Monday, June 20, 2011

Travel Books

Over the course of the last month or so, I have been reading travel novels. My dear husband bought me three such books before we left on our big trip, as I had said I wanted to write about our travels and he thought they might provide some inspiration. So thoughtful of him. I didn't read any of them on the trip, however, as I chose to spend the great majority of my free time writing, rather than reading. I'm reading them now.

I started with The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America by Bill Bryson. The first chapter had me in stitches, alternately laughing aloud and reading aloud to whoever was within range. It was just so witty! His descriptions of the people and lifestyle of the American midwest were hilarious, dripping with sarcasm and hyperbole. As I moved into the second chapter and his journey around the United States began, I laughed some more as he encountered disappointment after disappointment--boring towns, boring and/or obnoxious people, and the insatiable American appetite for kitschy tourist attractions that are all basically the same.

By the third and fourth chapter, I was ready for him to begin seeing the charm and beauty in the quirky--like I do. No, he was still complaining and disgusted with everything he saw. By the tenth chapter of of his dark cynicism, I was beginning to despair. It must turn around soon, right? He must begin to learn something deep and significant about himself, right? Wrong. Nothing could please him. Nothing could shake his arrogant assumption that he alone held the key to enlightenment. The pages dragged by. By sheer force of will, I forced myself to read on to the end of the book, hoping for some late redemption. In the last pages of the last chapter, he turned it around a little bit. A little bit. Not enough for me. I closed the cover with sadness for him, for his readers who shared his dark cynicism, for humanity in general.

I was still glad I'd made it through the book, because Mr. Bryson did teach me a few things:

1. Unbridled wit can be very effective when allowed to roll down a long, steep hill of prose without any brakes. Get 'em laughing and then pile it on until they are holding their sides; then pile it on some more. When at last they can't breathe at all, let them rest and recover for a few minutes.

2. A chronological progression with occasional forays into the author's past works very well in a travel novel.

3. There is something special about seeing the world through the eyes of hope, beauty and truth. That is what I do. I will continue to do it. The world is a dark place and people need a bit of light here and there.

The next book I read has become a classic already, even at only fifteen years old--Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes. This is a beautiful book, a book that causes the reader to breathe deeply and soak in the beauty of the world around--or at least the world of small town summer in Tuscany. What a contrast between this one and Bryson's book. Mayes got to live the ultimate dream: she and her husband, both college professors with summers off, bought an old home in Tuscany; remodeled it; restored the gardens, orchards and vineyards; learned to prepare local delicacies with locally grown foods; worked hard and then sipped great wine on the veranda at the end of each day. It was a beautiful experience, beautifully written.

But I found myself growing increasingly detached as the chapters went on. It was too far from my reality, from any reality I ever dreamed of actually living. Who gets to do that? Who has that kind of money and freedom? Not me. Not anyone I know, honestly. I found that, tempting as it was, I didn't actually want to lose myself in the dream. I didn't want to have to move from my current contentment with my simple life to discontent because I won't ever have what they have.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy the book. I did. It was lovely. Really. And I did learn from Ms. Mayes:

1. Don't be afraid to write with beauty, with as much beauty as you truly feel in your soul. It's not cheesy if it's honest.

2. Little mundane details of life can be interesting and even compelling when they are entirely foreign to the intended reader's life experiences.

3. Sticking a little closer to what is in the realm of real-life possibility can be effective. Sometimes the impossible dream is just too far out of reach for the common folk.

The third book I read in this series was one I hadn't expected to read. When I accompanied a girl friend on a road trip to pick up her son from Fiddle Camp (hey, it's Montana) five hours away, she was excited to show me the book she was reading and enticed me to read it aloud to her while she drove, something we do often when we are together with some time to kill. The book is called Cycling Home from Siberia, by Rob Lilwall, and it is only two years old. I'd never even heard of it before she handed it to me across the minivan. After the road trip, she gave it to me as a belated birthday present and I came home and devoured the rest of the book.

It is a great adventure story. It is honest and gritty, both about the experiences and about life and faith in general. It doesn't create false heroes or one-sided villains. It is a compelling read from start to finish. I loved it. I can't wait for the rest of my family to read it. Here's what I learned from Mr. Lilwall:

1. Be honest about your fears and flaws, your dreams and goals, your hesitations and your sense of humor. They endear you to your reader and make you a real person--not unlike your readers themselves.

2. A few different fonts, used for general narrative, journal entries, and letters from others, can allow the writer to effortlessly flow between present and past tense and add interest, breaking up monotony.

3. A personal faith can be effectively integrated into a story for the mainstream market. Don't be pushy and arrogant, but don't be wishy-washy either. Be real, be honest. No one can complain about that.

The fourth and final of my travel novels is Queen of the Road, by Doreen Orion. I just finished it today. I had actually started to read this one first, as it looked very amusing, but I soon closed it and moved it to the bottom of the pile. From my initial impressions, the author was clearly a skilled humorist, but was also egocentric, overtly materialistic, lazy and just generally unlikable to me. Plus, her solution to every stressful situation seemed to be alcohol. I am not a teetotaler by any measure, but I don't ever want to tread on that slippery slope of using it to self-medicate. I've seen too much addiction. When I got through the other books, though, I decided to read this one through to the end, just to be fair. I'd given everyone else a chance and had learned things from each one; this one should be no different.

I'm so glad I did. Although Ms. Orion and I do come from completely different worlds and still don't have much in common, I loved the way she used the book as a way to tell of the changes in her own heart and life as her dreaded year in an RV progressed. She allowed herself the freedom to think about her life, to reassess her priorities, to change and grow. And on top of all that, she preached the beauty of committed marriages. She and her husband are so different in so many ways, but they treasure one another and it shows through. They came through a year in an RV even closer to one another, rather than desperate for some space. Celebrating faithful monogamy is not exactly a chart-buster theme in these days of disposable marriages. I appreciated her emphasis on embracing the differences between her and her husband and how they used those differences to make themselves a team rather than rivals.

It was a fun book--occasionally over the top and sometimes bordering on just a little cheesy, but certainly not dark and sardonic or out of touch with reality. Here is what I learned from Ms. Orion:

1. It's good to be honest about your faults with your readers. It allows them to rejoice with you when you begin to work on reforming them.

2. Straight travel narrative segments with bits of local history are not by their very nature tedious and can indeed be well done if they are presented in easily digestible amounts and the author allows his/her own sense of wonder and curiosity to shine through.

3. Adding more than just the narrative is very helpful and adds interest. She added a themed martini recipe to start each chapter, gave lists of resources and travel information at the end of the book, added a list of books she enjoyed while traveling and putting this book together, plus an acknowledgements section, plus a note to readers, plus a book club reader's guide. In this case, these were not overkill; they were all great.

Reading this stack of books was a great exercise for me. Time to get back to writing!


alison said...

Bill Bryson brings me down as well, and yet, he can make me laugh out loud. "Notes From a Small Island" pays for itself in the description of his experience with the landlady at the B&B where he stayed upon first arriving in England.

Sherry C said...

I would almost check out Notes From a Small Island, just for that segment, because I know he is so very funny, but I don't think I'm ready to go back to his dark cynicism anytime soon.