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Adrian Mourby – Rooms Of One’s Own

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For some writers.

Publisher: Icon Books
Pages: 228
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-785-78185-8
First Published: 11th July 2017
Date Reviewed: 3rd September 2017
Rating: 3/5

Mourby travels around the world to experience the living and working spaces of famous past writers in order to get a feel for it all.

Room’s Of One’s Own presents a very specific idea that is appealing but doesn’t always achieve its purpose. Where it focuses on its premise of the way a writer interacted with their residence, it’s excellent, with some choice quotations included, great anecdotes, and the sort of information that you do have to travel to the place in order to learn.

It’s good to note straight away that this is as much about Mourby’s experience than a general report on the places. Most pieces of information are filtered through his own thoughts on the subject and the book is in many ways a travel log. However the histories of the buildings, away from the context of the writers’ lives, are often there to make up for the lack of personal experience and description Mourby is able to include; a sizeable number of the buildings are inaccessible to him – he is barred access by the staff or present residents – which will almost inevitably result in a sense of disappointment on your own part as you wonder why he didn’t just exclude that particular place in favour of another. On a few occasions, the places chosen were not used for writing.

There is a lack of diversity in the book, which is very noticeable. All 50 chosen are white, despite the fair number from the 20th century in particular.

Mourby’s interest in the writers is apparent and some of the angles he takes on them are particularly good to read, it’s just that the book is in many ways more for those interested in architecture.

I received this book for review.

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Cheryl Strayed – Wild

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Climb every mountain.

Publisher: Knopf (Random House)
Pages: 309
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-59273-6
First Published: 20th March 2012
Date Reviewed: 12th January 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

By 26, Cheryl Strayed had lost her mother, had multiple affairs as a result of the pain and confusion, and divorced her husband who she still loved, knowing that separating was the right thing to do. Looking back on a random shopping trip she’d taken, when she’d seen a guidebook about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed decided to up sticks and take up the challenge of travelling a large portion of it (without any preparation), hoping it would help her get back to herself and work out how to move on.

Wild is a memoir, a hybrid of travel report and spiritual (not religious) journey that includes both the day to day of Strayed’s literal journey and flashbacks to the past. Written up around 18 years after the events it rests on memory and diary notes.

I’ve written that last sentence now so we can deal with this part first – it’s best to know before going into Strayed’s memoir that a lot of time has passed since her journey and thus when something doesn’t sound quite true or realistic, it’s not necessarily made up, though of course it could be. There are a lot of anecdotes and repeated information, a lot of detail that is difficult to believe considering Strayed never mentions writing in her journal (instead falling asleep exhausted many times) and some things sound a little too… cute. It’s fair, in this book’s case, to say that Strayed probably isn’t lying – she has most likely forgotten a lot of details and had to rely on sketchy memories and other people’s memories to form conversations. Because she’s detailed a lot of conversations in great, well, detail.

It’s obviously a pity from this perspective that the journey happened so long ago, but the dubious quality of the book is not, at least, a drawback. Strayed doesn’t exactly impress upon you the fact she’s writing so late, but it’s not been hidden either. Who knows, perhaps some of it was written up and no one wanted to publish it at the time. Suffice to say it’s worth keeping all this mind, accepting that your doubts may be warranted, and then getting on with the book.

Because it’s a good book. Strayed is open about the fact she’s no seasoned hiker (and you’re not going to find Bill Bryson or the like here) but that’s part of the journey. Strayed learns to hike as she goes along, detailing plainly her silly, rash, decisions, her embarrassing moments, the times she was worried and wanted to quit, and this lack of knowledge means that the book is accessible to anyone who is interested in hiking, whatever their own experience. (It’s worth noting that Strayed doesn’t hike all of the trail, and a few times she hitch-hikes to bypass certain sections which can be a bit disappointing as a reader.)

