travel writing

A Trip I’d Take in a Heartbeat

Imagine the following: you hop on a local train in Boston and, a few weeks later, hop off a train in Patagonia.  It sounds like the trip of a lifetime, doesn’t it?

Well, it kinda is, except for the fact that it isn’t, technically, possible; not only is the Darien Gap still alive and well, but there are other spots where the train system is disconnected in the middle of the journey.  That, of course, didn’t stop Paul Theroux from getting as close as possible in 1979.

Now, I don’t normally read travel books of any kind (though we do sometimes have travel writers here), but I’d read Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast in high school (it wasn’t assigned reading, but I used to sit in the back row and I had a locker just behind me.  Another class was reading this, and I was bored in class, so I read it while my classmates were slowly discussing Shakespeare plays that I’d already finished reading), so I decided to give this one a shot.  Plus, I got the book for free…

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux

The Old Patagonian Express tells the story of an adventure which, even in the limited form that Theroux attempted, is no longer possible.  The final legs of the train journey, within Argentina, no longer exist (they may, again, someday – the missing link has recently reopened for cargo trains… here’s hoping passenger service will resume someday).

It also tells the story from a point of view that is almost forty years old.  Yes, I know that most Americans are still just as provincial in their outlook today as they were in 1979, but now the WAY they are provincial has swapped around.  Today, an American traveler might be surprised that countries on the other side of their border are not as politically correct and don’t really care for American’s sensibilities…

Trochita - Expreso Patagónico - Patagonian Express

But in 1979 it was very different.  Theroux might have been a world traveler and an enlightened exponent of his age, but he still looks at the people in Latin America without romanticizing them, and generalizes about their habits and activities in a way that would cause shock and outrage if published today.

The net effect of this is… refreshing and likely more accurate.  Much of what he says isn’t exactly gentle and “nice”, but it is supremely accurate.  Someone using this as a field guide for Latin American countries might find that a lot has changed, but might still find a more realistic description of the people one will encounter along the way than if you look at a modern equivalent.  Seems that modern authors will never let you know when a certain town in Costa Rica is populated almost exclusively by people who hate tourists and look to rob them whenever possible.

Now, the question is: is accuracy a sacrifice that it’s reasonable to make in the name of cultural sensitivity?  When does political correctness cross the line from a necessary buffer to avoid prejudice to outright lying in order to soften a hard truth.

I don’t have the answer to that, but I recommend reading this book if you’re interested in the question.  It will make you think, and possibly to question.

And besides, it tells about a fascinating adventure which, in itself is more than enough to justify the purchase price.  Also, we like trains.

Definitely one to read if you can.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most popular novel, Siege, is available here.

 

 

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The Golden Years of the Big Apple

Illustration for Manhattan 45

I probably should have bundled this review together with my post about the Venetian Empire because today’s book was also written by the indomitable Jan Morris.  The reason I didn’t is twofold: first off, I want to keep the posts about Italy separate from other things because the whole Italian-reading period in my life coincided with the writing of a novel.  The second reason is that I forgot that today’s book was next in the queue.

 

Manhattan '45 by Jan Morris

The book in question is Manhattan ’45, and, like the Venetian book, the one I read was a Folio Society edition, one that, with the day-glo pink highlights and evocative period photographs was ver inviting to read from a visual standpoint.  The prose, as seems to be the norm when it comes to Morris is also welcoming and colloquial – Morris is clearly a popular writer as opposed to a stuffy historian.

Equally clear is the affection that Morris has for this particular subject.  WWII was ending, the world could move on to other things… and it was a time of joy and expectation in the densely packed metropolis.  One could quite easily have thought that New York was the center of the world immediately after the war, and one would quite likely have been right.  It’s a great subject to write about, if a slightly obvious one.  Still, Morris got there first, so everyone else will always be the imitators.

It’s a great book to learn about the city as it was precisely at that time… and perhaps therein lies its weakness.  Though charming, the snapshot of a city, no matter how quirky, isn’t memorable in the way the hundreds-of-years-long exploits of an empire and its charismatic leaders can be.  This one is a book to dip into when you want to be transported elsewhere, but not one that you’ll remember details of later.  It’s like looking at pictures of the British countryside.  You can’t relive the sensation unless you’re actually interacting with it right now.

The true downside?  It’s nearly impossible to share.  You can’t sit at a party and tell a pretty girl (or boy) something you gleaned here.  “There used to be a Clarke’s on Third Avenue in the shadow of the El Train” just doesn’t evoke the same feeling that reading about the underworld beneath the tracks does.

Either way, I enjoyed reading it, and dipping back into it to write this review, so I’m happy I purchased it.  But if I had to choose a Morris, I’d go with Venice every day.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose latest book is a comic fantasy set in ancient Greece entitled The Malakiad.  Check it out!  Paperback and Ebook.

The Rich Tapestry of a Small Island

A you may have surmised from this blog, I am not exactly someone who has their finger on the pulse of popular culture.  In fact–and we need to have this discussion someday–if I’m sitting at a table with people discussing famous actors, pretty models who are married to sporting figures or the latest diet craze, I’m usually the guy in the corner rolling his eyes and wondering how 21st century civilization manages to survive if its citizens are concerned about those things.

A few exceptions exist, usually literary.  I read The Da Vinci Code when everyone was reading it (I happen to like that kind of thing and turn a blind eye to the obvious shortcomings) and also read and watched the Harry Potter series in nearly real time (I began with the first movie).

That’s not normally the case. I usually sneer at popular culture as the modern equivalent of the prefrontal lobotomy.

But sometimes–not always, or even usually, but sometimes–popular culture ends up becoming part of the canon and it’s nice to be beaten over the head with it and discovering it twenty years later (twenty years seems to be the benchmark–if it dies before the 20 years are up, it wasn’t really worth much, was it?).

Notes From a Small Island - Folio Society Edition - Bill Bryson

I frequent a few of those places where popular culture makes the transition to high culture and I discover things that I might have missed.  One of those places, strangely enough, is the Folio Society website.  Yes, the Folio Society is mainly known for its pretty editions of classics, but they also have a fine sense of when a book or author is making that transition between the popular and the canon.  If your book becomes a Folio edition, you have, in a real sense not necessarily measured in dollars, arrived.

For readers like myself, who are often have no way of telling the popular culture wheat from the chaff, it’s a great place to find out what is making that transition and to discover authors that everyone but I have already heard of.

To that list, I have now added Bill Bryson, and specifically his amazing book Notes From a Small Island.  For those who are as sadly clueless as I was, Bryson is an American journalist who lived in Britain for many years.  Before returning to his homeland, he decided to take a sort of Grand Tour of the Isles and write it up.  The result is a delightful, often laugh-out-loud-funny, and affectionate glimpse at Britain through the eyes of someone who can tell what is so funny about it and make us understand.

It’s one of those delightful books that definitely make life richer.  If you haven’t read it, track down a copy–you won’t regret it.

In fact, finding things like this is almost enough to make one want to pay more attention to what is going on in popular media, or even to pay attention to what the people around you are discussing at lunch.

Almost.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and insufferable elitist who expounds his unsustainable worldview in a number of novels and collections which he only wishes would become a part of popular culture and make him a millionaire.  Branch is a novella about evolution in the next few years and, as a shorter work, is probably a good introduction to his oeuvre.