BOOK REVIEW: Atlas of Improbable Places by Travis Elborough

Atlas of Improbable Places: A Journey to the World's Most Unusual CornersAtlas of Improbable Places: A Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Corners by Travis Elborough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book has entries on about fifty odd and off the beaten path locations. These locales are grouped into six parts that explore: “utopias,” abandoned places, bizarre architecture, islands, otherworldly destinations, and subterranean attractions.

There’s a standard set of graphics for each entry that include: a map that shows where in the world the place is, a photograph at that place, and a closeup map of the site’s immediate environs. The text describes a little about the history of each place and any quirky facts of relevance (such as how a location came to be abandoned.) The text also helps to clarify definitional issues such as what kind of utopian vision was being sought-after for the various [arguably] failed utopias of the first section.

I enjoyed this book. I’ve only visited two of the sites in the atlas (Ross Island and Auroville,) and I’m always excited to learn about more strange and unconventional destinations. I felt the atlas did succeed by presenting so many places I’d not only not visited, but about which I’d not even heard. (There are locations like Puerto Princessa [under-island river in the Philippines], Aokigahara [Japan’s suicide forest,] and “the Palm” [Dubai’s artificial islands] that are well-known to geography buffs, and many of the lesser-known sites are quirky tourist traps (Ten Commandments Mountain in North Carolina,) but –still — there are some fascinating but little-known locations in the book.) There is a disproportionate coverage of North American and European locations, presumably because that’s where the market for English language books disproportionately lies, and little coverage of African or South American locations.

If you’re into strange and remote travel locations, you may want to have a peek at this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: A Transcendental Journey by Stephen Evans

A Transcendental JourneyA Transcendental Journey by Stephen Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date [for 25th Anniversary ed.]: September 10, 2022

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

A Transcendental Journey intersperses a quirky travelogue of a rambling road-trip through America with a book report on selected essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. On a positive note, the book offers genuinely funny lines within a generally amusing wandering discussion of events, and there’s something authentic about the voice – you may find yourself hearing the words in the voice of someone you know (or a character) who is idiosyncratic and nerdy in a way that is not uncommon in America. I did. In addition to the funny lines, there are statements that feel profound and are definitely thought-provoking.

Some of the offbeat elements go a bit too far, reaching the point of distraction. For some reason, the author decided to note not only each time he drank a Coca-Cola, but the size of the beverage. At first, it’s just a bit of weirdness that seems to contribute to the aforementioned authentic voice, but eventually one is made sad by the idea that this guy is giving himself diabetes and involving you, as reader, in the process. I can’t say that the philosophy bit is particularly well integrated into the travelogue, and the author often seems like an Enlightenment guy more than a Transcendentalist. (Transcendentalism being an offshoot of Romanticism, a philosophy meant to counteract the perceived cold, hard rationality of Enlightenment thinking and take a more mystical / spiritual [though not necessarily religious] view of the world.) That said, I can’t fault an inability to keep these schools of thought in boxes, as my own philosophy and worldview are fairly ala carte. My point is just that someone who picked up the book expecting to have a clearer view of what distinguishes Transcendentalism from other philosophies might come away confused.

If you enjoy travelogues, particularly of the United States, you’ll find this book a fun read. If you’re familiar with the works of Emerson, I wouldn’t expect any deep philosophical insight, but there are some fine quotes and discussions to remind you of Emerson’s great ideas and beautiful language. (And there are certainly many varied insights to ponder.)

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BOOK REVIEW: A Stranger in Tibet by Scott Berry

A Stranger In Tibet: The Adventures Of A Wandering Zen MonkA Stranger In Tibet: The Adventures Of A Wandering Zen Monk by Scott Berry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book tells the story of a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, Kawaguchi Ekai, who traveled to India, Nepal, Lo (now Upper Mustang,) Sikkim, and Tibet in the early years of the twentieth century in search of Buddhist scriptures and teachings. His ultimate goal was Tibet, which he’d heard had the complete Buddhist canon in Tibetan. However, at that time, Tibet (like some of the other nations he traveled through) was xenophobic and strictly controlled / prohibited movements of foreigners, sometimes under penalty of death. This necessitated Kawaguchi first spending a year-and-a-half in Darjeeling to become fluent in Tibetan, and then using a range of disguises to facilitate travel. There was a book published after Kawaguchi’s trip entitled, “Three Years in Tibet,” but there are reasons why one might prefer Berry’s work, reasons that will be addressed below.

Kawaguchi was an interesting figure, a skilled polyglot, a fast thinker, and an iron-willed pursuer of truth. He was also bigoted and held uncompromising moral beliefs upto which few could live. The travelogue is sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, but always interesting. Sometimes Kawaguchi comes across as a Buddhist Don Quixote, but other times he’s a valiant scholar / adventurer.

