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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.

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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Review: London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets

London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets

By Peter Ackroyd.  Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2011, 228 pp.


As Peter Ackroyd observes in London Under, most pedestrians give little thought to the underworld that lies beneath their feet.  It is a world at once "sequestered and forbidden," and it seems to leave us indifferent.


Ackroyd proposes to penetrate that indifference in this Secret History Beneath the Streets.  Having written previously about the city of London aboveground—in London: A Biography—here, the prolific English author explores "its depths," which he says, "are no less bewildering and no less exhilarating."


The book opens with some general comments on our many and varied associations with the underworld: terror and superstition, but also shelter and fantasy, criminality, excrement, and, of course, death. Read More 

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Links of Interest

Article on Svalbard (Spitsbergen) in the New York Times Travel Section today, January 5th, 2020.  My husband has collected many old maps of Spitsbergen--this 1728 chart by Gerard van Keulen is one of the most beautiful. 

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Travel Quotation

"I have never managed to lose my old conviction that travel narrows the mind."


--G.K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America

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Review: The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

By Henry Beston.  Introduction by Robert Finch.  First published 1928, Doubleday and Doran.  Reprinted, Henry Holt, 2003, 256 pp.  I read the Kindle Edition.


In 1925, Henry Beston bought around 50 acres on the dunes of Eastham on Cape Cod.  He had a two-room cottage built, which he called the Fo'castle and intended to use only for brief visits.


But arriving there the following year for a two-week stay, he found that he couldn't bring himself to leave.  "The fortnight ending," he writes, "I lingered on, and as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go."  He remained for a full year.


The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod is the story of that year.  Read More 

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Review: My First Summer in the Sierra

My First Summer in the Sierra

By John Muir.  Houghton Mifflin, 1911, 272 pp.  Gutenberg Project: The Writings of John Muir, Sierra Edition, Volume II, 1917.  With photographs by Herbert W. Gleason and Charles S. Olcott, and sketches by the author.


Was there ever anyone more exhilarated by nature than John Muir?


"Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days," he writes in My First Summer in the Sierra.  "Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God."


"How deep our sleep last night in the mountain's heart, beneath the trees and stars, hushed by solemn-sounding waterfalls and many small soothing voices in sweet accord whispering peace."


Not that Muir wants to sleep, amidst all this beauty.  "How can I close my eyes on so precious a night?' he asks. 


Indeed, at one point he is so overcome by the glorious landscape that he shouts and gesticulates, frightening off a bear, who seems to view him as dangerous.


All the exuberance might all seem a bit much—if it weren't so authentic. 



 Read More 

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