Book Review: The Island of Lost Maps: a true story of cartographic Crime (by Miles Harvey)

Miles Harvey takes us on a journey where maps and travel, character and obsession, and crime come together and where the “strange borderland between inner life and outer experience, dreams and memory, body and soul” is explored. Map aficionados are bound to love The Island of Maps. Readers who are also writers will want to explore how Harvey reveals the shadowy Gilbert Bland and how it leads Harvey to character insights of himself.

Miles Harvey—who tired of reading other people’s escapades in his role as book-reviewer and columnist for Outside magazine—began to crave an adventure of his own:

Or maybe adventure isn’t quite the word. It was not that I had any particular desire to do something death-defying; what I wanted was a quest, a goal, a riddle to solve, a destination.

Harvey found his quest in crime, in his search to understand Gilbert Bland’s map thefts and, as it turns out, obsession. Along the way, we discover the fascinating world of old maps and cartographic traders. And we discover something of the character of both Bland and Harvey. We also discover the magic that is old maps.

Throughout the centuries people have viewed maps not just as useful navigational tools but as enchanted objects…. Columbus, himself, for instance, seemed to think maps were endowed with a force that transcended mere matters of geography. They stoked his imagination, inspired the flights of fancy that made his great discovery possible. The sixteenth-century chronicler Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote that when Columbus gained access to a map the Florentine scientist Paolo del Pozzo Toscanelli it “set [his] mind ablaze.”

And who among us hasn’t dreamed of maps: maps where dragons hover beyond the known edge of land; treasure maps promising trunks brimming with pearls and gold; maps to hidden, idyllic places (think about Lost Horizon’s Shangri La)? Harvey notes that maps can cast powerful spells on our imagination:

Throughout the centuries people have viewed maps not just as useful navigational tools but as enchanted objects—what [Joseph] Campbell called ‘amulets’ and [Werner]Muensterberger described as ‘power-imbued fetish[es].”

Harvey seeks Bland, the shadowy man of maps, hoping to penetrate his character—to understand why and how he became the most famous of map thieves. He concurs with Campbell, who he quotes:

As Freud has shown, blunders are not the merest chance. They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts. They are ripples n the surface of life, produced by unsuspected springs. And these may be very deep—as deep as the soul itself. The blunder may amount to the opening of a destiny.

You can see how circuitous Harvey’s journey has become.

Along with Bland, Harvey explores the worlds of mythology and literature. Among the authors in his voluminous research is Aldous Huxley who wrote about what lurks in “‘the antipodes of the mind.’” With this, Harvey

…sensed that I was on a collision course with one of those ‘strange psychological creatures leading an autonomous existence according to the law of their own being.’ It was one discovery, I feared, that would bring no joy at all.

During his search he enters a world he didn’t know existed, a world of persons obsessed. His pursuit of a story about a series of rare-map thefts, and for insight into the character of the thief, eventually twists inward. He comes to the realization that…

We rarely reach our destinations, at least not the ones we set out to find. More often, we arrive one day at a place unfamiliar and unexpected, where all roads suddenly seem to converge and something—the ineffable smell of fate or the stench of defeat or (likeliest of all) sheer exhaustion—tells us the journey is over. In my case it was the knowledge that I had wandered too far. We do not take trips so much as they take us….

Harvey was four years researching and writing The Island of Lost Maps. Along the way, he discovered some truisms about the “strange borderland between inner life and outer experience, dreams and memory, body and soul.” For these, you will want to read the epilogue.

For reading as writers, pay particular attention as to how Miles Harvey’s search to understand Gilbert Bland’s character leads to insight about the author’s own. Besides character, if you are writing about obsession, there’s much to learn by being attentive as to how Harvey layers his story to reveal many facets of this kind of passion.

45 The Island of Lost Maps

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime

Been traveling: Cuba’s Oriente

Journal map sketch-1 LR
One of my sketches showing the area of my recent visit where many adventures unfolded.

 

I’ve just returned from nearly a month’s stay in the eastern tip of Cuba where I explored nature, history, the unique Baracoa style of art and its many studios, and so much more. It was my third trip to the area and each visit opens doors to new experiences and insights.

