Since 1971, I’ve experienced many long distance road trips across and into the three countries of North America. Does it take special stamina to travel on the the vast road and rail networks of Canada, Mexico and the United States of America? After reading American Day by Day, it sounds like travel by train or bus in the U.S. is more difficult now. Passenger rail systems in the U.S. and Mexico have been gutted.
A few dozen months ago, in a New York Times interview, Paul Theroux mentioned several celebrity authors who cruised the blue highways of the U.S.A. — Steinbeck, Nabokov, Scott and Zelda — but overlooked the North American travels of French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.
The European feminist landed at LaGuardia Airport in January, 1947 and during four months, criss-crossed the USA by train, car and bus. Her goal was to meet American students, especially women.
America Day by Day is her fascinating account of meetings with students at elite US colleges. She was keen to sit down with young women at Vassar, Radcliffe, Berkeley, and the other top universities. Photos of the sleek de Beauvoir in conversation with college gals swathed in rumpled ankle-length flared skirts and thickly rolled white socks offers a superficial window to the sartorial differences of the French grande dame and care-free students.
There were other gaps. She thought American college students were uninformed, quite innocent of global politics, the impact of WWII, or the realities of life. The students she met were intellectually and politically tame, but they had similar taste in music and entertainment. For diversion, with students and literary friends, she would hunt for city jazz clubs and bars where she could talk to African-Americans.
Simone de Beauvoir
University of California Press, 2000. 408 pages.
The poet is a mapmaker
to the unspoken urges that we feel.
As a human heart travels
through life and beyond,
the poet’s voice is a beacon.
Beatriz Badikian is a Chicago poet, teacher of writing and literature, multilingual speaker, and world traveler.
With an introduction by Sandra Cisneros
Gladsome Books, Chicago, 1999.
Jennifer Monahan has written an engaging account of an extended trip around Australia.
Subtitled “Discovering the Island Continent of Australia” the book offers practical advice for first time travelers in Australia. From my own experience in Australia, I agree with Jennifer Monahan that you need more than the typical two weeks for a journey Down Under.
Yes, the flight from nearly everywhere else, except New Zealand or Indonesia, is monumental . Distance is tyranny in Australia — everything is a long way, even when it’s just over there.
I asked the author about her favorite aspect of Australia. She responded:
“When I talk about my two months in Australia, I’m often asked, “What did you like most about Australia?”
and my first response is always “The people.” Aussies are the friendliest, most laid back, seriously happy people I have
ever come across. Maybe it has something to do with living on a continent filled with sunshine and surrounded by gorgeous beaches. I also believe it has a lot to do with the nation’s philosophy to give everyone “A fair go,” which means “Treat everyone fairly and give everyone a fair chance (to do their best).”
Prepare to be entertained as you join Jennifer and her companion during this adventure through Oz. You’ll learn practical details and how to plan a successful trip. She started out with a cross-continental train journey and rounded back by driving to the Queensland coast to explore the Great Barrier Reef and Magnetic Island. Along the way, they encounter singular characters, surprises and good luck, along with the usual challenges of adventure travel. All the experiences reported in the book are instructive for other travelers.
Not ready for the big trip to Oz? Reading this book will take you there vicariously. Enjoy the ride!
Land, Water, Nature and Place
By: Phil Condon
Johnson Books, Boulder, Co.
2004, 192 pages
Mixed in with this memoir of growing up and moving out, of coming back and forging bonds of place, the author deals with big issues like the relationships between people and land, animals and each other.
Condon teaches in the graduate program of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana, and the University sponsors an Environmental Writing Institute in Missoula. He’s knit together the threads of his life that range through Nebraska, California, Missouri, British Columbia and Montana. He uses the stark memories of his past to ponder the present.
From a session of work in a meat slaughter packing plant, Condon examines his choices and intentions. He muses that he still eats meat and enjoys it, yet resolves to slow his actions to include due process and consideration when he is consuming meat. How cash has disappeared from the equation of purchase.
Not a sentimentalist, he admits to tree cutting (for heat during a bitter winter in British Columbia) as well as tree hugging and planting. Condon doesn’t shy from tough facts: toxic industrial pollutants and pesticides used in agriculture are found everywhere on the planet. There are no pristine places.
A man enchanted with real snow, Condon likes winter because “it slows down most things modern and mechanistic… and I like snow because it covers everything: the good, the bad, and the ugly. To me, it’s always seemed the coldest, cleanest grace.”
The domed snow-scapes that some people collect are a metaphor for life on earth. His first wife, with whom he homesteaded in the Ozarks, worries that they’re living inside “one of those snowy paperweights…idyllic from the outside, but if we start looking past each other, through each other, there’s nothing to keep us from becoming invisible…” (p. 15)
Condon mentions a fortune telling ball, “a heavy glass sphere, flattened on both ends and wrapped in gold-colored foil. The glass opened on a murky maroon interior. You’d ask a question and shake it, and one of twelve stock answers would rise to the top.” (p. 175)
He writes: “Pick up the snow scene in its small round globe of glass. Shake it and smile. Watch the show settle and the scene change. It’s fun to do the shaking. And it’s also fun to imagine being one of the figures. The truth is that, to a greater or lesser degree, we’ve always been both the shaker and the shaken. And now, if we never have before, we know it.” (p. 141)
by L. Peat O’Neil
This review appeared in the grass-roots book newspaper The Bloomsbury Review. Subscribe!
A Taste of the Sweet Apple
By: Jo Anna Holt Watson
Sarabande Books, Louisville, Ky
2004, 232 pages
Jo Anna Holt Watson’s memoir of growing up during the 1940’s is a terrific book for reading clubs and book groups. It was made into a popular television series on Kentucky Educational Television.
The story unfolds in Kentucky vernacular through the voices of the authentic characters that populated her childhood. The author shows a way of life gone by, a time when tobacco farming, horse husbandry, bourbon “sweetners” on the porch and neighbors who knew one another were her family’s status quo. The story meanders along like easy meal at the picnic table under the shade trees or a bareback ride along a creek.
Holt recounts funny stories like her fulsome Aunt Tott tugging into a Platex girdle one humid Kentucky August. We learn about her mother, Sallie Gay, who was continually dismayed that her daughter prefered riding the John Deere, learning to spit and sampling varmit stew to starched dresses and hair ribbons. Holt is kind to the memory of her dad, ‘Doc’ Holt, a country doctor prone to crazy fits and soon dead of a coronary.
The young girl’s hero is Joe Collins, the combination farm manager and body servant who takes care of ‘Doc’ when he goes wild. No need to reveal how this memoir closes; the going is the point. Let’s hope Jo Anna Holt Watson writes more books about Kentucky because this tasty-tart mix of family life is a fine start.
Patti Smith wrote an honest account of how young artists struggle with the enormity of becoming outsiders by embracing the path of art. The memoir won the National Book Award and that’s no surprise. The prose is smooth and the concepts expressed are significant for individuals and society.
Anyone who was born during the years 1945-1965, the rock n’ roll protest generation, will see their hopes and heart reflected in this gentle book.