Perceptive Travel Book Reviews December 2012
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: This month, contradictions abound in the simultaneous beauty and menace of nature on remote islands and in the history and sub-cultures of Naples, as well as in one man's tiny contribution to fixing the world.

Islands Beyond the Horizon: The life of twenty of the world's most remote places
by Roger Lovegrove

Even the keenest player of "Trivial Pursuit" will fail to identify most of the islands covered in this book, including Chinijo, Jan Mayen, Fernando de Noronha, Mingulay, and Mykines (as distinct from Mykonos in the Aegean). The only ones I might have had a chance of pointing out on the double-page map provided were Guam, South Georgia and (maybe) Tristan da Cunha. None of these is going to feature heavily in a future Lonely Planet guide and only a handful of people get to visit most of them.

Roger Lovegrove—good name for a naturalist—is a bird man who was director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Wales for more than a quarter of a century and undertook research tours of many of the world's most far-flung islands. Understandably he populates his islands with boobies and noddies, tyrant flycatchers and lesser yellow legs rather than with people. But he is also interested in islands as prisons and military bases, research stations and religious retreats, as whaling ports and now as dolphin-watching bases for tourists.

In the Preface the author alludes to moments of exhilaration experienced on solitary islands, when all seems well with the world. However the 20 chapters that follow leave the impression that the world is not at all well. No matter how remote and isolated, islands that have been colonized by man have lost their innocence—have been literally deflowered. The worst culprits in the decimation of species are rats that jumped ship over the past few centuries and who continue cheerfully to eat the eggs of increasingly rare birds. The worst example of the depredation by introduced alien species is Guam where destructive cane toads, cannibalistic kingfishers, and a million oversized brown tree snakes have left the ravaged island eerily silent, reminiscent of Keats's famous line "The sedge has wither'd from the lake/ And no birds sing."

But it is not all gloom and doom. The conservation outcomes are not all bleak, with a flourishing and sustainable crayfish industry established on Tristan da Cunha, and successful programs to reintroduce native species to the Ile aux Aigrettes in Mauritius and to eradicate rats from South Georgia in Antarctic waters. The author occasionally allows himself a poetic flourish, as in the cadenced description of the Faroes which makes you want to visit soon: "Given sunshine days in June and July, Mykines is transformed into an idyll, its hay meadows bright with buttercups, red campion, angelica, sorrel, and marsh marigolds, puffins polka-dotting the grassy slopes, and the skies busy with the comings and goings of innumerable seabirds."

Other descriptions read uncomfortably like a geography textbook ("In excess of 500,000 pairs of seabirds of 15 species breed on the St Kilda archipelago, including 20 percent of the world's Atlantic gannets...." ). Yet some chapters are revelations. A mere five-page chapter introduces the astonishing San Blas islands off the coast of Panama populated by a pure Aboriginal self-governing people called the Cuna who are nearly as small in stature as the Pygmies of Central Africa. And who knew that the largest protected marine environment in Europe is the Chinijo Archipelago off the Canary Islands?

Readers may regret that there are not more human interest encounters like seeing the cheeky children who stuff "helpful" leaves through the gaps of the dock-mounted long-drop toilet on San Blas. But Lovegrove does unearth remarkable stories from the past of human survival that seem to be out of Ripley's Believe it or not —including one of four Russian walrus hunters marooned on frozen Half Moon Island for six years, who survived on polar bear and Arctic fox, staving off scurvy by drinking fresh reindeer blood. The book does not shrink from showing nature red in tooth and claw. Lovegrove is well aware of what Leonardo DiCaprio learned on "The Beach," that "life in paradise is not always an idyll".

The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem
by Ken Budd

By focusing on the wonders of nature, the author of Islands nearly effaces himself. Turning now to a lively account of volunteering in several countries, Ken Budd puts himself at the center of the story. He may not be self-effacing but he is certainly self-deprecating, which results in some passages of high hilarity. For example when he and his wife Julie sign up for a short volunteering stint in Costa Rica, they realize how ill-prepared they are to teach English and feel "like some schmuck who can make toast suddenly running a restaurant" as they struggle to ensure that they don't make their students' limited English worse.

