Katherine A Powers
THE WASHINGTON POST – It is said that there’s nothing like travel to make one contemplate the joys of staying home – only this summer we will probably be forced to enjoy this truth vicariously, if perhaps more boldly.
Freed from the constraints of distance, expense and even the space-time continuum we can head off to the the Gulf of Mexico and its 3,000 mile-long coast, a remote South Sea island, a 17th Century pirate ship and the battlefields of France.
In Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, Dervla Murphy describes the journey that brought her 3,000 miles from Dublin through France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally to India six months later.
Setting off in January 1963, she travelled on her bicycle with some relief from other conveyances – even if one resulted in three broken ribs. Her few belongings included a .25 automatic pistol, useful in an encounter with Serbian wolves and bicycle thieves. Despite those and a few other unpleasant events, Murphy was met with hospitality and kindness.
She wrote of the landscape, the people and her experiences in lovely, direct prose spiced with gentle humour – though her fond descriptions of Afghanistan as it was before the Soviet Union, the Taleban and the United States (US) performed their dirty work, makes for melancholy listening.
Emma Lowe, an Irish woman herself, narrated this enchanting travelogue in a calm, lissome voice, completely in tune with the author’s generous, unflappable disposition.
Despite its awful title, so suggestive of wearisome yucks, J Maarten Troost’s Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific is truly funny and engaging. In 1997, Troost accompanied his fiancee on a two-year NGO mission to Tarawa, an atoll in the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati.
On maps, he told us, it appears as “a kindly dot that still manages to greatly exaggerate its size”. Troost endured appalling heat, water shortages, erratic electricity, a monotonous diet of fish and countless feral dogs – all of which he came to accept.
Less tolerable were the loud, ever-present strains of Macarena and the detritus of modernity: non-biodegradable trash littering the shore and the reef.
Troost’s darkly comic sensibility is nicely served by Simon Vance’s wry, understated delivery which captures the author’s flair for self-deprecation.
Fear of pestilence aboard ship cannot curb our appetite for tales of the sea. Steven Johnson’s Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt nicely fills that bill. Henry Every was first mate of the 40-gun frigate Charles II stuck in a Spanish port.
In May 1694, after five months without pay, Every led a group of disgruntled men in mutiny, renamed the ship Fancy and set off to seek his fortune as a pirate.
Captain and crew operated under unusually egalitarian rules and hit the jackpot in 1695 when they captured an Indian treasure ship bearing members of the Mughal imperial court returning from Mecca. The result was a diplomatic crisis, a global manhunt and the involvement of the East India Company, which thereby tightened its hold over the Indian subcontinent. Jason Culp, who has a warm matte finish to his voice, narrates this vivid, informative history magnificently, distinguishing quotation from text unobtrusively and pacing the narrative with grace throughout.
Jack E Davis’ The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for history, is an astonishing, wide-ranging account of the Gulf of Mexico.
Starting with its formation 150 million years ago, Davis examines the part this body of water has played in both natural and human history from its pre-Columbian inhabitants, the Calusa people, through the mishaps of the predatory, gold-hungry conquistadors, to the competition among the Spanish, French and English to reign over it, on to the mostly dire present day.
Along the way he explores such momentous subjects as the gulf’s role in creating the Gulf Stream and its part in giving rise to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. He describes the deeds and influence of a great multiplicity of characters: Winslow Homer, anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing and Ernest Hemingway among them, as well as a variety of villains: real estate developers, reckless oil producers, industrial fishing operators and the Army Corps of Engineers.
This is a story of five centuries of exploitation and environmental devastation, but it is also a glorious account of nature, her processes, variety and riches. Tom Perkins reads this enormous work at an easy pace, his voice clear, engaged and authoritative.
Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is the sort of book that adults can listen to as happily as the children for whom it was written. It is the story of Joey, a half-thoroughbred from Devon whose mother was an Irish draft horse. Joey told his own story, narrated superbly here by John Keating in a medley of accents appropriate to the young horse’s travels.
Bought at six months by a farmer, he is trained to plow by the farmer’s son, Albert, but is sold off to the army with war’s outbreak in 1914. He pulls ambulances and carts for the English, and later, with the vicissitudes of battle, for the Germans – before ending up injured and alone in no man’s land between trenches.
Meanwhile, Albert, of recruitment age at last, joins the army, intent on finding his beloved horse. More I will not say except that this is a fine, moving story beautifully rendered and will bring light into these difficult times.