In the late 1860s, Richard Francis Burton served as British consul to Brazil, where he delivered a series of four lectures to a Brazilian audience ofIn the late 1860s, Richard Francis Burton served as British consul to Brazil, where he delivered a series of four lectures to a Brazilian audience of notables. These lectures were excerpted from three of his books, A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah (1855), First Footsteps in East Africa (1856), and A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome (1864).
I have found that there are relatively few books about Ecuador, the fourth smallest country in South America. One that is worth reading is The PanamaI have found that there are relatively few books about Ecuador, the fourth smallest country in South America. One that is worth reading is The Panama Hat Trail: A Journey from South America by Tom Miller.
For over a century, the fine straw hats woven in Ecuador have come to be known as Panamas, probably because the construction workers building the Panama Canal demanded them for their comfort. Actually, they are manufactured in Ecuador, around the city of Cuenca, using straw that is harvested by hand near the coast between Guayaquil and Esmeraldas.
I am particularly gratified by the four-page bibliography at the end of the book, which gives me a good starting point in planning my trip to the land of volcanoes and Panama hats later this year....more
This is an utterly delightful book of essays on the subject of Alexandria, Egypt. E.M. Forster writes with a crystalline prose which at times rises toThis is an utterly delightful book of essays on the subject of Alexandria, Egypt. E.M. Forster writes with a crystalline prose which at times rises to the memorable, as when he described "The Solitary Place" near Lake Mariout:
But what impresses one most in the scene is the quiet persistence of the earth. There is so little soil about and she does so much with it. Year after year she has given this extraordinary show to a few Bedouins, has covered the Mareotic civilization with dust and raised flowers from its shards. Will she do the same to our own time and barbed wire? Probably not, for man has now got so far ahead of other forms of life that he will scarcely permit the flowers to grow over his works again. His old tins will be buried under new tins. This is the triumph of civilization, I suppose, the final imprint of the human upon this devoted planet, which should exhibit in its apotheosis a solid crust of machinery and graves. In cities one sees this development coming, but in solitary places, however austere, the primaeval softness persists, the vegetation still flowers and seeds unchecked, and the air still blows untainted hot from the land or cold from the sea.
And this was written back in 1923!
The book ends with an essay on Constantine P. Cavafy, the poet of Alexandria, with a few excerpts from his work translated, I suspect, by Forster himself. This is a gem of a book I recommend to everyone....more
While I was reading this book, it felt as if it were written some 75 or 100 years ago instead of 1964. Wilfred Thesiger was writing about a way of lifWhile I was reading this book, it felt as if it were written some 75 or 100 years ago instead of 1964. Wilfred Thesiger was writing about a way of life that vanished rather abruptly after Saddam Hussein decided to drain much of the marshland in which the Madans and other marsh Arabs lived. Their way of life was ancient, perhaps going back to the days of ancient Sumer -- but then so much of what was ancient has been wiped off the face of the Earth in the last few decades.
Thesiger found himself welcome among the marsh peoples, partly because he developed a highly useful medical skill, namely circumcising young males. Also, he was a man of honor who easily made friends with the local sheikhs and their dependents. For a period of seven years, he spent large swaths of time traveling among the marshes by boat and visiting his friends.
The Marsh Arabs is a travel classic that was written not long before the way he described vanished forever. This was at a time before jihad poisoned the well for other well-intentioned foreign visitors -- and before the Sunni/Shi'a split turned men against their neighbors....more
This is perhaps the best book ever written about a trip by a Western European to the Middle East before 1914. Author Alexander William Kinglake does nThis is perhaps the best book ever written about a trip by a Western European to the Middle East before 1914. Author Alexander William Kinglake does not appear to have any axes to grind and writes vividly about what the Eastern Mediterranean was like during the waning days of the ottoman Empire. Eothen is a classic and deserves to be read today for its historical perspective on how that part of the world has changed so markedly in a scant hundred years....more
This book was recommended to me by a trek guide/consultant I had met in Cusco, Peru. I have always been fascinated by the Amazon, despite knowing thatThis book was recommended to me by a trek guide/consultant I had met in Cusco, Peru. I have always been fascinated by the Amazon, despite knowing that I am unlikely to ever want to go there -- what with all the insects, diseases, and heat/humidity -- a kind of trifecta of everything I hate.
This book begins with a expedition to the Amazon in the 1920s by Percy Harrison Fawcett to discover a lost urban civilization which he referred to as "The Lost City of Z." All three members of the expedition -- Fawcett, his son Jack, and his son's friend Raleigh -- disappeared without a trace and were never heard from again.
Finally, Grann himself goes in search of the elusive explorer. He does notfind what happened to Fawcett or his companions, but he actually finds what could have been the so-called "Lost City of Z." As things frequently turn out, what Fawcett was looking for was not quite what he could have expected to find: There were no high cities of stone such as the Incas, Aztecs, and Mayans erected, mainly because there was no easily obtained supply of stone to be quarried. In the last chapter, Grann confers with Michael Heckenberger, an archeologist who lives in the Xingu reserve, who demonstrates the ultimate folly of Fawcett's assumptions. At one point, Grann quotes Fawcett's other son, Brian:
Brian wrote in his diary, "Was Daddy's whole conception of 'Z,' a spiritual objective, and the manner of reaching it a religious allegory?" Was it possible [Grann continues] that three lives had been lost for "an objective that had never existed"? Fawcett himself had scribbled in a letter to a friend, "Those whom the Gods intend to destroy they first make mad!"
What makes this book such an excellent read is that it deals with human frailty at a level not usually discussed in books about such overt adventurers as Fawcett and other explorers. Some of these explorers, such as Hiram Bingham, he "discoverer" of Machu Picchu, walk away with all the prizes. Others, like Fawcett and his companions die lonely deaths in remote places -- such that even their bones are lost to history.
