The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest by Anatoli Boukreev (his response to Krakauer).

Ghosts of Everest—about the search for Mallory and Irvine, by Jochem Hemmleb

Himalaya by Michael Palin of Monty Python fame

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

The Inheritance of Loss by Keran Desai, the Man Booker Prize for 2006

Seven Years in Tibetby Henrich Harrer (A 1909 book by Ekai Kawaguchi, Three Years in Tibet, which I learned about at the Mountaineering Museum, is one of the first to explore this closed society—free from

Hippie, Paulo Coelho’s account of his trip to Kathmandu and other places. In the 1960s, “Freak Street” offered  cafes with hash-flavored brownies and the like.

The Gurka’s Daughter, a worthwhile collection of short stories by Prajwal Parajuly, that features Nepali in Nepal and beyond. Note that the famed Gurka soldiers did not draw a knife without drawing blood–even if it had to be their own.

The stylish Ghurka hat (from the Gurkha Museum

While the Gods Were Sleeping is the account of Elizabeth Enslin, American anthropologist, and her marriage into a Brahmin family with life in a remote village.

Kathmandu by Thomas Bell.

Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy by Manjushree Thapa (2005), which explains the monarchy and its fall as well as the rise of the Maoist party. She is also the author of fiction: Tilled Earth, stories set in Kathmandu, and The Tutor of History.

A Dog Named Haku,by Margaret Engle, a children’s book that explains the five days of Diwali celebration through the eyes of two brothers.

Kathmandu is still recovering from the horrific earthquake of 2015 that killed 9,000 and toppled temples and buildings, but significant progress is being made. Infusing tourist dollars is helpful, and there is much to see and savor.

When not reading, we had magical moments of learning about Nepal’s famous handmade paper industry, viewing sunrise on the Annapurna range at Tiger Mountain Lodge near Pokhara, and tracking one-horned rhinos from atop elephants at Chitwan National Park and the Taj Mehgauli Serai-Rapti River Lodge.

One-horned Rhinos

Beyond Kipling: India Books

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake’s birthday happened to fall on a day when we were watching tigers in the jungle forests of India. An adult female and her four 1-½ year old cubs were lounging on the rocks—at some distance. Magnificent. I prefer Blake’s view of tigers to Kipling’s,who made Shere Khan the villain of The Jungle Book. We visited four national parks in India, one of them Pench, known as “Kipling Corridor,” even though Kipling himself never visited the Seoni area. Most likely, he took the story of the “man cub” Mowgli from an account published by Colonel Sleeman’s “Wolves Nurturing Children in Their Den.” The details of the setting most likely came from Robert Strendale’s semi-autobiographical book about the area. And, Kipling penned the stories in 1893 while living in Vermont. I had encountered Kipling in junior high English class when we read “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” the thrilling story of a brave mongoose, who saves a family and its children from an evil-minded cobra. Others may be familiar with Kipling’s Kim, a novel that focuses on “The Great Game,” the battle between Russia and Great Britain for Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent. Laurie King, who authors the interesting Sherlock Holmes series in which he is actually married, updates the Kim story in her version, The Game. (This globe-trotting series allows readers to pick up an appropriate title in many countries.)  

Pench National Park

The Raj period of Indian history when Great Britain ruled over India includes the history of English women lighting out for India with wedding bells in mind, the focus of Anne De Courcy’s The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj. The difficult period in Indian history before the country achieved independence is illuminated in the police procedural series by Abir Mukherjee,beginning with A Rising Man and continuing to further volumes such as A Necessary Evil, which includes a rather ghastly account of “execution by elephant.” A Scotland Yard detective, traumatized by World War I, lands in Calcutta and is ably assisted by Sergeant “Surrender Not,” who is of high caste and English educated—but still Indian and not allowed in some “whites only”establishments.

The library at Jamtara Jungle Lodge, a marvelous tented camp, near Pench National Park, featured a very fine library: Arundhati Roy, for The God of Small Things (1997Booker Prize), The Ministry of Utmost Happiness;The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008 Booker Prize); Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, which focuses on the history, culture and rhetoric of the culture; Land of Seven Rivers by Sanjeev Sanyal that offers an overview of India’s geography; Wildlife of Central India by David Raju–indispensable. We consulted this latter guide numerous times while on jeep safari. Wake-up call at 4:45 am; tea/coffee at 5:15; departure at 5:30 to the park gates in open jeeps, with passengers kept warm with hot water bottles and blankets. Who thought India was hot in December! Facemasks were essential, given the dusty park roads. Unlike safaris in Africa, jeeps with Park naturalists cannot go off road. Big cat tracks along the roads helped guides locate possible sightings.In the meantime, a wealth of other animals and birds: Jungle Owlet, Pied Kingfisher, Lesser Adjutant Stork, barking deer, wild boards, jungle fowl, mongoose, and endearing langur monkeys.

