TraveLit--A blog about travel literature

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

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.

Review: Alaska Days with John Muir

February 15, 2017

Alaska Days with John Muir
By S. Hall Young. Fleming H. Revell, 1915, 190 pp. Available free on Kindle and on Project Gutenberg (with illustrations).

S. Hall Young was a young missionary in southeastern Alaska when John Muir arrived there in 1879. The two men immediately formed a friendship that lasted throughout their lives, and in 1915, Young wrote this slender book, which is both an engaging description of their adventures and a homage to the great Scottish naturalist, explorer, and founder of the Sierra Club, who opened the author’s eyes to the beauty around him.

If Young’s mission was to work with and convert the Thlinget, Muir’s was to explore the forests, the mountains, and most especially the glaciers, which Young calls “Muir’s special pets, his intimate companions, with whom he held sweet communion.” Muir particularly liked going out on the glaciers in storms, “for their exhilarating music and motion,” as he wrote elsewhere: “For many of Nature’s finest lessons are to be found in her storms.”

The two shared explorations, including a six-week canoe trip through uncharted territory, and Young describes Muir as pretty much unstoppable. (more…)

Maps as Travel Writing

February 10, 2017

This rare map showing exploratory routes towards the North Pole as of 1909 includes the routes of Frederick Albert Cook and Robert Peary, each of whom claimed to be the first to reach the Pole. In the conflict that ensued, the courts ruled that Cook's records offered insufficient proof of his claim and awarded the honor to Peary. But a later explorer, Wally Herbert, concluded in 1989 that Peary was mistaken, and that though he came close--within 60 miles--he didn't in fact reach the Pole.

Thanks to Kevin Brown of Geographicus Rare Antique Maps for information about this map.

Reading Around the World: Great Photos

January 31, 2017

Steve McCurry: On Reading offers unexpected, quirky, humorous, wonderful photos of reading around the world. The book has a foreword by Paul Theroux.

Review: Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart

January 28, 2017

Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart
By Tim Butcher. Grove Press, 2007, 2008, 363 pp.

After Tim Butcher, a war correspondent, was appointed Africa Correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, he became obsessed with Henry Morton Stanley, the great explorer—and not-so-great human being—who was also sent to Africa by The Telegraph more than a hundred years before. Although most famous for finding David Livingstone in 1871 (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume”), Stanley achieved something more significant: on his 3000-kilometer journey between 1874 and 1877, he mapped the Congo River, opening the country to brutal Belgian colonization that has been followed by years of war and chaos.

Determined to “go back to where it all began” and to “draw together the Congo’s fractious whole,” Butcher decided to follow Stanley’s route from the east side of the country to the west. Although warned by everyone he spoke to that, amidst the deterioration of the Congo and the various wars, it couldn’t be done, he nonetheless prepared. And when, in 2004, warring factions agreed to a peace treaty, he saw his chance and set out.

In Blood River, Butcher provides a compelling account of his dangerous journey, (more…)

Books, Travel, A Literary Hotel

January 23, 2017

"This Hotel With 50,000 Books Is A Literary Lover’s Dream Come True.
Oh, and there’s a gin bar too."


Thanks to the Huffington Post and Longitude Books for the link.

Review: Bones of the Master: A Journey to Secret Mongolia

January 12, 2017

Bones of the Master: A Journey to Secret Mongolia
By George Crane. Bantam, 2000, 293 pp.

Bones of the Master, an engrossing story of a pilgrimage, revolves around Tsung Tsai, an extraordinary Buddhist monk, who fled Mongolia in 1959, when Chinese communists were destroying monasteries and killing monks. In 1995, now living in upstate New York, he decides he must return to his homeland, find the bones of his teacher, and properly cremate and build a stupa for them in the cave where his teacher lived.

For this journey, he recruits his good friend and neighbor George Crane, who raises the necessary funds for the journey by selling a book proposal, and in 1996, the two set off.

While establishing the background for the journey, Crane introduces us to the two main characters, who form an improbable couple. Tsung Tsai is a true Ch’an monk, dedicated to meditation, solitude, reading, celibacy. Though when the two first meet in Crane’s backyard in 1987, Crane doesn’t know—and wouldn’t guess from the rags that Tsung Tsai is wearing—the man is a Buddhist and Sanskrit scholar, whose paintings are collected in Hong Kong. And as we see throughout the Mongolian journey, he is a well-known and highly respected monk.

Crane, on the other hand, a poet in his 40s, describes himself as “a cerebral ne'er-do-well with a love of books, women, and travel and a distaste for long-term employment.” (more…)

Counting the Cats in Zanzibar: Travel Quotation

December 30, 2016

Thinking about Thoreau, after reviewing Walking towards Walden (below), I decided this was a good time to quote his famous passage from Walden itself:

It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Yet do this even till you can do better, and you may perhaps find some "Symmes' Hole" by which to get at the inside at last. England and France, Spain and Portugal, Gold Coast and Slave Coast, all front on this private sea; but no bark from them has ventured out of sight of land, though it is without doubt the direct way to India. If you would learn to speak all tongues and conform to the customs of all nations, if you would travel farther than all travellers, be naturalized in all climes, and cause the Sphinx to dash her head against a stone, even obey the precept of the old philosopher, and Explore thyself. Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve. Only the defeated and deserters go to the wars, cowards that run away and enlist. Start now on that farthest western way, which does not pause at the Mississippi or the Pacific, nor conduct toward a wornout China or Japan, but leads on direct, a tangent to this sphere, summer and winter, day and night, sun down, moon down, and at last earth down too.

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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