Oxford Centre for Life-Writing

It’s been a mental boon being welcomed as a Visiting Scholar at Hogwarts the University of Oxford’s Wolfson College, home to its Centre for Life-Writing. The program was founded by Dame Hermione Lee, whose groundbreaking biography of Virginia Woolf I often consulted while writing Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet, wondering “How did she *do* that?” (Painters sit in museums tracing the brushstrokes of Masters; writers pull books from the shelf.) My time in the UK has been spent researching a book about the scandalous Victorian London trial of a woman who willfully published a birth control pamphlet, and defended herself before the Crown on charges of obscenity.

In other news, the galleys/Advanced Reading Copies of Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet have arrived, and the design and printing would make the book’s namesake proud. If you or anyone you know would like a copy for review, please send me an email.

Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet

Working with Mariner/HarperCollins on the design of my forthcoming book has been a dream. You can see the cover here. The endpapers will reproduce pages from Franklin’s will, the first time since their 1790 filing that they have been allowed to be reproduced in print. Thanks to the Philadelphia Register of Wills for granting permission. This act of grace almost makes up for the Eagles’ defeat of the Vikings in the NFC title game . . . Almost. It still hurts.

The Silent Traveller in New York

Today few readers have heard of Chiang Yee, the expatriate Chinese painter and writer who — among other feats — coined the still-used Chinese name for Coca-Cola, winning a contest and some much-needed money at a time when a Blitz bomb destroyed his rented Hampstead home. Chiang had chucked an official post in Republican China and sailed to England, where Puyi’s English tutor helped get him a job teaching at the University in London. A trip to the Lakes District spawned a series of captioned watercolors, which led to a book, and then a series of best-selling and well-reviewed travelogues documenting his flaneur character The Silent Traveller’s socially-distant observations of Edinburgh, Paris, Boston, San Francisco and other Western cities, including New York. Here’s a link to my fan letter to this book. Originally written for the New York Times Book Review, and then, orphaned, accepted by the New Yorker‘s website, it eventually landed at Pulitzer-winner and longtime China correspondent David Barboza’s new publication The Wire China, which is worth checking out, and not only for its fine taste in books.

Remembering Bruce Chatwin pod

Here’s the link to a Travel Writing World podcast celebrating what would have been Bruce Chatwin’s 80th birthday, featuring myself with Nicholas Shakespeare, Colin Thubron, Sara Wheeler, and Susannah Clapp. I named In Manchuria after Chatwin’s seminal In Patagonia, much to the publisher’s — probably correct — chagrin. Pete Hessler’s original blurb urged potential buyers: “If you only read one book about Manchuria this year, let it be this one.” Good one.

The Ugly American

In light of the Peace Corps’ (very quiet) decision to terminate its China program, here’s a New York Times piece I wrote a few years ago recalling the 1958 novel The Ugly American, and how John F. Kennedy sent copies of the book to all of his Senate colleagues. As president, Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps, based largely on the authors’ recommendation. The China program cost $4.1 million in 2019, a little over 1 percent of Peace Corps’ total budget. The United States spends $300 million annually on its military bands.

Lowell Thomas Award

The Road to Sleeping Dragon won a silver medal for Best Travel Book in the 2017-18 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award competition. This is my third Lowell Thomas, awarded by the Society of American Travel Writers, judged by faculty of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, and handed out at a ceremony in Barbados. (I did not go to Barbados.) “Sent to a tiny village in China by the Peace Corps in the 1990s,” the judges said, “the writer learns much more than the language. He learns, and we learn, that humanity crosses all borders. The final book in a trilogy, The Road to Sleeping Dragon,  contains more observation and reflection as he considers the mantra offered him while living in China: Go slowly, eat slowly, look slowly.”