BOOK REVIEW: Topographies by Stephen Benz

TopographiesTopographies by Stephen Connely Benz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of travel essays exploring locales within America and abroad. The fifteen essays collected are reprints of periodical publications.

As Benz describes destinations and tells travel tales, he often presents local history such as a murder mystery in the Everglades, the fate of the Donner Party, the truth about the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, and the nuclear test at Trinity, New Mexico. But not all of the essays mix history lessons into the travelogue, and some of the most evocative pieces touch on the local landscape in interesting ways such as walking a postman’s route in Havana or camping in Wyoming.

Some travel writing drills down on a single destination and other works spread out over a diverse set of locations. Benz’s approach is somewhere in between. While, except for a couple chapters set in Havana, the essays are about varied locations, only a couple (i.e. the ones on the Everglades and Moldova) stand out as far afield of the rest. Of the seven international essays, three feature Cuba and two Guatemala, and of the eight US essays, all but one is set in the West and three present Wyoming.

The essay collection is divided into two parts. The first eight essays are about locations within the United States, and the last seven describe foreign travels. I found the organization to be smartly arranged, with each of the two parts beginning an ending on essays that are among the strongest in the collection. In the case of Part I, the collection starts with a piece set in the Everglades which brings to life a historical murder, and it ends with a visit to the Trinity Site where the first nuclear test detonation took place.

With respect to the international chapters, they open with a visit to Moldova. The last travel essay I read about Moldova was in Eric Weiner’s “The Geography of Bliss.” If you’re wondering why a book on the happiest places on Earth would feature Moldova, it’s for the perhaps ironic but definitely instructive reason that Moldova often comes up as among the LEAST happy countries. Benz presents a similar portrait of Moldova without explicitly taking the dismal nature of the country as his theme. The last two chapters discuss the author’s time in Guatemala, and the last discusses the poetry scene in a country in a country under political upheaval.

The book has a prologue in verse and an extended epilogue in prose.

I’d recommend this book for readers of travel writing, particularly those interested in the American West and Central America. I found the writing to be both skillful and readable, and that the author recognized the value of an intriguing story.

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DAILY PHOTO: Church Near Tims Ford Lake

Taken in March of 2012 near Tims Ford State Park in Tennessee

DAILY PHOTO: Deer, Arabia Mountain

Taken at Arabia Mountain Park in August of 2011

BOOK REVIEW: How to Love a Country by Richard Blanco

How to Love a CountryHow to Love a Country by Richard Blanco
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out March 26, 2019


This book takes one on a roller coaster ride of insight into the author’s relationship with his country as an immigrant from a family of Cuban exiles. At times the tone is hopeful and at other times seething or even vitriolic. Unlike many of the angry works of political verse of late, this one sometimes reflects that most beautiful of pragmatic truths: one can’t truly love anything if one can’t embrace it imperfections and all. As it happens, this wide sway in tone is partly the result of these poems being collected from various sources. Having a poem commissioned by the State Department in a collection with a poem that was a response to a news story about someone being gunned down is bound to result in some variation in feel. Still, I think the poems were well-organized to reflect the various trials and glories one goes through in a relationship. The angry verse is well-positioned toward the middle, and about the time I was over the rage, the storm clouds began to break up and a more beautiful scene unfolded.

The poems are prose poetry or free verse. There is beautiful use of language interspersed with plain-spoken verse.

I’d recommend this collection for poetry readers. I don’t suspect it will have a particularly wide audience. A jingoistic reader who picks it up for its title will drop it like a hot rock long before getting to the aforementioned angry plateau. Which is not to say that there isn’t something to be gained from reading this book even if it doesn’t comport with one’s own views. The issue of division along fault lines of political-philosophy is a major theme of this collection.

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DAILY PHOTO: Trail in the Woods

Taken in April of 2011 in Panola Mountain State Park

5 of the Coolest Places We Visited in 2018

It’s year-in-review time, and I thought I’d do list of the most interesting places we visited this year. We stayed in the US for six weeks for visa renewal, and so that ate a lot of travel time an energy. That said, we still visited more places than I had room for on the list. We had fun visits to Mumbai, Kodaikanal, and Galveston Island — not to mention a road trip that took us on a supremely scenic drive through West Virginia. But a few places stood out for various reasons.


5.) Lincoln Park: This sprawling city park along Lake Michigan hosts a free Zoo, a Conservatory, museums, beaches, and beautiful urban green space.


4.) City Palace: Udaipur offers one of the most scenic urban spaces in all of India. This palace was home of Mewar ruling dynasty, and, sitting upon Lake Pichola, is the heart of this historic city.


3.) Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum: This “annex” to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum takes advantage of the wide open spaces of Chantilly, Virginia (near Dulles Airport) to house some huge exhibits such as Space Shuttle Discovery, a Concorde, an SR-71, and commercial aircraft.


2.) Neil Island: This small island to the northeast of Port Blair is beloved for its snorkeling, beaches, and laid-back atmosphere. Full disclosure: I’m including this island of faith as we won’t be visiting it for another week or so, but by the time we return from the Andamans it will be 2019. For those unfamiliar, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands form an archipelago that is governed by India, though geographically it is nearer to Myanmar (Burma.)


1.) Annapurna Base Camp: There were lots of places in our visit to Nepal that could have made this list, but, forced to choose a highlight of our trip to Nepal, ABC wins hands down. It was the culmination of a tea-house trek of the Annapurna Sanctuary that offered spectacular views and experiences throughout.


As for what to expect in 2019, I have a trip to Laos planned early in January, and we are tentatively considering a hiking trip to Central Asia (probably Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.) Of course, we are not so good sticking to long-term plans, so who knows where the winds will take us.

There remain plenty of awesome travel destinations in India, though our challenge is that the low hanging fruit has been partaken of, and we are left with many locations that are a challenge to get to when one only has a few days with which to work