TraveLit--A blog about travel literature

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

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

July 20, 2018

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. (more…)

Review: Land's End: A Walk Through Provincetown

June 30, 2018

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; (more…)

Review: Time & Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket

June 10, 2018

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. (more…)

Review: My Family and Other Animals

May 16, 2018

My Family and Other Animals (The Corfu Trilogy Book 1)
By Gerald Durrell. Kindle Edition.

It is easy to see why this book was popular when it was published in 1956 and has never been out of print. The story, somewhat fictionalized, of the four Durrell siblings and their mother in Corfu, where they lived from 1935 to 1939, is a delight. If Gerald is the centerpiece of the tale, all members of the eccentric family get their due, along with a cast of affectionately drawn oddball characters, some human and some not.

Gerald, age 10, was already a naturalist when he arrived in Corfu—it was in his bones. The island offered a wealth of fauna for him to explore and bring home, often to the chagrin of his family. Among them is Quasimodo, the pigeon adopted as a baby, who thinks he is human and refuses to fly—until he turns out to be a she, lays two eggs and rejects the family for a pigeon suitor. And there are two mischievous magpies, dubbed the Magenpies, (more…)

Review: Himalaya Bound

April 30, 2018

Himalaya Bound: One Family’s Quest to Save Their Animals and an Ancient Way of Life
By Michael Benanav. Pegasus, 2018, 230 pp.

As we confront the damage humans have done to the planet, I’m always impressed when countries establish environmental policies to protect the natural world and wildlife. But as Michael Benanav shows in this excellent book, these policies can have a dire impact on people’s lives and are sometimes misconceived and unnecessary.

For generations, the nomadic Van Gujjars of India, who herd water buffalo, have spent winters in the Shivalik Hills and migrated to the Himalayas for the summer, to provide grazing for their animals. In recent decades, however, the government has established national parks to preserve wildlife in the areas where the Van Gujjars have traditionally taken their buffaloes. Park authorities have tried to block the tribe from their grazing lands.

In 2009, Benanav, a travel writer, accompanied a family on their annual migration, (more…)

Review: Once Upon a Yugoslavia

April 16, 2018

Once Upon a Yugoslavia: When the American Way Met Tito’s Third Way: A Personal Journey.

By Surya Green. Foreword by Dr. Henry Breitrose. New Europe Books, 2015, 291pp.

In 1968, Surya Green, a graduate student in communications at Stanford, traveled to Yugoslavia to work at Zagreb Film, which had won acclaim for its animated features and documentaries. In Once Upon a Yugoslavia, she explores the cultural differences she encountered and how they influenced her life, and she does this effectively—until the book loses its way.

Green, then in her late twenties, was searching for the meaning of her life, and this quest clearly kept her open and attentive to what she saw around her, both negative and positive. She observes the slow pace of life in Yugoslavia, the limited material goods, the confined and often inadequate (by American standards) living conditions, and the lack of free expression. But she is also aware that people have universal access to health care, education, and employment, a calmness that comes from a lack of pressure, and a noble national goal of “Brotherhood and Unity” that translates into teamwork.

These observations awaken her to a more critical view of her life in the United States, with its pressure to achieve individual success, its focus on material wealth, its emphasis on consumerism and fashion, its own constraints on freedom. She comes to find the slower pace of life in Yugoslavia allows for more reflection, that she doesn’t need so many things, that she can begin to focus less on herself. (more…)

Review: The Most Beautiful Walk in the World

April 2, 2018

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris
By John Baxter. Harper Perennial, 2011, 298 pp.

“After eating and sex, walking is Paris’s preferred activity,” says John Baxter, an Australian writer married to a Frenchwoman who has lived in Paris for more than 20 years and gives “literary walking tours” of the city. In The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, he treats readers to a walking tour.

Baxter became a guide almost by chance, replacing a boring guide in the Paris Literary Seminar and proving so successful that he continued on his own. His popularity as a guide is easy to understand. He has a talent for combining interesting information with entertaining anecdotes, enabling listeners—or readers—to feel that they are at once learning and knowing, initiates, already insiders.

Baxter’s short chapters move breezily along, drawing upon personal experience, history, and visualization as he visits various parts of the city. (more…)

Rudyard Kipling's Bad Trip

March 13, 2018

American Notes.
By Rudyard Kipling. First published in 1891. Kindle Edition.

Having read Charles Dickens’s American Notes, I decided to try Rudyard Kipling’s identically titled book, an account of a trip he made in 1889, some 50 years after Dickens’s excursion. What a letdown!

I can’t say that I wasn’t warned. The introduction to the edition I read observes that these “Notes…are considered so far beneath Mr. Kipling’s real work that they have been nearly suppressed and are rarely found in a list of his writings.” Curious, I plowed on--I was interested in yet another view of America’s earlier days, and the book is only 48 pages long.

Kipling begins his journey in San Francisco, (more…)

Review: American Notes

March 2, 2018

American Notes for General Circulation.

By Charles Dickens. Project Gutenberg.

Charles Dickens’s account of his 1842 tour of America is, as I expected, a lively travelog. It is also, as I hoped, an insightful commentary that offers enlightening, if dispiriting, links between the country’s early days and its present.

Dickens spent six months in America, and American Notes covers a lot of ground, recording where he goes, how he gets there, what he sees, and what he thinks of it all. He admires Boston, laments the squalor in New York, scorns the politicians in Washington, enjoys the west—especially Cincinnati—and finds tranquility and joy in the beauty of Niagara Falls.

Travel by coach, railway, and steamboat was strenuous, but he makes good fun of the discomforts—the bad food, the atrocious sleeping accommodations. He cannot find humor, though, in the filth, especially the omnipresent tobacco spitting, which disgusted him. I would have liked to hear from Mrs. Dickens about these ordeals, but though she accompanied him, she remains voiceless throughout. (more…)

"The Eye-Openers," by Hilaire Belloc

January 16, 2018

Tags: Words or phrases to categorize this post for the tags section

In "The Eye-Openers," an astute essay in his collection First and Last, Hilaire Belloc argues that too often travelers find "what they have read of at home instead of what they really see." He complains that "printer's ink ends by actually preventing one from seeing things that are there." We're so committed to the "wretched tags" we've acquired that we can't see past them.

I agree--it's hard to shed preconceptions, and also hard to really look at what's in front of us. Belloc doesn't go as far as William Henry Hudson (see my review, Afoot in England, Dec. 19, 2017) to suggest that we not read anything at all about a place or culture before experiencing it. He suggests that if a traveler "maintain his mind ready for what he really sees and hears, he will become a whole nest of Columbuses discovering a perfectly interminable series of new worlds."

See also my review of Belloc's The Path to Rome (Jan. 31, 2016), a book I enjoyed.






Selected Works

Travel Memoir
"Loved this book, which appears to be but is more than an account of an anthropological expedition, more than a travel book, more than a memoir."--Barbara Beckwith, author of What Was I Thinking?: Digging Deeper into Everyday Racism, barbarabeckwith.net.
***
"It is undoubtedly the best written account of, and reflection on, fieldwork I have read, and --perhaps -- the best book on fieldwork (period) I have come across. --Joel Savishinsky, Professor of Anthropology (Emeritus), Ithaca College, author of Trail of the Hare.
Nonfiction
“An impressively insightful, deftly written, accessibly articulate, expertly knowledgeable, and decidedly analytical survey of…book reviewing today.”
Midwest Book Review
Anthology
“Captivating stories in an anthology of epistolary fiction from the last 50 years.”
Kirkus

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