Perceptive Travel Book Reviews February 2017
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: An unlikely solo survival in the snake-infested jungles of Bolivia contrasts with the hushed and hallowed halls of museums around the world, plus a supremely inconsequential tale by a comic invention who inaccurately calls himself a nomad.


Jungle: A Harrowing True Story of Adventure Danger and Survival
By Yossi Ghinsberg

It's a bit of a cheat choosing this book to review since it was first published some years ago. But it has recently been revived and re-issued in a new edition in anticipation of a major film starring Daniel Radcliffe to be released later this year. In 1981 an Israeli backpacker, full of naive youthful ambitions to penetrate jungles and make contact with remote tribes, teamed up with two other mochileros, Kevin from Oregon and Marcus from Switzerland. Together with Karl, a sinister guide who has some of Bear Grylls' know-how but none of Crocodile Dundee's charm, they set off on a log raft expedition on the dangerous white waters of the Tuichi River in uncharted Amazonia.

For those who skip dust jacket blurbs, the ominous chapter title "Accident" about half way through the book warns the reader that not all will proceed smoothly. Without resorting to spoilers, only two of the four survive. In recording the conversations and events, Ghinsberg is trying to make sense of the drama that ensued. He is stronger when revealing individual and group psychology through reported dialogue than at descriptive writing ("The scenery was really splendid"). Also, a couple of troubling errors crop up: on page 36 the only map they can find is a "general map with a scale of 1:500" when surely he means something closer to 1:5,000,000. He claims that his brush with a lora snake might have been fatal, yet that snake is in fact only mildly venomous (though his information came from the unreliable Karl and his fear was real enough).

After the accident, which sweeps Yossi over a waterfall, he spends three harrowing (the word of the title is apt) weeks alone encountering a succession of horrors. There are biting termites swarming over him in the night and worms hatching subcutaneously, jaguars and fire ants, quicksand and near drownings. Starvation looms as he has to survive on tamarind fruits and raw birds' eggs, lost and not knowing if anyone is searching for him. His mental pendulum swings between confidence that he will endure and visceral despair, sometimes within the space of an hour. He retreats into fantasy which he calls a "magic potion," dreaming of elaborate meals and inventing an imaginary female companion for whose sake he refuses to give up. (One is reminded of Wilson the Volleyball, Tom Hanks' only companion for four years in the movie Castaway). In the delirium extremis that takes Yossi over near the end of his 21-day ordeal, he imagines himself as a heroic survivor who will one day feature in a movie—how prescient that pipedream of 36 years ago has proved. The vivid depiction of his sufferings might serve to cure any jungle backpacking romantics out there.

Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums
Edited by Maggie Fergusson

With relief, we turn to a marvelous collection of short appreciations of favorite museums. Some of the best ideas are obvious ones, and it is surprising that no one had thought of putting together such an anthology before. Twenty-four contemporary novelists, poets and children's writers—people who can write beautifully—contribute short essays of between five and seven pages about a museum that has brought them delight. Some choices may be familiar while others you are unlikely to visit, like the beleaguered National Museum of Afghanistan, movingly described by the politician, diplomat and travel writer Rory Stewart. I was gratified to see that I have visited about half and can vouch for the felicity of Frank Cottrell-Boyce's "enchanting crepuscular clutter" of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (which, amusingly, was his preferred place to invite girls on a date to show them the famous Shuar shrunken heads). Predictably, many authors' choices are quirky, from the Abba Museum in Stockholm to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb; the piece by Aminatta Forna about the latter persuaded me that this should definitely be added to the wish list.

Museums are of almost universal interest to the traveler. The best museums avoid what Julian Barnes describes as spirit-crushing "museumification" and too much curatorial intervention. Some observations will strike chords with the reader, such as the arresting power of authenticity. The Irish writer Roddy Doyle relishes the flaking paint of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. This is no re-creation but the actual shabby apartment where Nathalie Gumpertz struggled to support her children after her shoemaker husband abandoned her in 1874. Julian Barnes feels the living presence of Sibelius at "Ainola," the home built by the composer in the countryside north of Helsinki which was never lived in by anyone apart from the Sibelius family.

Many of the pieces incorporate snatches of autobiography, more interesting than the few that concentrate on catalogs of favorite contents. Childhood visits to museums could result in epiphanies, such as described by the Australian novelist Tim Winton visiting the National Gallery of Victoria, aged nine, or the Scottish writer Andrew O'Hagan stepping into the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow and realizing that art and beauty could belong to everyone including him. Some articles focus on one talismanic object such as the tiny Roman water nymph which entranced the poet Alice Oswald in Corinium, at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester. It is impossible not to be similarly beguiled by many of these excellent pieces of writing.

Alan Partridge: Nomad
By Steve Coogan, Neil Gibbons & Rob Gibbons

I should have known that I had been misled that this was a travel book when I saw it nestled on the same library shelf as Grumpy Old Men: The Secret Diary and The Public Confessions of a Middle Aged Woman. I knew it was about Alan Partridge walking across eastern England in the footsteps of his father. As the comic creation of humorist and actor Steve Coogan, Alan Partridge has been familiar to British audiences for 25 years as a socially awkward parochial puffed up local radio DJ. I was hoping that Coogan's satirical gifts long applied to the media world would now be turned on travel writing.

It starts promisingly: "The Footsteps of My Father" expedition will connect Alan's birthplace in Norfolk to the nuclear power station at Dungeness on the Kent coast of southeast England where his father had a job interview in 1965. "I must complete the journey that my father never could. And I must do it on foot (can't remember why)... to honor his memory and in doing so learn more about him and in doing so learn more about myself and in doing so create truly compelling copy." The kind of pilgrimage that is supposed to resolve an author's troubled relationship with the past cries out to be parodied. But alas this is not it. There is precious little about travel in these 280 pages and (supposed) 280 miles of walking, and far too many cliquey references to British media personalities who will be unknown outside the UK.

Naturally there are some hilarious bits, like when Alan describes the cultural highlights of Norfolk, "one of the world's premier destinations for competitively priced caravanning breaks:" And of his hometown Norwich: "If theatres turns you on, swing by one of Norwich's theatres for big-budget touring productions of a play or (for women) a musical." (AP is an unreconstructed misogynist.) The Index is a hoot with entries such as "Cherubs - aeronautic capability" p232, and "Quite superb physical condition (QSPC)" pp35, 36, 37, 41, 106, 276.

In the end, the walk seems to be utterly pointless, which makes you think that maybe reading the book is as well. Which might be the point. Admirers of sustained irony and cringe-fests will enjoy it.

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, an online British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:


Buy Jungle: A Harrowing True Story of Adventure, Danger and Survival at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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Buy Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Alan Partridge

Buy Alan Partridge: Nomad at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK