Penguin Travel Library and other literary travel books

I am fond of the subgenre of biological travel writing. Extension of a general interest in Victorian gentleman naturalists and explorers.

The prime example of this is probably The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. This is a very detailed and accessible account of his journeys in and around South America, with observations on the flora and fauna, and also on the local inhabitants, including the colonists. He is very critical of slavery. A good book.

Alfred Russell Wallace is also worth checking out. In many ways a much more intrepid explorer and independent traveller than Darwin.

A good general book on the subject is Bright Paradise:Victorian Scientific Travellers by Peter Raby.

Gerald Durrell falls into this category. His later books are overtly zoological, but the books about his childhood on Corfu, My Family and Other Animals, and Birds Beasts and Relatives evoke a wonderful dreamlike Greek idyll.

More recently,Redmond O'Hanlon takes the prize. He is an academic specialising in the history of the biological sciences, as well as a reckless traveller and a sometimes very funny writer. Erudite discourses on history and biology whilst he is being eaten by mosquitos on the Orinoco or vomiting on a trawler in the North Sea. Generally picks a travel companion who suffers terribly during the trip.
He took the poet James Fenton to Borneo, and tried to take him on his next trip to the Amazon:
From a Guardian piece:
A few years after the Borneo trip, O'Hanlon asked Fenton to come with him on another expedition, this time to the Brazilian rainforest. The poet's reply to his friend is now renowned: "'Are you listening seriously?' 'Yes' 'Are you listening comfortably?' 'Yes.' 'Then I want you to know,' said James, shutting his eyes and pressing his palms over his face and the top of his bald head, 'that I would not come with you to High Wycombe.'"

All his books recommended: Into the Heart of Borneo, In Trouble Again, Congo Journey, Trawler (I was surprised to find I knew his companion in that book.)

I can think of lots of softer (i.e. natural history from a more aesthetic angle) but no less interesting stuff:
Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Cawardine
Out of the Woods by Will Cohu
Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin
Hitmouse, funny you mention Into the Heart of Borneo -- only a couple of hours or so before I saw your message, I'd submitted an interlibrary loan request for it. I read it soon after it was published and might read it again. I suppose you remember the bit about the staple diet item, a fish that tasted like a hairbrush covered with lard.

I suppose you've seen this issue of Granta spotlighting O'Hanlon's following book.

I subscribed to Granta for a few years in the early 90s, and I collected early editions which were quite common in 2nd hand book stores at that time. Boxes of Granta in the attic.

Used to really enjoy it, but I felt it started to go off the boil a bit towards the end of Bill Buford's tenure as editor, and did not renew my subscription. I need to check it out again.
Used to really enjoy [Granta], but I felt it started to go off the boil a bit towards the end of Bill Buford's tenure as editor, and did not renew my subscription. I need to check it out again.

My memory is that I swapped something, by mail to Ro Pardoe in England, for the first Granta travel issue. Maybe I took a risk and sent US folding money by mail, not knowing how else to get my hands on the issue!

I subscribed in the mid-Eighties, basically just on account of the travel writing, but found that I didn't keep up with the issues in general. Money was pretty tight then, too. By the early Nineties I could get some travel books quite inexpensively e.g. from the Edmund R. Hamilton remainder outfit -- arrival of their thick catalogs on newsprint used to be a big deal around the house. I'm pretty sure I got Moorhouse's excellent and not exaggeratedly-titled The Fearful Void (on foot across the Sahara) from Hamilton, maybe also Brian Hall's Stealing from a Deep Place (bicycling in southeeastern Europe) and perhaps other travel-oriented reads.

(Rosemary Pardoe edited the M. R. James-oriented 'zine Ghosts and Scholars, which some Chronsfolk will have known about.)
I thought I'd already told, here at Chrons, the story of my little university's 2010 discarding of about 90% of its serials archives, but I can't find any such reports now.

For a few days I strode back and forth between the library basement and my office, carrying loads of magazines and journals destined otherwise for recycling.* I haven't yet stopped kicking myself for things I didn't rescue. However, as it is, among other things I saved about 30 years' worth of the Times Literary Supplement, the subject of this comment. I haven't examined the piles issue by issue. The other day I happened on the 22 June 1984 issue -- cover emphasis on Travel and Travel-Writing.

