Perceptive Travel Book Reviews June 2014
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: a footsore intellectual on pilgrimages in Spain and Japan, a heart-broken musician in search of solace from the midnight sun, and a wonderfully down-to-earth manual for traveling parents.

A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful
by Gideon Lewis-Kraus

The idea of pilgrimages is an interesting one for a travel writer, especially one who is a Stanford-educated intellectual of Jewish background. Gideon Lewis-Kraus is grappling with the mysterious appeal of the pilgrimage to the non-believer. For my own part, I vividly remember setting my alarm for 4.30am to join the daily stream of pilgrims setting off on the strenuous 1000-meter climb up Adam's Peak in Sri Lanka to see the indentation in a rock at the peak believed to be the footprint of the Buddha. What is the attraction and the point for outsiders? This is the question that perplexes the author as he walks the 500-mile Camino de Santiago and later the longer and more gruelling route that connects 88 Buddhist temples on an island in Japan and finally a more personal family pilgrimage to the grave in central Ukraine of a Jewish mystic. The author's quest for meaning in pilgrimages expands into a more general search for meaning in travel and more ambitiously, because this is an autobiographical coming-of-age account, for meaning in life.

The current fashion for travel as memoir is pushed to the limit in this book. The ratio of autobiography to description of place is skewed heavily in favour of the former. One review claims that it is a "travel memoir with the emotional power of a novel." So any reader who is hoping for evocative descriptions of the landscapes and cultures of northern Spain, of Japan's Shikoko island and of central Ukraine will be disappointed. Instead they will get a great deal of information about the author's relationship with his father, a rabbi who in his late forties came out as gay. This is a very post-modern kind of travel writing. At one point, he makes the startling assertion that "the avant-garde travel writing of the future might successfully swing free of place entirely". Sure enough he admits that he dislikes travel writing about temples, churches, mosques, trees, roads and "especially the Khyber Pass" but likes travel writing when it's "about friendship, lies, digression, amateurism, trains and sex."

Image from The Penitent Legionnaire

All those things (except trains) crop up. The first 50 pages depict his wild expat life in Berlin, a city in which he hopes to escape the vacuity of life in the privileged domains of New York and San Francisco, where people queue for cupcakes and talk mainly about the price of real estate. But after coming to realize that the arty world he inhabits in Berlin might not have much more of substance to offer, the idea takes hold of doing the famous journey on foot from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostelo.

And so his adventure begins, riddled as it will be over the next six weeks with friendship, digressions and all the rest, but mainly blisters (Tom's), bocadillos (ham sandwiches), snoring (in the refuges) and interesting conversations with fellow pilgrims. The author manages to convey the appeal of unthinkingly following the yellow arrows to Santiago. Comfort and home have been left behind in order to undertake an often painful journey that thousands have done before. "While you're on it, everything feels so simple."

After Santiago, the writer graduates to a more challenging solo pilgrimage in Japan. The Shikoku circuit, half as long again as the Camino, does not feel so simple. He is miserable and lonely 90% of the time (his estimate) and yet he does not regret his decision to tackle it. He replaces the freedom from restraint that he experienced in his bohemian Berlin life with freedom via restraint on a pilgrimage route. The discipline of walking hundreds of miles and of rubbing along with lots of different folk seems to impart wisdom and tolerance.

The final chapter of the book involves him reconnecting with his estranged father. Along with his brother, the three of them travel to Uman in central Ukraine to an annual celebration of the life of a Hasidic saint. The travel narrative almost totally disintegrates in favor of autobiography, as father and son tentatively put aside enmity and recrimination.

