Perceptive Travel Book Reviews February 2020
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: a down-to-earth yet inspiring how-to guide about travel writing, an exemplar of the genre visiting places on the edge of civilization, and a sumptuous photographic compendium of the many Silk Roads that linked west and east.

The Travel Writer's Way: Turn Your Travels into Stories
By Jonathan Lorie

The respected guidebook publisher Bradt has produced a sensible and enlightened guide to improving your travel writing skills. I was relieved that the subtitle does not dangle a vain ambition to "Live Your Dreams, Sell your Features." The author has been in the game a long time and has successfully run travel writing training seminars for more than fifteen years, so he knows how to teach as well as to write. He should be applauded for offering concrete tips and practical advice such as "cut any froth—the content-free exclamations, struggling adjectives, tones of voice that attempt to say what the text does not...Go back to what happened and show us how you felt." The key message is to show more than tell, to be ruthlessly selective, omitting anything that doesn't contribute to the storyline or the mood.

Advice on how to market and sell your stories plays second fiddle, so it is not really a rival to our own estimable editor's Travel Writing 2.0, especially as it is aimed more at a British audience. Interviews are included with many heavy hitters like the indomitable Dervla Murphy (now getting on for 90), William Dalrymple, and Colin Thubron (presumably Bill Bryson turned down the chance). Not all of these Q&As contain usable nuggets, but travel heroes writing about their craft is always interesting.

One thorny question for aspiring travel writers is how much of themselves to put into their pieces. While one seasoned expert thinks that the writer's personality and sensibility should be allowed to shine through, another commissioning editor wants the depiction of a destination to be direct, "without the filter of self getting in the way." The author favors including some personal backstory in the chapter called "Become a Hero" but recognises the dangers if done clumsily.

The book includes specific assignments which sound good fun. For example, try recalling your worst travel disaster and write it up as an action story, withholding the ending. Or another: fly blind without smartphone, map, or research in an unfamiliar place, wandering at random and hyper-alert to everything around you. In these tasks or quests, the key is to pay slow close attention and make extensive notes to be shaped later.

Not all the advice is cutting edge, for instance aim for prose "at ease with itself" by using a natural speaking voice, avoid clichés (so no "crumbling castles" or "breathtaking sunsets") and vary the sentence length to match the content. Using film techniques as an analogue, slow panning shots can be intermingled with the jump cuts of a thriller. Crucially, it is not a dry read, and should inspire any budding travel writers. It made me think I must get a move on and write up recent trips to Malawi, China, Iceland—without overdoing the adjectives.

One small quibble: the glossy paper made it tricky to read in artificial light. On the plus side, I found only one typo: the Pied Piper was from Hamelin not Hamlyn.

Outpost: A journey to the wild ends of the earth
By Dan Richards

I have no idea whether Dan Richards ever attended one of Jonathan Lorie's travel writing courses, but boy can he write. The hook is there from the beginning—an attention-grabbing quest pegged to a polar bear pelvis brought home from Svalbard by his father just before he was born.

He describes vividly and precisely what he sees in the moment, as he journeys into hostile remote environments in Iceland and Scotland, Utah and Montana, Japan and Arctic Norway. He is a mountain man—he can't swim, he can't even drive—who uses language almost like a poet. Of the incessant stair-rod rain he endures in the Cairngorms of Scotland: "The sky was teeming, hammering. My hood was like a drum, a loud cowl lashed by hard resolute rain... The air was a mizzle of tick-tick, pitter, spit and stipple." He manages to leaven the misery with humor, "even the stream looked uncommonly wet."

Some readers may find the writing too bejeweled. It certainly isn't a natural speaking voice that describes a putty-colored sky as "equal parts water and spite" or a shoreline as "muscovado" or the Langjökull glacier in Iceland as "beaming a hypnotic cheshire cat charisma, pearly cruel." I found it exhilaratingly original and expressive, even if somewhat "writerly" at times.

