Perceptive Travel Book Reviews October 2014
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: Accounts on discovering and creating memories through the physical act of walking, on testing one's courage by living in China, and on coming through many adversities across Asia with one's faith in human nature intact.

Doubling Back: Ten Paths Trodden in Memory
By Linda Cracknell

Linda Cracknell is a writer first, and a mountain walker second, and in this volume has written of ten discrete journeys in Scotland where she lives, in Spain, Norway, Kenya, etc, retracing walks that resonate with memories of her past and of the pasts of her family and friends. Autobiography necessarily plays a key part in these re-visitings, as the author seeks to link physical and inner landscapes.

In the opening chapter she returns to a lovely corner of southwestern England where the novelist Thomas Hardy fell in love with his first wife Emma Gifford. The author interweaves this story with the summer romance she had here as a teenager. A chapter or two later she is climbing a dizzying ravine in southern Spain and next she is taking delight in walking barefoot with a group of joyous African women in Kenya. While staying at a writers' center in a Swiss chateau that she vividly describes as being "laced into place by small lanes," she strides out for an hour each morning in order to "plant" herself in the place. The author writes well of the joys of walking and how it can connect you in imagination to local stories as well as to your own.

At the center of the book is the author's moving attempt to re-connect with her long dead father whom she hardly knew. She knows him only through family stories and a few photographs, one of which is of an expedition he led in the Swiss Alps when he was 25 in 1952. On the basis of this and one preserved postcard, she aims to reprise his mountain journey. After she and her two companions are forced by deteriorating weather to turn back from the 4273-meter peak of Finsteraarhorn, she ruminates on the absurdity of "peak-bagging." Her later researches reveal that this was not the mountain her father climbed. He was doing a ridge traverse, and she feels more affinity with him than ever before.

There is a slight whiff of the mid-life crisis about her motivations. She is at a point in her life when she must admit that she will be childless. She loves the excitement and enchantment that walking in remote landscapes can bring, and the "possibilities for stillness and reflection," qualities she associates with the "melancholy acceptance of Autumn," i.e. her middle and declining years. The subtle and elegiac writing makes this a special kind of travel book.

Fragrant Heart: A Tale of Love, Life and Food in Asia
By Miranda Emmerson

This more light-hearted book is by a woman author at an earlier stage of life. Miranda Emmerson also provides a lot of autobiographical back story, which is germane to her experiences of living in China and travelling in Asia. She and her partner have decided to indulge their craving for a big adventure before settling back in Wales to start a family. One of her main motivations of throwing herself at a big scary trip was to prove to herself that she was brave enough for motherhood.

The book works well as travelogue. Like Linda Cracknell, this author is also a walker, but she walks in urban landscapes. Rose-colored spectacles are put aside as she explores less obvious corners of Beijing on foot, "under the flyovers, through to the great grassy banks of another motorway, past skyscrapers, building sites, office blocks and the foundations of new malls and gated communities." Yet on a romantic excursion (in winter) to the Summer Palace, she describes a stroll by the lake as like "walking inside a snow globe." One of the most telling incidents takes place just as she and Chris are about to leave Beijing to spend three months traveling in Southeast Asia. She wants to bid farewell to one of her favorite hutong districts "full of ancient buildings and secret alleyways", with family-run silk stores and grocery shops, a "magical if impoverished neighborhood that has changed little in the past few hundred years." She arrives to find that it is no more, soon to be replaced with brand new apartments and shops.

The contradictory realities of modern-day China are highlighted, where there is both beauty and a disregard of beauty, nicely maintained schools next to local people queuing outside the unforgiving blankness of police stations to see relatives being held.

The author's love of eating and cooking gives rise to the other strand in the book. Meals and favorite restaurants like the Sichuan Provincial Government Restaurant in Beijing are lovingly described, and each chapter ends with a couple of recipes. This may bore some readers but I have shelved my copy of this travel book with my recipe books and intend to attempt "Grilled Pork or Aubergine on Noodles" or "Sach moan cari ang chomkak" (Cambodian chicken kebabs). The author is a vegetarian but quickly had to abandon a hardline stance while living in China. She is so broad-minded that her notes on making a good stock suggest roasting the beef, lamb, pork or horsemeat (!) beforehand.

I have reviewed several other books published by the independent UK publisher Summersdale and am impressed by the commissioning editor's ability to find authors who are sensitive and adventurous travelers but who can also shape a story that keeps the reader turning the pages, not only for the travel tale but to find out how the protagonists will develop. The cover design might mislead you into thinking this is chick lit, but here we have an entertaining and thoughtful account of passing from one stage of life (footloose youth) to another (the responsibilities of parenthood).

Under Asian Skies
By Sam Manicom

By contrast, this book provides a decidedly male take on traveling through some of the same countries of Asia. After taking up motorcycling in his 30s, Sam Manicom became obsessed with seeing as much of the world as possible from the back of his BMW bike christened Libby, short for Liberty. This journey took place around Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey in 1993-5, became a self-published book in 2007 and is now an audiobook. The author believes that audiobooks that can be simply downloaded onto smart devices are the way forward for traveling readers (especially dyslexic bikers).

His stated message is that anybody who dreams of travel should go for it. The one big problem with this book was that reading it might well persuade you to set aside your dream. After reading about his fevers, slipped disks, rain and mud, locals who cheat and scam, pollution, blown out tires, purgatorial heat under bikers' leather—the catalogue of woes seems endless—you feel jolly glad that you are traveling vicariously. Some of the more stomach-churning incidents he recounts in detail include a winding bus journey in Java which causes most passengers to lose the contents of their stomachs, some of which are deposited by the wind in our hero's moustache.

The other preoccupation lurking throughout is the bureaucratic battle to ship and insure his valuable bike. His travel plans are ambitious, for example to be the first to cross Burma into India since the 1960s, but fall flat when permissions are refused. Even if you conclude that his ambitions are naive, you have to admire his dogged determination as he haunts shipping agencies for weeks at a time. This information would no doubt be of interest to potential round-the-word bikers but is a little wearying to the rest of us.

But the author remains undaunted and positive throughout all his setbacks. No doubt it would be fun to share stories with him in a teahouse in India. This is a blow-by-blow account of an amazing journey by a cheerful and likeable enthusiast.

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:

Doubling Back

Buy Doubling Back in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Fragrant Heart

Buy Fragrant Heart in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Under Asian Skies

Buy Under Asian Skies at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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