As for why one might enjoy reading Berry’s account better: first, “Three Years in Tibet” is rather bloated and wasn’t written directly by Kawaguchi but rather by way of journalists. Second, Berry explores the truth behind some of the intolerant and sectarian views of Kawaguchi. Third, Berry offers broader context into the intrigues and geopolitics of the times that led to the shunning of foreigners in the first place.

This book delves into a fascinating time in a little-known part of the world, and it’s a compelling read throughout. I’d highly recommend it for those interested in learning more about the region and its past.


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BOOK REVIEW: Sadhus by Patrick Levy

Sadhus: Going Beyond the DreadlocksSadhus: Going Beyond the Dreadlocks by Patrick Levy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I got to the last couple chapters before I realized that this was a novel, and not a work of immersion journalism. I don’t mean to suggest that it wasn’t as compelling as I’d wish a work of fiction to be. On the contrary, it’s a fascinating look into a group of people (Sadhus / renunciants) who are little understood because they exist on the edges of society and can appear strange – if not a little scary – in their countercultural existence. The book reads like an authentic account of the Sadhu experience of a Frenchman who gives up his money and all but a few meager possessions to become a wandering ascetic under the tutelage a philosophically compatible Baba. (Until the fever dream ending instills a bit of surrealism and fourth-wall breaking.) The fact that the lead is demographically and a philosophically like the author, heightens the tendency to believe it’s nonfiction. [It’s quite possibly fictionalized autobiography to some degree, but I couldn’t say to what extent.]

Besides telling a story centered on a wandering Western ascetic in Northern India, the book does double duty in reflecting upon Hindu-Yogic-Tantric philosophy, particularly with respect to metaphysics. The lead character is neither religious nor a believer in the supernatural. Rather, he is (like many of us) in search of an almost defunct variety of a philosophy, the kind practiced by Socrates and some historic and present-day Buddhists, a variety that’s open to questioning and challenging all beliefs and assumptions as the means to better understand one’s world, a variety that recognizes the ubiquity of ignorance with respect to key questions of metaphysics. The story includes a number of Socratic method style conversations, as well as quotes from texts such as the “Avadhuta Gita” and “Ashtavakra Gita.”

I found this story to be compelling and informative, shining a light on a rarely-seen side of India.

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BOOK REVIEW: Outlandish by Nick Hunt

Outlandish: Walking Europe's Unlikely LandscapesOutlandish: Walking Europe’s Unlikely Landscapes by Nick Hunt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are many beautiful and wonderous sights that come to mind when one thinks of Europe: forests, meadows, alpine vistas, or cities of stunning architecture. However, there are other sights that one wouldn’t expect at all: tundra, jungle, desert, or steppe, but those are the unexpected destinations that Hunt takes his reader. In some cases, a destination under discussion doesn’t meet the technical definitions for said ecosystem, but they’re the closest that Europe has to offer, and that’s enough to make them outlandish.

The book takes the reader on a tour of four uncharacteristic ecosystems of Europe: Cairngorms arctic tundra in northern Scotland, Poland’s “jungle” – the forest primeval of Bialowieza, Spain’s Tabernas desert, and the Hungarian Puszta (i.e. the Pannonian Steppe.) For each of these places, the reader is treated not only to vivid description of the locale and its flora and fauna, but also some fascinating folklore, cultural peculiarities, and indigenous mysteries. In Scotland, this involves inexplicable reindeer and the legend of the Big Grey Man. In Poland and Belarus, we learn about legendary forest folk deities and about the last Soviet standing. In Spain, one gets a lesson in Spaghetti Westerns. In Hungary we see birders, neo-Nazis, and Central Asian immigrants all traipsing the same ground.

I found this book to be an engaging read. It helps raise consciousness about climate change without collapsing into a gloomy doom-fest. This discussion is most notable in the most extreme ecosystems, Cairngorms and Tabernas, but most of the intense discussion is saved for a brief epilogue entitled “The Last Snow.” The book offers rudimentary maps, but relies entirely on text to paint a picture, but I felt the author did a great job of bringing the places to life through words.

If you’re interested in learning more about a few of the globe’s lesser-known natural settings, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Tokyo Junkie by Robert Whiting

Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and BaseballTokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and Baseball by Robert Whiting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Tokyo is the river that runs through this book, which for large tracts reads like a memoir and at other turns reads like a broad overview of things Japanese. I’ve only been to Tokyo once, for about a two week stay, but it’s impossible to miss the almost alien level of distinctiveness of the city. It’s the largest city in the world, but in many ways feels like a small town. The subways shut down at midnight, creating an alter ego to the city, aptly depicted in Haruki Murakami novels.

