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Tag: travel narrative

READING THE TBR, DAY 302: Under the Tuscan Sun (1996) by Frances Mayes

Don’t get me wrong here. I am very happy for Frances Mayes that she spent the duration of her Money Pit-like renovation of her new holiday home in Italy’s gorgeous Tuscany region with her long-time husband, Ed. It is lovely that they experienced the vicissitudes of their enormous undertaking — from understanding cultural differences to dealing with ancient plumbing — together, and had each other to lean on when all the foreignness of their surroundings just got a little too unbearably foreign for these American part-time expats.

But in the 2003 film version of this tale, Frances Mayes (Diane Lane) is newly divorced and depressed, which is what leads her to take on the Tuscan house project in the first place — and then leads her to a new love — and since that was the story I was expecting, and quite liked, I didn’t exactly know what to make of this (admittedly more realistic and, clearly, factual) version of events for much of the time I spent reading it.

Except to say, wow, the hubris of that film’s producers, to think it’s okay to entirely change the facts of a living person’s life like that! On the other hand, she probably doesn’t look like Diane Lane (because no one looks like Diane Lane), so despite the rather drastic, not to mention hurtful, alteration to her life, it must have been hard for Actual Frances to be mad about Character Frances and her lovelorn situation.

Actual Frances’s story is filled with a lot of wish fulfillment, and a lot of home renovation porn, and for the most part I enjoyed it, despite the weird presence of Ed. (Sorry, Ed, but it was just weird that you were there… in your life. Hollywood, huh?) The narrative did get bogged down in fish-out-of-water ignorance in some places, and detailed a few Italian feasts perhaps a tad too lovingly in others, but it is nevertheless an engaging snapshot of life in the kind of picturesque surroundings to which we all aspire but can probably never own a piece of, and that is most of its appeal.

The biggest shock of the book, for me? When Frances and Ed were still together at the end of the book. Moreover, a quick google proves that they are still together, nearly twenty-five years after this book was published. 

Like, damn. That movie really just had no shame, huh? IS ANYTHING ON FILM EVEN REAL?


TBR DAY 302: Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
GENRE: Travel Narrative, Memoir, Non-Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: ~15 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Collins Booksellers.
KEEP: Probably not, no.

READING THE TBR, DAY 254: Footnotes (2019) by Peter Fiennes

Informative and interesting — two things that do not always go hand in hand — this is the epitome of a quirky travel narrative, which I love, as well as a biography of several venerable English writers, which I also love.

The beginning section on Enid Blyton is a triumph, enthralling and satisfying to anyone who grew up with her works (and must now constantly examine their own attitudes as a result), while the fondness I developed for travel writers now long-dead, having travelled with them alongside the amusingly dry-witted Peter Fiennes, is an added bonus. And I have been meaning to read some Wilke Collins for years now — I certainly will do so now.


TBR DAY 271: Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers by Peter Fiennes
GENRE: Travel Narrative, Memoir
TIME ON THE TBR: 1 month. 
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 191: Obsessive Compulsive Cycling Disorder (2008) by Dave Barter

About fifteen years ago, I stunned friends and family when I announced my intention to ride a bicycle around Ireland. The reaction of almost everyone was dismaying and identical; it wasn’t “You’re going to ride a bike around Ireland?!” so much as, in great disbelief, “You’re going to ride a bike around Ireland?”

Thanks a lot, friends and family!

 That two-month trip was inspired by back-to-back readings of Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawk and French Revolutions by Tim Moore, to of my favourite travel writers. Eight years later, I hit the road again for another extended cycle tour, this one around Tasmania, which is pretty much the same size as Ireland, though significantly less populated, and would take around the same time.

A couple of years ago, I mooted the possibility of cycling around New Zealand’s North Island, and my friend Barney very kindly presented me with this book, sure I would find it an inspiring read on the journey. Unfortunately, the trip has been long-delayed, and size constraints will mean that I’ll have to leave it behind, anyway — if you have a Kindle, then travelling with hard copy books always seems a little foolish, especially when space and weight are an issue. As it happens, it would have been an excellent companion on my ride, and I think I would have very much enjoyed Dave’s cheerful, enthusiastic, thoroughly relatable company.

