When I was in college, I became excited about some poets, Frank O’Hara, Tennyson, C.K. Williams, and some others. This interest stemmed from a poetry class and from hanging around too much in the local used book store. But I’ve never been grasped by poetry, there’s something too arbitrary about it for me. Still, Some poems by Williams in the New Yorker piqued my interest and I picked up his collection, The Singing, which went on to win the National Book Award. There are handful of very moving poems in this collection. Williams’ best poems are grounded by concrete imagery, and they are engagingly anecdotal. But there are too many poems in this book that aren’t tethered to earthly things at all, and it is difficult for the reader to reach them. He writes engagingly about growing old and about war. The best in the collection is called “The Hearth.” It can be found here.
There are probably scads and scads of books like 13. I’ve seen them in libraries and used book stores. They are books that take on one topic and mine it for endless anecdotes and historical curios, but they don’t claim that by looking through the prism of the topic at hand, a reader can discern the entire arc of human history. The books are about what they are about, and all you need to do as a reader is sit back and be entertained and informed. John McPhee, who is very good at this sort of thing, once wrote a book entirely about Oranges, for example. Nathaniel Lachenmeyer does this sort of thing well, too. His book is an impeccably researched look at an old superstition. With every turn of the page the reader is presented with another odd relic that Lachenmeyer has dug up for our perusal: the existence of popular superstition-defying “13 clubs” at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. And onward the book moves through Friday the 13th, the missing 13th floor, and all the rest. Taken as a whole, the book is a nifty piece of well-researched reportage bringing to light the many murky progenitors of this now commonplace superstition.
It’s the little things in train travel that stay with you. It’s not the sweeping vistas or the pastoral villages. After a while, the specific memories of panorama seem to bleed into each other. It’s not the quaint architecture or the run-down graffiti-filled approaches to the stations. It’s not the things that every travel book raves about that linger. It’s the little things which seem to come out of nowhere.It’s being Vienna-bound at the Budapest train station five years ago and, somewhat confused by the vague pointing that passes for traveler’s assistance, winding up unchallenged onboard a train at a platform which quite plainly said Vienna. It’s suddenly cluing into the passengers’ conversations and realizing that the train has in fact just arrived FROM Vienna. It’s scrambling out of the train mere seconds before it pulls away, before it heads off to its actual destination, which, it now becomes quite clear, is in fact Moscow, and, well, not part of my plan.It’s things like that.For every train story that I have, Paul Theroux must have a hundred. But what makes his tales so compelling is context. With a novelist’s eye for setting and ear for dialogue, Theroux presents The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express as travel literature in the purest sense. They are not about the destination. They are about the journey. The ‘getting there.’The Great Railway Bazaar chronicles Theroux’s mid ’70s journey from London, through Europe, and across the vast expanse of Asia, onboard trains with such imagination-firing names as the Orient Express, the Mandalay Express, and the Trans-Siberian. Theroux travels through the former Yugoslavia, through pre-Taliban Afghanistan, and through Soviet-era Russia, throwing the last 30 years of history on its head.The Old Patagonian Express tracks Theroux, a few years later, leaving his Boston home and taking train after train through the U.S., Mexico, Central America, and down through South America to Patagonia, in southern Argentina.If his novelist’s eye gives the book its richness, his sarcasm gives it its edge. Paul Theroux doesn’t suffer fools gladly. When he encounters them, as when he encountered an astonishingly incurious 20-year-old pontificating vegan. He lets loose — pointedly playful to her, a bit more viciously sarcastic to us. It’s not always fair, and the frustrations that come with an extended voyage permeate his observations, but it’s honest in a brutal sort of way, and often terribly amusing.I’ve not yet read any of Theroux’s fiction, despite the presence on my bookshelf of The Mosquito Coast which has been sitting there, unread, for probably ten years. But I rate these two non-fiction accounts as the best travel literature I’ve read so far.I’ve also sampled some of Bill Bryson’s work. Bryson is a different sort of travel writer. Where Theroux has his novelist’s eye and ears, Bryson has the sensibilities of a humorist. His books seem somewhat lighter; they skim the surface more and come off as humorous memoir. His recent works seem more massive, somewhat less