I, who have always loved books on travel, had never heard of An Armenian Sketchbook. Yet, as I started reading Vasily Grossman's book, I saw that thisI, who have always loved books on travel, had never heard of An Armenian Sketchbook. Yet, as I started reading Vasily Grossman's book, I saw that this was not only one of the greatest of all travel books -- on a par with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Sir Richard F. Burton, and the great E. Lucas Bridges, author of The Uttermost Part of the Earth -- but also a great work of literature in its own right.
Arriving in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, Grossman is not met at the railroad station, but must find his way through a city not knowing a word of the local language -- and all this time with a painful need to urinate. I know this feeling, having urethral strictures as a result of some medical orderly's inept attempt to catheterize me forty-eight years ago. Although I have experienced this same feeling myself, many times, I had never seen it expressed in writing.
Grossman was to die two years later of kidney cancer. At several points, he meditates on his own mortality, on good and evil, and other basic topics. Here he is after having been unimpressed visiting the head of the Armenian church, and supremely impressed by a genuinely good peasant:
True goodness is alien to form and all that is merely formal. It does not seek reinforcement through dogma, nor is it concerned about images and rituals; true goodness exists where there is the heart of a good man. A kind act carried out by a pagan, an act of mercy performed by an atheist, a lack of rancor shown by someone who holds to another faith -- all these, I believe, are triumphs for the Christian God of kindness. Therein lies his strength.
Again and again, I find myself reading passages that are the equal of the best I have read anywhere.
Grossman was sent to Armenia in 1960 after the Communist authorities had confiscated the text of his great masterpiece Life and Fate. He was to produce a translation from the Armenian of a novel by Hrachya Kochar. Bear in mind: Grossman did not know any Armenian. So for him this was an existential journey that resulted in a book whose Russian title was Dobro van, or "Good on you!" -- a general blessing, a feeling which the author felt from the bottom of his capacious heart....more
This is a most surprising book. The only thing I have read by Shirley Hazzard was a book about Graham Greene's last days on Capri. Now this book of ocThis is a most surprising book. The only thing I have read by Shirley Hazzard was a book about Graham Greene's last days on Capri. Now this book of occasional essays, published in various magazines, brings together some excellent essays about Naples, Italy -- that much maligned city known for garbage strikes, rats, and the Camorra. What is more, the book bodily incorporates a delightful essay by Francis Steegmuller, which I had read decades ago in The New Yorker, about a motor-scooter bag-grab that dragged him across a curb and sent him to the hospital.
I have always wanted to visit Naples, even more so than Rome, Venice, Tuscany or other marquee tourist destinations. As Hazzard writes in the chapter entitled "City of Secrets and Surprises," Naples is actually an Ancient Greek city that has been neglected by the world because of the ever-threatening Mount Vesuvius. She quotes a passage from Juvenal which could be applied to Naples today:
Quick of wit and of unbounded impudence, as ready of speech as any orator and more torrential, carrying in themselves any character you please from geometrician to rope dancer.... Experts in flattery -- and yet believed. If you smile, they split with laughter; if you shed tears, they weep.... They always have the best of it, at any moment taking their expression from another's face.... And nothing is sacred to their passions.
If there ever was a real Indiana Jones, it was Hiram Bingham -- more specifically Hiram Bingham III. His grandfather was Hiram Bingham I, who was theIf there ever was a real Indiana Jones, it was Hiram Bingham -- more specifically Hiram Bingham III. His grandfather was Hiram Bingham I, who was the Protestant missionary Abner Hale in James Michener's Hawaii. Hiram I's son, Hiram II, followed in his footsteps in Hawaii. But the third generation Hiram was characterized by wanderlust. He became an explorer in Peru, then an aviator, ending up as a U.S. Senator representing his home state of Connecticut.
Lost City of the Incas, although copyrighted in 1948, covers several expeditions Hiram III undertook between 1911 and 1915, during which he claims to have discovered the ruins of Machu Picchu. He may not have been the first explorer there (the ruins do appear on an 1874 map), but he most certainly was the first person to publicize the ruins. Using The National Geographic and the prestige of his sponsors at Yale University, Bingham made the ruins well known.
Curiously, he thought he had discovered Old Vilcabamba, where the Incas who fled Spanish control ruled from, but that site was actually in the jungle at Espiritu Pampa. Bingham had visited it in 1911, but the overgrown structures did not fit in with his preconceptions of what Vilcabamba must have been like. (This is a frequent problem with Bingham, who did his damnedest to carry his point by whatever means possible.)
No matter. Bingham is an excellent writer, if not the world's most accurate archaeologist. ...more
I have been reading Patrick Smith's column entitled "Ask the Pilot" on Salon.Com (before they switched their editorial policy a few years back). In 20I have been reading Patrick Smith's column entitled "Ask the Pilot" on Salon.Com (before they switched their editorial policy a few years back). In 2004, he published an earlier version of this book entitled Ask the Pilot: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel, of which Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections reflects a substantial re-write and augmentation. You can also visit his excellent website at Ask the Pilot.
Interspersed between thematically organized Questions and Answers are interspersed multi-page essays on such subjects as the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Cockpit Confidential comes close to being a vade mecum for both domestic and international travelers. For, you, see Patrick is himself a widely traveled pilot who has flown a variety of passenger and cargo aircraft and who knows, figuratively speaking, where all the bodies are buried.
I agree with the author that American-owned airlines tend to be the pits. That's why, when I went to Iceland, I took an Air Canada to Toronto and an Icelandair to Reykjavik. That's why I flew to Buenos Aires and back three years ago on LAN Chile. In the introduction, he writes:
More than never, air travel is a focus of curiosity, intrigue, anxiety and anger. In these pages I do my best to inform and entertain. I provide answers for the curious, reassurance for the anxious, and unexpected facts for the deceived.
I begin with a simple premise: everything you think you know about flying is wrong. That’s an exaggeration, I hope, but not an outrageous starting point in light of what I’m up against. Commercial aviation is a breeding ground of bad information, and the extent to which different myths, fallacies, wives’ tales and conspiracy theories have become embedded in the prevailing wisdom is startling. Even the savviest frequent flyers are prone to misconstruing much of what actually goes on.
