Review of Robert R. Mitchell’s “Only Shot at a Good Tombstone”

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I came across this book at a book festival. The poet sitting in the booth next to me had purchased a copy and I opened it up to take a gander. I was instantly drawn in by the voice, read the first two pages, and went over to get a copy.

The book is fairly unique in that it combines a simple narrative with extended contemplations on various subjects, everything from history to science to sexuality. Obviously, those who do not appreciate that kind of intellectualization might not appreciate those qualities, but I found them to be some of the most fascinating aspects of the book. The history of queer culture in San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest, for instance, was endlessly interesting.

The book has no chapters or breaks in textual continuum of any kind. I’ve seen this done before (McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses” comes to mind), and have always felt that it has a curious effect. Because things are not compartmentalized into chapters, the story feels rather rambling and, consquently, akin to reality. When it’s over, it felt like I’d actually lived a couple days of life and was left to figure out what it meant…or to impose my own meaning upon it.

The narrator mentions Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” and an appreciation for the extended dialogue in the book. I can’t help but think that the author is speaking directly through the narrator in this aspect, because OSGT also has long chunks of dialogue. Dialogue, in fact, probably constitutes the greatest portion of the novel.

Ultimately, the book had a really strange effect. In terms of pure narrative, I felt that it meandered and drifted at times, yet whenever I set the book down, I found my throughts gravitating back towards it.

There are some passages of beautiful description, but it was the philisophical/historical musings that stuck with me the most.

Ultimately, I gave the book four stars based on my personal scale of literature, which is weighted entirely on the ultimate effect of the book. I don’t disconstruct works of art and weigh them according to their pieces and details…I make my assessment based on the book’s ability to provoke worthwhile thought and emotion.

OSGT definitely left me with a lot to think about, and many of the characters stick in my mind like real people. I wish things went better for them, and hope the narrator finds his peace.

In saying all of the above, I nearly forgot to mention that there are also some really funny sections in the book…it’s a dark kind of gallows humor that had me laughing out loud more than once.

OSGT isn’t a popcorn read full of plot driven action that leaves you overful but undernourished…it demands attention, but pays off that demand with plenty of food for thought. To me, that’s the surest sign of a book worth reading.

Why John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’ Will Never Die

Earlier today I was driving on the stretch of I-5 that runs between Tacoma and Olympia, a stretch of road that I affectionately refer to as ‘The Corridor of Death,’ when John Carpenter’s film They Live popped into my mind. This psychic visitation by They Live is not as rare as some might assume. I actually find myself thinking quite often about the movie, particularly when I’m crawling through traffic on the highway or doing some other similar, joyless task necessitated by modern life.

Yes, the movie is from 1988, which makes it quite old in many people’s minds, but nearly all of the books and movies that I find myself thinking about are over 20 years old. I don’t know why that is, really. To my view, all the best writers are dead, the golden age of dramatic cinema was in the 70s, and the golden age of fun movies was the 80s. These estimations don’t only apply to the films and books I read as a kid. Most of my movie nights are spent combing the catacombs for old flicks that I’ve never seen. Most modern movies strike me as intolerably formulaic and dull. It’s quite possible that I’m a pretentious asshole, though I’ll let others determine the truth of that statement for me.

Before I go on, let me say this to anyone that might not have seen They Live: The movie stars Rowdy Roddy Piper of professional wrestling fame, and within the film there is an entertaining, needlessly drawn-out fight scene in which Piper body slams, forearm blasts, and elbow drops his way into cinematic immorality. If that little tidbit excites you, then I urge you to stop reading this article right now and go watch the movie. You won’t be disappointed.

On a side note: I recently watched some old footage of Rowdy Roddy Piper. The guy really was/is a comic genius. When I was a kid, I was too absorbed in the testosterone and high drama of the WWF to understand how funny it was…but now, I can appreciate Piper for the great performer that he is. Embedded below is my proof of that claim.

So, what is it about “They Live” that I love so much and that causes the film to come so frequently to my mind? Briefly, the movie is about a rootless guy called Nada who finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see America for what it really is:  a socially stratified slave camp in which aliens run the upper crust of society (not much of a stretch, I know). He then picks up his shotgun and goes on a crusade to take the aliens down and reveal the true nature of the world to the rest of its sleepwalking inhabitants.