Whiting’s Tokyo journey begins with his time posted there in the military, a time which happens to correspond with the city being readied for the 1964 Olympics, through the present day COVID Pandemic challenges (which happens to correspond with the 2020 Tokyo Summer games being delayed — and it remains to be seen whether these games will ever happen given the fact that the COVID virus is not taking our plans for vaccine-driven herd immunity sitting down.)

As Whiting’s book is part memoir, it gives particular scrutiny to the subjects of his earlier books, in as much as those topics touch upon life in Tokyo. One of these subjects, the more extensively discussed, is baseball and the very different way the game is played and reported upon in Japan. The other key subject is organized crime and the legendary Yakuza. Crime in Japan is a captivating topic because it is both invisible and infamously brutal. I enjoyed the view through these niche lenses because (particularly) the latter is not so conspicuous, but is riveting stuff. [When I was in Japan, I was taken to a bathhouse (not considered strange in Japan as it sounds to an American.) Before we went, I was told that if I had big tattoos, I couldn’t go; and, if I had a small tattoo, I’d need to use a washcloth to keep it covered the whole time. This is apparently because reputable establishments don’t want the taint of Yakuza on their premises. So, this is how much they keep things on the down-low.]

Whiting led various lives in Tokyo, he was an airman, a student, a salaryman, an unofficial advisor to a Yakuza gang, a journalist, and a nonfiction writer. These allowed him to see the changing city from a number of varied perspectives, offering much deeper insight than the run-of-the-mill expat.

In addition to the modern history of Tokyo, Japanese baseball, Yakuza, and Whiting’s various lives in the city, the book makes a lot of fascinating dives into a range of Tokyo topics, such as: sumo wrestling, the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the city’s distant history, salaryman drinking habits, the demographic crisis (i.e. its aging population has been approaching the point of too many retirees per working taxpayer,) etc. The book offers a no-holds-barred look at the good, the bad, and the ugly underside of the city. It at once praises the city’s politeness, cleanliness, and smooth-running order and rebukes its dark side – dirty politics, toxic workplaces, xenophobia, etc.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It offered great insight into Tokyo, Japanese culture, as well as many niche areas that I probably would never taken the time to investigate, otherwise. If you are interested in learning about Tokyo, particularly modern Tokyo, this is an excellent read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Places Lost and Found ed. Ronald Koury

Places Lost and Found: Travel Essays from the Hudson ReviewPlaces Lost and Found: Travel Essays from the Hudson Review by Ronald Koury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: September 30, 2020

 

If good travel writing is virtually travel, then this essay anthology mixes global travel with time travel. It’s a collection of travel (or at least locale-centric) writings previously published in “The Hudson Review.” While the oldest of the included pieces consists of translations of Tocqueville’s journals from his trip to America, the bulk of the works are from the twentieth century to recent years (and almost all from latter twentieth century onward.) This temporal aspect offers the reader unique insight into how various destinations have changed – particularly if it’s a place one has visited. Only about one-fifth of the essays feature locations in the United States, and the Middle East, Europe, Asia, North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Australia, and Oceania are all represented among the twenty-five pieces presented.

While most of the pieces are straightforward travel essays, there are a couple that – while focused on location – aren’t what one might typically consider travel writing. One of these, which is probably the most evocative piece of writing in the book, is called “Blue Grotto” and it tells the story of the author being regularly taken to a bar by her father when she was a child [an occurrence that could probably not happen at the time of publication, let alone today, without child services becoming involved.] The other outlier is entitled, “Making it Uglier to the Airport,” and while it sounds like it would be about cutting it close while traveling, it’s actually a review essay about changing architectural notions regarding aesthetics.

The other essays include not only run-of-the-mill style travel writing that uses vibrant descriptions to make a location sound appealing (e.g. see the pieces on County Cork and the Hudson River,) but also include a number of essays about what might be termed “dark tourism” in today’s parlance. Dark tourism is travel to places that are or have been (in recent history) war-torn, crime-ridden, disaster damaged, or otherwise prone to turn up in the nightly news. The essays on Cambodia and Haiti (of which there are two) are prime examples. There are also pieces that fall somewhere in-between, featuring destinations that are a bit rough or challenging, but which are by no means dangerous. A great example of this – oddly enough – was a story of travel to Fiji, but only because the author chose to stay in the home of tribesmen of a remote village.

As a traveler, I found this book to be fascinating. As I mentioned, I got a lot out of the fact that it offered insight into temporal, as well as geographic, destinations. For example, I’d made a similar trip to Cambodia, but about twenty years after the one made by the author, and so it was intriguing to read about similarities and differences. (The trip in the book was much sooner after the disastrous reign of Pol Pot, and so there were many differences.) If you enjoy travel writing, I’d recommend you give this book a look. I was impressed with how broad a range of locales were explored.

