A Long Journey Through Life and Overland to the Antarctic

The Black Penguin by Andrew Evans

This fascinating memoir can be read two ways.  It gives us a marvelously detailed picture of an overland journey from Washington D.C. to the Antarctic.  But it is also a part of a series called “Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies”, published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Naturally, for A Traveler’s Library, I am inclined to focus on the journey. However, the author’s personal story is undeniably riveting.  Both succeed because of his complete honesty and his ability to observe details of life while he is living it. (If you’ve never tried it, you may not realize how difficult it is to pull that off.)

The title and cover photo emphasize the Antarctic and the  black penguin, a rare bird that doesn’t fit in with the tuxedo-clad King and tiny Adélie penguins crowding the icy land. That unique all-black bird makes an appropriate metaphor for Andrew Evans, who grew up as a devout Mormon, but was expelled from his beloved church because he is gay. First they tried to reform him, and he tried to conform, but he could not change any more than the melanistic penguin could choose to look like his brothers. Although Andrew Evans has found a partner he loves and a satisfying life, there is still a hole where  the routines and rules and rituals of the church used to be.

However, if you are looking at this as the memoir of a travel writer, the cover and title are somewhat misleading. The book is not about the Antarctic. The continent stirred the curiosity of the young, geography-obssessed boy and became a lifelong dream. Now it is the goal of the journey but does not take center stage until the very end of the book.

As travel literature, the fascination of The Black Penguin lies in the difficulties Evans has undertaken by choosing to travel only by bus all the way12,000 miles through the Southern USA, Central America and South America.  He has already achieved the travel writer’s Holy Grail–an assignment from Keith Bellows at National Geographic Magazine.  When Bellows asked if it was even possible to travel all the way by bus, Evans fudged the truth and answered with an enthusiastic ‘yes.’

Maybe not.

But the rides on buses varying from sleek, modern air-conditioned marvels to Central American “chicken buses” provide a different view of the countryside along the way, and allow Evans to introduce us to an array of interesting characters. The long bus ride also provides the writer ample opportunity to ponder his life and gracefully weave thoughts about Andrew Evans, former Mormon and gay man into the story of Andrew Evans, travel writer on an adventure.

There is plenty of danger along the way, from anticipated highway robbers and drug cartels to washed out roads along dangerous cliffs, car ferries turned back by wild seas. Evans presents these dangers with skillful suspense. At the end, the suspense builds on the time honored question of time. Will he get to the port in time to board the National Geographic exploration ship that will take him to his destination?

The writing is skillful. The story is compelling and well worth your time.

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A Bookful of Quests

Inspired Journeys: Travel Writers in Search of the Muse, Edited by Brian Bouldrey

Destinations: Many

When publishers inquire whether I want to review a book of travel essays, I generally have said “No, thanks. My readers prefer a place-specific book.”  Inspired Journeys breaks that rule.  Fortunately, the publisher, University of Wisconsin Press, sent it without asking in advance.

It sat on my shelf for a while, because I didn’t think I would like it much.  Essay collections are generally so uneven that I hate wading through the chaff to get at the fruit.  (to mix an agricultural metaphor).  Plus which, the title was off-putting–all a bit to woo-woo for me.

But one day I picked it up and started reading. I am glad I did.  The seventeen essays, so different from each other in subject and style, have in common outstanding writing. No, of course, I did not love them all equally, but I can honestly say there were none that I thought was a total waste of time.   I am not sure how Brian Bouldrey was able to pull off getting so many excellent writers in one book, but I appreciate his effort.

As for that woo-woo title–the book does have a strong theme, but the theme is hard to explain (as is evident in the divergence between title and subtitle.)  Each writer, in essence, is on a pilgrimage, or a quest.  Some are trying to connect with a favorite writer. “Little Log Houses for You and Me” by Kimberly Meyer relates a trip through Laura Ingalls Wilder country. “The Way of the White Clouds” compares writerTrebor Healey’s life to Jack Keroac–some actual travel, but lots of travel through life. We even go on a trip to visit the history of the world’s worst poet in “The Terriblest Poet” by Brian Bouldrey, the editor of the volume.

The more traditional pilgrimage of Camino de Santiago in Spain gets a look in “Buen Camino” by Sherman Apt Russel.  A particularly beautiful and well-structured piece by Russell Scott Valentino, called “An Accidental Pilgrimage,” visits family history in the Azores. He quotes a Russian writer friend as saying, “travel for its own sake is always a search for God.”  The quote is just one of things that makes this piece memorable.

