Category Archives: Books

Classic Travel Lit 4: Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson, taken by Phil Leftwich

Bill Bryson, taken by Phil Leftwich

Destination: England

Book: Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson (audio book reviewed)

I’m playing catch up with some travel classics.  With the exception of Bruce Chatwin‘s Patagonia, I had not read the highly recommended classic travel literature that I have talked about this week.

Many travelers list Bill Bryson‘s Notes from a Small Island(1996) and In a Sunburned Country(2000) among their favorites for a travel library. When World Hum listed Bryon’s Australian book as one of the best travel books, writer and editor Tom Zwick groused in the comments that Bryson writes about himself rather than about the place to which he travels.

My library had the audiotape of Notes from a Small Island, so I decided to find out which faction I agreed with (travel-writer Zwick, or seemingly the rest of the travel-reading world). I was happy to start with England rather than Australia, because I’ve been to England (although briefly) and my only time in Australia involved changing planes.

In the book, Bill Bryson takes a farewell tour of Britain.  He had lived the expatriate life for many years before he and his British wife decided to move to America with their children. I found Notes from a Small Island to be charming and packed with the kind of detail that helps make the unfamiliar become at least understandable.  The addiction to inane TV shows, the mysterious enthusiasm for bland desserts, the belief that their island is far away from any other land mass, became endearing in Bryson’s telling. Rather than being bored with hearing about his own experiences, actions and reactions, I felt that he deepened my understanding of the people he met along the way.

For the most part he skips the obvious tourist haunts–no Anne Hathaway Cottage, for instance.  And although he does wander through Oxford, he does not recommend a visit. Instead he heads for places that have some personal meaning for him.  Yes, he’s weaving in his memoir and taking us along to places that he chooses for his own sometimes random reasons.  But doesn’t any travel narrative do that?

I sat with my spiral-cover large-scale Michelin road Atlas of the British Isles in front of me as the audio tape played, and followed his route from Dover to Wales and then through Scotland to the farthest north tip of Great Britain.  What fun it would be to literally follow his footsteps, perhaps skipping the things he found painfully ugly and pointless. On the other hand, it would be equally amusing to visit those places and see if he missed any redeeming features.

Bryson loves the English people, despite his making fun of their most un-American habits. He loves London, although he spends very little time talking about central London. (The City) I wish that he would do a guide just of London.

Notes from a Small Island brims over with statistics about population density and number of passenger trains, but he frequently apologizes for these factual diversions.  My husband lost patience with the longish introduction which is all about Bryson and his newspaper jobs before he actually got on the road.

But if you are truly looking for a book to inform you about England and inspire you to travel to lesser known parts of the small island, then read Notes from a Small Island.

(Photo by Phil Leftwich, from Flickr, Creative Commons license)

When you read a travel narrative, are you put off by the writer’s own, perhaps dull or painful, experiences? What do you think of Bill Bryson? Does he add to the traveler’s experience? Let us hear from you.

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Travel Classics 3: V. S. Naipaul

Caribbean storm

Caribbean storm

Destination: Caribbean and British Guiana

Book: The Middle Passage by V. S. Naipaul

Quotable Thursday quote: I’m the kind of writer that people think other people are reading. V. S. Naipaul

The question is, if a man writes well, does it matter what kind of human being he is?

I delayed reading V. S. Naipaul because although he is always listed as one of the great travel writers, excerpts indicated that he is of that school that dwells on the negative wherever he goes.  ( I learned after I read the book, that he is an abuser of women and a racist.)

How, I wondered, could Naipaul be so revered as a writer if his travel writing consistently discouraged going to the places he explored? In order to find my own answer, I would have to read his work.

I bought two books, The Middle Passage (1962), his first travel book, and An Area of Darkness (1964) which relates to his first journey to India. In an introduction to the edition I read,  he introduces The Middle Passage as his first travel book, but it was not his first published work. He had already gained a reputation as a writer of fiction by 1962. I unwittingly picked up the two books which drew the most criticism to Naipaul as non-sympathetic to third-world countries.

