Saturday, September 6, 2014

Happy Birthday, Robert Pirsig

Robert Pirsig turns 86 today.  He was born on September 6, 1928, in Minneaapolis, Minnesota, and is best known for the travel narrative, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is at once a journey of self-discovery, a trip through the writer’s past, a father–son journey, a motorcycle road trip, and much more.

Pirsig was a precocious child who nevertheless struggled as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota before being expelled in 1945. He drifted aimlessly for several months before joining the Army and serving in Korea and then returning to school, where he received a B.A. in Eastern Philosophy in 1950. Pirsig enrolled in the University's School of Journalism two years later and, in 1953, became co-editor with Nancy Ann James, an undergraduate journalism student, of The Ivory Tower, part of the University's literary magazine. Pirsig and James married on May 10, 1954.

Pirsig returned to school in 1955 and received his MA in journalism in 1958. Between 1961 and 1963, Pirsig suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals, where was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression and was treated with electroconvulsive therapy. In the early 1960s, Pirsig began sending the manuscript for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to publishers.  After receiving more than 120 rejection slips, the manuscript finally found its way to James Landis, an editor at William Morrow, who encouraged Pirsig to finish the book. Pirsig turned over the completed manuscript in 1973, and the book was published in the same year.

The book is remarkable on many levels, one of which is the story of a 17-day motorcycle trip of a father and his son from Minnesota to California.  It is also a journey into Pirsig’s own past and the story of his attempts to understand and make peace with that past. The book is punctuated with philosophical discussions, primarily about the notion of “quality,” an obsession of Pirsig’s, particularly in a world that seems so enthralled by “quantity.” Readers who like to tackle the big questions will enjoy the book, and many will find that it changes their lives.

Tragically, in 1979, Pirsig's son Chris, who figured prominently in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was stabbed to death during a mugging outside the San Francisco Zen Center.

More Like That ...
  • Mark Richardson's Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (2008) follows the author, a journalist who traveled on his motorcycle as closely along Pirsig’s original route as he could.  Like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Richardson's book is about many things: the trip itself and the cities and towns through which he traveled and how they compare now with what they were like when Pirsig visited them 40 years before; Pirsig himself and many of the characters from the book; Richardson’s own mid-life crisis; and the impact that Pirsig's book has had on his life.
  • Another intellectual motorcycle journey is taken by English professor Ted Bishop, who rode his motorcycle from the University of Alberta to the University of Texas and speculates about great literature along the way in Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books (2006).
  • Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (2009) does not involve travel but is similar to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in its philosophical approach to everyday matters and the virtues of working with one’s own hands.
  • Garri Gallipoli’s The Tao of the Ride: Motorcycles and the Mechanics of the Soul (1999) combines meditations on motorcycling and Eastern spirituality.
  • Pirsig’s only other book is Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (1991).  While it was less well received than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by most readers, some saw it as a more comprehensive expression of Pirsig’s philosophy, and it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992.
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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Six Books About ... World War I

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the "war to end all wars." Triggered by the 1914 assassination of the heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and by Germany's invasion of Belgium, the war was not expected to last long. Instead, Europe suffered over four years of horror and misery and eventually endured over 37 million military and civilian casualties (over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded).

Readers interested in more personal narratives about aspects of "the great war" have a number of titles to choose from, including travel narratives that take the authors to the war's battlefields many years after the conflict, memoirs about the war by those who experienced it first hand, and fictional accounts of those who fought in the war.

