Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bruce Chatwin

At the blog, Off the Shelf, Meg Miller recently posted an article entitled "Quite Possibly the Best Travel Writing You’ve Never Heard Of." The post was about Bruce Chatwin's collection of travel stories, What Am I Doing Here?, which was the last of his works to be published during Chatwin's lifetime.

Miller read the book during a very rough winter in Chicago, when she was "desperate for even an imagined change of scenery." The book did the trick, and soon Miller was "whisked ... away to sunny Yunan, to the barracks of Benin, along white roads on the island of Chiloe, and on the hunt for a Yeti in Nepal and a wolf-boy in India."

Miller rightly describes Chatwin as "a dazzling writer and a charming guide ... [with a] fondness for unusual locales and improbable situations [that] is downright infectious." She also notes Chatwin's well-known tendency to mix fiction with his nonfiction, a trait "that didn’t seem to bother Chatwin, who made a living crossing arbitrary boundaries ..."

Miller's blog, Off the Shelf, is intended to help readers discover or rediscover great books, and Chatwin is the kind of author whose works are featured in the blog, the kind of writer who is likely to become an intimate favorite.

Readers interested in exploring other writings by Bruce Chatwin, who died in 1989 at the age of 48, should consider any of the following.
  • In Patagonia (1977). This is the book that established Chatwin's reputation as a travel writer. Based on a six-month trip to Patagonia, the southernmost portion of South America, In Patagonia contains 97 short sections that have the author wandering from vivid descriptions of the landscape to interviews with colorful inhabitants to notes on the region’s eccentric history, which ranges from Darwin to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There have been claims that many of the conversations and characters were invented by Chatwin, but the book remains an enthralling evocation of a remote, wild part of the world.
  • The Songlines (1987), a brilliantly written account of Chatwin's journey to the Australian Outback to learn firsthand about the legendary Aboriginal songlines, which represent the paths along which the world was created and is constantly being created. Chatwin has his own theories about the songlines, and his narrative reflects a growing appreciation of the nomadic drive in mankind. Again, the book is controversial in its combination of fiction and nonfiction and in what some reviewers perceived as its simplistic, colonialist views of European and Aboriginal Australians.
  • On the Black Hill (1982) is a novel about identical twin brothers living in a farmhouse in the Black Mountains on the border of England and Wales. The novel won both the 1982 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the 1982 Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award.
  • The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) is another Chatwin novel and tells of a Brazilian adventurer who becomes the master of the slave trade in a West African nation. The main character is loosely based on the life of a historical white Brazilian, Francisco Felix de Sousa.
  • Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin is a collection of his personal correspondence from his schoolboy days to letters that he dictated on his death bed. As the New York Times reviewer notes, "One of the pleasures of a good book of letters is watching a voice develop and ripen over time, and Chatwin’s does. It grows lovelier, grainier, more confident, more wicked."

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Great Resource :: The Guardian

The Guardian, a British national daily newspaper, has a terrific Web presence. I go there often for news, music reviews, and other items of interest.

Readers' advisors will want to take a look at one of The Guardian's monthly features: book lists of various countries. This is an excellent resource to help readers find titles on specific countries, which is one of the most frequent ways in which readers of travel narratives look for books. The Guardian includes nonfiction and fiction titles in its lists and provides thorough annotations for the recommended titles, typically three for each country, and links to longer reviews of the titles.

Among the countries covered by The Guardian's lists are:

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Sunday, April 6, 2014

RIP, Peter Matthiessen (1927 – 2014)

Travel writer Peter Matthiessen died on Saturday at his home in Sagaponack, N.Y. He was 86 and died of leukemia.

Matthiessen was many things — a novelist who the National Book Award for Fiction for Shadow Country in 2008 at the age of 81; one of the founders of "The Paris Review," a renowned literary magazine; and a travel writer and naturalist.

