Showing posts with label Travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Travel. Show all posts

08 June 2014

Gironimo!: Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy by Tim Moore [2014]

This is a travel book describing Tim Moore's attempt to cycle the course of the Giro d'Italia of 1914, using a historically accurate bike. I picked it up because I heard pieces of it on Radio 4's book of the week and I had read some of the author's other books.  

It's an insubstantial book and the slightly arch authorial voice can be grating at times. Also, the technical aspects of assembling the bicycle appeal to a certain character trait which is under-developed with me. The main point that stays with me is the brutality of the 1914 Giro. Moore makes the point that the cyclists taking part were predominantly country boys fleeing poverty (and famine) in pre-industrialized rural Italy. As a result, they were prepared to put up with a level of hardship for relatively little reward that seems astonishing today.
The average stage length was 395 KM.  Because some of the stages took 20 hours to complete, they started at midnight so as to ensure an early evening finish the following day. Only 8 riders finished the race, from 81 who started. Moore covers the course at a significantly slower pace, and the modern travelogue is interspersed with details of the original race. There is a lot of historical cycling information here which did not really grab me. However, I am glad I read it.
As an aside, the author gives an interesting insight into the social stratification of immigrants in Italy by observing the concentric rings of prostitutes that circle Italian cities as he approaches them. These are (in ascending order of price): African, Old Eastern Europeans, Young Eastern Europeans.  An emergent order of sex workers.

18 May 2014

The Seed Buried Deep by Jason Lewis [2013]

This is the sequel to Lewis' first book about circumnavigating the world using human power.  

Here are the things which stay with me a month after reading:

1     The audacity of the venture is still incredible.  In the first section of the book, the author continues to rollerblade across the United States with almost no money, sleeping rough most of the time and carrying everything he needs on his back.  This section feels like a tale of a Great Depression era hobo, yet the trip occurred as recently as 1996.  There are setbacks to overcome (to put it mildly) but the overwhelming surprise here is that this was possible at all - it's very liberating to read about and gives one a tremendous sense of what is possible.

2     Lewis crosses the Pacific in his pedal-powered boat Moksha in three legs, one of which is a 73 day solo voyage. What's interesting here is that even in this unimaginable stretch of solitary confinement, Lewis seems to feel less isolated than in the initial trip across the Atlantic when he had a co-pilot.  I think the reason for this is that the technology has advanced sufficiently for him to be in relatively regular contact with home and the school classes who are following him by email (this is the dawn of the internet age).  Lewis appears to view this inability to be truly alone as an obstacle to attaining the spiritual enlightenment he is seeking, which seems a challenging idea in a connected society.

A gripping tale by a modern hero possessed of awe-inspiring stubbornness.

19 April 2014

Dark Waters: True Story of the First Human-Powered Circumnavigation of the Earth by Jason Lewis [2012]

This is an incredible story.  The author Jason Lewis is an Englishman who in his 20s embarks upon an adventure to circumnavigate the world entirely under human power. This is the first in a trilogy of books about the journey. 

The project is conceived on a shoe-string and my reaction to the first part of the book was admiration at the fearlessness of Lewis and his friend Steven Smith, whose idea it was.  It starts with a drunken plan which actually germinates into a real journey, which is great. Preparation for the journey is at the other end of the spectrum from the sort of detailed, hollowing-out-toothpaste-handles-to-save-weight list-making attention to detail which usually accompanies these sort of adventures.  Instead, the pair are desperately poor and often hungover throughout the first section of the book and somehow manage to get their pedal-powered ship Moksha built and their kit together just by bullying and persuasion. 
The core of the book is about the 111 day journey pedalling the Moksha across the Atlantic and the tone changes abruptly once they set off.  The contrast between the haphazard preparation - Smith (in charge of navigation) is still learning to use the sextant a couple of days before setting off - and the enormity of the challenge and the open water in front of them is genuinely surprising.

At sea there are some breathtaking passages which had me gasping out loud - huge waves, near misses with mysterious sea creatures and other ships: it's really exciting. Contrasted with this intermittent excitement is the claustrophobia and discomfort of being trapped in what is essentially a coffin-shaped pedalo with another person for more than 3 months.  The author and his partner suffer physical deterioration (boils, saltwater chafing) which reflects the fracturing of their relationship.  

The book is very funny but it's not light - the author is a deep and sometimes prickly man, who is looking for some sort of meaning beyond the adventure. The trial of the sea journey and the repetitive nature of the work leads him to meditation and mindfulness which I'm interested to follow over the next two books. This in itself is enough to differentiate this book from a standard wry Englishman's travelogue.  I am really pleased that I picked this up and I can't wait to read the next book, which continues the adventure overland through the USA. 

12 April 2014

The Almost Nearly Perfect People - The Truth about the Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth [2014]

I picked this book up because I'm very interested in Scandinavia, and I had read and enjoyed another of Michael Booth's books before.  The book has sections on Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland and finishes with a section on what Booth considers to be the archetypal Scandinavian country, Sweden. 

Some interesting points:

1     The Danish concept of Hygge which is sometimes translated as 'cosiness'.  In Booth's view, Danes strive for this more than anything else.  It comes from familiarity, warmth, enclosure, identification with one's neighbours and seems both comforting but also suffocating.  Danes are reputedly the happiest people in the world, which may derive from the validation with which they accord Hygge.  However, maintaining this warmth does come with an overhead - for example there is a passage about a week-long residential choir camp that had my toes curling in my shoes.  In this respect, I was reminded very much of the positive and negative aspects to having an extended family.

2   Allied to this striving for cosiness appears to be the concept of Jante Law, which is apparently fundamental to understanding the dynamics of Scandinavian life.  This is a drive towards conformity and adherence to rigid social norms which discourages any kind of exceptionalism.  Reading about this made me understand why Scandinavian countries are so different from the USA, where exceptionalism is venerated.  

3    Scandinavian homogeneity is also reflected in a low Gini coefficient - a measure of the gap between rich and poor.  I am conflicted in my attitude to income inequality.  From a philosophical point of view, I don't think the size of the economic pie is fixed; i.e. there is no reason why more wealth at one end of the spectrum should create more poverty at the other end.  However, it is undeniable that quality of life - especially outside the home - is better in a low Gini country than in a high Gini country.

This is a thought-provoking book that will make you feel slightly jealous that you don't live in Denmark.

10 March 2014

Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know About Cooking by Michael Booth [2010]

A travel book about a culinary journey through Japan.  Very light but better-written than most books ploughing the furrow of "Englishman takes a wry look at a foreign country and its occasionally hilarious ways".

I picked this up because I am mildly obsessed with Japanese food.  It is exotic, but also clean and healthy - whenever I eat it I feel like a better version of myself.  Reading this book reminded me of the Japanese cookery classes I went on a couple of years ago, which completely changed my attitude to cooking and shopping for food.  The author describes the experience of being in Japan very well and reading it made me want to go to Japan and visit the Tsukiji Fish Market before it closes.  And to eat okonomiyaki again.

This book also made me think about reading as escapism and in particular travel books and recipe books.  I have a slightly ambivalent attitude to these sort of books - I love reading them but I am also aware that they tend towards feeding a dissatisfaction with the here and now.