Day 972: The Scottish Highlands

Cover for The Scottish HighlandsI will frankly admit here that I am a massive Dorothy Dunnett fan, and as such, I am eager to read anything she wrote. In this case, it’s an homage to the Scottish Highlands that she wrote with her husband Alastair, illustrated by photographer David Paterson. Alastair Dunnett was a journalist, novelist, and man of many talents. Dorothy Dunnett was an internationally known historical novelist and portrait painter.

This book is beautifully written and has gorgeous photographs. It is oddly organized for this type of work, though. The photographs and the text are presented independently, even though some overlap occurs. First, there is a section of text by Dorothy Dunnett, divided into areas of the Highlands. After that, the rest of the book is divided into the same areas, with Alastair’s text followed by Paterson’s photos. No attempt has been made to integrate the two Dunnetts’ text with each other, and little attempt has been made to integrate Alastair’s text with the photos.

A contrast to this book’s approach is James Herriot’s Yorkshire, where Herriot’s text and photos about the same places appear together. It’s almost as if the editors of The Scottish Highlands were putting together three different books. Still, it does make me want to visit the Highlands. Of course, I already wanted to.

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Day 923: The Road to Little Dribbling

Cover for The Road to Little DribblingBest Book of the Week!
The Road to Little Dribbling is only the third book I’ve read by Bill Bryson, but it is the one I’ve most enjoyed. It is a follow-up to one of Bryson’s most popular books, Notes from a Small Island (which I have intended to read but have not), upon its 20-year anniversary. Both are about travels in Britain.

In The Road to Little Dribbling, Bryson draws an imaginary line between the two farthest points on mainland Britain and takes expeditions to some of the places on either side of the line. His line begins in a minor southern seaside town named Bognor Regis (where, oddly, I began my first visit to that country) and ends in northern Scotland at Cape Wrath.

The things that make Bryson’s books stand out are that he has many humorous observations to make and he is endlessly curious about everything. So, he has lots of stories to tell about the places he passes through, some of them personal, some historic, some scientific. He is also skillfully descriptive of beautiful scenery.

A recurring theme in the book is the impact of austerity measures on national landmarks and scenery. Also related to the economy is the growing dereliction of some of the towns he passes through. But he makes it clear that there is still much of charm and beauty to be seen and that many places are thriving.

I always enjoy Bryson’s comments about the lack of basic knowledge among some of the general public, because I have observed indications of that with dismay. I just recently viewed a video of Texas college students who were unable to answer basic history and political questions such as “Who won the Civil War?” or “Who did we get our freedom from?” but could answer every question about celebrities. I suppose this should not be surprising, since for the past couple of years my husband and I have observed that watching “NBC Nightly News” is now more like watching “Entertainment Tonight” than actually watching news.

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Day 884: Tales from the Queen of the Desert

Cover for Tales from the Queen of the DesertTales from the Queen of the Desert is a set of excerpts from two books by a remarkable woman, Gertrude Bell. Bell was a travel writer, diplomat, linguist, archaeologist, even a spy during World War I. She was widely regarded as an expert on the Near and Middle East and helped establish the country of Iraq.

She wrote the first book, Persian Pictures, after she visited her uncle in Persia (modern-day Iran) in 1892. She was very observant, and whether she is describing the landscape, the bazaar, or her impressions of Tehran, her descriptions are so vivid that it’s possible to imagine exactly what she saw.

In this book, she is sometimes a little snide, in a superior sort of way, although sometimes funnily so, as when she reports her impressions of the famous Peacock Throne of the Shah. At first she is astounded when she realizes that every inch of the room, including the carpet, is encrusted with jewels. But then she notices other objects among the jewels—patent medicine pills and toothbrushes, for example, which are also treated as treasures. As a final touch, she notes that the room is lined with boxes, which turn out to be music boxes. She understands that the Shah likes to turn them on all at the same time.

Some of her observations resound strongly even today. For example, at the beginning of the first chapter, she describes entering Tehran from the west gate. From that side, the city at the time was relatively unpopulated, the desert creeping in. But by the east gate, the town was vibrant and full of people. She concludes, “The East looks to itself, it knows nothing of the greater world of which you are a citizen, asks nothing of you and your civilization.”