flippant. But in Bryson’s case, I would recommend his earlier books which drip with irreverence — sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes glib. But always quite funny.Neither Here Nor There recounts Bryson’s travels through Europe in the early 90s, a journey which in fact re-traces one he made some twenty years earlier. Wound-up by an encounter with a neighborhood of Belgian dogs, Bryson lets fly with a paragraph about why cows would in fact make the best pets, with a punch line worthy of classic Woody Allen. This book may not reach for the same lofty goals as his later works, but it hits its mark. It’s tight, funny and breezy.I guess where Theroux and, to a lesser extent, Bryson, brought travel literature into the modern age is in the acceptance that travel is a succession of small adventures, each one potentially rich in little details, in comically surreal moments. And in embracing these moments as the details which propel the story.My own Central European train journey five years ago hit its surreal zenith on an overnight train from Prague to Budapest. Essentially alone, save for a comatose heap near the window, I happened to be eavesdropping on an altercation in the next compartment. We were in Bratislava, and Slovakian officials were now on the train rousing passengers from their slumber. I could hear an American voice politely assuring the officer that his ticket was for the full journey, and was paid in full. But the booming official, drunk with power, somehow managed to coerce more American dollars out of the passenger.I was next. The intimidating official had a broken arm, slung in a cast. Now, as it happens, I have one arm. (Or more accurately, I don’t have a second arm). Normally in public I wear a creepily lifelike prosthetic arm, rendering me effectively two-armed to any limb-savvy onlookers who happen to be counting. Alone, at night, I had removed it, and it was to this empty space, this void, that the Slovakian official, ready to bleed me of more money, suddenly pointed, then pointed to his own injured arm, then beamed, then pointed back and forth again, gave me the OK sign, and then left me alone to continue my journey.
The women in Francesca Marciano’s globe-trotting new book of short stories are in search of transformation. They buy new clothes, remodel houses, look up ex-boyfriends, and travel to foreign countries as they attempt to change their lives. They don’t always know why they hunger for change. In the collection’s moving title story, “The Other Language,” a young Italian girl, Emma, feels compelled to learn English after her mother’s death. She hears “the clipped authoritative language” while on vacation with her newly-widowed father and bereft siblings and begins to spend all her time with two English boys in her effort to learn what she thinks of as “the other language.” When she finally speaks English it comes “like a flow, an instantaneous metamorphosis.” She experiences English as a means of escape: “She didn’t know what she was getting away from, but the other language was the boat she fled on.” Years later, as a naturalized American, Emma wonders how much the trajectory of her life is owed to a childish impulse.
“The Other Language” may well be the most autobiographical story in this collection, because for Marciano, writing in English is a kind of freedom. She’s Italian, a screenwriter who writes for film and television in her native tongue, but for novels and short stories, she uses English. In a recent interview for Publisher’s Weekly, she said the practice began when she had trouble writing her first novel, Rules of the Wild. A friend suggested that she try writing it in English, a language Marciano knew well, and which made sense for Rules of the Wild, a story about English-speaking journalists living in Kenya. Three novels later, Marciano is still writing in English, and she’s still writing about foreigners living abroad.
The Other Language is Marciano’s first collection of short fiction, and it was my introduction to her. A friend recommended the stories to me, and I fell for them immediately, parceling them out, one a day, to make the book last longer. Part of the appeal is the glamorous subject matter. Marciano has lived all over the world, and her stories encompass her experiences, taking place in Africa, the U.S, India, and of course, Italy. Her protagonists are usually women who are alone in some way, untethered from their domestic routines, if only temporarily. This collection often reminded me of Andrea Lee’s short story collection, Interesting Women — a title that could have worked for this book, too. Lee, who is around the same age as Marciano, also writes about women living abroad, and both women have a sensual, casually graceful prose style. But the strongest parallel between these two writers is autobiographical: their lives are, in a way, mirrors of one another. Lee is an American writer who has lived most of her adult life in Italy, while Marciano is an Italian writer who has lived her much of her life abroad, including a decade-long stint in the U.S.