We were able to see several tigers as well as leopards, due to the efforts of a legendary conservationist, Kailash Sankhala, known as“Tiger Man,” “a young forest officer in India, who rallied the world to save tigers from extinction.”  He is the author of informative books about tigers. A documentary about him, which also includes preservation initiatives of the Siberian Tiger, TIGERLAND (Director, Ross Kauffman), is premiering at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. He grandson Amit carries on his work through ecologically-focused tourism.

With the exception of The Jungle Book, most of the novels set in India are placed in the cities: Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai. We definitely prefer the naturally wild geography, but I highly recommend one series that I discovered for the trip: the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency by Vaseem Khan. Reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, set in Botswana, this series features a retired police inspector and his sidekick—a baby elephant—and begins with The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. Rarely have I had such a pleasurable, laugh-out-loud reading experience. Visitors to India, who are taken aback by the constant horn honking on the roads, will smile as Inspector Chopra marvels that he’s heard that some countries actually frown on honking. Chopra is joined by a remarkable set of characters, including his wife Poppy and a challenging mother-in-law.

I admit that India was not my favorite destination due to the noise and overwhelming humanity, but I’m exceedingly grateful to have discovered Inspector Chopra and Ganesh and look forward to reading all the volumes in this delightful series.

French Classics

“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

–Mark Twain, 1900

Over several weeks, I’ve made a circuit in France to stop at interesting places in the history of writing: medieval paper mills, printing museums, a village that had a quill pen industry.

We found a useful rule of thumb was to stay about four nights in towns or cities we visited, time enough to settle in and get to know a place. We invested more time in two places: Apremont-sur-Allier and Paris. Generally, we found a self-catering apartment in the historic center through various sources:, Trip Advisor, Air BNB. We particularly enjoy visiting farmers’ markets and doing our own cooking.

Highly recommended small to mid-sized towns in France for multi-day stops include these: Le Puy, Albi, Saint-Émilion, Angouleme, Rochefort, and Le Croisic. Nantes and Lyon are larger cities that are also worthwhile.

Throughout these travels, I’ve read books set in the locale—the raison d’etre of this RoadWorksBooks blog. Here is a list of some “classic” French works (and some not so classic) that I read (or at least started to read) while on the road in a Renault Twingo. I’ll note that not all French classics are translated into English. Some of the older titles are available through for free. All of them were read using a Kindle.

Berry Region

Our landlords said that most tourists don’t come to the Berry Region as there’s not much to see there, but it was a perfect place for us to bike, write, and settle in. It is a couple hours’ drive southeast of Paris, next to the equally unvisited Limousin region—famous for its cattle. One writer would not have been so dismissive of the Berry region: George Sand. She said of Le Puy, which is famous for its green lentils and its role as the starting point for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail:

Rien, mon ami, ne peut te donner l’idée de la beauté pittoresque de ce bassin du Puy, et je ne connais point de site dont le caractère soit plus difficile à décrire; c’est la France centrale avec tous ses Vésuves éteints et revêtus d’une splendide végétation.

Nothing, my friend, can give you an idea of ​​the picturesque beauty of this Puy basin, and I do not know of any site whose character is more difficult to describe; it is central France with all its Vesuvius extinct and covered with a splendid vegetation.

Le Puy is an amazing city with volcanic plugs that rise up from the plain. And why not build a fortress or medieval chapel on top? Pilgrims climb many steps to ascend to these holy sites.

George Sand was born Aurore Dupin and became one the most noted and notorious writers of the 19thcentury. She defended women’s rights and established an independent life from her husband by living part of the year in her childhood home and part in Paris. She dressed in men’s clothes at times, beginning when a theatre critic in Paris as the men’s seats were less expensive. Her house/museum can be visited in Nohant in Berry. (The Museum of Romantic Life in Paris also features George Sand and her work.)

Her novels, beginning with Indiana (1832), were enormously popular. She was a contemporary of Victor Hugo, Balzac, Baudelaire, Chopin, and Liszt. I read Fanchon, the Cricket (La Petite Fadette), which was made into a 1915 film starring Mary Pickford, and The Devil’s Pool (La Mare au Diable), but I’d recommend The Dream Lover (2015) by Elizabeth Berg, a fictional biography of Sand.

George Sand’s home in Nohant

Initially, Sand and Balzac were great friends but had a falling out. Honore de Balzac was a prolific writer, and I obtained La Cousine Bette and At the Sign of the Cat and Racket from

To the east of the Berry region is the Sologne, the setting for Les Grands Meaulnes (The Lost Estate) by Alain-Fournier, a coming of age novel that is thinly-disguised autobiography and has been compared to The Catcher in the Rye. Unfortunately, the author perished in the first month of World War I, but the story has remained popular, and it is said to have inspired Fitzgerald’s title, The Great Gatsby.

