Saturday, March 10, 2018

Best Travel Books - Points of embarkation and other baggage

When I think of travel writing, Paul Theroux, of course, leaps to mind. But his books entered my life at a much later point. What was it that came before and made all journeys an experience grounded in a million sights, sounds and smells not to mention sensations? All the stories one had read, back home in that notorious armchair, naturally! 

However it is hard, off hand, to quote which one it was that made a train journey so much the more enchanting and the airport abuzz with the warp and weft of words read in another time.

Scrolling through 25 TRAVEL BOOKS, MEMOIRS AND NOVELS YOU’LL WANT ON YOUR READING LIST, I can't help wondering if the popular Eat, Pray, Love has not unleashed a new genre and if Cheryl Strayed's Wild is not a clone of a kind. 

Note that the same list has the Gilbert at number eight. I never got around to reading her best seller. I'm allergic to those. It may be that the same force works with me for Strayed's story, though I doubt it has the same reach. And I was thrilled to find I am not alone in my something of a bias

Wild Official Trailer (2014) - Reese Witherspoon 

There's some trivia in this Vanity Fair article that might work like a magnet for some. Indeed, travel writing delights in name dropping. To come back to my personal sensei in the genre, Theroux is an incorrigible name dropper. And in a subsequent post we shall see how that works marvelously in his case.

The second book, on the list of 25, smacks of another fascinating sub-genre in travel reads - it has to do with 'savages', 'natives' and other fauna. Somebody, mainly of pale skin, goes somewhere. With some kind of mission - something to do there.

The something-to-do involves two steps. The first is to learn something in that somewhere. And the second is to market it by hook or crook. 

The crookery in this is that the person from whom the something is learned is very often not paid, not paid as much as the go-somewhere-do-something person. Thus, dangerously, we end up taking as expert one who is not and we treat the real expert as a specimen in loin cloth to whom we owe at most a ball point pen and a patronising pat on the head.

Such books make surprisingly good reads for we love those who go somewhere and do something. 

Here are three specimens:

To be fair, the bias, in travel book lists, is mostly and innocuously regional. In the case of the article in question, at least five involve road trips across the US. And about ten cover Europe. Some four do the Italian peninsula. And two cover Paris/France. Some of those include classics like the Steinbeck.

I wonder which reads worse for an 'outsider' like me: the ones that stick to the White West or those that dare the exotic East, for example? Although Orientalism is a dated concept, we all still delight in most of it to the exclusion of present reality. A pity as one can really comfortably enjoy both. The Malaysia and the rest of the archipelago of Maugham or Burgess goes down quite nicely for me without disturbing my pleasure in an Alfian Sa'at or other existing regional master.  

In the list, which I've used merely as representative of such book lists on the Net, we thus have some seven, including the few samples below:

I somehow feel that my reaction to the above book will be somewhat akin to this outburst, or to be more delicate, this frank opinion:
A crusty old man travels the Silk Road from China to Turkey. This very mediocre travelogue has none of the joyous travel spirit of Bouvier, the sheer love of adventure of Fleming or the unique intelligence of Byron.
What it does have in abundance is a disjointed narrative of stories rewritten from history books mixed with the lives of people he met along the way. To make up for the obvious lack of a point to the book, Thubron has over-decorated his prose with baroque flourishes at every turn. The writing is, quite frankly, bad.

Definitely a read if you want to live the Slumdog India experience, it appears. Many have loved it, though, and why not? I adore my illusion that the US is rife with gangsters.  

This last one gives me major heartburn! This 'flower' of Indian writing in English comes across for me as a very select specimen of a species, the naming of which got the son of one of our presidents into a soup, a while back. I need to wash that taste out of my mouth and what's better than a giggle or two? 

Humour and travel writing? But naturally! Think Three Men in a Boat, for instance.  The piece in offers a book that has been made into a film. However, there's no trailer visible yet. 

A must-have from the list:

The film, I presume, has been seen by most.

Though there is a Theroux on the list that is also a must-have, I reserve him for tomorrow.

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