Genre: Nonfiction Travel Narratives

Assign Nonfiction Travel Narrative assignment for September 25, 2012:

Handouts—Nonfiction Travel Narratives—Neal Wyatt’s The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (2007)

Also look at or download: Adult Reading Round Table: Nonfiction Genre Study pdf:  especially p. 1-2, 7-10.

Benchmarks:  Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country

                        Frances Maye’s Under a Tuscan Sun

Read a third title in the Nonfiction Travel Narrative genre and post on the this BLOG, and your your RA review of all your 2nd Steampunk & Christian Fiction choices.

Appeal to be read for September meeting: Focus on all the appeal factors, but really think about the interaction of place and narrator’s voice in Nonfiction Travel Narratives.

A World On The Page: Five Great Travel Memoirs

Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country:

  • The narrative was witty, but unlike A Walk in the Woods, this title was not as fast a read as it was meatier and detail-heavy, which some enjoyed while others felt held back by it.
  • Eileen thought it wasn’t as funny as A Walk in the Woods.
  • Tricia was engaged by Bryson’s exploration of Australia’s history.
  • Nanci believed that this title did not evoke the place as well as it might have, but Sarah found the opposite to be true.
  • Facts slowed the story. Sarah though the overuse of adverbs may have contributed to this, but that it worked for Bryson.
  • The book communicated a sense of wonder.
  • Diane thought Bryson’s treatment of the Australian people was respectful while still pointing out their foibles.  She got a good sense of the Australian character through the text.
  • The book conveyed the largesse of Australia well.
  • The group thought that in this category of non-fiction, the people have to be as well-drawn as fictional characters, that they need to come across as real rather than caricatures.
  • Bryson himself is a character in the book; he shows a willingness to poke fun at himself.
  • The book included a lot of people – often mentioned just once. Some readers found them hard to hold onto over the course of the book.
  • Sets up the idea that every adventure is dangerous based on a passage about everything in Australia being lethal.
  • Hilarious, partly because the reader can completely understand the situations and responses Bryson depicts.
  • Bryson would be a good starting place for those who show an interest in reading travel narratives, because you feel like you’re travelling with him, which may, in part, be chalked up to his humor.
  • Reviews implied that Bryson’s depiction of women was unkind, but the group did not note any obvious instances of this.
  • Readalikes include: Tony Morovitz’s Blue Latitudes; Pico Iyer’s Falling Off the Map; Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation; Stephen Fry’s Stephen Fry in America; and Chuck Palahniuk’s Stranger Than Fiction.

Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun:

  • Strong points included: Description of place (and place as a character: the house, the land surrounding it, and the town); descriptions of food and the inclusion of recipes; the sensuality of the writing style (as though she were writing a love poem to her Italian home).
  • The thrust of the narrative depicted a love affair with a country, people and a specific place (her home), with Mayes’ personal transformation present but taking a backseat. The latter aspect may appeal to fans of Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (though Mayes’ title steers clear of the pity party Gilbert indulges in).
  • This would appeal to: Foodies, would-be ex-pats, those who enjoy romance (in the traditional sense, but also emotional attachment to a place).
  • Nanci noted that none of Mayes’ other books live up to Under the Tuscan Sun.
  • Non-fiction readalikes include: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love; Jane Lancaster’s Bitter is the New Black; Meredith Hall’s Without a Map; Franz Wisner’s Honeymoon with My Brother; and Marlena De Blasi’s The Summer in Sicily.
  • Fiction readalikes include: Joanne Harris’ Chocolat; and Louis De Bernieres’ Corelli’s Mandolin.

