The vanishing frontier

The New York Times Books section posted a list of six travel books for holiday gift giving ideas.  All six are by guys, and most of them are in the gonzo realm of bad boys going really far away places doing pretty extreme things.  There’s a nod to traveling women in the opening paragraph, but not a single book.

Travel writing sometimes seems to be all about rough and tumble tough guys going to out of the way places (the more inaccessible the better) and having extremely grimy adventures.   While I have nothing against a good adventure, or even against bad boys eating snake innards and bugs, it really isn’t about travel as much as the Young Man Testing Himself in Extreme Ways.   Which is fine, too.  It’s just not really travel for the masses.  There is one on the list about a quest:  MISHIMA’S SWORD: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend (Da Capo, paper, $15.95), which looks a bit different, but it’s still about a man’s view of the world.   

The other craze in travel writing is the "I moved to Tuscany/Provence for a year and this is what I learned," and there is one of those books on this list, too.  The best one was Frances Mayes’s Under The Tuscan Sun, and all the rest are doomed to fall short, I’m afraid.

There are some travel books by women, but often, they’re doing the literary equivalent of women wearing power suits in the 80’s–women doing male things in the travel world to prove that they can.  Adventure rafting on the amazon or running 100 miles in the Grand Canyon.  (Why?)

And maybe I’m just a bourgeois thing, wanting to read a different sort of adventure, but maybe I’m just more interested in the internal journey.  A trip doesn’t have to take me far away or into an exotic realm to be fascinating–it is the journey itself that fascinates.  It is the observation of the traveler, her connection to what she sees and how that shifts her internal landscape.  What do you learn when you stand on a beach in Florida where the signs are all missing, and there are no traffic lights because there have been three hurricanes this season?  What do you see when you walk on a busy street in an ordinary Midwestern city on a Saturday in September?

My suggestions for travel books that will thrill the women on your list (and a good many of the men), are three:  EAT PRAY LOVE, by Elizabeth Gilbert is so madly, intensely, wildly successful because it is a travel book about the internal spiritual journey of a single woman who recounts her journey with honesty and insight.  UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN, Mayes’s book, is slightly different, but also evocative and quietly observed.   Another of my favorites is Rosemary Mahoney’s A SINGULAR PILGRIM. (And I know I’ve talked about all of those books before, but I’m offering a counter to bad boys eating bugs. )

What travel memoirs or essays or books would you recommend?

(PS  Someday, I’d would sincerely love to write a book that was so beloved that it gathered 731 reviews on Amazon. That is truly a book touched by grace.)

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5 thoughts on “The vanishing frontier

  1. Christine

    Just guessing here, and maybe going out on a limb, but it seems to me that what men mostly read is non-fiction, and perhaps that is why the travel genre is skewed towards men. They also seem to read a lot of biography and autobiography. Some read history.

    I suspect if you surveyed your women readers, they would predominantly read fiction. Though this would be skewed also, as you are a writer of fiction.

    When I come across men who do read fiction, they seem to prefer the blockbuster. And I think you are like most of us women who read, and we love that inner journey stuff. And characters. At least me. I love a really great character.

    Interestingly, biography and autobiography are about journey also.

    I think the travel books that do ‘reach’ women, are perhaps of the ‘oh wouldn’t it be luvverly’ type? Just guessing here!

  2. Two I loved by women were Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey and Tracks by Robin Davidson.
    Admittedly both were extraordinary journies that would probably also appeal to men, but what I loved most was their courage, commitment and how they were able to tackle incredible isolation, and the amazing, trusting relationships they built with wild animals.
    For all of the reasons above Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat is in my top five favourite books. His sense of humour is brilliant.
    I have quite the collection of travel books, but most are by men I’m afraid, just as you discussed. I can also recommend Touching the Void by Joe Simpson (for amazing human will to survive), A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (for hiking humour:), On Mexican Time by Tony Cohen (for lusciousness) and Travels With Charlie by John Steinbeck (for the ultimate American roadtrip).
    Hmmm, they say write what you love so perhaps this collection is telling me something about my own writing journey?:)

  3. This is a little off topic, but would you settle for a book that is so beloved that it gave a reader insights that she’s needed for 20 years? I just finished No Place Like Home and I can’t tell you how moved I am. I think I cried from Michael’s last day through to the end. And this was in a good, cathartic way.

    Very grown up. Wonderful characters – I can’t really say enough about how much I enjoyed your novel. I have to admit that I hadn’t read any of your books before – I was looking for novels with Italian American families and happened upon it at our library, but I can’t wait to read your other stories.

    Thank you for writing this. It may just change my life.

    On a lighter note, I’d second Renee’s choice of Travels with Charley. Despite its being somewhat Steinbeck-macho, it’s also a fascinating portrait of America in the 60s.

  4. Well, I guess I could live with changing a life, Jen. :) Thanks so much for letting me know you enjoyed No Place Like Home so much. It’s one of my favorites.

    Renee, hmmm…you liking adventure stories? Amazing! I would love to read your women-adventuring tales.

    Christine, yeah, I think you’re right about some of that. There’s a stastic that says women buy something like 60% of all books, and that number goes even higher if you refer to just fiction.

    Which is a convoluted sentence, but I’m sure you get the gist. :)

  5. Christine

    Hi again Barbara

    As a lover of recipes, travel and evocative writing, I am sure you have read Patience Gray’s ‘Honey from a Weed’?

    It covers everything really.

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