Life Is a Trip: the transformative magic of travel
by Judith Fein
Narrative voice really matters in personal travel writing, and Fein's tone is warm and genuine — the kind of narrator I'm happy to hang out with, especially when she's describing experiences in enviably far-off, far-out places, such as Guatemala, Micronesia, Israel, Istanbul, Spain, and Nova Scotia.
The American woman's travel memoir comprises 14 pieces, often about trips made with her photographer husband. Throughout, the tone carries the sense of justified pride she describes feeling in her intro:
One day, an editor said to me, "Your articles are different from other travel journalists' because you really know how to tell a story."
I grinned, and I thanked my years in Hollywood for teaching me how to do that — how to tell a story about a place and the people who live there.
"You know how to travel deeply," said another editor.
Such a philosophy promises great reading — especially for a Perceptive Travel reader who cares more about storytelling than thread-count — yet not all of the pieces live up to it.
While there's no lack of depth to any of the episodes described in the book, a few of them seem a bit formulaic: I went here and did this and this is what it all meant to me. For instance, the very first selection, "His Way or the Highway: On the road with a Maori elder" seemed a bit too much essay about too little event, and the "vow" Fein takes as a result of meeting the Maori elder is slightly melodramatic:
Never will I ever underestimate the power of anyone's dreams. Not even my own.
Here as in several of the pieces, I wish the end had come a few paragraphs earlier, before Fein explains the intuitively obvious (such as connections between her travels and her larger life). She does a good job telling stories — no need to tell us what to think about the story, too.
The less-adorned memoirs are the more fascinating. In "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" Fein tells about being sought out to train with an honest-to-God spirit healer, in "La Tierra de Brujos," (land of the witches). It's equally charming when she gives straightforward account of an exceptionally good hotel-keeper in "In the Shadow of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul." And I was utterly convinced by, and sympathetic to, Fein's account of the one time when, as a traveler, she was seriously bored: "Happy Among the Hmong or at Home."
In "Life After Death in Nova Scotia," Fein's at her feinist (pun intended), describing the history and story of the Arcadian peoples. While fully sympathizing with the tragedy of the diaspora, Fein really seems to think on the page about the place and how its history affects it. We see her mind and her heart opening as she learns the history:
People have always complained about their children, their leaders, their parents, their spouses, their work, repairing their homes. They triumphed and failed. History is about people as much as it is about events. …[T]he more deeply we penetrate history the more we understand both.
Still Life with Sierra: The true story of a family's quest to find home
by Peggy Sijswerda
It's usual to use words like "brave" and "honest" in describing a memoir about tragedy, so I won't, but Sijswerda's slim book, describing her family's ongoing recovery from the loss of its only daughter, portrays a difficult time as the mother lived it, and does so with heart and wisdom.
After nearly-three-year-old Sierra drowned in a neighbor's pool, the family lost its center for quite a while. Some years later, they went to live in Netherlands, and then when their new home didn't provide what they were hoping for, they simply traveled around Europe for six months, spending their savings but working to heal themselves.
At no point does Sijswerda suggest that the mourning is over, or that everything's okay, even after the birth of another child. Instead, the family keeps Sierra with them, including her in conversations and prayers. The loss becomes part of the family, and so does recovery, acceptance, and forward movement, as they grow in intimacy and appreciation of each other and each moment they have.
Less a travel book proper than a psychological and spiritual work-in-progress, the book's language is occasionally a bit formal and strained — but no wonder, given that the narrator's heart was broken. My sense is that the writing loosens up along with the family, and that travel to new places is both a distraction and a comfort from the sorrow.
I've given this book to a friend who's considering a long trip after a serious illness, and I'd recommend it to anyone who values the emotional aspects of travel.
Across America by Bicycle: Alice and Bobbi's summer on wheels
by Alice Honeywell and Bobbi Montgomery
Full disclosure: I was an early reader for this book when it was under consideration at the press, and some of my suggestions have been incorporated into the final version. So no wonder I like it.
But who wouldn't? This is the chronicle of two women of retirement age (mid-50s) — both married with children and both, by the end of their trip, grandmothers — who decide for the fun of it to ride bikes across America. And they do, with a modest budget but unlimited goodwill and an increasing reservoir of strength and experience.
We climbed all day through landscape that became more and more desolate and desert-like. The temperature rose steadily. We saw no homes, only trees and brush along the road. By 1.45 we had put Rogers Pass behind us and hoped that the rest of the day would be pretty easy. Descending the eastern side of the pass at forty-two miles per hour was great fun, although with full loads we still tapped the brakes periodically. Never mind that Lance Armstrong likes to fly down mountains at sixty-five miles per hour and more. We have both become more cautious with age, and we know when fast becomes too fast.
The book's unusual, first-person plural point of view (the narrator speaks as "we" most of the time) works well, although occasionally their folksy, Midwestern innocence grates on my ultra-cosmopolitan sensibilities. Just once, I'd like these two women to bellow obscenities at one of the truckers who nearly blows them off the road, or at least down a few microbrews — not root beers! — at the end of a day's ride. Instead, the two of them are unrelentingly agreeable and appreciative.
We hit Napoleon in time for lunch with the local office crowd at a restaurant in one of the restored downtown buildings. Afterward, on the way out of town, we thought that we had pedaled into an Andy Warhol painting as we passed a gigantic red and white can of tomato soup. It turned out that we were at the gate of the world's largest Campbell Soup factory. It was another of those unpredictable, unimaginable moments — a fun discovery on what could have been a humdrum day.
"I just love not knowing what's up the road ahead," said Alice.
"Yeah, me too. I wonder what our next surprise will be."
We were becoming giddy. Should we have been so amused by a giant tomato soup can? Who needs drugs or alcohol to have fun? Pedaling through the countryside for days on end did it for us.
Despite or maybe because of their wide-eyed approach, Bobbi and Alice's interactions with people on the road, both other bikers and non-cyclists, provide continuous surprises and interest, as do — surprisingly — the gear lists and details of mechanical matters.
While I've often read books I consider inspiring, this one has helped me commit to my next adventure, cycling around the United Kingdom. Though I'm not yet granny-aged, I hope to perform as well — and have as good a time — as these two.
Soft adventurer for hire Gillian Kendall is author of Mr. Ding's Chicken Feet, a New York Times notable book, and editor of Something to Declare: Good lesbian travel writing. Living in both Australia and the USA, she spends a lot of time in economy class, jetlagged, taking notes, and hoping for upgrades. See more at www.gilliankendall.org