memoir · nonfiction

Home Sweet Anywhere: How We Sold Our House, Created a New Life, and Saw the World by Lynne Martin

And here we go! I’m a few books behind in reading books off my own shelf, so this is the first in a few. I believe I picked up Home Sweet Anywhere: How We Sold Our House, Created a New Life, and Saw the World by Lynne Martin (Sourcebooks, 2014) from a thrift store a few years ago, but it *may* have come from a used book sale. Either way, I know I saw it and thought, “Huh, I bet that’s an interesting story!” Wellllllllllllll…

Lynne Martin and her husband Tim decided that instead of becoming stodgy retirees, they’d sell their California home and instead spend their retirement traipsing around the world, spending varying amounts of time living in rented apartments in various countries around the world. Though their initial arrangements failed to take the Schengen Agreement into consideration, they were soon on the road, leaving behind family and friends for a life of adventure. What could be better than traveling the world?

While there were aspects of this that I enjoyed, a lot of it irritated me. I’m sure Lynne Martin is a lovely person, but this book occasionally has her coming off as an obnoxious American, especially in the chapter where they ‘live’ in Argentina (‘live’ because they’re still tourists, not residents). Her complaints about the language (which she doesn’t speak) and culture being difficult to understand grated on me, as did her constant referral to everything as ‘foreign,’ such as this quote:

By week four, we definitely needed an American fix- something familiar to orient us in this foreign place where we were floundering.

The use of the word foreign here bothered me; you’re IN the country. It may be different than what you’re used to, but if you’re going to ‘live’ there, as she claimed, referring to it as ‘foreign’ as you’re standing on its soil seems a bit disrespectful to me. Not every place will agree with every person, but her complaints about Argentina seemed a bit over-the-top, especially since this was something they willingly chose. Comments like this one didn’t help, either:

No wonder [Argentinians] seem to be a confused, melancholy people!

Yiiiiiiiiiiiikes. Another one that grated on my nerves:

When we arrived at the famous Topkapi Palace that afternoon, we ran into a long, slow-moving ticket line. That put us off immediately. Call us impatient, but waiting is agony for us, and the microscopic inspection of every site does not interest us too much. We are really not very good tourists.

So much privilege, so little desire to acknowledge it, or take advantage of so many aspects of it. They’re older, in their 70’s, but still- all this ability to see the world and you complain about needing to stand in line to see it? (MAN, I wish I could stand in line- literally! Some days I have trouble physically standing in line at the grocery store, thanks to my garbage back.) I was also bothered by her constant assessment of people’s levels of English. She is, like most Americans, functionally monolingual, and yet so many of the people she comes across are described in terms of their ability to speak- or not speak- English. I don’t know if this is a quirk of her writing style or a sign of her general attitude, but I get irritated to no end by people who have never put in any true effort to learn another language getting fussy or being critical in any way about the language skills of someone who is on their second, third, fourth language. I don’t expect travelers to be fluent, but a respectful attitude goes a long way, and that didn’t come through here for me at all.

I don’t know that I was the proper audience for this book; it seems to be more written for upper-class people with money to burn, who are physically capable of traveling anywhere with no concerns as to their health or accessibility. My husband and I have never taken a vacation other than our honeymoon in 13 years of marriage, and I’d have to do a *lot* of planning, including discussing some just-in-case prescriptions with my doctor, in order for travel like this to be possible for me. And to read Ms. Martin’s casual complaints about her trip to Argentina, where she didn’t need to plan for these kinds of things, and seemed irritated about the language and dialect and cultural differences, irritated me. I ended up hearing a *lot* of this book in my head as being read by the character of Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek.

So while I normally enjoy travel memoirs, this one felt, to me, replete with unacknowledged privilege and upper-class dismissal of opportunity. Your mileage may vary, though; not every book is for every reader!

I am saddened to learn that her husband and travel companion Tim passed away last year. May his memory be a blessing.  

Visit Lynne Martin’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure by Rachel Friedman

And here we go, book fans! The first book off of my own shelf as per my resolution to read more of the books that I own. I picked up this copy of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure by Rachel Friedman (Bantam, 2011) either from my favorite local thrift store or from a used book sale (the books on that shelf came from a mix of those two places). I’ve always been a big fan of travel memoirs, and what better time to read one than when you can’t travel at all? (At least if you’re American. Sigh.)

