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The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
by Robert Macfarlane
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.81

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Walk to Connect with Ancient History, 10 May 2013
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The Old Ways is a poetic book - whatever that means: lyrical, elegiac, figurative; the writer walks, and the reader follows, but the images conjured up by our footfall on ancient paths, slow us down, as we try to make sense of their meaning.

Macfarlane doesn't walk to get from point A to B, nor is he a "pilgrim" concerned with himself. He's not "testing his limits" - yet his walks can be very demanding. His first journey on foot takes him up the ancient Icknield Way. He cracks a rib or two even before starting his trip, but this only seems to him a minor impediment to walking - a entrance fee for admission onto a mythical path: He considers this to be his "entry fee" to the old way, "charged at one of the usual tollbooths".

The fact that he covers a hefty thirty miles a day and sleeps rough, Macfarlane only mentions in passing. And while other foot travel writers can go on for pages describing the slog of finding a place to sleep, Macfarlane simply notes: "I slept that night in a Neolithic dormitory on a seabed of chalk".

Neolithic - the New Stone Age. For Macfarlane, who estimates to have walked 6000 to 7000 miles on foot paths in his life so far, walking the old ways is about connecting with a landscape and its history - crossing over into a forgotten world.

If footpaths and walking them is not just an ordinary activity for you, but a profound, and, at times, even a mystic experience, this book is for you.

Walking to Hollywood
Walking to Hollywood
by Will Self
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

3.0 out of 5 stars London - Los Angeles: 120 Miles, 12 April 2013
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This review is from: Walking to Hollywood (Paperback)
Writer Will Self's an evangelist for walking. He's the guy who came up with the idea of travelling to another continent on foot, even if you just have two days. I'm talking about his airport walks - from your home to the airport, and from the destination airport to your hotel or wherever you're headed.

Will Self's most famous airport walk is probably the one from his home in Stockwell, London, to Hollywood, Los Angeles. I run a blog about walking and travelling on foot (The Walking Post) - hence, I was very interested in this book.

Walking to Hollywood, officially labelled a novel though I would probably call it a memoire slash deep dive into Will's boundless, dreamlike (and nightmarish) imagination.

It consists of three parts, the middle one of which, and at 200 pages the bulk of the book, is about the author's walk to Hollywood.

The title is misleading. Calling this book a travelogue, would be like saying that the cover image of my beautiful edition of it would be a naturalistic depiction of its author.

It - the cover art, but also the book's style - reminds me much of Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" - well, Terry Gilliam's movie version actually, as I can't get myself to read Thompson's book or anything else labelled "gonzo". Is Walking to Hollywood "gonzo"? I'm not sure. I don't really know what gonzo is - somehow I never felt like finding out.

The thing about Walking to Hollywood is, that, most of the time I had no idea what Will Self's story was really about. He's talking about his walk to the world's movie capital to find out what killed film, that much I get, as well as the fact that he has conversations on the way with real people and made up characters, such as Scobby Doo.

What I love about the book is its central idea: walking to Hollywood to mediate about the death of the movie industry, and some of the many pieces that make up this "dreamoire": musings, reveries, mediations, sarcastic swipes, and crazed misery stories. And I like what first brought Will Self to my attention: his voice, his masterful articulacy, his thesaurus-is-alive! vocabulary.

Before you buy the book, read a chapter or two on Preview to see if its very peculiar tone engages you. But I warn you, you must really try, give it some time, and give it your full attention. Will Self doesn't stand for easy reading. And should you be lucky enough find a way into it, you'll surely find treasures deep down in the writer's rambling imagination that eluded me.

Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality
Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality
by Mark Rowlands
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.09

4.0 out of 5 stars What I Think About When I Run With My Wolf, 12 April 2013
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Mark Rowlands's "The Philosopher and the Wolf" - a popular philosophy best-seller based upon the writer's decade spent living with a wolf - was one of my favourite reads last year, and I was delighted to see that Rowlands came out with a new book. As a keen runner (and walker - I run the walking blog The Walking Post dot com) with a lay interest in philosophy, I was looking forward to a book about running and philosophy.

I have not read a lot of books about running, but I imagine that many of them take kind of a can-do, optimistic view of things. Doesn't regular physical exercise turn most people into more optimistic beings? If this is so, Mark Rowlands is not one of them - at least not in the traditional sense. "Running with the Pack" does not have an ounce of esoteric "our bodies are just avatars" speculation or "you can be whatever you dare to dream" pep talk in it. Rowlands does think a lot about the body and the mind (Descartes and dualism feature prominently in the book), but he keeps his feet firmly on the ground.