  • In The Trigger: Taking the Journey that Led the World to War (2014), Tim Butcher follows the path of Gavrilo Princip, whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 was the event that set World War I in motion. Butcher covered the 1990s Balkans conflict for the Daily Telegraph and is best-known for his 2009 travel narrative about the Congo, Blood River: The Terrifying Journey Through The World's Most Dangerous Country. In The Trigger, Butcher not only follows the journey of the relatively unknown assassin from his birthplace in the in western Bosnia to Sarajevo, where the assassination took place; he also looks at the history of Bosnia and his own memories of the horrors that he witnessed there in the 1990s.
  • In the summer of 1986, journalist and film critic Stephen O'Shea walked 450 miles of trenches from the seaside in Belgium to the border of France and Switzerland in order to discover the meaning of the First World War for himself and his generation. The result is an excellent book, Back to the Front: An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I (1996). O’Shea's grandfather had fought in World War I, and O'Shea travels through the battlefields of Somme, Verdun, and Argonne and through lands dotted with cemeteries and monuments. His writing is poetic, descriptive, and sorrowful, as he contemplates the millions of lives needlessly lost through the incompetence of generals and poor battle planning and the deep scar left by the war on Western culture and the Western imagination.
  • Tony Wright’s engaging and easy-to-read Turn Right at Istanbul: A Walk on the Gallipoli Peninsula (2004) combines travel narrative and practical travel guide with a look at the stories of the young Australians who participated in the disastrous attack on the peninsula in World War I. On his journey, Wright carries a diary written by his great uncle George, who had landed at Gallipoli in 1915 and whose spirit follows Wright as he pauses before the graves and interacts with Turkish hosts and Australian travelling companions.
  • Nigel Jones, whose uncle was killed near Ypres during World War I, traveled to several battlefields in The War Walk: A Journey Along the Western Front (2004), a book that combines his own observations with anecdotes from some of the Great War’s last survivors. Jones does a particularly nice job of describing the major battles of the war as well as summarizing the strategies of the adversaries.
  • Robert Graves’s Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography (1929) is one of the best, if not the best, memoirs of World War I. Graves, who would eventually write I, Claudius and other well-known works, joined the service in 21 and served first as a lieutenant, then as a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His book offers detailed descriptions of the horrors of trench warfare. In addition to his memories of the war, Graves writes about his childhood and his early post-war life, when he bids "good bye" to a way of life, the pre-war "old order".
  • The classic novel about World War I is Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), which tells the story of a German soldier at the front, but a more romantic novel related to “the war to end all wars” is Sebastian Japrisot’s engaging novel, A Very Long Engagement (2004), which involves a woman who refuses to believe that her fiancé has been killed in the war and searches for him through France in the 1920s. (The film based on the novel, which starred Audrey Tautou, is also called “A Very Long Engagement” and was nominated for a Golden Globe for best foreign language film.)

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Re-Reading :: The City of Falling Angels

Obviously, many travel narratives focus on the destination, i.e., the place to which the author has traveled. The author may focus on the unforgettable beauty of a place or a combination of the appeal of a place and its people. The author may focus on the beauty in a wilderness, like a desert or one of the polar regions, or may find beauty in the crowds and bustle of a major city. The author may focus on the plants and animals of the destination or may focus on the destructive changes that threaten the beauty of a place.

A large number of travel narratives of this type focus on cities, and one of the most intriguing cities for travel writers has been Venice, the city in northeastern Italy that comprises over 100 islands separated by bridges and canals. One of the best recent travel narratives to look at Venice is John Berendt's The City of Falling Angels (2005), which I recently re-read for no particular reason.

The setup. John Berendt, who wrote the well-received Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994), traveled to Venice in the days following a mysterious fire that destroyed the historic opera house, La Fenice. He visited in the off-season, as he says, "in order to enjoy the city without the crush of other tourists." The book follows the reaction of the locals to the fire and the investigations of Berendt and others into its causes. In the process, Berendt becomes fascinated by the city’s colorful characters: a master glassblower, Ezra Pound's widow, an heir to a grand Renaissance palace, the Rat Man of Treviso, a misunderstood poet who may or may not have committed suicide, as well as various contessas, marchesas, and other wealthy and famous individuals.