Which isn’t surprising. Air travel is a complicated, inconvenient, and often scary affair for millions of people, while at the same time cloaked in secrecy. Its mysteries are concealed behind a wall of specialized jargon, corporate reticence and an irresponsible media. Airlines, it hardly needs saying, aren’t the most forthcoming of entities, while journalists and broadcasters like to keep it simple and sensational. It’s hard knowing who to trust or what to believe.
I think Smith succeeds admirably. He assuages those who are afraid of flying with cogent statistics, and regales experienced fliers like myself with useful and important information.
I think Cockpit Confidential would make an excellent gift to both experienced and tyro fliers -- but be sure to read the book yourself!...more
That is the irony of travel. You spend your boyhood dreaming of a magic, impossibly distant day when you will cross the Equator, when your eyes will behold Quito. And then, in the slow prosaic process of life, that day undramatically dawns -- and finds you sleepy, hungry, and dull. The Equator is just another valley; you aren't sure which and you don't much care. Quito is just another railroad station, with fuss about baggage and taxis and tips.
Of course, Theroux was just as snarky on the face of it, but he was to write a whole passel of travel books and became famous for it. As for Isherwood, he was just slumming.
And yet I liked The Condor and the Cows just as much as I admire Theroux. Both authors were stuck in a social whirl in the South American cities they visited, because they were both relatively well-known authors. South Americans, especially way back before their own rich literature was discovered, felt isolated from the world. I, as an unknown, feel more comfortable in Latin America, because no one is particularly focusing their attentions on me.
I also felt that Isherwood captured the Continent in a way that Theroux never did:
How should I describe [South America]?
Best, perhaps, by contrasts -- the strongest I can find. For this is a land of opposites, startling opposed. Show-mountains towering sheer up out of jungle and tropical plain. Glaciers overhanging banana plantations. Condors circling over cows. Airline passengers looking down on pack-trains of llamas. Brand new Cadillacs honking at mules. Coca-Cola cuties on mud-huts.... A blond Negro talking Spanish to a red-headed Chinese.
And he goes on to say that the future of South America lies in "a new race and a new culture, certainly" that will emerge in the years to come. It's still not there, but something is definitely happening under the Southern Cross....more
When I heard of Patrick Leigh Fermor's death three years ago, I felt a sense of loss -- not only because "Paddy" was the greatest travel writer of ourWhen I heard of Patrick Leigh Fermor's death three years ago, I felt a sense of loss -- not only because "Paddy" was the greatest travel writer of our time -- but because now he would never finish the trilogy that began with The Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Fortunately, I was wrong. His friends Colin Thubron (no mean travel writer himself) and Artemis Cooper took Paddy's notes and came up with The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos which continued the author's trek from the hook of Holland to Constantinople, mostly on foot.
Curiously, although Fermor made it to Constantinople, there is a curious silence about his experiences there. Somehow, he got the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople to write him a letter of introduction to the monks of Mount Athos in Greece. After spending a few weeks in the Turkish city, he left for Mount Athos in the middle of winter, where he spent several weeks trudging from one monastery to the other.
I had feared that, because of Thubron and Cooper's editorship, that the style would be all wrong -- and Paddy Fermor was, if anything, a superb stylist. Every once in a while, however, as if straight from the Gates of Paradise, I would read one of Fermor's enchanted passages, such as this description of what he saw in Romanian monasteries:
I was fascinated, and slightly obsessed, by these voivodes and boyars as they appeared in frescoes on the walls of the monasteries they were always piously founding -- crowned and bearded figures holding up a miniature painted facsimile of the church itself, with their princesses upholding its other corner, each with a line of brocaded, kneeling sons and daughters receding in hierarchical pyramids behind them. Still more fascinating, later portraits,hanging in the houses of their descendants ... showed great boyars of the princely divans, men who bore phenomenal titles, most of them of Byzantine origin, some of them Slav: Great Bans of Craiova, Domnitzas, Bayzadeas, Grant Logothetes, hospodars, swordbearers and cupbearers, all dressed in amazing robes with enormous globular headdresses or high fur hats with diamond-clasped plumes, festooned with necklaces, and jewel-crusted dagger hilts.
Please let me swoon for a moment after this gemlike description of the Eastern Church as seen by a young man from England who had a thing for the East.
I think that The Broken Road will readily find its place among Fermor's other great works about his epic journey and his travels throughout Greece (Mani and Roumeli). Soon, I will have finished all his work and will have to start over. Something to look forward to!...more
South America has two landlocked countries: Paraguay and Bolivia. Both are as dysfunctional as they come; and both have excellent books about their reSouth America has two landlocked countries: Paraguay and Bolivia. Both are as dysfunctional as they come; and both have excellent books about their respective Brummagem cultures. For Paraguay, there is John Gimlette's At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig. For Bolivia, we have In Bolivia by Eric Lawlor. (Though Gimlette went Lawlor one better when he subsequently wrote a book about Suriname and the Guyanas entitled Wild Coast.)
Lawlor said he wrote this book because, according to his parents, this was the first word he ever enunciated as a baby. In my case, I am interested in Bolivia because -- back when I lived in Cleveland -- my father got a deal in some "hot watches" at the West Side Market. My brother got a Hormilton watch, while I got a Bolivia. It ceased to work within weeks, just like the eponymous country.
I have toyed with the idea of visiting Bolivia on an upcoming trip to Peru (if it ever takes place). Still, I am a little worried about the soroche, or altitude sickness, as Brazil is either too high and cold or too hot and buggy, depending on where you go.
I had originally read this book years ago and find it not to have aged too badly (unlike me). Lawlor spent several months traveling around the country, going to wedding parties with Indians, consorting with Cocaine Cowboys in Santa Cruz and getting stuck in that most Bolivian of institutions, namely: A whole town going on strike and barricading itself off from the world. He seems to have missed several tourist hot spots, such as the massive Salar de Uyuni salt flats.
