Perceptive Travel Book Reviews Febraury 2016
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: One author gets to know a tiny Scottish island in intimate detail, while another travels throughout the British Isles in search of literary associations. Then a young woman recovering from mental illness casts caution to the wind and travels to Europe with a man just met on a dating site with next to no (physical) baggage.

Island of Dreams: A Personal History of a Remarkable Place
By Dan Boothby

I should declare an interest. Many years ago, when the author was scratching a living tutoring English in Cairo, he helped with the research for my book Teaching English Abroad. He was clearly an intelligent free spirit, as well as a good writer, so I was keen to read this first work of "creative non-fiction" just published.

From the age of 15, when he stumbled across a library book, Dan Boothby has been semi-obsessed with the life and works of the Scottish naturalist and writer Gavin Maxwell, who died prematurely in 1969 while living on the six-acre lighthouse island of Kyleakin on the west coast of Scotland. Our author first makes the pilgrimage in search of his hero when he is a teenager (who fails to start a fire using a library card and photo of his sisters as kindling) and keeps returning. Aged 36, he moved into Gavin Maxwell's cottage to work as an unpaid tour guide and caretaker of the tiny uninhabited island, now run as a nature reserve located underneath the sweeping bridge between the Isle of Skye and the mainland.

Snatches of Dan's autobiography are adroitly interwoven with the life story of Maxwell who published the bestselling Ring of Bright Water in 1960 about keeping pet otters, while his private life was colorful and profligate. As we learn more about the restless rootless life of Dan Boothby, it is easy to see the appeal of a similar dreamer and follower of his wilder instincts.

island of dreams

Over the course of two years, Dan gets to know his island in loving detail, the fading of the vegetation in autumn, the migration habits of birds, the hiding places of otters. His writing is fresh and atmospheric—wind woos down chimneys, bramble tendrils tap-tap on window panes, reminiscent of Wuthering Heights—and the rhythmic flux of the seasons is conveyed in restrained and graceful prose. Interesting paradoxes emerge as both the beauty and ferocity of the landscape are highlighted, as well as the contradictory "energising and enervating" effects of the Weather (with a capital W).

He is equally perceptive on local characters: officious Susan who runs the visitor center, contented Ewan who loves to stalk game, and a wonderful local called Sandy whose ramshackle yawl is run on thrift. Eight witty pages are devoted to classifying the different strata of people you meet in remote West Highland communities: natives (whose ties go back for generations), locals, incomers, tourists, and second home owners. Dan may be an English incomer but through his tireless mending, chopping and raking, repairing "weather-tortured" benches and building bird boxes to improve the island, and by crewing on Sandy's sailboat, he earns local respect and even affection. He claims to have become as emotionally involved with the island as with a lover. Which makes the ending so poignant that he can't afford to stay on without a stipend and the trustees can't provide one. By the end of this subtle and immersive book, you can't help but share his sadness at having to leave his remarkable island.

Treasured Island: A Book Lover's Tour of Britain
By Frank Barrett

To adapt an analogy from the wine world, we move from an in-depth "vertical" tasting of a single place in the last book to a "horizontal" tasting, a snapshot of scores of scattered places which have associations with writers and English literature. The task must have been daunting of selecting from an infinite number of places associated with literary figures from Chaucer to J. K. Rowling. A book like this can't aspire to be a comprehensive reference work like the Oxford Guide to Literary Britain & Ireland which includes almost 2,000 entries. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, the Brontës and other somewhat less obvious candidates like Rudyard Kipling and Agatha Christie receive extended treatment.

Inevitably many figures have been overlooked: to take just one example the celebrated 19th century peasant poet, John Clare, doesn't get a mention, although a lovely museum is devoted to him in the picturesque village of his birth, Helpston in Northamptonshire. Byron's ancestral home in Nottinghamshire is mentioned but not the pool on the River Cam in Cambridge where the poet used to go swimming while a student at Trinity College (where he kept a pet bear). Other places that are included are of dubious interest: a church in the Fenland town of March with a magnificent angel roof is included because the (now dated) crime writer Dorothy L Sayers incorporates it into her book The Nine Tailors.

Quibbles aside about what is omitted and what is included, there is plenty to whet the reader's appetite for some literary tourism. Places I have added to my must-visit list include Lawrence of Arabia's Clouds Hill, a tiny tumble-down cottage in Dorset described as "Hobbit-cosy" which the author considers to be the oddest house in the National Trust's collection. For the first time I learned of some Elizabethan painted rooms in the centre of Oxford, a city I know well, in a building thought to have been a tavern where Shakespeare stayed. The book is better when it describes a literary destination in some detail as it does the Pepys Library in Cambridge and Gad's Hill in Kent where Dickens wrote Great Expectations, and weakest when it superficially skates over a number of literary landmarks or focuses too heavily on the inadequate parking arrangements or the grumpiness of the staff at some destination or other.

Despite some extraneous autobiographical bits (do we really care about the author's school outing in 1967 to see Far From the Madding Crowd or his disapproval of folding bicycles?), he is a genial and well-informed guide. He can also be opinionated which adds zest. For example he found the lacklustre Keats Museum in Hampstead more like an old Ford Escort when it might have been a Ferrari.

No Baggage: A Tale of Love & Wandering
By Clara Bensen

Thoroughly modern Clara throws caution to the winds and agrees to accompany a man she has recently met through a dating site on a three-week trip to Europe. The whole situation screams modernity—the couple use their iPhones to contact potential hosts with whom to couchsurf through eight countries, and the book grew out of a article that went viral. The Unique Selling Point of their trip is that they are traveling with Zero Baggage. Not quite zero, because every traveler has to carry a passport, money and toothbrush, plus it turns out Clara squeezes in deodorant, jewelry and a few other items. They call it a travel experiment (not a gimmick, of course) but they are not the first to ditch possessions in order to focus on experiences and relationships. Indian sadhus have been doing it forever, detaching themselves from common luxuries in pursuit of liberation from material constraints.

As well as traveling very light, they travel without a program and or advance planning. Trusting to serendipity leads to encounters that would never take place otherwise. As is the way with so much contemporary travel writing, there is far more about the psyche and biographies of the protagonists than about the destination countries. The Blue Mosque in Istanbul and the Parthenon in Athens are merely backdrops for flashbacks to her post-university mental breakdown and a forensic analysis of the developing romance with Jeff. The narrative is saved by the sparky writing. The author is too intelligent to sign up fully to the millennial tendency to narcissism and entitlement, and she maintains some perspective on their project when she concludes:

â��I was amazed at the liberation that came with waking up, tossing a toothbrush in a purse, and walking out the door without looking back…I was amazed that intentionally throwing myself at the mercy of the moment had ended not in some sort of sordid travel catastrophe, but in the sort of surreal adventure that would potentially cause future nursing home aides to up my medication and say, 'There goes Ms Bensen again—warbling on about the time she traveled around the world in one dress with a scientist who lived in a dumpster.' â��

Travelers have been trusting to fate and making plans on the hoof for as long as I have been meeting travelers. Decades ago, a young American wrote to me of 'the perilous sense of possibility and adventure' that she loved about traveling, the glorious moments, the 'stick-out-your-thumb-and-be-glad-for-whatever-is-going-to-happen-next' moments. I guess every generation has to discover for itself the feelings of triumph and freedom that the unscripted open road can bring.

Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World and Teaching English Abroad, she has also turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:

Island of Dreams

Buy Island of Dreams at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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Treasured Island

Buy Treasured Island in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

No Baggage

Buy No Baggage at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK