My Top 10 – Travel Books.

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I mentioned in an earlier post that I am a big fan of travel books. Travel guides, travelogues and books relating to TV travel shows.

This is my Top 10 list of travelogues currently on my bookshelves. All have been read and some are starting to get pretty old, but remain favourites.

My absolute favourite of all time…..and I’m going to cheat a little on this one. Is Bill Bryson’s “The Complete Notes” – It’s actually two books in one, comprising Notes from a Small Island (about travel in the UK) and Notes from a Big Country (about re-visiting the land of his birth – the USA, after 17 years of living in the UK). I simply love Bryson’s style of writing. He’ll give a half a dozen rather dry facts about a place and then pitch in a one-liner that reduces me to fits of giggles. He’s the sort of person who can get lost anywhere and wears the mantle of the “confused traveler” extremely well.  His travel books are always informative….and humorous ( amusing, funny, entertaining, comic, comical, chucklesome, witty, jocular, light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, wry, waggish, whimsical, playful – and other such synonyms). If you’ve never read Bryson – give him a go – you don’t know what you’re missing. BUT – word to the wise – stick with his travelogues, some of his other books, I feel, can be a little lacking.

I’m a huge fan of Michael Palin (former member of the Monty Python team) for his many TV travel series and accompanying travel books. Starting with “Around the World in 80 Days” – where he set off on a quest to replicate Phileas Fogg’s journey to travel right around the globe in only 80 days….not using planes. After that he went “Pole to Pole”  and “Full Circle”, before starting to specialize more in specific areas such as “Himalaya” and “Sahara”. The books of the series have all been worthy of space on my “Travel Bookcase”. Again, like Bryson, Palin delivers facts accompanied by wit. He writes well and is a really nice guy….coming from Sheffield (my place of birth) gains him extra points. The books are also well illustrated with beautiful photos – mostly taken by photographer Basil Pao. Actually Basil’s own book “Inside Sahara” is also well worth a look and has extra photos from Palin’s Sahara trip which were deemed worthy of their own book.

Next is a book given to me in 1986 when I backpacked coast to coast across the USA…and back again. Tina Winn who gave us a roof over our heads at Newport Beach, California, was the lady in question and she gave a book to me and a different one to my travel companion Chris. Mine was “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat-Moon, about a journey by van along the blue highways (back roads) that link up all the little towns and settlements across the USA. It was his curiousity to see “the Real America” that took him on the trip of a lifetime….where he meets and mostly brings out the best in people along the way. I don’t have the original copy given to me by Tina (I had to buy a new one) because I swapped it with Chris so I could read his book…..which comes in as my fourth pick.

John Steinbeck – “Travels with Charley” – subtitled “In Search of America”. At the age of sixty, John Steinbeck and his French Poodle “Charley” climbed in to a camper van and took off on a coast to coast and back again adventure. I have read some of Steinbecks novels, but this true story of his travels – giving not only details of the trip and what they saw and did, but also wry observations about what it is to be an American – I think is his best work. And having gone coast to coast and back myself I could relate to much of what’s in the book.

A purchase from a second hand book shop….Pete McCarthy’s hilarious “The Road To McCarthy” – should probably be higher on my list if I’m honest about it. This man is a very funny guy – or i should say WAS, as he died in 2004 after a struggle against cancer. The book takes Pete and us around the world in search of McCarthy – or to be more exact in search of quirky places around the world with odd links to Ireland, the Irish and the McCarthy name. It’s a follow up book to his highly successful “McCarthy’s Bar” – in which Pete McCarthy makes a simple rule – never pass a bar with your name on it. He was an incredibly talented writer and humorist and having only recently discovered his books I was devastated to learn that he’d died. Such a waste of talent – a sad loss……but great books.

