TraveLit--A blog about travel literature

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

The Green Unknown: Travels in the Khasi Hills

November 24, 2017

The Green Unknown: Travels in the Khasi Hills
By Patrick Rogers. Westland, Kindle Edition, Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2017.

Patrick Rogers began trekking in the Khasi Hills in northeastern India in 2010, and he has returned many times since, drawn by the beauty of the region, with its canyons, its waterfalls, its raging rivers, and, above, all its living root bridges. These extraordinary bridges, trained from the roots of the ficus elastica, can reach a length of nearly 200 feet and rise almost 100 feet above the streams they span. They are, the author says, “among the world’s exceedingly few examples of architecture which is simultaneously functional and alive.”

Rogers takes readers along as he travels from village to village, mostly on foot, in Meghalaya, an area that is small but diverse: language, customs, religion vary from one place to the next. From time to time Rogers meets someone who knows some English, but mostly he communicates piecemeal, in words he’s picked up from Hindi and dialects or, more effectively, by signs. This seems to work. He gets along well with the people he meets, who generously offer hospitality to a bedraggled foreigner—a Phareng—whose purpose in being there they probably find unfathomable. (more…)

Travel Writing Upgraded

November 22, 2017

According to a review in the Times Literary Supplement, the new academic term for travel writing is "literary-mobility studies." Only in academia! I love it!

Review: Two Years Before the Mast

November 15, 2017

Two Years Before the Mast
By Richard Henry Dana
(This book is available in many editions. I read it online on The Project Gutenberg.)

Richard Henry Dana is buried in an old Cambridge churchyard just down the street from my house, and I’ve passed his gravestone hundreds of times. Yet I never paid much attention to it, and until a friend recommended Two Years Before the Mast, I had never read his classic work. Indeed, not only had I never read it, I thought it was a novel!

In fact, of course, this wonderful book is an account, in journal form, of Dana’s two years—1834-1836—as a sailor in the American merchant marine. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he had suffered from a case of measles that so damaged his eyes that he was forced to drop out of school. He then signed up on a Boston brig, the Pilgrim, heading round Cape Horn to California, where it would trade its goods for hides.

Young Dana is entirely ignorant of what he has signed up for, and as he says, “There is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor’s life." (more…)

Abroad, by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton

November 2, 2017

Abroad
By Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton. 1882. Reprinted in various editions.

Abroad is a beautifully illustrated children’s book in verse that tells the story of an English family’s trip to France. Their mother died three years earlier, and every spring their father tries to give them “some tour, or treat, or pleasant thing”—and their journey is this year’s gift.

Their trip takes them to Boulogne, Rouen, Caen, and Paris, where they visit the Tuileries and Luxembourg Gardens, the zoo, and the markets, see a Punch and Judy show and elegant, snobby swans, and enjoy a ride on a merry-go-round. Along the way they experience boat, trains, and hotels, and a great variety of French people at work--sharpening knives, making lace, or washing clothes. (more…)

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…)

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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