Veteran novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux has spent 50 years traversing the globe. In his latest book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, he trades the rickety rail cars of his African and Asian adventures for the dusty, sunbaked, story-rich rural back roads of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas and South Carolina. He calls it a “coming and going” type of book that beckoned him to return time and again. Indeed, he spent over a year and a half traveling by car in the south where only one person had ever heard his name or read any of his previous books. “Anonymity is freedom,” he said.
Theroux provides an intensely evocative look at the complex history of a region, rich in so many ways, abandoned and scarred in others. This is not a story about romantic cobblestone streets, touristy historic districts and prosperous cities. It is about what happens when manufacturing plants close up. It is about the shocking disparity of aid to places where the poverty rivals third world countries. Theroux searched out the cohesive fabric of the region and had hundreds of encounters with those who shared beloved interests, like gun shows, church-going and football. He frequented barber shops for conversations. He explored southern literary voices to understand history.
Known for an eye for detail and local color, Theroux is at his best trying to capture the mood of the places he visited. He does make assumptions in this thought-provoking, dialect-rich narrative that may leave readers asking questions or even shaking their heads. In the end, this 464-page travelogue by the author of the classic The Great Railway Bazaar may have readers wondering whether Theroux’s South is a place they recognize.
J. Maarten Troost’s newest work of travel journalism, Headhunters on my Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost, tackles foreign shores, classic literary giants and a newfound sobriety with the same sharp wit we’ve come to expect from the author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Getting Stoned with Savages and Lost on Planet China.
Again, Troost invites us along on his voyage to the South Pacific, but this trip promises to be immensely different. For one, his sole inspiration for this particular expedition is to follow Robert Lewis Stevenson’s own eccentric island-hopping excursions. On Hiva-Oa we stand over the stacked rocks of Paul Gauguin’s supposed grave, where Troost ruminates on the conflicting lives of the Post-Impressionist artist, both at once the freedom-loving painter and the syphilitic sexual tourist. On Nuka Hiva we discover the hidden dangers of the land that include falling coconuts, tiger sharks and deceptive fellow rovers.
But what’s with Troost’s sudden interest in the life of the novelist who penned Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? What was compelling enough to set Troost trekking distant lands and sailing strange waters? The search for redemption. He asks us to “step back for a moment and consider our hero, Robert Lewis Stevenson. The first thing one gleans is that he does not mess around –no hemming and hawing for him, no dithering.”
Troost, nearly one year sober, is testing not only his sea legs but his teatotaling fortitude which has held him back from both wrecking his marriage and ruining his life. Troost, while traveling on a boat of booze-guzzling shipmates, is not dawdling nor dithering in his search to better understand addiction. With candid humor, Troost dissects himself while also ruminating on the relationship between some of the great artists and writers and their own proclivities for drugs and the endless bottle.
For fans of classic Troost, there are still plenty of escapades including a pack of vicious village dogs, an underage Marquesan tattooist and the rogue cannibal. This travel memoir just offers a bit more; both a view into a wanderlust’s struggle with dependency and a hopeful tale of where the curiosity of the human might lead.
“Still, I would be loath to suggest that life intrinsically has themes, because it does not. In this book I narrate a life in overlapping panels of memory and experience.” So begins Howard Norman’s intimate memoir I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place. For the first time, Norman, author of Devotion; The Bird Artist; and What Is Left the Daughter, invites his reader into five distinct and thematically linked points in his journeyed past.
In 1964 Grand Rapids, Michigan, we find young Norman longing for his absentee father. His mother claims that he’s in California but Norman often spots his father in the café from the window of the bookmobile where he shelves books — his first summer job. Here, he discovers the catharsis of writing by secretly penning long letters of heartbreaking criticism to the fathers of everyone he knows.
“Kingfisher Days” takes us along on his extraordinary travels to the Arctic where he’s assigned to transcribe Inuit life histories and folktales. One moment we hear elder Lucille Amorak’s stoic recitation of her poetry; the next we’re beside the young lead singer of a Beatles cover band as he mournfully sings out into the cold, snowy darkness the night news hit that John Lennon had been shot.
