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Home / Articles / Culture / The Floating Library /  Exploring ...
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Wednesday, Aug 31, 2011

Exploring travel narratives past, present and future

A survey of books by Judith Schalansky, Frank McLynn, Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Charles Yu

By Jim Ruland

When I was in the Navy, I served on a frigate stationed in San Diego. I was the kind of sailor who gives the Navy a bad reputation in this town. As a result, I was frequently restricted to the ship. While my shipmates were out carousing, I passed the time reading whatever books I could put my hands on.

Our ship's "library" consisted of a meager shelf in the crew's lounge. Every so often, a box of used books would show up and the shelf would be restocked. I read indiscriminately and without prejudice: Jack Kerouac and Mary Higgins Clark, Stephen King and Truman Capote. High art, lurid pulp and everything in between.

In this spirit, The Floating Library will recommend an eclectic range of books to take with you on your journeys. So let’s get underway:

Armchair exploration: If you've ever lost an afternoon browsing Google Earth, Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands (Penguin, 2010) might be for you. This gorgeous compendium with the intriguing subtitle -- "Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will" -- offers an imaginative reinterpretation of the atlas.

For instance, Schalansky's entries are fictional, not factual. Take this description of Bouvet Island, located between the Cape of Good Hope and Antarctica: "the first ash-grey albatrosses with blackened heads and white-rimmed eyelids circle above the struggling ship in silent, ghostly swoops, like vampires."

While I don't recommend you use Schalansky's atlas as a travel guide, it's a fascinating book to get lost in.

Few explorers have set foot on more remote islands than Captain James Cook, who's famous for not finding things that weren't there.

This is an unfair description, for as Frank McLynn asserts in his far-ranging biography, Captain Cook: Master of the Seas (Yale University Press, 2011), Cook did much more than disprove the notions of a southern continent and a northern passage -- two of the great mysteries of his age.

Cook’s brand of genius was cartography: filling in the map of the world. He spent more than a decade roaming the Pacific until Hawaiian Islanders killed him on Kealakekua Beach when his tactic of taking hostages to strong-arm the locals backfired in disastrous fashion.

While Hunter S. Thompson’s underappreciated The Curse of Lono is still my favorite book “about” Cook, McLynn’s exploration of cultural factors that underpinned Cook’s voyages and his relations with the societies he visited makes 18th century Polynesia surprisingly accessible -- especially on the subject of sex in the South Seas.

Modetravel: The horrors of the days of sail will make anyone grateful for the comfort and convenience of modern travel. Then along comes Jean-Philippe Toussaint to remind us how awful it can be. Especially if you’re a horse.

The Truth About Marie (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011) is his third novel about a maddeningly seductive fashion designer from Paris and opens in typical Toussaint fashion: “Later on, thinking back on the last few hours of that sweltering night, I realized we had made love at the same time, Marie and I, but not with each other.”

Marie’s ex-lover imagines their time apart with obsessive fastidiousness, delivering a minute-by-minute account of events he couldn’t possibly have witnessed -- such as when a racehorse owned by Marie’s new lover runs wild in Narita international Airport in Japan.

Here are all the hallmarks of a Toussaint story: the impossibility of love in the guise of infatuation; frenetic bursts of motion followed by an exactingly precise investigation of its attendant anxieties; and situation comedy of the literary kind.

If you think jet lag is bad, try being stuck in a time loop for 10 years.

That’s what happens to Charles Yu's time-machine repairman in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Pantheon 2010). Apparently, it’s stressful enough to make him want to shoot himself -- not his actual self, but his back-from-the-future self.

(Think Kurt Vonnegut and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.)

Paradoxes ensue.

San Diegans don't need a time machine to go exploring. Drive to Coronado, take the ferry across the bay -- still the most romantic way to enter a city -- and get lost among the tall ships here for the Festival of Sail, happening Friday, Sept. 2, through Monday, Sept. 5.

Then check out the exhibition Cook, Melville & Gauguin: Three Voyages to Paradise at the San Diego Maritime Museum.

Tell them an old sailor sent you.

Write to and Jim Ruland blogs at and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.