I’ve been psyching myself up for a trip to New York for my step-daughter’s graduation from law school this spring. This is not easy. I haven’t flown since 1999 and over the past fifteen years my fear of flying has escalated into a full-blown phobia. By contrast, I have friends who are avid world travelers. They have vacationed in more than 100 countries. As you can imagine, they find it hard to sympathize with my lack of enthusiasm for travel, but in my defense, there was that time my friend broke her arm hiking in some godforsaken country, had it set badly, and had to have it reset in Egypt.
Apparently at some point in my life I became convinced that bad things can happen when you venture too far from home. (Perhaps I’m a Hobbit). I only need remind myself of the following three books about vacations gone disastrously wrong to reinforce my fears.
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
I love this book because it supports my theory so beautifully. I love it for other reasons too. The descriptions of Northern Africa following WWII are beautiful and haunting; the primary characters, an American couple and their traveling companion, are entirely ill equipped to adapt to a foreign environment; the supporting characters are adequately quirky. I especially love the palpable sense of panic that develops when the wife suddenly finds herself stranded; a stranger in a strange land. And the philosophical questions posited by this novel make it a wonderful book for discussion. (I will admit that I was almost thrown out of my book club for making them read this book. Apparently they don’t share my penchant for dark brooding novels that end with no hope.)
Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan
San Francisco art dealer Bibi Chen narrates this tale. Before her death (yes, our narrator is dead, but doesn’t know how she died) Bibi planned an art expedition for a group of friends, who are determined to forge ahead without her. They travel to Burma and make an ill-fated decision to explore the jungle on their own, where they are kidnapped by some remote tribesmen who believe they have found their Messiah. This may be my favorite Amy Tan novel; its eccentricity and satirical nature leaven the tension just to the point of toleration.
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
I love this review that appeared in Kirkus in 1934, “Sometimes one detects a note of spoofing; the rest of the time this reads like rather far-fetched straight story. In either case, it is a none too flattering picture of the fringe of London's smart set, that set which thinks it achieves success by swapping mates and collecting admirers. The story of simple Tony, county gentleman of the old school, loving his ugly old home, adoring his wife and son; and of Brenda, accidentally discovering she is bored, and taking up a youth who lives by his slender wits and other people's invitations. She decides she must have a divorce, and Tony plays the conventional gentleman until he discovers that she is willing to pauperize him to buy herself her gigolo husband. Then the worm turns -- and he is off to South America on a fantastic exploration, which has an even more fantastic finale in the Amazonian jungles.” The fate of Tony, who may be the only decent character in the book, will make you squirm.
These are all terrific books and I highly recommend them. However, I think between now and May I need to read books that celebrate travel at its best! Eat, Pray, Love anyone?