The Art of Travel — Alain de Botton
As a theme, the “art of travel” is close to this traveler’s heart, in all its interpretations, and Alain de Botton has woven that theme into a highly original piece of work. He successfully combines observations on travel and destinations with musings on art, literature, architecture, landscape, and people. The book is entertaining, artful, informative, and thought provoking.
In one memorable passage, he describes escaping a cold and gloomy London winter to a travel-brochure scene he had been gazing at longingly—a beach in Barbados, with palm trees and balmy ocean breezes. However, once there, his imagined “paradise” is tarnished by a stomachache, a fight with his female companion, and worries about work.
Every traveler is familiar with that contradiction (if not outright disillusion), and the quote that occurred to me in that context was, “Wherever you go, there you are.” De Botton never actually uses that quote, but it is very pertinent. At first glance, the phrase may seem glib and obvious (something like my own “Why are we here? Because we’re here,” from “Roll the Bones,” perhaps), but given a little thought, the words are actually profound and multi-faceted. It refers not only to the “there you are” of stomachaches and relationship issues, but also to the larger “you” that also rides along—with your spiritual enthusiasm for, say, birds, architecture, sports, geology, or . . . relationship issues.
The quote is attributed to Confucius, but has recently appeared in cult movies, rock videos, and country songs. (I’m not kidding: I found a whole thread connecting that quote to the “Buckaroo Banzai” movie, including a reference to a sticker on the divider window of a taxi in a video for the song, “Everything You Want,” by my friend Matt Scannell’s band, Vertical Horizon. The quote also turns up in a song by one of those “big hat” singers.)
“Wherever you go, there you are.” Yes indeedy. I have tried to riff on that theme a few times myself. In Ghost Rider, I concluded my observations with, “The fantasy image of a free spirit drifting without care or effort through some Imax movie of breathtaking scenery not only ignored the darker possibilities (breakdown, accident, injury, death), it also omitted the simple joy-killers of bad weather, indigestion, toothache, or diesel in your fuel tank.”
The thought was written into Roadshow, as well—implicitly, as a running expression of the author’s state-of-mind, and sometimes explicitly, because that author was practically desperate to illuminate the chasm between the fantasy of being a “rock star” and the reality of being a living, breathing, traveling musician with sore, swollen fingers. Some people like to hold onto their fantasies, understandably, and perhaps they are harmless, but it is sometimes frustrating to be perceived as the object of such a fantasy. And in any case, it’s almost always worthwhile to trade illusions for knowledge.
As a reader, I also like the other side of the subjective philosophy of “there you are”—accompanying a writer who brings his or her own enthusiasms on the journey. When reading The Art of Travel, you’re not only traveling with Alain de Botton, but with his knowledge and enthusiasm about art and its reflections in the world around him.
After a good friend, a good writer is the finest of traveling companions.
The qualities of a fine “traveling companion” apply equally well to John McPhee. He has a rare ability not only to take you on an evocatively described journey, but also to lead you through the “bones” of the country, say, illuminating subjects like plate tectonics and orogeny (mountain building). Along the way, using images, similes, and metaphors, he makes these insights not just comprehensible, but entertaining. (I always remember his comparison of geological time to the brief history of human life: if you stretch your arms wide, and consider that span as the time Earth has existed, then the tips of your right fingernails represent the tiny blip of time man has been around.) Such writers are invaluable to the widely curious—just as Bill Bryson performed such a worthwhile service with his A Short History of Nearly Everything.
I wrote about John McPhee in Traveling Music, describing his role in my nascent interest in geology:
John McPhee was especially adept at combining geological information that hurt my brain with images and ideas that delighted it. Titles like Basin and Range and Assembling California had originally been written as serial articles for The New Yorker, and thus were perfectly targeted at the intelligent lay reader — or one who was willing to read the books two or three times until I could begin to apprehend, or at least approach, the concept of geological time, and to begin to interpret the world around me as a whole new, truly fundamental, paradigm.
Much of Uncommon Carriers was also originally written as articles for The New Yorker, and the theme uniting its chapters might be described as “supersized transportation.” McPhee rides shotgun with a truck driver hauling hazardous materials coast to coast; visits a Swiss lake where captains of ocean-going vessels hone their skills navigating scale-model tankers and liners through scale-model waterways; rides along with a towboat crew pushing fifteen barges up the Illinois River to Chicago; retraces a New England canoe trip paddled by Henry David Thoreau and his brother in 1839, among the abandoned heaps of stone and brick that once were mills and canal locks; wanders lost in the massive central sorting area of UPS in Memphis; and rides in the locomotive of a mile-long coal train that runs from mines in Wyoming to a power plant in Georgia.