For those who want to know more about the man behind the writing, Paul Theroux, former friend turned caustic truth-teller,wrote Sir Vidia’s Shadow in 1998. An authorized biography by Patrick French, The World Is What It Is, was published in 2008 and is no less disturbing, according to Theroux himself in this lengthy piece .

In The Middle Passage, Naipaul writes with the observant eye of a sociologist or anthropologist, but without the scientific detachment. The title refers to the route taken by slave ships between Africa and the Caribbean, and tips off his focus in the book.  His visit to Trinidad (where he grew up), British Guiana, Suriname, Martinique and Jamaica constantly circles back to race relations. Allegedly, he is comparing the effect of colonizers from Britain, France and Holland on the West Indies and the northern edge of South America. In fact, he pretty much lumps the colonizers together and lines up with them.

Although he refers to his family history–India to Trinidad to England–he does not openly acknowledge the personal prejudice this brings to his observations.  In each society he mocks the people in power, but lives with them and complains about hardship, while he claims to be wanting to find out about those on the bottom rung and wondering aloud why they don’t feel more pride.  He seeks out connections to slavery and racial division wherever he goes.

The cynicism wears thin, and yet–a big fat “yet”–I don’t believe I have ever read anyone who could as deftly bring to life a character and a setting.  I could see the buildings, rooms, and people he described.

With his pompous air of superiority, Naipaul is not a person I would want to dwell with on a desert island . (Particularly after reading about the way he has treated the women in his life.) However, that biting intelligence and felicity of expression would make for an interesting dinner party.

And, oh, yes, I am going to read the second book.

Now please let me know if the kind of person an author is in “real life” affects your enjoyment of his or her work? Would you rather just not know? Or do you think it is important to know something of the life of the author in order to understand the work?  Let’s have some exchange of views on this. I know you have an opinion.

Photograph by Vera Marie Badertscher. All rights reserved.

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Travel Classic Two: Bruce Chatwin

Cerro Tennerife Patagonia

Cerro Tennerife Patagonia

Destination: Chile and Argentina, South America

Book: In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin uses one of the most engaging opening lines found in travel literature, or any other kind of literature, for that matter, to start In Patagonia (1977).

The classic of travel books begins , “In my grandmother’s dining room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin.”

When he asked about the strange object, he was told it was a brontosaurus that had lived in Patagonia in South America, “at the far end of the world.”  The hairy piece of skin becomes what Alfred Hitchcock called “the Magilla”–the object around which the drama builds. As he searches for the true story of the piece of skin, Chatwin develops a fascination for Patagonia which inevitably leads him to the far end of the world.

Chatwin tells stories in every paragraph, practically in every sentence.  He has the gift of looking at things in a skewed fashion and seeing them in completely new ways. “About fifty million years ago, when continents were wandering about…” he says. He leaves a museum, “reeling under the blows of Linnaean Latin.”

As he works his way south through Argentina and Chile, Chatwin meets with many people whose stories surprise and entertain the reader.  He also tells anecdotes about people who were once here, from Butch Cassidy and his gang to Darwin and his gang. Even Edgar Allen Poe plays a bit part in a story about the real life origins of his story Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. It is surprising the far-reaching impact of this remote place. But particularly, he is interested in the story of Charley Milward, a distant relative who found that piece of skin that was unfortuitously discarded, and of course must be rediscovered–or at least replaced.

Sometimes the journey, mostly on foot and hitch hiking on various decrepit vehicles, is very difficult. Sometimes it is very dangerous, as when a drunken sheepherder plays with his knife and wonders aloud what it would do the a gringo.  But regardless of whether you have the stamina to follow his route on the ground (and numerous travel agents stand ready to help you these days), In Patagonia provides a grand tour to take through reading a great piece of travel literature.

Photo by “Florasol” from Flickr, under Creative Commons License

Have you read it? Are you two for two this week? Or are you making a list? Share, please, we’re dying to know.

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Filed under Argentina, Books, Chile, South America

Classic Travel Lit: Eric Newby

Afghanistan Mountains

Afghanistan Mountains--Not the ones climbed by Newby

Destination: Afghanistan

Book: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby

Newby’s work is on everybody’s list of travel literature not to be missed. I read a 1999 edition of the book, and the link here takes you to a Lonely Planet reprint.  The original 1973 edition is out of print. Newby also wins praise for the book, Love and War in the Apennines,  about his war time experience in Italy.