Albi on the Tarn

From Le Puy, on to Albi, a remarkable cathedral town set on the Tarn River. The fortress-like church is a rebuke to the “heretical” Cather movement that was eliminated by massacre in the Middle Ages. The Ghosts of Albi by Susan Kelly (1998) and Labyrinth by Kate Mosse (2005) draw on this history. Any work about Toulouse-Lautrec, such as the 1950 novel Moulin Rouge, would also be appropriate as the artist’s museum in Albi is stellar. His mother saved his artwork from his childhood, and his talent was on view early.

The Bordeaux Region

I was reading a novel by François Mauriac on October 11, when A Writer’s Almanac post noted that it was his birthday. Although he was the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1952, he may be more remembered for an infamous spat with Albert Camus and also for being the person who encouraged Elie Wiesel to write a memoir, which resulted in Night, a book read in many high schools.Thérèse Desqueyroux (filmed several times, including as recently as 2012) is his most popular work, and A Woman of the Pharisees is also accessible. In the Bordeaux region, I highly recommend Saint-Émilion, a charming medieval town in a highly-regarded vineyard area.


A famous vintage car race takes place in September on the ramparts of this city, but it’s also well known for its comic book museum, which suggests that a reader might dip into a classic set of works, the Asterix series. A work of historical fiction, Isabella of Angouleme by Erica Laine, tells the story of King John’s second wife and child bride (she was 12 when they married).


Jules Verne lived the first 20 years of his life in Nantes, and a museum is dedicated to his life and work. Travelers can follow a literary trail.

One of the printing museums I visited featured this poster advertising books for Christmas presents for children. Jules Verne’s work is well represented.


Whenever I think of this region of France, I turn to one of my most admired people in history, Eleanor of Aquitaine. For an excellent biography, I recommend Amy Kelly’s Eleanor and the Four Kings—she married both the king of France and the Henry II, King of England, and she was mother to Richard the Lion-Hearted and King John. She is the central character, of course, in the drama The Lion in Winter, but other enjoyable novels in which she plays roles include Beloved Enemy by Ellen Jones, The Canterbury Papers by Judith Koll Healey, and mysteries by Sharon Kay Penman. Younger readers might enjoy A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E. L. Konigsburg.


The recent film of Les Miserables, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, opens with convicts hauling a ship into a dry dock. The oldest dry dock in the world is in Rochefort on the Atlantic coast, and when Hugo visited the town, he observed the prisoners at work, which inspired the novel. Now it’s a charming municipality that has capitalized on its considerable naval history. A half-mile long building houses the rope-making museum. Another focuses on the story of naval surgeons—not for the squeamish. It’s the kind of place that fans of Patrick O’Brian’s novels would relish. It also includes a replica of the Hermione, the ship that brought Lafayette to the Colonies. The museum bookstore is filled with other nautical fiction titles, a few of which have been translated into English. Noted author Pierre Loti, who traveled to exotic locales and furnished his house (museum) with souvenirs, is also a native son.


One of the most notable writers in French literature of the 17th century is Madame de Sévigné. She wrote over 1000 letters, and they were so highly regarded that they were published during her lifetime.

I took a break for some lighter reading at one point in our travels, picking up Cooking for Picasso by Camille Aubray (2016) that I thought would be comic relief; however, it is quite a serious book about a teenage girl who brings food from her family café to Picasso living incognito on the Rivera during a summer before World War II. The multi-generational tale is not at all light-hearted, even if it is a foodie’s delight. The plot involves three generations of women and a mystery to be solved by the youngest.

I’m not the only reader who looks for good books set in France. These others sources may be helpful to travelers who are seeking good roadworks for their journeys: 101 Books Set in France; Best Novels of Rural France; 40 Books of France.

One of my favorite aspects of living in France is the good-bye extended: Au revoir, bonne journée! Happy travels wherever you go.

Armistice Day, 2018

On 11 November  2018, nations that participated in “The War to End All Wars” commemorate its end a century ago. We have been living in France the last several weeks and aware of the exhibitions about the history of World War I, many of them focused on letters such as the slow-motion animation we saw at the Paper Museum in Angouleme in which a battlefield nurse uses strips of love letters as bandages: Lettres de Femmes. We’ve also noted the village monuments that list their World War I dead “Enfants mort”; notably, each small town contains a long list for WWI; the additional names for WWII are few.

