The Uncommercial Traveller by Charles Dickens is a series of papers written about a wide variety of aspects encountered by travelers in England, Europe, and even America during Dicken’s life time. While it is one of his lesser known works, it still contains his artfully turned phrasing, tongue-in-cheek humor, and unvarnished look at the seedier side of life. It runs the gamut of shedding light on the plight of the poor, the brashness of rogues and thieves preying on the innocent, life at sea, and even the pitfalls of dining in unknown eating establishments. It was a difficult read which I choose to tackle in small doses, but well worth the effort. Apparently no one had read this book before, as I had to employ a metal nail file to cut open half the pages.
Review Submitted by: M Denise Brace nee Lerch (’82)
Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World
Birders are an odd bunch. In birding, many times activity revolves around creating a ‘list’ – a list of all of the birds you have seen in a specified time or place. People keep all sorts – there are backyard lists, county lists, state lists. For many years the biggest listing goal was to do a North American Big Year – see as many species as possible in North America (north of Mexico and including Atu – the westernmost Aleutian island). The most recent record in North America is 836 species set by John Weigel of Australia in 2016.
Over the past few years, a few crazy folks have taken on a new mission. A World Big Year – how many species of bird can one person see in one calendar year worldwide. This book tells the story of a crazy trip around the world looking for birds. Noah Strycker started his big year at midnight – New Years, under the midnight sun, in a hot tub on a ship in the Antarctic and ended the trip in India on the following New Years Eve, after seeing 6,042 birds. The year after, the world big year record of 6,833 species was set again in 2016 by Arjan Dwarshuis of the Netherlands – that book hasn’t yet been written.
It is an interesting read full of tidbits from his travels, mostly focused on the people he met. I was maybe hoping for something a bit more detailed, which is why I only rated this book as ‘recommend’. It was an interesting and quick read, and I think it might get you to think a bit differently about the robin you see singing in your front yard every morning.
Review Submitted by: Kevin Emerson
I liked very much the idea of this book, the master and servant who are thrown together and make their way to the young United States to try their fortunes somewhat against their will, though it took me a little while to warm up to the characters. Olivier is sent off to America by his protective parents during a tumultuous time in France, ostensibly to report back to the new government on prisons in the new republic but in actuality to get him out of the way/save his life. Parrot’s background is far less privileged and more colorful. Much of the humor in the book derives from Olivier’s callousness/cluelessness as to the plight of his servant and basically the conditions of everyday life for the majority of other people. While Olivier is working on his voluminous study of American prisons, which morphs into a treatise on society, he never quite “gets” the country or the woman he finds himself courting. Parrot, on the other hand, manages to land on his feet and begin a new life, embracing the chaos of New York. The book made me want to read Alexis de Tocqueville, since he was one of the models for Olivier.
Availability: SMCM, COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by: Eric Blomquist
I read this book on the recommendation of my wife. It’s a memoir, published in the 1970s, of the author’s walking trip across Europe, from the coast of Holland to Constantinople, in the early 1930s. (This volume takes us as far as Hungary.) In addition to serving as a sort of chronicle of a lost world, it shows us the Continent through the eyes of a well educated British teenager of the time. When one reads about halfway through, “It had struck me in Holland that an average non-expert, gallery-sauntering inhabitant of the British Isles would know the names, and a little of the work, of scores of Dutch, Flemish and Italian painters and of twenty Frenchmen at the very least,” one can 1) pause with amazement, marveling at the loss of cultural literacy since then, 2) think about what it means to be entitled, and/or 3) roll one’s eyes. I did my share of each but found myself migrating from 1 to 3.
The book is full of lush descriptions and the joy of being young and ready for whatever the road ahead offers. Because our traveler is so well versed in European history and culture, there’s a running undercurrent of expectations met and baffled as the landscape becomes gradually more exotic, and we witness him communing/grappling with figures of the past, getting into the mind of Shakespeare or Dante or Bruegel. The narrator has a gift for befriending people from all walks of life and benefits from an almost universal inclination to help the young traveler via various traditions of hospitality, a notable exception being one of Hitler’s brownshirts he encounters along the way. You might find this travel companion fascinating or tiresome (or both), but there are plenty of memorable moments if you’re willing to indulge and occasionally share in his enthusiasms.
Review Submitted by: Eric Blomquist
Rating: Recommended with Reservations