Kenyon Harbison's Reviews > Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World

Grounded by Seth Stevenson
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's review
Nov 23, 11

Read from November 21 to 22, 2011

This is a travel book by Slate's then-travel-writer (and he may still be for all I know). Premise is he and his wife quit everything (she, her high-powered Washington D.C. lawfirm job) to take some months and travel around the world entirely by surface transport. No planes. They take a freighter to Europe, trains into Russia and across European Russia into asian Russia (to the extent that the Ural mountains can actually be said to divide a "European" from an "Asian" continent at all, because it certainly looks to me like a bunch of Europeans a century or two ago picked the Ural mountains as a somewhat arbitrary boundary beyond which was the "other"..., but that's another story), to Vladivostok, freighter to Japan, trains around, freighter to China, trains, bus to Thailand, bikes and cars though to Singapore, freighter to Australia, cruise ship to Los Angeles, Amtrak back to New York.

There are a lot of amusing bits. Also, don't believe the reviews on that talk about how nasty and condescending and petty the writer is. I simply didn't get that at all, and I would get that. With one exception: he is NOT A FAN of fat, diabetic rich old people taking cruises that simply go in a circle. I'm guessing a lot of the reveiws were written by people unsympathetic with his view on that. But even there, and elsewhere, he seems genuinely interested in those he meets, and at least as quick to mock himself as to mock anyone else. Descriptions of traveling by freighter are great. Descriptions of place in docks, and in various exotic (to me) places are great.

Substantively, I question the whole travel by surface thing. He's all into the idea that you don't really know you've traveled if you just fly there, it seems unreal. To which I say, "Well, Seth, you know what also makes you feel like you haven't really travelled? --- if you only get to spend a day in Sydney because you arbitrarily had to take freighters and cruise ships in and out, when you could have flown and spent a week in Sydney." Ironically, this "surface-transport" requirement makes him like just the circular cruisers he shows distaste for: it's just that his circle, which is also all about the journey, not the destination, is around the globe. Strange to see him describe freighter life for pages and pages, but spend a paragraph on a major asian city. Anyway, it's not totally clear he is aware of that irony. Me? -- I'm 80%-to-90% about the destination.

Upshot: Bill Bryson he is not (and who is?), but this is a very good travel book from a talented and amusing writer.

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