Books for Armchair Travel and AdventureIt's winter, which may make you feel like you want to go on a journey. Maybe you're actually planning one, or perhaps just wishing for an adventure. Librarian Nancy Pearl suggests a stack of travel books that will send you on journeys across distance and time.
Since the release of the best-selling Book Lust in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Seattle's Nancy Pearl has become famous among readers and NPR listeners alike. She is a regular commentator about books on Morning Edition and NPR affiliate stations KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa.
It's winter, which may make you feel like you want to go on a journey. Maybe you're actually planning one, or perhaps just wishing for an adventure. Librarian Nancy Pearl suggests a stack of travel books that will send you on journeys across distance and time.
'In Trouble Again'
All the time I was reading Redmond O'Hanlon's In Trouble Again: A Journey Between Orinoco and the Amazon, I was reminded of something I once read (I don't remember where), to the effect that an adventure is a tragedy that hasn't occurred. In his four-month canoe trip on unmapped rivers in the Venezuelan rain forest, O'Hanlon (a naturalist) and his companions encounter not only a huge variety of fish, insects and other (non-human) animals that have potential for serious physical harm (and even death) but their goal is also to spend some time making friends with members of the Yanomami tribe, whose reputation for perpetrating great bodily harm on their enemies precedes them. What an armchair traveler most wants, it seems to me, is to vicariously accompany someone who will do everything they wouldn't have the nerve to do, and O'Hanlon fits that description perfectly. One member of the original group of travelers bails out when he runs out of reading matter (clearly a man after my own heart), and few of us would have had the nerve to go the distance, but once you read the first page of this high-spirited travel memoir (think Bill Bryson on speed), you'll be hooked.
'Travels in West Africa'
Mary Henrietta Kingsley was one of those wonderfully intrepid, unquenchable Victorian lady travelers who roamed the earth and wrote lively accounts of their expeditions. In 1892, Kingsley, freed from her responsibilities in England after the death of her parents, set off for the Congo where she fell in love with the place and its people, despite being threatened by both two and four-legged animals. She describes her experiences in Travels in West Africa, which is marked by lively writing, a wonderful curiosity about everything she sees and everyone she meets. Richard Bausch fictionalizes Kingsley's life in a wonderful novel called Hello to the Cannibals. The title from a phrase of Kingsley's, where she describes how she left one African village to go upstream to say hello to the cannibals. There's a heart-stopping scene in the novel where she beats off crocodiles, as well as one describing her climb to the top of Mt. Cameroon — one of the highest volcanoes in Africa — in full Victorian garb (in all that heat!) and leaves her calling card at the summit.
Emily Eden's Up the Country: Letters Written to Her Sister From the Upper Provinces of India covers the years 1837 to 1840, a period in which she, her sister Fanny, and their brother George, Lord Auckland (who was the governor-general of India), took a fantastic trip from Calcutta to Punjab, including visits to Benares, Delhi, Simla and Allahabad. They went by boat and overland, and their entourage included elephants, camels, a whole retinue of servants, army officers and their wives, a regiment of troops and various hangers-on — 12,000 people in all! The latter part of their trip coincided with the beginning of the First Afghan War, a disastrous event in British-Indian history. Eden is witty and clever; her descriptions are insightful — at one point she describes the temples and palaces of Delhi and says, "Such a melancholy red stone notion of life... they must have." Susanna Moore's lush and lovely novel, One Last Look, incorporates many of Eden's experiences in India. It's a real treat for fans of historical fiction, and an entertaining companion read to Eden's own writings.
'Beauty Tips From Moose Jaw'
In Beauty Tips From Moose Jaw: Travels In Search of Canada, Will Ferguson writes about his native Canada with humor, affection and occasional exasperation. He describes places and people from Victoria to Newfoundland and includes tales of early explorers like Samuel Hearne, who, in 1770, walked from Prince of Wales Fort, on the shores of Hudson Bay, to the Arctic Ocean, and back again, a distance of some 5,600 kilometers, looking for the Northwest Passage and copper mines (and finding neither). Ferguson also describes his own experiences watching polar bears from about as up close as anyone would want to get. Reading his sometimes laugh-aloud essays is a good way to remind ourselves of just how vast and varied our neighbor to the north is.
'King Solomon's Mines'
Tahir Shah's In Search of King Solomon's Mines is armchair travel writing at its finest: interesting characters (especially Samson, Shah's sometimes unwilling travel companion, a Christian Amhari who totes an enormous Bible wherever he goes), nice-sized splotches of history and geography (both Ethiopian and biblical), and most important, an appealing writer whose sense of humor is apparent right from the beginning, and which continues through even the most trying of times (he's jailed as a suspected spy in Ethiopia). After a visit to the Middle East, Shah, a native Afghan who grew up in England, found himself somehow compelled to locate the mines of the biblical King Solomon, a journey that eventually took him back and forth across Ethiopia into the mostly illegal gold mining camps.
In Andrew Eames's The 8:55 to Baghdad: From London to Iraq on the Trail of Agatha Christie and the Orient Express, the author combines his 2002 train journey from London to Iraq with a look back at the life of mystery writer Agatha Christie, who took the Orient Express on the same 3,000 mile journey in 1928. (Fans of Murder on the Orient Express — either the movie or the book — will find much to explain its genesis here.) Eames is a delightful travel companion — well read, personable, not whiny, able to remain calm in the face of late trains, and overlook rude behavior and bad food. He revels, as all good travelers do, in good company, good food and interesting scenery. Since Eames' journey took him through the Balkans and into Baghdad on the eve of the Iraq war, there's enough here to keep political science junkies interested as well. I also enjoyed running across the occasional Britishism in Eames' writing: describing the Serbian army, he says that they were "put on the back foot straight away," and talks about people "under the cosh of the Turks."
Dead Reckoning: Great Adventure Writing from the Golden Age of Exploration, 1800 -1900 by Helen Whybrow is a goldmine for armchair travelers, and a first stop on any tour of available reading of travel accounts. Whybrow has impeccable taste in the selections she's made, and readers will find excerpts from the lives and adventures of such diverse travelers as George Kennan, John Muir, John Wesley Powell, Meriwether Lewis and Isabella Bird, each of whom roved and rambled the world o'er. The excerpts, each of which Whybrow introduces with a paragraph setting the scene, are divided into three sections: Voyages of Discovery, Personal Odysseys and Lifelong Quests. Whether it's first person accounts of being adrift in the South Seas, walking to the North Pole, traveling with a donkey in France, or climbing the Alps, there's enough in this entertaining and enlightening collection to please everyone.
Freya Stark's A Winter in Arabia is an account of her wanderings in 1937 and 1938 through what is now Yemen. Reading Stark, one encounters not only an intimate look at the people and places she encountered, but we are also privy to the thoughts of a woman whose curiosity and interests know no bounds. She ruminates over the differences between science and art in the course of describing suitable subjects for dinnertime conversation, and goes on to quote both the Bible and Milton — which gives you a sense of the breadth of her interests.