Lawlor's concluding remarks are candid and interesting:
I had come to this country certain I'd like it. It was rebellious and unruly and defiant of authority. Rather stupidly, I thought I was too. How could we fail to get along? But Bolivia proved too rich for my blood. It had taught me that I place a greater value on the consolations of society than I realized. Asked, three months ago, which I prized more, impetuosity or restraint, I would have picked the former. But not now. In me the law of measure had its newest champion.
So, in the end, I am glad that Lawlor had these, uh, exotic experiences, allowing me to enjoy them vicariously. I think that Peru would be quite enough for me, and Bolivia perhaps a bit over the edge.
There are some things that draw me to Chatwin, and others that repel me. On the one hand, he had this mania for travel that has been part of my life after since I broke free of my parents; and, as a former art auction expert for Sotheby's, he has a distrust for people who keep score in life by accumulating "things."
On the other hand, Chatwin's restlessness also pertained his relationships with people. He was bisexual and somewhat treacherous (in effect) with those people who were drawn to him. Even in his best books, The Songlines and In Patagonia, he partook of the same mythomania that he criticizes in others. The story took precedence over the data provided by informants. Many of those who acted in that capacity felt seduced and betrayed by him. Read Nicholas Shakespeare's Bruce Chatwin: A Biography for particular instances of his "treacherous" side.
And yet, the stories he tells are frequently -- but not always -- wonderful. I feel I have the same yearnings toward travel, the same horreur du domicile and distrust of "accumulators" of stuff. I wish I could write like the man, but I will just have to content myself by reading him. Particularly good are the opening essay, "I Always Wanted to Go to Patagonia" and the two closing essays, "Among the Ruins" and "The Morality o Things."
The only disappointing part of this collection is Chatwin's failed attempt to provide a philosophical basis for his rootlessness, his so called "Nomadic Alternative." It is always a danger to take one's own psychological traits and write them large as a theory of life.
Chatwin tried to live his "Nomadic Alternative," but sadly died all too young of AIDS in 1989....more
The David & Charles Islands series makes for a fascinating combination of history and geography. Corfu (ancient CActually, three and a half stars.
The David & Charles Islands series makes for a fascinating combination of history and geography. Corfu (ancient Corcyra) has a particularly checkered history as it was occupied, at various times, by the Venice (for 410 years), France, Russia (?!), Turkey, Britain, Mussolini's Italy, Nazi Germany, before enosis, reunification with Greece. And that was only in the last 600 years!
I would love to visit Corfu, which has served as a Mediterranean crossroads ever since the early Middle Ages. To learn about Corfu is not only to learn about Greece, but also about Albania and all the other Mediterranean powers through all of history.
According to the book jacket, Brian Dicks also road the Islands series book on Crete. Sounds like a good bet....more
This is a book that made me laugh and cry. I cried because the hardbound edition I owned had glued signatures that apparently used reject adhesive froThis is a book that made me laugh and cry. I cried because the hardbound edition I owned had glued signatures that apparently used reject adhesive from Russian Post-It notes and dissolved as I turned the pages. It wouldn't have mattered if I hated the book, because I could then hurl it at the wall and watch it explode like a pressure-cooker bomb. But I loved the book, and found in Tim Moore a kindred spirit who could send me into gales of guffaws.
Frost on my Moustache: The Arctic Exploits of a Lord and a Loafer is one of those "let's go back and see what it's like to re-visit places covered in a classic travel book of, oh, say, a hundred and fifty years ago" books. The book that Moore revisited was Lord Dufferin's Letters from High Latitudes, about a cruise in 1856 that took in the Northeastern Arctic islands of Iceland, the Faeroes, the Shetlands, Jan Mayen, and finally Spitzbergen. Dufferin's book, which I have read and liked, is a genuine travel classic, and Frost on My Moustache is one too, but in a more humorous vein.
Beginning with a great description of what it's like to be seasick on an Icelandic container ship, the book hits notes of poetry:
'Yes, we must show you how to wear the survivor suits,' said the captain, as I squinted stupidly at the safety poster, a comment I made the terrible error of thinking was a joke. As it transpired, I didn't even see a lifejacket, and even in my darkest hours I was too embarrassed to ask again about the survival suits. Shouting, 'No, no! Come back! Please show me how to live!' as the captain whistled away down the corridor wouldn't have sounded great, and it might easily have cursed the voyage in line with some 'Scottish-play'=type nautical superstition. All I could do was to try and recall from my Bronze Survival Medal course (failed) how you go about making a float by inflating a pair of pyjama bottoms. 'Excuse me, could you blow into my trousers to make them swell up?' was not a question I wanted to ask a sailor.
The author was a glutton for punishment. No sooner does he embark in Reykyavik than he goes on a bicycle ride through the dread Kjolur route, some 250 kilometers of uninhabited desolation that marks the center of Iceland. (Some 95% of gthe population of the island live within hailing distance of the coast.)
Then he takes several more gut-wrenching seasickness-inducing cruises to the Faeroes, the Shetlands, and Spitzbergen. Only the leg to Jan Mayen was by air, and the weather there was too windy to permit a safe landing by the Norwegian Hercules cargo aircraft.
I suppose it remains for me to find a copy of the book that won't fall apart as I turn the pages. Sigh!...more
Long before he became a martyred revolutionary icon made to order for hipster T-shirts, Ernesto "Che" Guevara was a goofy and even funny middle classLong before he became a martyred revolutionary icon made to order for hipster T-shirts, Ernesto "Che" Guevara was a goofy and even funny middle class kid from Argentina. While in his early twenties, he talked his fellow med student Alberto Granado into a trip across South America. How? Why, on Alberto's rickety Norton 500 motorcycle, nicknamed La Poderosa II ("The Mighty One II"). This book is the story of their journey, lasting approximately until he and Alberto split up in Venezuela, where the latter found work.
In the meantime, La Poderosa managed to make it over the Andes (with considerable help) into Chile, where it gave up the ghost miles south of Santiago. From then on, the two were dependent on hitching rides, and even stowing away aboard a ship to Antofagasta. But they are caught and forced to work for their keep and play cards with their captain, who never seemed to sleep.
