TraveLit--A blog about travel literature

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

Review: Throwim Way Leg: Tree Kangaroos, Possums and Penis Gourds--On the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea

June 23, 2017

Throwim Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums and Penis Gourds—On the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea

By Tim Flannery. Grove Press, 1998, 326 pp.

New Guinea is a wonderland of fauna and flora found nowhere else on earth, a paradise for an ornithologist, an entomologist, a botanist, or a zoologist like Tim Flannery. But to explore the country’s riches, the researcher has to deal with a seriously rugged terrain: dense bush, steep mountains and slippery descents, slimy logs bridging flooding rivers and deep ravines, extreme heat, and humidity so intense that, as Flannery says, “You can feel the fungus growing on your skin.” There is also the disease factor—malaria, dysentery, scrub typhus, altitude sickness. And then there is the fact that when you finally arrive at a village you have no idea whether the greeting will be friendly or hostile.

To take this on, the researcher has to be fit, intrepid, up for adventure, and passionate about his work. The Australian mammologist, Tim Flannery, though too modest to cast himself as hero, is all four. He is also a writer who can draw readers into both his fieldwork and his personal experience in prose that is at once plain and gripping.

Throwin Way Leg, in New Guinea Pidgin, means “to go on a journey,” (more…)

Book Review: In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic

June 7, 2017

Saint Anna
In the Land of White Death: An Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic

By Valerian Albanov. Preface by Jon Krakauer. Introduction by David Roberts. Alison Anderson, Translator. With Additional Material from William Barr’s Translation from the Russian. Modern Library, Random House, 2000, 205 pp.

For some of us, the stories of polar exploration remain forever fascinating. They take place in an otherworldly world. Like novels, they grip us with their unpredictable challenges and turns and move us with their chancy, sorrowful deaths. But we read them always knowing that, unlike fiction, these incredible stories of endurance actually happened.

In the Land of White Death, first published in Russian in 1917, was a story I had never heard of. Like many polar tales, it is a story of survival and loss. Unlike most, though, it is a first-person narrative, related with the immediacy and intensity of a personal voice.

That voice belongs to Valerian Albanov, the chief navigation officer on the Saint Anna, which set out in August 1912 on an expedition from present-day Murmansk to Vladivostok to explore new hunting grounds (more…)

Travel Books for Youngsters

May 17, 2017

Longitude Books ‏ newsletter offers a selection of new children's books that aim to empower kids to be global citizens. (Scroll down to item #6--but there are other interesting travel books recommended along the way.)


Guest Blog: "Misguided" (A Traveler Grapples with Guidebooks)

May 4, 2017

The leaning tower of Pisa
Misguided: The Elusive Truth
By Elizabeth Marcus, the author of Don't Say a Word, a memoir, and many wonderful essays on travel and other topics. For more of her writing, visit her blog, eLizwrites, and be sure to link to the Archive.



Once it was Baedeker or nothing. Now a slew of guidebooks compete for the privilege of answering the traveler’s every question. Usually I take along only one book, but on one trip to Northern Italy many years ago, I packed four: Fodor’s for the basics, Michelin for authoritative facts and maps, and, just in case our then-teenagers awoke from their adolescent comas and I struck a vein of curiosity, the more thorough Cadogan’s Tuscany and Umbria and Cento Citta by Paul Hofmann. It was an illuminating experience — but less for what we learned about Italy than for what was revealed about the books. With guidebooks as with cooks, it seems, it is possible to have too many.

All we wanted was a simple, clear account, but in Verona we began to realize we were getting more of a murky stew. (more…)

Review: The Summer of My Greek Taverna

April 25, 2017

The Summer of My Greek Taverna
By Tom Stone. Simon & Schuster, 2002, 250 pp.

What is it about running a restaurant that has such great appeal? So many people I know have longed to do it. I myself once planned on opening a restaurant with a friend, and I don’t even like to eat!

Tom Stone is—or was—one of the smitten. As The Summer of My Greek Taverna opens, he receives a call from a friend, Theologos, on the island of Patmos, where Stone lived before moving to Crete with his French wife, Danielle, and their two children. When Theologos asks if Stone would like to rent his taverna for the summer, the author finds it hard to resist. He loves to cook. He remembers sitting for many hours in that taverna and thinking he could absolutely do a better job of running it. Moreover, he has heard from friends who own restaurants in Mykonos that you could make enough money in a summer to last a year. He could stop teaching English, Danielle could stop painting tourist-trade icons, and they could get back to being artists.

From the first, Stone drops signs that all might not go smoothly. (more…)

Reader Recommendation :The Swamp

April 17, 2017

David, who has lived in Florida for many years, recommends The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, by Michael Grunwald (Simon & Schuster, 2006), a book widely praised when it appeared for its riveting storytelling and thorough research.

Review: Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country

April 14, 2017

Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile’s Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.
By Joe Queenan. Henry Holt, 2004, 240 pp.

In an August 2016 entry for this blog, I linked to CNN’s “15 Funniest Travel Books Ever Written (in English).” Queenan’s nicely punning title came in ninth on the list. As I love humor in travel writing, and Joe Queenan can be funny, my expectations for this book were high.

As Queenan explains in his introduction, he is married to an Englishwoman, and he has been to Britain many times, often visiting her relatives. In 2002, he decided he wanted to go on his own. The British had always baffled him, he says, and he wanted to figure out what made them tick. Queenan Country, published two years later, he calls “the confessions of a reluctant Anglophile,” a narrative expressing his feelings toward the British, both positive and negative. “Ultimately,” he writes, “I wanted this project to be a cross between a valentine and a writ of execution, an affectionate jeremiad, if you will.”

Queenan’s six-week tour therefore focuses less on Britain than on the British, whom he often contrasts with Americans, shooting barbs at both. He does travel—breezing through Liverpool, Durham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and other places, offering humorous historical synopses and commentary as he goes. But his interest lies in British character and customs.

The British are easy to make mock—they have served many a satirist well—and the earlier part of the book has some very funny lines. (more…)

Natural Opium: Some Travelers' Tales

March 10, 2017

Over at the New York Times, Dwight Garner has high praise for Diane Johnson's Natural Opium: Some Travelers' Tales. The book is currently out-of-print--but probably not for long!

Review: Searching for Thoreau

March 9, 2017

Searching for Thoreau: On the Trails and Shores of Wild New England
By Tom Slayton. Images of the Past, 2007, 208 pp.

Henry David Thoreau is a major American figure today, an object of adoration to his many followers, the subject of numerous books. “Why?” asks Tom Slayton, in Searching for Thoreau. “Why is Henry David Thoreau, who was regarded as—at best—a minor disciple of Emerson while alive, now so vitally important to our contemporary experience? Why is he the only Transcendentalist we still read willingly?”

This is an excellent question and one that Slayton is a good candidate to answer well. (more…)

Reader Recommendation

February 27, 2017

Jeremy, a map collector, recommends Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (British Library, London, 2014) by Chet van Duzer. An excellent book that examines the sources of those fantastic cartographic creatures that you'll never (you hope) meet on your travels.

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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