As always, McPhee’s prose is beautifully crafted, and conveys amazing amounts of information while remaining warm and inviting, as in this description of the towboat pilot. “Mel is tall and lanky, fed in the middle but lithe in the legs. He has a sincere mustache, a trig goatee, and a slow, clear, frank, and friendly Ozark voice.”
Some lovely word choices there—though at first I wondered about the adjective “trig,” briefly considering that it might be a typo for “trim.” However, books of this quality rarely have glaring typos like that, so I looked up “trig,” and sure enough, McPhee had used the perfect word, without regard for its neglected status as another kind of “uncommon carrier.” “Trig” is defined as, “stylishly or jauntily trim, extremely precise.”
McPhee’s writing voice is all that, and like the voice of his pilot, it is equally “clear” and “friendly.”
A Salty Piece of Land — Jimmy Buffett
J. R. R. Tolkien used a memorable phrase in the foreword to a later edition of The Lord of the Rings. Addressing assumptions by some readers that the story was an allegory, he dismissed that notion with, “I cordially dislike allegory.” That is a fine, gentlemanly way to qualify one’s preferences without appearing to be either a snob or a sourpuss.
So . . . if I confess that I picked up this novel reluctantly, that would be because I “cordially dislike” the author’s music, and its associated “Margaritaville,” “Parrot-Head” subculture of would-be tropical expats. Still, I make it a principle to read any book actually written by a musician, like the recently published memoirs by Bob Dylan or Sting, as a matter of solidarity. (I thought those were both well done, incidentally.)
I also enjoy biographies of musicians who interest me, from Ellington to Zappa to Keith Moon to the Wilson brothers, but books of that kind are far more numerous. When you think about it, there have been vanishingly few musicians who have tried to write any kind of prose (and some of those employed ghosts, openly or not). Perhaps rarest of all would be a novel written by a musician. (The back cover of A Salty Piece of Land states that Jimmy Buffett is “one of only six writers to have held the #1 position in the categories of both fiction and nonfiction on the New York Times bestseller list.” So that’s nothing to sneeze at.)
When my publisher was trying to find ways to promote my latest book, Roadshow, to general readers, I suggested that if the definition of “news” was “man bites dog,” then surely they could use the same angle with “drummer writes book.” Years ago, I was surprised and intrigued to learn that old-time drummer Dave Tough had published a book of poetry. I suppose my reaction was akin to what Dr. Johnson said when Boswell told him he had attended a Quaker meeting where a woman was preaching: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
Anyway . . . when I did start reading A Salty Piece of Land, I was soon won over. It is a fine novel, written with obvious care and sincerity, and includes many backgrounds and subplots that also happen to interest me, from lighthouses to Mayan mythology to salt-water sailing to the “cargo cults” of the South Pacific islands. To a reader who has also bummed around the Caribbean a bit, sailed a big schooner on a few inter-island passages, and motorcycled around Mexico, Belize, and Key West, there were many points of relation for me. But even without all those subjective touchstones, I think A Salty Piece of Land remains an enjoyable and enlightening story.
“Enlightening” might stand as a mild pun in this context, because one of the novel’s principal plot points concerns the search for an old lighthouse lens. That quest resonated with an experience of my own in the late ’80s, beginning on a day off before a concert in San Francisco. I bicycled with a friend from Golden Gate Park north to Marin County and Point Reyes, where we toured the lighthouse. Some months later, I was on the west coast of Jamaica, in Negril, and visited the lighthouse there. Like all those beacons in modern times, the light was electric, and automated, but the lightkeeper pointed to the huge bronze casting that had once held the oil-fired lantern, and told me he was trying to find the parts to restore it.
I recognized the French manufacturer’s name, Fresnel, from my visit to Point Reyes, and when I got home, I wrote to the lightkeeper there, asking if he could help his colleague in Negril. I don’t know if anything ever came of that, but judging by the scarcity described in A Salty Piece of Land, I doubt it. Too bad.
In any case, the novel is a satisfying and worthwhile read. The characters are deliberately hyperbolic, sometimes leaning toward amiable caricature (the gay tycoon Sammy Coconuts in his pink flying boat, and country stars Tex Sex and Willie Singer), but no less entertaining and engaging for it.
In fact, this reader might “cordially” suggest that the author leave aside the steel drums, salt shakers, and Coral Reefers, and get to work on a sequel . . .
Inés of My Soul — Isabel Allende
One well-educated and well-read friend of mine refuses to read any book in translation. He says he doesn’t feel as though he would be reading what the author actually wrote. I can understand that scruple, but still—when I think of all the wonderful reading experiences I would have missed, from Gabriel García Márquez to Voltaire to Aristotle, a little acceptance of that reality seems . . . acceptable.
