Sunday, October 7, 2012
Ex libris: literary wanderlust
I just finished a book in the travel/memoir genre, All Over the Map by Laura Fraser (Broadway, 2011), which detailed some jaunts and journeys that the author made over a period of a couple years. I enjoy reading about people's travels even when it doesn't involve birds, and am always looking for a good book to indulge my vicarious wanderlust.
The memoir begins on a note of longing. Fraser, a divorced magazine writer who had recently seen the far side of forty, is acutely aware of all the things she doesn't have: a husband or steady partner, a home of her own, the level of professional success she'd hoped for. Attending her class reunion brings some of these insecurities to a head; and then a subsequent bad experience while researching an article in Samoa shakes her up even more.
At first, I found the book scatter-shot and superficial, all over the map, indeed. A chapter about a visit to Naples to work on an article about exploited sex workers didn't segue well with a subsequent one about attending a meditation retreat and the chapter about visiting Peru was downright dull. And how on earth do you make Peru sound dull? Plus, I was getting tired of reading about her bad luck with men.
Despite all her travels, Fraser was getting stuck in a rut, writing articles she didn't care about, dating men who weren't right, still living the same kind of way as she had in her twenties. (Cue Dido's song "Life for Rent.") But then finally--and I really rolled my eyes at this one--a session with a life coach helped her get her priorities in order. She stopped making excuses for why she couldn't have the life she wanted, and ended up happier, with a home in a place she never expected.
It is a very personal book, and I despite my impatience with some of its shortcomings (which may be the fault of her being primarily a writer for glossy woman's magazines, as I really don't care for that sort of breezy journalism; thinking back over it, I think that the style is superficial, but the overall content of her personal journey is not), I found I could relate to a lot of it.
I think that most of us, once we get to a certain age, tend to become more aware of all the things that haven't quite gone right in our lives. And travel can help us shake things up and find a new perspective.
For everyone sighing and thinking this is all Eat, Pray, Love-style self-indulgence (btw, I have read Eat, Pray, Love twice and really enjoyed it, but the reader reviews on Amazon are pretty harsh), I would like to point out that the human love of wandering is an ancient one; in other times and places--depending on exactly which time and place--people would go on pilgrimages and walkabouts, shake things up by going on a Crusade or a voyage to the New World, or decide to explore the Arctic, the Amazon or to circumnavigate the globe. Or even on an inward journey: Dante's Divine Comedy came from his finding himself, at middle age, feeling as if he were "in a dark wood." As humans were nomadic for much of our history, perhaps this urge to wander is ingrained in us.
Foreign travel is an especially efficient way of slapping oneself to attention--the language is strange, the culture is unfamiliar, all of a sudden you're paying attention to everything. I've done it twice (to Japan my senior year of high school and to Morocco for a two-year stint teaching English), and I can honestly say that those were some of the most intensively lived moments I've had.
But, the experience can also be disorienting, even a bit scary. And thinking of travel can also invoke another deeply ingrained human impulse: the fear of the unknown, the different, the alienation of being completely adrift. In its most extreme form, this fear becomes actual xenophobia, and the travel genre (though more often fictional travel than memoir) is replete with examples of that, as well.
I have also read a few books recently about the perils of travel. One was a work of fiction, Losing Gemma by Katy Gardner (2002), a novel about two British girls, friends from childhood on a trip to India together. Esther, the narrator, is pretty, a college grad, and well-traveled, believing herself to be much more sophisticated than her dumpy pal Gemma. In fact, she is quite condescending to Gemma, and insists that this India trip be done her way---squalid hostels and crowded trains the whole way, going to off-the-beaten path locales instead of the nice beach vacation at Goa that Gemma would prefer.
Not surprisingly, Gemma takes umbrage to this, and seems to prefer the company of an Australian hippie they encounter, Coral, to that of her old friend. Things really get weird when they go to the shrine of a Muslim martyr out in the jungle, and Gemma disappears. I will say no more of the story, for fear of spoilers.
What I liked: vivid and colorful descriptions of India; a suspenseful story that kept me turning the "pages" on my Kindle; and some seriously weird and creepy scenes that appealed to my love of the Gothic and unexplained. What I didn't like: two extremely annoying characters and an ending that relied too much on some clunky coincidences. But overall, a book I enjoyed and would recommend. (Other works of fiction set in India that I like: Travelers by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, The Ivory Swing by Janet Turner Hospital, A Passage to India by E.M.Forster, and Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden. And another good work of British girl with a backpack in peril novel is Backpack by Emily Barr.)
The other book I've recently read on this theme was actually a true-crime story, People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry (FSG Originals, 2012), about a young British girl, Lucie Blackman, who was murdered in Japan. I don't normally read much of the true crime genre, but I picked this one up at the library because I am always interested in books about Japan.
The story centered on the disappearance (and ultimate death) of a young girl who worked as a "hostess" in a Tokyo night club. This job doesn't really have an American equivalent; the hostesses entertain the club's clientele by pouring them drinks, lighting their cigarettes, and pretending to find them fascinating. They are also supposed to generate revenue for the night club by going on "dates" with the clients and then bringing them back to the bar for drinks afterwards. Although the job is not strictly sexual in nature, it is considered part of the mizu shobai, or "floating world," of the sex trade. In other words, although she didn't have to strip or turn tricks, Lucie's job as a "hostess" wasn't completely respectable either.
And the job, along with her own naivete, left her vulnerable. Lucie Blackman is now dead. Who killed her, and how he was discovered, I will leave to those who might want to read the book.
What I liked: the insights into some facets of Japanese culture that my exchange student days did not touch, such as the world of night club "hostesses" and the awkward situation of Koreans living in Japan; the fact that the book was well-written, minimally sensational, and seemed quite thoroughly researched. What I didn't like: the last part dragged a bit (once we knew who the culprit was, I was ready to wrap it up), and--though this is not the fault of the book--I don't really enjoy "true crime" as a genre. Talking about Lucie seems in poor taste to me, as she was a real person, with hopes and dreams and a family, who is now dead.
The travel/memoir genre has other sub-types as well, such as the I Bought a House in Another Country books (my favorites: A House in Fez by Susanna Clarke and The Caliph's House by Tahir Shah); stories of general wanderings (Paul Theroux is always great, especially with Dark Star Safari and The Happy Isles of Oceania); and then of course there are those who chose to live in another land for a while (The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost and Nothing to Declare by Mary Morris); travel essays (The Astonishing World by Barbara Grizutti Harrison); and then, of course, the whole living in France sub-genre (Peter Mayle, Almost French by Sarah Turnbull, etc.)
As usual, I have embarked upon a topic, barely skimmed the surface, and left myself, if not my readers, wanting more. As I have more travel books piled up by my bedside, I am sure that I will come back to the topic.
Until then...do you enjoy reading travel books? What are your favorites? Why do you think it remains such a popular genre?