Stonehenge is the world’s most iconic prehistoric monument. Scientists have argued about its significance for generations, but few have been allowed to excavate there. Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson is one of those lucky few, and he’s documented his finds in a new book.
Stonehenge: A New Understanding chronicles a seven-year excavation of Stonehenge and the surrounding countryside.
Pearson and his team took an innovative approach and came up with some innovative interpretations. Instead of looking at Stonehenge as an isolated monument, they studied the landscape and other prehistoric monuments around it. This led them to determine that Stonehenge was part of a ritualistic network of monuments and natural features.
But what was it all for? Pearson believes that despite the astronomical alignments and the regular meetings of people at Stonehenge, it was not a monument to nature or the seasons or fertility as many archaeologists have concluded, but rather a monument to the dead, similar to other enclosed cremations burial grounds in the British Isles. Other constructions nearby were symbols of life and were intimately connected to Stonehenge just as the concepts of life and death are intimately connected with each other.
The main connection is with a site called Durrington Walls, two miles away from Stonehenge. Both had avenues leading to a nearby river. Durrington Walls, however, had a settlement while Stonehenge only had burials. Natural features in the landscape aligned with important astronomical events, making the location of Stonehenge perfect for any monument concerned with the heavens.
Weighing in at 350 dense pages, this is not for the casually interested reader. Luckily Pearson has a clear writing style, avoids getting overly technical, and the book is richly illustrated with maps and photographs that help the reader follow the text. I would suggest this to anyone with a serious interest in archaeology and science.
I had the good fortune to hear Dr. Pearson talk a few years ago to a packed auditorium at Oxford University. Once he was done, Oxford professors gathered around in their self-important way to talk with this leading scientist. Before they could start posturing, a twelve-year-old girl came up to him and chirped, “I want to be an archaeologist!”
Dr. Pearson could have patted her on the head, replied, “That’s nice darling” and gone on to speak with the professors, but he didn’t. Instead he sat her down and spoke with her for a good five minutes about what she needed to do to become an archaeologist and all the fun she could have in that career.
The professors looked ruffled and impatient. The girl left glowing with enthusiasm.
It is easy, without historical context, to mistake our own travels – and the documentation thereof – as some kind of bold act. We think ourselves grand for going around the world and we think our stories worthy of sharing merely because we can. But 150 years ago, this was just not the case. Travel was a big deal, women traveling an even bigger deal and women traveling solo, if not quite unheard of, certainly a long way from standard practice.
It was the Victorian age. Men – mostly men – traveled by steamship and rail. As for documenting said travels, that was the territory of men as well. Women were as unwelcome in the newsroom as they were in the pages those newsrooms produced, relegated to fashion and housekeeping and maybe the arts.
In to this landscape two bold women took it upon themselves to race one another around the world. One, an elegant and cultured arts writer – Elizabeth Bisland – the other, a scrappy go getter news hound in a checkered jacket – Nellie Bly.
“Eighty Days” is the story of their adventure not just to succeed as great travelers, but to become well known and respected journalists as well. Off they go, propelled by their own will, two very different women on mirrored journeys. Nellie Bly invented the trip; Elizabeth Bisland was convinced to participate. Ms. Bisland packed for propriety and style, Ms. Bly anticipated the carry-on only traveler by over a century by insisting on taking nothing more than she could manage herself, lest she be delayed while waiting for her luggage.
They were both determined, bold, articulate and so brave. Looking back through history only magnifies the unusual nature of their travels.
The book is a terrific read, full of compelling characters – newspaper men, suitors, handsome sailors, exotic foreigners, missed communication, hunger and frustration – in short, all the stuff that makes up a good travel story. And it’s impossible not to admire these exceptional women, racing against time and against the standards of the day. Matthew Goodmans brings a heroic Nellie Bly to life in the first pages and Elizabeth Bisland’s grace and unexpected nerve are made real next. It’s impossible to decide whom you want to win. And finally, when one of the women does win, it doesn’t matter – the adventure has been completely worth it.