In the case of Isabel Allende and Inés of My Soul, reading the novel with the awareness that it was translated from the original Spanish seems more than acceptable, if only because the translation itself (by Margaret Sayers Peden) is an impeccable piece of writing. There’s no way of knowing how matters of style survive translation, and in considering the process in reverse, with writers in English rendered into other languages, I have to wonder how Shakespeare’s glorious flights survive, for example, or the arch tone George Eliot sustained throughout The Mill on the Floss, or high stylists of chiseled prose like Ernest Hemingway or John McPhee (I tried a Spanish dictionary for “trig,” and got bien cuidado—not really the same).
However, with Isabel Allende’s novels, you get the sense that it’s not about the language, in Spanish or English, but about the story. Isabel Allende is such a fine storyteller that the unwinding of her narrative is everything, and contains everything.
The two novels of hers I have read so far, this one and Zorro, fall into the “historical fiction” category—a genre I have always enjoyed, from James Michener to R. F. Delderfield and Daphne DuMaurier to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I am reminded of a Steinbeck quote that applies very well to Isabel Allende’s novels: “The best stories are true, whether they happened or not.”
Her characters are drawn in realistic detail, with virtues and flaws in human degree, and her historical backgrounds are meticulously researched. When she writes about periods I have studied myself, and feel I know something about—mission-era California, pirate Jean Lafitte’s dramatic and perhaps pivotal role in the War of 1812, the African end of the slave trade—I know her facts are accurate, and thus willingly trust her when she writes about 15th century Spain, or the founding of Chile, as in Inés of My Soul.
Allende does do a wonderful job of casting history through a woman’s eyes, but without being all revisionist about it. Her story is faithful to history (and “herstory”) as it actually happened, but illuminates other important facets of those times. That is one of the great gifts that fiction can bring when it is honest. (I have never thought of that word in connection with fiction before, but it seems apt. It’s reversible, too, in reference to all the “dishonest nonfiction” we hear about these days.)
My concise opinion (watch me—I can do it!) is that Isabel Allende is a master storyteller in the time-honored avocation that reaches from the oral tradition of the griots to papyrus scrolls to paperback novels. Thus, perhaps Inés of My Soul is a perfect illustration of how good, honest fiction transcends a specific language, and is not lost in translation.
The Secret Agent — Joseph Conrad
This book represents another side of the “translation” issue, because Conrad, like Nabokov after him, was an author who did his own translating, so to speak—writing in English as a second language. Or in Conrad’s case, third. He was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in the Polish Ukraine in 1857, and was orphaned at eleven. He later moved to France, where he learned French, then to England, where he settled between long periods at sea in the British merchant marine. He anglicized his name, and while ashore, began to write a series of novels and stories in English that would profoundly influence the “modernist” movement of the early 20th century.
Once before in these pages I quoted the saying “you can never read the same book twice,” and such Conrad masterpieces as Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, and Victory are the kind of rich novels that you could profitably revisit every year or so—as I have been doing of late, for example, with King Lear, or carefully selecting a “previously enjoyed” (in used-car parlance) novel that should repay the rereading (though there are so many, and always competing for my attention with the myriad of unread books).
The Secret Agent is set in London in the early 20th century, a time of economic upheaval and political extremism. The unsympathetic “agent” of the title is actually working secretly for the forces of anarchy that were introducing terrorism to Europe and North America a century ago. The word “anarchy” comes from the Greek “no leader,” and the political movement began in the 19th century as an idealistic vision of cooperative living—utopia (another Greek form, meaning “no place”). Libertarians might be the modern heirs to that peaceable tradition (notwithstanding the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK, as that was really about nihilism), while a darker branch devolved into violent, irrational spasms of assassinations, bombs, terrorism, and, ultimately, a tyranny of thugs.
In that light, anarchy might be the most enduring political movement of the 20th century. The idea of “terror” as a political tool makes a key thread in the plot of The Secret Agent, and of course, resonates strongly in our time. The way Conrad portrays anarchy in plot and character also endures, as eventually, all of his characters seem to operate against authority and outside the law, whether from ignorance, pragmatism, fanaticism, or desperation.
Though The Secret Agent is not quite as universal and timeless as some of Conrad’s other works, it is still a valuable portrait of a certain “hinge” in Western history, a turning point in what might be seen as our ongoing process of seeking political maturity. That larger theme of the human race as a collective organism, growing up and learning to rule ourselves and each other in a more mature, wise, and compassionate fashion, suggests that we might be in our adolescence now—passing from childish feudalism and religious dogma through the “puberty” of imperialism, anarchy, communism, fascism, and . . . well, religious dogma. Like the characters in The Secret Agent, we continue to struggle with the conflict between ideas and reality. Or, then and now, the conflict between ideas and faith. Or faith and reality.
Choose your battle.