You’ll like the book if ...
  • You're in love with Venice. Berendt does a good job of providing an atmospheric and evocative portrait of Venice and its crumbling buildings, twisting passages, and seemingly endless canals. He loves the beauty of the city, too, and even invents "a game called 'photo roulette,' the object [of which] was to walk around the city taking photographs at unplanned moments — whenever a church bell rang or at every sighting of a dog or cat — to see how often, standing at an arbitrary spot, one would be confronted by a view of exceptional beauty. The answer — almost always." (Of course, Berendt also sees the dark side of this beautiful city, like the maggots that he sees breeding in the glue on the back of canvases in Peggy Guggenheim's art gallery.)
  • You like quirky characters, especially if they are wealthy or have royal blood. As one reader noted, Berendt's characters are "too colorful to be real." They squabble over everything from Ezra Pound's archives to the will of a gay poet, and Berendt portrays them with a good eye for detail. One character "spoke in a swooping, full-throated English drawl," while another "held forth in a manner more in the nature of oratory than conversation."
  • You have an interest in the various American and British expatriates who have lived in the city, like Robert Browning, Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and Ezra Pound. In fact, some of Berendt's references to paintings will have you running to Google to track down Sargent's portrait of Lisa Colt Curtis or Anders Zorn's of Isabella Stewart Gardner.
You won’t like the book if ...
  • You don't care much for gossip. One reader noted the "gossipy stories involving many of the locals (most of whom are actually expatriates and not native Venetians)" and concluded that "Not unlike Midnight it seems Berendt thinks his popularity comes with the inclusion of eccentrics. However, unlike Midnight there were too many stories that never quite came together in the end." In fact, one of most repeated criticisms of the book is that it bogs down in the details and provides little in the way of a coherent story.
  • You want more about Venice and less about the quirky characters who live there. There are a lot of characters — Berendt even provides an appendix listing people, organizations, and companies in the back of the book — and one might wish that the author had focused more on the city itself and less on the strange people who live there. In fact, Berendt himself says early in the book that his interest "was not Venice per se but people who live in Venice, which is not the same thing."
Notice how ... Berendt uses Italian words and phrases to make the reader feel more as if he or she were in Venice. Phrases like Non lo sapevamo ("We had no idea") and Com'era dov'era ("As it was, where it was") pepper the narrative. Berendt defines the Italian words when they first appear in the text and even includes a glossary of Italian words and phrases — from acqua alta ("hide tide") to vaporetto ("water bus") in the back of the book.

Appeal factors. Place and character are the obvious appeal factors here, although character takes precedence, given Berendt's obvious interest in the eccentric individuals in Venice. Berendt, in fact, begins to treat some of the places as if they were characters; for example, some of the buildings take on personalities and seem more like characters.

What's next?
  • In No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice (2007), Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners) writes both about “that miracle-from-the-swamp” and her own relationship with it as an self-professed “Venetophile.” Martin writes with a gentle wit and provides ample information on Venetian food, painting, and history as well as the city’s social life. Of course, she is Miss Manners, and so Martin spends a good part of the book advising the reader on how to interact with others and how to behave in general while traveling.
  • Marlena de Blasi wrote the four books about her life in Italy, and these begin with A Thousand Days in Venice (2002), the story of how she fell in love with and married a Venetian banker; the book is strong on romance and food.
  • The World of Venice (1974) is one of travel writer Jan Morris’s best known works and is a delightful, very personal guide to the culture and people of the “City of Water.”
  • The Venice Experiment: A Year of Trial and Error Living Abroad (2011) by Barry Frangipane and Ben Robbins recounts the year that Barry and his wife spent in Venice; they found plenty to laugh at in their encounters with the Italian bureaucracy and even in the high tides that threatened their ground- floor apartment.
  • Another very private look at Venice is Watermark (1992) by poet Joseph Brodsky, although this one is a bit more brooding.  Readers who liked the historical, cultural aspects of Berendt's book may enjoy Brodsky's brief but intense narrative.
  • A large number of works of fiction are set in Venice, including Henry James's The Wings of the Dove (1902), E.M. Forster's A Room with a View (1908), and two marvelous novellas, Daphne du Maurier’s chilling Don’t Look Now (1971) and Thomas Mann’s classic story of forbidden love, Death in Venice (1912). (All of these have been made into rather good films. "Don't Look Now" was directed by Nicholas Roeg and features one of the most frightening scenes in film history.) In addition, mystery readers should try Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti series of crime novels set in Venice. Each of her books explores a specific aspect of Venetian life, beginning with Death at La Fenice (1992), in which a German conductor is found dead during the performance of “La Traviata” at the famous opera house that is also the focus of The City of Falling Angels, and Death in a Strange Country (1993), in which an American soldier’s body is found floating in one of the Venetian canals. Edward Sklepowich's Urbino Macintyre series focuses on an American expatriate writer living in Venice. There are now nine titles in the series, beginning with Death in a Serene City (1990), which links the murder of a Venetian laundress with the theft of the thousand-year-old body of Santa Teodora, and ends with The Veils of Venice (2009), which focuses on the stabbing death of a contessa.
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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Duncan Smith: Books, the Original Maker Spaces

