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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: Once Upon a Yugoslavia

Once Upon a Yugoslavia: When the American Way Met Tito’s Third Way: A Personal Journey
By Surya Green. Foreword by Dr. Henry Breitrose. New Europe Books, 2015, 291pp.

In 1968, Surya Green, a graduate student in communications at Stanford, traveled to Yugoslavia to work at Zagreb Film, which had won acclaim for its animated features and documentaries. In Once Upon a Yugoslavia, she explores the cultural differences she encountered and how they influenced her life, and she does this effectively—until the book loses its way.

Green, then in her late twenties, was searching for the meaning of her life, and this quest clearly kept her open and attentive to what she saw around her, both negative and positive. She observes the slow pace of life in Yugoslavia, the limited material goods, the confined and often inadequate (by American standards) living conditions, and the lack of free expression. But she is also aware that people have universal access to health care, education, and employment, a calmness that comes from a lack of pressure, and a noble national goal of “Brotherhood and Unity” that translates into teamwork.

These observations awaken her to a more critical view of her life in the United States, with its pressure to achieve individual success, its focus on material wealth, its emphasis on consumerism and fashion, its own constraints on freedom. She comes to find the slower pace of life in Yugoslavia allows for more reflection, that she doesn’t need so many things, that she can begin to focus less on herself. Read More 

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Review: The Most Beautiful Walk in the World

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris
By John Baxter. Harper Perennial, 2011, 298 pp.

“After eating and sex, walking is Paris’s preferred activity,” says John Baxter, an Australian writer married to a Frenchwoman who has lived in Paris for more than 20 years and gives “literary walking tours” of the city. In The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, he treats readers to a walking tour.

Baxter became a guide almost by chance, replacing a boring guide in the Paris Literary Seminar and proving so successful that he continued on his own. His popularity as a guide is easy to understand. He has a talent for combining interesting information with entertaining anecdotes, enabling listeners—or readers—to feel that they are at once learning and knowing, initiates, already insiders.

Baxter’s short chapters move breezily along, drawing upon personal experience, history, and visualization as he visits various parts of the city. Read More 

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Rudyard Kipling's Bad Trip

American Notes.
By Rudyard Kipling. First published in 1891. Kindle Edition.

Having read Charles Dickens’s American Notes, I decided to try Rudyard Kipling’s identically titled book, an account of a trip he made in 1889, some 50 years after Dickens’s excursion. What a letdown!

I can’t say that I wasn’t warned. The introduction to the edition I read observes that these “Notes…are considered so far beneath Mr. Kipling’s real work that they have been nearly suppressed and are rarely found in a list of his writings.” Curious, I plowed on--I was interested in yet another view of America’s earlier days, and the book is only 48 pages long.

Kipling begins his journey in San Francisco,  Read More 

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Review: American Notes

American Notes for General Circulation.

By Charles Dickens. Project Gutenberg.

Charles Dickens’s account of his 1842 tour of America is, as I expected, a lively travelog. It is also, as I hoped, an insightful commentary that offers enlightening, if dispiriting, links between the country’s early days and its present.

Dickens spent six months in America, and American Notes covers a lot of ground, recording where he goes, how he gets there, what he sees, and what he thinks of it all. He admires Boston, laments the squalor in New York, scorns the politicians in Washington, enjoys the west—especially Cincinnati—and finds tranquility and joy in the beauty of Niagara Falls.

Travel by coach, railway, and steamboat was strenuous, but he makes good fun of the discomforts—the bad food, the atrocious sleeping accommodations. He cannot find humor, though, in the filth, especially the omnipresent tobacco spitting, which disgusted him. I would have liked to hear from Mrs. Dickens about these ordeals, but though she accompanied him, she remains voiceless throughout. Read More 

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"The Eye-Openers," by Hilaire Belloc

In "The Eye-Openers," an astute essay in his collection First and Last, Hilaire Belloc argues that too often travelers find "what they have read of at home instead of what they really see." He complains that "printer's ink ends by actually preventing one from seeing things that are there." We're so committed to the "wretched tags" we've acquired that we can't see past them.

I agree--it's hard to shed preconceptions, and also hard to really look at what's in front of us. Belloc doesn't go as far as William Henry Hudson (see my review, Afoot in England, Dec. 19, 2017) to suggest that we not read anything at all about a place or culture before experiencing it. He suggests that if a traveler "maintain his mind ready for what he really sees and hears, he will become a whole nest of Columbuses discovering a perfectly interminable series of new worlds."