The idea isn’t new, of course. It’s really just a variation on a theme that goes back at least as far as Plato’s cave, and almost certainly much further back than that. The idea apparently appeals to something deep-seated in the human psyche, and if the success of “The Matrix” is any indication, something that has only become more powerfully rooted in the modern zeitgeist.

Perhaps the appeal isn’t too hard to understand. On the subtlest level, the idea that there is more to reality than what we can say implies at least the possibility that there is something beyond death, which is obviously appealing when one considers that humans are biologically designed to pursue survival at all costs, while cognitively capable of understanding that such an aim is impossible to maintain forever. But, it also appeals to something much simpler and more overt.

The thing is, even if the other reality beyond the pale of our perceptions is one full of carnivorous machines or hostile aliens, in many ways it beats the hell out of modern life. The idea of running around brandishing a shotgun, possessing proof that the rules of society are so malicious and inhuman that we are morally justified in completely disregarding them, almost certainly appeals to every modern person’s long-neglected Id.

Yea, every day in such a world would be spent fearing for one’s life, but there would also be excitement, tests of endurance and wiles, and mandatory exercise! Terrifying, yes, but in many ways it beats the prospect of spending 40 years in an office cubicle watching yourself age inexorably in the reflection of your computer monitor.

Beyond the prospect of daily adventure and lawlessness, such a life would also provide one with a  clear purpose. In They Live, Nada stopped wondering what his purpose in life was the moment that he put on those sunglasses and saw ill-intentioned aliens all around him. From that point on, his purpose was clear: shoot as many of them as possible and reveal the truth to the rest of the world. That’s a panacea for every existential crisis in the repertoire.

All of those things probably explain why They Live pops into my mind at such moments as those spent sitting in slow-moving traffic, wondering what the hell the point of my life is. If I were fortunate enough to discover that the world was full of stuck-up, pompous aliens bent on keeping the good people of the world down, I most certainly wouldn’t be struck as often by nihilistic anxiety, which also means I probably wouldn’t feel the need to write blog posts such as this….which leads me to the question of why I felt the need to write about all of this in the first place. That’s a question probably best left unanswered.

Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes”

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“Oh, hell, don’t let them drink your tears and want more! Will! Don’t let them take your crying, turn it upside down and use it for their own smile! I’ll be damned if death wears my sadness for glad rags. Don’t feed them one damn thing, Willy, loosen your bones! Breathe! Blow!” – Charles Halloway in Something Wicked This Way Comes

In the long history of letters, there are few voices as distinct as that of Ray Bradbury.

Many years ago, Bradbury stated that he viewed his books as works of cinema rendered on paper. It can hardly be argued that the man was a master at laying out a scene and bringing it to life, but the man’s love of film did nothing to detract from his uniquely exuberant storytelling voice, and that voice might have never been put to finer use than in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Bradbury’s masterpiece of dark fantasy, Something Wicked, has an interesting history. It was originally written as a ten page short story, then expanded into a screenplay that was never produced, then repurposed into a novel, and finally transformed back into a screenplay that was ultimately made into a film. Through all of this, the novel’s language didn’t lose a bit of Bradbury’s characteristic passion and wit.

Unlike today’s oft-homogenized writing styles, Something Wicked hits in the ear like the voice of your crazy, drunk, brilliant uncle telling stories around a campfire. Your dad always told you to stay away from crazy old Uncle Ray, but you never listened.

In fact, Uncle Ray is your favorite family member of all, becaue you know that he’s the one guy in the whole family that’s NOT crazy. While the others are sitting around stuffy dinner parties or vegetating in front of television sets, ol’ Unlce Ray is wandering around in the thrill of an open night, barking poetry at the stars.

He’ll never be a great accountant or an actuary or a chief of police, or any other sort of upstanding occupation, but within his realm of specialization he is a doctor, a scientist, and an artist all at once, and within that world he can make absolute miracles happen right here on Earth.

There are lines in Something Wicked that only Ray Bradbury could have written. They are lines of strange wisdom, magical insight, or simply unparalleled description. Consider this:

“Death doesn’t exist. It never did, it never will. But we’ve drawn so many pictures of it, so many years, trying to pin it down, comprehend it, we’ve got to thinking of it as an entity, strangely alive and greedy. All it is, however, is a stopped watch, a loss, an end, a darkness. Nothing.”

“Too late, I found you can’t wait to become perfect, you got to go out and fall down and get up with everybody else.”

