Headhunters on My Doorstep

9781592407897Travel writing is not memoir. It’s just not. It’s a different genre, with a different tradition, themes, etc.

That said, all travel writing has an element of memoir. We all need to know who our guide is, why they’re going where they’re going, and the things they’re thinking about on the way.

J Maarten Troust has always leaned more on the travel, less on the memoir. His FANTASTIC first three books were light, funny, and endearing. This one is a post-crisis read. Unbeknownst to his readers, he was apparently becoming an alcoholic during the previous three books. After a stint in rehab, he went back out to write.

He decided his problem was “continents,” so he went island-hopping. He popped around the French Pacific, trying to figure out how he could possibly be in France out here. He made fun of himself, satirized his alcoholism and his newfound exercise-addiction.

And, as all the best travel writers do, he met interesting people. He met a tattoo artist who did not inspire confidence. He met children who didn’t have a problem swimming in shark-infested water. And he went home again, back to the beginning, to the setting of his first book in I-Kiribati.

Maybe you can’t go home again, but maybe that’s a good thing. That’s the same feeling you get when you pick up a very different book by a familiar author: confusion, irritation, and then an understanding of what this new thing is. This book is very different from the last three Troust books. It’s not as funny, or as domestic. It’s a lot more focused on modernization, because that’s what he saw.

It’s interesting. It’s self-pitying in a good way, without wallowing or going off-topic. And it’s got sharks and volcanoes. What more could you ask?

But by the way, the subtitle is a total lie: there are no damn ghosts in this book.


Do you love your Granny?

images (21)You sure as hell had better love your grandma. Even if, now, you don’t talk to her much. As a kid, you definitely loved her. She brought you sweets, and she told you stories, and she took you on outings. She had funny old friends, and remembered things that for you only belonged in books and TV.

The classic Czech novel, Babicka, translated as “Granny,” “The Grandmother,” and plenty more, is all about loving your grandma. The Granny (my version’s translation) is an archetypal grandma, who moved in with her kid to help with her grandma.

The whole thing is one of those odes to things past that anyone familiar with 19th century literature knows all about. The ideal countryside, the quaint folk remedies and stories, the smell of food cooking and roses blooming.

But I’m a history major. Notably absent in these accounts are polluted water, poor and/or abused servants, near-starving winters, religious persecution, and a whole lot of others.

The countryside, for Europeans, is the place of innocence. A place untouched by war, by government corruption, by empires. It’s a safe place, perfectly preserved in the pages of a novel like Babicka. The country life is the spiritual grandmother of European literature.

History, one person at a time


We all know that history is made up of people, but the majority of histories look at events. People are actors in those events, but we see them only through the lens of a certain time and place.

Sometimes, though, a writer will reverse it. The events are seen through the people. The grand dramas of decades are replaced by marriages, mother’s and father’s burials, and the births and deaths of children.

That’s what happens in a wonderful new book I’m reading called “Women of Prague.” A hundred years ago, Prague was a city of three vibrant ethnic groups: after WWII, it was homogeneously Czech.

There were years of history before that schism, and Wilma Iggers looks at them through the lives of prominent women. She collected letters and diares, translated them, and then analyzed some of them.

What results is a tumultous time in Europe and in Bohemia, related through the lens of marriages happy and unhappy, social events, school openings, and endless funerals.

The book is full of anecdotes that bring the time alive, like the woman who didn’t know that her son was dying until six weeks after he wrote to her, when the censors let the letter through. Or the woman who, despite her worn clothes and tired eyes, was monitored constantly by the police. Or the husband who became violent.

So many stories, so much history.

War With the Newts

KAREL_CAPEK_War_With_the_Newts_1998It’s a pretty basic sci-fi conceit (today): What would real people do if they started interacting with another intelligent race?

In this novel, Capek simply creates a very basic race–salamander-people–puts them in the ocean, and then tries to let events play out as they will. What sort of people would be the first to find these newts? What would they do? How would they react? How many minutes before violence started? How would economies react? How would labor react? How would politics react? Individual people? Religions? Hollywood? Science?Newts.1

It’s exhaustive, and I think it’s meant to be so. Pages and pages of documentation, of news reports and private memos, of footnotes and sub-footnotes make up the middle of the book. It’s boring as hell, with occasional macabre notes, and it’s meant to be so. It’s meant to convey monotony, exhaustion, the ordinariness of this race, and the ways they were taken for granted.200px-WarWithTheNewts-BantamA1292

Then, of course, there’s a turn. The kind that everyone familiar with the genre can see coming, and yet still has a sort of inevitable pain that you can’t stop reading, like when watching an avalanche or a crash and not being able to tear your eyes away. You know how it’ll turn out, but you can’t stop.

It’s not a hopeful book, but it’s one of those books that makes you remember human nature, and the importance of not discounting it. Because despite the occasional regional touches, and despite the time removal, it feels like it was written yesterday.

Are certain culture’s books just really depressing?

images (16)To make a sweeping generalization, the history of Bohemia and the Czech people is a real downer. Conquered by this, government meltdown here, invaded there, etc.

So I guess it make sense that none of their books–that have been translated into English–from the early part of the century are very uplifting. As in “oh my god, the human species is doomed to a cycle of emptiness and vanity for all time.” Exceptionally depressing.

One thing I do like is this feeling of eternity I”m getting out of these books. Like there are constants, some depressing and some good, but always lurking behind the scenes. There’s a small comfort, in that.

But mostly, there’s very little humanist hope in Czech literature, and not really any religious hope to replace it. Just the downward plunge.

What do you think? Ever found that everything you pick up from a particular culture is just depressing?

The Happy Isles of Oceania


Click here for Amazon link

Of all the traits in a traveler, grumpiness is probably the least helpful and the most entertaining. That’s what Paul Theroux is: the ultimate grumpy traveller. He growls his way across continents, provoking people into religious and political arguments, tearing tourists to pieces (not literally), and all around being grouchy.

I wouldn’t like to meet him, because I’m afraid he wouldn’t like me, and I know what he does to people he doesn’t like: stick them in books. But he’s a wonderful travel writer.

He’s also got that old-school, man alone toughness evident all through this book. He calmly and factually relates being stung by enourmous jellyfish, which somehow got tangled in his kayak oar as he wandered the Pacific. He talks about the villages he stops in, where he gets to know and like the people, and the villages he gets through as quickly as possible, filled with irritation at modernity.

He even has a go at being a beachcomber living on a deserted island, one of those things that everyone wonders about from time to time.

One final trait that comes out loud and proud in this particular book: he’s an old-school lion of a liberal. Integration is good, religious intolerance is grotesque–as is the missionary impulse–and modernity gets us further away from community.

On The Pleasures and Solitudes of Quiet Books

images (19)Excerpt:

Some years ago, before my first novel found its eventual home, several editors in a row said the book was “too quiet.” I was told at the time that this was just a euphemism for “no obvious marketing angle,” but I found it interesting to consider the idea that some novels are quiet, whereas others are loud.”

This essay is amazing. It’s a piece of readerly analysis that is just splendid, as she decodes the way books integrate themselves into our lives.

The categories aren’t exact, but haven’t we all craved plot driven, explosive novels at some points, and quiet meditations on life at other times? If I’d just read this essay earlier, I wouldn’t have struggled so much this summer with so many abandoned books. I had so much trouble figuring out what to read, when all I needed to do was gravitate toward loud books and accept that quiet books weren’t going to cut it just then.

So go read the article!