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Reading Online News - Review - Sarah Walsh - Oct 2008

On first picking up this book I read the blurb - which began like any fictional mystery novel. When I realised that it was in fact a non-fiction about, in effect a holiday - I was perplexed. Why, I thought, when I have no plans to travel to Indonesia should I read about someone else’s experiences? I realised that as an English Literature student my exposure to different kinds of texts is both varied and paradoxically so ridiculously limited. In half-protest to the institution of education I decided to put down Charles Dickens and began Nick Langston-Able’s memoir, yes, partly in an attempt to be more diverse in the literature I expose myself to, but also to learn something about travelling in case I decide to put off work for a few more years after university (please don’t tell my mother!)

Stylistically, the book is fairly consistent, with a few adaptations to the traditional prose method, which work quite well. I also think it’s important to point out the (perhaps deliberate) mistake in his ‘Kit List’ - he seems to have forgotten his underwear - which could be a bit of a problem! Otherwise this manageable-sized book is both witty and endearing. There is a distinct and unique voice, which one presumes is genuinely Nick; with a sarcastic and dry English humour; “I asked the information desk and when it didn’t answer, I asked the small man behind it”. As a reader I found it impossible not to laugh out loud at comments like this (and watch out for Mike’s ‘Sean Connery story’), the only downside being, when reading the book on a packed train on the way home from work with the commuters’ banal insistence on keeping themselves to themselves, my hysterics made me look slightly strange. There were times when the humour seemed a little forced, but overall it made a very informative book very enjoyable – a rare commodity and furthermore added a personable quality to Nick’s narration. Informative, Langston-Able’s book certainly is. Clearly a lot of research has gone into both the history of Indonesia and the political and economic struggles that are going on to date. Nick makes his less than high opinions of the political powers at the time in which he was travelling very clear and he also makes valid judgements about the difficulties in travelling in such instability. For example, he criticises Westerners who pay extortionate prices (in relation to the Indonesian economy) for untrained tour guides just because they can afford to. He encourages tourists to understand and adjust their ideas of the value of money according to the society in which they are integrated, so that a tour guide does not earn twice as much as a qualified teacher in a week, which only encourages a society dependent on tourism for financial stability.

As well as covering Indonesia’s power structure, Nick paints vivid pictures of the beauty of the places he visits, for example Borobudar – a destination for pilgrims, Buddhists and tourists alike; one that was buried under volcanic ash for hundreds of years. Personally I was moved by the astonishing beauty described on the trek up Rinjani, the infamous volcano standing at a whopping 3,726metres. There is a mystical air to both the description of the view from the top and the accompanying photographs - photographs are placed throughout the book and serve to help visualise the written descriptions. Indeed, with the vivid colours and smoke all around, this scene could be straight out of a gothic thriller. Langston-Able also explores the psychological effects of the trips that he takes. Struggling up the Rinjani on tired legs there is an intimate insight into Nick’s own inner strength which he only seems to realise exists whilst in this desperate state. Nick’s voice maintains integrity throughout the book and as a result this is one of the most honest memoirs I have read.

There is a great deal of exploration into Nick’s experiences interacting with the people he meets, both fellow travellers and locals. A travelling ‘community’ seems to emerge, with the clichéd phrase ‘it’s a small world’ being strangely accurate in this seemingly alternate world of travelling. In terms of the local community the stick-fighting in the street is an example of the vast differences between the Indonesian and Western cultures. Nick makes a couple of witty remarks about utter lack of health and safety regulations in Indonesia, yet he notes cultural differences such as these, not with judgement, but with genuine wonder and interest in their way of life. Surprisingly, the general hustle of the towns is given a lot of exploration whereas one might expect the focus to be on the ‘tourist spots’ and the natural beauties, and this serves the purpose of making the book a realistic insight into Indonesia, which is ideal for perspective travellers who will inevitably experience both aspects.

Arguably the most important message that Nick tries to put across is that the experience of travelling must be your own. He promotes backpacking rather than staying in fancy hotels, and says that you should take “the road less travelled by”. In telling his tale, Nick sparks intrigue and a desire to discover the charms of Indonesia in a personal way, going backstage to get a better view rather than settling in the ‘best’ seats at the theatre.

 

 

Reviews    

 

 

Along with rave reviews, October 2007 saw Playing with Fire became the second best-selling book on Indonesia (after Lonely Planet) on Amazon with a five star rating. (see it here)  In February 2008 it also became one of the top 100 travel writing books.  (here)

 

"An open, amusing and exciting account of the reality of backpacking and the wonders of Indonesia."  The Lombok Times  website  pdf

 

" ... witty and endearing ... Nick sparks intrigue and a desire to discover the charms of Indonesia ..."  Reading Online News (full review opposite)

 

"... a deep and witty narrative recounting the author’s immersion in a foreign culture. Anecdotes about Indonesian cultural oddities are interspersed with a very real picture of tourist life and travel destinations.  All in all, an interesting read and a truthful look into the heart of a Southeast Asian nation."  Living in Indonesia - Expat.or.id

 

"There are literally hundreds of books on the market about people’s travels around the archipelago of Indonesia. Some are good and some even better than the norm. I was told about a book - Playing with Fire: Adventures in Indonesia – written by Nick Langston-Able which promised to be a good read. And, it was."  BootsnAll Travel Network

 

"Playing with Fire is fascinating and inspirational and will entice any reader with wanderlust to Indonesia to begin their own adventures."  WaterfrontOnline.co.uk

 

"His skilfully crafted tale fluctuates between captivating descriptions of the faraway dangerous plains of the volcanoes; to the humdrum routines and idiosyncrasies of faraway cultures. The reader cannot help but to become completely lost in the world of Indonesia, as the voice of both thoughtful writer and backpack enthusiast resounds throughout the book.  With its quick wit and ironic tone, I am amazed at how Nick Langston-Able has made a country in utter political and economic turmoil sound not only appealing, but even romantic. This book is a must-read for all those who have travelled but especially those who have not."  Joanne Cross - English Teacher and Key Stage 3 Co-ordinator - Brislington Enterprise College

 

"... a really entertaining book ..." Bristol-Online.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More on the book

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All photographs and text copyright Nicholas Langston-Able 2007