Books I’ve Read This Week: Travel Literature

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 28: Travel Literature: My summer reading this year includes travel literature (reviewed below), the Extraordinary Canadians biography series (to be reviewed in the next few days) and history books about Queens and Empresses (to be reviewed next week). I have taken an expansive definition of “Travel Literature” to include a book about what it would like to live in Tudor times, a richly descriptive novel about cooking in different countries and an unsettling novel set in rural Yorkshire. Otherwise, I read books about road trips, long hikes, passports and train journeys, some from the 1980s and some more recent. Here are this week’s reviews:

#190 of 365 Blue Highways: A Journey Into America by William Least Heat-Moon

Genre: Travel Literature

Date Listened: July 14-18, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 17 hours and 55 minutes

Review: A travelogue with some interesting chapters and compelling descriptions but not the humour of Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent, which has a similar premise. William Least Heat-Moon drove around the United States, avoiding the interstate highways to visit remote small towns such as “Nameless” and “Frenchman’s Station” and interesting characters including the residents of a trappist monastery in Georgia who vote on books to be read aloud at mealtimes. They had just finished Nicholas and Alexandra when the author visited them.
The book was written in 1982 but some of the concerns expressed by inhabitants of rural America, such as declining job prospects remain topical today. The author was going through a difficult period in his life when he wrote the book and both the author and the audiobook narrator have a crotchety tone that sometimes suits the material but eventually becomes repetitive. An interesting but overly long work of travel literature.

#191 of 365 How To Be A Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life by Ruth Goodman

Genre: Social History

Date Read: July 18, 2018

Format: Hardcover, 320 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Review:A fascinating study of daily life in Tudor times. While modern popular culture focuses on life at the court of Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, Ruth Goodman reconstructs a day in the life for people from a variety of social classes from waking up at four in the morning to milk the cows to sleeping on your right side for health reasons at night. She examines Tudor fashions for all occasions (from ploughing the fields to searching for the northwest passage), the daily chores required to run a Tudor farm or shop, and the variety of leisure pursuits from archery to dancing. What makes the book stand out is the author has tried a variety of Tudor pursuits herself including cheesemaking, sleeping on floor rushes and dancing the volta. She even bravely tried the various levels of Tudor personal hygiene and describes the results in the book. An informative and entertaining read.

#192 of 365 AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller

Genre: Travel Literature

Date Listened: July 18-19, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 10 hours and 34 minutes

Review: I was expecting a memoir in the tradition of A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson or Wild by Cheryl Strayed but AWOL on the Appalachian Trail is more of a travel log, listing distances and foot injuries in repetitive detail. The author is more interested in the various aspects of thru-hiker culture including shelters, nicknames, hitchhiking into town and finding food rather than the landscapes and histories of the different regions of the trail. There is little humour, even in the conversations with interesting characters the author met along the trail. The book provides a good overview of the hiking experience for anyone interested in hiking the Appalachain Trail from end to end but does not provide enough context for general readers looking for a sense of the landscape. The audiobook is read in a cheerless monotone.

#193 of 365 Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Genre: Fiction

Date Listened: July 20-21, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 37 minutes

Review: A beautifully written and deeply unsettling novel about a family living at the margins of society in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Elmet is named for the last Celtic kingdom in England and the central characters live outside modern society until its realities intrude on their isolated existence. Mozley evokes the setting of a Yorkshire thicket where “For a blissful year,there had been a home” as a place of great natural beauty but also an isolated part of the world where terrible things can happen far beyond the reach of the rule of law. The plot is not as compelling as the setting and characters and there are loose ends remaining at the end of the story but the novel was absorbing throughout.

#194 of 365 The Passport: The History of Man’s Most Travelled Document by Martin Lloyd

Genre: History

Date Read: July 21, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 282 pages

Review: The Passport is filled with interesting facts about the history of travel. Lloyd notes that the Old Testament figure Nehemiah, the Governor of Persian Judea, required travel documents in c. 450 BCE to journey between regions that are now part of Israel and Iraq. France developed an internal passport system that was formalized at the time of the French Revolution while British passports were viewed as courtesy rather than a necessity until the First World War.

Unfortunately, the wealth of knowledge does not come together into a cohesive narrative as facts related to one another, such as League of Nations passports for refugees and the United Nations documents that replaced them, are discussed in completely different sections of the book. As the subtitle suggests, there are only passing references to the unique experiences of women travelers over the centuries. Lloyd mentions that married women were listed on the passports of their husbands in the early 20th century but does not analyse the implications of this practice for women’s mobility or when passports for individual women became widespread.

The book includes illustrations, comparing passports throughout history and around the world. There is even an example of a distinctive royal passport. The content of the book includes many interesting facts that should be better organized and analyzed for readers. The book would also benefit from a stronger conclusion than “I rather like passports.”

#195 of 365 The Hundred-Foot Journey: A Novel by Richard C. Morais 

Genre: Fiction

Date Read: July 23-26, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 245 pages

Review: A novel that is not quite as good as the film it inspired. Morais provides delicious descriptions of gourmet cuisine and allows readers to picture obscure ingredients such as the Kohlrabi “a bridge between the cabbage and the turnip.” The characters are not as likable in the novel as they are in the film, however, and the novel unfolds over too long a period of time to keep the story-line cohesive from beginning to end. Madame Mallory is suitably imperious when portrayed by Helen Mirren but comes across as just petty and unpleasant in the novel and her mentorship of Hassan appears to be an abrupt change in character. The film also emphasizes that Hassan creates fusion Indian/French cuisine as a restaurateur, while his distinct approach to cooking receives less attention in the novel. I recommend the film over the book.

#196 of 365 The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain by Paul Theroux

Genre: Travel Literature

Date Read: July 26, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 353 pages

Review: I have read a number of travelogues written by Americans in Britain and I had high expectations of this one as Theroux is a prolific travel writer. From the beginning, I was disappointed by Theroux’s approach to exploring the United Kingdom. Despite stating that he lived in London for ten years without exploring much of the rest of the country, he decides from the beginning of his travels around the coast, “No sightseeing; no cathedrals, no castles, no churches, no museums. I wanted to examine the particularities of the present.” History is essential to understanding the present and the deliberate exclusion of historic buildings and exhibitions from his travels seems literally shortsighted.

The tone of the book was also disappointing. A travelogue of this kind benefits from an author with a self-deprecating sense of humour and a certain degree of humility in unfamiliar situations. Instead, Theroux takes himself fairly seriously but is relentless critical of “working class” people and “people on the dole” on their holidays and “the lower middle class” proprietors of bed and breakfasts who are not interested in his complaints. He eviscerates “caravan” holidays in Wales as though he has never seen a mobile home in the United States.

The book was written in 1983 and provides a good snapshot of how the big events of 1982, including the Falklands War and the birth of Prince William, were received by the British public. There are some very well written passages and reflections about the nature of travel and changing landscapes. Overall, however, the book would have benefited from more humour and willingness to go sightseeing!

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