Lewis-Kraus is certainly a self-conscious writer, but not ponderous. He can transform his more miserable experiences into stylish self-deprecation. There are some hilarious passages made possible because he is capable of ironic distance from what he called his "ridiculous pilgrimage project." I found this both an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

The Ribbons are for Fearlessness: A Journey
by Catrina Davies

When I turned to the next book under review, I was amazed to find that the epigraph was also about pilgrimages: "We thought of life by analogy—as a journey or a pilgrimage—which had a serious purpose at the end… success or whatever it is…. but we missed the point." This book wears its philosophy more lightly but again is heavily autobiographical. A young woman has suffered the double blow of being ditched by her surfer boyfriend and losing in a random car accident one of her best friends and colleagues from the hostel in Cornwall where she works. The friend, Andrew, had once fantasized about becoming a modern-day troubadour, playing music on the streets from the top of Norway to the southwesternmost tip of Europe in Portugal. In her grief, she decides that she will attempt this feat in his memory, funding her way by busking on her cello.

With next to no travel budget after acquiring a rust bucket van, she sets off for Norway with huge trepidation. She has never played her cello in public before and finds it excruciatingly embarrassing to set up on the streets of Bergen and Oslo. But she has no choice because she has to earn the money to buy diesel, never mind food, to get her further along on her journey. Her self-deprecation is more genuine than stylish, and her writing voice is always engaging. We want her mad enterprise to succeed, and will on those Norwegians to drop generous amounts of money into her upturned hat, which on the whole they do. Her simple unhyped descriptions of the landscapes of northern Norway ("Finnmark was Europe but not as I knew it") capture the bleak beauty and intimidating emptiness of these northern lands as she rushes to catch the last of the Midnight Sun season.

Like the author of the pilgrimage book, she walks with strangers and is open to the wisdom they can impart. She is especially struck by a woman called Hanna whose path intersects with hers as they hike together in a national park in Finnish Lapland. It is Hanna who gives her the ribbons of the title and, over the course of the book, we see the author overcoming a range of fears: fear of huge waves when she is learning to surf, fear of driving up a treacherous alpine road without chains, fear of not knowing how she will be able to afford her next pot of pasta. One fear she doesn't seem to have is of men, since she frankly describes her encounters with several, including a charming French doctor who wants to share her life as a "hee-pee" for a time. Like other characters she meets, Pierre recognizes that she has le feu, i.e. fire, and I found it a pleasure traveling with her.

Travels with Baby: The Ultimate Guide for Planning Travel with your Baby, Toddler and Pre-schooler (revised 2nd edition)
by Shelly Rivoli

Enthusiastic as the author is about the joys of traveling with children, even she does not advocate taking toddlers on pilgrimages or busking trips. In this revised edition of her invaluable guide for peripatetic parents, she offers a wealth of practical suggestions for every conceivable situation, from a longhaul flight with an infant to backcountry camping with a toddler. Naturally there is a healthy measure of autobiography in this volume too. For a start, the book is illustrated with lots of the author's holidays snaps of her children, now 10, 8 and 5. But her wisdom has been widened by insights shared on her blog ( which has been going for a decade.

Her enthusiasm is infectious: her message is "Hurry" before your children start school; "Go far. Go wide." But the reassurances for potentially timid new parents are offset by a huge amount of health and safety advice on everything from the safest car seats (covered in huge technical detail) to mosquito bite prevention in malarial zones. A book like this has to maintain a tricky balance between keeping the tone upbeat while addressing issues that could lead to paranoia: how to remove ticks and then watch for the symptoms of Lyme disease; what to do if the lake or sea water might be contaminated with sewage, and so on.

Of course a lot of the information is sound common sense and will already be familiar to parents who have taken their child outside the front door. But there are also lots of good ideas that the parent with only an average ration of common sense might not think of, for example to have some Velcro bands handy to attach toys to the handle of a stroller or laundered clothes to the railing of a vacation rental; or to invest in glow bracelets for illumination and tracking free-range children on a campsite. My favorite was how to foil the automatic flush of a public restroom likely to panic a small child: cover the magic eye with used chewing gum.

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 (personally updated by her over its 16 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently 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:

A Sense of Direction

Buy A Sense of Direction in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

The Ribbons are for Fearlessness

Buy The Ribbons are for Fearlessness in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Travels with Baby

Buy Travels with Baby at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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