Among his travel books are the following:
  • The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness (1961). This book is the account of a 10,000-mile South American journey that Matthiessen took from the Sargasso Sea to the jungles of the Amazon, from Machu Picchu to Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia. Matthiessen had no clear destination but followed the trails of old explorers, encountered river bandits and tribesmen, and discovered fossils in the depths of the jungle.
  • The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972). Matthiessen writes about his several trips to East Africa over a dozen-year period. Much of his focus is on the native herdsmen and other Africans he met as well as the anthropologists studying man’s origins and the biologists studying the animals of the area, but his most evocative and lyrical language is reserved for his descriptions of nature and the beauty of the African savannah.
  • The Snow Leopard (1978). This book about a quest for the elusive, almost mythical snow leopard in the Himalayas works both as a story of Matthiessen's travels in search of the leopard and as a story of a pilgrimage of self-understanding. Matthiessen was a practicing Buddhist and, in The Snow Leopard, he reflects on the history of Buddhism, on his own Zen-oriented practice, and on the personal pain of his late wife’s death from cancer. He intersperses his reflections with beautiful descriptions of the exotic birds and animals, the people, and the landscapes that he encounters.
  • Sand Rivers (1981). Matthiessen and wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick joined a safari into the Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania, one of the largest yet least-known strongholds of wild animals left on earth, and provided this stunning account of their trip into this East African wilderness. On reader described the writing as "low key, unpretentious, straightforward and fresh in his descriptions."
  • The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes (2001). This book details Matthiessen’s travels through more than a dozen countries in search of migrating crane, eleven species of which are on the verge of extinction. He also discusses the efforts of a small group of dedicated individuals trying to protect these birds. Again, as with many of Matthiessen's books, the quest described in "The Birds of Heaven" is as much spiritual as it is scientific. His writing conveys the thrill that Matthiessen feels at every crane sighting and does so in what one reviewer described as “a serendipitous prose as elegant as the stately birds that inspire him.”
  • End of the Earth: Voyaging to Antarctica (2003). Here, Matthiessen describes two voyages that he took to Antarctica and includes particularly beautiful descriptions of the magnificent icebergs and the wildlife he encountered. He ponders a range of topics, from geology and ecology to whaling and seal hunting, and he decries the increasing number of tourists who are damaging the fragile beauty of the area. The book is a sympathetic and admiring look at a harsh but striking part of the world.
Matthiessen’s final novel, In Paradise, is to be published on Tuesday by Riverhead Books.

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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Six Books on ... The Tango

My wife and I are taking dance lessons. For years, she's been a pretty good dancer, but she wanted to up her game and drag me along, so for Christmas, I bought her introductory dance lessons at the local Fred Astaire studio. We did well enough and liked it enough to continue beyond the beginner lessons.

One of the dances that we are trying to learn is the tango, the partner dance associated with Argentina. At this point, we're at the T-A-N-G-O stage, but I assume that the simple steps can be embellished and transformed into the playful, provocative dance that most of us are familiar with.

The tango has been featured in a number of films, from "Last Tango in Paris" to "Scent of a Woman" to "Strictly Ballroom." Interestingly, there are also a number of travel narratives that involve the tango.
  • Maria Finn's Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home (2010) may be my favorite travel narrative title of all time. When Maria discovered that her husband was having an affair, she recovered by learning to tango, and her recovery/adventure eventually took her to Buenos Aires, where she learned that her life was just beginning.
  • In Brian Winter's Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien: A Yanqui’s Missteps in Argentina (2007), the author recounts the four years that he spent in the 1990s as a reporter in Argentina. While he covered the country’s dissolution into financial crisis and revolution by day, he learned to tango by night, visiting milongas in Buenos Aires, searching for the origins of the dance in salons and brothels, and falling in love with his dance instructor. Winter draws parallels between the tango and the local character and the country’s troubles, calling Argentina “simultaneously doomed and still the most marvelous place imaginable.”
  • Another failed relationship, another writer who recovers through travel and dance. Camille Cusumano traveled to Buenos Aires to recover from a failed 15-year relationship and a violent encounter with her ex’s new girlfriend; she fell in love with the country and the tango and writes about that love affair in Tango: An Argentine Love Story (2008).
  • One of the essays in Go Your Own Way: Women Travel the World Solo (2007), edited by Faith Conlon, Ingrid Emerick, and Christina Henry de Tessan is about a woman learning to tango in Argentina.
  • Readers who are interested in the tango itself may wish to consult Christine Denniston’s The Meaning of Tango: The Story of the Argentinian Dance (2007), which explores the history and the essence of the dance.
  • Fiction readers should try Tomás Eloy Martínez’s hallucinatory thriller, The Tango Singer (2006), which is set in Buenos Aires and involves an American student’s quest to find Julio Martel, rumored to be the greatest of all tango singers.
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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

20% Off on ABC-CLIO Readers’ Advisory Titles at PLA

If you're attending the 2014 Public Library Association Conference in Indianapolis from March 11 through 15, take some time to visit the ABC-CLIO booth at the exhibits and check out the many great readers' advisory titles on offer there.

