Travel Blog: Literary Travel

Paul Theroux’s New Novel: ‘A Dead Hand’

Paul Theroux’s new novel isn’t scheduled to be released in the U.S. until February 2010, but it’s already getting mixed reviews in the British press. It’s a mystery of sorts set in Calcutta and featuring a down-on-his-luck travel-writer-protagonist named Jerry Delfont.

Intriguingly, writes Doug Johnstone in The Independent:

Midway through the book, Delfont meets a fictional veteran US travel writer called Paul Theroux, a more successful and famous version of Delfont, whom he despises. The next 20 pages amount to a diatribe by Delfont about the act of travel writing, describing it as an emotionally stunted, puerile and selfish pastime, and brutally denouncing anyone who is stupid and arrogant enough to do it. This remarkable interlude is compelling, like rubbernecking a psychological car crash - but the rest of the novel is distinctly patchy, the bad points eventually outweighing the good.

Apparently the sex writing in the book leaves something to be desired. Once again, Theroux has been nominated for the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction award.

Finding T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’

The Guardian’s Stephen Moss visits the promenade shelter where Eliot is supposed to have written part of his most famous poem. The result is pretty grim:

There is no commemorative plaque, several panes of glass are broken or missing, and the windows on one side are emblazoned with the words FALSE TEETH in large green letters. It seems a careless way to treat the place in which the greatest poem of the 20th century was written.

Careless, true—but also strangely appropriate, don’t you think? (Via The Book Bench)

New Travel Book: ‘Save the Deli’

New Travel Book: ‘Save the Deli’ Photo by stevendepolo via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo by stevendepolo via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Here’s one for traveling pastrami-lovers everywhere.

“Save the Deli” follows author David Sax around Europe and North America in search of a shrinking number of Jewish delicatessens—and, though the project was driven by fears for a declining institution, the result seems to be a hopeful one.

In a letter to potential readers posted on Amazon, Sax addresses the “heresy” of his search for the deli in such unlikely spots as Salt Lake City or Brussels:

Three years ago, when I began working on this book, I too had fallen prey to the misguided notion that great deli was only confined to New York and Montreal. Anything outside those cities had to be a pale imitation. I, like many Jewish deli lovers, was narrow-minded, could see and imagine no further than the local delicatessen I frequented…a village simpleton who knows nothing beyond his little shtetl and the salamis therein.

But as I hit the road, in search of the story of delicatessen in American and around the world, I tasted revelation after revelation.

Publishers Weekly describes these revelations as “joyful moments in this otherwise elegiac travelogue,” and notes that the book’s “well-crafted portraits don’t string together perfectly, but individual chapters shine.”

Travel and the National Book Award

The finalists for this year’s National Book Award have been announced, and there are a couple of familiar names on the list. Marcel Theroux—son of Paul, and a sometime travel journalist himself—is nominated in the fiction category for his novel, “Far North,” while Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City landed on the nonfiction shortlist.

The Times’ 20 Best Travel Books of the Past Century

The venerable London daily has an excellent roundup, with plenty of attention to some lesser-known (these days) names from several decades past. Wilfred Thesiger, Freya Stark, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Paul Theroux and Jonathan Raban hold down the top five slots. As a bonus, each entry includes links to the original Times reviews, interviews, excerpts and other archived material.

The Swedish Novel has ‘a Passport in its Back Pocket’

A group of Swedish writers have published a manifesto for Swedish literature in the 2010s. “We want to write books which are read, thumbed, torn out of the hands of angry taxpayers, borrowed and distributed to the max, quoted, imitated and translated,” they wrote. “The Swedish novel has brown eyes and black hair, it’s bald, green-eyed, blind and hook-nosed. It carries a collection of poetry in its breast pocket, a passport in its back pocket, and wears high heels.” (Via The Book Bench)

What Would ‘Walden’ be Called if it Were Published Today?

According to this fun list of revised book titles: “Camping with Myself: Two Years in American Tuscany.” (Via The Daily Dish)

Roald Dahl’s Childhood Candy Store Found

Call it Charlie and the Chinese take-out joint. A literary landmark has been rediscovered at the Great Wall of China restaurant in Llandaff, Wales—where researchers believe Mrs. Pratchett’s Sweet Shop, the store thought to be the inspiration for Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “The Twits,” was originally located. A historic marker will go up this week, and I’m sure the Dahl pilgrims won’t be far behind. (Via The Book Bench)

Margaret Drabble’s Favorite Literary Landscapes

The author picks 10 British spots that have inspired her fellow writers, from Tennyson’s Tintagel to Godrevy Lighthouse, of “To the Lighthouse” fame.

Book Bannings in America, Mapped

Banned Books Week has a mashup of all the book bans (and resulting challenges) in the Lower 48 over the last two years. Anyone expecting a certain, er, geographical censorship concentration might be in for a surprise: Brooklyn and the Bay Area, for instance, are represented right alongside the more stereotypical suspects. (Via The Book Bench)

Lord of the Flies: ‘Absurd and Uninteresting’?

Apparently, William Golding’s castaway classic really made the rounds before finally being published, and one unimpressed reader’s note on the manuscript has just surfaced. After calling the book an “absurd and uninteresting fantasy,” she wrote: “A group of children who land in jungle country near New Guinea. Rubbish & dull. Pointless.”

Dull? I’d love to know what her idea of an eventful island getaway is. (Via The Book Bench)

What Makes a Great Airplane Read?

What Makes a Great Airplane Read? Photo by Robert S. Donovan via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo by Robert S. Donovan via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I have a confession: Last week, I enjoyed the greatest airplane reading of my life. I’ve never been much of an on-board reader—for a long time, I was one of those passengers who was asleep before take-off, and who needs a good book when you have the gift of in-flight unconsciousness? But lately I haven’t been able to drop off to sleep the way I used to, and I’ve become a restless, impatient flier.

Enter—don’t laugh—the Twilight saga. Over four days, the bestselling teen-vampire-romance novels got me through 17 hours of flying time, two hefty ground delays and one long scheduled layover. They also got me thinking about ideal airplane books. What factors have me reading straight through until landing, oblivious to the hours passing? And why do some titles leave me fidgeting in my seat after the first hour?

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20 Years Later: Reading up on the Berlin Wall

With the 20th anniversary of the wall’s destruction coming up in November, the time seems right for a look back. Here’s a handy starting point: The Guardian’s books blog has a thoughtful list of 10 must-reads, fiction and non.

Brit Lit and Venice: A Love Affair

Brit Lit and Venice: A Love Affair Photo by Alaskan Dude via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo by Alaskan Dude via Flickr (Creative Commons)

In the Independent, Peter Popham has a thoughtful essay about the world’s—and, in particular, the British writing community’s—ongoing fascination with Venice. He writes: “Venice is the great seducer, the feminine city incarnate, risen like Venus from the waves and always threatening to sink into them again; demanding to be rescued, to be immortalised yet again by pen or brush, even though already, 250 years ago, one jaded visitor complained it was a city ‘about which so much has been said and written—that it seems to me there is nothing left to say.’”

He wraps up the essay with a list of artistic Brits who’ve gotten caught up in the city’s charms, from Lord Byron to Elton John. I’d add Jan Morris’ “Venice” to the list of worthy titles Popham mentions.

A Travel Tip From Margaret Atwood

The author shares her packing M.O. before an upcoming book tour: “And remember: Think pink, pack black. It dirts less.” (Via The Book Bench)