Book Talk: Stories take authors off the beaten path

When some people travel, they venture off the beaten path to embark on surprising, and often revealing, journeys of adventure and discovery.

When some people travel, they venture off the beaten path to embark on surprising, and often revealing, journeys of adventure and discovery.

The Curse of the Labrador Duck: My Obsessive Quest to the Edge of Extinction (2009) by Glen Chilton is a witty and irreverent tale about a quest unlike any other. The author, a Canadian biologist with a self-professed obsessive personality, journeyed around the world for four years to examine and document 55 stuffed ducks and nine eggs, all that remains of the long-extinct Labrador duck.

During his epic pursuit of the extinct species, he explored the ducks’ breeding habitat on Canada’s east coast and circled the globe more than three times to visit each stuffed specimen in 30 different cities, including London, Paris, Dublin, Chicago, Vienna, St. Petersburg and a host of others. The author encountered an eccentric flock of scientists, journalists and amateur ornithologists, endured numerous hangovers, swam naked in a glacial-fed stream and narrowly avoided arrest in New York City.

But the story of this impulsive journey is a great read. Chilton peppers his book with tales of travel mishaps, detailed descriptions of the history and atmosphere of major cities and museums and seamlessly interweaves tales of friends, crime, bastard children and America’s richest murderer. And along the way you even learn about George Sand, Wayne Gretzky, Graham Greene and Mark Twain as well as the curse associated with the Labrador duck. Everyone who has ever owned a stuffed specimen has come to a bad end, whether confined to prison or dying in mysterious circumstances.

My Mercedes is Not for Sale: From Amsterdam to Ouagadougou – an Automobile Misadventure Across the Sahara (2008) by Jeroen van Bergeijk is a chronicle of his three-month trip along the Trans-Sahara Highway to sell a used car. The Dutch journalist, while taking a taxi at a friend’s wedding in West Africa, hatched what seemed like a great scheme at the time: Buy an old Mercedes clunker in Amsterdam, drive it across the Sahara and sell it for profit in the Third World, where a market even for old jalopies still thrives.

The idea turned into an adventure worth more than the few hundred dollars he netted when he finally sold the rusting Mercedes. But what drives the narrative, in addition to adventurous events such as surviving a coup and getting trapped in a minefield, are portrayals of desert towns where sand is everywhere and the historical background of a land that appears so bleak and desolate.

My Mercedes is Not for Sale is not only an entertaining read about a land that is still largely unknown to much of the world. It is also an illuminating introduction to Saharan Africa.

That Summer in Sicily: A Love Story by Marlena de Blasi is not a typical travel narrative by any means. It begins when the author accidentally discovers a magnificent, if somewhat dilapidated, castle in the mountains of Sicily. There she meets Tosca Brozzi, the patroness of the villa, who recounts her lifelong love story with the last prince of Sicily descended from the French nobles of Anjou.

The author recreates Tosca’s life, from her impoverished childhood, a fairy-tale adoption at the age of nine in exchange for a horse and her initiation into the splendor of a feudal prince’s palace. When Tosca reached the age of 18 she became the puttanina, or mistress, of Prince Leo and they lived together in an accepted arrangement. When Prince Leo attempts after the Second World War to better the lives of his peasants he draws the ire of the local Mafia and he disappears, leaving Tosca an heiress.

Eventually she modified Leo’s reformist plans and used her considerable wealth to create an extraordinary community of women, now widowed, who once worked the prince’s lands along with their husbands. This is the heart of the remarkable story, a tale of love that that embraces the bewildering culture and character of Sicily.

These three titles are available at your Okanagan Regional Library

– Peter Critchley is a reference librarian at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library.