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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Postscript to Review of Empire Antarctica

The Emperor Penguins have now all but abandoned the colony at Halley Bay described in Empire Antarctica, which I reviewed last month.  Terrible news.

 

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/one-antarcticas-largest-emperor-penguin-colonies-has-suffered-three-years-catastrophic-breeding-failures-180972043/

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Review: Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins

Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins

By Gavin Francis.  Counterpoint, 2013, 260 pp.

 

Emperor penguins are extraordinary animals, the only species to hatch their eggs on the sea ice of Antarctica.  Images of male penguins huddled together, incubating their eggs in the harsh winter—protecting them in their brood pouches, balancing them on their feet as they shuffle about in their huddle, rotating to the warmer spots in the middle—are unforgettable.

 

It was a fascination with these birds and a desire to live alongside them that led Gavin Francis to apply for a position as doctor at Halley, which is the least accessible of the British research stations in Antarctica and just twenty kilometers from a rookery where some 60,000 emperor penguins breed every autumn.

 

But there were other reasons as well.  He wanted to experience the solitude and silence the region would offer, a relief from his frenetic life in Edinburgh.  He was drawn to the stories of such legendary polar explorers as Scott, Shackleton, and Byrd.  And he hoped the time and space at Halley would help clarify his own future path: "whether to aim for a life of travel and expeditions, or commit to a profession and put down roots."

 

A chronicle of Francis's 14 months at Halley, Empire Antarctica is also the story of this personal quest.  He reflects upon the amazing landscape he inhabits, the remarkable light and, in winter, the lack of light.  He Read More 

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Review: Venice is a fish

Venice is a fish: A sensual guide

By Tiziano Scarpa.  Translated by Shaun Whiteside.  Gotham Books, 2008, 160 pp.

 

Is there any city more written about than Venice?  The city is "encrusted with imagination" writes Tiziano Scarpa.  "There isn't another place in the world that could bear all that visionary tonnage on its shoulders."  Venice, he says, "will sink under the weight of all the visions, fantasies, stories, characters and daydreams it has inspired."

 

Scarpa nonetheless seems quite happy to add to that "tonnage" in this love letter to his native city.  His "sensual guide" addresses ways the visitor can take Venice in through the senses and is organized around various parts of the body. 

 

Under "feet," for example, he says: "Feel how your toes turn prehensile on the steps of the bridges, clutching at worn or squared edges as you climb…Wear light shoes, soft-soled…"  Under "legs," he observes, "You're forever going up and down, even in the calli.: Venice is never flat, it's a continuous unevenness, all lumps, bumps, hump-backed bulges, dips, dents, depressions…"  Heart disease is not a problem in Venice, he remarks.

 

As these quotes suggest, this is a very playful book.  "Heart" leads to a discussion of where, in a city without cars, youngsters can find a place to make love when their parents are home.  Read More 

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Review: Don't Make Me Pull Over!

Don't Make Me Pull Over: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip

By Richard Ratay.  Scribner, 2018, 288 pp.

 

Most of us who took family road trips as children will instantly recognize Richard Ratay's title and the car scenario he describes: parents up front, kids squabbling in the back, Dad, who is driving, reaching back with one hand to grab a misbehaving youngster while yelling, "Don't make me pull over!"—and nearly taking the car off the road.

 

It's amazing we survived.

 

In this entertaining book, Ratay takes readers on a tour of the American family road trip, from its origins to its surge after World War II and finally to its decline in the eighties, when it was largely supplanted by air travel.  Drawing on his own childhood experience of car trips with his parents and three older siblings, he enlivens his narrative with personal anecdotes, while delving into the many factors that made this peculiar form of travel both possible and popular.  Read More 

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Review: A Florida Sketch-Book

A Florida Sketch-Book
By Bradford Torrey. Houghton, Mifflin, 1894. Project Gutenberg.

I was drawn to Bradford Torrey’s account of a ramble in east Florida in 1894 because I now spend nearly half the year in Florida myself—though in the west—and I was curious to see what I might glean about the state of the state more than a century ago.

I had never heard of Torrey, but an article by Kevin E. O’Donnell that appeared in Early American Nature Writers, which I found online, provided a thorough and interesting profile of the man. A popular Boston naturalist and writer in his time, who influenced both nature and travel writing, he was the author of 13 books, mostly collections of essays he produced for the Atlantic Monthly. He also wrote a weekly column for the Boston Evening Transcript and was the editor of Thoreau’s journals.

Torrey’s Florida journeys take him to the St. Augustine area, to Daytona Beach, and to New Smyrna, and everywhere his main focus is on birds. Read More 

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Review: By the Ionian Sea: Notes of a Ramble in Southern Italy

By the Ionian Sea: Notes of a Ramble in Southern Italy
By George Gissing. Project Gutenberg. First published, 1901.

