A World On The Page: Five Great Travel Memoirs

ImageParul Sehgal, NPR.org, July 31, 2012

Sartre was wrong. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is tourists — specifically, other tourists. When traveling, there’s nothing more dispiriting — not exchange rates or dengue season — than coming across a compatriot. Is it because we travel not so much to see how other people live, but to imagine the other lives we might have led? (Me, I’m small and rather rumpled. Naturally, I imagine myself tall and very impressive looking and, inexplicably, tending to an elaborate garden.) And nothing ruins the view like a fellow tourist, with her bellowing voice and billowing map, a reminder of my ineluctable Americanness.

Let’s stay put this summer. Let’s live other lives from the comfort of our couches. Crank the AC and allow these five books to take you to other worlds. But be warned: These are dangerous places, the underbellies of our great cities. You’ll meet unforgettable characters: a future first lady, a one-booted hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail, a young Angela Davis. You’ll encounter beauty, bravery, chilling strangeness — and you won’t even have to take off your Slanket.

ImageDreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis

by Alice Yaeger Kaplan• Hardcover, 289 pages

Bear with me. Yes, we’re tired of hearing how the French do everything better than we do. Their women are slimmer, their infants models of continence and breeding. But here’s the thing: There was a time when France was known for license, not stricture. It presented an alternative to America’s primness and savage racism. France was where Josephine Baker, James Baldwin and Richard Wright fled to feel free. It’s where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas made their home, and a middle-aged Henry Miller could play the Lothario.

And it’s where three American women from three different generations spent their formative years. Alice Kaplan’s group portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis argues that Paris made these women, shaped them intellectually, politically, aesthetically. It’s not a perfect book — it can be a bit rote in the telling — but it’s profoundly moving to see these three icons as young women and what avid ambitious young women they were.

ImagePeople Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo — and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up

by Richard Lloyd Parry• Paperback, 454 pages

On July 1, 2000, 21-year-old Lucie Blackman went missing in Tokyo. There was one peculiar lead but no real clues. The city had simply swallowed her up. Richard Lloyd Parry, Tokyo bureau chief of The Times of London, covered the case from the beginning, and his book approaches Japanese society from many angles: the treatment of minorities, the competitive school system, the appallingly naive police force. Of all the institutions he covers, none is more revealing of a society’s obsessions and taboos than its sex industry.

As a bar hostess, Lucie was a member of the mizu shobai, the “water trade,” the loose, allusive term for paid female companionship that encompasses everything from hostessing (which involves only flirtation) to sex work. Parry reveals what the subtleties of mizu shobai tell us about Japanese attitudes about sex, work, ritual and role-play. He unearths the secrets Lucie was keeping from her family, the secrets they were keeping from each other, the secrets Japan keeps from itself. He tells this grim, unsettling story with cultural fluency and compassion. It’s a rare book and in the mold of In Cold Blood: true crime that’s suspenseful and sensitive.

ImageBeautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars

by Sonia Faleiro• Paperback, 225 pages

Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers may be the big Bombay book of the year, but for the mirch masala, the real spice and sound of the city, look no further than Beautiful Thing. Faleiro’s book is a knockout. It’s an unsparing, unsentimental and wickedly funny look at the worlds of the young women who dance in Bombay’s bars. We find criminality, prostitution and privation, certainly, but also agency, community and a dazzling heroine: Leela with her padded bra, bad choices and big dreams. “Leela asked for trouble because trouble was free,” Faleiro writes. Like Leela’s customers, you know it won’t end well, and you know you shouldn’t, but you can’t help falling a little bit in love with her anyway.

ImageWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

by Cheryl Strayed• Hardcover, 315 pages

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir has been lavishly praised — Oprah even resurrected her book club to tout it — but I think Wild can handle (and deserves) one more endorsement. When Strayed’s mother died suddenly, the writer, most universally known for her advice column “Dear Sugar,” went wild with grief, and her family fell apart. (Aside: Is there anything so foreign as another family? Aren’t they just separate tribes with their own indecipherable rituals and resentments?). Strayed played with heroin for a while and then decided (as one does) to take an 1,100-mile solo trip along the Pacific Crest Trail. At first, she falters. She buckles, quite literally, under the weight of her backpack. But her body grows stronger. She meets a bear. She loses a boot. She has adventures. She persists and prevails.

When Jean George died earlier this year, I recalled how I loved My Side of the Mountain as a child and how I’d resented George for making the protagonist a boy. Even female writers, it seemed, thought only boys would haul off to the woods and survive on their wits. Only boys were capable of such foolhardy magnificence. Not anymore.

ImageAgua Viva

by Clarice Lispector• Paperback, 88 pages

Now that we’ve toured Tokyo, Bombay, Paris and the Pacific Northwest, let’s travel to another planet entirely, courtesy of Clarice Lispector. Thanks to New Directions, we have fresh translations of a number of the late Brazilian novelist’s books, including the unclassifiable (is it a memoir? Meditation? Ars poetica?) Agua Viva.

Lispector possesses Colette’s sensuousness, her love of animals and tug toward mysticism — but with an eccentric, addictive prose style all her own. Unusual, too, is the form of the book. “I show my cards. I just don’t tell the facts of my life,” she writes. Instead, she treats us to the maunderings of her mind, her casual genius. Objects are “halted time.” Animals are “time that does not measure itself.” And such is her love of mystery that the longer she looks at something the more unfamiliar it begins to look to her. But in this world, however unknowable, the lash, power and precision of her prose allow for delightful derangement and some of the most otherworldly pleasure I know.

One thought on “A World On The Page: Five Great Travel Memoirs

  1. I love, love, love your voice and reviews. I know Wild has been endorsed a zillion times but none of them have actually made me want to read the book. Thanks so much for introducing me to so many great suggestions of things to read. Such a treat.

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