Full disclosure: I know Jodi Ettenberg, author of “The Food Traveler’s Handbook.” I’ve eaten with Jodi and explored cities with her; she’s even inspected the spices in my Istanbul sublet apartment. Rather than let my friendship with her just guarantee a great review of her book, I will use it to vouch for the fact that she’s the perfect person to write a food guide for travelers: intrepid, resourceful, curious and (of course) always hungry.
On the road full time since 2008, Jodi has explored the world through food on her blogLegal Nomads. To keep costs down and her palate happy, Jodi strives to eat as locally as possible, chasing down the best street eats, cab driver hangouts and mom-and-pop restaurants. With this handbook, she shares her tips and resources for eating well, cheaply, and safely anywhere in the world. The guide is peppered (pardon the pun) with anecdotes from Jodi and other travelers (blogger Nicola Twilley recommends revisiting a market at different times of the day for different experiences), quirky facts (how about a 1742 recipe for ketchup that will keep for 20 years?!) and guidelines for local dining culture (you’ll keep getting your coffee refilled in Jordan until you learn the proper way to shake the cup and signal you’ve had enough). The book is infused with an enthusiasm and passion for food that’s contagious, and you may quickly find that planning a tour of the world through dumplings seems like a must.Jodi’s travel style may not be for everyone – some people crave familiarity and easy comfort, especially when traveling, and the prospect of eating a mysterious dish at a tiny food stall might be daunting. But for those looking to expand their horizons through food, connect with locals while traveling or just get a good meal without risking food poisoning, “The Food Traveler’s Handbook” is worth tucking into. Just be wary of reading it on an empty stomach, or you might find yourself, as I did, propelled out of bed at 8 a.m. with a strong craving for soup.
What is travel writing? Is the genre defined by its commitment to true-to-life recounting of the people, places and cultures we have experienced and lessons to be drawn from them? Or is travel writing something more malleable, simply a style of writing, true or not, that utilizes places and people as vehicles for a good story? The tension between these two competing definitions is at the heart of the new travel-themed anthology, “Better Than Fiction” by Lonely Planet.
“Better Than Fiction” is a collection of short travel-themed works by some of the world’s top literary fiction writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, Isabel Allende and Alexander McCall Smith. Edited by Gadling’s own Features Editor, Don George, each of the 32 included short stories plays with this notion of “truth in travel writing,” bringing to bear the storytelling skills of veteran fiction writers to the world of non-fiction travel writing. Each of the varied works relates a true-to-life story from the author’s personal wanderings around the globe, all told with the writers’ rich storytelling skills intact.
For anyone who considers themselves a voracious consumer of travel writing, “Better Than Fiction” will make for a refreshing and illuminating read. In each of the short stories there’s a richness of character and crispness to the dialogue that makes them feel like excerpted chapters from a novel. Considering the growing glut of “Top 10” and “destination tip” travel journalism that exists online, it’s easy to forget the best travel writing works because it’s good storytelling, not merely a laundry list of destination facts and to-do’s. Great travel storytelling, like the work showcased in “Better Than Fiction,” reminds us that ultimately discovering the truth about the places we visit involves more than just restating the facts.
Tijuana. Chernobyl. Sicily’s mafioso strongholds. Cairo’s Garbage City. The contaminated holy waters of Varanasi, India. Bosnia. Norway’s frozen tundra. These might not be the places you’d like to visit on your next holiday, but you will want to read about them in the latest edition of “The Best American Travel Writing(2012),“ which came out on October 3.
