Tag: Literature

What Would Kerouac Wear?

Photo by Tom Palumbo (Creative Commons)

Dressing the part of your favorite traveler—fictional or otherwise—is a fun concept. Consider the crumpled linen of “Our Man in Havana” or Miss Lucy’s Edwardian ruffles in “A Room with a View.”  When the trend and fashion site Who What Wear published a piece on how to do exactly that, I wondered what the fashionistas advised. And hey, they mashed it up with a travel-centric summer reading list. Great idea.

We’ve heard that escapism can be a vice, but we’re ignoring the professionals for now and using our summer reading to transport ourselves to coastal Scotland, 1950s Paris, and the high seas (just to name a few) via a few of our favorite books. Even better? We’re taking style notes from these classic tales and are fully dressing the part.

It took only two outfits for my sarcastic side to kick in. For “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s classic about racism in the 1930s American South, the site recommends a $295 leather backpack. Where is the ham costume worn by Scout for a Halloween pageant in the 1962 movie? By the time I got to Kerouac ($9 for “On the Road,” $588 for a pair of shorts), I’d had enough.

I reread “On the Road” during a recent trip to California. At the beginning of the book, Kerouac—or rather, Sal Paradise— makes much of the fact that his feet are wet and cold thanks to his cheap espadrilles. Sal never has enough gear, and at one point, fellow hitchhiker Eddie makes off with one of Sal’s only shirts. When I read the book in my early 20s, I was taken with the free-spirited nature of it. Reading it again, I thought about the hard travel Kerouac describes and how exhausting being cold and hungry so often would have been.

Plus, Sal Paradise would kick you in the junk for blowing close to $600 on shorts. He’d spend that money on booze and books. Let me know when there’s a guide to drinking like your favorite literary character—that’s an idea I can get behind.

(Never mind. It exists. If you need me, I’ll be at the bar reading “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Singapore Sling, if you’re wondering.)


Discovering Peter Matthiessen—and Myself

Lynne Friedmann never thought she could make a life as a science writer. Then she read "Blue Meridian."

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R.I.P. Chinua Achebe

The celebrated Nigerian writer has died at the age of 82.

He was best known for his novel “Things Fall Apart,” which is about the clash of traditional Nigerian culture with the arrival of bibles and British colonial rule. When the novel turned 50 in 2008, Frank Bures reflected on its impact and the world Achebe evoked.

The publication of “Things Fall Apart” is often cited as the birth of modern African literature, and since its publication the book has sold some 11 million copies in 50 countries.The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote that for Americans, is it “the quintessential novel about Africa.” In fact, it is the foundation of tens of thousands of college students’ introduction to the continent, and forms many of our ideas of the place even today.

That’s fine, and I realize that “Things Fall Apart” is required reading. But as important as it is, “Things Fall Apart” is a novel of the past. Since then Africa has changed so much and so fast that the amalgam of the world Achebe wrote about and the one we see today can be hard to recognize. These days, there are so many other great novels coming out that reflect the Africa of today: “Graceland,” “Waiting for an Angel,” “Purple Hibiscus,” and on and on. 


Interview with Andrew McCarthy: A ‘Strange Second Act’

Jim Benning asks the actor, director and writer about his new book and his second career in travel writing

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Do We Bond Over Books the Way We Do During Travel?

Bryan Basamanowicz observes that people bond over mutually beloved books much the way they bond with fellow travelers in a far-flung place.

If we try to extend this “traveler’s comparison” to other narrative mediums—television programs, movies, plays—it can often lose some of its steam. Why is this? Relative limitlessness in physical and emotional sensory potential is the privilege and burden of the reader. The book, more so than any other form of narrative media, rings true, more synonymous, with the limitlessness and loneliness to be found while facing the open road or holding a one-way airline ticket to Azerbaijan. In my hypotheses, it is the loneliness quality in particular, physically and intellectually inherent to the act of reading, that lays the bedrock for the powerful social bonding achieved through literature. The limitlessness is critical too, as it promises a bounty of fertile avenues for conversation, but it’s the loneliness of the reader—or, as Rainer Maria Rilke might say, it’s how “two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other”—that assigns to a very special category those friendships formed over books.

