Perceptive Travel Book Reviews June 2020
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: A compendium of world maps that relies on clever visuals to reveal startling facts about the world, and another that describes and illustrates 37 places from history and nature that once were and are no longer. Plus a fizzingly original book that treats cycle-touring as a philosophical statement.

Brilliant Maps: An Atlas for Curious Minds
By Ian Wright

The inside front cover provides an inkling of the kind of questions this book tries to answer graphically, tending more to the quirky than the fundamental. Although I had never really wondered "Which region of the world has the highest number of death metal bands per capita?" (Finland by a mile) nor even "which countries have North Korean embassies?" I am happy to discover the answers. And it is such a relief to peer at world maps and charts that are not comparing deaths per 100,000 due to Covid-19.

This attractive volume is published by highly respected Granta Publications, so is not just another blog-turned-book. The author is a Canadian who moved to London in 2010 and wanted to get to know his new city by walking thematically and eventually became obsessed with marshaling fascinating information that can be depicted on maps. This is statistical information presented as entertainment or even art. The varying color palates are pleasing to the eye, though it sometimes takes skill to match the exact shade from the legends to the relevant areas on the maps—is that umber or tawny, caramel, or mocha? (Woe betide readers who suffer from color blindness!)

Neither would this book suit the geographically challenged. The maps show country borders but without labels, so if you want to know which is the only country in the world whose highest value export is wood products, you will have to recognize Laos by its position. On many other maps it is fun to play "Hunt the Anomaly." On the page entitled "Age of consent for heterosexual sex" with ten age categories, it took a while to find the only speck of lime green indicating a place where the age of consent is puberty. This turns out to be St Lawrence island in the Bering Strait, part of Alaska inhabited by Yupik people.

Many topics are central to our times, for example those pertaining to immigration. One of the most interesting maps shows the second largest nationality resident in each country, represented by national flags, necessitating a quick course in vexillology. I was not instantly familiar with the Syrian and Romanian flags, respectively the highest second nationality in Sweden and Spain. Others were easier to identify and less surprising: Turks in Germany, Indians in the UK, Moroccans in France. While up to a quarter of Portuguese citizens are living abroad, the figure for Spain next door is 0-4%. The contrast is even more extreme between Albania with 36-50% abroad and Greece with 5-10%.

Each page brings new surprises. The fastest growing religion is Christianity in Turkmenistan, Islam in Cuba, Hinduism in Ireland, Buddhism in Switzerland, folk in the UK, Judaism nowhere. The average height of adult females is 4ft 10in in Indonesia, Gambia, and Bolivia whereas women of more Amazonian stature (average 5ft 6in) can be found in France, Holland, Czech Republic and three Scandinavian countries. Hours of innocent fun lie ahead while at the same time brushing up on world geography.

Brilliant Maps: An Atlas for Curious Minds

Atlas of Vanishing Places: The Lost Worlds as they were and as they are Today
By Travis Elborough

Next up—more maps in a book of similar substantial dimensions, though these maps are not so pretty nor informative. The text here is of more interest, consisting of a couple of pages on places that are disappearing or have already vanished. Some are alive and (relatively) well, albeit in a mutated form like the River Danube, Glacier National Park, Venice, and the Great Wall. Others are well and truly vanished like Xanadu, the 13th century Mongol summer capital and Mohenjo-Daro, the great Indus city now a dusty archaeological site in Pakistan. The author has done a good job of condensing and synthesizing a lot of information, while not presuming too much prior knowledge. He is especially good at injecting drama into the past life of these vanished places and also into their discovery, as in the case of the northern Peloponnesian city of Helike uncovered by archaeologists as recently as 2001.

Enticing photos are included of what remains of lost ancient cities like Leptis Magna in Libya, Petra in Jordan, and Palenque in Mexico. The accompanying full-page maps are marred by occasional typos (Archaelogical Path, Cartegena, Ceasareum...) but a more important quibble about the maps is that a detailed plan of an ancient city is of limited interest or use unless you're on the spot. Sometimes the place names are enough to pique interest, but not every place is like Petra with Indiana-Jones type labels like Snake Tomb, Crusader Fortress, and Isis Sanctuary.

I had heard of only one of the eleven entries in the section aptly named "Forgotten Lands", which includes the flooded Australian town of Old Adaminaby and a lost sea inside the Craighead Caverns of Tennessee. In the two remaining groupings "Shrinking Places" and "Threatened Worlds," we move into a somewhat depressing catalog of lakes drying up, glaciers melting, towns submerged by dams, and so on. The chilling phrase "terminal phase" is deployed several times to describe, for example, the Dead Sea. (The glaring omission of some famously disappearing places such as the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan is due to its inclusion in a previous volume Atlas of Improbable Places).

Many man-made reasons account for places being threatened or obliterated: global warming that kills coral reefs; dams and river diversions; Islamist militants (who smashed up part of the ancient mosque in Timbuktu in 2012), pollution, excessive tourism, logging, erosion, and pilfering (as on the Great Wall of China). This is definitely not a feel-good read, especially during a pandemic when familiar things seem to be slipping away. Perhaps the next Atlas in the series should be about places that have been saved.

Mind is the Ride: A Journey through Cycling and Philosophy
By Jet McDonald

There isn't a single map in this interesting hybrid of a book. Even the title is challenging and (I think) refers to bringing together the material world (bicycle, landscape) with mind (thought, ideas, beliefs). It might be thought of as following in the tradition of the cult book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which was a lot less factual on both Zen and motorcycles than this is on world philosophies and bicycles.

The chapters introduce one part of a bicycle at a time, and are structured on the fanciful conceit of finding a philosophical analog. This is easier for wheels—which prompt a meditation on the cosmic cycle of Zoroastrianism—than it is for more abstruse parts like the splendidly named Star-Fangled Washer which he compares to the Hindu lotus because of its shape.

Nearing his 40th birthday, psychiatrist, musician, and adventurer Jet McDonald pedaled off with his girlfriend Jen from Bristol, England bound for India, returning nearly a year later. His quick pen portraits of places along the way are often skillful and evocative, so some readers might regret that there aren't more of them. For example it is easy to picture the old Maltese port town of Valletta with its "carefree dilapidation, stepped streets and overhanging balconies" which they reach after pedaling past Ferraris and Porsches and lines of African migrants traipsing from their tents into town.

The book demonstrates that "the bicycle is a humble little tool by which ordinary people get to meet ordinary people living their ordinary lives over extraordinary distances." Like so many cycle tourists before them, they encounter the unexpected hospitality of strangers, which increases the further east they travel. For example, a taxi driver in a small Iranian city insists they accept his hospitality in what turns out to be a drug rehab house. The serious parts of the book are relieved by the author's self-deprecating humor. He is clearly a bicycle-obsessive with more than a touch of hypochondria and existential angst, to the occasional exasperation of his sensible girlfriend.

As well as appealing to ordinary readers, this book will certainly appeal to keen cyclists and to anyone interested in psychoanalysis, philosophy, geography, history, or religion. In these strange times of lockdown many people have been taking up cycling, and this book might inspire them to pedal further afield when it is once again possible. He proves that our (bike) chains can set us free.

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

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Atlas of Vanishing Places: The Lost Worlds as they were and as they are Today

Buy Atlas of Vanishing Places: The Lost Worlds as they were and as they are Today at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Mind is the Ride: A Journey through Cycling and Philosophy

Buy Mind is the Ride: A Journey through Cycling and Philosophy at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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