I’ve been an avid reader of this series, which is edited by Jason Wilson, the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, Obscure, and Overrated in Spirits,” since it debuted in 2000. Each year, there are stories that resonate with me and others that make me wonder how they qualified for such a prestigious anthology. Everyone has their own taste, and I for one, would have featured Jeffrey Tayler’s essay in “World Hum” about the travel memories conjured from an old address book, Gadling contributor David Farley’s fascinating account of his time in Minsk, or any number of other stories that appeared here on Gadling over a few of the selections in this year’s collection.And longtime readers of this series can’t help but notice how it seems to get slimmer and slimmer each year. This year’s book weighs in at just 222 pages, the leanest ever, while most of the previous editions of this series tipped the scales in the 300-400 page range. Bigger isn’t always better, and I don’t know if the trend is a sad commentary on the genre or if the publisher is simply trying to keep the price from rising above the current $14.95, but I hope the collection bulks back up in the future.
But BATW is always worth a read and this year’s edition, edited by the author, William T. Vollmann, has a host of standout pieces. The best travel stories are almost always about the kind of places mentioned in the outset of this post – unlikely tourist destinations – and BATW 2012 underscores that reality. Here’s a brief rundown of my favorite pieces from this year’s volume.
Tourists have been permitted to visit Northern Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone since January 2011, but I still think Henry Shukman is nuts. In the aftermath of the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, 2 towns and 91 villages around the site were evacuated and some 600,000 workers engaged in a massive cleanup operation that left many stricken with cancer and other ailments. According to Shukman, some 2.7 million people around the region were affected, but these days, the 1,660 square foot exclusion zone is a “big untamed forest” where wildlife is making a comeback.
Shukman’s research is impressive and he tells a great story, but the highlight for me was his willingness to drink samogon, a local moonshine produced in the exclusion zone. I wouldn’t have done it, but I certainly enjoyed living through his experience.
I’m not sure I’d want to spend a lot of time in the garbage dumps of Cairo, but Woods’ story about the city’s zabaleen- Coptic Christian recycling entrepreneurs was surprisingly fascinating. According to Woods, the zabaleen turn 80% of what they collect into postwaste, salable materials. Woods’ account of how the zabaleen have survived despite the entrance of multinational waste management firms is a must read.
I have deep roots in Sicily and have traveled all over the island, but I’d never heard of Addiopizzo, an organization that supports businesses which refused to pay protection money (pizzo), until I read Swick’s informative and beautifully written story. Swick takes us to Zen 2, Palermo’s worst slum and introduces us to brave Sicilians who are standing up the mafia, despite the risks.
What do you want from Tijuana my friends? You want to meet a girl? As soon as I read that lead, I knew I was going to like this story, and it was actually even better than I bargained for. Curtis’s account of his trip to the now gringo-free T.J. in search of an obscure sports museum is hilarious.
But it’s also full of perceptive observations about how the U.S. media portrays all of Mexico as a “bloody slaughterhouse” rather than dissecting the crime problem as the “complicated, regionalized” issue that it is. Americans have mostly abandoned T.J. but Curtis concludes that the violence that scared thrill seekers off may now be “mostly a creation of the American mind.”
India’s holy city of Varanasi, Pico Iyer tells us, is like a “five-thousand year old man who may have put on a fcuk shirt and acquired a Nokia but still takes the shirt off each morning to bathe in polluted waters and uses his new cell phone to download Vedic chants.” Well then, just how polluted are those holy waters?
They “flow past thirty sewers, with the result that the brownish stuff the devout are drinking and bathing in contains three thousand times the maximum level of fecal coliform bacteria considered safe by the World Health Organization.” Iyer, who lives a reclusive, unconnected lifestyle in Japan, knows how to tell a story and this is a characteristically rich, insightful piece from one of the world’s great travel writers.
Jenkins has made a career out of embarking on trips that sound dreadful but are great fun to read about, and this account of his 100-mile cross-country skiing adventure across Hardangervidda National Park in Norway with his brother is no exception. Jenkins is the rare writer with the fortitude to persevere against winds and cold that kept them to a pace that, at one point, brought them just 14 miles down the path after seven hours of grueling exertion. The story also contains some thought-provoking insights into the Amundsen-Scott race for the South Pole in 1911.