Rachel Friedman, the girl who always followed the rules and the plan, graduated from college without any kind of plan whatsoever, and she surprised everyone in her life by buying a plane ticket to Ireland and applying for a student visa so she could work as a waitress to earn money to fund her travels there. She’d never traveled on her own before, never traveled without exact travel plans or a plan for the future, so all of this was definitely an adventure.

In Ireland, Rachel is bitten by the travel bug, aided by her wanderlusty roommate Carly, an Australian who hasn’t yet finished college and isn’t sure what she wants to do outside of traveling the world. When her time in Ireland runs out, Rachel’s next stop is Australia, and then on to South America. Deadly animals, blazing sun and chilly mountain air, experiences that scare the crap out of her, living out of a single backpack, Rachel’s experiences will have you longing for the days where you had no responsibility and could just pick up and go.

This was a lovely armchair vacation for me. Rachel’s experiences are so far from what my own were at her age that it was nice to read how very different her life was. I did understand her what-do-I-do-with-my-life stress, along with some of her travel anxiety; I applaud her for pushing her boundaries so much. I’m still working on working out my social anxiety (NOT EASY THESE DAYS), and I’m a massive wreck when I travel, so it’s good for me to read stories of people who do things that scare them simply because it scares them. There are a lot of reviews talking about how self-entitled and privileged Rachel is; I felt as though she does acknowledge her privilege in the book and how lucky she was that her parents had paid for her college and thus she didn’t have to immediately begin working off her student loan debt. She mentions that multiple times, and I see no problem enjoying someone else’s experiences even if they’re not struggling in the same way I do.

Reading this also made me a little sad. Rachel and Carly met each other during their travels; Rachel eventually meets her husband while traveling. How many friendships aren’t beginning right now that would have if the US and a few other countries had handled this pandemic better? How many travelers are stuck at home not broadening their horizons and experiencing the world? How many relationships and marriages will never happen because we’re not allowed to travel due to our own stupidity? Here in the US, our world has gotten so much smaller- even beyond the reason of Covid-19- and that just breaks my heart.

But reading about Rachel Friedman’s boundary-pushing journey made for a pleasant Sunday out on the porch swing. If you can’t travel right now, taking a book vacation is the next best thing, and I enjoyed seeing the world through Ms. Friedman’s eyes.  

Visit Rachel Friedman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

history · nonfiction

Book Review: Overground Railroad: The Green Book & Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor

I want to say that I learned about Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor (Harry N. Abrams, 2020) from one of the emails Book Riot sends out, maybe the one about nonfiction books? I might be wrong about that, though. But I do know that reading the description of the book had me flying to put it on my TBR. I’d never heard of the Green Book before, and that seemed like a pretty big gap in my historical knowledge. I will admit to being a little intimidated when I picked this up in the library; it’s a thick, heavy book (lots of pictures, though!), and I worried about my ability to absorb so much information right now (pandemic brain is real, y’all), but I figured I could try it, and I’m *so* glad I did!

The Green Book, originally known as The Negro Motorist Green Book, was a travel guide for Black Americans, alerting them to businesses where it was safe to stop for gas, food, lodgings, and sightseeing and entertainment opportunities. Due to America’s fierce racism during the Jim Crow era and post-Jim Crow era (and now…) and the existence of sundown towns, Black travelers weren’t assured of receiving anything they might need on the road (not even roadside assistance), and thus the Green Book came into existence in order to help them travel across the country and eventually across the world.

It’s both wonderful that the Green Book existed and a tragedy that it had to. Ms. Taylor has traveled to and photographed many of the former Green Book sights. Many of them have been abandoned or are run down, but some are still up and running; all make for wonderful photographs. Interspersed throughout the text and photos are scans of actual pages from the various editions of the Green Book so that readers can see what the writing and advertisements looked like.

This is history. It’s inspiring, it’s shameful, it’s painful, it’s difficult but necessary read. There was a lot of new information for me in this book. I knew about sundown towns; I didn’t know how many of them existed in my own state, or that a guy I dated in high school lived in one. I knew that many businesses required Black customers to use a separate entrance; I hadn’t known that some business even required their Black customers to use a SEPARATE EMERGENCY EXIT ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME. Before learning about the existence of the Green Books, I hadn’t considered the discrimination faced by Black people as they traveled (it made sense as soon as I read the description of the book; it was just another aspect of racism creeping into all parts of life that, because of my privilege, I had never needed to consider). Like the book states, I’ll never look at travel the same way again.