A collection of articles written across ten years, these breezy and often amusing anecdotes certainly struck a chord in me — especially the one where he rode Ireland from end to end. (I, however, rode its perimeter. Take that, Dave!) He examines the appeal of cycling, especially of distance cycling, and while I am not about to enter a race, or take up mountain biking, both of which are discussed in some detail in this book, I am now, having read this, inspired to repack my panniers with camping gear and protein powder, and perhaps hit the road one more time.

New Zealand, here I come. Eventually.


TBR DAY 191: Obsessive Compulsive Cycling Disorder by Dave Barter
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Travel Narrative, Sports
TIME ON THE TBR: 8 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: It was a gift.
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 110: The Amateur Emigrant (1895) by Robert Louis Stevenson

A couple of years ago, my friend Brad read Treasure Island for the first time and couldn’t get over how great it was. I understand the feeling — I am continually reading classic works and discovering for myself why they have remained so beloved across the decades and centuries — and his enthusiasm made me determined to revisit the tale I had not read since childhood, and not revisited since the Muppets’ version hit theatres in 1996.

The next day, I happened upon this book, the author’s name leaping out at me due to my recent conversation with Brad, which is the pre-fame Stevenson’s account of his trip from Scotland to America by boat, and then cross country by train, to win the hand of his lady love. And sure, I still reread Treasure Island. (It’s a gem, of course.) But I had not even previously been aware that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a travel narrative, let alone had a lady love, so of course this was immediately added to the list, as well. 

Most of my knowledge of boat crossings from the UK to America comes from Titanic, so it was easy to picture the adventure as Stevenson discusses his time as a 2nd Class passenger on the steamer, and of his “experiments” with living as one of the common classes. He has a lot to say about his fellow passengers, and some of it is more than a little condescending — an educated fellow looking down on the downtrodden — but he mostly delights in their company and he has a very sure pen, especially when he writes in caricature.

The long trip by train across the still-fledgling US frontier was my favourite part of the book, not only because I love a long trip by train, but also for the contemporary account of the social structure prevalent at the time, as well as his horror at the treatment of Native Americans by the American people and government. His keen eye for personality and foible is also amply displayed, and he describes his fellow travellers in few words but fine style, while his own difficulties — especially, an ongoing illness; his constitution was never good — he treats with a stoic stiff-upper-lipness that one can’t help but appreciate.

At times amusing, at times thoughtful, at all times fascinating, what a joy to have so belatedly discovered this early example of humorous travel writing, which is now one of my very favourite genres. And, for all that it surprised me at the time, and I am now very glad Brad never read Treasure Island as a kid. I might never have noticed or known about this book, else. 


TBR DAY 110: The Amateur Emigrant: From the Clyde to Sandy Hook by Robert Louis Stevenson
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Travel Narrative
TIME ON THE TBR: ~2 years. 
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 109: Atlas of Cursed Places (2013) by Olivier Le Carrer

This is a goddamned beautiful book. It has a gorgeous cover and is filled with lovingly drawn maps and it is just so lovely that it is very, very sad that the words do not come close to matching their presentation.

Forty short essays claim to visit “cursed” places, assorted locations around the world at which upsetting events have variously occurred, or are believed to have occurred, throughout history. The problem is, the writing style is abrupt and often obtuse, but somehow simultaneously fanciful, while the information provided is interesting but mostly incomplete, and the attempt to mark many of these locations as in any way “cursed” is somewhat questionable.

Such a shame, that something so pretty should be so, so disappointing. You really can’t judge a book by its cover, can you?

Nor by its super-pretty maps, it seems. 


TBR DAY 109: Atlas of Cursed Places: A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations by Olivier Le Carrer
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Travel Narrative
TIME ON THE TBR: ~4 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Dymocks Booksellers.

READING THE TBR, DAY 82: Lost at Sea (2012) by Jon Ronson

I was flattered as anything when I received this book for Christmas a few years back. I had seen it on the coffee tables and book shelves of the intelligentsia for years, strewn carelessly about the swankiest of liberal-thinking, independent bookstore-patronising clever-clogs households. Because Jon Ronson is a journalist for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, of course. One of the last bastions of the fourth estate.