I’ve had much the same experience. Though I’ll never forget meeting a young Canadian traveler in a lonely village in western China. When she learned I liked the band Rush, she literally jumped up and down with joy and ran over to give me a hug. You never know what, exactly, will float another’s boat.


How Bruce Chatwin ‘Saved Travel Writing’

I was catching up on some back issues of Harper’s a few weeks back, and this quotation about the author of “In Patagonia” and “The Songlines” caught my eye:

He saved travel writing by changing its mandate: After Chatwin, the challenge was to find not originality of destination but originality of form.

Among those who have followed Chatwin, the most interesting have forged new forms specific to their chosen subjects: thus Pico Iyer’s sparkily hyperconnective studies of globalized culture and William Least Heat-Moon’s “deep maps” of America’s lost regions. Perhaps most important were W.G. Sebald’s enigmatic “prose fictions”—particularly “Rings Of Saturn”—that likewise hover between genres, make play with unreliability, and fold in on other forms: traveler’s tale, antiquarian digression, and memoir. What Sebald, like so many of us, learned from Chatwin was that the travelogue could voyage deeply in time rather than widely in space, and that the interior it explored need not be the heart of a place but the mind of the traveler.

(It’s from “Voyagers: The restless genius of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin,” by Robert Macfarlane, in the November 2011 issue. It’s available online to subscribers only.)


Russell Banks, Ernest Hemingway and Masculinity in America

The New York Review of Books explores Russell Banks’ novels and touches on Ernest Hemingway’s legacy in American letters.

When it comes to the anxiety of influence, American women writers seem to have an easy relation to their gentler and more urbane literary ancestresses; but men writing in America have to contend with the shade of Hemingway, and the longstanding tradition of manliness he tried to represent. They may reject that tradition but they can’t ignore it, though Henry James may have been trying to by making himself into an Englishman. Most of the ongoing mining of Ernest Hemingway’s character, sexuality, and personal history arises from our sense that he embodied the paradoxes and conflicts in masculinity as Americans have constructed it. Was he a bully or a baby, brave or cowardly, gay or straight, tough or weak?

That “shade of Hemingway” has colored American travel writing as much as any other genre, of course. The article is available online but only subscribers can read the piece in its entirety.


Looking for the Old Hippie Trail

At Old World Wandering, Iain Manley has a long, worthwhile post on the classic overlander, mixing his personal experiences as a “novice traveller” on the route with a history of the trail’s literature, from “Across Asia on the Cheap” all the way back to the Romantics of the 1700. Here’s a taste:

I knew something of the old Hippie Trail by the time we arrived in Goa, but only as much as I had read in Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar. Theroux had encountered the freaks making their way out east - “like small clans of tribesmen setting out for a baraza or new pastures” - on a train from Istanbul to Tehran. He thought “the majority of them, going for the first time, had that look of frozen apprehension that is the mask on the face of an escapee,” and had “no doubt that the teenaged girls who made up the bulk of these loose tribal groups would eventually appear on the notice boards of American consulates in Asia, in blurred snapshots or retouched high-school graduation pictures: missing person and have you seen this girl?” Theroux, propped up on his first-class berth “like a pasha,” consulting Nagel’s Encyclopaedia-Guide, or lying down in the heat, “like a Hindu widow on a pyre, resigned to suttee,” was too much of a prig to characterise the hippies as anything but wastrels and strays, and it seemed a pity that the Hippie Trail had never had a Kerouac to document it, to tell us as he did that “somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”


The Rumpus Talks Truth in Memoir

This is a favorite, much-kicked-around topic of mine, as relevant to travel writers as to more stationary memoirists. Earlier this week the folks at The Rumpus added a fresh contribution to the debate.

