Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Journeys of other kinds

A Trance after Breakfast and other passages, by Alan Cheuse
Sourcebooks, Inc.
ISBN 978-1-4022-1516-2
Release: June 9 2009

Halfway up a rocky trail leading to a glacier somewhere in New Zealand, the author’s guide quotes Proust, “Life consists not in seeing new things but in finding new ways of seeing.” Those lines pretty much sum up this engrossing new book by Alan Cheuse, the author and noted literary critic for National Public Radio’s ‘All Things Considered’ . Cheuse needs little introduction in the literary world, having previously authored such remarkable books as The Tennessee Waltz, The Light Possessed and To Catch the Lightning. In ‘Trance..’, he turns his skills as a writer, critic and keen observer of life to the wanderlust, physical, intellectual and spiritual, that has driven him through much of his life, and in turn influenced his writing.

These essays by Cheuse, previously featured in various publications like the San Diego Reader, Gourmet and the Antioch Review, take us - from his native New Jersey to places as diverse as Mexico, Bali and New Zealand, and right back again- on journeys of the heart rather than just the eye. Most of these essays are not your usual travelogues but seek to explore wider themes – the notion of home and belonging ; the idea of religious and cultural identity within a greater whole ; immersion as a linguistic tool as well as a broader cultural ideal.

Not all these journeys are taken by the author himself. In ‘Port of Entry’ , for instance, Cheuse- referring to himself as ‘the pilgrim’ – watches other peoples’ journeys, across the San Ysidro Port of Entry between Mexico and California. As he observes the men and women policing the border to weed out illegal immigrants and narcotics smugglers , he draws parallels to desperate immigrants around the world and across time, at border crossings much like this, struggling to reach their idea of a safe haven. ‘The Mexican Rabbi’ describes struggles of a different kind, as it traces the trajectory of Judaism in the Spanish culture, and the assertion of Jewish identity in present day Mexico.

Yet other journeys are purely literary ; ‘ Border Schooling’ begins as an eye witness account of a unique educational experiment, focused as much on cultural assimilation as on pedagogy. But along the way, it becomes an account of the author’s own lifelong affair with literature, and the journeys in reading he has made since his youth. Similarly, ‘Reading the Archipelago’ examines the ways the Indonesian islands have been described in literature, first by European authors like Conrad, Dekker and Couperus, and later by Maugham , Greene and Burgess. It is not until Cheuse turns to the work of indigenous writers that he realizes that the roots of his dissatisfaction with much of the earlier work lies in their being essentially the view of outsiders looking in, focused more with the ‘exotic’ than with the realities of life on the islands.

Ironically, some of the smaller essays in this collection veer towards precisely this kind of exotic portrayal, the view of the casual, if well meaning tourist. The title essay perhaps best represents this style of writing , as it offers the reader bemused observations on local colour and the hold that religion and rituals have on daily life in Bali, from the comforts of a luxurious resort that must surely cater only to foreign tourists like himself. But after a week of yoga, temple hopping and trance dancing, the author finds himself mesmerized by the island and its rituals, willing to let go of his skepticism and submit to greater powers he can briefly sense , yet never fully comprehend . After the essays on Tijuana in the section 'Crossing Borders', I confess this essay left me disappointed. Again, in ‘Kiwi Dreams’, the author finds himself drawn by the cinematic glories of New Zealand’s natural vistas to this tiny island, only to become rapidly overwhelmed , then detached. And in ‘An Artist’s Adobe’, an account of a visit to the house in New Mexico where renowned artist Georgia O’Keefe lived and painted in the last decades of her life, offers little more than descriptions of room layouts.

Cheuse is at his poetic best when writing about water - its powerful draw on travellers, immigrants and gold prospectors alike, and his own lifelong fascination with the ocean. ‘Thirty five Passages across water’ takes us back and forth in time, beginning with memorable events in the author’s own life, then rather cheekily tracing a connection to Noah, prehistoric life and Genesis itself. And the poignant ‘Coda: Two Oceans’, a fitting endpiece to this book, pays a lyrical tribute to the two oceans that have shaped the author’s life. If the Atlantic is to him the shores of his childhood and akward adolescence in New Jersey, the Pacific evokes the romance of adventure , limitless imagination and a cultural tapestry on its American shores that “…seemed more a fusion of presences than a melting away of differences.”

"I am", concludes Cheuse,"Atlantic-born and my mother's child, but Pacific-bound, and my father's man."

Well-crafted, insightful and often profound, a book about finding not just beauty and newness, but also oneself in the journeys that invariably define us - even those of us travelers that are strictly armchair-bound.

Thanks to Heather Moore at Sourcebooks for sending Bookblah a copy of the book to review.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely review, I definitely would love to read this book! Travel is so much more than just visiting tourist sights, tasting new foods and experiencing new cultures and so I really do appreciate the travel writer that will delve deeper and provide food for the soul rather than just facts that a travel guide can so ably impart. I am excited about this book I think I will enjoy reading what Cheuse thought about as he went on these journeys! THanks Bookblah!