This is the first of his books I have read, but it will not be the last. A collection of more than a dozen of his articles from that hallowed publication, across several decades, it not only showcases his talent as a keen observer of human nature, it is also shows off his investigatory skill and ability to build rapport with his subjects. Some of the stories on which he reports in here are quite extraordinary. Some are poignant. Some are devastating. And some are very mysterious indeed.

I don’t often follow the news. If the outrage doesn’t make it to my Twitter feed, I rarely know about it. Years ago, I read a New Yorker article about the possible retrial of American Amanda Knox, convicted in Italy of murdering her flatmate under a cloud of dubious detective work, and I was so shocked I turned to my friend Brad and said, wide-eyed: “Have you heard about this Amanda Knox situation?”

“Everyone knows about that,” he replied. “It happened five years ago.” I must have looked startled, because he reiterated. “Rach. Everyone knows.

That is how little I know about what is happening. But the news is just too upsetting, usually. I avoid it when I can.

So most of the events in this book, which doubtless made worldwide news, were totally news to me. I’d never heard of the religious cult Alpha, or the Disney cruise worker who disappeared from the ship, or the child sex charges of music impresario Jonathan Kingsley. I’ve seen the movies The Men Who Stare at Goats and Frank, but had no idea they were based on real people and that Jon Ronson wrote their stories to begin with. So this book was a revelation about so many weird, wonderful and/or horrible things that I feel very well informed about… well, decades-old events, having read it. 

But more than anything I am conscious of a huge amount of admiration. Ronson has a unique journalistic voice. He’s a presence in the stories but aa self-deprecatory and patient one, as he lets his subjects lead the way and tell their own tales. The topics he chooses are uniformly interesting, and the manner in which he reports them feels thorough and genuine without ever becoming weighed down in too many erroneous particulars. His is a kind of subjective objectivism, and I love it. 

Also, I just love that I know so much more stuff now than I did earlier today. And it was a pleasure to learn.

Maybe I should pay more attention to the news, after all.


TBR DAY 82: Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson  
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Journalism, Travel Narrative
TIME ON THE TBR: 3 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: It was a gift.
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 68: Vacationland (2017) by John Hodgman

John Hodgman’s surreal humour has always appealed to me. I loved his work on The Daily Show, as Jon Stewart’s most offbeat correspondent pretending to knowledge he did not at all have, and I loved his fake almanacs of fake facts (his first, The Areas of My Expertise is a particular favourite) that likewise claim his preeminence in fields that are largely made up. He has a winning pomposity that marks him as a consummate satirist — America does have those, and Hodgman is among the nation’s leading exponents of this cleverest of humorous endeavours.

In Vacationland, subtitled “True Stories from Painful Beaches”, Hodgman turns his hand to memoir, and in a staccato, utterly immersive style he presents a series of vignettes from his privileged life, from his childhood New England prosperity to his years at Yale to his marriage to a “beautiful, challenging” wife to his appearances on TV (not only on The Daily Show, but as the PC to Justin Long’s Mac in those popular Apple commercials) that led to limited fame and fortune, and made his adult years as easy as his childhood ones. His self-awareness is palpable, and even his name dropping (his best friend is cult music phenom Jonathan Coulton; he once had dinner with Black Francis of the Pixies; a Scientology exponent movie star once laid hands on his wife, in a platonic and awesome way) is done with an underpinning of “Can you believe this craziness?” that makes it far less unbearable than it would be in less capable, self-deprecatory hands.

Hodgman dwells much on being an only child, which is clearly something that affected him greatly, and in his examination of what that status did to his psyche, I came to appreciate my younger brother more, troublesome as he so often was. (And is.) Hodgman is also a great rule follower, which resonates profoundly with me, because yes, rules are there for a reason, people! I love rules! If for that, if nothing else, I would have enjoyed the hell out of this book.

