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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: The Falcon Thief

The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird

By Joshua Hammer.  Simon & Schuster, 2020, 324 pp. (I read the Kindle edition.)

 

People have been raiding birds' nests for centuries: for food, for breeding, for scientific inquiry, for mischief,  for profit, and—strangely—for the mysterious allure of the eggs themselves.  "I think that if required on pain of death to name instantly the most perfect thing in the universe," said the minister and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who is quoted in Joshua Hammer's The Falcon Thief,  "I should risk my fate on a bird's egg."

 

Profit would certainly seem to be high on the list of motives for Jeffrey Lendrum, who is the focus of the book, a man who, among various egg thieving acts, steals the eggs of falcons—legally protected birds—to sell for  handsome sums in Arab lands where rich clients use them for racing and believe that wild birds are superior to those bred in captivity.

 

But as Hammer chronicles Lendrum's nest-robbing escapades, starting with his early youth in Rhodesia stealing eggs for his father's collection, he reveals how varied the thief's motives and pleasures are.  Read More 

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Review: Owls of the Eastern Ice

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl

By Jonathan C. Slaght.  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020, 349 pp. (Kindle Edition)

 

In an interview published in the Guardian, Jonathan C. Slaght said that if you googled "Blakiston's Fish Owl," his photo would come up.  I decided to try it—and there he was, embracing a large, hairy bird, a member of an endangered species that Slaght is doing his best to save.  Both of them looked pretty fierce.

 

Ferocity—or at least a fair amount of toughness—is surely an asset for any animal negotiating the wild region of Russia where Slaght conducted his 5-year Ph.D. research project studying fish owls.  The Primorye province, probably best known as home to the Amur tiger, is an area of dense mountains, brutal winters, and dangerous springtimes, when frozen rivers suddenly break up into fast currents. 

 

After watching a deer succumb to the rushing waters, Slaght reflects on the "quiet violence" of the place: "Primeval dichotomies still outlined existence on the Samarga [river]: hungry or satiated, frozen or flowing, living or dead.  A slight deviation could tip the scales from one state of being to the other…The line between life and death here could be measured in the thickness of river ice."

 

Slaght fell in love with the Primorye when he first saw it at the age of 19, and by the start of his research in 2005-6, he was already familiar with the region from subsequent visits and three years residence while in the Peace Corps.  Read More 

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Travel Quotation

In a sense, all travel writers are novelists, with themselves as heroes."
--Malise Ruthven, Traveler Through Time: A Photographic Journey with Freya Stark, 

 

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Review: The Salt Path

The Salt Path: A Memoir

By Raynor Winn.  Penguin, 2018, 271 pp.


Imagine that you are 50 years old, you have just lost your farm, which was not only your home but also your livelihood, and you've learned that your husband, whom you've passionately loved since you were both teenagers, has a degenerative brain disease that is untreatable—what do you do?

 

If you're Raynor Winn, you decide that what you and your husband, Moth, should do is walk England's South West Coast Path, 630 miles, wild camping along the way.  This may not seem the most logical solution—especially since the doctor's advice to Moth was "Don't tire yourself, or walk too far."  And yet this plan proves to be an extraordinarily successful remedy, restoring dignity, health, and, ultimately, prosperity.

 

In The Salt Path, Winn takes us on a very personal journey, engrossing on two levels.   Read More 

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Review: An Inland Voyage

An Inland Voyage
By Robert Louis Stevenson.  Introduction by Ian Correa.  Digireads.com. 2011.  Originally published, 1878.  

 

Although Robert Louis Stevenson is best known today for his fiction, he loved to travel, and his writings include a great deal of wonderful travel literature.  "I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move," he wrote.  And it is clear in An Inland Voyage—as it was in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes and The Amateur Emigrant, both of which I previously reviewed—that being in motion triggered his powers of observation and reflection, giving rise to the creation of vivid scenes, characters, and stories.

 

An Inland Voyage chronicles a canoeing trip that Stevenson took in 1876 with his friend, Sir Walter Simpson.  The pair travel from Belgium through France, each in his own canoe—the Arethusa (Stevenson) and the Cigarette (Simpson).  It is Stevenson's first experience in a canoe, but he seems to manage fairly well, apart from the time the boat gets away from him altogether, leaving him clinging to a tree, still clutching his oar. He wryly imagines a future epitaph that would read: "He clung to his paddle." 

