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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

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

Review: By the Ionian Sea: Notes of a Ramble in Southern Italy

By the Ionian Sea: Notes of a Ramble in Southern Italy
By George Gissing. Project Gutenberg. First published, 1901.

In the late 1890s, the writer George Gissing set off on a trip to Southern Italy, an intensely personal journey into Magna Graecia with its ancient Greek ruins. “The names of Greece and Italy draw me as no others;” he writes; “they make me young again, and restore the keen impressions of that time when every new page of Greek or Latin was a new perception of things beautiful.”

Not everything on this rugged journey was beautiful, but Gissing retains his passion throughout, as he travels south from Naples to Calabria and on to Sicily. In Paola, he reflects on Hannibal and the Visigoths. In Taranto, he finds that the fishermen—“their lithe limbs, their attitudes at work or in repose, their wild, black hair”—remind him of “shapes pictured on a classic vase.”

He searches for the Galaesus, Horace’s “beloved river,” and in Metapontum, he thinks of Pythagoras, said to have died there in 497 BC, “broken-hearted at the failure of his efforts to make mankind gentle and reasonable.” Gissing observes that “In 1897 AD that hope had not come much nearer to its realization.” Nor in 2018, this reader would add. Read More 

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Review: Off The Leash: Subversive Journeys Around Vermont

Off the Leash: Subversive Journeys Around Vermont
By Helen Husher. Countryman Press, 1999, 206 pp.

The title of this book suggests that we may be in for some wild rides, but this is misleading. In twelve essays, Helen Husher gives us an untouristic (though not especially subversive) tour of her home state of Vermont. The metaphorical dog off the leash here isn’t snarling or on the attack: she’s quietly wandering, exploring, digging up the forgotten stories of places that are too often passed by.

Interweaving personal narrative and contextual information, Husher takes us on some surprising jaunts—to the Joseph Smith Memorial, for example, where the author climbs to an extraordinary view and reflects on the Mormons’ westward expansion, reminding us that both Smith and Brigham Young were actually born in Vermont.  Read More 

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

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.  Read More 

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Review: Land's End: A Walk Through Provincetown

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; Read More 

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Review: Time & Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket

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.  Read More 

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Review: My Family and Other Animals

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,  Read More 

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Review: Himalaya Bound

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,  Read More 

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Review: Once Upon a Yugoslavia

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. Read More 

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Review: The Most Beautiful Walk in the World

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. Read More 

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Rudyard Kipling's Bad Trip

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,  Read More 

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