Less humble is Strayed’s discussion of her family. There is an element of self-absorption in the book that’s pretty tolerable during the hiking sections but less so in flashbacks. Strayed casts herself as the golden child, putting herself on a pedestal and detailing the lack of time her siblings put into the event of their mother’s illness and the aftermath of her death. It could well be true, and certainly Strayed talks more objectively about her siblings later on, but it doesn’t do Strayed any favours. Most other people are given more thrift. Strayed’s ex-husband is blameless, indeed Strayed makes it clear it was her fault without going into apologies – it’s a fact, it happened, and now she’s got to move on. Fellow travellers fare differently depending on how they appeared and how they treated Strayed, quite naturally. For all this book is about solo hiking, there are meetings with many other people, too.

It’s true that whilst open and humble about her lack of hiking ability, Strayed has a lot of good luck on her journey and writes a lot of me-me-me paragraphs. This is where you have to know that this isn’t simply a travel memoir – the whole point of Strayed’s journey, whilst, yes, she certainly wants to be able to say she managed to hike the trail and celebrate such an accomplishment, is to move on from her mother’s death. But yes, it can at times become a bit much.

Now the prose itself is far from perfect but as an overall product, Wild is a good, easy, read. Strayed succeeds in taking you along with her to the point that you’ll likely feel as daunted, yes daunted, once the end is nigh – physical exertion aside, you’ll feel you’ve joined Strayed on the trail. As much as she looks back on her life she describes the landscape and offers an image clear enough that the lack of photography in the book is no drawback. What’s the landscape? Forest, desert, snow, sun, heavy rain – pretty much everything. There’s even a crater formally known as a volcano. And throughout Strayed carries her monstrous backpack, the shoes on her feet causing her no end of problems. (She’s pretty graphic about those problems; beware if you plan to read this book over lunch.)

Strayed discusses abortion, her affairs, her drug use, openly – almost to a fault. She swears casually. This is a book full of heart, full of personal truth, but it must be said there’s no big resolution, in fact the book ends quite suddenly with a purchased reward, a glimpse of what hindsight could have told her about the future, and nothing else. Clearly the takeaway is the journey, the journey on foot and the journey in mind.

A special mention must be made for the literary details. Strayed reports on the books she read during her trip, their subject matter, what she likes about them, and then their unfortunate end as she turns their extra pack weight into ashes. There’s a nice variety here and to show that books are important despite their sorry ends, there’s even a list of them at the back of the book in case you want to be well-read in a particular Cheryl Strayed manner.

Wild offers the chance to go on a long hike without moving a muscle. It offers a story of personal growth and redemption that’s earnest and unashamed, even inspiring. Should you read it? Yes; even after all the problems discussed, I still think you should.

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Michael Palin – Around The World In 80 Days

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Easy – until you rule out aeroplanes.

Publisher: Orion (Phoenix)
Pages: 241
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-075-38232-48
First Published: 1989 (this edition with extra content, 2010)
Date Reviewed: 28th October 2013
Rating: 4/5

Star of Monty Python, Michael Palin, was challenged by the BBC to undertake a journey around the world, imitating Phileas Fogg – to follow Fogg’s example, Palin forgoes aeroplanes for slow sea voyages and train rides and he tries to get from the Reform Club in London, to the same club once again (which he’s not allowed to enter), travelling through the Middle East, Asia, and North America.

Around The World In 80 Days is a rather brief (this detailed later) account of Palin’s journey, a book published to accompany the TV series the journey was primarily created for. It’s safe to say you can read the book without having seen the series, though of course your overall experience would be enhanced by making time for both.

The most obvious element that needs to be commented on, considering the bulk of the content was written and concerns the late 1980s, is that the book is understandably dated. Writing in the then-present, Palin carries in his Walkman, ship crews watch films on VHS, and a lot of the country-specific references are now irrelevant or historic-sounding. There isn’t a laptop in sight.