We rented a house in Apremont-sur-Allier, one of France’s Les Plus Beaux Villages, “most beautiful villages,” and it certainly was with honey-colored stones consistent throughout its medieval houses, situated charmingly along the Allier River. Its Parc Floral is a huge tourist draw, but the number of residents is below 100, and we wondered if WWI was the beginning of the end for this town.

I dipped into books and films focused on World War I a few years ago, and I found it one of the most affecting subjects of my reading career. The films to recommend: My Boy Jack, starring Daniel Radcliffe as Rudyard Kipling’s 18 year old son who volunteers for service and is quickly killed; A Very Long Engagement, a French film with the star of Amelie, about a woman who persists in finding her fiancé, who has PTSD and cannot remember who he is; Joyeux Noël, which focuses on the unlikely truce between the soldiers in opposite trenches on Christmas Eve; Gallipoli, the introduction of Mel Gibson in a film about incompetence and horror of war, beautifully scored with Pachelbel’s Canon. We also saw onstage War Horse, an extraordinary use of life-size horse puppets.

One of the topics that rises to the top is the number of soldiers killed by their own armies for cowardice. Over 300 soldiers in British and Commonwealth armies were shot for desertion or cowardice. Most likely, many suffered from shell shock. Justice Hall, one in the series by Laurie King featuring Sherlock Holmes and his wife Mary, takes up the subject. Jacqueline Winspear, author of the Maisie Dobbs series set after WWI, in  Birds of a Feather, brings to bear the symbolism of the white feather, used as an insulting sign of cowardice. (Another post-WWI detective-heroine is Jade Del Cameron, who graces the pages of Suzanne Aruda’s mysteries set in Africa. An ambulance-driver on the Front, she is devastated by the death of her fiancé in battle, but still manages to solve crimes with alacrity.)

Two WWI novels for young readers that I’ve admired are Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson, about a 16-year old orphan homesteading in Montana watching the effects of the war on German immigrants, and Remember the Dancing Days by Margaret Rostkowski. Margaret says that she was inspired by a scene from Chariots of Fire, when the athletes come face to face with disabled veterans. Classics include All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms.

Finally, I’ll mention the concerted efforts to recover women’s voices from World War I. Tammy Proctor’s work, in particular, has done this to good effect: Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War; An English Governess in the Great War; Civilians in a World at War, 1914-1918; and Gender and the Great War (with co-author Susan Grayzel). One of the female spies was Marthe McKenna, a Belgian nurse whose “Overlooked No More” obituary recently appeared in the New York Times.

The War to End All Wars—Didn’t

During our stay in Apremont-sur-Allier, we biked the country roads consistently. It is in the vicinity of the famous Loire Velo (bicycle) Trail that extends to the Atlantic.

Along the roads were signs that I could not figure out until I finally stopped and read one thoroughly. They marked the boundary between Occupied and Free France. It was one of those heart-stopping moments, reminding me of the traumatic experiences these people faced yet again. Just beyond Apremont, Mornay-sur-Allier was a haven for refugees–until 1943 when France became fully occupied.

To think about that time more deeply, I read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth E. Wein. Although classified as young adult, it’s an engrossing and harrowing read that adults should enjoy. Two young women—one a British  pilot and one a Scottish spy—are in occupied France–the latter being interrogated and tortured, and the former trying to rescue her. The Gestapo agent calls his prisoner a Scheherazade whose written confession, strung over days and weeks, keeps him entranced.

A Memorial to a Resistance Fighters — A Common Marker in France

France and other countries involved in World War II are gearing up for the 75th anniversary of D-Day with enhanced points of interest and trails

Both fiction and nonfiction clearly depict war as both horrific and futile, yet they do not end. This is a good day to reflect on war and its meaning and to honor those who served.

In writing this post, I honor my father’s older half-brother, Roy Kinkead, who served in World War I. My Dad, born in 1917, played with these toys, now in the Benton County Historical Museum while his brother was away.

Murder by Arrondissement

Cara Black has contributed to the rich literature set in Paris with a series of mysteries featuring Aimée Leduc, computer technology expert and detective. I first wrote about her in 2011 when staying in the First Arrondissement with the appropriate Murder in the Marais (1999). On this outing to Paris, we are lodged on one of the two islands in the middle of the Seine, L’Ile Saint-Louis, which is connected by bridge to the more famous one where Notre Dame stands. When I walked across the Pont de la Tournelle to the market one morning, I was rewarded with a stunning view of the cathedral, the autumn-colored vines trailing down the embankment.

Île Saint-Louis (supplied by our landlord)

Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis (2007) gives the Seine a more menacing tone as early in the novel, one body is discovered there, and Aimée almost makes two. Her description of trying to survive by fighting currents and moss-covered embankment walls with few hand grips is truly chilling. Cara Black must relish her outings to Paris, finding specific details and sites to integrate into the narrative. I traced the directions in the book to discover the headless statue in a niche on a street corner, the Polish Library where Chopin died, the sports store at the tip of the island where Hemingway bought fishing supplies, and the Hotel Lambert, an upscale townhouse.