Paradise — Toni Morrison
I bought this book several years ago, wanting to read something by America’s most recent Nobel winner in literature (awarded in 1993). For various reasons, though, I seemed to keep putting off actually reading it. One factor, I confess, might have been the fear of experiencing the dark side of “affirmative action,” or political correctness—fearing what it would mean, what it would say about the world around me, if I didn’t appreciate a novel by an African-American woman. So much disillusion is hard to take.
Another reason for my reluctance was probably the “Oprah’s Book Club” sticker on the cover. Nothing against Oprah, certainly, for she is a major force for good in this world, and so is her book club (many great books have been justly celebrated there, from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to Ann-Marie McDonald’s Fall on Your Knees). Plus, of course, the title of this department is a tongue-in-cheek homage to Oprah’s original.
(Thinking of that, I am tempted to start a guerrilla operation to visit local bookstores and label books I like with stickers reading “Bubba’s Book Club.”)
A while back, Oprah herself discontinued her book club, saying she felt it had become too much of a marketing power—any book included would reap an enormous jump in sales, and publishers were flooding the show’s producers with books every season, like DVDs sent to Academy Award voters and labeled “for your consideration.” I, too, was suspicious of that power (I understand it corrupts). I also felt that the “selectors” were not always so discriminating in their choices—see James Frey (“The Autobiography of a Liar”), though it’s hard to blame people for being taken in by dishonesty. Then there was the strange twist of the novelist Jonathan Franzen, who caused a fuss by saying he didn’t want his book on Oprah’s book club. Nothing “cordial” about that—clearly the reaction of a snob and a sourpuss.
In any case, I’ll simply say that I needn’t have worried—the Nobel judges were correct, and so was Oprah. Considered simply as artistry in writing, Paradise is world class, timeless and genderless, and the characters and story are unforgettable. The main setting is in and around the all-black town of Ruby, Oklahoma, and that alone is a tale worth telling—some people are unaware that such places exist, communities that struggled into existence on the Great Plains after the Civil War because the towns further east, white and black, kept rejecting them and sending them onward and westward.
But that’s only the background of this novel; it is the drama played out by individual people that matters (as always, in fiction as in life). On one level, the story is presented on a biblical scale, an elliptical narrative spanning generations of prophets, saints, and sinners, set in an impressionistic, dreamlike frieze of time and place. It circles from a violent opening scene that is deliberately left vague and nightmarish, through the events that brought that catastrophe to pass. Suspense is woven by foreshadowings and the reader’s own sense of foreboding, and a little magic is suggested
—though not demanded.
Paradise is often mysterious, even mythical in tone, and sometimes becomes downright enigmatic, challenging the reader to keep up. So many characters are paraded on- and offstage, and you are sometimes unsure which ones are important, which ones to try to remember—though you can just ride along and trust the author. The challenge is not threatening, but tantalizing, and carefully measured.
Simply put, Toni Morrison’s writing is entirely worthy of all that acclaim. And I’m glad.
Rebuilding the Indian — Fred Haefele
From Oprah’s Book Club back to Bubba’s, this is a book written by a man, about men, for men. (Or ladies who like motorcycles, a growing demographic, I’m happy to report.) Apparently out of print now, a used copy was sent to me by a fan (thanks Stewart), and is a welcome addition to my shelf of books about motorcycling. Those books range from Tom Swift in The Motor Cycle Chums of the Northwest Patrol in the early 1900s (thanks Scott) to Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s Long Way Round. Most of those titles are pure travelogue, but a few transcend subject and genre to become deep reflections on life, like Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels, Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Perfect Vehicle: What it is About Motorcycles, and Robert Pirsig’s classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Rebuilding the Indian has something in common with each of those, but it doesn’t have much of a “travelogue” —being set more-or-less in the author’s garage, literally and metaphorically. Haefele writes as a man in his early fifties, feeling that his professional life is stalled—an out-of-work teacher and unpublished novelist making his living as an urban tree cutter. Yet he knows he is poised on the edge of great changes, as he and his wife await the birth of their first child together, while he remains estranged from two grown children from a previous marriage.
That is an obvious recipe for a life-crisis, and out of his confusion and aimless dissatisfaction, Haefele is inspired to attempt to restore an old Indian motorcycle, a true “basket case,” with the sometimes dubious help of a colorful cast of eccentrics. Naturally, rebuilding the old motorcycle becomes a metaphor representing the author’s efforts to put his life together.
Written with humor and insight, Rebuilding the Indian is a fine and enduring piece of work. It also occurs to me that the author’s revelations offer another perspective on that earlier quotation, “Wherever you go, there you are.” If you push yourself to a new “wherever,” with new challenges, new experiences, and new knowledge, you might just go there with a better “you.”
Hey, it happens. (On “Oprah,” at least.)