Yet as long as you keep this in mind, the book isn’t old enough to pose any issues. Perhaps the very young reader, who wasn’t born before the Internet, might have trouble catching every reference, but for the most part it isn’t hard. Indeed the book offers the chance to relax in an age where technology wasn’t yet persistent and journeys were more hazardous.

It’s worth noting that the new edition contains Palin’s mini follow-up trip twenty years after the 80 days. It’s written in the same style, details the landscape changes Palin notices, and recounts the reunion with the ship’s crew he was sad to leave those twenty years previous. It’s not a big addition, but it makes the new version of the book the better option nowadays. This said, the book does not end with a grand finale. Palin makes his trip and that’s it. Given the reason for the journey – to attempt Fogg’s mission in reality – there is little think about afterwards.

There is a lot of cultural information in the book, and a lot of it is ageless. So too the historical information. Through Palin’s words it is easy to see how his journey differs in emotion and thought to Fogg’s – Fogg simply travelled without wishing to see the countries he went through, Palin makes a point of using any spare time to talk to people and try local food and wares. He goes clothes shopping in Japan, rides a camel, becomes an extra in a film – for Palin the list goes on and on; one almost feels sorry for Fogg’s belief in western superiority, fictional character or not.

There is a great deal of humour in the book. A lot of it is very British but of the kind that is accessible to anyone. For example, a running theme is Sheffield United Football Club. Palin doesn’t say so outright, but it’s obvious that one of the things he wants to stay updated on is news about his favourite team. There are references to other Monty Python members, and jokes about the many ‘Michael’ incidences on his journey – the camel and its owner being called Michael (a sales pitch it would seem), Palin being called Michael Jackson (as the latter is/was more well-known), and so on. There are also lots of jokes about the different idiosyncrasies and ideas Palin comes across, which may at first seem wrong – but Palin soon starts joking about Britain, too.

Truly this is a book in which the highlights are the comedy and Palin’s focus on getting to know the countries themselves (rather than only the tourist attractions). The book has a lot of information about sea vessels and trains – understandably none on cars or planes – and will therefore appeal to transport enthusiasts too.

This is where we come to the mention of the book being ‘brief’ – there is detail, but only in parts. The book is often written as though bullet points wouldn’t be amiss, and the style is in no way literary. Palin jumps from one day to another, and whilst this could be a reason for suggesting the TV series is paramount to appreciation, it’s more the case that the style is the inevitable effect of the book being a product of Palin’s diary. Indeed if you didn’t know this prior to reading it, you would soon realise, as the amount of detail that is there is more than most people would be able to remember off the bat.

Briefness aside, it’s admirable of Palin that he wrote about every day, come rain or shine, happiness, headache, or sickness.

To sum it up, Palin’s book is relatively short, but it’s sweet. It’s necessarily primarily concerned with transport but this shouldn’t put off those looking for culture. And it’s a whole lot of fun. There are plenty of photographs included – you don’t feel ‘outside’ – and that it is now dated may just be part of its charm. Those with wander lust will love it (note that it may lead to tickets purchased), those who love the slower pace of life will enjoy its use of the sea and the way of the crews as they take their time, and those looking for reports of the culinary kind will find what they seek. With a lot to recommend it to a lot of different people, Around The World In 80 Days is one set of days you’ll want to be escaping to.

I received this book for review from Titan Travel.

Update on 29th March 2016: I see the question, ‘which feature of michael palin’s “around the world in 80 days” best shows that it is a primary source?’ a lot in my stats so I’ll answer it. Palin’s book is in the form of a diary; the book is a published version of the diary he kept whilst on his travels. Diaries are considered primary sources therefore the diary format of the book shows best that it is a primary source. (If we wanted to look into it further we could suggest the book is also bordering on being a secondary source because it’s in part a commentary of Vernes’ original book both through its detailing of the differences and the very fact Palin is following in Phileas Fogg’s fictional footsteps.)

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