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06 April 2010

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Hmm, I think the book is a travel book, but one that is more historically focused that most. He spends all that time doing the traveling himself and the travel narrative is a large part of the story. I guess you could say he is studying history via travel, but it feels like a travel book.

My favorite section was the Niue/Savage Island tale. It was kooky and it had its own internal narrative drive. I liked the idea of being stuck on the island with almost nothing to do. I wouldn't say I disliked it, but I thought the Alaska section wasn't quite as engaging as the rest, if only because we have seen so much of it on tv with the fishing shows.

As for describing him, I think he did do a good job of giving you a sense of him, although I think he was more focused on what people thought of him today than in who he really was.

It felt pretty typical compared to the other travelogues I've read. So I think it fits into the travel genre pretty easily. :)

My favourite bit was when he was in Alaska. He brought it to life really well. But overall, I feel like the book could have done with a good editor. I can't say I was ever that excited to pick the book back up. Tighter writing might have helped that.

I thought Horwitz was pretty sympathetic to Cook, although at least he didn't completely whitewash the unsavoury aspects of European explorers. I didn't know anything about Captain Cook before I read this though, so I have no comparison re: his portrayal!

1. I think I would classify the book as “history” over “travel”. And as Marmota pointed out yesterday, “Blue Latitudes touches on other subjects, such as anthropology. If I could make up a genre, I would call it “investigative history” since the book combines both historical research and a real life experience of the repercussions of the historical events.

2. Well, he had me at the Star Trek reference in the prologue. I agree with Tripp, I most enjoyed his visit to the Savage Island, or Niue, but mostly because I can totally see myself (after winning the lottery) living there in a small house on the beach with a pile of books and nothing to do but read them. I guess I also enjoyed that area/segment, because I had never heard of it, whereas I had at the very least been geographically aware of all the other places he visited. I would not say there was any segment that I least enjoyed. I liked how he balanced every segment with a the facts of Cook’s voyage and then his own experiences.

3. Yes, I think he did. Horwitz made a real effort to encompass both the negative and the positive and when he conjectured as to Cook’s motives, he made it clear that it was his opinion and not based on fact. I particularly liked his musings on what drove a man like Cook to undertake such a journey, not once, not twice, but three times. Bryson touched on this a little as well, when he wrote about the explorers in Australia who tackled the outback again and again.

P.S. Did anyone hope that Rodger would enter AA at the books conclusion? Is it just my Methodist upbringing that makes me feel that way? I am not a tea-toller, but I was really worried that Rodger would die chocking on his own vomit or something.

I think there is a historical travelogue genre -- this, Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation and a couple others I can't think of off the top of my head. Although maybe it's better put as traveling history.

I read this book shortly after it came out so it's been a few years but I think Horwitz did a good job -- although not as good as his previous book, Confederates in the Attic, which is in my nonfiction Top Ten.

Tripp, Eva,
It's so funny, and I know this is a travel menage, but all along I've been thinking of Horwitz's book as what I call "immersion history" (Ruthiella, I like "investigative history" too). Mark Honigsbaum writes books like this too, where he undertakes journeys in historical footsteps, but to me these books read more like history with a bit of travel thrown in. So it's interesting to hear other opinions!

Along with Ruthiella, Tripp, I'm fascinated that the Savage Island part was a favorite. I read this book a week ago and I can barely remember that part! (That's where the plane only came in and out once a week, right?) I do remember thinking that would be a nightmare--I don't mind solitude and god knows I'd love a week with nothing to do with read, but stuck on an island in hot weather? With bugs? God help us. I want an isolated week in a suite at the Plaza Hotel in NYC, where I can leave periodically and be alone in the middle of millions of people. In keeping with my bias toward cold weather, I much preferred the Alaska and GB bits--I liked the look at Cook's early life as well. The part I liked least was the Tahiti bit, but I'm always annoyed by the portrayal of Tahiti in books like this. It's always like, wow, look, sensual women. What a wild culture. Do these writers need to get out more? They've never seen sensual women before?

Ruthiella-
what was the Star Trek reference? Now I'll have to look it up. And, re: Roger, I would guess that Horwitz was indulging in a bit of writerly exaggeration when it came to his traveling companion (which, frankly, I appreciated; Roger would make me nutty as an actual traveling companion, but I must admit I was bored by large parts of this narrative and enjoyed the Roger breaks).

Eva--
AMEN to the editorial comment. You know what I'm going to say: the book is TOO LONG. Did I need to hear every travel detail about every single location? Not really. I think Horwitz is another NF author who has done sufficiently well that publishers are a little afraid to edit him, which is really a shame. (I think, anyway.)