Kevin McCloud’s “Grand Tour of Europe” – another book of a TV series (this one on the UK’s Channel 4). The Grand Tour was a rite of passage for the Nobles, minor nobility and upper class wealthy young men which began in the 17th and 18th century. These hedonists cut a swathe across europe, visiting all the fashionable great cities, ruins and architectural marvels…..and partaking in the delights offered by bath houses, bars and brothels along the way. It was an oportunity for these wealthy young men to educate themselves in the world of european art and literature…..and if they didn’t take precautions – to also contract syphilis. McCloud takes us along for the ride and shares snippets of knowledge with us – the audience and readership….some of it carnal – as we visit the culture and history of Europe.

Paul Theroux – “The GreatRailway Bazaar” is my next choice. Unfortunately I only have the Penguin paperback edition, I believe that there is also a large format hard cover book complete with accompanying photos…..quite magnificent photos I hasten to add…by Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. Having said that, Theroux’s text is extremely entertaining, amusing (in places) and informative. He takes us on a four month journey, on a series of trains from London, across Europe, the middle east and Asia, eloquently describing the people and places along the journey. It’s a well crafted book which as well as being a travelogue also discusses subjects such as poverty, ignorance, colonialism and (being an American writer) American Imperialism. It certainly inspires this reader to hop on board and “slow travel” across the continents.

Rolf Potts book “Vagabonding” is a book that I wished I had discovered years ago rather than more recently. It’s a “how to” guide to the art of long-term world travel. Most people, for some reason, see the idea of long-term travel to exotic out of the way lands as being either the thing of dreams, or as requiring oodles of money squirreled away in the bank. Potts shows us that neither of these are true. With common sense advice he walks us through the steps we need to take to make living the dream a reality. And it’s not rocket science!

Hap Cameron’s – “Hap Working the World” – is a book that show’s us just how far a simple thought can take us. In 2003 New Zealander Hap Cameron had an idea that he’d like to live and work on every continent before he turned thirty. Eight years later with all seven continents ticked off, he’s experienced more than most of us will in a lifetime  -including being locked in a jail cell in the USA and almost killed by gangsters in Africa. Of course it’s a “coming of age book” – a book that not only takes us on Hap’s journey of discovery of the seven continents, but also his journey of self discovery and of meeting the girl of his dreams. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and by the end I really did care what happened to Hap. It’s fun and it’s an adventure.

For my final choice – it’s more of a choice of writer rather than of a specific book. I’ve read a few of Christina Dodwell‘s books….starting with “An Explorer’s Handbook”. She is one impressive woman. I first came to know of her on a TV series called River Journeys where she tackled the white water of Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River….and allowed tribesmen to cut the diamond shaped pattern of the skin of the crocodile into her arm – to bring her good luck and protection. She puts the intrepid into Intrepid Explorer. She spent 3 years, traveling twenty thousand miles in Africa – by any means including horse, elephant and camel plus 7 weeks in a dug out canoe on the Congo river. Any of her books are a thrill to read. Maybe her first book “Travels with Fortune” about that African adventure would be the one to start with.

That complete’s my Top Ten. It was a difficult choice and I’ve tried to pick a cross section of the books that I hold dear. There were a few others that could easily have replaced others listed above…..like I said, it was a hard choice.

Just as a P.S. and because I feel bad about missing him off my list…..If you’re a Francophile, I recommend any of John Baxter’s books about Paris. Look him up on line.

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Random Book review number two – Longitude by Dava Sobel.

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The second of the books on my Random Book pile is Longitude by Dava Sobel. Again this is not the sort of book I would usually select for my reading material and again I was surprised at how interesting it was.

Dava Sobel is an American writer who writes books primarily about science related subjects. Longitude was first published in 1995 and has since – in 1998 –  been made into a TV series. There has been at least two re-prints, the last one in 2005.

So, what is the book about?

We all know that there are lines of latitude and longitude on maps – this is the story of the race to acurately measure where ships were longitudinaly….before we had the luxury of satelite navigation systems.

Back in the day…..a phrase incidentally that makes me grind my teeth, but I’ll use it anyway….back in the day, ships crews navigated by the stars and used sextants along with a compass to ascertain their position on the map. This was all well and good when land was still in sight and on clear nights, but when the sky was overcast or ships were surrounded by fog, they had to use a best guess system of estimating their speed, the direction of the tide and approximate time travelled. They were sometimes hundreds of miles off course.

