TraveLit--A blog about travel literature

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

Scott Expedition to the South Pole: New Information?

October 12, 2017

After all that has been written about the Scott expedition to the South Pole, can there really be new information? Maybe so. Those who, like me, continue to be fascinated by the question of what really happened, might want to look at this article from the Daily Mail.


Walking, by Henry David Thoreau

September 30, 2017

Longitude Books‏: Recommended Reading for Travelers recommends Walking, Henry David Thoreau's "meditations on the spiritual benefits of this most civilized form of travel."

Review: White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World

September 22, 2017

White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World.
By Geoff Dyer. Pantheon Books, 2016, 233 pp.

The stories in White Sands find Geoff Dyer on journeys in various parts of the world: on a book tour in China, researching Gaugin in Tahiti, reflecting on “The Lightning Field” in New Mexico, making a pilgrimage to Theodore Adorno’s house and contemplating the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Each piece is preceded by a brief prologue relating to the author’s past that provides an associative context for the story that follows.

Dyer doesn’t just travel. He’s a writer who probes the experience of place and of travel itself, looking for meanings. Sometimes he finds them. His essay on the Watts Towers draws on jazz musicians and various writers to create an intriguing portrait of the man who built them, Sabato Rodia, and their import.

On the other hand, his story of seeking out Adorno’s house struck me as mainly pretentious. “I have this need to show off, to show that I know things,” he says, and this piece seemed to me to suffer from that need. (more…)

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God

August 31, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story
By Douglas Preston. Grand Central Publishing, 2017, 326 pp.

For centuries a legend flourished about a lost city located somewhere in the Mosquitia region of Honduras: Ciudad Blanca—the White City—or the City of the Monkey God. Although the dense rain forest made exploration a challenge, various artifacts discovered in the area seemed to reveal a culture unknown to researchers. Adding to the mystery, indigenous people believed that the city was cursed: anyone who entered this “forbidden place” would die.

Did this city even exist—or was it just a myth? Douglas Preston first became interested in the subject in 1994, when, while working on a different article, he learned that new sophisticated radar technology could penetrate jungle foliage to reveal what lay beneath and that someone was planning to use it to find the White City. (more…)

Review: Oaxaca Journal

August 10, 2017

Oaxaca Journal
By Oliver Sacks. Drawings by Dick Rauh. National Geographic Literary Travel Series, 159 pp.

It’s hardly surprising that Oliver Sacks kept journals on his journeys. How else would he keep track of his many observations, clarify his many thoughts, or create his many stories? Oaxaca Journal is the diary (somewhat embellished) of the 9-day fern-tour he took with the American Fern Society to Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2000.

Although the tour was organized by professional botanists, many members of the group, as in the American Fern Society itself, were amateurs, and this was the draw for Sacks, who had great admiration for amateur naturalists (or birdwatchers, or astronomers, or archaeologists)—their passion, their erudition, the fact that they are inspired by a “sense of adventure and wonder rather than by egotism and a lust for priority and fame.” Though not himself a fern expert, throughout the book he expresses his respect for the botanists he is with, and though generally a “singleton,” he says, he finds real joy here in becoming “one of a group.” (more…)

Review: Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time

July 18, 2017

Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time
By Mark Adams. Penguin, Plume, 2012, 333 pp.

Between 1911 and 1915, Hiram Bingham, Yale professor and swashbuckling explorer, made three trips to Peru, where he came upon the ruins of the Inca empire, then largely unknown to the outside world. A century later, explorers and archeologists are still trying to understand these sites, constructed to align with the sun, stars, and one another, and to comprehend something about the superb engineers who built them.

Mark Adams is not an explorer. As he tells us at the start of his book, he has not even been much of an adventurer. Indeed, though he worked at Adventure magazine, which ran articles on “extreme expeditions,” he himself “had never hunted or fished, didn’t own a mountain bike and couldn’t start a fire without matches if ordered to do so at gunpoint.” Married to a Peruvian woman, he had been to Lima many times, visiting her family, but he had rarely traveled outside the city. Reaching the age of 41, he decided it was time: he would follow Hiram Bingham’s route through the Andes to Machu Picchu.

Turn Right at Machu Picchu alternates between the story of Bingham’s explorations and Adams’s own, and though the former carries the historical weight, both are engaging.

With Adams, we are on the ground, (more…)

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.)


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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