In late June, I attended the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in Las Vegas.  On Saturday, I attended a readers’ advisory session entitled “Turning Books Into A Cool New Tool: RA Marketing in the Age of Maker Spaces,” sponsored by the Reference and User Services Association.

The opening speaker was Duncan Smith, Vice-President, Novelist, who encouraged public libraries to:

  • “Stick to the knitting,” by adding value to their communities “through supporting readers in their quest to become the people they seek to be.”
  • “Honestly assess our relationship with reading and why as a profession we seem to be running away from it.”
  • “Define the true product, the true outcome of what a real commitment to readers’ advisory service would mean for us as working librarians, our public libraries and the individuals and communities we serve.”

Duncan noted that public libraries struggle everyday to communicate their value, often by adopting new technologies, like 3-D printing and maker spaces.  He argued, however, that maker spaces are not really about 3D printers and innovation but about supporting “the creative acts of our customers.”

He also noted that “Maker spaces provide us with an opportunity to rethink reading” and quoted Marshall McLuhan, who said that “a new medium does not extinguish an old medium—it transforms it.”  For Duncan, the new technologies and new digital media give us an opportunity to explore how the book and the act of reading are being transformed.

Citing Laurel Tarrulli’s call to think about a new definition of pleasure reading, Duncan asked librarians “to be open to a wider definition of reading” and “to be open to new understandings of the impacts that reading has on our users.”  He argued that reading is less like a Xerox machine – i.e., passive – and more like a 3-D printer – i.e., “taking the raw material of the author and making something new.”

For Duncan, readers – like the people who use maker spaces – are engaged in creative acts.  As he noted, “When we read we are in fact making ourselves.  Books were and are the original maker spaces.”

Unfortunately, according to Duncan, “the overwhelming majority of our users (and our funders) do not” understand this aspect of reading: “unless we are engaged in some rather intense self-reflection and examination it is hard to tease out the contribution that books make to who we are.”  For example, “a Charlaine Harris reader might not see the connection between Sookie’s struggles to fight racism and prejudice in Bon Temps and her own activism in the areas of women’s rights and economic equality.”  On the other hand, a social worker may come to appreciate that his career choice was linked to reading The Grapes of Wrath when he was a 17 year old orphan.

For Duncan, “reading matters” because it helps us make ourselves who we are and reading ”should remain the cornerstone of our services and the anchor of the way we communicate our value to our funders and communities.”

Unfortunately, while books are the library’s brand (according to OCLC) and while the main reason users go to the library (according to the Pew Trust) is to borrow books, books are NOT (as Susan Benton from the Urban Libraries Council has pointed out) the business of the library.  Instead, as Duncan noted, the public library’s “business is the benefits that are derived from reading the books that are in our collections and on our shelves; our business is the creative acts that readers engage in with our books.”

Duncan then discussed what a future in which the public library is the heart of a reading community might look like and how librarians can create that community.  He looked at three specific areas:

  • Assessing how we are doing today in the area of readers’ advisory.
  • Expanding readers’ advisory services beyond the passionate few.
  • Moving out from behind the desk.