 

The trip is rough going at times.  Read More 

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Book Recommendation

Recommended by a friend: Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff, the story of a WWII mission to rescue survivors of an American military plane crash in Dutch New Guinea.

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Review: If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska

If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska

By Heather Lende.  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005, 282 pp.

 

Haines, Alaska is the focus of Heather Lende's book, and though the town may be small, it abounds in contradictions. 

 

The area is so beautiful that John Muir, who visited in 1879, warned young people to stay away from the region because after seeing it, other places would forever disappoint them.  But,says Lende, it is also "isolated, cloudy, and cold."

 

The town is safe, a place where you needn't lock your door.  But life in Haines is also risky—there's no hospital, the small plane you need to take might crash, or you might fall through the not-quite-frozen lake while ice skating and contemplating the region's beauty.

And while this town of around 2400 is clearly a close-knit community, the residents are divided on pretty much everything, which leads to terrible "fights whenever there's a local election or public hearing."

 

Clearly, this is a place likely to inspire different responses.  Indeed, one tour guide reported that in a single day she had "a group who said they couldn't live in Haines for forty-eight minutes or they'd go nuts and another…where everyone wanted to know how to buy land here." Read More 

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Review: Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills

Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills

By Neil Ansell.  Kindle Edition, Penguin, 2011, 207 pp.

 

When he was thirty, Neil Ansell undertook an extreme adventure.  He moved into an old Victorian gamekeeper's cottage, situated in one of the least populated regions in Britain.  Without electricity, gas, running water, or plumbing, Penlan Cottage—uninhabited for decades—had only some basic furnishings, and Ansell brought nothing with him beyond some clothes.  "I wanted to know how lightly I could tread on the earth," he writes.

 

Ansell remained for five years, and Deep Country is the story of those years, a sojourn during which he experienced droughts, torrential rains, being snowed in, both mild and serious illness, and intense isolation.  At one point, when he hiked to the village shop, he found that when he spoke to the shopkeeper, his voice cracked, and he realized that he hadn't spoken a word to anyone in at least two weeks.  But this isolation was part of the challenge: He wanted to find out "who I was when I could no longer define myself in terms of my relation to others."

 

For most of the book, we accompany Ansell on his daily rounds and he is such a good storyteller that I found myself engrossed in the details of his life— Read More 

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Review: An Area of Darkness

An Area of Darkness

By V. S. Naipaul.  Vintage, Random House, first published 1964, 291 pp. (Kindle Edition)

 

Although V. S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad, his family originally came from India, and in the early '60s, the author made his first journey to the subcontinent.  An Area of Darkness chronicles this year of travel, which took him to Bombay, Delhi, Kashmir, and eventually to the small village that his grandfather left as an indentured laborer more than 60 years before.

 

As Naipaul travels, the finely wrought sentences and observations about caste and the Raj can give his account an aura of reason and even detachment.  But this is deceptive.  The level of hostility toward almost everything observed, the ugly disparagement of the country and its inhabitants, the simmering anger always ready to burst forth—all make it clear that for Naipaul this is a deeply emotional journey.

 

Naipaul is understandably appalled by the poverty, the dirt, the subservience that he observes.  "The beggars, the gutters, the starved bodies, the weeping swollen-bellied child black with flies in the filth and cowdung and human excrement of a bazaar lane, the dogs, ribby, mangy, cowed and cowardly, reserving their anger, like the human beings around them, for others of their kind."

 

All around he sees a "static, decayed society" that keeps people down.  He writes astutely about the negative impact of the Raj and of the caste system, which, he says, reduces people to functionality.  People defecate openly because there will be sweepers whose function it is to clean up after them.  There is no bravery, he writes, not because of cowardice but because "bravery, the willingness to risk one's life, is the function of the soldier and no one else."

 

But the negative is almost all that he sees, and he expresses his revulsion in contemptuous language.   Read More 

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Review: Tales of Remarkable Birds

Tales of Remarkable Birds

By Dominic Couzens.  Bloomsbury, 2015, 224 pp.

 

In this beautifully illustrated book, the naturalist and bird guide Dominic Couzens takes readers on a world tour of some fascinating avian lives.  It is, he says, a "small taster for a great feast."  So many birds, so many extraordinary traits! 

 

But selecting for geographic breadth, a wide range of behaviors, and his own preferences (he likes handsome birds), Couzens has chosen well.  Some of the birds are familiar, some are obscure, but all, in the author's concise and engaging descriptions, offer surprise. Read More 

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