Elective Titles Discussion:

  • Tatjana – Places In Between by Rory Stewart
    A Scottish history professor walks after Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. Dry and linear, the book focuses on the history of the place and insights into the culture, stressing the hospitality Arabs extend to travelers.
  • Nanci – The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
    This title has a travelogue element to it that may appeal to fans of the narrative travel non-fiction. In particular, it follows Johnny Appleseed’s footsteps, enumerating on how he affected the people he met.
  • Sarah – Dreaming In French by Alice Kaplan
    This title would appeal to someone who’s been to France and/or enjoys French politics, literature and history. It looks at the lives of three different women, three different experiences, all of whom spent a period of time in France. Scholarly in tone, you get to know the characters and pick up a strong sense of place. Engaging, but not a quick read.
  • Tricia – The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
    Focuses on Venice – exploring what it means to be Venetian – and reads like investigative journalism.
  • Eileen – Holidays in Hell by P.J. O’Rourke
    O’Rourke visited the worse places in America. The tone is sarcastic and witty; for those easily offended, O’Rourke is not always PC, but the book is funny and a page-turner. Author would be a good readalike for Bryson.
  • Sandra – The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner
    This title looks at what makes ‘happy places’ just that: happy. Similar to Bryson re: humor and wit. Didn’t give as much setting or place as it did philosophy and science.
  • Cindy – Through Painted Deserts by Donald Miller
    Part Into the Wild, part Walk in the Woods, this book examines the meaning of life and is very descriptive and introspective. Some notes on Christian life peppered throughout the travel narrative.
  • Leane – Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
    This book is comprised of a series of connected essays that look at Gopnick’s life in Paris over five years. About place, but little connective tissue. From the author’s perspective, this title looks at: International politics, the rescue of little restaurants and French cooking, Parisian culture and lifestyle.

Second Titles

Tatjana Saccio

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star – Paul Theroux
Appeal Factors:Setting, Story Line, Tone, Style

Thirty years previously, Paul Theroux chronicled his 25,000 mile journey through Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Japan, and Siberia in his now classic work, The Great Railway Bazaar. Theroux retraces his steps in this contemporary title as a more mature, nostalgic traveler exploring Eurasia by train and observing the changes since the fall of the Soviet Union. While some countries have developed into modern powerhouses, Thereoux found many places remained the same three decades later.

Theroux captures the sense of each place he visits with gritty detailed commentary on all he observes and experiences. He delves into the pathos of the different nationalities he encounters and tries to understand how the native’s worldview is shaped.

In my opinion, the best descriptions come from when Theroux is crammed in various dirty coach railroad berths and writes about his ‘slice of life’ compartment mates. Nostalgia, humor, and a bittersweet tone pervade Theroux’s writing.

The forward thrust of his cross-continent journey moves the book along in a more or less linear fashion, but detail and literary references may slow the pace of reading.


Through Painted Deserts – Donald Miller
Appeal Factors:

At the age of 21 Donald Miller decides to leave the life he knows in Houston, Texas by riding with a friend Paul in his Volkswagen van to Portland, Oregon. They leave with a few places they think that they might want to stop and visit, but leave with no itinerary or time frame. The road trip that the two embark on is full of beautifully described scenery, interesting people and creative introspection into the meaning of life and existence of God. Paul and Donald start off as casual friends, but that friendship develops into a brotherhood on the road. The stops that they do make (both voluntary and involuntary) add small individual stories that when combined show the development of Donald during the three months that they are on the road. Descriptions of the road trip and Paul’s thoughts about life make this book equal parts Christian spirituality and travel narrative. Recommended for readers that enjoy reading either.

“Everybody has to change, or they expire. Everybody has to leave, everybody has to leave their home and come back so they can love it again for all new reasons.”

Leane Ellis

Paris to the Moon – Adam Gopnik
Appeal Factors: Place-cultural; Writing-literary; Tone–philosophical

Gopnik, a writer for the New Yorker–regales the reader with his adventures living in Paris for 5 years from 1995 to 2000 with his wife and young son–in a series of episodic articles that are somewhat linear in time but without any real unifying construct, except for his living in Paris for five years. His POV elicits interest from the reader but he also has a tendency toward the political and philosophical elements of 21st C life. I understand what it is life to live, eat, and work in Paris with a small child…and some of his chapters were riveting, informative, or quite funny (Barney). A must for Francophiles or anyone who has a wish to be an expatriate for even a short period of time.

Michelle Deschene-Warren

Le Road Trip – Vivian Swift
Appeal Factors: Tone; Presentation; Character (author as character)

A lifelong-traveler, Swift wants the reader to know that she has never once been “hospitalized, jailed, stranded, pierced, tattooed or ransomed” while on vacation. I can only imagine that’s something of a relief for both her and her family, but for the reader? It’s a cheeky indication of what to expect from the rest of the book.