The self-effacing Newby tells his story in the framework of a humble ill-prepared would-be adventurer (himself) who joins a much more experienced friend in an exploration of northern Afghanistan.  During the trek described in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1973), they will be following the path of Alexander the Great, and they will see reminders of Tamerlaine’s journey through the same mountain passes.  This expedition takes place in the late 1950’s when very few outsiders had ventured into the area and relative peace prevailed, except for age-old grudges between tribes and cold war nervousness. Today, Al Quaida hides in this rough country which still cannot be reached by motor roads.

Newby and his friend Hugh, who turns out not to have the great expertise Newby thought he possessed, survive the fool-hardy adventure by sheer stiff-upper-lip fortitude.  One of the joys of the book is the subtle unmasking of Hugh, the alleged expert in expeditions, and the wry repartee between the two friends.

Being products of the British education system, they bring a knowledge of history and more than average language fluency to the task.  Living as they do at the tail end of England’s glory days as master of a far-flung Empire, they have a sense of built-in superiority over other races and cultures.  Their attitude toward the natives reeks of a kind of master-slave sensibility.

The British traditions of forebearance of hardship, however, keep them going as they sleep on bare, rocky ground, endure meals of packaged Irish stew and helpings of jam, and constantly suffer from dysentery that forces them to duck behind the nearest rock. They sustain the hardship,  knowing they are going where few have gone before and seeing amazing landsapes and interesting cultures.

Newby supplements the narrative with diversion of history–both of the native people and of explorers who trekked this way before.  He reproduces dialogue and captures word pictures of the passing scenes.

With Afghanistan once again at the top of American attention and our generally abysmal ignorance of geography, this book provides useful background. If, on the other hand, you are of the opinion that people who try to climb up sheer rock walls for fun have a screw loose, you probably should read something else.

Photograph by Alan Cordova, from Flickr, Creative Commons license

By the way, what book do you think these explorers took along to read (and re-read many times, it turned out)? The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. Which brings up an interesting question. If you were venturing into the unknown, what would you take along to read?

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Wrapping Up Blogathon and Starting New Projects

Memo to: Readers of A Travelers’ Library

From: A Traveling Reader

This morning was the wrap-up on Twitter by all the people who participated in the blogging marathon. Now I’m off on another sort of marathon–checking in to Likaholix most every day.  If you have not seen it, take a look.  It would be a great place for you to share your favorite travel books.

I’ve updated my TBR page to indicate travel books finished, travel books started, and a new book on the to-be-read pile that I’m very excited about. (Hint: Paris and food)

Recommendations are flowing in for books to read about Mexico, so maybe we’ll need to go back there soon.

C. M. Mayo writes to take exception to my laughing at “dolphins porpoising”. She says, “Dolphins do porpoise. Can be used as a verb.” Don’t want to belabor the point, because I love the way that Madame Mayo (as she is known at her blog) uses the language, and the ingenuity of her verbs and metaphors. And she has been most gracious about accepting what I wrote otherwise. And she is, after all, the one who teaches writing.

Next Up

This week we are going to visit some travel classics.  I will be showing what a babe in the woods I am by reviewing must-read travel books that I never read before. So here come Bill Bryson, V.S. Naipaul, Eric Newby, Paul Fussel, and Bruce Chatwin (the ONE out of these that I had already read.)

Next weekend I will disappear for a few days as the Traveler’s Library morphs into a new form.  Stay tuned.

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Filed under Books, Destinations, Mexico, Paris

Baja California, Mexico Literature for Travelers

Before I launch into today’s book on Baja Mexico, I want to take note of the fact that this is the final day of the May Blogathan. I’m late posting, but here I am–and I met the challenge of daily posts, with the help of Kerry Dexter of Music Roads and Sue Dickman of A Life Divided who did guest posts while I went gallivanting.  I encourage you to take a look at the list of fine bloggers who were part of this challenge. Special thanks to Michelle Rafter for starting this whole thing. Now back to business.