But Hodgman’s gentle humour throughout also adds to its vast appeal, his anecdotes skirting the line between kindly and kind of mean, but you know he’s just being honest, and honesty is always compelling, especially in a memoir. His occasional forays into poignant reminiscence, of his mother and his childhood and his children’s early years, are quite beautiful, and his appreciation of coastal Maine and rural Massachusetts make of the book an ersatz travel narrative, which only adds to its splendour.

In the end, it turns out that Hodgman’s truth is superior to his fiction, and that is very much saying something indeed.


TBR DAY 68: Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman
GENRE: Memoir, Travel Narrative
TIME ON THE TBR: 1 year.  
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 32: One Sip at a Time (2017) by Keith Van Sickle

Don’t you love those book exchanges that have started popping up all over the place? Take a book, leave a book, it’s the sharing economy at his finest. They simultaneously widen your reading horizons and introduce to you new authors and even genres while also acting as repositories for all the books you don’t want to keep but don’t have anyone specific to pass on certain titles to. 

(Carve the Mark, I would not wish on anyone I know, for example.)

Try as I might, I simply cannot resist the lure of FREE BOOKS, and so always check any time I walk past one of these most excellent installations. Rarely do I walk away without at least one new book — always vowing to return and replenish the stocks with some unwanted copies of my own, or even bring back the book I have just taken. (And sometimes I even do.) And sometimes, the books I choose are utterly charming.

One such find was this book, a genial recounting of American couple Keith and Val — Keith is the storyteller — who decide to go freelance in their IT-centric careers (I think?) and live at least part of each year in Provence. A series of vignettes detailing their valiant struggles with the language, the culture and the mores of the delightful but assuredly different French, the book is sometimes funny, sometimes thoughtful, and at all times envy-inducing. Because who doesn’t want to spend months at a time in Provence?

Crazy people, that’s who. 


TBR DAY 32: One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence  by Keith Van Sickle
GENRE: Travel Narrative
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 1 year.  
PURCHASED FROM: The Little Bookroom, Melbourne Central.
KEEP: No, I’ll return it to the Little Bookroom. Probably.

READING THE TBR, DAY 28: My Kind of Place (2004) by Susan Orlean

One of the best books I read in 2018 was The Library Book by Susan Orlean. It’s an astonishing achievement, all about a 1980s fire in an LA public library and the investigation into it, but also about the establishment of that library, and what we love about libraries, and books, and community. It’s hilarious, it’s thrilling, it’s thought-provoking, it’s sad. It’s just wonderful and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Imagine my delight, then, when I was going through my plentiful unread books, and in the Travel Narrative section (yes, my TBR is separated into sections, isn’t yours?) I came upon this novel by Susan Orlean. I remember buying it, too. I went through a flurry of travel narrative purchasing, a few years back, having read all of the books then-written by Bill Bryson, Peter Moore, Tim Moore and Brian Thacker, and wanting to discover another shining voice in the field. Also, I had decided to settle back in Melbourne at that point, after having lived overseas on-and-off for over ten years, and so armchair travel had become my vicarious paths not taken outlet.

But, as so often happens, I bought too many books. And then they languished on my shelves as I bought and read yet others.

This one is a treat, and while not exactly covering the “everywhere” the title suggests, it is a very satisfying collection of Orleans’s journalism from across the late-90s and early 2000s, with dispatches mostly from America, but also from Thailand, Bhutan and a trip to Iceland to visit Keiko, star of Free Willy on his way to being freed.

There is much to learn in here, as in all the best non-fiction: I did not know about Midway, Texas, home to the Bush family, nor the origins of Khao San Road in Bangkok, though I have of course been there.

And I had never heard of Thomas Kinkade, 90s painter of renown and extreme commercialism. (I have definitely seen some of his paintings before, however. I’m pretty sure some of my friends’ mothers have put place mats with those images in front of me more than once. And for sure I have seen them in hotels.) He’s the Steve Parrish of oil painted landscapes — or was, he died young in 2012, at the age of just 54 — and he had the gall to not only call himself the “Painter of Light” and trademark the phrase, even though the Painter of Light is obviously Turner. Gotta admire the guy’s hubris. Apparently, at his peak, there was a Kinkade reprint in at least one in every twenty American homes. He’s fascinating, and Orleans, as she does with every subject of her interest in this collection, gets the very most of out his story.