I like the term "immersion history".

In the prologue, Horwitz compares the 5 year voyage of Captain James Kirk "to seek out strange new worlds and boldly go where no man has gone before" to Captain James Cook's voyages. It was a small reference, but as a Star Trek fan, it caught my eye.

If Horwitz had compared Cook to Jane Austen, you would have remembered. Ha ha.

"I think there is a historical travelogue genre -- this, Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation and a couple others I can't think of off the top of my head. Although maybe it's better put as traveling history."

Yes - I think I'd put this book in this category. W. Hodding Carter has a few of these two - in Westward Whoa, he and a friend redo the Lewis and Clark trail and I think he has another one where he voyages in a Viking ship. I like this genre, but I like Vowell and Carter much better than Horowitz (although I'm not all the way through it yet).

Actually, maybe because I'm such a fan of that genre, I most enjoyed the very first part where he's in the replica of the Endeavor. It's the sort of funny, crazy personal NF I like. I've enjoyed the rest of the book (I'm about halfway through) but that was my favorite.

He was fair to Cook - perhaps a bit too positive, but I think he did a good job of explaining his enthusiasm for Cook without whitewashing the problematic aspects.

Good choice!

Regarding editing, I am trying to remember if Confederates in the Attic (like Nan, one of my all time favorites) had the same level of bloat. I wonder if the success of that book let him get away with it.

This just in:
"Anger rose in Australia on Tuesday, including some blunt language from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, over the off-course Chinese coal freighter that beached on the Great Barrier Reef last weekend and threatens to befoul its pristine corals with leaking fuel oil." New York Times front page story. I bet Cook could commiserate . . .

I still have a few chapters to go, so I'm looking forward to Alaska and Cook's death in Hawaii (that's got to be covered in detail, right?) tonight.

I would put this in history of exploration, but historical travel also works for me. It reminds me a bit of Off the Road, by Jack Hitt, which is about him hiking the pilgrimage route from France to Santiago de Campostela in Spain.

So far, I've enjoyed the sections on New Zealand and Tonga the most. I was really struck by how the native populations in the two countries were still (justifiably) angry about what had been done to them, and were trying to reclaim their histories. And the red banana hunt on Savage Island was pretty interesting, if a little...meandering.

Also, the Aussie reenactment of Cook's landing was a nice laugh, at just the right spot. I've always wondered just how exaggerated reports of Aussie drunkenness and debauchery really are, but that was pretty funny.

In terms of describing Cook, I think he did a pretty good job of investigating who Cook was. I feel like I have a fairly reliable picture of just how much Cook was able to accomplish. Just look at how far he rose: from a peasant, a laborer's son, to a celebrated captain in the King's navy. That's a bit like going from ghetto to CEO today--a massively difficult and almost fantastic accomplishment.

I also think Horwitz did an extremely good job of showing just how elusive Cook is, how he's been forgotten by most people, and reviled by many of those who do remember him. I was surprised he didn't try to white wash the destructive aspects of Cook's legacy, but still managed to express how much he admired what he did accomplish (at least in what I've read so far; the ending may betray that summary, but I hope not).

Also, Eva and CR? Yeah. Yeah, I would have REALLY appreciated a good editor taking a whack at this one. It wasn't quite a bloated carcass of Moby-Dick proportions, but it really needed a trim. I skimmed some of the more descriptive parts, because if you've toured one tropical island on which nothing much happens, you've toured them all.

Laura--I saw that, too, and thought the same thing!

Although Cook didn't have radar (sonar?), and he had to map the things himself, so maybe he'd be "blunt," too.

Sorry to be late... Cable went out last night.

I think the genre question has been covered. I liked all of the discovery portions best. I really liked the interview with the king of Tonga. Alaska kind of depressed me, and I don't know why. Maybe because of the hints of Cook's demise and personality changes?

I don't know that anyone can know the "Real" young Cook, because there is so little left, but with his journals (edited or not... I am also sceptical that he wrote nothing for a few weeks before his death) I felt that Horwitz gave a fair and balanced view of Cook, although more sympathetic than some others might have done.

Nan,
I too liked "Confederates in the Attic," but if memory serves, I thought that one was a bit too long too. Maybe I just need a longer attention span!

And yes, the Vowell books are a great example of immersion and travel history. (With a good dose of her humor thrown in!)