Duncan cited a recent survey by RUSA, Library Journal, and NoveList, which found that while 84 per cent of the respondents indicated that readers’ advisory was important or very important to their library, ”the decisions that we make every day about staff, collections, buildings, and resources [may not] reflect the centrality of [readers’ advisory] to our mission …”  For example, the survey found that:

  • 60 per cent of respondents taught themselves how to do readers’ advisory, which suggests to Duncan that libraries may not be truly committed to delivering quality readers’ advisory service.
  • Only 54 per cent of respondents felt that they were very effectively or effectively delivering readers’ advisory services.
  • 40 per cent of respondents said that they were not measuring their readers’ service at all.
  • Furthermore, the most common measure which was used by those who did measure readers’ advisory effectiveness was the usage of readers’ advisory resources, which doesn’t really measure the effectiveness of the service.

Duncan suggested that not much has changed since the beginning of research into readers’ advisory in 1992 by Ken Shearer.  He cited an example from one of Catherine Sheldrick Ross’s studies where a reader asked for help in finding a good book to read and received the following response:

    The librarian seemed caught off guard or surprised by the question. . . . she gave me a blank look and, appearing confused, asked me to repeat myself.

Duncan also cited a secret shopper study conducted in a major urban public library in the United States, which found that while 95 per cent of staff members offered to place a requested title on hold, 70 per cent of those staff members did not suggest another title to the reader.

Duncan then suggested what successful readers’ advisory service would look like.  Successful services, he said, would:

  • “Help readers find more of what the reader likes.”
  • “Support readers in understanding why they like what they like.”
  • “Encourage readers to see the connection between their reading and their lives.” 
  • “Help readers share their experiences with others.”

To achieve this level of success, Duncan argued that public libraries need to first move readers’ advisory services “beyond the passionate few” and suggested a model for assessing “how effectively a staff member will deliver [readers’ advisory] services based on two things—their book knowledge and the commitment to customer service.”

  • High commitment to customer service, high book knowledge.  Duncan suggested that this is the epitome of readers’ advisory service but that not every staff member will be able to reach this quadrant.  Instead, he said, we need “to create opportunities for all of our staff to be successful at providing some level of” readers’ advisory service.
  • High commitment to customer service, low book knowledge.  For Duncan, staff in this quadrant can use readers’ advisory tools and resources to add to their people skills.
  • Low commitment to customer service, high book knowledge.  Duncan argued that “We need to find a way for these shy people to share their book knowledge without needing to interact directly with users. Creating book displays, editing a e-newsletter, or responding to form-based RA queries might be the answer here.”
  • Low commitment to customer service, low book knowledge.  Staff members, according to Duncan, should stay out of this quadrant.

To achieve success in readers’ advisory, Duncan also recommended going “where the readers are … and that is not at the desk.”  As he noted, “When we talk about [readers’ advisory], we tend to focus on face-to-face interactions and programs.”  However, as the Pew Trust found, nearly three fourths of users said that they browsed the shelves looking for books to read – rather than interacting with library staff.  Duncan reminded us that the overwhelmingly majority of library holds are placed remotely by users.

In other words, according to Duncan, we need to “balance our services to more effectively respond to the ways in which readers use us,” and that means that “we might need to shift more of our focus to self-directed and digital [readers’ advisory].”

Duncan then suggested a model for meeting reader needs based on two axes: “the amount of time users have for us and the level of engagement they want to have with us.”

  • High touch, lots of time.  According to Duncan, “For the readers in this quadrant—face to face and book oriented programs work.”
  • High touch, no time.  “For the readers in this quadrant, who are probably visiting our digital branches as much as our physical facility, we might provide e-newsletter services, form-based [readers’ advisory], catalog enrichment, doing [readers’ advisory] from our Facebook pages, or adding other reader oriented content there.”
  • Low touch, lots of time.  “These are the browsers in our user group and how we arrange our collections, displays, and shelf-talkers are all ways we can support their discovery of new authors, titles and genres.”
  • Low touch, no time.  “For these harried users, posters and reading maps, and bringing [readers’ advisory] to self-check might be solutions.”

