Travel – Genre Study

March 21, 2013

Lilly, Dylan, Jason M., Frank, Ben, Lisa, Janet, Susan, Faith, Julie, Paula

Based on a group vote, we will be reading history nonfiction next time.

Benchmark Discussion – Bill Bryson

Many in the group have read more than one of his travel books including Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country, I’m a Stranger Here Myself…

Some people felt the books were long and repetitive and dragged towards the end. The humor helped carry it through but even then it felt as though they could have been made shorter. “He is very convinced by his own cleverness.” He is a journalist and it shows in his writing. He also does a ton of research and is enthusiastic, maybe too much. Some of his stories are hard to believe that he would remember that level of detail. Tedious.

Some humor books are great the first time but don’t really hold together as a reread.

There is a level of raunchy language.

“I enjoy reading about the places I’ve been then those I haven’t.”

Much of the appeal is Bill Bryson – his frank and honest approach. On the other hand it can become too much about him.

Other travel books read:

Paula – A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz – looks at early American explorers. He does research and then tries to actually follow the trail. Focuses on Spanish and English explorers. Well-researched. Eye-opening. History, violence, well-researched.

Julie –Traveling With Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor – Mother and daughter. More memoir, whiny biography than travel. 2 year travel through Greece and France. Travel is used as a way to self-reflection. Not a strong sense of place. Interesting take of writing and writer’s block. Audio book is narrated by authors and alternates voice between mother and daughter. Relationships, creative types.

Faith – Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff by Rosemary Mahoney – A rower from Maine who decided to row down the Nile with a friend. Huge difficulties because she is a woman, tourist and language barriers. Describers tourism in area. Attempts to disguise herself as a man. She uses her cleverness to take this journey. Much history, timeless sense of place, some humor, interesting conversations, culture, poverty, gender, status of women. Likable character – sincere and empathetic. Well-observed, history, feminism.

Susan – Letters from Egypt: a journey on the Nile, 1849-1850 by Florence Nightingale – Journey when she was 29 with a couple of friends. Travel mostly through sailboat, portage and handling rapids. Traveled with many possessions. Book consists of her letters back home. Incredible detail, reflection, detailed and rich descriptions of history, religion and culture. Eloquent, well-written, unique and valuable record.

Janet – Italian Hours by Henry James – Collection of essays written over 30 years of travel in Europe. Not so much as travel but memoir and historical to read now. Well-written. He wanted to use his writings to “paint” impressionistic and personal take of a place (Rome, Venice, Florence, etc.) Venice most enjoyable because it hasn’t changed. Impressionistic, evocative, well written.

Ben – A Beginner’s Guide to Changing the World by Isabel Losada – Framed by travel in Kathmandu, Dharma Sala (where the Dalai Lama lives). Travel aspect was most interesting. Personality of author/traveler was not engaging. She conducts research but does it begrudgingly although history of Tibet given is interesting. Some funny moments. Middle of book, set in her hometown of London where she figures out how to help Tibet through some publicity stunt. Self-centered, in-eloquent, personality driven.

Lisa – The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer by Eric Hansen – This eclectic group of short essays contained first person accounts of the author experiencing people and places firsthand including a very interesting essay about Hansen trying to get into the lucrative fish smuggling business in Borneo. In others he was the journalist simply capturing the essence of a particular person or event. Oddly the sense of place paled here compared with the nuanced character descriptions the author develops. Eclectic, personal, journalistic.

Frank – The Riddle and the Knight: in search of Sir John Mandeville, the world’s greatest traveller by Giles Milton – Medieval knight. Filled with wild stories and creatures. Most popular book in 1326. Inspiration to Christopher Columbus and the idea of sailing around the world as well as John Milton, Shakespeare and Keats. Considered the father of English prose. Author tries to follow Mandeville’s route to see how much of his writing is true and discovers that not much was. Good travel book. Well-researched, intriguing.

Jason Mazzotta – Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain – Twain travels by ship to Europe and Egypt. Same sense of voice as other works by Twain. Very funny and makes fun of locals – sometimes biting and critical of places he visits. Some locations become extremely descriptive and can used as a place reference. Witty, lyrical and opinionated.

Lilly – The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia by Paul Theroux – Written in 70’s. Travels from Siberia to London mostly by train. Pays for trip by having speaking engagements in Afghanistan, Iran, Bombay, Japan, China, Russia. Very rarely leaves the train. Rich description of country through how train is run and people on the train. Limited communication that adds to the interactions. Lots of drinking. Some descriptions of hippies traveling to India. Train, rich description, solitary.

Molly – Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner – Curmudgeonly person trying to find happiness in the world. Written by NPR journalist. He goes to a dozen countries trying to find out what makes people happy. Mostly about him, not a strong sense of place. Happiness, funny and off-beat.

Ben- Across Asia on a bicycle : the journey of two American students from Constantinople to Peking by Thomas Gaskell Allen, Jr. and William Lewis Sachtleben – After graduating from George Washington University in 1890, two American students wishing to expand upon their education with practical experience, decided to travel around the world. Wishing to meet the people along their route, instead of being insulated from them as they would have been had they traveled by more customary means, the two young men chose the newly invented “safety bicycle” as their primary method of transport. This book tells the story of the most exciting portion of their travels, their journey across Asia, taking the seldom used northern route from Turkey, through Persia (now Iran) and through western China. (The safer and more used path would have led them south through India.) This book is fascinating as much for what it reveals about the attitudes of these two Americans as it is for what it reveals about the people they met upon there way. It provides an interesting glimpse at the attitudes and politics of the time, and, of course, it is also a great adventure story.
Three types of travel books:

  • Memoir and personal accounts (Eat, Pray, Love)
  • History land and place (Angry Wind)
  • Journey, escapes, and adventures (Walk in the Woods)

Novelists Five key authors- Bill Bryson, Jason Elliott, Pico Ayer, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron

Some titles tend to be timeless.

Molly asked us all to write a staff-pick about our book. Email a paragraph or two to Molly to use on the website and one sentence to use on a bookmark.


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