Many philosophical questions arise from the imperious comment of a border guard in “What means Go?”  by Lucy Jane Bledsoe. One thought, common to everyone of us who call ourselves travel writers–“I never know if I’m a writer so that I can travel or if I’m a traveler so that I can write.”

“The Chevra” by Goldie Goldbloom taught me about a Jewish ritual I was unaware of. I found the piece to be particularly moving because of the author’s spare, matter of fact style in describing very emotional subjects.

But I really must stop, even though I have not mentioned every excellent piece of writing in this little gem of a book.  I hope you will give it a look.


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My Personal List of Ten Most Influential Books

There is a “thing” on Facebook of listing the ten books that most influenced you.  Not the greatest books, or the most literary, but those that actually made an impact on your life.

When I entered college, as part of orientation, we were asked to list the three books that had most influenced our lives. Not wanting to list the novels I snuck of my Mother’s shelf so I could read the sex scenes, or Mad Magazine, I said, The Bible, Shakespeare and something else–who knows?  Liar, liar, pants on fire.

When I sat down to list the ten books that honestly influenced me, I found that there was a pattern.  Very little fiction. I’ve always read more non fiction.  I read hundreds of books while I was writing three times a week at A Traveler’s Library, and most of them fiction.  I relish a beautiful turn of phrase and a clever turn of plot. I love characters that come to life.  But there’s something pragmatic in my soul that drives me back to non fiction over and over again. The books that demanded a place on this list influenced my several interests: theater, politics, writing, cooking, family.






So here they are–with a note on each indicating how they influenced me.

  1. A children’s picture book that showed children from many countries  in their native costumes.  Read at six or seven, it made me yearn to see the rest of the world.
  2. A youth book about a young girl who grew up to become an actress, which pushed me toward theater as a college major and ambition to act. No idea what the title was. I went through books so rapidly as a young girl that I did not remember most of them.
  3. The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne, which I STILL think is a great read.  It shows how artful simplicity can be.
  4. Anything by James Thurber.  The Ohio humorist’s books filled a shelf in my family home. My father and mother loved him. We lived in a house in Columbus near the one where he grew up. In college I played a part in the play The Thurber Carnival. His humorous view of the human condition may be a bit sour–and definitely arch (he wrote for the New Yorker, after all) but he still cracks me up.
  5. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care.  When I had three children in three years and lived across the country from female relatives who might have given me advice, Dr. Spock was my comfort.  Although we might disagree with many of his theories today, I am not sure how I could have survived those years without him.
  6. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.  This book appears on many “Best of” lists, but my reason for including it is different.  Reading Atlas Shrugged persuaded me that Ayn Rand was nuts and whatever her political beliefs were, mine were the opposite!
  7. Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky.  I can’t think of this book without the setting in which I first read it–leaning against a tree on the Mall at Ohio State University.  I was awed. We were still in the cold war, and it was a revelation to learn that Russians were humans with universal motivations.  It is the only book I have re-read in later life more than once that continues to give me the joy of mental exertion, and admiration for writerly skill.
  8. Bleak House by Charles Dickens.  I’m not sure why this book had such an influence on me.  I have read other things by Charles Dickens, but this one just dragged me into its bleak world and Dickens technique of piling on the details stuck with me as a guide to good writing.
  9. Joy of Cooking.  My love of cooking  came from several sources, but Joy of Cooking has been influential in teaching me techniques, expanding my repertoire and truly giving me joy. I have worn out three  editions of Joy–and still have two–taped together and sad looking specimens on my kitchen shelf.
  10. The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich.  This book was the text for an art appreciation course I took in college.  While many of the liberal arts classes stuck with me, and I carried practical knowledge about theater into my theater work, this class and this book provided me with lifelong enjoyment of art.  It stuck with me as I traveled in other countries and wandered through museums. It helped me as I co-authored a biography of a Navajo artist. (Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist)
  11. I know the list is supposed to be ten, but this addition is not a book. As a teen I was deeply influenced by Mad Magazine–my escape from what I felt were stodgy surroundings of small town Midwest. And if you think my humor is a bit weird at times–blame Mad Magazine.

Now it is your turn. Would you care to share ten books that influenced you–not read to impress people or to have conversations at parties–but books that actually nudged you to life decisions?

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