Messing With Memoir is an essay about the author’s efforts to revise her out-of-print memoir, years after she’d written it, and the ethical issues she grappled with in doing so. Here’s a taste:

I was a much better writer now. Why let that raw, earnest, adverb-friendly, long-sentenced version of myself linger? With e-books and Print on Demand (POD) as a garrote, I could quietly, efficiently off her. In her place I would seat that wiser, more skilled self.

But was it ethical? I had never heard of anyone tampering with their memoir. A memoir is not only an account of your life, it is specifically an account of your remembrances of your life. So now I would be telling that same story fifteen years later. I was re-remembering a memory.

Even more important, a memoir is a reflection of who you are at the time of writing. But now I would be peering backwards at myself from a new vantage point. Isn’t there a different author (older, wiser me) now? And haven’t I now changed my main character by writing her with this new hand? Did this matter?

Touching on the same theme in one of his “Daily Rumpus” emails a few days back, editor Stephen Elliott wrote about “the only true rule of memoir”:

You cannot knowingly tell a lie. In other words, you can be wrong, you can write things you consider to be true that other people consider to be untrue. In fact, it’s impossible to do otherwise. Most truth is not factual; most truth is subjective. But to state a something as fact when you know it is not, ie. I spent this much time in jail, is to break the cardinal rule.

I think that gets it about right. For more, check out Tom Bissell’s essay on truth and travel literature, Truth in Oxiana.


What’s in a Long Sentence?

Apparently some copy editors have taken issue with Pico Iyer’s use of long sentences. In the Los Angeles Times recently, the World Hum contributor makes an eloquent case for them (while employing them often), explaining that he uses them “as a small protest against—and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from—the bombardment of the moment.”

We live in a world of sound bites and bumper stickers, he writes.

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions—or that at least is the hope—and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying “Open wider” so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).

In excerpting this, I suppose I’m perpetuating the same sound-bite world that Iyer is protesting against. McLuhan was right. The medium is the message. But nothing is stopping you from reading the piece in its entirety, right?


Pico Iyer Can’t Get Graham Greene Out of his Head

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, World Hum contributor Pico Iyer writes about a string of odd coincidences, eerie overlaps and echoes between Graham Greene’s writing and traveling life and his own. Iyer writes:

Not long thereafter, I began working on a book on the 14th Dalai Lama, and as I was sitting in Hiroshima one fall afternoon, listening to one of his general addresses, I realized that the perfect way of summarizing his teachings—for non-Buddhists at least—was by quoting Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” A little later, I was staying in a convent on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem and, needing something to read, picked up a book from the library shelves. It was Greene’s late novel Monsignor Quixote, and when I turned to the title page, there was an epigraph, from Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

On and on this went… Perhaps—a skeptic might have said—these were no more than surface coincidences; but when there are so many correspondences, across such a wide canvas, you start to imagine that they might speak for connections of a deeper kind.

So often these days we read of travelers taking off “in the footsteps” of Marco Polo or Genghis Khan or many another distinguished forebear, even Graham Greene. But in this case, I didn’t feel I had to pursue Greene, because he was so busy pursuing me.

Iyer’s latest book, The Man Within My Head, was released last week. It explores his strange relationship with Graham Greene in depth, and The Globe and Mail’s Ronald Wright describes it, in a thoughtful review, as “biography, memoir, travelogue, literary criticism and personal meditation.” I can’t wait to check it out.

(Via @iainmanley)


Reading Travel: New and Old Books We Loved This Year

More than two dozen contributors and friends of World Hum recall their favorite travel reads of 2011

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Pilar and Ernest Hemingway’s Prose

Ernest Hemingway bought his beloved boat, Pilar, in a shipyard in Brooklyn in 1934. Could the ensuing time he spent on the boat have altered his writing style? At least one writer thinks so. Paul Hendrickson is the author of the new book, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961.