“Somewhere in him, a shadow turned mournfully over. You had to run with a night like this so the sadness could not hurt.”
“Once, as a boy, sneaking the cool grottos behind a motion picture theater screen, on his way to a free seat, he had glanced up and there towering and flooding the haunted dark seen a woman’s face as he had never seen it since, of such size and beauty built of milk-bone and moon-flesh as to freeze him there alone behind the stage, shadowed by the motion of her lips, the bird-wing flicker of her eyes, the snow-pale-death-shimmering illumination from her cheeks.”
It is Bradbury’s distinctly vital prose that takes Something Wicked from being just another adventure yarn and turns it into something greater.
First, to be clear, the book does work perfectly well as an adventure yarn, and would earn its place of immortality on those grounds alone. From the moment that the salesman flops into town with his bag of lightning rods, from the time we hear the first hinting echoes of that haunted calliope cry, Something Wicked takes us on an engaging adventure.
But the novel is much more than an adventure story. The characters play out an allegory that plays with concepts of time, youth, friendship, father and son relationships, mortality and memory. Those themes are brought to life by the novel’s ebullient language. The prose is tireless, just as boys are, and sometimes teeters on the edge of melodrama, just as boys do.
Through the novel’s words, we enter the idyllic headspace of boyhood, both the boyhood of boys and the boyhood of men. While moving through that territory, the potential loss of youth and optimism seem so much more terrible than they would without Bradbury’s language. This heightened sense of empathy and concern gives the book a sort of timeless, fairy tale quality.
The book isn’t perfect. There are some flabby sections in the middle where the writing seems to just drag on. During one section, I even found myself wondering if the author was dragging things out just to bulk up the word count. Obviously, that’s purely speculation, and simply the thought that drifted into my mind. I only know for certain that some parts of the book rambled enough that I started scanning ahead, and I very rarely do that while reading a book I enjoy.
But, a slip of fortune cookie paper once advised me that one should never judge a work of art by its flaws, and I always strive to adhere to that wisdom.
As far as I’m concerned, the only thing that ultimately matters about a book is the sum total of the reading experience it provides. I see no point in dissecting smaller parts of qualities and magnifying flaws under my scrutiny.
All that matters to me is that Something Wicked left me wholly inspired to write, to love, and to live. Not many books have ever done that for me. Of those that did, very few were fantasy or science fiction. Only a work of art could hit me with that kind of inspiration.
That’s what Bradbury always stood for: passion, wonder, and joy. Somewhere along the way in American history, ‘cool’ became the nation’s desired character. So many people today are like sitcom characters…sarcastic, dispassionate, unmoved, living moment by moment in anticipation of delivering a snarky one liner that will set the canned laughter rolling.
I never understood the appeal of ‘cool,’ and I doubt that Bradbury did, either. In the grave we’ll be damn cold forever, and shivering wish we had time to run again beneath the open sky and be wild and loud and alive. Ray understood that. He knew it and  never forgot it and embedded that wisdom in his stories.
See, Uncle Ray wasn’t cool. No, he was full of fire and compassion, venom and love, fits of dancing. He was alive. Even in his later years of life, in interviews he shook the camera glass with the force of his vitality. He always said a writer should love life first. Only after loving life should he or she touch pen to paper. That internal fire is on display in Something Wicked This Way Comes. The book is a gift left behind by crazy old Uncle Ray, for us to return to whenever we need to be reminded of certain things.
In the novel, Charles Halloway explains to his son that joy is the one defense against the forces of evil. “A single smile,” he advises Will, “the night people can’t stand it.” In that scene, I can’t help but hear Bradbury’s voice speaking directly to the reader, calling to them through the wicked calliope music to show them the way home.
Keep smiling, he was telling us. Keep smiling no matter what the goddamn night people say.
Thanks for the tip, Uncle Ray.

P.S. I’ve added the movie version of Something Wicked This Way Comes below. I have not yet seen the movie. I will be watching it tonight.

One of my goals with “Beyond the Tempest Gate” was to write a fantasy work that paid as much attention to language and theme as works of literature do. So, I was really happy to read a review by Dr. Bob Covel, retired professor of English, and a damn fine poet. I consider this a great honor, and it’s just one more great experience I’ve been blessed to have on this publishing adventure.