See my review of Belloc's excellent book: The Path to Rome (Jan. 31, 2016). Read More 

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Review: The Lady and the Panda

The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China’s Most Exotic Animal
By Vicki Constantine Croke. Random House, 2009, 402 pp.

In the 1930s, the adventurers who sought to capture wild animals—either dead, for natural history museums, or alive, for zoos—were mainly young men from wealthy, upper-class families. Ruth Harkness did not fit into this group: she was a party-loving New York dress designer with no trekking experience, she wasn’t rich, and, most exceptionally, she was a woman. But she was determined to go to the Chinese-Tibetan border to complete her late husband’s unfulfilled mission: to bring a living giant panda back to the United States. And against very long odds, she succeeded.

Although once celebrated—and still respected by naturalists and zoologists—Harkness was a little-known figure when Vicki Constantine Croke first heard of her. In her preface, Croke, who has written about animals as a Boston Globe columnist and in her books, says that she felt an immediate bond with the explorer, whose respect for animals set her well ahead of her time. Awed by Harkness’s accomplishment, she decided to revive her story.

It’s an engrossing tale, set against the backdrop of a dramatic era.  Read More 

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Review: Afoot in England

Afoot in England
By William Henry Hudson. Originally published in 1909. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. (The edition I read but do not recommend—see review.)

The practice of walking in the countryside, or rambling, has been popular in England since the 18th century, and William Henry Hudson (1841-1922) was an influential figure in the field of walking tours. For Hudson, these excursions were more than a hobby. They were part of his vocation—as a naturalist, an ornithologist, and a prolific writer whose many works include the novel Green Mansions.

As the essays in Afoot in England make clear, Hudson was a man of strong opinions—whether on cows or on women’s dress—and he makes his views on travel evident from the start. The pleasure in travel, he believes, lies in discovering “the charm of the unknown,” which is diminished if one reads a guidebook before encountering an experience on one’s own. Best to read it after the journey, he says, when reading won’t come between the viewer and the scene.

His short essays recount his own discoveries as he travels around the country: the mob at Stonehenge at dawn, Read More 

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The Green Unknown: Travels in the Khasi Hills

The Green Unknown: Travels in the Khasi Hills
By Patrick Rogers. Westland, Kindle Edition, Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2017.

Patrick Rogers began trekking in the Khasi Hills in northeastern India in 2010, and he has returned many times since, drawn by the beauty of the region, with its canyons, its waterfalls, its raging rivers, and, above, all its living root bridges. These extraordinary bridges, trained from the roots of the ficus elastica, can reach a length of nearly 200 feet and rise almost 100 feet above the streams they span. They are, the author says, “among the world’s exceedingly few examples of architecture which is simultaneously functional and alive.”

Rogers takes readers along as he travels from village to village, mostly on foot, in Meghalaya, an area that is small but diverse: language, customs, religion vary from one place to the next. From time to time Rogers meets someone who knows some English, but mostly he communicates piecemeal, in words he’s picked up from Hindi and dialects or, more effectively, by signs. This seems to work. He gets along well with the people he meets, who generously offer hospitality to a bedraggled foreigner—a Phareng—whose purpose in being there they probably find unfathomable.

The book’s style is casual, but Rogers’s travels—and travails—are strenuous. He navigates hair-raising terrain, encounters massive storms, eats things I suspect most of us would rather avoid—boiled tadpoles!—and he writes about it all with a nice self-deprecating humor.  Read More 

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Travel Writing Upgraded

According to a review in the Times Literary Supplement, the new academic term for travel writing is "literary-mobility studies." Only in academia! I love it!

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Review: Two Years Before the Mast

Two Years Before the Mast
By Richard Henry Dana
(This book is available in many editions. I read it online on The Project Gutenberg.)

Richard Henry Dana is buried in an old Cambridge churchyard just down the street from my house, and I’ve passed his gravestone hundreds of times. Yet I never paid much attention to it, and until a friend recommended Two Years Before the Mast, I had never read his classic work. Indeed, not only had I never read it, I thought it was a novel!

In fact, of course, this wonderful book is an account, in journal form, of Dana’s two years—1834-1836—as a sailor in the American merchant marine. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he had suffered from a case of measles that so damaged his eyes that he was forced to drop out of school. He then signed up on a Boston brig, the Pilgrim, heading round Cape Horn to California, where it would trade its goods for hides.

Young Dana is entirely ignorant of what he has signed up for, and as he says, “There is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor’s life." Read More 

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