Cuba’s eastern tip, known as Oriente, offers

  • one of the few rain forests in North America (although most of us think of Cuba as Caribbean, and it is that too) where Hurricane Matthew left a path of destruction but didn’t dispel the indomitable spirit of the people;
  • the tallest waterfall in the Caribbean (the 20th tallest in the world) and many lesser ones with their own special beauty;
  • a semi-desert in the region of Maisi (say My-see) and the Terraces that step up from the lowlands to the sea with breath-taking twists and views (and for geography buffs, the Maisi lighthouse on the Windward Channel is only 80 kilometres from Haiti);
  • the Farola Highway, which creates passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, is known as an engineering marvel, not to mention an adventurous ride (and on the south shore where I set off on foot to the site of poet-revolutionary José Marti’s famous landing in 1895, which set off a revolution that aimed to free Cuba of Spain’s rule);
  • Baracoa — a provincial city with a two-kilometre-plus-long malacon, that brims with art galleries, parks, and the friendliest people you will ever meet. It’s the biggest city in the area and the starting point for numerous day-trips to places like Rio Yumuri, Rio Toa, Rio Miel, each providing its own unique experience and ambience — and Alejandro Humboldt Nation Park, a United Nations designated site to touch on only a few places to enjoy a boat ride or to hike.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting photos and stories; click below to follow my many adventures in one of the most varied and beautiful landscapes in the world (and this is not hyperbole).

 

The Last Journey (East of the Mountains by David Guterson)

Underfoot, a fine sand shifted and confounded his progress. A strange apprehension haunted his limbs. He changed his direction twice, three times. Low, barren mountains appeared on the horizon. A lunar barrenness, the topography of dreams, stones strewn artfully down an arroyo as if laid by a Japanese gardener, a sinuous bend in the dry bed of stones, one, stone, two, a stone carved in runes… .

Like David Guterson’s award-winning Snow Falling on Cedars, East of the Mountains, is dense with description that uses all of the senses to draw us into place and experience. Besides the extraordinary detail, the end-papers provide a map of the mountain journey to help us traverse the route taken. East of the Mountains is an Odyssey, except we cross mountains rather than sea.

In Snow, Guterson explores relationships between Japanese Americans and their Caucasian neighbours along the northwest coast of the U.S. during WWII. East of the Mountains moves inland but remains true to place, although in this book the relationships involve Mexican migrant farm labourers. Here, the major conflict is within his protagonist Dr. Ben Givens and between Givens and the orchardists and other residents of the area. But East of the Mountains is essentially a character study that reveals one man’s journey toward death and acceptance.

The story is raw with pain: of bereavements; of terminal cancer and dying; a particular gun and the hunting of small birds (with two Brittany spaniels); and Italy during WWII. Balancing the emotions these themes elicit are tranquil orchard scenes from Givens’ youth; love and sensuously drawn passion; and his openness to life’s surprises.

The doctor plans suicide to protect himself from the pain he knows lies ahead and to protect his family from witnessing it. He goes off toward his childhood home among orchards to see it one more time. He hasn’t reached it in this scene where he’s arrived at a rough town. He feels like “a transient pauper, a graybeard drifter, a derelict or vagrant.” He’s on a quest, which he’s beginning to recognize:

Sitting there with his jug in his lap he thought of those Hindu wanderers he’s seen on a public television documentary, mendicants abroad with begging bowls, dressed in rags and clutching staffs, divested of all other property, seeking to meet the world unencumbered, aspiring, always, toward—what did they call it?—atman, the self, God. 

Soon, Givens will wrangle a ride with a trucker. As they share their stories, he comes to another kind of realization:

Ben’s heart recoiled. The lean, spare life of the wanderer, which had held some attraction an hour before, held no attraction now.… He tried to embrace some other end than the one he’d chosen for himself—he thought of dying in a hospital room, imagined languishing in one. He fell silent and stared out the window. There were no good answers to important questions. He tried to picture the shape of Stu Robinson’s [the trucker’s] final days, but he couldn’t even begin.

Throughout, Ben Givens is pulled by his moral centre. Haunted by memories and a promise, he seeks—what? answers to the big unanswerable questions, but he tries. He becomes caught up in others’ lives and surmounts his pain (both the memories and the physical, which run a parallel course).

Inevitably, there was no other subject, and he forced himself to muse on death as though it were simply a form of sleep, warm and full of dreams.

His musing finally gave way to sleep, and Ben dreamed he was traveling in the desert. On a journey whose purpose he couldn’t guess.

The inevitability of death and the bigger questions of meaning and memory, and of promises, thread through East of the Mountains. At times, I thought the detail would overwhelm me, but I’m very glad I read to the end in order to experience the epiphanies of personal discovery. Guterson is a writer who isn’t afraid to probe the big questions, and I’m glad I journeyed through waste- and lush lands sharing the loves and fears and coming to acceptance of Ben Givens.

