Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Audiobooks and YouTube for History and Travel

Sometimes the best background reading for a trip doesn't involve "reading" at all. Audiobooks, recorded lecture series, and YouTube are all rich sources for information on the history, archeology, and culture of your destinations.

A while back I posted about how pleased I was to find "The Great Courses" on Audible.com, and in particular how I chose "The Vikings" as the first course to start with. The 36-part, just-under 18 hours of lectures by Professor Kenneth W. Harl on the Vikings was pitched at the introductory college level -- just exactly what I wanted.

For a start, I really enjoyed the professor's gravelly voice, as well as the obvious excitement he has for the subject matter. The individual lectures are subject-based rather than a strict temporal sequence. We learn about Viking raids, merchant activities, their mythology and story-telling traditions -- not to mention settlements across the world from Greenland to Russia -- with excursions as far flung as the New World and the Middle East. I don't think I had previously appreciated just how much lasting influence the Vikings had -- not just on Iceland, Greenland, Russia, Norman France, and the Scottish northern islands, but on Ireland as well.
I also had not understood the role of the Christian church as an organizing societal force filling the vacuum left behind by the retreating Roman Empire. So much more than Dark Age monks laboriously copying illuminated manuscripts by the light of tallow candles (not that those aren't impressive too). The Vikings understood, and as they evolved from raiders and traders into land owners and administrators, they put aside traditional paganism in favor of adopting written records and hierarchical church structure to govern their conquered territories.

In fact, I enjoyed these lectures so much that I've just used another audible credit to acquire Professor Harl's series on "Rome and the Barbarians." Should be an entertaining and interesting listen!

Apart from audio courses, another great source of non-book information is YouTube. Not just for cat videos, YouTube is full of fun and educational programs on travel, history, and archeology. On the pure fun end of the spectrum is "Munchies," the new food channel by the Vice team. Here's the trailer for the series of Munchies episodes on Scotland:

"Time Team" is a British archeology show that has been airing since 1994. Hosted by Tony Robinson of Blackadder fame, the team has worked on sites all over the British Isles, including a couple of digs on Orkney in Scotland. For example, in this episode the Time Team accepts a challenge issued by schoolchildren on the island of Sanday to investigate mounds of possible Viking origin.

Every video is linked to a dozen others on similar subjects -- my "to watch" list is stacking up with more archaeology shows from BBC Learning and the like. Plenty to fill up my phone and tablet to learn about places I'd love to see.


Friday, September 05, 2014

More on Reading Fiction for Travel: Reading for Scotland

No less a travel expert than Anthony Bourdain recommends reading fiction about your destination:

On the plane, I like to read fiction set in the location I'm going to. Fiction is in many ways more useful than a guidebook, because it gives you those little details, a sense of the way a place smells, an emotional sense of the place.
Of course, he uses the example of Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" as suitable reading for a trip to Vietnam. I'm prepared to go much lower brow in a quest for that "sense of place."

So, in honor of the highlands, the new STARZ tv series shot at many beautiful locations, and an Audible.com special offer, I decided to give "Outlander" a try. I'd known about this series for some time, and stayed away as romance novels aren't my thing. Also, I'm always suspicious of long, multi-volume fantasy epics, and they too often spin on forever without actually getting anywhere. While there are things I do like about the story, I kind of wish I'd stuck to my prejudices.

In the plus column, I'm a sucker for time travel. Better yet, the story takes place in two historical timelines, as Claire is transported from her life as a former WWII nurse to Scotland of the Jacobite rising (circa 1745). I sense the bones of a good story, but for me the romance tropes get in the way. Bodices are ripped, cut, and simply unlaced. There's arranged marriage, and hurt-comfort too. I would much prefer the emphasis to be on the adventure and the history, with the romance in the background.

If I liked romance novels, I'd probably like this one. As it is, I think I'll probably finish the audiobook and stick with the show, but I don't plan on grabbing up the next volume in the series.

Glencoe, Scotland, UK, 1966
Upper Glencoe, Scotland, 1966
The "destination reads" I have been enjoying are the first two books in the "Shetland Island Quartet." I've already posted about "Dead Water," which is actually the 5th of Ann Cleeves' mystery novels set in the Shetland Islands. I've recently finished "Raven Black," the first in the series, and am now working on "White Nights," with two more left to save for the plane trip. These are atmospheric mystery stories; interesting characters with a lot of forward, page-turning drive to the reading experience.

I've also decided to start Bernard Cornwall's series on the consolidation of 9th century England. It's not Scotland, I know, but we'll be visiting areas that were once essentially viking bases, so there is a distinct tie there. Book One of the Saxon Tales is "The Last Kingdom." As a long time fan of Sharpe series, I'm anticipating good things, but I'll let you know if it lives up to my hopes!