His architectural angle on journeying to farflung wildernesses is a surprising one: he is in search of shacks and shelters, bothies and bivouacs that remind us how man leaves his mark on the most isolated locations. He relishes the generosity of Saeluhús in Iceland and bothies in Scotland—"free, egalitarian and elegant" mountain shelters that are austere in the extreme and maintained by people who love the outdoors. (I came across one myself recently on the Pennine Way in Yorkshire, a cheerless concrete bunker, but no doubt welcome in wild weather.)

Remote cabins provide not only shelter in a storm, but the isolation that writers crave. He visits the lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington where Jack Kerouac spent one demented summer, and also the garden studio shed in suburban England where Roald Dahl forced himself to write. Richards spends six weeks at a writers' treehouse retreat in Switzerland. Although his word pictures would be enough, the author's black and white photos of these outposts are included at the end of each chapter.

Conforming to the ideal trajectory of a travel book, the author is changed by his experiences. He travels to the end of the world to discover too many people at the end of the world. In magnificent arctic Svalbard, he is troubled by noisy snowmobilers (while riding snowmobiles themselves) and the plight of the polar bears due to melting ice. Employing a rare cliché, "the immediate need to protect it hit me like a thunderbolt" and he concludes his book with a plea to protect pristine landscapes.

silk road

Silk Roads: Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes
Edited by Susan Whitfield

Now for something completely different, from snapshots of huts to the most gorgeous photos of landscapes and art objects from Persia to the Pacific Ocean. This magnificent volume is trying to encompass nothing less than the history and culture of Afro-Eurasia through text and illustration. The sweep is wildly ambitious; the preface isn't lying when refers to its subject as "unruly".

In an ocean of material, I confess that sometimes I felt I was drowning. A random glance at the index will illustrate what dizzying leaps have to be made: Sumatra, Susa [western Iran], Swahili Coast, Swat Valley, Sweden... Many of the indexed entries are abstruse and uninviting - "Turkic Khaganate (see Second Turkic Khaganate)." The general editor acknowledges this in her Introduction: "A plethora of unfamiliar names and places can confuse and befuddle. I beg the reader's patience to try not to be distracted by these." I decided that the best way to enjoy the book was not to worry about getting or keeping my bearings, but to turn the pages slowly and let the exquisite images—described in the Preface as "charged and magical objects"—wash over me, from a 4th century Roman pepper pot in the shape of a well-coiffed woman holding a scroll (now in the British Museum) to painted figures of graceful Chinese dancers.

The main structure is according to landform: Steppe, Mountains, Deserts, Rivers, Seas. Approach it as a lavish mash-up. Dip into the text if a heading takes your fancy like "Pirates and Slaves on the South China Seas" or "The Caftan: Fashion across the Silk Roads." A multiplicity of stories is told so be prepared to feel as though you have visited about a dozen blockbuster exhibitions, all entitled "The Silk Road".

Many scholars have contributed in their area of expertise, and the level of technical detail occasionally sits uneasily with what is essentially a coffee-table book. Some sections are models, like the 250 words that accompany photos of St Catherine's Monastery, informing us that in the early Christian era, the mountains of south Sinai emerged as a place of "hallowed hardship" for those pursuing a life of Christian piety in what became "a veritable Old Testament theme park" based on the belief that this is where Moses saw the burning bush. The traveler will enjoy being reminded that this wonder survives and can be visited. What could be more pleasurable for the armchair traveler than gazing at exotic landscapes and buildings, art treasures and peoples?

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 hotel reviews to the Daily Telegraph, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:

The Travel Writer's Way: Turn Your Travels into Stories

Buy The Travel Writer's Way: Turn Your Travels into Stories at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon UK
Kobo Canada

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Outpost: A journey to the wild ends of the earth

Buy Outpost: A journey to the wild ends of the earth at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon UK
Canada Kobo

Silk Roads: Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes

Buy Silk Roads: Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon
Amazon UK