RoadWorksBooks is about reading in place, and Black does a terrific job of details. I learned that the small island of only a few street blocks had once been a cow pasture and that the original bronze sculptures in the pocket park at the island’s end had been melted by the German Army in World War II.

Paris, quite likely, is my favorite place to travel, and although it’s got some of the world’s best museums, I savor finding the “Best Croissant of 2018,” watching a puppet show at the theatre in the Luxembourg Gardens, listening to Gypsy Jazz at the famous La Chop des Puces in the giant Flea Market, checking out the booksellers along the Seine, or simply sipping on a glass of wine. It’s about experiences.

While a book can take us worlds away–as Emily Dickinson opined–it’s always nice to be on site.

Coda: A book I read before I arrived in Paris–kind of a getting myself mentally prepared several months ago for a longish trip–is Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook. It is a charming love story and something of a detective story. It could be a good follow on for those who liked Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop.

Bali Books

Bali Books

One of the most magical places I’ve ever visited, Bali offers fabulous food, fastidious daily religious rites, musical moments, and underwater adventure. Our 2010 trip to this Indonesian, a year prior to the launch of RoadWorksBooks, included snorkeling and diving near a low-key resort in Amed, hiking in the highlands, and cultural outings in Ubud. We stayed as far away from Kuta, the action city as possible. On the other hand, do read A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul: Inspector Singh Investigates by Shamini Flint, one in a series about a Singapore detective termed “Dirty Harry in a turban.” (Singh gets around, so it’s possible to travel the world with him—India, China, Malaysia.)

The Puri Wirata Resort on the northeast shore of Bali was amazingly relaxing, and it was only steps for snorkeling or a short ride for an easily accessible wreck dive on the USS Liberty. Daily spa treatments at low prices meant pampering plus. From there, we went to the highlands for hiking, staying in accommodations that replicated traditional granaries with the bedroom on the upper floor with balcony overlooking fields and far mountains.

Ubud is the cultural hub of Bali, where travelers can watch shadow puppet plays or listen to Gamelan music.

I took Janet DeNeefe’s cooking class while there. She is the author of Fragrant Rice. Her website offers insights into Balinese culture as well accommodations at her family’s Honeymoon Cottages The markets are colorful and wonderful.

The culinary memoir was my favorite read when we traveled in Bali a few years ago, prior to the launch of RoadWorksBooks, but I did take along several books (pre-Kindle days, too) that I can recommend.

Colin McPhee, A House in Bali (1947) – a classic memoir of a composer uncovering the music of Bali.

Vicki Baum, A Tale from Bali (1937) –the author of Grand Hotel focuses on the horrific Dutch invasion of the island and the fated, bloody defeat of the Balinese at the turn of the twentieth century.

Diana Darling, The Painted Alphabet (1992) – draws on an epic poem for a narrative that includes magical elements.

Nigel Barley, Island of Demons (2009) – Anthropologist Barley (The Innocent Anthropologist; Not a Hazardous Sport) offers a historical novel about painter Walter Spies.

Bali is an extraordinary place to watch the daily Hindu rites of beautifully prepared food and flowers as offered and to relax.

I deliberately left Elizabeth Gilbert‘s popular Eat, Pray, Love off my list when visiting Bali in 2010, but then I was asked so often about it, that I finally caved and read it. Where is Maxwell Perkins when you need him? A good editor is worth his or her weight in gold. (I had the same sense with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and Rowling’s later Harry Potter novels–a good editor would have made these much stronger works.) Self indulgent. The Balinese t-shirts perhaps say it best: “Eat, Pay, Leave.”

Stories of Switzerland

My view of Switzerland is derived primarily from watching the film Heidi starring Shirley Temple. Although it was produced in the 1937, it was still popular some 20 years later when I was growing up, the curly-topped singer and dancer herding belled cattle, goats, and sheep in the Swiss mountainside home of her Grandfather. The tale of the precious little girl, which is in the tradition of “and a little child should lead them,” continues to be popular; the children’s book by Johanna Spyri, originally published in 1880, has been translated into multiple languages, apparent in bookstores and tourist shops—alongside another children’s book, Wolli, featuring one of Zermatt’s equally precious black-faced sheep.

That celluloid depiction was not far off the mark as our visit to Zermatt and surrounding villages included a celebration of bringing the cattle down from the summer alpine pastures with the cows festooned with flowers and crowns one day as well as a “Most Beautiful Sheep” contest the following day. Centuries old houses, barns, and granaries still exist in Old Zermatt as well on the hills and paths above the town. A trip to Zmutt, 1000’ above the tourist-crowded town, reveals an iconic mountain village with a restaurant for trekkers and discrete satellite dishes on a house or two. Still, the bells on the necks of cattle and sheet clang appealingly.