Posted by Bob Covel on Sunday, October 20, 2013

Bob Covel’s Review:

Beyond the Tempest Gate: the Quest for Literary Excellence

As a child I was, like most boys, fascinated with the idea of heroes. I grew up with the comic book superheroes of the Justice League of America: Superman, Batman, Flash, and all the others. As my level of reading developed, I was exposed to more literary heroes, which led to the great epic heroes of the Iliad, the Odyssey, Beowulf, and Gilgamesh. Along the way, I also followed the heroic exploits in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard’s Conan series, the Star Wars series, and a number of other hero sagas. All of these stories have one element in common. They all reflect the archetypal quest hero. When I read Joseph Campbell’s iconic book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, all of those stories suddenly fit into a larger pattern. Suddenly, all of those stories and their characters made sense.

This rambling prelude of my own reading history is meant to introduce my praise of Jeff Suwak’s novella Beyond the Tempest Gate. Jeff says that his intent in writing his novella was “to apply literary sensibilities to a fantasy story,” a goal that he has admirably accomplished. The protagonist Gabriel fits well the archetypal elements of the hero. As in many of those stories, Gabriel has a supernatural quest to destroy the demon Elizear who threatens the human race. Gabriel’s mentor Nimphus fits the pattern of the archetypal mentor. Gabriel carries the requisite archetypal sword the Sword of Dunrabian (a la King Arthur’s Excalibur, Beowulf’s Hrunting, as well as the light saber of the Jedi and the sword of Gryffindor, among other magical weapons), which he wields to fight the dark forces that he faces, The Milanites and their leader Gogol . As he defeats the minions of Elizear, Gabriel proves his heroic qualities that lead him to face his dark foe.

The novella is well written. Jeff uses his extensive vocabulary to create a world worthy of the archetypal quest. The descriptions of the scenes bring the world to life. His characters fit the mold of the many types that are evident in all of the heroic legends. While we recognize the types, Jeff’s characters are not merely hodge-podge mix-ups of other literary figures. As with true archetypal characters, they maintain their individuality. Gabriel, Nimphus, Gogol, and even the demon Elizear are striking and interesting in their own right. The story has enough twists and turns (including especially the conclusion) that the reader is not bored.

Anyone who loves fantasy fiction with supernatural or archetypal elements will enjoy reading and re-reading Jeff Suwak’s novella. I look forward to his next foray into the world of literary heroic quests.

Author Frank A. Rogers’ review of “Beyond the Tempest Gate”

I’ve gotten to experience some neat things since my book was published, and this is one of them.

A couple days ago Frank A. Rogers, who is an author I respect and one that recently hit Germany’s best sellers list (which I find very intriguing because he writes American Westerns) left a review of my book on Amazon and on his Facebook page. It’s an honor and I wanted to include it here.

The best books seem always to be those recommended by a friend. Beyond the
Tempest Gate by Jeff Suwak is not a genre I usually read, but a close friend
gave it high praise. In stories past, the rubber-stamp knights of old seldom
captured my interest. But Holy Knight Gabriel is anything but typical. The
author used his exceptional skills to create a believable, likable character
with a unique mission, and forged a fascinating tale.

No matter what
genres you favor, if you enjoy a story set in a strange world, high conflict and
nonstop suspense – with an ending you will never guess ahead of time – get a
copy of Beyond the Tempest Gate. The hardest thing to believe about this book is
that it’s Jeff Suwak’s debut. The man has a future in
storytelling.

Author Frank Allan RogersTwice
Upon A Time

http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-the-Tempest-Gate-ebook/dp/B00ERY9OOS/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1381777020&sr=1-1&keywords=beyond+the+tempest+gate

In Spite of Everything, Yes

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I was a little bit bummed out to find out that “In Spite of Everything, Yes” is now out of print.

There are only a few books I’ve found in my life that have lifted me up and given me more joy than this one. It’s simply a collection of photographs of people dancing, people laughing, a dog stretching its chain to the uttermost limit in joy at the return of its boy…images of powerful simplicity that remind me of how beautiful life can be.

I carry the images from this book in my heart as though they were memories from my own life. They come into my mind sometimes when the days have grown a bit dark and worn around the edges. The images illuminate everything, and I can’t think of a more noble achievement in art.

In contemplating the book, I was reminded of a poem I wrote years ago that was inspired by this book. I figured I’d post it here.

 

Refutation

 

The cynical professor said:

grow up, give it up,

the soul is dead,

and it’s never coming back again.