33 East of the Mountains

Available through your local bookstore or online: East of the Mountains

Journeys: a Writer’s (incomplete) Oeuvre (Prose: One Room in a Castle 1995; The Lizard Cage 2005; Burmese Lessons 2009; The Change Room 2017. Poetry: The Border Surrounds Us 2000; and Grace & Poison 1990 by Karen Connelly)

I know this. Our lives begin and end with journeys made alone.
“The Lid Over Europe” (100-101), One Room in a Castle

Karen Connelly makes many journeys. Travel introduces us to strangers and both her poems and prose reveal ways of understanding the other and experiencing ourselves.

In her 2017 novel, The Change Room, she notes two paths toward knowing: listening and storytelling. “Listening,” she writes, “was a way of pulling a stranger toward you without touching.” And so is storytelling: Shar or Shaharzad or Sheherazade – the great storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights – is the siren of enticement in The Change Room and the sensual “amazon” of the story. Listening and storytelling, strangers and borders, are common themes in Connelly’s oeuvre.

Writers’ recurrent themes interest me. I like their unfolding like fans, and their closing tight. I like the way they spread across continents and genres – always surprising, maturing, shifting but remaining, in important ways, the same. In Karen Connelly’s writing, the travellers and lovers among us glimpse ways of knowing ourselves and the other. This holds true from her earliest stories to the most recent novel.

In Connelly’s stories, strangers often become intimate in a variety of ways, sensuality being one. In “Esmeralda, a story” (One Room in a Castle 36-67), readers glimpse insights into what has matured into the novel The Change Room.

From Castle: “Our greatest similarity was our love of water, the freedom of motion it creates. ‘It’s flying,’ Esmé said. ‘It’s the closest we’ll come to being free of our bodies.’ We began to meet in the change-room before swimming….” Esmé swims; she is also a musician. Music, like water, is freeing and sensuous: “She closed her eyes, bent herself over the piano, and laid her hands on its black surface…. Then I leaned forward and kissed her eyelids.” These themes sown in Castle dominate in Room.

In The Change Room, the writing is more complex, layered and mature, but in the early work, we glimpsed seeds that later became mature fruit. (For more on recurring themes of individual writers, please also see my review of Bicycle Thieves by Mary di Michele.)

Connelly writes across genres, which leads me to think about truth in nonfiction and fiction. One Room in a Castle, for example, was published as nonfiction – purportedly as correspondence and travel. The Change Room – 22 years later — as fiction. It begins with an Emily Dickinson quote:

“Ourself, behind ourself, concealed,
should startle most.”

And we are left wondering about the difference between reality and imagination – a conundrum for writers and readers. Connelly does provide hints. For example, in “Extrah-dinary” (Castle 33-35) she writes “It is difficult to get to the truth of one’s self; how much more difficult to create an imaginary world and reveal its truth.” Still…. (For more on this topic of fact and truth, please see my review of Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel.)

I was introduced to Connelly’s writing through a book club reading of her mid-1990s memoir, Burmese Lessons, which still pops into consciousness despite the time lapse. But it’s the poetry collection, The Border Surrounds Us, which remains my favourite – especially section II – which I’ve read over-and-over again.  It is only recently that I discovered Grace & Poison, a compilation of Connelly’s first two poetry books. Even in 1990 her themes were clear and her voice strong. From that collection, a prose poem – “A Story for Suradev, In Bangkok” – stands out. In it we find her mature themes of intimacy/compassion, strangers/self. The closeness of her observations stand stark.

Her passion for travel and imagining the experiences of those she meets into story is continuous. Perhaps Connelly’s most intense book is The Lizard Cage, published in 2005, which drew me back to Burmese Lessons. Burmese Lessons is essentially a love story/a political story. The Lizard Cage is darker, taking readers inside a Burmese prison and into the isolation of an ancient man and a small boy, cruelty beyond comprehension, love, and survival. Somehow Connelly manages to maintain dignity, love, compassion, and beauty.

Karen Connelly began her writing career with the idea of borders, journeys from the known into the unknown: “Our lives begin and end with journeys made alone,” she wrote in her early twenties. In between life’s bookends, many other journeys are made and borders crossed: some geographic and cultural; some social and political; most intimate and sensual. They are all crossed personally, alone, and usually with risk of one sort or another. The intimacy with which she crosses borders can challenge us; she touches the heart, the soul, and the body.

22 Connelly Bks LR (1 of 1)

Various publishers have put Karen Connelly’s writing into print. Search her name or the name of one of her books and that will take you to a source. Most are available through your local bookstore or online.

Travel Madness (Congo Journey by Redmond O’Hanlon)

“The Western Bantu word for hero comes from the verb meaning to enter oblivion, to be lost, to become a spirit.”