Nevertheless, Running with the Pack, and The Philosopher and the Wolf for that matter, are by no means pessimistic books - actually I find them very life-affirming in their core, mainly because of their sincerity. Rowlands takes a really honest look at life, and at the inevitable end of it, which awaits all of us. But it's this expiry date of the human body (and not speculation of what may lie beyond) that really makes him explore and live the here and now in a very intense way. So this sense, "Running with the Pack" is an optimistic book - not optimistic in that it puts its hope into faith (religious or other), but in that it explores who we really are and concludes that we can search for the meaning of our own lives if we try hard enough.

If you're interested in physical activity and philosophy, and how they marry up, "Running with the Pack" is a very engaging read. It is in many ways very different from Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running", but both writers use running to talk about life and philosophy (Rowlands) or writing (Murakami). My guess is that if you liked Murakami's running memoir, you will want to read Rowlands's "Running with the Pack".

The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce
Edition: Paperback
Price: 3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars Fiction for travelling-on-foot enthusiasts, 1 April 2013
I'm very interested in walking and travelling on foot (I write a blog about it - The Walking Post), so naturally this sellout novel greatly interested me. I was not disappointed - Harold Fry is a really good read. If a bit of soul-pleasing character development doesn't turn you off (let's say, for example, you actually well up when the boys in Dead Poets Society get on the table and shout, "Oh captain, my captain"), chances are you'll be in tears by the time Harold ... well, let's not spoil anything here.

Harold Fry is one of those guys that nobody wants to be, but that we observe people morphing into all around. Since he retired from his job as a travelling beer salesman, he sits at home in his comfortable little house on the south coast of England, occasionally mows the lawn, and is generally bored with himself. He and his wife, Maureen, have nothing left to say to each other, and their only son - a Cambridge graduate, so much better educated than his parents - has disappeared from their lives. Harold doesn't like memories very much. And if every once in a while one dares scrambling out of its cave to bathe in the gloomy sun of Harold's consciousness, it is usually of the variety that is best stuffed back into where it came from. Like, for example, the memory of his former boss, a rowdy brewery owner; or the memory of his six-year old son, in the danger of drowning during one of the family's annual holidays at Eastbourne: In this particularly unwelcome memory Harold sees himself, stopping to unlace his shoes, and the coastguard sprinting past him (without distracting himself with shoelaces) and slicing through the waves to save the child. And he sees the look in Maureen's eyes.

One day - Harold Fry sits in the kitchen and thinks about what to do (inconveniently, he had already cut the grass the day before) - a letter arrives. It is a short note from Queenie, an ex colleague at the brewery from twenty years ago - one of those memories that quietly seeped away. She's at a hospice in Berwick-Upon-Tweed up on the Scottish border. A cancer is killing her.

Harold eventually pulls a few sheets of paper from the dresser drawer. But what can one say? He ends up drafting a very short note of regret and leaves the house to walk to the closest pillar box. But once he gets there, he can't let go of the letter.

And thus begins Harold Fry's unlikely pilgrimage, from the first post box, to the second one, to the next one, and on and on. Soon enough, Harold realises that he is not looking for pillar boxes anymore. He is walking 627 miles across England to the Scottish border to see Queenie.

Harold walks without preparation, without luggage, and with only a very basic plan. He walks away from the life that he lead for more then sixty years, and the further he gets away, the clearer he sees what he left behind. He looks back at the forest that one only sees when stepping out of it. Harold is not used to walking, and the way is hard. The daily trudge along with the eventual nights of sleeping rough and days of eating with the help of a second-hand dictionary of wildflowers, slowly change his body. And with the physical transformation, inner walls, consciously and unconsciously built during a lifetime of quiet desperation, start to tumble. Ghosts, friends, and foes, buried deep down in their graves in Harold's brain emerge like souls on Judgement Day. Self-deceptions retreat and make room for real memories.

Or, at least this is my own reading of the Harold's journey on foot.

Travelling on foot changes our bodies, our routines, and our minds. The little frame, through which we're used to looking at the world, shifts and changes. It might even break. No doubt, there will be another frame that we're not conscious of, but certainly one that's going to be wider and more open than the old one.

Long-time (radio play) writer and first-time novelist, Rachel Joyce, doesn't spend much time analysing her hero's inner journey. Her writing, although conveying profound emotions, is as unsentimental as Harold's character - even though Harold learns a great deal about himself, he never self-elevates his journey to the pedestal of pilgrimage. (Actually, when he feelingly becomes a media sensation, he doesn't run away from it - his English sense of duty wouldn't allow it - but he can't wait for the country to forget about him again). Harold walks, and he'll keep walking, and he - so he makes himself believe - will save Queenie by doing so. That's all he cares about. But somehow the physical effort of walking every day, the beautiful (and beautifully described) landscape he journeys through, and the quirky characters he meets on the way, naturally lead Harold to a slow but steady re-consolidation with the way his life went. And once the journey ends, we do feel that what started as posting a letter has turned into an unlikely - an accidental - pilgrimage: a slow, contemplative journey, purging the traveller of his sins.

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