Northern Reads: ‘Passage to Juneau’ by Jonathan Raban

31 03 2011

I’ve known Jonathan Raban’s name — and the names of a few of his classic travel books, like Old Glory, Coasting, and Hunting Mister Heartbreak — for a couple of years now. But until I picked up Passage to Juneau, a narrative about Raban sailing from his home in Seattle up the Inside Passage to Southeast Alaska, I’d never actually read any of his work.

And boy, have I been missing out.

“Passage to Juneau” spans a few months in — if I’ve done the math right — 1996. The narrative moves back and forth (ebbs and flows, if you want to get nautical) between Raban’s solitary reflections on the ship and his encounters in ports along the way. The story of George Vancouver’s exploratory voyage along the same coast is also woven throughout, as is a discussion of the local First Nations, their history, myths, and art.

The writing is precise and evocative — Raban’s command of the language sent me out to buy my own used copy of the book as soon as I finished (I’d been reading one borrowed from the library), so that I could go through and mark up all the passages I admired — but there’s a real story here, too, about family and solitude and loneliness and belonging.

This isn’t one of those beautifully written travel books that beautifully meanders to nowhere in particular. I suppose some people might find the historical and anthropological passages a bit dry, but for me this was an exquisitely written page-turner.


Northern Reads: ‘The Magnetic North’ by Sara Wheeler

15 03 2011

Okay, so I’m supposed to focus on things I’ve actually read here, but I’m a little behind on my pile of books these days and I wanted to mention this recent release: The Magnetic North by Sara Wheeler.

Wheeler’s a well-known travel writer whose earlier book, Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, made our list of the 100 Most Celebrated Travel Books of All Time over at World Hum, so I was anxious to hear about her new book tackling the other pole.

Read the rest of this entry »

Northern Reads: ‘Mad Dogs and an Englishwoman’ by Polly Evans

28 01 2011

It’s a funny thing, reading a travel book about your own home — and as a Canadian, it’s not something I’ve experienced very often.

(Be honest. Can you name a travel narrative set in Ottawa, or Saskatoon, or even Toronto?)

So I have to offer up a disclaimer right at the start: I’m not sure to what extent my discomfort with reading an outsider’s take on my home affected my judgment of Polly Evans’ book.

That being said, let’s get down to it. Mad Dogs and an Englishwoman (subtitle: “Travels with Sled Dogs in Canada’s Frozen North”) spans the 11 weeks that Evans, a Londoner, spent volunteering at a dogsledding outfit just outside Whitehorse and traveling around the territory following the annual Yukon Quest.

And I say “spans” rather than “tells the story of” because, well, the book is distressingly chronological.

Read the rest of this entry »