Inside I found, among other items, a review of Heinrich Harrer's Return to Tibet, a sequel to his famous Seven Years in Tibet, which I am reading now. Like Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts, Harrer's earlier book is about a realm that is now as lost as Atlantis. I do not know why Mao and the Red Guards are not a byword among informed people for everything hateful to humanity. "In their ideological stampede, the Red Guards blew to oblivion an architectural, artistic and cultural heritage [in Lhasa] that should rightly have remained as one of the treasures of this world. Harrer's [later] book is the working through of a personal grief that many readers will make their own."

There's also a review of Colin Thubron's book about traveling in western Russia by car, published in England as Among the Russians but in the US, where it was the first full-length travel book I ever read, as Where Nights Are Longest. There's a mouth-watering ad for three books in the Penguin Travel Library series, and more.

I'd already set aside, months ago, the 29 July 1994 issue with its Travel cover feature. Now I set myself to look quickly for other issues with similar cover themes, and found several: 31 July 1992, 28 July 1995, 26 July 1996, 28 July 2000 -- however, at a glance it doesn't appear that there's a Travel issue every July. I'll have to look more carefully.

(Couldn't find an image of any of the issues mentioned in this posting, but this one might appeal to Chronsfolk.)

*The library was to be remodeled, resulting in reduced space for books and serials.
Found one more TLS with a Travel cover theme, the 6 August 1993 issue. This one contains a review of Jason Goodwin's On Foot to the Golden Horn, a book about retracing, six decades later, the route that Patrick Leigh Fermor took as described in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water -- and the unfinished third book of that trilogy, which at last is to be published this year as The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mt. Athos:

It looks like the Goodwin book has continued to win some approval:
I am looking forward to the third Patrick Leigh-Fermor book. The first two were wonderful.

Thanks for the heads up on the Goodwin book.Must try to locate a paper edition.
I have read a couple of Colin Thubron's books: The Lost Heart of Asia, and In Siberia. Both really brilliant, and I am not quite sure why I have not yet read all of his other stuff.

He describes central Asian 'Stans, Siberiawith elegant prose, and he is clearly fluent in Russian and an expert in the history and culture.

My sister-in-law was inspired to read for a degree in Russian after reading In Siberia.
I'm looking forward to reading Between the Woods and the Water, but I didn't want to rush right into it after finishing a first reading of A Time of Gifts.

Thubron's book about his travels in China, Behind the Wall, is one of the books by this author that I've already reread. It won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1998. Have you seen this list?

Of these winners, the only other one I have read so far is Marsden's Spirit Wrestlers. That was an interesting book, as were Marsden's The Crossing Place (about the Armenian diaspora) and The Bronski House (about a survivor of the old Poland).
Apart from the Patrick Leigh-Fermor, from the Thomas Cook list I have read:

  • Vikram Seth From Heaven's Lake, which is excellent. He was a student in China in the 1980s and hitched through Tibet and into Nepal before going home to India. This was a pretty difficult proposition in the 1980s. Seth managed to blag permits for a number of closed areas, and seems to be fluent in Mandarin. Seth is of course well known for the monumental and excellent A Suitable Boy, and less well known for the equally good The Golden Gate, a 1980s novel in sonnets written about a bunch of 30 somethings living in the Bay area of San Francisco.
  • Norman Lewis A Goddess in the Stones. This is about a road trip through Bihar and Orissa, two of the lesser-travelled states in India where there is a lot of feudalism, and threatened aboriginal societies. I really like Norman Lewis, who has become a bit neglected, and I have begun working through his stuff over the last 12 months: Naples '44 is probably his best known, and is a truly amazing account of his time as an intelligence officer in Naples shortly after it was liberated in the War. Really a description of how an ancient society with no food and very little government holds together. Jackdaw Cake is an autobiographical sketch of his childhood in Carmarthen and Enfield, his unusual marriage, and his time in French Algeria early on in the War. He is absolutely scathing about the behaviour of the colonial French in this book and in A Dragon Apparent where he travels through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the early 1950s (he finds the evangelical missionaries contemptable as well.) Voices of the Old Sea is about a couple of years spent in a poor and isolated fishing village on Catalonia's Costa Brava just after the War just as tourism was starting to move in. All in all great portraits of vanished worlds.
  • William Dalrymple City of Djinns This is about Delhi. Dalrymple is great. Lots of good books about India. The Age of Kali is recommended. A friend of mine who was a Delhi correspondent for one of the London papers about 15 years ago complained in a good-natured way that Dalrymple had written so effectively about contemporary India that it was quite hard for anyone else to get their foot in the door.
Those all sound good. What would you think of my starting Norman Lewis with Jackdaw Cake or the revised version thereof? Or should I start right off with Naples '44? -- or one of his other books? Just your personal preference.

