06 August 2013

Book Reviews: Two Travel Memoirs

On my vacation earlier this summer, I packed up two travel memoirs for reading, one of which was by an author whose previous work I loved and another by a new-to-me author.  Though I did a test drive of both books by reading the first couple of chapters, both ended up being disappointing. 


The first one, The Turk Who Loved Apples and Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World by Matt Gross, wasn't really a travel memoir at all. It was a memoir about being a travel writer, but not really a memoir about travel.  There was no real narrative drive to the book, and the writing felt to me like it was largely copied & pasted from other sources and thrown together with no form to give it cohesion.  I'd even go so far as to say that it approached being a book about the philosophy of travel, and this author certainly has an ax to grind with both backpackers and luxury travelers. He was, for quite some time, the "Frugal Traveler" for The New York Times, during which he was paid to travel on a shoestring budget.  Which apparently is very different kind of travel from the backpackers whose grunge seems to litter the world, in Gross's estimation. 

There were parts of his book that resonated with me, and they are the things that I suspect would resonate with many solo travelers with little experience outside of the first world: "Money and experience can insulate you from calamity, but never perfectly; when it comes down to it, you are responsible for your own happiness. Are you ready for that kind of responsibility? I wasn't always--but I am now, I think (9)." And then this: "Guilt overwhelmed me...but guilt is the ultimate province of the thinking traveler. As a citizen of a wealthy, mostly functional country, you can't see what goes on in poorer corners, or meet people with lives truly out of their control, without in some way feeling responsible. So what do you do (244)?"


This ultimately was not a good fit for me. I wanted a book that took me on an armchair adventure but I ended up with an author who was more interested in reminiscing the way he felt in different places at different times of his life than actually sharing with the reader what he did, and where and when.



The second travel memoir, Headhunters On My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story by J Maarten Troost, also ended up being a disappointment because my expectations were not in align with what he delivered. Troost's prose style has changed since his first, and quite excellent, travel memoir (The Sex Lives of Cannibals) that made me think he was going to be the next Bill Bryson--with a deft combination of humor, personal narrative, and travel.  His new book, however, would be more accurately labeled: My Addiction and Me, With a Side Helping of Travel, But With All Points Leading Back to My Addiction.

Which is obviously fine if I'd known that ahead of time, but it was not what I had signed up for. Troost takes us on a new series of South Pacific adventures, traveling in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, but he also takes us on a more intimate journey: his own recovery from alcoholism.  Unlike his three previous travel memoirs, where he plants himself in one country (Kiribati, Fiji, China) and then engages the reader with  pure nuggets of travel gold entwined with clever bits of humorous commentary, Troost flits about in this book from island to island, never landing on one long enough to give a satisfactory portrait. What we do get is countless references to his Alcoholism and his Difficulty Moving Past It. To wit, here's a passage regarding Gauguin and Tahiti. Sort of. As I said, all roads lead to Troost's addiction: 

He, too, has a museum here...complete with a recreation of a fishing pole dangling from a second story open window, which Gauguin used to fetch his bottles from a well. This, I think, was meant to convey something charming and rascally about Gauguin. Of course, what I saw was the ingenious solution to that most intractable of problems confronting the alcoholic--stairs. They are a fucking nightmare when you're fucked up. You think it's a coincidence that most of us end up in a double-wide trailer instead of a fifth-floor walk up? No, that's what passes for forethought among junkies and drunks (124-125).
See what I mean?  If you're looking for a memoir about recovery, this would be a fine one to read.  If you enjoy memoirs in general, and humorous ones in particular, this could be the book for you. But if you're looking for the Next Great Armchair Adventure, consider skipping this one. 


NB: I requested advance reading copies of both books from my sales reps.  The Turk Who Loved Apples was published this year by Da Capo and Headhunters On My Doorstep will be published in September by Gotham Books.

With apologies to my bookish followers for having gone more than a month since my last book review, I am happy to send either of these books to any reader in North America. If you're interested, please leave a comment. First come, first served. Offer expires on August 8, 2013. 

10 comments:

  1. I hate -- HATE -- when people make travel narratives about their quest to conquer something in their lives. Just travel, damnit. This is a big reason I had to put Wild down. "My mom died, and--" "NOPE."

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  2. I'm with you. Some travel memoirs should really just be labeled "memoir." Just because you went somewhere doesn't make it a travel memoir! ;)

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    1. There is much truth in your last sentence, madame.

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  3. Hey Crowe: I would love that Troost book. I suck up recovery stories and if I get a little travel thrown in, well then all the better. Belle

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    1. This may be the book for you then. Can you email me your address? Do you still have my email? Im traveling without my computer for a few days...

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  4. Aw man, double whomp for both of these being lame. I mean the second book doesn't sound so bad, but not when you're expecting something different and then they lay out all their problems on you. However, I might check out The Sex Lives of Cannibals. Cos really anything that can be described as "The Next Bill Bryson" sounds wonderful.

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  5. I sometimes wonder if marketing people ever read the actual book. Wait...this was marketed as a coming of age zombie story and it's actually an old woman dealing with alcoholism?!?

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  6. Denis Hickey has a couple memoir books, and yes he travels in them but that is exactly how they are marketed so you are not thrown into a persona; story by surprise. The first book Breaking Free I thought was excellent, I am waiting to get the second one The Traveler should be out this month. http://www.breakingfree-thebooks.com/ this is Hickey's site if you are looking for a true memoir read that has some travel! I am pretty sure I won't be reading these 2 that you all are talking about, I don't always need personal growth accounts! Thanks for keeping me away from them!

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Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)