Molly Ivins did it often, and as much as I liked her writing, I never liked the concept. Some journalists or authors who get a lot of articles and reviews published eventually bundle them together in a book, presumably with some unifying theme, and release it. Handy!
One may readily guess that a specific volume inspired this piece, and it is Jonathan Raban’s Driving Home: An American Journey. I’m not done with this book yet, and have taken to skimming parts of it, so let’s stop short of calling this a book review and label it as it is: observations about the book so far. The good part: he’s a capable observer of Americana, and in the main quite a fair one. Raban writes well and provocatively most of the time, though I find some of his fancier phrasing a bit overdone. Therein may lie one of the problems with packing your columns and articles into a book; what may have made a fine article in Outside may not be desirable in a full-size book where we go on a longer journey with the author.
Which this is not. I am much bothered by what I thought (having failed to scan the cover and description too closely, taken in by the title) was a travel book by an English author about his journeys in the United States. Sometimes it is, in disconnected fashion, with the added draw (for me) of a Seattle focus. Other times he’s talking about things like Shackleton’s expedition, poets he likes or dislikes, or something else only very distantly related to American travel. If you don’t mind some literary critique and commentary interspersed with some travel and living observations, then this is right up your alley, but it’s not what I meant to purchase.
His sophisticated tone and style would be offputting to many Americans, but most of those who would be put off a) do not read books to begin with, and b) wouldn’t understand most of what he says if they tried. Neat solution, eh? I don’t fault Raban here, for I find this style honestly English and without ill intent. Better he be himself, than adulterate his style for fear we might misinterpret him as snobbish. Some English authors just sound that way, in the same way that the Northeastern accents sound naturally pushy and abrupt to many Westerners. It’s not that they are either, in general; we simply get it from the tone, and should have the depth to look past it. Give him credit for not talking down to us, and sousing us with honesty whether we find it comforting or not.
Had Raban authored the book from scratch, and kept it on a topic that fit the title, I’d probably find it a smashing read and one of the best foreign perspectives yet on my country’s foibles. The disjointed half of the book that does this, I like very much.
But Shackleton? Really?