The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey is actually a fun book to read. One could begin to see Guevara's sympathies for the downtrodden indigenous people in Peru, where there is considerable tension between the Aymara and the ladinos, the Mestizos who are intent on treating them like dirt. Eventually, after many a diversion, they make it to the San Pablo Leper Colony near Iquitos, where they spend some time before continuing north. Both Granado and Guevara had been interested in leprosy and made friends by their treatment of the patients as fellow human beings.
The book ends with a speech made years later in Castro's Cuba entitled "A Child of My Environment," which, thankfully, is abridged for this edition. I liked Guevara a whole lot more when he was describing suffering from one asthma attack after the other while trying to find free food, accommodation, and transportation in Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. In the end, the two med students were like hoboes -- but it is interesting that they frequently found the help they so desperately needed.
Except for the speech at the end, the book is virtually devoid of any political content. In fact, Che seems to come across at the time as a supported of the Argentine dictator Juan Peron and his wife Evita -- though those scenes may have been only to make conversation with curious Peruvians.
There is a certain category of thin books on the City of Lights by talented writers who love her. There was, for instance, John Glassco's Memoirs of MThere is a certain category of thin books on the City of Lights by talented writers who love her. There was, for instance, John Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse -- which I am currently reading a couple of chapters at a time -- and Edmund White's The Flaneur. Paris by Julien Green is another such litle classic, and probably the best of the bunch. It consists of a series of short feuilletons without connection to one another attesting to his love of the city, even when, perhaps especially when, the sun is not shining and the rain is falling.
Green was born of Americans living in Paris. He wrote most of his books in French. In fact, my edition of Paris is bilingual with the French text on the even-numbered pages. He was probably the only person to be simultaneously a member of the Academie Francaise and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Instead of visiting the big tourist sights -- no Bateaux-Mouches or Eiffel Tower for him! -- Green visits some of my favorite places, such as the Musee Carnavalet in the Marais, the Victor Hugo Museum at the Place de Vosges, and the Cluny Medieval Museum on the Left Bank. He protests against the modernization of the city:
What will Paris be like tomorrow? The thought was in my mind as, strolling beside the Seine in the mist, I contemplated the glory of the buds that covered the trees with a delicate veil. Paris possesses a beauty that alarms me at times because I feel it is fragile, under threat. Mainly from our town planners. Which young architect is at last going to give us the city of the future, a fine city capable of appealing to the generations to come as we have been enchanted by the Paris that has been fashioned slowly by the centuries? Is it too much to dream of a visionary who will be the poet of space and no longer one of those organisers of a life uglified, to paraphrase Baudelaire, one of those bearers of wasted space who erect modern apartment buildings as graceless cubes, full of the sound and fury of the neighbours' television sets and plumbing facilities....
I could only wish I could do as much justice to Los Angeles, a city which I have come to love, which is day by day being destroyed by incompetent architects in the employ of "rape and pillage" developers, whose word is law in Southern California....more
Imagine yourself a young man in 1929 who gets the idea into his head that he wants to sail a giant square rigger from Hamburg, Germany, to Chile -- arImagine yourself a young man in 1929 who gets the idea into his head that he wants to sail a giant square rigger from Hamburg, Germany, to Chile -- around Cape Horn. The officers and crew are all Germans, and our young man doesn't speak a word a German. But he and his friend Charlie, who accompanies him, learn quickly as they experienced a story passage first through the North Sea and then around cape Horn.
Footage exists that the author, Irving Johnson, took with an early vintage 16mm camera of waves breaking over the Peking. You can see it in its entirety at YouTube.
The Peking Battles Cape Horn is a quick read. It appears to be competently written, though the previous owner of my copy seemed to disagree with certain details.
In this volume are two separate works: Mary Wollstonecraft's A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and William Godwin's Memoirs of the AuthIn this volume are two separate works: Mary Wollstonecraft's A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and William Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of ‘The Rights of Woman’. I would rank the first of these two works with five stars, as Mary Wollstonecraft not only has a lively style but also a heart free of cant:
You have sometimes wondered, my dear friend, at the extreme affection of my nature—But such is the temperance of my soul—It is not the vivacity of youth, gthe hey-day of existence. For years have I endeavoured to calm an impetuous tide—labouring to make my feelings take an orderly course.—It was striving against the stream. I must love and admire with warmth, or I sink into sadness.
The long severing of her relationship with her husband Gilbert Imlay lends a darkening aspect to her descriptions of the Scandinavian countries she visited, originally at the behest of Imlay. She continues: "At present black melancholy hovers round my footsteps; and sorrow sheds a mildew over all my future prospects, which hope no longer gilds."
The biography written by William Godwin, her last love, is colored by his wife's recent death in childbirth in 1797. It is a melancholy work in its own right and was much criticized as being inappropriate by critics who were aghast at things that were simply not discussed in polite company. Godwin might not have been polite company, but he had a loving heart and appreciated his Mary. ...more
This is probably my second re-read of Paul Theroux's travel classic of a railroad journey from Boston to as far south as he could go in the Americas.This is probably my second re-read of Paul Theroux's travel classic of a railroad journey from Boston to as far south as he could go in the Americas. By now, many of the trains he describes no longer exist; so he has produced, at the very least, a valuable historical document. The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas is an unusually snarky look at Latin America and its people, but then his views are typical of the period in which the book was written some forty years ago.
Still, it is Theroux and Bruce Chatwin who led me to travel to South America. His observations are always interesting, even when they do not entirely convince me. ...more
I had read the author's At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig a couple of years ago, and so I knew I was in for another wildly entertaining travel book byI had read the author's At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig a couple of years ago, and so I knew I was in for another wildly entertaining travel book by the Gimlette-eyed author. In Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge, he visits the three least-known countries in the New World: Guyana, Surinam, and French Guiane.
