The Best American Travel Writing 2001 – Paul Theroux (editor)

Travel writing at its best… relates a journey of discovery that is frequently risky and sometimes grim and often pure horror, with a happy ending: to hell and back. The traveler ends up at home and seizes your wrist with his skinny hand and holds you with his glittering eye and relates his spellbinding tale.”  

Paul Theroux, Introduction.

Seeing as we have been rather stuck at home, I thought that now would be a really good time to read some travel writing and, having had some success with this series in the past, found an old volume on the old TBR shelves. I did have some hesitation seeing the editor was Paul Theroux (only because I’ve heard of his reputation as a rather grumpy writer), but pulled it down nevertheless, primarily because it was what I had. 🙂

In actuality, despite my initial reservations, this turned out to be a really good read. As with any kind of writing collection chosen by whoever is the editor, there are going to be hits and misses but this compilation was mostly hits, which made it fun to read. 

(The only slightly eye-wincing moment was when I saw that Paul Theroux’s eldest son, Marcel, was also selected as part of this collection of American Travel Writing. One, the optics don’t look that great for a father to choose his own son’s writing for inclusion in a project such as this, and is M.T.’s writing so much more superior than anyone else’s who was up for submission? Oh, and the gender split of authors was a bit eye-watering. This then leads on to related question: how many of these selectees are POC?) :-/

Looking through the index, the selected writing travels far and wide: from Siberia to the U.S. and parts in between, the quality of writing and its content was enjoyable. In fact, it was a really good read overall and actually hit the sweet spot for reading in a pandemic. Plus it fit really well with my COVID reading style which seems to be rather a scattershot approach at the moment. Plus it was a TBR.

Excellent writing came from Peter Hessler (who I adore anyway), Susan Orleans, and 24 other authors, with a gender break-up of five female authors (and 19 males). Grumble, grouse, but this lack of gender balance is a common characteristic for these editions (especially when they are edited by males). Is it really so hard to find someone who is a strong writer and is not a typical white male? Hmm. 

Moving on… The majority of these reads did exactly what they said on the tin: excellent writing combined with strong descriptions and interesting narratives of places off the beaten track. 

Despite its weaknesses (see above), I actually really enjoyed this volume and have just realized that I haven’t bought the 2019 volume just yet (edited by Alexandra Fuller – Hey! A woman slipped into the mix. I’m a bit behind with the book-buying.) This year’s volume (2020) will be edited by Robert McFarlane, another white male Oxbridge fellow, I see (with gritted teeth)…

Still, fingers are crossed to a more balanced gender breakdown inside both of these…

In the end, I am happy to have read this volume and able to travel outside my home, even if it was only in my mind. Along those same lines, I did just go to the grocery store, which counts as adventurous travel in this day and age. 🙂

Swabbing the Decks: Recently Read Reviewlettes

Lots of being busy has led to a lack of posts here on the blog, and I apologize for that, dear reader. I’m planning on this being a catch-up post of sorts so that I can get back onto schedule. 

So I’ve been reading for sures – I seem to have retrieved my reading mojo after having it slip out of view in March, and luckily, the titles that I’ve been choosing have been really good. (It’s nice when things align.) 

I had noticed that I had slipped off the wagon for reading from my own TBR over the last few weeks, so pulled an old Oprah read from the shelves: “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day” by Pearl Cleage (1993). 

It’s been a while since I’ve chosen a title that reads like a “hot knife through butter”, so searching for that experience and hoping that this wasn’t a misery novel (as can be Oprah’s wont with her books), I found this to be a fun and optimistic read. It’s also particularly noteworthy as it was published back in 1993 and features an HIV-positive woman as the protagonist. 

Why was it noteworthy in 1993? Because the AIDS pandemic was in full swing, a mix of homophobia and denial across the U.S. (and my city) was common, and I was an AIDS educator in a medium-sized Bible Belt community (ref: homophobia and denial [for some groups] mentioned above).

Oprah choosing this title was a great way to reach an audience who wouldn’t automatically be informed about the disease. It was cleverly wrapped up in a cheerful novel featuring women, and it was Queen Oprah who chose it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back at that time, I can see that she made a brave choice.

This is a homecoming-type novel, where the protagonist goes back to her small hometown after leaving Atlanta, the “Black Mecca” as the author calls it. Typical of a homecoming, she reconnects with old friends, makes new friends, and then makes new plans for the rest of her life. 