 

Telescopes and microscopes have probed

the furthest reaches and

the deepest deeps and

not a scrap of evidence has been found

of anything sacred anywhere

at all.

 

Atrophy is King Law in this new, mathematically enlightened land,

no place left for sentimental hearts,

for lovers or dancers or garden strollers;

no, no time left

for poetry, poems, or poets.

I tell you now, listen and listen well,

this new world depends on the bravery of those willing to go

dreamless into the grim, smoke-mouthed future,

of days in the wake of faith.

 

There is no time left for trivial children’s stories,

(and they are ALL trivial children’s stories);

the equation is done,

the forensic evidence too strong to deny;

we live to die

and in dying answer no why.

 

Tell me, boy, tell me, what are we,

but candelflames dancing

against the storm

that someday will, that someday must

inevitably extinguish us

forever?

 

To which I respond:

I will argue not, professor,

the logic of your claims,

for numbers added to numbers can never disprove addition,

but I will say this:

every time an infant smiles a radiant, gum mouthed smile;

every time there is a first kiss

beneath a firework exploded sky;

every time, for the millionth time, some slobbering, ecstatic dog

outruns the length of its chain in excitement

at the return of its boy;

every time a girl catches a bouquet;

every time the blooming chrysanthemums rain;

every time the underdog wins the fight;

every time the doomed-to-die survives the night;

every time the broken radio plays;

every time some outcast kid hits her groove and stands up straight;

every time some arrogant bastard’s comeuppance comes;

every time an elderly couple polkas;

you, professor, are proved wrong.

 

 

No matter what evidence you

and your taut skulled, pale faced, spectacle fingered,

glove eyed, sneery mouthed, rubber spined

blubber hearted, mashed potato footed,

christmas-train-cancellation-suck-toads may accrue and submit,

so long as someone somewhere laughs so hard

that chocolate milk comes out their nose;

so long as the sun rises over wildflowers

in the graveyard;

so long as the neon stays lit in the dark countries

of dancing around the world;

so long as the diner waitress smiling pouring morning coffee asks

whether you’re working hard or hardly working;

you are, again and again and again,

proved wrong, wrong, wrong.

 

 

Candleflames dancing against the storm

we very well may be,

well, then, let the son of a bitch blow harder,

so that we may dance

more wildly.

 

Let us go laughing together dancing

into the end of all our smoking wick days,

and never forget that so long as a single candleflame remains,

there is always that chance that,

however small that,

the stormwind scatters the flame

and sets the whole hillside                                                                                                     
ablaze.

The Privilege of Today

Some years ago, I vowed that I would never let another day slip by. I vowed that I would give all of my passion to my dream, that I would never settle for ‘good enough,’ and that I would never forget to let the people I love know how much I cherish them.

But, time marches on and distractions arise. Fear creeps in from the shadows and plants doubts inside my mind.

Then, every once in a while, something arises to remind me of my mortality. Today, that reminder came in the form of a news report about mass casualties sustained by the 3rd Ranger Battalion. I hope that the families of the fallen can find some peace. I hope that the injured heal. And I hope that those who were killed are in a better place. I hope for those things with all my heart. The fact is, hope and pray and mourn are the only things that I can do.

The one area where I have the power to do more is in my own life. I don’t want to forget the lessons that I learned while I was overseas so many years ago…the hard lessons and the wakeup call that this tragic news of the 3rd Battalion reminds me of today.

I don’t have any right to waste my days with fear and doubt. I’m alive. I’m here. I can still dream. And, so long as I’m here, alive and dreaming, it’s my duty to myself and to life to live the best that I can, to achieve my goals, to be the best friend and brother and son that I can be.

No more backing down. No more hesitation. Thank you life for the gift of this day…for the chance to prove that I will earn this privilege.

Why Travel?

In this modern age of pop psychologists obsessed with analyzing everything human to the point of despair and beyond, every travel writer at some point in his story will eventually be required to confront the question of why he or she is travelling. The question is a legitimate one, of course, and in those cases where the catalyst behind the journey is a compelling one, exploration of the idea can add to the story. It seems to me, however, that at some point in history the demand for a psychoanalytical justification for every little thing that we do in life crossed over the threshold of reasonable restraint, ultimately becoming a pointless compulsion more often than an exercise in illumination. In reading the reviews of travel writing critics, or listening to friends disregard Kira Salak’s gutsy journey across Papua New Guinea as nothing more than unhealthy attempt to address psychological issues, I think of Albert Camus’ advice that, “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” Sometimes the inward journey prompted by questioning one’s motivations bears worthwhile fruits, and I definitely do not challenge the value of such a journey, but sometimes, I think, it may be useful to keep in mind that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a traveler just wants to travel.