Although some moments are heavy with sadness, the angakok, an Inuit shaman, brings both ominous foreboding as well as humor. This roving angakok is convinced that Norman’s presence is a blight against the community, which brings about an odd series of encounters which Norman finds inexplicably bizarre, yet humbling.
In its closing and perhaps most revealing section, we gain access to Norman’s dark yet delicate ruminations on the murder-suicide of poet Reetika Vazirani who violently killed her 2-year-old son and herself while staying in the Norman’s D.C. home. Despite this horrific crime’s descent onto his family’s life, Norman’s private revelations are filled with clarity and, ultimately, grace.
Each one of these engrossing sections is populated by one or more species of birds, from kingfishers to the western oystercatchers. These birds poignantly embody various stages in Norman’s own human migration through life’s pain and beauty.
Riding in a beat-up bus among bald hills and scrub on his way to Namibia, Paul Theroux wondered what was compelling him to take yet another arduous trip. At 72, here he was again: in a parched climate, traveling alone, crossing more borders. In his latest book, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, the prolific and highly regarded American writer of travel literature packs his bags for one final journey to Africa and up the little known western coast, where he seeks harmony not just with the continent he has come to love but also himself.
Theroux is no stranger to "the greenest continent." He spent his happiest years in Africa as a young Peace Corps worker almost 50 years ago and has returned several times, writing insightfully along the way. Suggesting this 2011 trip is his last, he dives into the gut of this complicated place. From the slum tourism of Cape Town to the Tsumkwe village crossroads of one of the world's oldest cultures, to being stranded in the Angolan bush, Theroux observes countries slowly sliding into one another. He transports readers smack into the middle of a vividly wrought landscape with his richly detailed, elegant prose, adding his characteristic wry, at times dark, commentary. He is at his best telling stories of the local people he meets while showing no patience for meddling foreigners, like the "trophy hunting for dummies" set or those simply "busybodying.''
With over 40 books behind him, including the classic The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, Theroux seems to be signaling that this is the end of the line. His aptly titled last chapter is in the form of a question, "What am I Doing Here?" Yes, the Africa he leaves has a plethora of problems, but for fans of this acclaimed literary nomad the answer is simple—bringing us his world.
As a cog in the wheel of an industry that survives on its image, Jacob Tomsky knows a thing or two about hotels. His new book, Heads in Beds, a Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, takes a sassy, insightful look inside the lodging establishments that employed him for over a decade. Humorously eye-opening and slightly bawdy, Tomsky's take on the hospitality business is everything you ever wanted to know (maybe) but were afraid to ask (really) about what goes on in the “heart of the house.” Little in Tomsky's background prepared him for his career path. Armed with a philosophy degree, he ends up working the valet stand at a newly opened luxury hotel in New Orleans, where he quickly moves from parking cars to front desk clerk to overnight housekeeping manager. Fifteen hour shifts come with the territory, as do lying, finessing, and bartering, all in the name of good customer service. Eventually he hits the big time when he is hired by an upscale Manhattan hotel, where for fun he and coworkers race down hallways on a power scooter at three a.m.
There are plenty of anecdotes that make this part-travel memoir, part-industry exposé a brisk, entertaining read. Some of it is disturbing, like knowing the housekeeper may be spraying furniture polish on your drinking glasses for that spotless shine. The author is also happy to share helpful insider tips, like how to get that coveted room upgrade and techniques for disputing mini-bar, also known as "fridge of joy" charges. Naturally, tipping figures prominently. Tomsky's honest introspection about the coworkers who form this closed society extends his writing to more than just a tell-all. With a clear-eyed wit, he deftly peels away layers of the hotel trade and its practices in order to enlighten even the most frequent traveler. Don't be surprised when the amusing and helpful appendices at the book’s end bring a wide smile.
