Perceptive Travel Book Reviews October 2020
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: Two road trips on the North American continent and a journey by sail along the coast of the Celtic fringe.

Slow Road to San Francisco: Across the USA from Ocean to Ocean
By David Reynolds

This Englishman of mature years has a wonderful knack for getting under the skin of small-town America. We already noticed this gift in his earlier book Slow Road to Brownsville. This time he meanders from sea to shining sea along Route 50. The most mundane of visits to Burger Kings and laundromats often result in revealing encounters. With easy charm he falls into conversation with people he meets, and finds humor everywhere, for example at a hot dog joint in the Rust Belt where a customer opines "if there's one thing women are good at, it's swimming" to which he can only grin and shake his head knowingly, as if to say "I know what you mean. Those women—and their darned swimming".

Despite the humor, the journey and the book are not merely vehicles for jokes. While chapters can have jokey names ("A Quiet Sundae in Hillsboro"), Reynolds has a serious ambition to take the temperature of the American hinterland in the run-up to the 2020 election. He wears his liberal values on his sleeve, but has a humane affinity with men and women of all stripes.

The book's unpretentious epigraph, quoted from a motel receptionist he met in Colorado, summarizes the tone of his project: "Travel helps people to learn, and you learn most if you have no plan, no itinerary." He does the equivalent of what in Britain is referred to as "brown-signing" which is to follow at whim any road sign to a point of interest (which on UK roads are a standard format on a brown background). He is more than ready to mock himself when this goes wrong, as it often does for instance when he follows a sign to Nutter's Fort hoping to find an historic fort only to end up outside a primary school. A series of happenstances directs him to Greensburg, Kansas, a town that was destroyed by a tornado in 2007. By meeting the mayor and other long-time residents he learns that the town has collectively reinvented itself as a model "green town." There are always revealing surprises around the corner with this travel writer.

He is also a champion eavesdropper with a penchant for inventing people's back stories which are at times hilarious. His whimsical imagination can hear a cicada chorus as a hen (bachelorette) night interrupted by catcalls from boorish males. But he tackles the big perennial issues, too, like the history of slavery and of Native Americans. Not infrequently his haha moments turn into aha moments about the human—or at least the American—condition.

Mexican Roadtrip

On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Road Trip
By Paul Theroux

As we move south of the US border and to a big book by Paul Theroux, the Grand Old Man of travel writing, it seems to me that we move from a British to an American sensibility. Less self-deprecating, more driven, perhaps more strident. But then there is a lot to be angry and outraged about in the state of Mexico now. On his epic road trip the length of the country and back again, the author really immerses himself in the culture, seeking out the dispossessed from the bleak border towns to the impoverished southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas (I would have been very grateful for a map).

It is heartening to think that Theroux is going strong. He was 76 when he made this journey three years ago, and is still willing to eat flying ants and stay in fleapit hotels ("...wearily I groped to my cement cell and lay on a slumping mattress with filthy sheets... and slept like a baby"). You have to admire him for ignoring all the nay-sayers who warn him about the dangers of traveling into border areas where drug cartels hold sway. "Everyone will give you ten reasons for not going. They want you to stay home eating meatloaf and play with a computer, which is what they're doing." He is more inclined to take advice from local people once he is on the road but holds his nerve, though he is clearly rattled when a corrupt policeman threatens and extorts money from him. (He admits that his "gringo acquiescence" prompts him to pay bribes whenever required.)

An impressive amount of journalistic research has gone into unpacking topics such as the (pernicious) effects of NAFTA and the veracity of rumored local atrocities. He doesn't spare the reader any of the horror and gore when describing crimes committed by cartels and corrupt officials, most memorably of the abduction of 43 students from a rural teachers' college in 2014. All very depressing.

But his primary interest is in the movement of Mexicans in and out of the US, and the overbearing power which the US wields over its neighbor. With "the incurable nosiness of the true traveler" and passable Spanish, Theroux can talk to folks from all backgrounds. He provides vivid snapshots of migrants all over the country who typically have spent a few years in the US working in the fields, as dishwashers or cleaners, have returned to Mexico for a family emergency (usually the dying of a parent) and then have been unable to return because of the tightening of the border controls and the rising fees charged by coyotes (migrant smugglers).

The arc of this story is repeated many times, which brings me to my main quibble. The book would benefit from a rigorous editor. It seems that all the notes he has scribbled in his notebook find their way into the text—exhaustive lists of what was for sale at a gas station, of the installations in an art gallery he visits, of many of his meals. A red pencil is especially needed when he writes lengthy critical assessments of books about Mexico by authors like D H Lawrence and Graham Greene. The nadir comes when he quotes at length from his own review from 1995 of a novel by the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes.

However, there is no doubt his prose can be arresting and his knowledge of Mexico deep. He has embraced with vigor the daunting task of writing about a complicated country that has been so heavily analyzed before. He conveys the vitality, fortitude and rebelliousness of the Mexican people. Most readers will come away from this book with a far deeper insight than they had before.

The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination
Philip Marsden

Preoccupied with the spirit of place, Philip Marsden sets out on a personal quest to reach some remote islands off the northwest coast of Scotland. For years, the Summer Isles have shimmered in his imagination, since deciding as a young man to visit them with a beloved aunt who was killed in a climbing accident before they could realize their plan. He combines this longed-for destination with a dream to sail solo on his newly acquired 31-foot wooden boat Tsambika from his family home in Cornwall, even though he has never undertaken a single-handed sailing journey before.

The book opens with a vision-cum-optical illusion out at sea which reads a bit like the laudanum dream of a Romantic poet. Perhaps to enjoy this book you need a more romantic cast of mind than I have, and an ability to appreciate the mysterious and mystical. For the author, "places are never just places; they are story and myth and belief." He sails in search of places where the gauze between this world and what he calls the otherworld is at its most transparent. Therefore he savors the Isle of Skye with its Fairy Bridge and Fairy Knoll and Cave of Fairies. The narrative is peppered with poems and ancient Celtic legends about magical places with daunting Old Irish names like Tir naÓg and characters like Cú Chulainn.

The contrasting aspect of the book is that a lot of it is devoted to the nitty gritty of sailing. Mention of genoa sails and rhumb lines are as devoid of meaning for me as the sìth (fairy creatures) and dinnseanchas (lore of place). The book fluctuates between these realms; in characteristically elegant prose, Marsden describes the way that "the wallow of contemplation gave the press of the practical". He is just at ease with a learned digression about "nostalgia" as he is whittling corks to replace a lost stopper for his rubber dinghy.

Like our other two authors this month, Marsden is also ready to buy a drink for a local person with a tale to tell, and he has encounters with various colorful locals—sailors and crofters, barflies and raconteurs. His descriptive writing is often lyrical and evocative ("Milky sunlight glimmered on the swells"). I recognize the book's strengths but often found it rather dizzying, and not always engaging, so I feel it was wasted on a reader like me.

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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On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Road Trip

Buy On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Road Trip at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination

Buy The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon
Amazon UK
Amazon Canada