Miraculous Air by C. M. Mayo

Miraculous Air by C. M. Mayo

Destination: Baja Mexico

Book: Miraculous Air: Journey of a thousand miles through Baja Califonia, the other Mexico, by C. M. Mayo

This was the first non-fiction book for C. M. Mayo, an American who lives in Mexico.  She worked as an economist until she realized that she enjoyed telling stories more than teaching about economics (which involved telling stories, too.) Because she developed her writing chops in fiction,  this is true travel literature, packed with lovely language, and stories delivered with a good ear for dialogue.

In Miraculous Air, we follow her travels through the length of Baja California as she gives us detailed accounts of the history of the Spanish missionaries who built small churches, what is known about the natives who lived there originally, and the stories of people who live there now.  She visits petroglyphs, talks to sport fishermen, admires the art of resident artists, comments on the food and lodging along the way, and goes whale watching.

At first, I could not put this book down. (I literally was wandering through the house reading as I went.) It is most gripping when she is harvesting the stories of the people who live in Baja. Since she speaks fluent Spanish, communication flows whether the subject is Mexican or American ex-patriate.  I stumbled a bit when the narrative turned to the past. I love history, and coming from Tucson, am particularly attracted to Spanish history, but I found the history in Miraculous Air became too detailed and I became lost.  When the book returned to conversations with people who live there today, I was once more enthralled.

Mayo had a real challenge in keeping the descriptions of landscape and shabby homes and towns interesting. I personally find the desert lovely, but the desert is the desert and does not lend itself to a variety of descriptions. Likewise with crumbling adobes without electricity, and with old sofas on the front porch and junked cars in the side yard. However, Mayo, who teaches writing classes, rises to the challenge with fresh metaphors and similes, and unique verbs, although sometimes she stretches a bit to far. When she wrote that “the dolphin porpoised”, I had to laugh.  She used porpoised again later, and I thought “Once is enough for that particular figure of speech.”

Miraculous Air (a description borrowed from John Steinbeck) provides the traveler with a lot to think about. The economics of a tourism influx and its effect on the people. The environmental concerns of areas that are overfished by people whose only source of income is fishing. The effect of outside industry on the environment. The relationship of Mexicans from different regions–particular Oaxacans–with the Baja residents. She talks a lot about prior visitors such as  Earle Stanley Gardner (of Perry Mason fame) and Lindbergh. She reads everything she can find from the journals of the early Jesuits to modern visitors and her 10-page bibliography will keep a traveler to Baja supplied with reading material for a long time.

I recommend this book for the traveler’s library and suggest that if you are stymied by the detail, that you can dip into the sections that most interest you.  So what other books about Baja Mexico have you read? Have you read Steinbeck’s descriptions, or Earle Stanley Gardner’s? I’d like to know what you think.

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Finding Mexico in Books

Destination: Mexico

Books: The Mexicans by Phillip Oster and Rain of Gold by Victor Villaseñor

Many years ago when I thought it was necessary for me to understand Mexico, I read two books. Both gave me new insight, but they did not lead to understanding. For that, I would need to learn to the Spanish language and perhaps even live there. At Least travel there more frequently. But even people who were born in Mexico and lived there all their lives profess not to understand Mexico. At least not in a way that allow them to explain the country to her northern neighbor. Nowhere in the world are there two  countries with such sharp differences–in economics, in customs, in assumptions–that share a common border. The more I live near the border, and the more I read, the more confusing it becomes.

The book The Mexicans, A Personal Portrait of a People (1989/2002) by Phillip Oster, tells the stories of twenty Mexicans from various part of Mexican society. Oster gives glimpses of everything from the survivors who live off of garbage dumps, to a doctor trying to help the poor. The very fragmentation of looking at the country through so many different people’s lives, points out the difficulty of understanding the whole picture. However, through direct quotations and his description of these lives, we are drawn to a personal understanding of at least pieces of the puzzle. The book allows you to meet people you might not meet in your travels.

Please continue to see Rain of Gold and a video with Victor Villaseñor. Continue reading

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Filed under Books, Mexico