It wasn’t until after returning from a honeymoon trip to France and at her new husband’s urging that Swift decided to write about her travels – particularly in France, and specifically about her honeymoon trip. This non-linear, heavily and lovely illustrated book, however, is proof positive that she should do so again. The book covers several aspects of travel: suitable companions; survival tips; obligatory mentions of food and wine; couched in humor, French words and phrases are seamlessly used and translated within and throughout the text; and works in facts about other destinations (so you’re learning, but it doesn’t feel like it).

Le Road Trip would be particularly good for those readers who are not, perhaps, overly fond of non-fiction, but want something light, interesting and peppered with useful, quirky information about France, as well as traveling in general.

Eileen Barrett

Holidays in Hell – P.J. O’Rourke
Appeal Factors: witty, unique settings, unusual travel, may like if enjoy Bill Bryson’s books

P.J. O’Rourke is a popular humorist, a political satirist, a travel writer, a former war correspondent, and frequent contestant on NPR’s game show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. His goal in Holidays in Hell was to visit the worst places. Places where “insurrections, stupidities, political crises, civil disturbances, and other human folly” are found, as the typical sunning and sightseeing bores him. He takes the reader to some desolate and desperate places where no one in their right mind would chose to vacation, including to Harvard University’s 350th Anniversary celebration where he describes the speakers as a bunch of “puff buckets”. O’Rourke has an acerbic wit that is not for the easily offended. He has a follow-up book called Holidays in Heck, a family vacation travelog.

Sarah Woo

Dreaming in French: The Paris years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis – Alice Kaplan
Appeal Factors: Tone: strong sense of place; thought-provoking; Writing style: richly detailed, scholarly

I chose this from NPR’s “The World on the Page: Five Great Travel Memoirs” linked to this blog.

Living on the left bank in the Montparnasse area, being limited to one shower per week, braving stand-up Turkish toilets, frequenting the famous Le Select and other cafés, soaking up student life and political activism around the “Boul’Mich,” sending home countless tissue-thin aerograms filled with impressions of Paris life, endlessly seeking “le mot juste” in a beautiful and nuanced language, achieving the envied state of “dreaming in French”….if all this strikes a chord with you, chances are you have studied and lived in France sometime between 1949 and 1979, and you will probably deeply appreciate Kaplan’s “biographie à trois.” On one level this book can be enjoyed as an evocation of Paris through the lens of three ultimately influential American women experiencing the French city, language, and culture when they were young and before they were famous. They did indeed, as Kaplan articulates, “become themselves” to a great extent in Paris, in part by being given the “chance to think new thoughts.” We are offered a glimpse into their strengths and achievements, along with the force of their personalities and their ambitions, all of which were nurtured and developed in part by their time in France and later greatly influenced their contributions to American society. On a deeper level, the book can be appreciated as a scholarly offering on the development of the novel on both sides of the Atlantic; on 20th century history that includes art, literature, political thought, and philosophy and how these subjects are understood in France and the U.S.; and lastly, on the necessity of mastering the language in order to truly understand a culture.

Jan Resnick

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail – Bill Bryson
Appeal Factors: Pace – quick; Character – engaging, familiar; Language – engaging, informative, humorous; Story – chronological; Tone – upbeat, witty, poignant; Frame – Appalachian Trail, March 1996 – fall 1996.

After 20 years in England, Bryson tries to reconnect with America by hiking the Appalachian Trail. “a comical account of a neophyte woodsman.” He and his long ago friend Katz are woefully unprepared for the challenging endeavor. After a few months, they realize they are not going to manage the Trail start to finish and select a few portions to finish their quest. They learn some things about themselves and each other and a lot about our country and its human and geographical scope.

  • Simlar authors: Tony Horowitz – Blue Latitudes; Pico Iyer – Falling off the Map; Stephen Fry in America; Chuck Palahniuk – Stranger than Fiction; Cheryl Strayed – Wild