In this article I want to talk about the way in which four travel writers approach the question of “why” in their stories. Each author contends with the issue at some point, though each with his or her own degree of seriousness. On one extreme is the aforementioned Kira Salak who, in her book Four Corners, makes her psychological journey one of the cornerstones of the story, until the inward quest into her motivations becomes every bit as pronounced as the physical trek across New Guinea. Alain de Botton’s Art of Travel, in a less personal way, makes exploration of travelers’ motivations and experiences the catalyst for exploring lines of intellectual inquiry that weave together art history, biography, philosophy, and seemingly every other disparate area of knowledge available. In The Places in Between, Rory Stewart seems almost annoyed at the need for explaining his motivations, offering only offhand justifications, as though conceding to the unfortunate necessity but never really becoming willing to concern himself with it too much. Rolf Potts’ Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, meanwhile, openly embraces the existential absurdity of being a traveler in an increasingly homogenized world where cultures are becoming more and more difficult to distinguish from each other and almost no place is left that is more than a power switch away from everything else.

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Kira Salak, more than any other author written of in this article, embraced the role of self-psychoanalyst in her book Four Corners. Indeed, she starts and ends the book not with dramatic scenes or images from New Guinea, but with childhood memory and psychological insight. At points, Salak’s walk across Papua New Guinea seems almost like a backdrop for her introspective musings. Her approach, in my opinion, does not diminish from the tale, and gives it an extra dimension. The confessional style of her book is, in some ways, more courageous than the actual journey she made. I doubt that Thor Heyerdahl would have risked his iconic status as an adventurer by exploring the childhood fears of inadequacy that drove him to board Kon-Tiki.

What I think did detract from Salak’s book was her penchant for reiterating how dangerous and miserable her journey was, and how brave and brash she was for making it. Salak tries so hard to remind the audience that what she was doing was fraught with peril that she ends up almost sounding silly, like a drunken frat boy telling football stories to pick up chicks. The final effect of her overly repetitive emphasis on danger is the exact opposite of her intent, so that by the time she writes, “I still travel, but I don’t go to the really dangerous places anymore because I’m no longer in the game of proving anything to anyone,” I didn’t believe her. Like an inverted version of Hemingway’s iceberg, Salak shows so much that the overall story loses depth. She ultimately answers her ‘why’ quite clearly, but the way that she presents her story leaves a little doubt as to whether or not she learned anything from it.

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Alain de Botton takes an interesting approach to investigating the reasons we travel in The Art of Travel: he places them at the very center. His own travels become catalysts for his musings and he lets his meandering inquiries become the real adventure, placing himself all the way in the background and highlighting ideas and curiosity over physical danger or hardship.

My favorite essay in de Botton’s collection, and the one which I believe is most exemplary of his style, was On Travelling Places. In this essay, the author’s stop at a service station on the roadway between London and Manchester becomes the starting point for a journey into the value of those places that exist between destinations. The station, he explains, is “architecturally miserable, it smelt of frying oil and lemon scented floor polish, the food was glutinous and the tables were dotted with islands of dried ketchup from the meals of long-departed travelers,” but he sees a sort of lonely poetry in it, too, which launches him into an investigation on the appeal of the “liminal travelling places” of the world, an investigation which melds the life of Charles Baudelaire, the work of Edward Hopper, and de Botton’s own experiences. He weaves the threads together so gracefully that the three ideas end up seeming intrinsically linked, and not a product of his ruminations at all.

De Botton talks about how Baudelaire, immensely dissatisfied with his home life throughout his years, learned to love travel for travel’s sake. He became, “strongly drawn to harbours, docks, railway stations, trains, ships and hotel rooms, and felt more at home in the transient places of travel than in his own dwelling.” Baudelaire also loved “machines of motion.” From a recounting of the motivation of Baudelaire’s affection for travel places, de Botton moves into the story of Edward Hopper, a painter influenced by Baudelaire, whose work focused on those lonely places in between that de Botton is concerned with in this essay. Here, the author moves away from biography and delves into art theory, “The collective loneliness brought to mind certain canvasses by Edward Hopper, which, despite the bleakness they depict, are not themselves bleak to look at but rather allow the viewer to witness an echo of his or her own grief and thereby to feel less personally persecuted and beset by it.” It is this kind of offhand philosophizing that makes the essay, and the book as a whole, replacing the intrigues of physical adventure with the intellectual excitement of making new mental connections, an excitement which I think is, in many ways, more satisfying than physical adventure alone.

