An entertaining and informative trip around Alaska’s coastline, one man’s “event of a lifetime.”
Adventure writer and journalist Adams (Meet Me in Atlantis: My Quest to Find the Sunken City, 2015, etc.) returns to the successful narrative strategy he employed in his previous books, melding history and travel writing in a winning combination. Here, he follows in the footsteps of Edward H. Harriman’s 1899 expedition to northern Alaska. The Union Pacific tycoon refitted a steamship and invited a who’s who of “extraordinary gentlemen” to accompany him, including John Muir, John Burroughs, George Bird Grinnell, C. Hart Merriam, and a young photographer, Edward Curtis, “who had guided Merriam and Grinnell to safety after they’d gotten lost while hiking on Mount Rainier in 1898.” Adams journeyed alone, making his way to Bellingham, Washington, to board the Kennicott, setting out by sea, air, and land on Alaska’s 3,000-mile Marine Highway. The author is a terrific guide and an even better historian. Chapters juxtapose his and the 1899 expedition members’ experiences at each stop, from Anchorage and Haines to Nome and “Land’s End,” remote Shishmaref, located 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle on “a long sandbar, an elongated peanut two and a half miles long and less than a half mile wide at its narrow waist.” There, a resident told Adams that the “seasons have changed” and that “it’s taking longer for the ocean to freeze. Traditionally, it freezes in October. Last year it froze in January.” This environmental theme runs throughout the narrative. Alaska’s “frozen kingdom,” writes the author, is “dissolving like a popsicle in the sun.” In Gustavus (pop. 434), a golf course is “on land that had been underwater during the Harriman Expedition.” Because of “isostatic rebound,” the melting ice in Glacier Bay makes formerly depressed land rise up. Adams populates his story with hilarious tales and revealing encounters with guides, scientists, and a couple frisky brown bears.
Simultaneously uplifting, inspiring, and dispiriting.
Have skillet, will travel; or, one writer’s “pilgrimage of gratitude and generosity.”
In his latest, fiction and nature writer Bass (For a Little While: New and Selected Stories, 2016, etc.) pens an entertaining and love-infused gastronomical memoir. In his mid-50s and recovering from an agonizing divorce, the author decided there was no better time to give payback to the authors who had mentored him over the years and to recharge his writing battery. He wanted to see them in person and cook them a luscious meal—including wild game from his Montana freezer—as a way to say thanks. Joining him along the way were students he was mentoring. The on-and-off, three-year journey began on Long Island, where he visited “one of my greatest literary heroes, Peter Matthiessen,” who was struggling with leukemia. “Readers can enter his work from any direction and become lost, in the best way, changed forever,” writes Bass, who admires his “life of artistic as well as political integrity.” He also visited the “good witch of Manhattan,” Amy Hempel, and they talked about the renowned writer and editor Gordon Lish, “captain fiction,” who edited Hempel, Bass, and Raymond Carver in the 1980s. Next up is Idaho and Denis Johnson, the “hermit, the recluse,” who was also ill (he died in 2017). Bass is a huge fan of his prose, “often lean, sizzling like a wire stripped of its protective coating.” In Arizona, he stayed with Doug Peacock, “my most cherished mentor.” There’s a trip to meet the “funniest man in the world,” David Sedaris (London), and the “old man of the mountains,” John Berger (French Alps). Other destinations include Gary Snyder, Barry Lopez, Tom McGuane, Joyce Carol Oates, and the homes of Mississippians Eudora Welty and William Faulkner.
Dripping with tasty anecdotes, literary tales, and great food, this joyful book is delightful.
The southern border of the United States gets all the attention, but it’s barely half as long as the northern border; its story is “a tale of early mistakes, and more than two centuries of fixes.” Fox (Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow, 2013), a Maine native (he now lives in New York) and editor of the travel journal Nowhere, took a coast-to-coast, two-year journey weaving in and out of a boundary that, “on paper, looks like a discarded thread—twisted and kinked in parts, tight as a bowstring in others,” to see it firsthand and to recount its rich history. He didn’t make an itinerary: “I packed a canoe, tent, maps, and books and headed for the line.” He began one chilly October morning in Lubec, America’s easternmost border town near Passamaquoddy Bay. In June 1604, writes the author, Frenchman Samuel de Champlain entered the bay with two large boats and a crew of 150 to begin his own exploring. Throughout, Fox chronicles in detail Champlain’s adventures, good and bad, as well as those of many other explorers and adventurers from the border’s past. This gives the book an added richness, providing helpful historical context to the places the author visits. Early on, Fox’s trip almost ended when he nearly capsized a small outboard boat in high waves in below-freezing Sandy Bay. He recounts that in 1775, the Continental army attempted a doomed invasion of Canada, and in the 1920s and ’30s, a U.S. planning committee even “drew up plans to seize Canada.” In Montreal, Fox hitched a ride on a “moving skyscraper,” the freighter Equinox, as he traversed the Great Lakes. In eastern North Dakota, he got caught up in Indian protests over the oil pipeline.