Syria: The Desert and the Sown was published in 1907 after what was apparently Bell’s second trip to Syria, as she references a visit five years before. In this book, although she visits some of the area’s most important cities, the excerpts concentrate more on her travels in the hinterlands, where she meets many interesting people and examines archaeological sites. She also has another errand, which she does not discuss.

The excerpts from this book seem more fragmentary, for she begins chapters in different locations than she left off. Again, her descriptive powers are notable. By now, she gets by very well in Arabic and has studied the customs and courtesies of the area. Her attitude of slightly amused superiority is gone.

In both books, Bell’s writing is almost poetic at times. It’s easy to feel the romance and dangers of the East. There is nothing like some books for taking you to another place and time.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Day 807: Life on the Mississippi

Cover for Life on the MississippiLife on the Mississippi is Mark Twain’s nonfiction book about the Mississippi River. Sort of. Although part history, part memoir, part travel account, it also includes a chapter from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, some folk tales, and many tall tales. So, it’s not just nonfiction. And not the best of Twain.

Twain begins with a few chapters about the history of the river’s discovery and exploration by Europeans. These first chapters are followed by reminiscences of Twain’s life as a boy along the river (including the excerpt about Huck) and his career as a riverboat pilot, including a description of what is involved in learning to navigate the river. This section takes up about half the book, by far the best half.

From there, the book loses focus, and if the kitchen sink had anything to do with the Mississippi, it would be in there. The last half of the book is supposedly centered around a trip Twain takes down the river to New Orleans and all the way back up to Minnesota. It describes the people he encounters and the towns he visits during his journey, 20 years after his time as a pilot. But it also goes off an every manner of digression and tells many anecdotes, some of which are frankly corny and a few of which are offensive these days. I don’t want to make too much of this because it is judging a book unfairly by the standards of another time, but some of the pictures especially, reprints of those that appeared in the 1883 version, are insulting to African-Americans.

Finally, my edition, a replica by Dover, was loaded with typos, especially in the last half. I can only hope that the errors weren’t really in the originally published edition.

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Day 689: Wild

Cover for WildI didn’t actually become interested in reading Wild until I saw the terrific movie adaptation. That and a few excellent reviews changed my mind about reading it. There was just something about the author having changed her name to Cheryl Strayed that annoyed me, to be honest, and was keeping me away from the book.

If you have seen the movie, it is amazingly similar to the book, only changing the sequence of some events and leaving a few things out.

This memoir is about Cheryl Strayed’s attempt to get her life back on track by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to near Portland, Oregon. After Cheryl’s mother’s death from cancer several years before, her life fell apart. She became promiscuous and eventually began using heroin. After she and her husband divorced, she decided to hike the trail alone in an attempt to return to her true self.

Although Cheryl views herself as an outdoorsy girl, she soon finds that she is unprepared for the rigors of the journey. Her pack is so heavy that she can barely lift it, her boots uncomfortable, she herself not in condition and not understanding that such an endeavor is painful even for an experienced hiker. She originally planned to hike about 20 miles a day but finds herself only making 6 to 8 miles, less at the beginning.

This memoir is vividly written and quite harrowing at times as it follows Strayed’s journey. She encounters snow and landslides, wild animals, friendly as well as scary people, and her own truth. Wild is an interesting journey into the wild and into self-awareness.

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Day 580: The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

Cover for The Broken RoadIn December 1933, eighteen-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor began a journey on foot from Holland to Istanbul. Last year I reviewed the two books that cover the first two legs of the journey, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, but had to wait until this third volume was published to finish the journey.

Unfortunately, Leigh Fermor never completed this book. He actually began writing it first, about ten years after his journey, but stalled. Many years later he wrote the other two books and finally returned to this one. The editors explain in the introduction that they had to piece bits of it together from the manuscript, one of his surviving diaries (others were lost), and other documents. They did a great job, for it only seems fragmentary for a few pages in the middle.

This travelogue picks up at the Iron Gates by the Danube in Rumania but almost immediately moves to Bulgaria. Leigh Fermor spends a great deal of the book traipsing around the Bulgarian countryside meeting colorful characters before abruptly deciding to go to Bucharest. As most of this section of the book is written from his memories of what happened because of his lost diaries, I can only say that his memory must have been remarkable. He writes in a vividly descriptive style, allowing you to imagine yourself along on his trip through a world that is long gone.

