Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Blizzard and Books, 14

I wouldn't ordinarily write two Snow and Books posts back to back, but my plans for blog and life got a little bit destroyed this week what with all the snow. So, instead of going out and taking pictures and writing about one of the many lovely places on my list, I stayed inside where it was (thankfully) warm and read a very large guidebook.

I wanted so badly to like this guidebook. Partly because I always want to see good writing about Connecticut, and to share it, and partly because when you're snowed in with a book, it's a much nicer experience when it's a book you enjoy. Sadly, Insight Guides' New England (Apa Publications), was not enjoyable. In fact it made me want to go outside, walk through the snow drifts to the nearest body of water, hack a hole in the ice, and hurl the volume towards certain death in the frigid deep.

This book is, at best, a guide to Massachusetts with a focus on Boston. (Much like some other general New England guides I've "reviewed" here.) Why its editors didn't just go ahead and publish a guide to Massachusetts with a focus on Boston, I do not know; instead they bit off more Northeast than they could chew, with results that I found embarrassing for them and their writers and outrageous for fans of the Constitution State.

But it's not just the lopsided coverage that turned me off. As I read, I started getting the sense that no one involved with this guide had ever really been to New England. One writer was described as a resident of Massachusetts (which could account for that state's dominance) but the other bios showed no evidence of familiarity with the area. (Insight Guides has a London address, and Apa is part of the Langenscheidt Publishing Group, a German company.) Some of this unfamiliarity is funny (I'll get to that below) but some is downright offensive; the section on newspapers omits the Hartford Courant, New England's "long history" of "protests" is illustrated with a photograph of two Boston police officers conversing with a man holding a sign on which is printed a rambling, anti-Semitic rant.

This is a shame because in its way, this book really does try. It has over 450 pages, with color photographs and an ambitious attempt to delve into the region's history. I would almost feel bad for those who created it, if I got the sense they ever imagined anyone from Connecticut - or anyone with access to Google - might pick up their guide.

Today I Learned: "Southern Connecticut" is an "urban center." (Quick, someone alert Old Lyme.) Connecticut's only specialty food worth mentioning is Paul Newman's "Newman's Own" line of salad dressings and sauces. New England is "rarely affected by hurricanes." (Quick, someone tell all those houses that keep falling into the Sound.)  At restaurants, "denim jeans are usually permitted if they are not obviously faded, worn, or patched." Paper money is, on rare occasions, issued in $2 bills. Car-jackings are "rare, but not unheard of." Route 7 passes through New London. (Quick, someone warn Kent.) And my very favorite piece of information, one which will no doubt cause me to cry with laughter whenever I drive south on 95 from this moment on: there is a place called "The Norwalks."

Amusements: I repeat: "The Norwalks."

Listings: First off, this book contains one of the longest "background" sections of any guide I've ever read. It really does try to cram hundreds - or thousands - of years of New England history into the minds of readers who probably just want to find a good beach town. It gets into politics, education, immigration, commerce, war, religion, I could go on. But, as is perhaps inevitable when aiming for detail in a form that practically demands generalities, it does this poorly. In a timeline of "decisive dates" that starts in 9000 BC, Connecticut is first alluded to in 1852 and first mentioned by name in 1954. Important groups of people (e.g. Native Americans living south of Massachusetts, and the Dutch) are left out. Witch Trials happened in Salem, not Hartford; early industrial innovations and the whaling industry bypassed Connecticut altogether.

In the sections on New England as a whole, the lists of "bests" and "top tens," Connecticut fares a little bit better. There are mentions of Mystic, Yale, and Philip Johnson's Glass House, i.e., the Connecticut spots any middle-school student could quickly learn about in a search of the New York Times archives.

Given all that, the Connecticut section itself (all 37 pages of it) is not as bad as I feared. There's nothing unusual here, nothing quirky or off the path beaten by the hundreds of short guidebooks that came before. There's nothing to give a sense of any one city's personality or appearance (though, oddly, there are several assertions that Connecticut is absolutely stuffed with white clapboard houses.) But there are decent lists of major museums and other mainstream attractions, and most regions (if not most towns) are covered. There are good little sections on Connecticut's many nicknames and whether Nathan Hale really made that statement about his lack of regrets. The relative quality of this section makes it even sadder that while the guide recognizes the Quiet Corner is "relatively unheralded," it thinks the Quiet Corner consists of Willimantic, Coventry, Storrs, and the Prudence Crandall Museum.

Listings of accommodations and restaurants are so limited as to be useless and quite funny; for the entire state of Connecticut, it suggests four bars. Some information (e.g. the bit on blue laws) is outdated.

The "Activities" section at the back of the book is woefully inadequate. Mentions of Connecticut under the headings of Festivals, the Arts, Nightlife, Shopping, Outdoor Activities and others are anemic or nonexistent.

Lastly, as a whole the book completely fails to paint a picture of the Connecticut most travelers seek and find here. In the Connecticut of Insight Guides, are few beaches, little natural beauty, no farmland, no ice cream stands or outdoor markets, no local shops full of the work of local artisans, no scenic country drives, no sweet quiet villages, no small-town Main Streets to stroll. There is little diversity, little vibrancy, and the history that is here is of the museum sort, not the sort that's obvious in every brick and street name.

Quote: Despite including a section on regional literature, this book does not quote many New Englanders on their home states. So, an observation from the guide itself: "Rocky, infertile soil; treacherous coastline; short, unreliable growing seasons; long, harsh winters. You wonder if the Mayflower would have had any passengers if they'd known what awaited them."

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