If these are the terms and conditions for becoming a hero, then Redmond O’Hanlon is a hero: he enters oblivion; he becomes lost; and enters dark places of the spirit. O’Hanlon is a traveller, a student of natural history, and a serious risk-taker. In Congo Journey, O’Hanlon searches for a mythical dinosaur – Mokélé-mbembé – that is believed to live in Lake Télé deep in the equatorial swamps and forests of the northern Congo.

The story opens with a visit to a féticheuse who tosses a handful of cowrie shells and forewarns O’Hanlon’s traveling companion – American university professor Lary Shaffer – that he will die if he remains in the Congo for a day more than two months. To O’Hanlon she says, “You don’t speak your desires. You think them.”  It seems observation, complaint, and foretelling. The mood and tone are set for increasingly surreal and nightmarish experiences. At times, I wondered if the book actually relates a traveler’s tale or if it is pure fiction.

O’Hanlon has credentials: as a travel writer and as a naturalist. He did a doctorate at Oxford on Conrad and Darwin, and it is clear that in key ways he’s caught in the era of British exploration. The Guardian calls O’Hanlon a “legendary bonhomie.” He is a throwback, entering the unknown – not as an observer – but as a full participant, an informed participant. The party paddles through rivers, trudges along barely discernable pathways, and take refuge in villages right out of a bygone era. Scattered among these harrowing experiences are fascinating details about the birds that enamour him as:

I was woken at dawn by a loud and discordant chorus of alarm, the ka-ka-ka of a flock of Plumed guineafowl disturbed at their scratching through the leaf-litter, somewhere off to the left. You’re ancient birds, I thought, and you sound like it, you cackling old aunts in a tizzy, you fossils, you date from forty-five million years ago.

One book close by in his pocket is Birds of Tropical West Africa that we learn grows mouldy and mottled (but O’Hanlon provides an extensive bibliography, more than seven pages long.)

Redmond O’Hanlon made an extraordinary journey that took him to his destination. It simultaneously carried him deep within himself, testing him on the deepest levels. All this is shared with bluntness and honesty, blindness and seer-like vision. Readers gain more than glimpses into a man’s determination, more than knowledge about the natural history of the Congo, and more than a superficial snapshot of the people who inhabit the swamps, jungles, and villages. (Speaking of snapshots, Congo Journey includes a section of photographs.)

Highly recommended…especially for armchair travelers who want more than the common gloss of travel articles, and for those dreaming of such an adventure, Congo Journey will inform and also make you stop and think.

20 Congo Journey

Available through your local bookstore or online: Congo Journey

Review: Lighten Up…& Not Just Your Suitcase (Here & There by A. A. Gill)

Many travel writing collections are “precious,” but not Here & There by A. A. Gill.  He writes with acerbic wit and irreverence. At the same time, he manages to share his fascination with people and places.

Gill, writing in “Spice of life” for example, acknowledges the poverty of Calcutta (he doesn’t use the city’s newer name, Mumbai) but raves about India’s post-Mogul culture and “an embarrassment of world-class universities.” Then, he goes on to note that “Calcutta was invented by the English on the banks of the Hooghly, the last stretch of the Ganges. It was a stupid place to build a city, but that never stopped the English.” After a number of suggestions to experience during your visit, he turns the tables: “I loved Calcutta because it’s a city on the way down…Cities that have been something and seen stuff have stories to tell. Places can be trippers or tourists or, like Calcutta, they can be travellers.” What a recommendation!

In an article called “Dawn of a new era,” Gill twigged memories from my Kenya-Tanzania trip, and he made me want to visit South Africa. He puzzles out how and why South Africa managed truth and reconciliation and elections, while avoiding civil war. Quirky, as always, Gill begins with a tokoloshe, which is a “Zulu demon, a nightstalker, a sprite goblin…a real five-star terror. He describes Jo’burg before and after apartheid. Gill also highlights a few things not to be missed: “Not just the apartheid museum,” (which he claims to be “the most thoughtful and emotional couple of hours I’ve spent in a museum for years”) but “the townships and the markets and cafés, the music and jacarandas, and the high, dry veldt, but you should go because this is the luckiest place in the unluckiest continent.” After musing about the cause of such luck, Gill concludes:

Personally, I think it was the tokoloshe that made South Africa hold back, divert the consequences of the past. South Africans lay awake in the hot night and heard the panting and the muffled sharpening of little goblin pangas and knew what the fears made flesh would bring. The tokoloshe still lurks under the bed, but the longer this normalcy goes on, the smaller the fears that feed him.

From Iceland to Vietnam, from the U.S. to Europe (East and West), Gill covers the map offering surprise discoveries and often wonky bits of information gleaned from the streets.