It is remarkable also that almost everywhere on this journey he meets with kindness and hospitality. Only one night as he miserably hobbled along in Bulgaria after his foot was rubbed all day by a boot nail were his requests for a ride on two different passing wagons met with demands for money. Since he was living on a pound a week, wired periodically by his parents, he chose to walk. That same night his appeal for shelter at one house met no response from inhabitants who were clearly home. But farther down the road some charcoal burners cheerfully took him in.

Only at all disappointing is his description, which is almost nonexistent, of Istanbul. (He persists in calling it Constantinople.) I can only suppose his visit was in some way spoiled, as it is clear from his comments on the way there that he had romantic notions of the East. A footnote repeats his remark that he never left Constantinople without a lightening of the heart.

Leigh Fermor’s book ends where his green diary picks up, with his travels all over Mount Athos, Greece’s Holy Mountain. There he visited one Eastern Orthodox monastery after another. This section is fascinating for its glimpses into this unusual mode of life. Fermor came to love Greece so much that he lived there much of his life, and this was his first experience of it.

I actually found this book easier to read than the other two more polished efforts, as enjoyable as they are. I think it is because it was written by his younger self. For although he was kicked out of prep school before this journey and never returned to a formal education, he plainly was frightfully well read and knowledgeable and constantly lost me in the earlier books with classical or poetic allusions that I was too lazy to look up.

Apparently Leigh Fermor, who was clearly adventurous, went on to live an exciting life. I have a biography of him waiting for me in my pile.

If you have read my reviews of Leigh Fermor’s other books, you may have noticed a discrepancy. In those I say he was nineteen at the beginning of his adventures. Well, that’s what he said, but since he celebrated his 20th birthday at a monastery in February 1935 and started his journey in December more than a year before, even I can do the math. I did notice him referring to himself as twenty before he actually turned it, so that’s probably what happened in the earlier books.

Day 367: Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates

Cover for Between the Woods and the WaterBest Book of the Week!

In December 1933, 19-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to walk from Amsterdam to Constantinople. He wrote about the first leg of this journey years later in A Time of Gifts, ending the book as he crossed a bridge from Czechoslovakia into Hungary. In 1986, he finished this memoir of the second leg of the journey, which begins on that same bridge in Esztergom the evening of Easter Sunday and ends in the early autumn of 1934.

In the second part of the journey, Leigh Fermor breaks his rule of making the entire trip by foot and also spends much of the time in more luxurious surroundings than he did in the first part. As he makes his way through Hungary and the Romanian border, as it was then, into Transylvania, he is passed by his growing list of acquaintances and friends from one kastély to another, spending days with a learned professor discussing languages and history, borrowing a marvelous horse from a count for part of the journey across the Hungarian plain, staying for weeks with a new friend named István in Romania, and dallying with a young married woman on a motor trip with István to Prague.

Leigh Fermor does not spend all his time in such exalted circles, though. He happily camps out with gypsies, spends the night outside a shepherd’s cottage, is hosted by a Jewish family after an afternoon spent discussing the Hebrew language, sleeps in a cave, and camps on an island in the Danube near a village inhabited by resettled Turks. On his way, he describes the scenery in lyrical terms, explains the ancient history of each area he passes through, and tells us about the people he meets and the sights he sees. His chronicle is supported by the notebooks he kept and a nearly photographic memory of a remarkable journey. In addition, he tells us that he revisited some of the areas 20 years later.

This memoir is beautifully written. Although relatively unacquainted with formal learning, having abandoned military school at that early age, Leigh Fermor has an astonishing range of interests, and he tells us all about them. He is constantly plunging into dusty tomes in his hosts’ libraries but is just as ready to dance and drink the night away. This is a delightful series of books, still full of the youthful joy and enthusiasm Leigh Fermor must have felt when he was 19 and 20 years old.

In the Appendix to this book, Leigh Fermor reflects on how many of the sights he writes about in this book are now under water, for the Danube valley that he traversed and the torrents and currents that once rushed along it as well as the Iron Gates themselves have been subsumed by a huge concrete dam and hydro-electric power plant. And of course there have been other causes of destruction since 1934.

Unfortunately, The Broken Road, the unfinished manuscript of the final portion of the journey, is being republished but is not available from Amazon until March of next year! (It may be available used from some other site.) I am so disappointed to find the book never gets us all the way to Turkey but stops in Greece.