Richly populated with fascinating northlanders, Native Americans, and many border patrol agents, this is highly entertaining and informative travel literature.
A writer’s life is conveyed through “a lens of penetrating inquiry.”
As a young girl studying the Baltimore Catechism to prepare for her first confession, Hampl (The Florist’s Daughter, 2007, etc.) was shocked to learn that daydreaming—“this effortless flight of the mind”—was a sin. She refused to believe it: daydreaming, her abiding pleasure, “sees things. Claims things, twirls them around, takes a good look,” and makes sense of them. In this lucent, tender, and wise memoir, the author celebrates this quiet reflection, which actually requires acute observation and intense, even loving, attention. “Caress the detail, the divine detail,” Nabokov commanded. “And because the detail is divine,” Hampl discovers, “if you caress it into life, the world lost or ignored, the world ruined or devalued, comes to life.” As in her previous memoirs, the author reports on journeys, both inward among memories and outward—to France, Wales, and on the Mississippi River—as she works at “the job of being human.” She is never really alone, “even though being alone is the one thing we recognize as our chance for authenticity, for surprising ourselves out of predictability.” Her traveling companions include Whitman, Dickinson, Augustine, Gregor Mendel, Colette, Virginia Woolf, and, notably, Montaigne, the elegant 16th-century writer who withdrew from public life “to muse about how to die—or was it how to live?” Montaigne invented a new literary genre, the essay, liberating writing “to be wild, untamed, eccentric.” His goal, Hampl writes, “was to renew the springs of the first-person voice bounding across the field of what we keep calling, against our uncertainty, reality.” His goal is Hampl’s, as well: memoir, she knows, is “not a reminiscence, but a quest.” Although reveling in solitude, the author is no stranger to loneliness; her husband’s recent, unexpected death has left her bereft. Grief pulses through the memoir, a feeling different, entirely, from “the solitude within the mind.”
“Loneliness eats away at you,” writes the author. “Solitude fills and fills you.” A captivating and revelatory memoir.
A native son returns to Khartoum, a tumultuous city in a rapidly changing region.
Mahjoub (Nubian Indigo, 2006, etc.), the author of a detective series under the pen name Parker Bilal, fled Sudan with his family in 1989, when a military coup installed an Islamist regime. Twenty years later, having lost contact with many of his friends and family members, he returned to his homeland with pointed questions: “Who was I without this place that I had written about for so long?” Though now something of an outsider, he delivers a book of impressions and experiences that, though a touch overlong, stands up well next to books of similar spirit by Eric Newby and Jan Morris. A highlight comes when Mahjoub returns to his boyhood home, which might have commanded a small fortune in the Sudan of a boom that quickly ended with the splitting off of South Sudan in 2011: “In the wake of secession,” he writes, “the capital is sinking once more into lethargy,” and if the house is now but rubble, it evokes Proustian memories of hours sprawled on couches and chairs absorbing book after book in a household that valued writing and learning. Though his impressions are sometimes glancing, Mahjoub writes powerfully of personal history and the history of the larger city and nation alike. As he notes, he is wary of the category “exile,” although indeed his parents were forced to leave Khartoum on pain of death and were never quite at home in Cairo, where the family ended up. Still, he writes affectingly, when he lived in Khartoum, he knew where he was and had some sense of meaning and being, whereas “from the moment I left, it seems to me, I have been explaining myself, one way or another.”
A beguiling, thoughtful book about a place that few people know well but that seems eminently inviting in the author’s hands.
An unabashed fan of reading recommends some of her favorite books.
The prolific literary critic, essayist, and novelist Prose (Mister Monkey, 2017, etc.) follows up Reading Like a Writer (2006) with an eclectic collection of previously published pieces that continue her clarion call for how books can “transport and entertain and teach us.” She sets the stage for the essays with “Ten Things that Art Can Do,” enthusiastically arguing that art is essential to life. She deftly mixes biography and critical analysis to demonstrate how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein challenges us “to ponder the profound issues raised by the monster and by the very fact of his existence.” Prose’s love of and fascination with Great Expectations, Cousin Bette, Middlemarch, Little Women, and New Grub Street, “so engrossing, so entertaining, so well made,” and Mansfield Park, “arguably the greatest of Austen’s novels,” will have readers anxious to revisit these classics. As a fine practitioner of the art of the short story, Prose feels a kind of “messianic zeal…to make sure that [Mavis] Gallant’s work continues to be read, admired—and loved.” Poet Mark Strand’s “remarkable” collection Mr. and Mrs. Baby offers us distant echoes of “the dark comedy of Kafka and Beckett, the lyrical imagination of Calvino and Schulz.” Prose also praises the work of Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Bowles, Alice Munro, and Charles Baxter. She loves how Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, about refugees, can “alchemize the raw material of catastrophe into art.” Nonfiction is represented here too, as in Gitta Sereny’s “so controversial, so profoundly threatening” Cries Unheard, about an 11-year-old killer, or Diane Arbus’ Revelations, where the photographer “employed the grotesque as a staging ground in her quest for the transcendent.” My Struggle, the six-volume autobiographical work of Karl Ove Knausgaard, is “dense, complex, and brilliant.” Others discussed include Jennifer Egan, Vladimir Nabokov, and Edward St. Aubyn as well as Roberto Bolaño's 2666—"literary genius."
