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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 Socrates Express

The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers

By Eric Weiner.  Avid Reader Press, 2020, 330 pp.


As Eric Weiner observes in his introduction to The Socrates Express, "In the literary world, how-to books are an embarrassment, the successful but uncouth cousin.  Serious writers don't write how-to books, and serious readers don't read them.


How bold then to write a how-to book about that most serious subject, philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom.  A clash of high culture and low, you might think.


But Weiner, a former foreign correspondent for NPR, in searching for ways to deal with his own "persistent melancholy," has created a work of applied philosophy that is thoughtful, entertaining, and useful.  He renders the abstract practical by focusing on 14 philosophers who were themselves practical.  "It was not the meaning of life that interested them," he says, "but leading meaningful lives."


Framing each chapter as a train journey to a relevant place—"philosophy and trains pair well," says Weiner—he visits Athens for "How to Wonder like Socrates"; Frankfurt, for "How to Listen like Schopenhauer"; Bordeaux, for "How to Die like Montaigne"; and Ashford, in the UK, for "How to Pay Attention like Simone Weil." Read More 

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Book Recommendation

Atlas of Imagined Places: From Lilliput to Gotham City.

By Matt Brown and Rhys B. Davies.  Batsford, 2021, 168 pp.


Another recommendation from the TLS.  MC, in his NB column, notes that the 20 maps in this atlas trace 5000 fictional locations that may be "entirely made up" but "set somewhere in Earth," or "based on somewhere real" but "have been renamed," such as Hardy's Wessex.


A notable comment from one Amazon reader is that the "Book arrived with all the pages bound upside down.  Not sure if this was printed this way deliberately or not."  Not complaining, however, he thinks this added to the "quirkyness" of the book!

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Book Recommendation

The Unknown Islands, Raul Brandao, Tagus Press, originally published 1926.


Writing in the TLS, Bernhard Malkmus calls The Unknown Islands, by Raul Brandao,  a "beautifully crafted account of the social life and natural history of the Azores archipelago" and recommends David Brookshaw's "sensitive and nuanced translation--the first in English."

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Review: Hiking to Siberia

Hiking to Siberia: Curious Tales of Travel and Travelers

By Lawrence Millman. sunnyoutside, 2012, 126 pp.


Lawrence Millman is a refreshingly old-fashioned adventurer.  In his travels he generally heads out to little-known, hard-to-reach, hard-to navigate places that require stamina and endurance: as he notes, "travel" and "travail" are etymologically related.  Curiosity drives his journeys.  "I'm trying to discover the few remaining places that have not lost their marrow," he says.


Hiking to Siberia is a slender book, but its 22 brief essays cover a great expanse of territory, from Svalbard to Micronesia, from Nova Scotia to the Lesser Antilles.  As I observed in my review of his book Last Places: A Journey in the North, Millman loves stories—and he is an excellent storyteller, sufficiently talented to make a good story even out of failing to find the story he was looking for.  He never does solve the enigma of Lillian Alling, the subject of the title essay, a woman who in 1927 left New York City to hike to Siberia and may or may not have made it.  No matter.  She piques our interest as she piqued his.


Two other characters of interest Millman profiles in these stories are Jules Verne,  ("The Incidental Traveler"), who devoted his writings to exotic travels, but did not, it turns out, travel very far; and Christiane Ritter ("A Woman in the Polar Night"), who joined her husband in Svalbard Read More 

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Review: The Stone Boudoir

The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily

By Theresa Maggio.  Perseus, 2002, 246 pp.


"Something thrums in the stones of Sicilian hill towns, and I have become obsessed with them," writes Theresa Maggio in her colorful and very personal guide through this distinctive part of Italy. 


Maggio's paternal grandparents were Sicilian, emigrating early in the twentieth century from the town of Santa Margherita, which was destroyed in the earthquake of 1965.  Although her grandmother refused to return to the village, claiming "There's nothing there," Maggio decided to see Sicily for herself, visiting while in college, and again, later, with her father, as well as on various vacations.  Watching "The Star Maker," by the Sicilian director Giuseppe Tornatore—who also made the Academy Award-winning movie "Nuovo Cinema Paradiso"—she was captivated by Sicily's stone villages, and in 1992, she finally had the time and money to explore them. 


Blending description, history, anecdotes, and her own experiences, Maggio takes us from town to town, focusing both on place and on people.  It is a leisurely journey, its style well-suited to these quiet villages.  Despite the book's subtitle, they are not really "hidden"—travelers know that little remains truly hidden these days.  Arriving in Castiglione, Maggio thinks she has found a "lost village," only to discover, hanging on a restaurant wall, autographed photographs of Harvey Keitel, who spent a month in the town while making a film.  Still, the towns she visits are hardly tourist attractions: they are small, insular, inhabited largely by older people, and still tied to older customs.  And each has its own character. Read More 

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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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