TraveLit--A blog about travel literature.
Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.
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. Read More
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. Read More
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.
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. Read More
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!
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. Read More
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.
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. Read More
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. Read More