It’s well written, it’s easy to digest, it’s a fun read. Glad I reread this one, as I didn’t remember a thing about it from the first time. Plus – it was really interesting to place it in the context of history. Good one.

Pulling another read from the TBR pile, I chose “Cooking and Stealing: The Tin House Nonfiction Anthology,” edited by Charles d’Ambrosio. As I was looking for some longform nonfiction and/or essays to read, this fit the bill completely for me, and I whipped through it. 

As is typical for most anthologies, there were some hits and misses but overall, it was a good read. What was a minor irritation, though, were the typos spread quite liberally throughout the pages. I kept checking to see if it was an advance copy (or similar), but no. It was the final proof and just had typos. Grr. 

Moving on from the typo situation, d’Ambrosio had selected some good essays and/or narrative nonfiction and I managed to glean some author names to search for in the future. Plus, in the end, the title did have more good reads than bad ones, so I consider that a win. Plus – off the TBR pile! 

During Spring Break, my mum had brought me an old Virago copy of “All Passion Spent” by Vita Sackville-West (which was a new read for me). Expecting a rather prickly reading experience, this one ended up being really enjoyable and I actually read it twice, back to back, just to look at how the narrative arc was structured since it was done so well. I’ll be looking for some more by Sackville-West and her gang in the future.

Now, the end of the semester is in sight for both students and teachers, Spring time is here in our area of the country, and things are turning green again. It’s supposed to be 90 degrees this week and I’ve just found out that I’m probably going to go to a work conference in Vancouver.

Life is really good. I hope you can say the same. 

The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists – ed. Irene and Alan Taylor (2001)

This is a huge compilation of diaries and journals throughout history, some entries as far back as the seventeenth century and right on up to Alan Bennett and Warhol. I have not read such a large book (in terms of actual pages) and I think if it had been a novel, it would never have crossed my home threshold. This has more than 1800 entries from more than 170 different diarists, so lots to choose from.

However, with the book set out as it is, with different diarists grouped together by daily date, it makes it much more approachable to read sections at a time. Initially, I thought I would read one date’s set of entries on that particular calendar day, but that didn’t last long as it’s incredibly easy to get caught up in reading “one more entry” and before you know it, weeks of this collection of diaries has gone past. I did, however, make it last almost one year, with some steady reading throughout the past few months.

This is one of the better diary collections that I have found: admittedly, it’s very white, it’s pretty male, and it’s very English-centric, but the book does not make claims contrary to that so you know what you are getting when you start it. And when you consider historical facts as they were, the literate part of society were white wealthy males so I imagine the multicultural multi-gender selection is just not out there in high numbers.

Back to the book:  if you enjoy reading printed journals, anything from Anne Frank to Adrian Mole, you will enjoy this selection. I found it to be fascinating to read what the various diarists were saying as the historical events unfolded around them in their “present”. This year, there was a lot of focus on King George’s abdication with Wallis Simpson – there are entries from people who were writing that at that (early December 1936) who reflect on what is happening: will he abdicate the throne? What will it mean for the monarchy? … Other interesting examples included the years of World War II as the conflict grows and gets bigger and bigger.

There is a range of people here: Samuel Pepys is regularly grumpy and having to beat his servants for one thing or another; Andy Warhol, Brian Eno, Noel Coward… All have their entries here. What is a really helpful tool with this book is the list of people whose diaries are mentioned. I was not familiar with a lot of the names and so these short one-paragraph biographies of who was who and how they fit in to the world around them was indispensable. I ended up having several bookmarks throughout the book, one where I was reading the entries, and the others scattered throughout the alphabetical biographies as I was constantly flicking back and forth to fully understand just who some of these people were. It sounds like a gimmick and a bit annoying, but it really wasn’t to me. You get into a rhythm of looking at the date of an entry, seeing who wrote it, and then if the name was unfamiliar, to flick to the back to see who they were. All that helped add much depth to the journal entry when you read it then.

Some books are “pick-up-and-put-down” and some are “read-straight-through” books. This was actually both of those – it worked either way. For me, it was better to read in big chunks so that I could remember who was who throughout the book. (There are quite a few writers whose diary are referred to several times throughout the year, so after a while, you recognized them….)

I absolutely loved this book and can’t believe it’s not more well known. Anyone interested in current or historical affairs, in eye-witness views of history, in well written short entries – they are all here.

Note: It’s called “The Assassin’s Cloak” due to this quotation: …”A diary is an assassin’s cloak which we wear when we stab a comrade in the back with a pen…” (William Soutar, Scottish poet).