These days, Marciano lives in Rome, and Italian culture remains her home base, even as she clearly admires and even revels in the American way of life. American writers have long had a love affair with Italy (Henry James, Edith Wharton, and John Cheever, to name just a few) and so it’s interesting to witness that love (or is it infatuation?) from the other side. Here’s Emma, from “The Other Language” during her first extended visit to America:
She admired the ease Americans had with their bodies, how they used objects and moved around the furniture with a freedom Europeans never had. How they took their work to bed, ate take-out food in the car, how they put their bare feet on the table, walked inside a bank in their shorts, used their cars as a cluttered closet where they could toss in just about everything.
In another story, “Quantum Theory,” an Italian woman visiting Manhattan feels welcomed in a Starbucks, of all places, where “sleepy youths in cotton T-shirts lounge in the ample armchairs holding laptops on their knees, busy with their Facebook pages, their backpacks and jackets spread on the floor as if it were a living room.”
To me, an American who has been smitten with Italian culture since a freshman-year screening of Fellini, images of messy cars, soiled take-out containers, baggy shorts, and the hot mess of freelancers and teenagers that is a New York City Starbucks only conjure up feelings of American self-loathing. But Marciano seems sincere in her appreciation of our American informality. At the same time, she’s well aware of the way Americans fetishize Italian style. In one of her funniest stories, “The Italian System,” an ex-pat Italian teacher decides to author a self-help book for Americans who want to live like Italians. The book, which sounds a bit like French Women Don’t Get Fat, educates Americans on the Italian way of life, one that embraces fresh ingredients, fresh air, wine, ritual, and above all, nonchalance: “Nonchalance is the key factor: the less you try, the easier it will be to feel as stylish and charismatic as the Italians are, deep down in their skin.” The irony is that the Italian teacher is writing the book at a time when she feels deeply vulnerable. After seven years in Manhattan, a place that initially made the Italian teacher feel “light, full of promise,” she feels lost, her ambitions stunted by her ex-pat status: “After all these years, [she] still felt self-conscious, afraid of making a faux pas.” She writes the book as a way of regaining confidence, and her tactic works — until she returns home for a visit. Back in Rome, she finds that her ritualized, traditional version of Italy is a product of her own nostalgia. Even her mother has embraced new customs, drinking Diet Coke with lunch instead of wine.
In another story about wavering self-confidence, “Chanel,” a documentary filmmaker, Caterina, buys a Chanel dress she can’t afford while visiting Venice with her roommate Pascal, who is about to leave her to pursue a love affair in Paris. Caterina’s nature is pragmatic while Pascal’s is optimistic to the point of delusional, and she buys the dress as a way of emulating his free spirit. She plans to wear it to an awards ceremony, where she will receive a small prize for one of her films, but in an O. Henry-ish twist, she can’t wear the dress after all, and it hangs in her closet unworn for years. The dress, at first a symbol of hope and positive changes to come, becomes a reminder of missed chances and lost opportunities. Caterina grows to hate it, likening it to a corpse and “an old virgin — untouched but no longer fresh.” But Caterina cannot bring herself to get rid of it, and in the story’s final scene, the dress’s true value is revealed to her.
A new dress, a change of scene, a spontaneous invitation — Marciano understands that these are the superficial actions people take in order to get at the deeper impulses they cannot name, and which perhaps have been developing for years. Her characters are often surprised by the way their lives are overturned, even as they are the ones to initiate the upheaval. In “An Indian Soiree,” a divorcing couple looks back on their out-of-nowhere break-up as “like being a dream.” In “The Club,” a Scottish widow, describing her happy marriage to a Kenyan man, finds she is still angry about the prejudice she and her husband endured, the years of being excluded from country clubs, restaurants, and even hospitals: “It struck her how certain feelings, no matter how deeply buried, would still come up in a matter of seconds, as if woken up by a siren.” And in “Quantum Theory,” Marciano’s most shamelessly romantic story, one that turns on repeated chance meetings between long-lost lovers, a woman is shocked by the immediacy of her feelings: “Nothing has changed — the excitement, the fear, the desire — it’s all still there, unevolved, unexpired. Still dangerously alive, as if it has only been asleep inside her.”
Reading Marciano, I was reminded of an old writing teacher’s adage, “Bewilderment is the most human of emotions.” Marciano allows her characters their bewilderment, their curiosity, and above all, their vulnerability. The result is a collection of stories that is as entertaining as it is humane.
A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.