Rich in incident and lavish in descriptions of one of the most untamed places on earth, this book is a pleasure to read. In fact, three times over. What I mean is that each of the three Guyanas, while sparsely populated, has a vast and difficult to traverse hinterland. For each of the three countries, we begin with a color chapter regarding the coast and then delve into the rainforests and tropical savannas. In the process, we meet some fascinating characters, ranging from 17th century settlers to some of the strangest aborigines (whom Gimlette always refers to as Amerindians).
Except for my known aversion to mosquitoes and other natural enemies of man, I would love to visit at least one of the Guyanas, but I fear coming down with malaria, dengue, yellowjack, or some such tropical disease. What saves the rich jungle of those countries from mass exploitation is this very hostility to man's comfort. Still, if I had enough repellent.......more
Years ago when I was young, Lawrence Durrell was a god to me; and his Alexandria Quartet was like sacred scripture. Now that I have aged and learned aYears ago when I was young, Lawrence Durrell was a god to me; and his Alexandria Quartet was like sacred scripture. Now that I have aged and learned a thing or two, I see that Durrell is something of a phony. His book on Corfu -- Prospero's Cell -- has many of the same characteristics that I loved in the Quartet: the significant encounters with a group of eccentric characters, leading to significant discussions and multiple epiphanies based on their knowledge of the local area.
Now that I am better read, I am astonished by things that Durrell failed to discuss, such as the role of the island in the Peloponnesian War as described by Thucydides, when different parties supporting Athens or Corinth led to ugly scenes of violence and destruction. It's not even mentioned in the chronology which appears as an appendix.
At one point, one of Durrell's characters, the sage Count D., makes fun of the British author to his face. When asked what kind of picture his book will present of Corfu, the Count answers:
“It is difficult to say.... A portrait inexact of detail, containing bright splinters of landscape, written out roughly, as if to get rid of something which was troubling the optic nerves. You are the kind of person who would go away and be frightened to return in case you were disappointed; but you would send others and question them eagerly about it.”
Soon, most of them would in fact leave the island, because it is that twilight period in which all of Europe saw the advancing shadow of World War II, as if it were a dark cloud from Mordor.
Yet, withal, I do not regret giving the book five stars. So Durrell is a bit of a fake: He seems to not have an interior life of his own. Everything is externalized through a dozen characters who surround him and serve to bring out the details about which he wants to write. I am not even sure that many of the characters are real: They are just too neat, too pat. I am particularly surprised at Durrell's female companion, whom he calls simply N., and with whom he may or may not have had a relationship.
But it doesn't really matter. The inexact details, the "bright splinters of landscape," are really good in and of themselves. So Durrell isn't a god any more: He's still an interesting writer, and Prospero's Cell is a legitimate travel classic. ...more
In July 1925, French novelist André Gide, accompanied by filmmaker Marc Allegret, his lover, took a ten-month trip that encompassed the French Congo,In July 1925, French novelist André Gide, accompanied by filmmaker Marc Allegret, his lover, took a ten-month trip that encompassed the French Congo, touched briefly on the Belgian Congo, and then swung north to Chad, the territory of Ubangui-Shari, and coming back to the ocean via a long journey through the entire length of Cameroon. What with the tsetse flies, the ringworm, and strange jungle fevers which killed not a few of their party, this was not in any way deluxe travel. Although Allegret was some thirty years his junior, Gide ran into considerable difficulties toward the latter part of the trip as they passed through a devastating heat wave in a country that had been scorched by brush fires. Toward the end, Gide was almost blind and required strong medicines to enable him to sleep; and Allegret was besieged by toothache and fever until the last few hundred miles.
What I like about this book is that Gide did not clean up any of the text afterwards to make a more literary impression. The last hundred pages are almost like a death march as they went from Fort Lamy to their port of embarkation at Douala. It was painful to read because one feels the pain that the two Frenchmen felt. Yet despite their agony, Gide always had interesting observations to make about the flora, fauna, and native human populations they encountered.
Most writers about Africa at that time did not quite view the natives as quite human. Gide, on the other hand, goes out of his way to be fair and friendly (perhaps, given his sexual proclivities, too friendly). He also makes an effort as he writes to distinguish the characters of his various African lieutenants, from the cook boy to his factotums. There are descriptions of scores of different African cultures met along the way. Although I have never felt any deep love for Gide's fiction, I felt that he had the makings of a great travel writer.
I could only wish that the edition I read had a glossary which explained many of the italicized terms that were tossed around. I finally figured out what a matabiche was (a tip), but I could never quite see what kind of body of water a marigot was. Also no attempt is made to translate the many quotations from the Latin, French, and German.
Be that as it may, I thought that Travels in the Congo was a real find -- though it had been nestling on my bookshelf untouched since trade paperbacks went for $1.95.
Finally, I was interested to hear that Gide was not only a big fan of Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, but he read his edition at least four times in the course of his trip. Also, the book is dedicated to the memory of Conrad, which I thought was a nice touch.
This is an odd and rather pleasant little book, the account of a springtime visit to Crete around 1993. As I was reading it, I could not shake the feeThis is an odd and rather pleasant little book, the account of a springtime visit to Crete around 1993. As I was reading it, I could not shake the feeling that it was written forty or fifty years ago, probably because the black and white photographs looked as if they dated from the 1950s. Barry and wife Aira's trip proceeds from west to east, mostly along the north coast of Crete, with occasional forays inland and to the south. Even in the early 1990s, tourism was growing faster than the infrastructure of transportation and services, such that the author muses sadly on the result:
What has been missing is what is always missing, in Crete as in a thousand other places, cooperation between citizen and municipal authority, the ability of local communities, often traditionally poor, to withstand the invasion of capital and so take a longer view, retain some space for human purposes other than the single one of spending money, open the land to people instead of closing it. But this would mean admitting the inadmissible: that constant growth is a chimera, that the stream can dry up, that unlimited numbers of free-spending people cannot be accommodated in a limited space, and that continued attempts to do it will foul up the very thing that the people came for in the first place.
The thought of giant hotels shoehorned into pedestrian-unfriendly spaces where the buses refuse to stop and driving rental cards is likely to result in an accident is a tourist nightmare.