Duncan ended by suggesting that if public libraries “become intentional about helping readers maximize the benefits of the creative reading acts in which they are engaged,” our users “might realize that the library is in the inspiration business and that is it an essential part of their community’s inspiration infrastructure. … Until every funder and every resident of the communities we serve know these two truths, we have work to do.”

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Six Books About ... Norway

If you love books, then you should know about the BBC's wonderful podcast, "World Book Club." The series is hosted by Harriett Gilbert, and each hour-long episode features a world-renowned author speaking about one of her or his works. Members of the audience are invited to ask questions, either face to face or via email.

A recent broadcast featured Norwegian author Pers Petterson, who discussed his highly acclaimed novel, Out Stealing Horses. Interestingly, according to Petterson, his novel was originally reviewed by The Guardian in its travel section.  That remark led me to think about some excellent travel narratives that deal with Norway, the country in which Petterson's novel takes place.

  • The Fellowship of Ghosts: A Journey through the Mountains of Norway (2004) recounts writer Paul Watkins' solo journey through Norway’s three inland mountain ranges: the alpine Rondane; the severe Dovrefjell; and the icy, jagged Jotunheimen (“Home of the Giants” in Norse folklore). Watkins based his walk on guidebooks written long ago by long-dead writers, hence the “fellowship of ghosts” that accompanied him. Some readers may find his writing to be overdone at times as he describes a beautiful but harsh land, with blue fields of snow and valleys bordered by incredibly high cliffs, but his attempts to examine the effect that this bleak wilderness has on his senses and on the identity of the Norwegian people will also strike other readers as stirring.
  • In Summer Light: A Walk across Norway (2002), Canadian-born travel writer Andrew Stevenson tells about the five years that he spent living in Norway, where he walked and cycled from Oslo to Bergen with his new love Annabel to introduce her to the country’s splendid fjords and mountains. The pair stayed on cliff-top farms, climbed the country’s highest mountains, and took a side trip to Spitzbergen, north of the Arctic Circle. Stevenson’s account is vivid and affectionate and includes portraits of the people they met along the path (particularly rural Norwegians) and their way of life, speculations on the Norwegian light and its effect on the people there, and occasional mishaps, like getting stuck in a snowdrift or two.
  • Eric Dregni and his pregnant wife spent a year in Norway, thanks to Eric’s Fulbright Fellowship; he writes about that year and the birth of their son there in the engaging travel narrative, In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream (2011). Dregni's great-grandfather had fled Norway in 1893, and one thread in his narrative focuses on his homecoming and the birth of a new family member in the "old country." One reviewer called the book "deceptively delightful" and noted that it "combines understated humor and serious scholarship."
  • Texas freelance writer Patti Jones Morgan followed her husband to Norway, where he worked on a North Sea oil project. She writes about her struggles with solitude, with cultural differences, and with the Norwegian language in Island Soul: A Memoir of Norway (2000).
  • In Isles of the North: A Voyage to the Lands of the Norse (2004), Ian Mitchell recounts his trip into the Norwegian fjords on a 30-foot yacht and speculates on Norway’s place in the modern world as a country outside the European Union. Mitchell's descriptions of sailing and the seascapes are vivid and evocative, but some readers may feel that he spends too much time pondering politics and contrasting Norway's freedom to control its own resources with the bureaucratic oversight that England imposes on Scotland.
  • Robert Goldstein rode his bicycle across Finland and northern Norway in the summer of 2007 and writes about the trip in Riding With Reindeer: A Bicycle Odyssey Through Finland, Lapland, and Arctic Norway (2010). Goldstein survives storms, near-accidents, and the fear of being eaten by a bear and tells his story with a good deal of humor and appreciation for the history and beauty of the lands through which he bikes.
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Monday, June 23, 2014

