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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel


James Attlee

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To purchase Isolarion

Title: Isolarion
Author: James Attlee
Genre: Travel
Written: 2007
Length: 278 pages
Availability: Isolarion - US
Isolarion - UK
Isolarion - Canada
  • A Different Oxford Journey

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Our Assessment:

B : casual, diverting

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 4-5/2007 Rebecca Mead
The Economist . 8/3/2007 .
Financial Times . 20/4/2007 Isabel Berwick
The Guardian A 7/4/2007 Geoff Dyer
The Independent . 29/5/2007 Paul Kingsnorth
The NY Times (Travel) . 29/4/2007 Richard B. Woodward
The Spectator . 21/4/2007 Eric Christiansen
Sunday Times . 29/4/2007 Andrew Martin
Sydney Morning Herald A 9/5/2007 Bruce Elder
The Times . 24/3/2007 Elizabeth Garner

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "The fish-out-of-water travelogue is a staple of the bookstore, but Attlee, a father of young children, with a job in London to which he commutes daily, has set himself a different task: to be the fish, and to give a detailed description of the properties of the water. (…) Attlee's reading, unlike that of a student cramming to prepare this week's essay, is deep and wide and engagingly circuitous, and this book frequently provides the delights of discovery that make any adventure worth undertaking." - Rebecca Mead, Bookforum

  • "James Attlee's scholarly, reflective and sympathetic journey up the Cowley Road is one of the best travel books that has been written about Britain's oldest university city. (…) Mr Attlee's own migration -- he calls it a pilgrimage -- is a haphazard and unhurried one, sometimes experienced alone, sometimes with companions. The central thread is interviews, recorded with shopkeepers and residents on an old-fashioned tape recorder. Mr Attlee weaves their stories with his own wry descriptions, and with acute historical references that range from the erudite but appropriate to the magnificently obscure (…..) Isolarion, named after a detail on a medieval map, is unsparing, but not bleak. It blends humour and passion" - The Economist

  • "Isolarion, despite its title, is about engagement. I want to hand out copies of this book to everyone who tells me that moving to a middle-class suburb would be "better" for my inner-city children." - Isabel Berwick, Financial Times

  • " (T)he resulting book is unique and very special. He had me purring from the word go, from the bravura opening in which he reels off the ways in which the urge to make a pilgrimage becomes too insistent to ignore. (…) Finally, a couple of little, possibly related, ironies insist on making themselves heard. First, this book is published by an academic press. All credit to the University of Chicago for taking on such a determinedly off-the-wall project and stealing a march on the literary publishers whose business it is to seek out high-quality, original non-fiction. Second, what are the chances of work of this quality and originality being produced within the colleges for which the town is famous ?" - Geoff Dyer, The Guardian

  • "Attlee captures the essence of this city better than any tour bus ever could." - Paul Kingsnorth, The Independent

  • "Mr. Atlee’s non-linear approach may vex those who like rounded narratives. I wish that he had not felt the need to filter his observations through the tired theoretical writings of Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes. When simply listing the names of the phone services along Cowley Road -- "Mama Africa! Pakistan Connect. Hello Arab. Jamaica Direct. Eastern Eurovoice. Taj Mahal" -- Mr. Attlee paints an iridescent picture of a new Oxford that no guidebook has yet captured." - Richard B. Woodward, The New York Times

  • "He exaggerates, but this remains one of the last three Oxford thoroughfares with a bit of life in it. (…) To stiffen the sinews for the rearguard action every Oxonian should buy this book, which is nicely turned out by the Chicago Press although missing two essential parts: a map and an index." - Eric Christiansen, The Spectator

  • "As with Sebald’s book, I often found myself thinking: "Hang on a minute. How did we get on to this ? " But seldom in a spirit of irritation, because the writing is so good (…..) Attlee comes across as a charming daydreamer, with a mind ever open to serendipity (…..) This fine book was conceived as a pilgrimage; unfortunately it may soon come to read like a memorial." - Andrew Martin, Sunday Times

  • "Part of the appeal of this remarkable book is the way each shop manages to fire the author's imagination. Thus a visit to a jeweller includes references to Shakespeare, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, Petrarch and Charlemagne and the porn shop on the corner evokes Lucretius, St Jerome and even The Bible. Each experience opens up worlds of associations and slowly the street becomes the world. (…) The vignettes, like marks on a painting by a pointillist, eventually coalesce to become a beautiful work of art." - Bruce Elder, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "But Isolarion is more than a piece of observational journalism. Attlee’s encounters lead to thoughtful investigations of the human condition. (…) In a lesser writer such use of anecdote could give way to whimsy, presenting quirky characters as allegory, tailoring encounters to fit a preconceived moral philosophy. But not here. Attlee seems often surprised by his own connections and diversions. He also has a keen awareness that his investigations border on intrusion, and struggles with his role as observer and narrator. (…) Ultimately, the atheist on his pilgrimage weaves together a subtle, understated tale of spiritual survival: peace and understanding come from an investigation of where we are." - Elizabeth Garner, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The definition of the term 'isolarion' is given at the beginning of this book. It is, apparently:

the term for the 15th-century maps that describe specific areas in detail, but that do not provide a clarifying overview of how these places are related to each other.
       The specific area James Attlee focusses on in his Isolarion is Cowley Road in Oxford, an area somewhat apart from the student and tourist centred rest of town, and where there is an eclectic mix of businesses. The book isn't exactly a journal of a voyage down the road, but he does stop in in various establishments, tries to talk to the owners, and offers a picture of the place. Living nearby, it's not really a trip with a beginning or an end, and he can always retreat home -- or hop out for a stop at yet another shop down the road.
       Meanwhile, there is also a government effort to 'plan' the future of this strip, and Attlee gets involved as a delegate when the public is invited to debate the proposed and possible changes, and so there are quite a few chapters on how contemporary urban development is dealt with by local government. Among the proposals Attlee is most opposed to is the plan to mark the road and neighbourhood with gateways -- a supposed "traffic-calming measure", as well as a demarcation announcing to visitors exactly what this section of the world is meant to be.
       As one person tells him:
I've known Cowley Road for forty years, and it's always been different, diverse. It's always had its own character.
       Attlee gives a good sense of that character, and has some enjoyable encounters with the local characters (especially the foreign settlers). He's not all that adventuresome -- it takes him quite a while to dare set foot in the local porn shop, and he doesn't try very hard to get the inside scoop on what goes on in there -- but there are some revealing conversations and quite a few interesting stories. There's some attempt to make this into travel-lit, Attlee trying to make more out of his travel-efforts (in mind as well as body) than they warrant, but he has an easy, fluid style, and the digressions and connexions are appealing enough. Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy is meant to be his accompanying literature, but he only takes that so far as well.
       An easy-going account, covering a lot of colourful ground, Isolarion gives a good impression of Cowley Road -- and of the pressures on the neighbourhood, and the constant state of flux. It's an enjoyable read, but not that much more; too often one wishes Attlee had pressed ahead further -- as well as perhaps planned his trip (or at least account) less haphazardly. The jumble is entertaining, but the picture feels far from whole.

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Isolarion: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       James Attlee is a British author.

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© 2007-2009 the complete review

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