I have to declare a special interest in this book since I have been writing books about working and volunteering abroad for decades, and am interested in the motivations and rewards (or lack thereof) that people discover in the experience. Much of what is written on the topic is sentimental and clichéd, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up this book. But almost immediately the author's intelligence and autobiographical honesty engage the reader. The gritty reality of the day-to-day tasks involved in trying to help others quickly moves beyond any voluntourism hype.

Budd's first volunteering experience was in the wake of Hurricane Katrina where because of his lack of practical building skills he is set the task of scraping cracked paint off a householder's garden shed. "Scrape, scrape, scrape. Sweat, sweat, sweat. Wipe face with shirt. Chug water. Repeat." Not much glamor or high-mindedness in that. He has a knack for turning simple experiences into metaphors. So 330 pages later when he is volunteering in Palestine and far outside his comfort zone, he realizes that he has succeeded in his ambition to "scrape away the layers of myself and discover what's underneath; scrape like I scraped that stubborn shed in New Orleans, peeling off what's dry and chipped and dead."

The author's motivations for using his vacations—and large sums of money—to work in deprived communities are underpinned by the respect he feels for his father, who died suddenly and prematurely. Approaching the watershed age of 40 himself, Ken questions what lasting value his own life will have, especially as he is coming to terms with being childless himself (because his wife does not want children). This deeply personal account shines a searchlight on the issue of privileged westerners volunteering in the developing world.

But mainly the book is entertaining because Budd is a skilled writer with a good ear for dialogue. I loved his made-up words like wimpify, sloggy, puniverse and secureaucrats, and I also relished his less-than-prim language. (A certain amount of scatalogical humor is perhaps inevitable when describing countries where bowels are routinely loosened.)

By the end of the book and after questioning the value of his short "voluntourism gigs", he identifies two benefits, both of them modest: that different nationalities meet; and that temporary labor relieves a small amount of the burden on struggling communities, and relieves monotony by providing novelty. If this is the resulting trajectory of a mid-life crisis, then it is one of the most productive ones I have read about.

Street Fight in Naples: A City's Unseen History
by Peter Robb

In earlier reviews, I have been guided to exceptional travel books by the judges of the Dolman travel book prize in the UK, so I was looking forward to the recent book by the gifted Australian writer Peter Robb. I now understand why it didn't make it from the 2012 long list to the Dolman short list, because Street Fight in Naples barely qualifies as a travel book. It is more like an art historical treatise and, for me, was too freighted with erudition to communicate the fascination Robb clearly feels for Naples.

There is a touching memorial in a church I have visited in Northamptonshire to a young couple who were "cruelly shot by banditti" near Naples in 1824 on a honeymoon tour. This book tries to unpick the violence, passion and madness that have always been associated with Naples. Robb ably describes the city's oxymoronic "frantic lethargy" where "the loveliest bay on earth was a couple of minutes' walk from unspeakable squalor" and where barely contained passions seethe and occasionally emerge, as in the vicious fight he witnesses between two women—ironically in the Piazza Carità (meaning charity).

Frustratingly, we are pulled away from the contemporary city to the Neapolitan art scene of the city's 16th century heyday. The scattergun story-telling techniques and ricocheting chronology are no doubt intentional—to mirror the contradictions and many-layered complexity of the city—but they risk leaving the reader confused and even bored. The detail overwhelms in a catalog of barons and invaders, double-crossers and power-mongers, heretics and rapists. Colorful as these stories are, it is questionable whether they illuminate the city of the title or not.

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 14 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.

Some review copies this issue supplied by UK bookseller Waterstones.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:

Islands Beyond the Horizon

Buy Islands Beyond the Horizon in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

international travel

The Voluntourist

Buy The Voluntourist in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Street Fight in Naples

Buy Street Fight in Naples in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Sign Up