Many ships floundered on rocks and reefs and many lives were lost….not to mention precious cargo.

The race was on to find a better way to find an exact position on the map and a cash prize was offered for the person who could determine longitude at sea within a very small margin of error.

What it came down to was a group of scientists and the science/mathematical based community in one corner and a lone clock maker from Yorkshire called John Harrison in the other.

I’ll not tell you who wins, but there are a series of twists and turns, deceit and rule changes along the way to the prize.

It`s actually a fascinating story about a subject that, these days, we barely even think about. The answer to the longitude problem was complex and quite a brilliant achievement – that took over 40 years of struggle and commitment to solve.

Originally written as a magazine article for Harvard Magazine, the publisher asked Dava to expand it into a book for which she was paid a mere $7000 advance, which barely covered the cost of the research she did on the book. The book however was an outstanding success and made the best seller lists, as well as winning British Book of the Year in 1997 -much to her own and her publishers surprise – and cemented Dava into her own unique genre.

Definitely worth a read and I’ll give it 3 out of 5.
Continue reading “Random Book review number two – Longitude by Dava Sobel.”

Getting myself out of a reading rut….

While there is nothing wrong at all in finding something you like to do and sticking to it, it does tend to narrow your options – and in turn narrow your mind…..or I should say it doesn’t help you to expand your mind.

I love to travel, love photography and love to read. So to become sort of addicted to travel writing…..travelogues and travel guides….or the pictorial splendor of glossy photography books was an easy trap to fall into. It’s what I like, so what’s wrong with that?

Spoken like a true addict right?

It’s funny sometimes how you stumble across something, apparently by chance, that just happens to provide another view – another option. And it seems to happen right at the time that you need it.

I’m not sure exactly how I came across “The Bookshop – Wigtown” – it may have been a YouTube suggested channel, I’m really not sure. But here was a guy – Shaun Bythell who ran a bookshop – the biggest second hand bookshop in Scotland. He was explaining how, when sales of books were at a low ebb and he had a glut of books of all types, he decided to start “the Random Book Club”.  Customers would sign up to receive one book every month, mailed to their door…..but it would be a book selected at random . It could be fact or fiction, poetry even. The Random Book Club has, against the odds, been a great success and he has been inundated with emails from people wanting to join. The on-line recruitment campaign was so successful that he’s now spending more time than he initially expected to, selecting and mailing out a hundred and fifty books each month. It was getting too popular so he decided to cap it at 150 members.

I didn’t sign up with the Random Book Club, but it did spark an idea.

I didn’t, and indeed still don’t, have much in the way of spare cash – or any cash if I’m completely honest – to spend on books, so decided to have a rummage around the charity shops/thrift shops/Op shops (depending on what you call them in your part of the world). I’d go into a shop and spying the books in a book case at the far end of the shop I’d pick 2 numbers…..say 3 and 8…..and I’d select the book which occupied the 8th space from the left, on the 3rd shelf – regardless of what it was. I repeated this on other book cases and in other stores, until I had amassed an interesting pile of a dozen or so books (for the grand total of less than ten dollars). OK I admit that one of them turned out to be a travel book…..but the rest were a mix of novels, biographies and other non-fiction that for the most part I wouldn’t usually read.

I’m slowly reading my way through them…..and will share my thoughts on each book in another post…or posts. The main thing is though – I have been entertained and I have learned things that I otherwise wouldn’t have done, had I stayed with my usual travel or photo books. AND it has made me more willing to deliberately browse the shelves of new and used books and to expand my library further – much to my wife’s displeasure.

I’m not sticking religiously to my random pile of books though. I am also reading other purchased books and library books in between including several books by the Australian writer (now residing in Paris) – John Baxter – who I will do an in depth post on later and I have recently finished Shaun Bythell’s book “The Diary of a Bookseller” and am half way through Jessica Fox’s book “Three Things You Need To Know About Rockets”. More on both these books in future posts.