As Prose implores: “Drop everything. Start reading. Now.”
In which the veteran humorist enters middle age with fine snark but some trepidation as well.
Mortality is weighing on Sedaris (Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, 2017, etc.), much of it his own, professional narcissist that he is. Watching an elderly man have a bowel accident on a plane, he dreaded the day when he would be the target of teenagers’ jokes “as they raise their phones to take my picture from behind.” A skin tumor troubled him, but so did the doctor who told him he couldn’t keep it once it was removed. “But it’s my tumor,” he insisted. “I made it.” (Eventually, he found a semitrained doctor to remove and give him the lipoma, which he proceeded to feed to a turtle.) The deaths of others are much on the author’s mind as well: He contemplates the suicide of his sister Tiffany, his alcoholic mother’s death, and his cantankerous father’s erratic behavior. His contemplation of his mother’s drinking—and his family’s denial of it—makes for some of the most poignant writing in the book: The sound of her putting ice in a rocks glass increasingly sounded “like a trigger being cocked.” Despite the gloom, however, frivolity still abides in the Sedaris clan. His summer home on the Carolina coast, which he dubbed the Sea Section, overspills with irreverent bantering between him and his siblings as his long-suffering partner, Hugh, looks on. Sedaris hasn’t lost his capacity for bemused observations of the people he encounters. For example, cashiers who say “have a blessed day” make him feel “like you’ve been sprayed against your will with God cologne.” But bad news has sharpened the author’s humor, and this book is defined by a persistent, engaging bafflement over how seriously or unseriously to take life when it’s increasingly filled with Trump and funerals.
Fifty years before the robber barons, immense fortunes in the young United States flowed to great shipping firms, a brutal, sometimes lucrative, and technologically creative enterprise brilliantly chronicled by naval historian Ujifusa (A Man and His Ship: America's Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the S.S. United States, 2012).
Ujifusa begins at the beginning, Feb. 22, 1784, less than a year after independence, when, free from British mercantile restrictions, the Empress of China sailed from New York to Canton, returning 14 months later laden with cargo that sold for a nice profit. The rush was on as shipping firms, mostly family-run and New England–based, took up the trade. The author delivers lively portraits of half a dozen young American entrepreneurs who, by the 1830s, had established themselves in China and grown rich. Equally significant, after 1840, American shipyards began building sleek, sharp-lined, tall-sparred vessels with a huge sail spread. Sacrificing cargo capacity for speed, clipper ships cut the 6-month voyage to China in half. An admirer but also knowledgeable (readers should keep Wikipedia’s glossary of naval terms on hand), Ujifusa emphasizes that they were complex, more fragile, and more expensive to operate than slower, capacious ships. For a decade, they dominated the China trade and carriage to gold fields in California and Australia, but entrepreneurs began preferring reliability and capacity to speed. Steam power and the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal dealt the death blow to clippers, although traditional sailing vessels remained profitable for several decades.
A vivid account of larger-than-life if not always attractive characters and a technological marvel that briefly captivated the Victorian world.
The British explorer’s latest trek takes him by foot from Mexico to the edge of Colombia.
The book's title might be misleading, as Wood (Walking the Himalayas, 2016, etc.) notes in the introduction: this trip was “solely a journey through Central America.” The author was joined by Alberto Caceres, a recently divorced Mexican friend who had “never been in a jungle, or walked further than a few miles.” Despite a few blisters, however, and more than a few complaints, the chatty Caceres, who could “charm the hind legs off a donkey,” kept up the pace. Sometimes on uncharted paths and often on major highways where the main obstacles they faced were drunken drivers and thoughtless truckers, the two covered 1,800 miles in a little over four months. Wood excels at verbal snapshots of the differences among the countries, and he avoids dwelling on the monotony of many of the days in favor of describing more exciting ones spent diving into caves where they discovered Mayan skulls, climbing unnamed pyramids, eating termites (“bitter and woody”) during a lesson on jungle survival, getting caught in quicksand, and being escorted through the gang-ruled barrios of Honduras' San Pedro Sula, which until recently “held the dubious honor of being known as the murder capital of the world.” While this means that readers only get tantalizing glimpses into the author’s experience, it also makes for brisk reading. The narrative culminates with a trek through the jungles of Panama's Darién Gap, an area ruled by drug lords that has, during the past 20 years, “swallowed up more people than perhaps anywhere else in the western hemisphere.” Fortunately, Wood and Caceres made it through the “brutal, skin-tearing, lung-busting jungle climbs” with nothing worse than some nasty spider bites.
A jaunty glimpse into the cities and countryside of Central America from the point of view of a traveler well-equipped to compare life there to other countries around the globe.