The Zermatt area has been a tourist mecca for well over a century. And no wonder. The Matterhorn is a dramatic icon on the skyline, unconquered until 1865 when Edward Whymper and a group of six others ascended the summit. Their story is embraced at the Matterhorn Museum, which includes a fragment of the rope that broke, resulting in four of the party falling to their death.

Walt Disney in Zermatt

That story is the basis for the Newbery Award winning book, Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman (1954), which inspired Walt Disney to make the film, Third Man on the Mountain (1959), starring a young James MacArthur, one of the child actors in the Disney stable (perhaps better known for his role as “Book ‘em Dano” in the original Hawaii 5-0). As with many Disney productions, the film tied into a famous Disneyland attraction: the Matterhorn ride.

Tense mountain climbing scenes figure prominently in two other novels, although neither is set on the Matterhorn specifically. Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan (2017) is the thrilling true story of Pino Lella, an Italian teen from Milan, who helps Jewish refugees and downed Allied pilots escape into Switzerland via a mountain monastery. Until 1943, Italy’s Jews were fairly safe, but with Mussolini’s fall, the Nazis took control. Pino not only climbs and skis mountain passes; he also becomes a spy when selected as a driver by a Nazi officer. (A film version of this popular novel is forthcoming.)

The Eiger Sanction (1972) by Trevanian (the pseudonym of Rodney William Whitaker, who chaired the media studies department at the University of Texas-Austin), concludes with a tense mountain climbing adventure on the treacherous Eiger, familiar to anyone who has seen the Clint Eastwood film of 1975. The novel, however, is quite funny, a send-up of popular spy novels such as the James Bond series by Ian Fleming. The characters’ names offer clues that the author doesn’t take this story seriously: Wormwood, an incompetent CIA agent; Clement Pope, another agent in the story; the albino Urrassis Dragon; Randie Nickers, one of the several women that anti-hero Jonathan Hemlock beds. Banner in the Sky, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, and The Eiger Sanction offer thrilling details and technical background about the intricacies of mountain climbing.

Another satire deserves mention: Mark Twain’s story of his trekking from Zermatt to Riffelberg. This short story is contained in the longer A Tramp Abroad, downloadable for free from Twain organizes a party to make the hike, a route that is more easily done today via the cog railway, the Gornergrat Express. His group is roped together from the starting point of Zermatt as “one can never be too careful about falls,” and the train extends half a mile with donkeys, guides, and supplies. He notes that the Baedeker Travel Guide says it’s an easy day hike to Riffelberg, but Twain insists it’s at least seven as they got lost. Today’s hikers can follow the Mark Twain Weg (way) from Riffelberg Hotel—built in 1855 and surely an overnight stop for the author–to Riffelalp described as a “gentle descending trail.” What is not noted is that the path features drop offs that may scare off even a literate acrophobe.

One last book suggestion: Before A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle authored several novels, including And Both Were Young (1949; reissued 1983), which features a teen girl being dropped off at a Swiss boarding school by her widowed father, a fairly common practice at the time to send girls to “finishing school.”* As with much of young adult literature, the protagonist, “Flip,” for Phillippa, has difficulty fitting in but finds a friend in Paul, a young man traumatized by the recently concluded war. A sympathetic art teacher helps Flip deal with the death of her mother, and, in turn, Flip is key to Paul’s recovery. Skiing figures prominently in the happy outcome, and readers also learn that the art teacher and her husband helped refugees flee from Germany into the safety of Switzerland over mountain passes.It’s the same theme readers find in Beneath a Scarlet Sky.

Switzerland offers glorious scenery and the potential for lots of healthy exercise with well-marked trails and paths for hikers and bikers. Cable cars, gondolas, and railways take sightseers to stunning vantage points looking at mountain peaks and disappearing glaciers. The Matterhorn itself is extraordinarily impressive but dangerous. Some 500 climbers have died trying to ascend. On the other hand, mountain guides have reported successful climbers who have teed off on top to launch golf balls into Switzerland and Italy or who have opened their paraglide chutes and jumped. For my own taste, I think I’ll stick with the vicarious thrills of a good book.