I had expected more of this book, probably because Unsworth is a winner of the Man Booker Prize who has been shortlisted several other times. But literary excellence does not necessarily make for a great travel book, especially in a region of the globe which has seen outstanding works by the likes of Patrick Leigh Fermor (Mani and Roumeli), Lawrence Durrell (Reflections on a Marine Venus and Bitter Lemons), and even Henry Miller (The Colossus of Maroussi).
For a one month journey to Crete, the book is excellent and worth reading. It does not inspire me to visit Crete, which I've always wanted to see -- but that is not Unsworth's fault. J. Lesley Fitton's The Minoans has made me want to see Knossos, Festos, and other archeological sites on the island; but if the Cretans don't know how to grow their tourism without killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, I may have to reconsider. ...more
The travel gene is dominant in my make-up. (That's what comes of having been born in Cleveland.) I had heard of this book for decades: When I saw it oThe travel gene is dominant in my make-up. (That's what comes of having been born in Cleveland.) I had heard of this book for decades: When I saw it on the shelf in the Santa Monica Public Library, I picked it up and checked it out. It took about three pages for me to get totally hooked, and that despite Evan S. Connell's warning about a possible "dilatory exposition and a sauntering digressiveness." Warnings like that, I take as a challenge.
The Sea and the Jungle is the story of H. M. Tomlinson's voyage from Swansea in Wales to Porto Velho, a thousand miles up the Amazon and its tributaries, close to the Bolivian border, in 1909-1910. There, a railroad was being built to ... somewhere or other, if it was ever finished. It was not long into the book before I had the very unusual feeling that I wanted to start reading it again -- more slowly -- and savoring every word. There was something about Tomlinson's way of seeing things, as a rank amateur who knew how to describe both what he saw and how he felt about it. About his first few days at sea, he writes:
For as to the sea itself, love it you cannot. Why should you? I will never believe again that the sea was ever loved by anyone whose life was married to it. It is the creation of Omnipotence, which is not of human kind and understandable, and so the springs of its behavior are hidden. The sea does not assume its royal blue to please you. Its brute and dark desolation is not raised to overwhelm you, you disappear then because you happen to be there. It carries the lucky foolish to fortune, and drags the calculating wise to the strewn bones.
This is a different point of view from Joseph Conrad's, as he was an old pro who had seen the sea in all its moods. Tomlinson, on the other hand, was a talented amateur who saw quickly to the heart of things.
There is a comparison that can be made with The Heart of Darkness and its colonial "pilgrims": The same types are to be seen in Porto Velho and the surrounding camps. They have come to throw their lives away in search of some remote commercial gain. Tomlinson tells the tale of a man who is plunked by a company in the middle of nowhere, to be placed in charge of a pack of sick slaves by a jetty on the Madeira River:
An unknown Somebody in Wall Street or Park Lane has an idea, and this is what it does. The potent impulse! It moves the men who don't know the language of New York and London down to this desolation. It begins to ferment the place. The fructifying thought! Have you seen the graveyard here? We've got a fine cemetery, and it grows well. Still, this railway will get done. Yes, people who don't know what it's for, they'll make a little of it, and die, and more who don't know what it's for, and won't use it when it's made, they'll finish it. This line will get its freights of precious rubber moving down to replenish the motor tyres of civilisation, and the chap who had the bright idea, but never saw this place, and couldn't live here a week, or shovel dirt, or lay a track, and wouldn't know raw rubber if he saw it, he'll score again. Progress, progress! The wilderness blossoms as the rose. It's wonderful, isn't it?
The tale of the poor sap who winds up in the jungle takes up Chapter IV and is, in many ways, the heart of the book.
One thing I know for sure, however much I love strange new places, I will take a pass on the jungle. I wouldn't mind the Atlantic near as much -- but those insects, those tropical diseases and strange fevers. No, I'll take a pass on them. But I thank Tomlinson for seeing the jungle clearly, with its effect on the legions of Americans, Europeans, and Brazilians who were caught up in its grips. Today Porto Velho is a large city, and much of the jungle has been chopped down to make room for other dreams of empire.
No sooner did I finish reading this book than I ordered a copy for my library. Something this good deserves another look....more
I'd read this one decades ago, before I read or knew anything about Fermor. Now I am in the situation of going back over his work after I have come toI'd read this one decades ago, before I read or knew anything about Fermor. Now I am in the situation of going back over his work after I have come to regard him as a great writer.
There is something singularly dense about Fermor's writing. It has to do primarily with his incredible erudition and his keen sense of observation. Three Letters from the Andes consists of three long letters to his wife Joan written during a six-week trip to Peru with several friends in 1971. They go to Cuzco, mountain-climbing in the Andes from the Urubamba Valley, then off to Puno and Lake Titicaca on the border with Bolivia (just as Bolivia is having one of its frequents coups), and finally to Arequipa and back to Lima, from whence they return to England.
Here is one of Fermor's incredible paragraphs which one hopes never to come to the end of:
Our hosts were Mr and Mrs Hugh Morgan, friends of Michael and Demaris Stewart and extremely nice. It was a large dinner and I had a charming, very quiet and beautiful neighbor called Doña Diana de Dibos: she was English, moreover, and first married to a Spaniard who fell in the Civil War, and then -- now -- to a Peruvian. Exchanging-life stories, she told me she and her brother had been brought up by her father, who was a retired British admiral, half on shore and half on a yacht, at St. Tropez, when it was a little fishing town, of which her father had been affectionately styled 'the mayor' ... Suddenly I realized who she was: the sister, that is, of Mike Cumberlege, that amazing buccaneerish figure (very funny, very well read, and with a single gold earring) who used to smuggle us into German-occupied Crete in little boats; he captured later by the Germans trying to blow jup the Corinth Canal, held prisoner for three years in Flossenberg concentration camp and, tragically, shot four days before the armistice: a marvellous almost mythical figure; Xan and I knew him well. His sister Diana and I fell into each other's arms and I told her lots of stories about him she'd never heard.