As a child, Rosecrans Baldwin went to Paris with his family and became transfixed by its beauty. Later, as a twenty-something, Baldwin uses a connection to secure a job at an ad agency in Paris in need of a native English speaker. In the humorous and breezy memoir Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, he moves himself and his wife Rachel to France, where initially all the brilliance and luster of the City of Light shines upon them. That is, until he realizes that his facility with French isn’t quite as strong as he thought. Too quickly, the countless hassles of daily life in another culture start to take their toll. Bureaucratic red tape is overwhelming. Despite these obstacles, the small joys of Parisian life constantly astound the young couple. Baldwin manages to write his debut novel (the since-published You Lost Me There), adding his name to the long list of Americans finding creative inspiration in Paris.
A very different look at the expatriate-in-Paris experience is Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. Alice Kaplan describes post-war Paris and the many Americans who were inspired to travel to Paris for varying lengths of time. Each of the three women she focuses on came to Paris for a year to study abroad. The city made an indelible impression on their futures, whether it was the “Frenchness” Jackie Kennedy later brought to the office of First Lady, or how the intellectualism of the city reinvigorated Susan Sontag’s writing and sense of purpose. The political upheaval Angela Davis witnessed in France inspired her to play an integral role in the Civil Rights movement back home. The transformative power of place is clearly displayed in this look at the ways we can become products of our environment.
Exploring the bond between fathers and sons requires time, and sometimes great distance. Two authors travel across the country through the peaks and valleys of an emotional roller coaster toward accepting their children for who they are. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Buzz Bissinger peels back his life’s raw layers in Father's Day: a Journey into the Mind and Heart of my Extraordinary Son. The father of adult twins, Bissinger deals openly with self-pity, guilt and the disappointment at having an intellectually challenged son. He desperately wants to know twenty-four year old Zach better as they embark on a cross-country road trip to all the places Zach has lived. The journey is not easy for either. Bissinger is frustrated by shortcomings they both possess, including his own psychological failings. To tell Zach's story, Bissinger shifts back and forth from present day to past recollections. He authenticates his son's voice by omitting punctuation to capture Zach's enthusiastic ramblings. In doing so, he defines a voice he as a father comes to appreciate as happy, contented and worthy of celebration.
Another journey takes place in Matt Biers-Ariel's The Bar Mitzvah and the Beast: One Family’s Cross-Country Ride of Passage by Bike. The author's 13 year old son, Yonah, has been an atheist since kindergarten days; there are no plans for a bar mitzvah here. Instead, to mark Yonah’s rite of passage, Biers-Ariel suggests an ambitious cross-country cycling trip that becomes a family affair. Add to the journey a social action petition on global climate change, overly stuffed panniers, a temperamental used tandem bicycle called "the beast," and relentless convection oven heat for much of the trip. Biers-Ariel is quick to share his awe of nature and spiritual and environmental self-reflection with his son. In the end this travel memoir is a poignant coming of age story sure to please adults and teens alike.
Eloisa James is the pen name for Fordham literature professor Mary Bly. The daughter of the award-winning poet Robert Bly and short story author Carol Bly, James began writing romances because her husband (an Italian knight!) wanted to wait until they were more financially secure to have a second child. Today, she has approximately 3.5 million books in print in 13 different languages and is a frequent inhabitant of the New York Times bestseller list.
James decided to move her family to Paris in 2009, following her mother’s death and her own struggle with breast cancer. James chronicles this exhilarating year abroad in Paris in Love: A Memoir.The cast includes the aforementioned husband, Alessandro, also a professor and the only one who could speak French. Her children, Anna, 11 and Luca, 15, round out this appealing family. Both were initially less than impressed with French schools and society. For more on this delightful family, take a look at the book's own website.
James’ regular enthusiasts will savor this funny slice of life, and new readers will quickly be drawn in to this excellent memoir which is also a look at marriage and family and even includes recipes! Eat, Pray, Love’s Elizabeth Gilbert noted that, “Reading this memoir was like wandering through a Parisian patisserie in a dream. I absolutely loved it.”
Readers who appreciate the humorous tone to James’ writing, should definitely try some of her novels which are infused with wit and modern sensibilities. Start with her Happily Ever After series (A Kiss at Midnight, When Beauty Tamed the Beast, and The Duke is Mine), which are retellings of famous fairy tales and can be read in any order. After all, who doesn’t like to read a "Once upon a time" story every now and then?