Even better, print out this coupon and get 20 per cent off on many of these titles.

Among the titles that ABC-CLIO publishes is Going Places: A Reader’s Guide to Travel Narrative, by yours truly, Robert Burgin.  In case you don't know, the book provides annotations and "read alike" suggestions for over 500 titles in seven sub-genres of travel nonfiction — “Sense of Place,” “Quests,” “Journey,” “Getting There Is Half the Fun,” “Expatriate Life,” “Travel Humor,” and “Travel Adventure.”  Within each of these sub-genres, the titles are further broken out by sub-sub-genres, more than you can shake a stick at.

Among the other readers' advisory titles offered by ABC-CLIO are the following:
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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Happy Birthday, Ibn Battutah

Muslim explorer Ibn Battutah was born on this day in 1304. He is generally regarded as the greatest traveler of the premodern era and is best known for his work, The Travels of Ibn Battutah, which was dictated to Ibn Juzayy, a scholar, between 1354 and 1355.

Ibn Battutah left home in 1325 at the age of 21 on a pilgrimage to Mecca and did not return to Morocco for 24 years. He visited most of the known Islamic world, traveling more than 75,000 miles, a figure unsurpassed for 450 years. His observations on the world of the relatively peaceful 14th century are fascinating, especially his interactions with other members of the Muslim communities in the countries through which he traveled.

The 2002 Picador edition of The Travels is an abridged version of a translation published in four volumes between 1958 and 1994. It is edited by Tim Mackintosh-Smith and includes 25 pages of clarifying footnotes.

More Like That ...
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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Six Books on ... The Appalachian Trail

In April, the Chicago Review Press will publish Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery. The book tells the story of Emma Gatewood, a 67-year-old grandmother who became in 1955 the first woman to walk the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail alone in a single season. (She later became the first person to walk the trail twice and then three times.) Montgomery's book is based on Gatewood's diaries, trail journals, and letters and tells the story of the woman who brought attention to what was then a little-known foot path.

The Appalachian Trail, which extends between between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine, is maintained by 30 trail clubs and managed by both the National Park Service and the nonprofit Appalachian Trail Conservancy. It is well known as a challenge to hikers, who attempt to walk from one end to the other in a single season, and has spawned a number of good travel books, which will be of interest to those intending to make the hike and those who just want to enjoy a good read.
  • Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (1998) may be the best travel narrative about the Trail. Bryson is a native of the U.S. Midwest who had been living in England for 20 years when he returned to the states and decided to reconnect to the landscape by hiking the Appalachian Trail. Unfortunately, Bryson was ill prepared for the trip: he lacked any real backpacking experience and made matters worse by traveling with his overweight, junk food obsessed friend Steven Katz. The result is a hilarious narrative, filled with witty observations about himself, about Katz, about the people they met, and about the situation. As with many of Bryson's books, it is also educational, with plenty of information about the Trail.
  • In AWOL on the Appalachian Trail (2011), David Miller tells how his life was changed as he pursued his dream of hiking the complete length of the Trail. The book is a mix of personal introspection and rich descriptions of the scenery along the Trail. Several readers have described how well written and inspiring the book is. As one noted, "This book inspired me to take the challenge of hiking the AT and change my life. How many times can a book do that?"
  • Leslie Mass’s In Beauty May She Walk: Hiking the Appalachian Trail at 60 (2009) is refreshing in that the author is older than most of those who write about hiking the Trail.
  • Bill Irwin’s Blind Courage (1991) is particularly inspiring, because the author hiked the trail in spite of being blind. Accompanied by his Seeing Eye dog, Irwin managed to thru-hike the Trail and provides an account that is an outstanding story of courage and faith.
  • Jennifer Pharr Davis hiked the Appalachian Trail shortly after she graduated from college and hoped that the experience would help her decide what to do with her life; she recounts the challenges she met and the lessons she learned in Becoming Odyssa: Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail (2011).
  • Adrienne Hall’s hike on the Trail, described in A Journey North: One Woman’s Story of Hiking the Appalachian Trail (2000), began as a date but quickly turned into "the experience of a lifetime as [the author] faces blinding snowstorms, flooded rivers, and seemingly endless mountaintops." Readers have been divided about the book, with some finding the author's "rants" about environmentalism a bit too much.

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