placesinbetween.inddIn The Places In Between, Rory Stewart writes, “I’m no good at explaining why I walked across Afghanistan. Perhaps it was because it was an adventure.” And that is about the extent of his explanation. He has offhand replies for the people he meets along the way, things such as “walking for peace” and being “interested in the environment,” but he never seems to take any of those explanations seriously. I found his approach to the “why” question interesting because, more than any other author read for this book review, Stewart could easily have made a case for some kind of grand, heroic purpose in his journey. A Westerner walking across the war torn landscape of Afghanistan has all the makings of a great martyr tale or heroic journey, but Stewart refuses to play either part, a fact which is doubly admirable considering all that he went on to do for Afghanistan after writing the book.

Stewart’s modesty is apparent in his writing style, as well, the final effect of which is exactly opposite to that of Salak’s in Four Corners. Stewart never emphasizes the danger he is in. After a run-in with the Taliban, who tell him he had been one slip away from being killed, Stewart replies simply, “I hardly took in the scenery over the next hour. My emotions seemed muted. It occurred to me that being threatened by the Taliban made a good anecdote, but mostly I thought about the conversation with distaste and frustration.” There is something powerful in that kind of understatement. Not to overuse the reference, but I am reminded again of Hemingway’s iceberg and the power of the unseen lurking below the surface. Stewart’s literary stoicism gives the book a ‘manly man’s’ feel, much more than any macho posturing or braggadocio ever could, and the way that he reserves his one display of vulnerability to pay respect for his dead dog, Babur, is both fitting and touching, “I don’t imagine Babur would have been very impressed to see me crying now, trying to bring back five weeks’ walking alone together, with my hand on a grizzled golden head, which is Babur, beside me and alive.” Stewart’s book was my favorite among those that I’m reviewing here. Having been in Afghanistan under different circumstances, I was envious of his journey and enjoyed reading it. I also have a great respect for the author for going on such an epic journey while refusing to even once admit that there is anything epic about it.

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Rolf Potts, in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, addresses the “why” questions of a travel writer in a kind of meta-travel-fiction. His book is a series of short travel stories supplemented with insights into the techniques of travel writing. In the first essay, Storming the Beach, Potts sets out to infiltrate the set of the movie The Beach, being filmed at that time on a Thai island. Potts makes little apology for the fact that he is basically making his trip just to see what happens. “In any travel story, there’s bound to be a bit of artifice when it comes to defining the quest,” he writes in his notes, “Nevertheless, some people harbor a sentimental notion of how travel stories ought to work.” With the story itself he is equally self-effacing in discussing the motivations for what he does, “Or, to put it another way–Regardless of one’s budget, itinerary and choice of luggage–the act of travel is still, at its essence, a consumer experience.” In reading Potts’ writing as a whole, however, it becomes clear that his irreverence towards the subject of travel’s motivations comes not from a trivial take on the matter, but from deep and heartfelt contemplation.

Potts is unapologetic in his approach to travel and travel writing, and why shouldn’t he be? It isn’t his fault that he was born into a time when the black spaces of the maps have all been filled in. Travelers today fly thousands of miles to compare their Nike sneakers with those worn by Tibetan Sherpa’s, and that isn’t their fault either. Potts refuses to hide from these facts of modernity, making them instead the core of his explorations. He laughs at the irony of The Beach’s crew planting no less than 73 trees on the island they were filming on, because its natural state did not look authentic enough for their movie. Potts swims right into the heart of this irony laughing, but in looking at his greater preoccupation with the current state of the world, it is a kind of noble laughter. When did adventure, he seems to ask, when did sucking the marrow out of life and sounding our barbaric yawp become something in need of defense? After all, if the question of why we travel is a legitimate one, then isn’t the question of why we feel compelled to ask why equally so? Potts faces the existential questions raised by living in a world increasingly devoid of the exotic, embraces those concepts, and then, like any good absurdist hero, goes running off into adventure, anyway. What the hell else is he supposed to do?

~ Jeff Suwak.

No different than a bird singing, really. I write because writing is what I do.