Good Swiss Milk to be Strong and Healthy

*For a YAL novel featuring a boys’ boarding school set in The Alps, check out the Alex Rider novel that I reviewed in fall of 2011:

Antwerp Gems

Antwerp’s Art Nouveau Train Station

Grote Markt (Great Market)

For anyone who wears a diamond, Antwerp is most likely a connection. It is the center of the diamond industry where the raw materials are shaped into gems that say, “I love you.” A new museum devoted to the diamond industry tries to exploit Antwerp’s reputation as the Diamond Capitol of the World. It wasn’t on our must see list as I don’t particularly care for diamonds. What I do care for is interesting literature set in the places I travel—books that illuminate the geography of a place. For this trip, I chose two odd bedfellows: A Dog of Flanders (1872) written by British author Marie Louise de la Ramée but published with her pseudonym “Ouida” and On Black Sisters Street (2011) by Chika Unigwe.

The former, a sentimental story of orphan boy Nello and his loyal pooch Patrasche, relates a series of events as they dip deeper and deeper into poverty. Ironically, this children’s book is not well known in Belgium, but it is wildly popular in Asia, particularly Japan. Thus, when tourists came looking for the sites of the novel and found none, city leaders obliged and funded a sculpture of the poor unfortunates in front of the Cathedral, an interesting interpretation of the finale of the novel where the two pals are found frozen to death because no one would shelter them. The bricks of the square rise up almost like a blanket to cover the pair, and the white marble suggests snow.

Poverty and deprivation are also themes in the contemporary novel On Black Sisters Street, which recounts the grim tales of four African women who find themselves working as prostitutes in Antwerp’s Red Light District, parading in seductive clothing in picture windows for potential clients. The narrative focuses more on Lagos than Antwerp with only rare glimpses into the streets of the medieval city such as when Sissi, on the last day of her life, freely walks in the Cathedral and Grote (Great) Market area of the city. Black Sisters Street does exist but refers ironically to nuns.

Considered two of the oldest printing presses in the world.

Given the excellent medieval buildings that still exist in Antwerp, I would have appreciated a novel set at that time. We visited the excellent Plantin-Moretus Museum, the former home and business of trend-setting printer and publisher Christophe Plantin. The 16th century entrepreneur was the first of nine generations of printers, who broke ground in the study of language and linguistics, atlases, scientific and humanistic treatises, and multilingual Bibles. He survived in spite of dangerous changes in religion (Catholicism vs Protestantism) and ruling governments (Spain, France, Netherlands). Although Antwerp was known as the “City of Books” for its 140 publishers, printers, and booksellers, Plantin and the Moretus heirs that followed stood at the head of the industry, not just in Antwerp but in the whole of Europe.

Other impressive architecture includes the former Butcher’s Hall, a Gothic brick building that serves currently as a music museum; the Grote Markt buildings with traditional Hanseatic style roof lines; Rubens House; a girls foundling home; and the hotel Elzenveld where we stayed, a former medieval hospital. Its ground included a ghostly sculpture of two robed figures that we had actually seen before—near Death Valley in Goldwell, a strange and funky outpost for a Belgian sculpture workshop. The flash of recognition was a bit startling. More contemporary architecture is evident in the shiny, metal-clad MAS museum near the docks.

A trip to Belgium must include moules et frites—mussels and fries (don’t say French fries in Belgium!) A relatively new chain—Frites Atelier—strives to take fries to a higher level with artisan sauces and toppings. Another favorite was Fish A Go Go, a funky narrow stall with a few upstairs tables that sells darned fresh seafood like calamari Tepanaki, sardines with lime zest, and spicy octopus and potatoes. When it comes right down to it, I am attracted to a city’s cuisine. Food for the body and the mind are the real gems of any locale.

Gutenberg’s Legacy

Whenever I traveimg_7151.jpgl, I begin with a list of books to read on the journey. The trip to the Rhineland and beyond involved such a list but with a special focus. I’ve embarked on a project to write about the history and development of writing, and where better to focus than on the origin of the printing press—in Mainz, Germany. Gutenberg worked for decades to create a prIMG_7093ess that would produce editions of The Bible that were correct and uniform. The high level of secrecy and the enormous amount of risk—financial as well as personal—are detailed in the novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie (2014). Why risk? At the time, sacred documents were created by scribes; a single Bible might require three years’ time to complete. Books were of such value that they sometimes came with chains to secure them.


Gutenberg in Mainz Market Square

Might a printed version without the touch of the human hand, inspired by God, actually be the work of the devil? Gutenberg and his associates might very well have been burned at the stake for their audacity.

We learned at the Gutenberg Museum that increased access to books and literacy drove the creation of spectacles. The Pharmacy Museum in Heidelberg Schloss noted that printed books helped standardize recipes for medicines with the printing of ingredients and depictions of botanicals. The impact of the printing press cannot be underestimated. No doubt, this is why Gutenberg has been termed “The Man of the Millennium.” IMG_7243Mainz, a center for trade in the Middle Ages, is a charming town on the banks of the Rhine, populated by numerous churches, historic buildings, and a stellar boat museum.

