Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Armchair Traveler Challenge Report

I finished my sixth book for the Armchair Traveler Challenge just under the wire on December 30th. The journey was not an unalloyed pleasure, but it was certainly an interesting one. Here are my snapshots:

1. Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1878 France): I confess that my contemporary sensibilities got in the way of my enjoyment of this one at the beginning. I couldn’t help but be horrified at the treatment of poor Modestine the donkey. I had to keep reminding myself that in that time and place it was Stevenson’s affection for the donkey that would have caused people to look askance, not his employment of a switch to urge her on. Ultimately, once we all settled into the journey, Travels with a Donkey proved to be the sort of travel writing that I like best—a new landscape illuminated by a writer who brings to the task a keenly observant eye, a sense of humour, and a good bit of humility. By humility, I mean that he never forgets that he’s a stranger in a strange land and, as a consequence, more often than not, the joke’s on him. I keep returning to one chapter in particular, “A Night Among the Pines,” which is absolutely breathtaking.

2. Jeremy Mercer, Time was Soft There (Paris): In this memoir, Mercer tells the tale of a year in which he fled dire personal and professional troubles in Canada and found refuge at fabled Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Co. I’ve been to that bookstore; indeed, working back through the dates, I think I visited it while Mercer was living there. But I was much more familiar with the history of the store from which it borrowed its name, the Shakespeare & Co. of Sylvia Beach and the lost generation, than with that of the current incarnation. Mercer’s book offers an extraordinary glimpse behind the scenes at the store and into the life eccentric owner George Whitman. This book works beautifully as memoir (Mercer’s own story), biography (Whitman’s story), and as social history (the story of Shakespeare & Co. and the community that built up within and around it).

3. James Baldwin, Another Country (1950s New York): This was my first foray into Baldwin’s longer fiction and I can’t say that I enjoyed it. The primary feeling that it provoked in me was exhaustion at the surfeit of words. Baldwin has a way of layering on sensory detail that is a very effective means of conveying heightened experience. For example, I’m not sure I’ve come across any other writer who can bring jazz alive on the page as effectively as Baldwin does. But I don’t think that you can keep your readers at that point of sensory overload for 400 pages straight, and that was how I experienced Another Country. And perversely the effect, once it works its way into everything, is not a visceral one, because every gesture, every encounter, in this novel is freighted with symbolic significance. I never had a sense of the characters interacting with one another as individual characters; every one of them seemed to stand for something or someone else. I guess that’s part of the point, that their world was so thoroughly determined by racism, sexism, and homophobia that they couldn’t interact as individuals. But, to my mind, compelling them to carry around the weight of their author’s intentions along with everything else made it all add up to less than it could have done. As for New York, certainly I saw bits of it in this novel that I’d never seen before, but only brief glimpses. The characters just never got out of their own heads long enough to take a proper look around. I suspect that I should stick to Baldwin’s non-fiction, which I admire enormously, though if there’s another Baldwin novel that you think I ought to try, I’m prepared to be convinced otherwise.

4. Terry Teachout, City Limits: Memories of a Small-Town Boy (Sikeston, Missouri): In this memoir, Teachout brings to life his hometown in the 1950s and 60s in loving detail. In so doing, he manages to honour the specificity of that town but at the same time to tell a tale to which I'm sure many readers from very different places will be able to relate, that of loving but needing to leave (in his case, ultimately decamping for New York) the places that formed us in order to become fully ourselves.

5. Mary Morris, The River Queen (the Mississippi river, from Wisconsin to Missouri): When Morris sets off down the Mississippi in a less than luxurious houseboat with river pilot Jerry and mechanic Tom (both strangers to her before they embark), she’s grieving the death of her 102 year-old father with whom she had a very complicated relationship, and coming to terms with her 18-year-old daughter’s recent departure for college. To begin with, I found Morris altogether too inward-looking. It’s unreasonable, I know, to fault a memoir for being self-absorbed, but the Mississippi is new territory for me and I wanted a good look at it. Of course Morris did intersperse her personal musings with descriptions of the terrain that they were traversing, but it seemed almost perfunctory. How could the river span so much ground and yet seem so unchanging in her initial accounts of it, I wondered. But before long the river woke her up and she began to weave her inward and outward journeys together nicely. Jerry and Tom emerged as the characters that they clearly are and so too did the Mississippi. The emotional heart of the book and the strongest part of it comes very near the end when Morris goes looking for her father’s boyhood home in the Mark Twain theme-park that Hannibal, Missouri has become. By then, I didn’t want to leave the river any more than Morris did.

6. Virginia Woolf, The London Scene: Six Essays on London Life (London): This is a gorgeous little book, but the content proved a disappointment. It was written as a series of bi-monthly columns for the British edition of Good Housekeeping in 1931 and, perhaps constrained by the intended audience, Woolf is not at her essayistic best here. There are memorable turns of phrase but these essays rarely rise above clever description; they simply don’t have the wit and whimsy, in short the magic, of the best of Woolf's essays. The one exception in this book is the essay titled “Great Men’s Houses.” On its own, it’s not worth the price of the book, but it's certainly well worth seeking out and reading.

Thanks to Lesley for hosting this highly enjoyable challenge!


Andi said...

Congrats on finishing! I was a Dec. 30th finisher myself. :)

Danielle said...

Kate, you write such wonderful reviews/summaries--you have such a comfortable way with words. I tend to have a problem keeping my 21st century sensibilities under control when it comes to animals in fiction or NF from earlier periods as well (I'd have felt bad for the donkey as well!). I've also got the Mercer book, which looks interesting. Some time ago I read a good book about Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Co, which is how I think of it as well.