Saturday, February 21, 2009

Educating Alice - Alice Steinbach & My Kind of Place - Susan Orlean

Last week I picked up two books of travel essays. One by Alice Steinbach, a Pulitzer Price winning journalist. The other by Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief. I enjoyed both of these collections as reading about other people's travels always reminds me of the wonderful places I have been, satisfies a bit of my wanderlust, and gets me excited about traveling to new places. Steinbach's essays are on the longer side - and despite being a reporter, they felt more personal in the sense of relaying how she felt she grew and learned because of her travel experiences. Orlean, on the other hand, was a bit more funny and her essays while anecdotal, did not seem to carry the same weight as Steinbach's. In each city Steinbach writes about, she takes classes to learn about local culture. She goes to cooking school in Paris and trains border collies in Scotland. My favorite chapter took place in Kyoto, and focused on Steinbach's education about the world of geishas and meiko. I felt at times that Steinbach's observations about Japanese women seemed shallow and judgmental - which made me wonder if that is always that case when Westerners write about another culture, it is just that when I don't know anything about that culture, I take the Westerner's word at face value. Steinbach's book has much more of a memoir feel to is as she relates each experience to her own life and her own journey - and is not as concered about the culture she is attempting to appreciate. I also realized that I am interested in reading about travels in countries outside of those in Western Europe, and tended to skim quickly through the ones set in France, England, and Italy. Orlean's book is much more of a hodge-podge of experiences. She writes about travel to specific places - learning to shoot clay pigeons in Scotland and attending the Taxidermy Championships in Springfield, Illinois (this reminded me of something Chuck Palahniuk would have written), but she also writes about the concept of travel. I particularly enjoyed a short piece about the world map shower curtain - its popularity and the reasons people like it so much. Unlike Steinbach, while Orlean obviously learns things from her experiences, she more often just reports what she sees, and not necessarily her own particular reactions to everything. In this way, the observations seemed much more objective (though this is not necessarily true), and I felt it easier to like Orlean as a narrator. I particularly enjoyed an essay about fertility rituals in Bhutan. Orlean is able to make places as exotic as Bhutan and as mundane as Springfield each ring with their own true uniqueness. I could have used a little more organization among the chapters, but as a whole, I found the randomness of the collection fun, with each page turn a new unexpected adventure. Steinback and Orlean have written very different books here, but both look at the concept of travel as a way to enrich one's life and to discover something out there greater than yourself.

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