Travel Literature Masquerade

Cover of "Traveling with Pomegranates: A ...

Cover via Amazon

I blame Oprah. The glorification of self-improvement and the importance of personal confession–when perhaps these might be better left to an intimate conversation–have invaded the lives of everyone. Every once in a while, I go wrong in finding travel literature for the road. That certainly is the case for Traveling with Pomegranates, a memoir by Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter, novice writer, Ann Kidd Taylor. The book made it onto the list–even though it’s set not only in France but also in Greece and Turkey–because I thoroughly enjoyed Kidd’s novel The Secret Lives of Bees, particularly the wisdom espoused by one of the characters, August Boatwright.

Although descriptions of various cultural sites are included in the narrative, primacy is given to the self reflection of Kidd (who is going through a “I’m-turning-50” crisis) and of her daughter Taylor, who is in depression over a rejection from graduate school. It’s helpful to know that Kidd spent seven years in Jungian analysis, which explains phrases such as “regenerative essence.” Demeter and Persephone are key characters in this memoir, and Kidd and Taylor re-imagine themselves in those roles. Their time in France centers on sites appealing to a feminist women’s groups in search of their inner selves: The Garden of Venus at Baud, a “birth channel-like” Tumulus at Gavrinis in Brittany, the Chapel of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour, and a convent at Le Puy-en-Velay.

Much of the narrative is given over to the angst of the two women, what I tend to think of as navel gazing. The New Age jargon wears. This is not the only “travel” book that is truly not about travel. The other major sinner in this category is Elizabeth Gilbert‘s popular Eat, Pray, Love. I deliberately left it off my list when visiting Bali in 2010, but then I was asked so often about it, that I finally caved and read it. Where is Maxwell Perkins when you need him? A good editor is worth his or her weight in gold. (I had the same sense with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and Rowling’s later Harry Potter novels–a good editor would have made these much stronger works.) Self indulgent. The Balinese t-shirts perhaps say it best: “Eat, Pay, Leave.”

As I thought about writing this particular blog entry, aware that these two books might well be others’ favorites, I pondered why I had such a visceral reaction to each of them. I’m a fan, for instance, of women’s writings, such as Carolyn Heilbrun‘s Writing A Woman’s Life or her The Gift of Life, which, by the way, talks about the wonderful freedom of turning 50. (An aside: the late Heilbrun was also Amanda Cross, her pseudonym for writing delicious academic mysteries such as Death in a Tenured Position.) But those books were clearly marked as philosophical explorations in women’s writings. Not as travel literature.

Likewise, I’m well aware that travel may often be about self-discovery. Huck Finn came to understand that “I cannot tell a lie” through his journey with Jim. Likewise, Tom Jones, Peregrine Pickle, and Pippin all undertake journeys in order to find meaning and significance in their lives–in the tradition of the bildungsroman in which a young person “finds” himself or builds character.  What is the difference? Perhaps it’s the interaction with others rather than the interior monologues that tend to be so personal and intimate. As August Boatwright says in Kidd’s novel, “Most people don’t have any idea about the complicated life going on inside a hive. Bees have a secret life  we don’t know anything about.”

And, there are aspects of other people’s lives that I would prefer not to know about.  I like my travel literature to be about travel.


2 thoughts on “Travel Literature Masquerade

  1. I am thrilled to know that you dismissed Eat, Pray, Love without even reading it. So did I. And we also agree that J.K. Rowling needed an editor!

    In terms of travelnreading, one of my favorite reading experiences was reading Letters from Yellowstone while in Yellowstone. My friend and I read it aloud to each other, somehow managing to read about a storm coming over Lake Yellowstone while watching a storm come over Lake Yellowstone.

    • Thanks so much for the comment! I’m still not sure if I regret having opened Eat, Pray, Love at all, but at least I can say I gave it a try. I so agree about Diane Smith’s Letters from Yellowstone. The late 19th century setting and the Smithsonian-backed study resulted in a good read that follows my dictum: “I like my history as fiction.” But it also reminds me of how much I like the epistolary format for novels. The Color Purple, for instance, the first book I truly read and enjoyed after being rather burned out on reading through a BA to doctoral course of study without a break. But, then, I actually enjoyed those very early letter-writing novels, Pamela as well as Shamela. I had that same kind of “moment” as you did about reading about the storm/watching the storm on a train to Haworth to see the Bronte home while reading The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James (but more about that in the post about a reading list for England).

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