Here & There is a collection of 58 brief articles from all over the map, plus two introductory pieces. Without exception, the travel writing is sharp and insightful, written with empathy and humour, and it is thought-provoking. Gill also raises questions about traveling and travellers, and about travel writing. He also affirms something I believe (don’t we love when that happens?):

One of the things that fascinates me about travelling is how places make people. The received travel writing wisdom is always the other way round: it’s people who make places….But over and over I’m aware that the characteristics and beliefs of nations seem to flow from the land, seep up from the earth.

 Gill explains a bit about the norms of the travel industry, suggesting how and why the PR people are able to pique our interest and loosen the savings nested away during our work-a-day lives. About “Why go?” he shares a few ideas while debunking the notion that travels “broadens the mind” and emphatically that “the dumbest reasons for travel, the most thoughtless expectation of a holiday is to relax.”  He claims, “Travelling to do nothing is the great holiday oxymoron….” He’s less clear about the positive outcome, except it isn’t to know thyself (to borrow the cliché). It is about the people you meet and experiencing the places out of which they’ve grown. I think he’s urging us to travel curiously. About travel writing, Gill says, “The pleasure of the craft of journalism is that you start to work for money, but end up working with friends, and collaborating….” It is about the people and about experience (again).

My bookshelf should be drooping, given the weight of the travel books stacked on it. Here & There differs from all of them.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Here & There

 

Review (& Controversy): Into Northern Lake Country (The Last Woman by John Bemrose)

“I’ve come to think of her as a sort of Mother Earth figure. You know, Lilith, Eve, the first woman –.”
“I don’t know,” Richard says….”Looks more to me like the last woman.”

The Last Woman by John Bemrose is an elegy for the ending of love; for a forest, clear-cut landscape; for simple equity for the lives of people – in this case Ojibway – who are caught in the ugly transition from “what was” to “what is.” On one level, The Last Woman is the story of a love triangle, simple and straightforward. On another, it is the story of a clash of cultures, each trying to do things for the right reasons and each totally misinterpreting motives. It is about politics where truth and justice don’t matter. It is about a land claim, secrets, ambitions and dreams, art and logic, and the totally different way that indigenous people think about and live on the land. In short, Bemrose has written a complex story, weaving the personal angst of his characters into a web that includes greed along with cultural and environmental destruction. Bemrose’s writing is measured; he doesn’t rant, although readers will see where his sympathies lie.

Over the years, I’ve bought books by the few Indians (First Nations in Canada) who managed to get published. I think that Halfbreed by Maria Campbell was among the first, along with books by N. Scott Momaday. Later, books by Louise Erdrich made their way to my shelf and some by Thomas King, plus harder to read books like for Joshua by Richard Wagamese, poets like Lee Maracle and gritty Métis poet Katherena Vermette. I own Anne Cameron’s Daughters of Copperfield, a book that generated controversy in the early 1980s (that continues to rage) about who has the right to the traditional stories, to their telling. Of course, I have the well-packaged and easy-to-embrace collections of quotes from the speeches of elders, such as Touch the Earth. And yes, academic and anthropological work sits there too.

More recently, publishing has opened to First Nations people in a way that seemed previously closed, and there’s new controversy on the topic of who speaks for whom. The editor of Write: The Magazine of the Writers’ Union of Canada resigned over his editorial in the Spring 2017 issue. He writes: “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.” I suspect that farther down in the editorial his admonition to “Set your sights on the big goal: Win the Appropriation Prize” is what skewered him. I read it as inappropriate, as did many others – not political correctness, but a “middle-finger salute.”  Indigenous people in Canada (likely everywhere) are capable of speaking for themselves. They don’t need interpreters. But there is a blurry line, although both history and today’s reality badly need the First Nations’ perspective. So, back to The First Woman….

Bemrose walks a fine and informed line as he writes about the land claim and as he develops the character of Billy, of Billy’s loss over his cultural heritage, his land, and the trees gone to clear-cutting. He writes with sensitivity about the childhood attraction and, later, physical love that Billy and Anne shared, as he does with the friendship that once existed between Billy and Anne’s husband Richard.

I wonder what critics today would think about Martin, my character in Calla & Édourd. Martin is a fiction, who grew out of my experience living in Winnipeg. My empathy grew out of my grandmother’s reluctance to talk and her mother’s stories. Yet, now I wonder if readers would feel a line has been crossed. But, once more, back to the novel….

The excerpt that leads into this review fixes our thoughts on a painting and on environmental destruction and provides the title for Bemrose’s novel. But the story is about more than that, it digs and niggles down into a core fault-line. I would love to learn what readers – who have read the novel (and maybe mine) – think.

09 The Last Woman

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Last Woman