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review 2016-09-10 17:09
Chatwin's wanderlusting
What Am I Doing Here? - Bruce Chatwin

This rather eclectic collection of Chatwin's writings is simply a great read and a suitable homage to his craft. The breadth of his travel and experience is made to seem almost ordinary, when clearly the writer was anything but. This was my first reading of Chatwin and was purely by chance that the book came my way, but what a feast of language to savour. Must be serendipity.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1521145124
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review 2016-07-15 15:32
An Extraordinary Life Dedicated to Knowledge, Travel and Writing
The Art of Exile: A Vagabond Life - John Freely

Thanks to Net Galley and to I.B.Tauris for offering me a copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

I wish (like many of us) I was more of a traveller, but when I received an e-mail about this book, a memoir of sorts of John Freely, I was interested for many reasons. Although I hadn’t read his books, I’m always interested in books about writers (professional deformation, I guess). He’s written extensively about travelling, and as I said before I have a long list of places I’d love to visit, among them many Dr Freely has written about (and I’m always happy to be inspired and encouraged to take up more travel). And the title of the book, ‘the art of exile’ appealed to me because I’ve lived away from my own country for many years and I always feel an affinity for those in similar circumstances, even when their lives and mine couldn’t be more different.

John Freely has written many travel books, although as I understand from his own and others’ descriptions, they are not your standard travel book, but rather investigations and reflections about culture, architecture, literature, music, and he has researched extensively the topics of Istanbul, Greece, Physics, classical history, literature… He is a true polymath, a born lecturer and teacher, and knowledge pours out of every page.

Freely structures the book as an autobiography, and I found the story of his upbringing very touching, as it reflected that of many emigrants from Ireland (but not exclusively) who sailed away searching for a better life elsewhere. History has a way of changing settings and actors but it does indeed repeat itself, as we can see in the continued story of both emigrants and refugees that carries on to the present.

The author doesn’t dwell too much on the difficult circumstances of his childhood and family, lack of money, working as a child and living hand-to-mouth. That was how things were at the time and he was expected to and did the best he could. He went to war when he was only 17 after dropping out of high school, and that was the beginning of a life of travelling. Even in those circumstances he loved books and reading (he had studied with fascination a book about the wonders of the world his grandfather had brought back to Ireland from the Crimean War) and he educated himself by reading a catalogue of recommended lectures a military priest gave him whilst traveling to China. Mr Freely is a connector and communicator who made friends everywhere he went and was lucky to get and take good advice. He decided to follow advice and took advantage of the GI bill, he studied Physics and he did well, as he reflects upon, with surprise, a few times throughout his life. His love for knowledge and his thirst for travelling combined into a lifelong journey and he found a more than willing partner in his wife, Toots.

Although he does not talk in detail about such things as feelings, it’s not difficult to read between the lines and sometimes he says more when he doesn’t elaborate on topics that when he does (his muted comments about his son’s difficulties). His vignettes of early married life and his love for his wife come through loud and clear.

Once the couple move to Istanbul and Dr Freely starts his international teaching career the book becomes a catalogue of trips, not in detail but mostly as itineraries, interspersed with references to his career moves and to his published books. There are brief moments of lyrical descriptions that hint at wonders to be had in the full books, and he ponders upon those moments when they were the only western travellers in some of the locations and they could feel history at its fullest. He quotes the classics and is happy to share the experiences and moments he lived with his friends and collaborators, always giving credit where credit is due. He talks with warmth and affection of the institutions he’s worked in and is always grateful and happy to mention other’s achievements. I could not follow all the itineraries in detail and didn’t always know who everybody was, although it didn’t seem that important. I’m convinced the book would be a great read for those familiar with his work or interested in it that would be able to provide the background and fit all the pieces of the puzzle in but it would work well as an introduction to the topic of his books and his life.

There are moments that will feel familiar, easy to connect with and will touch everybody, like his visits to Ireland, back to the old home, the autobiographical details of life in Ireland and old New York when he was a young man, and the latter part of the book, when his wife becomes ill and dies and he has to carry on the journey alone (not a spoiler as it’s not that kind of story).

I thought I’d share some of his comments towards the end of the book, which I must admit had me in tears (as by then I’d become another exile and vagabond with them). He is talking here about writing this book:

When the book on Homer was finished I began working in earnest on the story of our own odyssey, The Art of Exile, particularly after I looked at a photograph of Toots taken on her 80th birthday, when the sight of her wearing a Byzantine tiara reminded me once again that she was in fact my queen, though I’d had no kingdom to offer her, just a lifelong journey.