NPR’s Rachel Martin interviewed Hendrickson and asked, “What did he [Hemingway] want from the boat?”

Hendrickson had an intriguing reply:

I think he wanted escape. I think he wanted to get away from shore. In fact, I make the case in this book that Pilar helped broaden out, so to speak, his prose line. When you say Ernest Hemingway, what do you think?  You think of these simple declarative sentences, these magical and yet very short sentences, free of the subordinate clause. What happens, Rachel, from the mid-‘30s onward, the Ernest Hemingway sentence gets longer and longer and longer. Why is this? I like to make a case that aboard Pilar, getting away from shore, getting away from the sniping critics, getting away from all the petty little literary games, he can get out there in the Gulf Stream and he can free himself in some way.

Cross-posted from JimBenning.Net.


Seeing Australia Through Australian Crime Novels

B. R. Myers looks Down Under through the eyes of an American reading Aussie crime fiction. From the Atlantic

It is a rare crime novel that doesn’t seem better in the first part, when we are still trying to find our bearings. Perhaps we want to feel the way we did as children, when the genre was so much more thrilling for being slightly over our heads. This is the good thing about Australian crime fiction: as an American, you are never completely at home in it. True, the suburban backdrops appear very familiar, and on the printed page the Australian variant of English is almost identical to our own. But the characters in these novels behave much more differently from Americans than do the Swedes in those Stieg Larsson books, and this never stops feeling odd. Among male friends an intensity of joshing camaraderie is in evidence that even our frat boys would find stifling.

Previously, we noted Reggie Nadelson’s essay on the importance of place in crime novels, and Sarah Weinman’s piece on “international crime novels based in places as unlikely as Laos, Gaza and North Korea.”


The Return of Bulwer-Lytton and More Bad Travel Writing

Love this annual contest, where writers compose an intentionally awful opening sentence of a novel. This year’s winners were announced last week and, as usual, the honorees have given us some dreadful yet hilarious travel writing. My two favorites come from the purple prose category. Mike Pedersen took the top spot with this clunker:

As his small boat scudded before a brisk breeze under a sapphire sky dappled with cerulean clouds with indigo bases, through cobalt seas that deepened to navy nearer the boat and faded to azure at the horizon, Ian was at a loss as to why he felt blue. 

Jack Barry’s vision of Los Angeles was runner-up: 

The Los Angeles morning was heavy with smog, the word being a portmanteau of smoke and fog, though in LA the pollutants are typically vehicular emissions as opposed to actual smoke and fog, unlike 19th-century London where the smoke from countless small coal fires often combined with fog off the Thames to produce true smog, though back then they were not clever enough to call it that.

Clever, Jack. Clever.

Do you yearn to write bad travel writing? We can help


Famous Writers Wrote Here

Over at National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel blog, Charles Kulander has a roundup of eight hotels where big-name writers—from Graham Greene to Louis L’Amour to Hemingway—did their work. Some of the entries even include specific room numbers for traveling writers looking to borrow some leftover inspiration.

He writes:

The greatest hotels—those places that summon up the culture, history, and character of a destination—are the modern equivalent of a muse, inspiring writers and guests alike to look at the world from a new perspective.


Scenes From the ‘On the Road’ Movie

Jerry Cimino, founder and curator of The Beat Museum, updates what’s going on with Walter Salles’ film adaptation of Kerouac’s classic.

The film was shot between August and December of 2010 in Montreal, New Orleans, Mexico, San Francisco and many other locations. But Walter Salles was searching for even more authenticity, so unbeknownst to just about everyone he and Garrett Hedlund took to the road for a second time in April of 2011. They spent two weeks along with a crew of five and blasted 4,000 miles across the back roads of the USA. They purposefully avoided the interstate highways not built until the 1950s, retracing as best they could the original route of the two lane roads Jack & Neal drove.