In the late 1890s, the writer George Gissing set off on a trip to Southern Italy, an intensely personal journey into Magna Graecia with its ancient Greek ruins. “The names of Greece and Italy draw me as no others;” he writes; “they make me young again, and restore the keen impressions of that time when every new page of Greek or Latin was a new perception of things beautiful.”

Not everything on this rugged journey was beautiful, but Gissing retains his passion throughout, as he travels south from Naples to Calabria and on to Sicily. In Paola, he reflects on Hannibal and the Visigoths. In Taranto, he finds that the fishermen—“their lithe limbs, their attitudes at work or in repose, their wild, black hair”—remind him of “shapes pictured on a classic vase.”

He searches for the Galaesus, Horace’s “beloved river,” and in Metapontum, he thinks of Pythagoras, said to have died there in 497 BC, “broken-hearted at the failure of his efforts to make mankind gentle and reasonable.” Gissing observes that “In 1897 AD that hope had not come much nearer to its realization.” Nor in 2018, this reader would add. Read More 

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Review: Off The Leash: Subversive Journeys Around Vermont

Off the Leash: Subversive Journeys Around Vermont
By Helen Husher. Countryman Press, 1999, 206 pp.

The title of this book suggests that we may be in for some wild rides, but this is misleading. In twelve essays, Helen Husher gives us an untouristic (though not especially subversive) tour of her home state of Vermont. The metaphorical dog off the leash here isn’t snarling or on the attack: she’s quietly wandering, exploring, digging up the forgotten stories of places that are too often passed by.

Interweaving personal narrative and contextual information, Husher takes us on some surprising jaunts—to the Joseph Smith Memorial, for example, where the author climbs to an extraordinary view and reflects on the Mormons’ westward expansion, reminding us that both Smith and Brigham Young were actually born in Vermont.  Read More 

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Review: Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin's Lost Polar Expedition

Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Polar Expedition
By Scott Cookman. John Wiley & Sons, 2000, 244 pp.

In 1845, Sir John Franklin set out to lead England’s greatest effort to find the Northwest Passage. His expedition included two well-equipped ships, several years’ worth of provisions, and 128 officers and men. All vanished in the Arctic.

What happened? The lack of diaries, log books, and other original source material has made it impossible to know, but people have been speculating about it for more than 150 years.

Scott Cookman offers his contribution to the literature in Ice Blink, the title taken, he says, from a term that 19th-century sailors used for polar mirages.  Read More 

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Review: Land's End: A Walk Through Provincetown

Land’s End: A Walk Through Provincetown
By Michael Cunningham. Crown Journeys, Crown, 2002, 175 pp.

Provincetown, situated at the tip of Cape Cod, is “the lands’ end; it is not en route to anywhere else,” says Michael Cunningham in his guide to the town. “One of its charms is the fact that those who go there have made some effort to do so.”

Many people do make that effort. Every summer, thousands of tourists swarm this beach town. Commercial Street, lined with shops and with some of the more flamboyantly costumed members of the large gay community, takes on a carnival atmosphere.

Cunningham takes readers beyond the honky-tonk to explore the character of the place. Like Frank Conroy’s Time & Tide, which I reviewed earlier this month, Land’s End is an entry in Crown Journeys’ series of “walks,” and it similarly offers a mix of historical and geographical information, personal anecdotes, and practical guidance for visitors.

Provincetown—or P-town, as it is known—has a long history; Read More 

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Review: Time & Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket

Time & Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket
By Frank Conroy. Crown Journeys, Crown, 2004, 139 pp.

"Nantucket is drenched with memories of the whaling days and the nineteenth century,” writes Frank Conroy in Time & Tide, an entry in the Crown Journeys series which takes readers on brief “walks” through various places. Having lived in Nantucket either as a year-rounder or summer resident since the '50s, Conroy knows the island well and proves an engaging guide to its geography, culture and evolution from the 19th century to the 21st.

As a whaling town, Nantucket was wealthy in the old days: “the rich,” says Conroy “were truly, mind-bogglingly rich.” After the end of the whaling era, the town was left with sheep herding and cranberries. Today, the rich in Nantucket are mind-bogglingly rich again, but when Conroy arrived in the ‘50s, before the biggest changes came, Nantucket, he says, was a “real town,” with a “small-town ‘feel,’” “a relaxed oasis in the ocean.”

Conroy evokes the unique geography and landscape of Nantucket: its distinctive harbor, its exposure to the ocean, its dunes, salt marshes, and moors (around one-third of all moors in America), its brutal winters, and its “delicate wilderness,” which he says, some people “misperceive as bleakness.”

Through anecdotes, about himself and others, Conroy conveys a sense of an older Nantucket and how he found his place in what he describes as a somewhat oddball community.  Read More 

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