Over at Book Hauls #4070

I report on a couple of Penguin Travel Library books that came in today's mail.
I would start with Naples '44.
Jackdaw Cake is also very good, but I have personal connections with Enfield and Carmarthen so I accept it might appeal less to others.
Raodtrips. Tend to be American, but I am sure there are others:

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Hunter S Thompson
On the Road Jack Kerouac
Electric Kool Aid Acid Test Tom Wolfe
Travels with Charley John Steinbeck
Raodtrips. Tend to be American.....

Please let me recommend a book that I have just started to dip into and that might not be easy to get hold of -- Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany. Last night I got back from class and settled down with "Motel Life, Lower Reaches," accounts of three shabby stops -- in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico; Laredo, Texas; and an unspecified place in southern New Mexico -- well, and there are a few sentences about one other motel. Usually I don't respond to Humor, but this article was much to my taste and it will be to yours too, like if your favorite part of Spielberg's made-for TV movie Duel is the sequence at the rural gas station with the roadside attraction of live rattlesnakes -- not that there are snakes in Portis's article.

I haven't read any of Portis's novels yet, but I think at least one of them is structured around a road trip.

That novel is Norwood, described here:

Of course, at this thread we're probably sticking to nonfiction. The Miscellany has a lot of that.
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Last night I read another of the pieces in Portis's Escape Velocity. This one too relates to Hitmouse's mention of road trips as a subset of travel literature. It's an account of a 1966 thousand-mile drive down the Baja California peninsula -- largely a chronicle of dust and rutted roads, pickup truck breakdowns, uncertainty about directions, and sleeping out. I relished it. So did the National Public Radio commenter. Portis cult? I'm in.
Peter Levi's The Light Garden of the Angel King -- this book about three months in Afghanistan in 1969 has a title that sounds like it could be a Jack Vance story. I confess to skipping some historic-archaeological passages here and there, but this was a fine book, and the sequence about Nuristan in the final third reminded me of one of my favorite sf episodes, Ransom's journey into the Malacandrian uplands in Out of the Silent Planet. The book has special value as an account of Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion and then the Taliban etc.*; so though its journey is only about 45 years old, it is something of a lost country story.

Levi's themes include the meeting of cultures -- Greek (Alexander the Great etc.), Buddhist, Moslem, etc. -- and the poetic (in the best sense) evocation of landscape, wild flowers, birds, butterflies. He gives us too the incidents of travel -- delays, good local food, savage dogs, fleas, etc. I think a lot of sf and fantasy realms cannot stand up very well against such well-described real world realms, but on the other hand the best of the former, like LOTR, do, and maybe each enhances our enjoyment of the other.

Levi thinks well of Newby's Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, so I must give that one a try.

*If you Google Pech River Valley Afghanistan for images of places where Levi and Bruce and Elizabeth Chatwin walked, you get pictures showing soldiers, helicopters, etc.
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Hitmouse, a book you mentioned --
Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Cawardine --

reminded me of this book, which is just one I have taken note of, not read.

God be thanked, my four children did get to experience the outdoors often, growing up here along a rural North Dakota river, where one may see bald eagles, beavers, mink, owls, fox, kestrels, wild rabbits, painted turtles and once a snapper, coated with dried mud and looking like some miniature prehistoric creature, deer of course, and even a peacock that visited our yard. (Granted, the latter had flown away from a little zoo in town and wasn't native to the region.)

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