The purpose of this unpublicized trip was for Walter and Garrett to be involved in the “Second Unit” shooting themselves. True to their desire to make On The Road as authentic as they could they wanted to capture the images of the ‘49 Hudson roaring across the continent with the sights and sounds of the country in the background. The story of On The Road is also the story of America and the film makers wanted to capture the physical and human geography at the core of On The Road as part of the film.

The Huffington Post has photos.


If Hemingway Were Alive, Which European City Would He Go To?

Eight writers and academics make their pitches in the New York Times’ Room for Debate. The leading cities? London and Berlin.

Josef Joffe, the editor of Die Zeit in Hamburg, picks London:

By way of elimination, it is London—Europe’s global city, in the way New York, L.A. and Mountain View are global cities. London has the money (coming mainly from financial services). It is a city of a myriad nationality. It leaves you alone even as it offers a thousand points of distraction. Though no longer the capital of an empire, London draws the best and the brightest from all over the world—which highlights another critical condition: language.

When Paris was queen in the 18th and 19th century, every educated person in Europe spoke French, a trait that lasted into the 20th century. Today, everybody speaks English, or at least Bad English, which is the world’s fastest growing language. But who now has a command of German, let alone Dutch or Italian? If the rest of the world ever takes to Chinese as it has taken to English, Shanghai might join the roster. But the 3,000 signs of Chinese are a bit harder to master than the 26 letters of the English alphabet.

Writer and journalist Slavenka Drakulic makes a case for Berlin:

In more than two decades after the collapse of Communism, a flood of eastern Germans as well as citizens from other eastern European countries (refugees from the Balkan wars, Russian Jews), young Americans and other Westerners have moved to Berlin. Together with the old “guest workers”—Turks from Kreutzberg—they turned the city into an exciting mixture of people of which real Berliners are but a few.

But this alone would not be enough to make Berlin the center of cultural life. So many artists flock to Berlin because living there is cheaper than living in any other big city in Europe. It also helps that Germany is one of the few countries left that cares about the arts and sponsors culture through various institutions, grants, awards, festivals and conferences. Imagine, writers there get paid for their readings!


A Must-Have ‘On the Road’ iPad Book App?

Sounds like it. Penguin published an iPad book app for Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” this week, and it’s being hailed as somewhat groundbreaking, at least as far as classic literature apps go. It features a slew of exclusive additional material, including a map, commentary, a slideshow of cover art from international editions, and tributes from Bob Dylan and others.

The decision to bring out “On the Road” as an app has a lot to do with this iconic status, explains Stephen Morrison, editor in chief of Penguin Books, reached this week by phone at his Manhattan office. “We were looking for a book with enough resonance,” Morrison says, “as well as enough supplemental material from which we could learn how to curate a literary app.”

The key word there is “learn,” which is what all of us, publishers and writers and readers, must do now as the publishing industry increasingly comes to terms with the digital age. We need to learn how to use the digital space as a vessel, as a container, how to produce and interact with apps and electronic texts that feel like books, yet also reflect the possibilities of technology.


The New York Times: ‘It’s a List, Silly!’

The Times responds to the Guardian’s top non-fiction picks with 33 lists of favorites chosen by newspaper staffers, and a refreshingly unambitious introduction—no best-of claims here:

Dispensing with all pretense to rigor—it’s a list, silly!—we simply asked each member of the staff to pick their five favorites… Two members of the staff saw fit to pick six titles (they’ve been reprimanded), one identified the author of “On Photography” as Susan Sarandon (she has been ridiculed), and one expressed dislike of the term “nonfiction” (that poor soul will be reading the Lives slush pile for a week).

The Times lists, like the Guardian’s, include a handful of travel favorites, from Krakauer to Kapuscinski. Mother Jones has joined the conversation, too. And while we’re at it, Budget Travel recently offered a fiction-heavy take on the 25 Greatest Travel Books of All Time.