By the way, during WW II, Paddy Leigh Fermor and a handful of Cretan insurgents captured the German commander of the island and hustled him over a couple of mountain ranges to a waiting British sub. The whole story is told by a fellow guerrilla, W. Stanley Moss, in his excellent book Ill Met By Moonlight.
There is little about Fermor that is NOT remarkable. I was heartbroken that he passed on in 2011. But more than anyone I know, le lived, he saw, he stored up wonderful images, and he wrote them down in a mere handful of books that I see now I will spend the rest of my life re-reading.
Alain de Botton has joined Malcolm Gladwell and several other contemporary writers as a lite philosopher/essayist. I do not intend this in a pejoratAlain de Botton has joined Malcolm Gladwell and several other contemporary writers as a lite philosopher/essayist. I do not intend this in a pejorative sense, as I do believe that there is room in an era of decreasing literacy for writers who can serve as a bridge. I have now read four of de Botton's books and regard all of them as excellent. A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary is, to my mind, a follow-on essay to his excellent The Art of Travel.
The author was invited by one of the executives of the company that manages Heathrow Airport to spend a week at the airport, sleeping at the adjoining Sofitel Hotel, and eating all his meals at various facilities at the airport or hotel. What is even more interesting, if it is true, is that de Botton was given carte blanche to write whatever he wanted.
Seeing the thousands of comings and goings of travelers, de Botton had some interesting points to make, especially this one which might almost have been lifted from The Art of Travel:
As David [a hypothetical British traveler] lifted a suitcase on to the conveyor belt, he came to an unexpected and troubling realisation: that he was bringing himself with him on his holiday. Whatever the qualities of the Dimitra Residence [his Greek destination], they were going to be critically undermined by the fact that he would be in the villa as well. He had booked the trip in the expectation of being able to enjoy his children, his wife, the Mediterranean, some spanakopita and the Attic skies, but it was evident that he would be forced to apprehend all of these through the distorting filter of his own being, with its debilitating levels of fear, anxiety and wayward desire.
On the back cover of the old Whole Earth Catalog, there used to be this motto, which expresses it all succinctly: "Wherever you go, there you are." This quote has been variously attributed to Confucius and others, but it seems to be one of de Botton's themes.
This was a quick read, taking me less than two hours to take in its hundred-odd pages. I am still on track to read some more of the author's books, which I will no doubt find to be equally informative and amiable. ...more
I had actually read this book before, but under a different title, namely: Patagonia Revisited. The only difference is that Nowhere Is a Place: TravelI had actually read this book before, but under a different title, namely: Patagonia Revisited. The only difference is that Nowhere Is a Place: Travels in Patagonia is accompanied by scores of photographs which, however beautiful, have nothing to do with the parts of Patagonia that Bruce Chatwin wrote about in In Patagonia or Paul Theroux wrote about in The Old Patagonian Express.
Fortunately, the book was worth re-reading, especially as Chatwin and Theroux dug deep in their original research to discuss how the whole idea of Patagonia has influenced Western literature, beginning with Antonio Pigafetta's journal of Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe and going all the way to Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle. By no means, however, is it useful as an initial approach to researching a Patagonian trip: It is interesting as a survey of the literature relating to how the image of patagonia affected artists such as Melville, Poe, and Shakespeare (The Tempest).
I have been to Patagonia and intend to return soon. I keep thinking of the words Darwin wrote in the final chapter of The Voyage of the Beagle:
... In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes; yet these plains are pronounced by all wretched and useless. They can be described only by negative characters; without habitations, without water, without trees, without mountains, they support only a few dwarf plants. Why, then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm a hold of my memory? Why have not the still more level, the greener and more fertile Pampas, which are serviceable to mankind, produced an equal impression? I can scarcely analyze these feelings; but it must be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination. The plains of Patagonia are boundless, for they are scarcely passable, and hence unknown; they bear the stamp of having thus lasted, as they are now, for ages, and there appears no limit to their duration through future time. If, as the ancients supposed, the flat earth was surrounded by an impassable breadth of water, or by deserts heated to an intolerable excess, who would not look at these last boundaries to man's knowledge with deep but ill-defined sensations?
With every book by Patrick Leigh Fermor that I read, I become saddened that there are so few left for me to read, especially as what remains were writWith every book by Patrick Leigh Fermor that I read, I become saddened that there are so few left for me to read, especially as what remains were written so many years ago. Fermor's effortless erudition and flights of verbal fancy are without equal in our time. Take, as an example, this description of a Cistercian service at La Grande Trappe:
In church there was a kind of minstrels' gallery from which the guests, like Moslem ladies in a zenana, gazed down at the Trappists. The Victorian Gothic architecture of the church had none of the Romantic splendour of Solesmes; it was a great, dark north-Oxford nightmare, a grey sepulchre in the depths of which, hour upon hour, the chanting monks stood or knelt. The glaucous light was drained of colour. Fathoms below, columns of beard and brown home-spun, were the foreshortened lay-brothers. Beyond, their white habits and black scapulars covered by voluminous cowls, evolved the choir-monks. Each topiaried head was poised, as it were, on three cylinders of white fog: the enveloped body flanked by two sleeves so elongated and tubular that their mouths touched the ground, flipping and swinging, when the monks were in motion, like the ends of elephants' trunks.
Ostensibly, A Time to Keep Silence is about visits to four monastic communities over a three-year period in the 1950s: St Wandrille de Fontenelle, Solesmes, La Grande Trappe, and finally, the remains of the Byzantine tufa rock monasteries of Cappadocia in present-day Turkey. Fermor provides some interesting comparisons between the Benedictine (St Wandrille and Solesme) and Cistercian (La Grande Trappe) orders of Catholic monks and the former Byzantine monks.
I was astonished when I came to the end of this book in something less than an hour and a half. The concluding "Postscript," which covers the remaining monasteries in Britain, expresses profound regret that so little remained after the ravages of Henry VIII of what Fermor considers to be a profound and viable religious life completely divorced from the noise and distractions of the 20th century.