My long suffering wife thinks that I already have too many books….and in all honesty I probably do. Although my taste in genres has changed over the years since I first became interested in books at primary school……as an adult, I’ve gone through detective and crime novels…..Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Richard Laymon, Shaun Hutson and other “supernatural” authors….my beloved travel writers, particularly Bill Bryson…..the classics…..art and photography….gardening and D.I.Y. etc etc. I rarely get rid of any of them. So they gather dust on any of my six book cases or languish, discarded, unloved and hoping to be rediscovered, in any number of banana boxes in my garage. I’ve even considered opening a “pop-up” second hand book store in a tent on my front lawn to off load a few books and give me a much needed cash-flow……to buy more books of course.

I could call it “Intent books – for books within tent“…..

Hmmmm. Certainly something to think about.

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Above – my dozen random books.

Featherston Booktown is now official.

I’m very pleased to report that as of October 2nd 2018 the small, lower north island, New Zealand town of Featherston has become a full member of the International Organisation of Booktowns (IOB). This makes Featherston the first Booktown in New Zealand and the 22nd Booktown internationally.

A Booktown is a small rural town or village in which second–hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated. Most Booktowns have developed in villages of historic interest or of scenic beauty. They have usually had a hard time economically and have turned to the Booktown idea in a bid to turn around the economic downturn.

Gunnel Ottersten, President of the IOB said: ”The IOB has observed with great interest the successful growth of Featherston Booktown over the last four years. The Featherston Booktown Board of Trustees and the Featherston community have done a fantastic job taking Featherston Booktown forward to its current impressive stage – and the IOB voted unanimously to make Featherston Booktown a full member of the IOB.’

Peter Biggs, Chair of the Featherston Booktown Board of Trustees said that the whole of Featherston had been behind them 100% in their bid to become a Booktown and it is a proud moment to finally achieve their goal.  It will also give Featherston the opportunity to promote itself internationally as a Booktown and add significant value and innovation to all of the other Booktowns around the world.

Featherston is currently home to six bookshops and now it has become officially accepted into the family of the IOB, could well attract more potential booksellers.

The concept of the Booktown was initiated by Richard Booth in Hay–on–Wye in Wales. Hay has a population of only 1500 people, yet is home to around two dozen bookshops. In comparison, the population of Featherston is over two thousand so the potential to add more bookshops is not simply pie in the sky.

Booktowns have proved extremely popular with book lovers and tourists alike overseas. The Hay–on–Wye Literature Festival now attracts over 80,000 visitors across ten days in May-June every year. A phenomenal number when the usual population size is considered.

Similarly, Scotland’s Booktown, Wigtown – population of less than one thousand people, yet around a dozen bookshops, have benefited increasingly over the 20 years since being hailed as Scotland’s Booktown. The 10 day festival held in 2017 was said to have generated over 3 million UK Pounds. This years is just finishing and figures are expected to be up on last year.

I was in Featherston at the end of August this year to attend an authors event at which Wigtown’s unofficial Booktown Champion Shaun Bythell – owner of Scotland’s biggest second hand bookshop – was promoting his own book “The Diary of a Bookseller”. The book takes a look at a typical year in the life of a bookseller (Shaun) – recording the daily and often humorous exchanges between himself, his staff and customers.

I loved the book, met the writer and found him to be a charming, witty and intelligent human being, with the voice of a 1950’s BBC presenter, a very casual sense of fashion style bordering on “op-shop” and a mop-top of unruly orange hair. He’s a very likable sort of guy – self depreciating, yet confident. The event received an audience of over a hundred and twenty people eager to meet the man and to listen to readings from the book, listen to rib-tickling tales of book-shop life and to take part in a question and answer time. Bear in mind that this was on a cold winter Monday evening in a tiny rural town. The weekend before, he had been in Auckland and had a smaller audience. It goes to show that Featherston is ready to step up in literary circles.

Featherstons next literary festival runs from 9th to 12th of May 2019. I for one will make sure it’s on my calendar. Achieving the title of Booktown along with the upcoming festival and other events throughout the year should help to put Featherston firmly on the tourist map.

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Above photo – the writer (on the left) with author Shaun Bythell