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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: Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country

Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile’s Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.
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 
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Natural Opium: Some Travelers' Tales

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!

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Review: Searching for Thoreau

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 

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Reader Recommendation

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.

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Review: Alaska Days with John Muir

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 

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Maps as Travel Writing

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.
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Reading Around the World: Great Photos

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

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

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,  Read More 

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Books, Travel, A Literary Hotel

"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.

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

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.”  Read More 
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