New on the Bookshelf


—by Chris Springer, Contributing Editor

“Crete” by Barry Unsworth (2004, National Geographic. ISBN 0792266439 — 170 pp., $20 hardcover).

Crete has never wanted for literary attention, but this book is a welcome addition to the library of works on the place. After writing a novel set in ancient Greece, Barry Unsworth sets off to explore Crete firsthand. The storyteller in him is enchanted by the island’s myths, which, he says, “have a darkness and splendor about them that is essentially tragic.”

Rather than unrolling the entire tapestry of Crete’s past, Unsworth pulls out a strand here and there and weaves them together in his own fashion. He shares legends and anecdotes about churches, caves and the archaeological treasure trove of Knossos.

The clear, dignified cadences of the prose recall the best stories in National Geographic (which also published this book). But Unsworth’s style is all his own. Curious yet effective is his inverted syntax: “To leave them always with regret is the gift some places — not many — make us.”

This book is really a tale of two Cretes. There is the ancient land, steeped in millennia of history. Then there is today’s vacation magnet, surfeited with mass tourism and unchecked development. The island’s overexposure is a Greek tragedy in itself.

“Hotel Secrets from the Travel Detective” by Peter Greenberg (2004, Villard Books. ISBN 0375759727 — 291 pp., $14.95 paperback).

The travel editor of TV’s “Today” show spends more time in hotels than at home. Here Peter Greenberg shares what he’s learned as a perennial guest.

This book provides sound consumer tips and exposes scams like hidden phone charges. Greenberg also offers a strategy for getting the best room rates. Find the lowest price on third-party websites, he says, then call the hotel directly and negotiate down from there. After cutting out the website middlemen, you and the hotel both come out ahead.

Greenberg’s critiques of room design will resonate with anyone who’s ever opened a hotel room door. Why are the light switches inconveniently placed and the phone cord so short? As the author puts it, “The people who design hotel rooms have never stayed in one.”

The wealth of experience this book draws from may also be its Achilles’ heel. At times the Travel Detective sounds like he’s stayed too long behind the “Do Not Disturb” sign. Greenberg recommends that, rather than checking bags in at the airport, you FedEx them to your hotel. (Hey, Peter, can we put that on your expense account?)

He also suggests that, to ensure that your shower has high water pressure, you “ask the front desk clerk to call engineering and find out on which floors the hotel has installed the booster pumps.” Please!

Fortunately, such fussbudget excesses are leavened by the factoids. There are descriptions of the world’s weirdest hotels (one is ensconced in a nuclear bunker; another is carved from ice), and there are profiles of historic hotel rooms, like the one where John and Yoko staged their bed-in for peace. These sections are guilty-pleasure reading — hard to resist.