I’m rather fond of this Kinkade riff, from artist Jeff Bennett.

Orleans’s style is conversational but in depth, she is objective when needful but also injects her own opinions and personality into every piece. “Homewrecker”, about the time Tina Turner didn’t come to stay at her apartment, made me laugh out loud. Reading this book was both an education and a pleasure, and those two things do not always go together.

I really wish I hadn’t looked up what happened to Keiko the Free Willy whale after her story on him, however.  


TBR DAY 28: My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere by Susan Orlean
GENRE: Travel Narrative
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 6 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: A library book sale.
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 4: Getting Stoned with Savages (2006) by J. Maarten Troost

I have no idea why it has taken me so long to read this book. I loved Troost’s first quirky travel tome, The Sex Lives of Cannibals, which saw him and his then-girlfriend Sylvia spend two years on the small island of Kiribati, coming hilariously to grips with a whole new way of life and becoming one of the locals. Why, then, has their time in Vanuatu and Fiji lain unread so long on my shelf? Well, no, that’s not true. Not unread. Partially read. I got a few chapters in, I picked it up to read more multiple times, but then just kept… not getting very far.

I even read Troost’s later travel book, 2008’s Lost on Planet China, which is excellent and also the only travel narrative I have ever read that has made me not want to go to a place, when I stumbled across it several years ago, but still, despite its reminder of how good a writer he is, and despite this earlier book glaring at me almost daily from the “started, need to complete” stack of books next to my bed (we all have those, right?), and coming away with me on several trips both interstate and international, I kept only inching forward in the book, a couple of pages here, maybe a whole chapter there, for YEARS.

Today, I decided to go back to the beginning, taking out the bookmark from page 57 (57! In nine years!) and reading it straight through in one sitting. 

Getting Stoned with Savages is a vastly enjoyable memoir. It is filled with Troost’s singular humorous fatalism, a kind of “eh, the world is crazy, what are you gonna do?” amusement at all that is going on around him, as well as showcasing his natural charm and pleasing self-awareness. When Troost talks of “getting stoned” he is talking about his obsession with kava, the naturally occurring stimulant popular in the islands to which Sylvia’s aid work has taken them. The passages in which he describes his gradual dependence on the stuff are subtle but stark; the parts of the book where he talks to locals on both Vanuatu and Fiji, explores their complex and colonialized histories — the cargo cults of Vanuatu are particularly fascinating — as well as going int depth about some of the more opaque vagaries of custom and society on the two island nations is both informative and entertaining, as the best travel writing should be.

(The part where he is writing a book in here, though… he’s writing his book before this one, The Sex Lives of Cannibals. That hurts my head a little, in a meta, causality kind of way.)

So why did it take me so long to read this book? Why did I stop and start so much? Why did it take an act of will to actually complete it? There is no earthly reason for this in its contents, which are wry, erudite and at times even quite exhilarating, so I can only assume that the reason was me. The more I consider it, I think it’s just that not having finished this book had become a habit with me. Having it constantly by my bed, or as my travel companion, was comforting somehow, as though it were a beloved stuffed toy. I have only realized this now that I have completed it and find myself filled with an unaccountable sadness–which, again, has nothing whatsoever to do with the contents of the book.

It’s like, who even am I, if I am a person who has finished reading Getting Stoned with Savages? I have been in some kind of… of relationship with this book for nine years. And now it feels like this book and I just broke up. Happily for me, I’ve discovered that Troost has released two more books in recent years, 2013’s Headhunters on My Doorstep and 2018’s I Was Told There’d Be Sexbots. So perhaps I can buy those and have an equally problematic, semi-dependent, weirdly clingy attachment to them, as I proceed to not read them for almost a decade.


TBR DAY 4: Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost
GENRE: Travel Narrative
TIME ON THE TBR: Almost 9 years. My “You purchased this item on” notification on the paperback’s Amazon page tells me it was on January 29, 2010.
KEEP: Yes, of course.