Six Books on ... Brazil

Continuing with the World Cup theme of my previous post, we're going to look at travel narratives that focus on the host country of Brazil
  • Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed (2010) by Larry Rohter is a good introduction to South America's largest country. Rohter is a former New York Times bureau chief for Rio de Janeiro and discusses the history of the country, its emergence from the military dictatorship in 1985, and its recent rise as one of the world's fastest growing economies. Described by one reviewer as "lively and hard-hitting," Rohter's book mixes personal anecdotes and interviews with an analysis of some of Brazil's most convoluted issues, including racism, class prejudice, energy, and politics.
  • The Amazon River figures prominently in the history and life of Brazil, and Joe Kane's Running the Amazon (1989) tells the story of a multinational team of ten men and one woman who tried to become the first group to travel the entire 4,200-mile length of the Amazon River from its source in the Peruvian Andes to the Atlantic Ocean. Kane provides an exhilarating firsthand account of the expedition and its many challenges, which included finding the river’s source, navigating unmapped gorges and areas occupied by the Shining Path rebels, dealing with corrupt border guards and drug smugglers, and the defection of team members. Traveling by raft, by kayak, and on foot, the original team eventually shrank to four, and Kane tells their story with a very readable, understated style.
  • David Grann's marvelous book, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (2009) was an ALA Notable Book and a New York Times Notable Book and tells the fascinating story of the British explorer Percy Fawcett, who in 1925 went in search of the city of Z, supposedly the home to an ancient civilization. Fawcett and his expedition disappeared, and his fate and that of the city of Z became an obsession for explorers and scientists over the years. Grann, a writer for The New Yorker, recounts both the story of Fawcett and his own sometimes humorous attempt to find the famous lost city. Grann alternates between the two stories, provides vivid details about the Amazon jungle into which he ventured, and presents the mysteries of Fawcett and Z in a compelling, gripping manner.
  • Following his defeat as a third-party candidate in the 1912 Presidential election, Theodore Roosevelt traveled to South America to attempt to find the headwaters of the Rio da Duvida (“the River of Doubt,” later renamed Roosevelt River in his honor) and trace it north to the Amazon River. During the trip down the river, Roosevelt suffered a minor leg wound followed by a tropical fever that resembled malaria; soon, he was unable to walk, suffering from chest pains, fighting a fever of 103°F, and delirious. At one point, Roosevelt realized that his condition was a threat to the survival of the others and insisted that he be left behind. Candice Millard’s account of this expedition is The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (2005), a compelling and suspenseful book that does an excellent job of setting the story within the context of Roosevelt’s political life as well as the history of South American exploration.
  • Music is a major part of Brazilian life, and Ruy Castro writes about Brazil’s best known music in Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World (2003). The book looks at the history of the genre and the musicians who made it possible, including the well known Antônio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto. One reviewer called the book "thoroughly charming and authoritative," and it serves as a good introduction to this important aspect of Brazilian culture.
  • The World Cup's final game will be played on July 13 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's second largest city, and Ruy Castro's Rio de Janeiro: Carnival Under Fire (2004) is an excellent introduction to the history and daily life of Rio, the author's home-town. The book, which is part of Bloomsbury's The Writer and the City series, focuses on the annual Carnival as well as the nightlife, the beaches, and the cuisine of Rio. Castro writes in a relaxed manner and includes anecdotes about the city, its architecture, its people, and its music. Castro covers the history of Rio as well as some of the less attractive elements of Rio — the drug trade, the favelas, the crime.
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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Tweeting Travelers or Traveling Tweeters

10 Best and USA Today are sponsoring a contest to choose the top travel personality on Twitter. Twenty Twitter accounts have been nominated, and visitors to the Website can vote for their favorite there. The winner will be announced on July 4.

The idea of writing about one's travel experiences within the vaguely-defined character limitations of Twitter is fascinating, and good Tweeters provide tales from their journeys, offer advice for getting the most out of your own trips, link to other resources, and engage their followers in a variety of ways.

The twenty travelers nominated by 10 Best and USA Today provide good examples of what good writers can achieve on Twitter's platform. (Note that you can follow all of these travel writers and a few more by subscribing to my travel-oriented list at

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