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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: Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff

Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff
By Rosemary Mahoney. Little, Brown, 2007, 268 pp.

Walking the length of Japan, bicycling through Ireland’s nasty winter, following in the frigid tracks of great Arctic explorers: the things travelers do for the sake of adventure—or perhaps for the sake of writing a travel book.

Rosemary Mahoney’s quest was to row on the Nile. Not the length of it, of course, just from Elephantine Island to Qena, in Egypt, “enough to feel that I had traveled, enough to see the river up close.”

In itself, when she finally gets to do it, this isn’t much of a challenge. Mahoney is an experienced rower—back home, near Narragansett Bay, she rows often—and the river does not offer insurmountable difficulties. The challenge is cultural.  Read More 

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Piazza Navona

"Piazza Navona is not only the most exquisitely beautiful square in Rome, it's also the beating heart of the city."
―William Murray, City of the Soul: A Walk in Rome (Crown), not an essential book for the visitor, but an engaging, informative stroll through the city, written by someone who has lived there, as a child and an adult.
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Scott Expedition at the Pole

Robert Falcon ("Con")Scott, Dr. Edward ("Uncle Bill") Wilson, Henry Robertson ("Birdie") Bowers, Lawrence Edward ("Titus") Oates, and Edgar ("Taff") Evans reach the South Pole in March 1912 to find that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen has beaten them to it.

A painful photo, illuminated by Beryl Bainbridge's novel, The Birthday Boys, which I've reviewed below.

And while I'm on the topic of the Scott expedition, another book I'd recommend is The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. "Cherry," only 24 at the time of Scott's Terra Nova Expedition, was not along on the final run and lived to write this excellent work, with its account of the side-trip he made with Wilson and Bowers to visit the Emperor penguin rookery at Cape Crozier--an extraordinary journey so challenging they barely survived.  Read More 

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Riveting Story of Fatal Scott Expedition

The Birthday Boys
By Beryl Bainbridge. With a brief biography and photos of the author. Open Road Media, Digital, 2016.

Many books have been written about Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal expedition to the South Pole, but none I’ve read is more gripping than Beryl Bainbridge’s novel, The Birthday Boys. From the outset, we know the conclusion: the five men on the final run will reach the Pole, will find that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen has beat them to it, and will die returning to camp. But Bainbridge brings the men so fully to life, we feel we’re with them in their present, unaware of what lies ahead.

The novel is ingeniously constructed.  Read More 

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Zany Travel: TheSwiss Family Perelman

The Swiss Family Perelman
By S. J.Perelman. Drawings by Hirschfeld. Penguin, 1950, 213 pp.

There are travelers who write and there are writers who travel, and S. J. Perelman falls decidedly in the latter group. A humorist who, from the ‘30s on, wrote for many publications—most notably, the New Yorker—he was known for his unusual, quite wonderful prose. Whatever pleasure he took in his adventures, which he generally described as hilariously miserable, he clearly loved to write about them, and his prose, sentence by sentence, is sardonic, filled with word play, manic, and syntactically splendid.

Like Westward Ha! Around the World in Eighty Clichés, which I reviewed in August, The Swiss Family Perelman is a wild romp of a trip.  Read More 

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Review: The Endangered Species Road Trip

The Endangered Species Road Trip: A Summer’s Worth of Dingy Hotels, Poison Oak, Ravenous Insects, and the Rarest Species in North America.
By Cameron MacDonald. Greystone Books, 2013, 216 pp.

Dismayed that, after years of teaching, he has become an armchair biologist, a “cut-and-paste biologist at best,” Cameron MacDonald revives an old dream: to travel the continent to observe endangered species. But when he first conceived of the plan, he was single and childless. Now married, he has both a toddler and an infant. Nonetheless, he bravely sets forth, the whole family in tow, including even the dog, who, he says, is too neurotic to leave in anyone’s care.

The map of Cameron’s journey from his home in Vancouver, Canada, is determined by the 34 endangered species he hopes to see.  Read More 

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Roughing It in the Bush

Roughing It in the Bush or Life in Canada
By Susanna Moodie. With a New Introduction by Margaret Atwood. Originally published 1852. Virago/Beacon Travelers, Beacon Press, 1986.

In the 1830s, thousands of people—lured by promises of fertile soil, a mild climate, cheap goods, and minimal taxes—emigrated from England to Canada. They “thought that they had only to come out to Canada to make their fortunes,” writes Susanna Moodie, “almost even to realise the story told in the nursery, of the sheep and oxen that ran about the streets, ready roasted, and with knives and forks upon their backs. They were made to believe that if it did not actually rain gold, that precious metal could be obtained…by stooping to pick it up.”

Moodie, who emigrated to Canada with her husband and baby daughter in 1832, aims to tell it like it really was: poor soil, a brutal climate, illness, goods that might be cheap but were, on remote farms, unobtainable, and hard toil that, after 7 years in the backwoods, had sprinkled her hair with grey, rendered her “person…coarse,” and left her looking double her age. Read More 

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Recommendation: Wonderful Book!

Many people reading this will no doubt already have read Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. But if you haven't, I really recommend it--and if you have, perhaps this will make you think about reading it again.

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An American Road Trip

Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways
By Larry McMurtry. Touchstone, 2000, 206 pp.

Combining two passions—for roads and for travel books—Larry McMurtry has created a road narrative that takes him through America, in spurts. The roads in this book are the interstates, “the great roads, the major migration routes that carry Americans long distances quickly,” whose precursors he believes were the great roads of the nineteenth century: the rivers of the Americas.

Beginning in January, Roads takes us on a series of trips, each pegged to a month and to specific highways. “Being alone in a car is to be protected for a time from the pressures of day-to-day life,” he says “It’s like being in one’s own time machine, in which the mind can rove ahead to the future or scan the past.”

As he drives—from Duluth to Oklahoma City (on the 35), or from Baltimore to Burlington, Colorado (the 70, South on Highway 287)—McMurtry’s thoughts rove in many directions. He may reflect on historical events that took place in the area he is driving through, on writers who lived there or wrote about the region, on landscape or the number of quirky museums he passes, on his own life and work, and always on the road itself, with its particular character. These observations flow conversationally and some seem a bit this and that, but many are striking, especially his comments on travel.

McMurtry is not just a traveler: he has an intense interest in the subject of travel. He owns 3000 travel books,

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An Appetite for Paris

Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris
By A. J. Liebling. With an introduction by James Salter. North Point Press, 1986. (Parts originally published earlier in New Yorker.) 167 pp.

“The eater’s apprenticeship, though less arduous, must be as earnest as the cook’s,” writes A. J. Liebling in Between Meals, eight essays that explore his education in the art of eating. This course of study took place of course in France (“It goes without saying that it is essential to be in France.”) beginning in 1926, when, at the age of 22, he spent a year in Paris, technically registered at the Sorbonne but in fact haunting the city’s restaurants, cafes, and bars, acquiring expertise in the subject that would engross him for the rest of his life.

That year, so central to Liebling’s life, is at the heart of these essays, many previously published in the New Yorker, where he was a staff writer.

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