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BOOK REVIEW: Topographies by Stephen Benz

TopographiesTopographies by Stephen Connely Benz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of travel essays exploring locales within America and abroad. The fifteen essays collected are reprints of periodical publications.

As Benz describes destinations and tells travel tales, he often presents local history such as a murder mystery in the Everglades, the fate of the Donner Party, the truth about the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, and the nuclear test at Trinity, New Mexico. But not all of the essays mix history lessons into the travelogue, and some of the most evocative pieces touch on the local landscape in interesting ways such as walking a postman’s route in Havana or camping in Wyoming.

Some travel writing drills down on a single destination and other works spread out over a diverse set of locations. Benz’s approach is somewhere in between. While, except for a couple chapters set in Havana, the essays are about varied locations, only a couple (i.e. the ones on the Everglades and Moldova) stand out as far afield of the rest. Of the seven international essays, three feature Cuba and two Guatemala, and of the eight US essays, all but one is set in the West and three present Wyoming.

The essay collection is divided into two parts. The first eight essays are about locations within the United States, and the last seven describe foreign travels. I found the organization to be smartly arranged, with each of the two parts beginning an ending on essays that are among the strongest in the collection. In the case of Part I, the collection starts with a piece set in the Everglades which brings to life a historical murder, and it ends with a visit to the Trinity Site where the first nuclear test detonation took place.

With respect to the international chapters, they open with a visit to Moldova. The last travel essay I read about Moldova was in Eric Weiner’s “The Geography of Bliss.” If you’re wondering why a book on the happiest places on Earth would feature Moldova, it’s for the perhaps ironic but definitely instructive reason that Moldova often comes up as among the LEAST happy countries. Benz presents a similar portrait of Moldova without explicitly taking the dismal nature of the country as his theme. The last two chapters discuss the author’s time in Guatemala, and the last discusses the poetry scene in a country in a country under political upheaval.

The book has a prologue in verse and an extended epilogue in prose.

I’d recommend this book for readers of travel writing, particularly those interested in the American West and Central America. I found the writing to be both skillful and readable, and that the author recognized the value of an intriguing story.

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BOOK REVIEW: Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks

Round Ireland with a FridgeRound Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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When Tony Hawks and his friend Kevin see a man hitching with a refrigerator one night, a debate ensues that results in a ₤100 bet that Hawks can circumnavigate Ireland entirely by hitching rides–while carting a fridge with him. (When Kevin insists that no one could get a lift with a fridge, Hawk’s response sets the book’s tone and theme, “They could in Ireland, it’s a magical place.”) Showing a lack of business acumen, Hawks purchases a compact dorm fridge for ₤130, and sets off from Dublin in a counterclockwise fashion. The rules of the bet stipulate that Hawks must visit Tory island at the extreme north and Clear Island at the extreme south but otherwise can use whatever route he likes as long as he gets around only by hitchhiking, he keeps the fridge with him during his travels, and it takes him less than a month. Hilarity ensues.

Hawks’ book is a hoot. If there is anything that he makes funnier than a person questioning his intelligence / sanity for carting a fridge about, it’s his description of the people who politely ignore the absurdity of him hitching with a fridge. There’s also a fair amount of sour grapes humor as sometimes it seems the fridge has gained more of a celebrity status than the author. Of course, not all the humor is fridge-centric; some of it takes place in pubs with the people the gregarious Hawks meets along the way. The book mixes travelogue with humor writing, and nicely captures both the scenery of Ireland and the national character of the Irish. The book also has its serious moments, particularly as it draws to a close and the author realizes his adventure is at an ends.

In the end, Hawks proves that it can be done—in theory, at least. It should be pointed out that Hawks had the benefit of appearing on a national radio show regularly as well as on TV at the start and finish of his trip. Because of this, people were often on the lookout for him and likely more willing to give him a lift than if he were the average schlub. On the other hand, the need to meet scheduled appointments with media is one of the sources of tension in the book because they usually involve close calls. It seems it’s not always easy to call in from remote locations in rural Ireland while on the move, and the best example may be Hawks’ attempt to make it to Dublin on the last day to meet a PR event that a radio show had set up. He puts the reader on the edge of his seat, despite the lack of any real peril (it is just a guy trying to make media events related to his absurd adventure, after all.)

I’d highly recommend this book. If you’re interested in traveling in Ireland, it’s a light read to give you some ideas about places you might want to hit (or miss.) However, on its humor alone it’s worth a read even for readers who don’t normally read travel writing.

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