Ruthiella,
No kidding--I would have been quoting the Jane Austen references! I did think the Star Trek quote had something to do with boldly going where no one had gone before (he worked it into the title too), but that's not the sort of thing that would stand out to me. Typically I don't understand the "exploration" mindset--I only want to go someplace when it's already been discovered and there's a nice hotel there. This sailing around in uncharted waters business would NOT be for me. For that, I have to give Cook points for sheer chutzpah.

Laura,
I agree these books were a good choice--they were chosen by you all! I hesitated a bit on the Horwitz because I'd tried to read his "Voyage Long and Strange" and got bogged down, but I'm really glad we gave the Cook book a whack here.

I'm so glad you liked his experiences on the "mock" Endeavor--I must say that was probably my least favorite part of the book, but I'm not a big one for adventure reading or reading about others who put themselves in hard-work situations. I would never sign up for a "vacation" that involved seasickness, constant work, and sleep deprivation!

Laura, Rachael,
Well, I can see why the Australian politician would need to be a bit "blunt," good Lord, it won't be good for anyone if something happens to the Barrier Reef. Glad everyone's constant need for oil continues to threaten everything beautiful in the world. Thanks for the news tip; I'll have to go check it out.

Rachael,
Thanks for bringing out several excellent points. I agree with you that this was also an "exploration" book, which, for reasons previously stated, is probably why I didn't love it. (As a devoted homebody, I have never understood explorers OR pioneers, really.) I too liked the NZ and the Tonga bits, and actually a lot of the Hawaii stories surprised me too (about anger toward Cook). I can honestly say I really had no idea who the man was before reading the Horwitz, and I too think he did a good job of trying to understand the man in the context of the times. I think I almost felt closest to him when he started getting old and cranky (and sailing in the Bering Sea without any modern instruments will do that to you, cripes), although that probably led to later cruelties and problems with various island natives. I thought it was such a shame, because he seemed throughout not to be the worst guy, or really into the discovery of these places for his own personal gain (although his backers probably were). All very interesting. I'm liking this book more as we discuss it.

Marmota,
Sorry about the cable--every morning when my old laptop keeps working I say a quick prayer of thanks. Come on laptop, come on wireless, you can all keep working--please?

Marmota,
I'm interested that "sympathetic" keeps popping up in everyone's reviews of Horwitz's handling of Cook. It shows how much I have internalized the belief that problems came more from systemized and far-reaching greed than could be embodied in one person--throughout I thought of Cook as just some working stiff employed by governments to seek out new resources to exploit. So to portray him with sympathy seemed natural to me (although in Alaska and later, as you point out, it was less easy to be sympathetic). Interesting. I don't know that I'll read more about Cook, but I probably should. Wonder what other less sympathetic portraits of him might be available.

Do you think someone destroyed whatever writing Cook may have done in the last few weeks, or what are you skeptical about?

I like the phrase 'travelling history'! I suppose because I've read other books that mix travel w/ historical stuff (Travels With a Tangerine comes to mind), I just assumed that that was part of the travel genre (which I really only started reading last year). I can't imagine a travel book without history in it...there'd be no context for the travels! (Of course, I'm also one of those people who prefers nerdy vacations with lots of 'historical walking tours' and museums and ruins.)

CR,
Horwitz mentions that parts of the journal that were unfavorable to the Navy administration had been cleaned up before publication in Britain. He also writes that it's unusual that Cook, who wrote regularly, if sometimes briefly, in his journal would have let weeks pass without some entry. Perhaps Cook was starting to lose it and the journal indicated that, or perhaps Cook wrote thing unfavorable about whoever took over after him? Or perhaps he just stopped writing. Who knows?

Eva,
I can't say I'd ever thought of travel books with history--books like this Horwitz one always seem to me history with a dash of travel. But that's an interesting thought. I wonder what percentage of travel books include historical tidbits, and what percentage of such books are historical information. Wish I was independently wealthy so I could put together a research study like that.

Ah,
Navy censorship. Thanks for alerting me to that nuance--I'll admit that by the latter part of the book I was reading pretty fast and missed that. I think I saw the "weeks without entry" thing and just figured he was busy or ill...heaven knows I couldn't have kept up journal writing along with all the other stuff he had to be doing! Interesting question, though.

I wish you were independently wealthy too, so I could work on a research study like that ! ;)

Ah, Eva, don't we all? When Mr. CR or I are downtrodden by work one of us always says to the other, "Honey, I'm sorry I wasn't born independently wealthy." It's about as close as we get to sappy.

Maybe someday I'll win the lottery and I'll happily fund whatever reading research project you can cook up.

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