It was also the site of a British prisoner of war (POW) camp in World War I, described in Alec Waugh’s The Prisoners of Mainz (1919). Yes, this is Evelyn Waugh’s brother. It is one of those British stiff upper lift narratives of the time that almost makes the war seem like a lark—even while describing gruesome realities of The Front. World War II and its aftermath but on its distaff side—the women—is the focus of Jessica Shattuck’s best-selling novel The Women in the Castle (2017). The widows of those men in the plot to kill Hitler band together to survive.

And speaking of survival, Illuminations, a novel about Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt (2012), brings to light the amazing woman of the Middle Ages, who was dedicated to the church by her family when only eight years old, and who became a major figure as a Benedictine abbess and composer. Her compositions continue to be performed today.

Mark Twain also makes an entrance with his voluminous travel journals, in particular, The Innocents Abroad and A Tramp Abroad (both can be downloaded for a modest price). His entries on Heidelberg are particularly entertaining. He visits the student “jail” on the Heidelberg University campus—where errant students are housed in somewhat barren surroundings but which became a badge of honor for them, as well. The current tour of the jail reveals an impressive amount of graffiti left by its inmates, who apparently also partied during their brief internment. It ends, naturally, in a shop where tourists can purchase SWAG and hoodies emblazoned with Heidelberg University.


Student Jail

More recent travel narratives focus on the Rhine River. Castles in the Air: A Journey Down the Rhine by Simon Worrall (2013) explores the hillside strongholds that populate the banks of the Rhine River. These castles in medieval times served as toll gates for traffic on the river. If a ship didn’t pay, it could be blown out of the water. And, it appears that there may have been little coordination among the landowners who taxed the waterways. The famous cat and mouse castles—Katz and Maus–were owned by brothers who competed for tolls.


Near the cat and mouse castles is the famous Lorelei—the turn in the river that has caused many shipwrecks. The “Song of the Lorelei” speaks to longing and love. Difficult to comprehend for contemporary visitors, the river separated peoples on opposite sides of the bank. It was rare for them to marry. There are, in fact, very few bridges that span the Rhine.


While the Rhine or the Elba might not seem related to the Mississippi, Germany has a love affair with American Jazz, evidenced in Dresden’s Dixieland Jazz Festival held each May. No bands from the USA are needed; there is a wealth of groups from Europe who perform over the multiple-day festival.

Kurt Vonnegut’s novel that includes the burning of Dresden, Slaughterhouse Five, is a natural choice for a RoadWorks Books. The Women in the Castle also contains a harrowing scene from the Dresden bombing. And, the marks are of the fires are still visible on the reconstructed buildings.

We visited Nuremberg, known for its Nazi war rallies as well as its role in the trials of war criminals from World War II, but committed now to being a city of peace and human rights. Its medieval walls still stand in many parts of the city. The Church of St. Lorenz honors the saint who was martyred on the grill and who is reputed to have quipped, “Turn me over; I’m done on this side.”

Nuremberg is also know as “The Pencil Capital of the World,” for its family factories that produce the well known brands Castell-Faber, Staedler, and Stabilio. The Museum of Industry and Communication has an excellent exhibition on the history of pencil production that dates back to the 18th century. Remember: the pencil was revolutionary at the time, offering a writing implement that was accessible and fairly inexpensive—in contrast to quill and ink. Nuremberg is also home to the artist Albrecht Durer, and his home is a testament to this status during his own lifetime. It is well preserved and well worth a visit.

The pencil is mightier than the sword! IMG_7132

For our Rhine and Moselle River sojourns with forays to the local castles, we stayed in Boppard, a convenient place for ferry hopping and hikes—wandersweg–above the town on the quaint Hunsrücksbahn railroad.

We ventured to the Monastery of Maria Laach (Mary of the Lake), where monks continue in the ancient traditions with a book bindery. The church there is, quite likely, one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe, and its gardens and shops are also inviting.

I will also plug the excellent Riesling that we found in Germany. In the States, the Riesling that appears on our shelves is often sweet, but the real thing is much better. We can also testify that the cheese and fresh strawberries that we picked up for our lunches and picnics were terrific.

Germany is a country too large, diverse, and rich in culture to encapsulate in a brief blog, and, so often, we rely on the compelling literature of World War II to think about this nation, but we departed feeling that we had uncovered a history of writing and printing that offered a more nuanced view of a nation that has been essential to the cultivation of literacy. Thank you, Gutenberg.

Equal-opportunity pedestrian lights in Dresden.


Traveler’s Note: We traveled to Germany in May; the temperature veered from pleasant to quite cold.

The author biking along the Elba River in Dresden and trying out quill pens in the Museum of Industry and Culture in Nuremberg.

“Never stop exploring”–my North Face suitcase.