Now I have become my own Homer, composing the story of a life perpetually on the move, always an exile…

I’m not sure this is a book for everybody, as it’s full of brief descriptions, names, quotes and dates, and travels, although some parts of it would be enjoyed by most people. Personally, I’d love to go for a walk through Istanbul, Naxos, or anywhere with Dr Freely as a guide, telling me all he knows about the many places he’s visited, and with classical references. As I don’t think that’s likely to happen, this book provides a good substitute, and has encouraged me to look into his other books.

And here, I share Dr Feely’s quote of the Odyssey that is perfect for the book.

As you set out for Ithaka

Hope your road is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery…

May there be many summer mornings,

when, with what pleasure, what joy,

you enter harbours you’re seeing for the

first time… But don’t hurry the journey,

at all,

Better if it lasts for many years.

So you’re old when you reach the island

… Ithaka gave you the marvellous


Without her you wouldn’t have set out.

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review 2014-03-10 00:40
The Songlines Review!
The Songlines - Bruce Chatwin

I had to read Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines last month for my travel writing course. This is my first experience with Chatwin's writing and with this form of travel literature. I wasn't sure what to expect going into it, so I opted for not expecting anything, which turned out well in the end.


Since I didn't go into this novel with a set idea about what it was doing, I found that I was able enjoy the simple aspects of reading it, like how much it made me want to travel to Australia and learn more about the creation myths of the aboriginals there.


The Songlines had a really interesting focus, which kept me engaged even though it was pretty dead plot-wise. I'm not sure how much of it is based on fact and how much of it is fictionalized, but I found the aboriginal creation stories surrounding the Songlines really interesting, though I cannot for the life of me give a simple description of what the Songlines are.


I also really loved the focus on nomadic tribes in general, and the correlation between movement and happiness in these cultures. Reading this book, felt like a really unique springboard that made me consider and want to learn more about things that I hadn't thought of before. 


The value that I gained from this book comes primarily from the information and inspiration to learn that it imbued in me, and not so much from its status as a piece of literature. Though, the writing was well crafted and at times even beautiful, I couldn't fully identify my experience with this book as a literary one. I feel like I would have had a very similar experience if this were a documentary that I watched. The value truly was in the information and intellectual discussion surrounding nomadism. 


I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in creation myths and travelling to Australia. I really think that it's a great starting point if you are interested in aboriginal mythologies or nomadic mythologies and don't know where to start.


Happy Reading!

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review 2013-10-16 00:00
Travel Writing
Travel Writing - Don George,Lonely Planet Time and again Travel Writing beats into you the utter financial ruin you will be driving yourself towards should you choose this career. Making money at it is essentially a forlorn hope, says Don George. In this instance, you want to go against the grain of the sage advice "never trust a man with two first names" and listen to the man!

After college I went to work at one of the more prestigious papers in Massachusetts. The pay sucked. I was getting $20 a story IF the story made it into the paper. Even if everything I wrote was published, I would've been living on short rations. Facts is facts, publishing companies just don't pay their writers well. So I wasn't surprised when George delivered this depressing bit of info.

Nonetheless, my wife and I like to travel, I like to write, and so I thought about taking up travel writing. Then I read this book. No thanks!

George continually degraded my romanticized vision of travel writing by laying out the reality of the job. You take long flights to far off places, often on your own dime, only to get there and not be able to enjoy the sights. You're too busy running about trying to gather information, zooming from city to city sometimes on a daily basis just to gather up as much detail (and make sure it's 100% accurate!) in as little time as possible in order to stay on budget.

Bursting my bubble is not why I gave Travel Writing only 3 stars. No, what I didn't like about this is all the interviews. Yes, it does say on the cover "Expert advice on travel writing from the best writers and editors in the business," so I should've been ready for it, but Holy Moses there's a lot of them! Most of the bloody book is interviews! Maybe that wouldn't be so bad if many of the interviewees didn't give repeat answers to the stock questions put to them all. Essentially, as an example, George asks how does one make ends meet as a travel writer, and almost invariably the interviewee says that at the beginning they didn't make ends meet. Nearly 30 interviews often saying the same thing is tedious.

However, there is good advice here. I don't doubt any of it. So, if you are considering travel writing as a career and you think you've got the balls/ovaries for the job, this would be a good place to start reading up on the subject.
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