There’s a section on Route 66 that discusses why Black travelers had such a difficult time on this road and why they don’t find it iconic as so many white Americans do. It’s eye-opening for the white reader, and saddening as well. We very obviously have multiple versions of the United States, and which version you have access to depends heavily on, and has always depended heavily on, your skin color. I hadn’t known much about this history of the road (I don’t know all that much about it anyway, although it ran through that high school boyfriend’s sundown town…), so this was pretty interesting to me. It’ll definitely change the way I look at those Route 66 signs people have…

This is an amazing book, and I can’t sing its praises highly enough. Ms. Taylor’s voice is educational and informative, but it’s never dry. It’s engaging in a way that will have you wishing you could sit in her classroom, sign up for her master class, and hang on her every word. I’m so very glad I read this book, because it clued me into a whole different experience of travel that I never knew about.

Visit Candacy A. Taylor’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic novel · memoir

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea- Guy Delisle

Another one down for Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge! I’m pleased that I’ve been able to continue progress on my reading challenges, even in captivity. *grin* The prompt here was to read a graphic memoir, which is actually a genre I love, so pretty much everything on the list of suggestions looked good to me. But I’m always trying to keep my TBR at a manageable level (*nervous laughter* let’s not discuss that right now…), so I went through my want-to-read list on Goodreads and found Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly, 2003). I’d read and enjoyed Burma Chronicles by the same author (before mailing it off to a friend!), and I was fascinated to learn that he’d spent time in North Korea and had written another book about his experiences. Onto the list it went!

I had no idea before reading this that North Korea has an animation industry. At one point, it was apparently pretty bustling, although it seems to have slowed down a bit since then. But animator and graphic novelist Guy Delisle, who has a sense of adventure that I seem to be lacking, was invited to work there and jumped at the offer. Upon arrival, he confronts a bizarre country where everyone spouts the party line, shortages of everything are commonplace, pictures of the leaders plaster nearly every surface, and he’s rarely left alone.

North Korea really is the upside-down, even by 2020 bizarro-world standards, even in the capital city of Pyongyang which is meant to be shown off to foreigners. Mr. Delisle’s stripped-down illustration style lends well to the bleakness of the regime and the stark realities of life in a country where an admission of doubt of the President’s nearly supernatural status can get a resident killed, or thrown into a reeducation camp for life. Even the restaurants seem to fall well short of basic health and cleanliness standards, and the museums and ‘tourist’ destination he’s taken to are nothing more than state-created propaganda tools designed to further the myth of North Korean greatness and world domination. The entire experience is bizarre and creepy and leaves the reader with a both a sense of relief to know that Mr. Delisle survived his time in country and a deep feeling of sadness that what he showcased in this graphic memoir is the best it gets there.

I don’t know that this is the best Delisle book to start with. I got a better sense of who he is as a person in Burma Chronicles and I don’t think I would have necessarily been inspired to read more from him if this is where I started. Part of that is because of the stark nature of the subject, I think; a sojourn in such an oppressive regime doesn’t necessarily lend for warm and fuzzy feelings about much of anything. I’d start with another one of his books first. Nor do I think this is a great place to start if you’re looking to learn anything about North Korea. Pyongyang is their show city, and although it comes off as a run-down communist-era Soviet nightmare, it’s still far beyond anything else the country has to offer in terms of, say, their citizens not dying in the streets of starvation and lack of medical care. If you’re looking to learn more about the hideous wasteland that North Korea truly is, start with some personal memoirs of escapees, such as In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park or The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee, or for a more journalistic account that covers both the history and the horrors of the country, I highly recommend Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

What Guy Delisle does offer here, though, is a fascinating perspective on a foreigner’s view of North Korea’s capital city. In the memoirs I’ve read, escapees have talked about the absolute splendor and privilege of a visit to Pyongyang, and to them, this city absolutely was the pinnacle of creation, leagues above and beyond what their daily lives offered. But to an outsider, it’s run-down, lacking in basics such as electricity and teeming with North Koreans doing forced ‘volunteer’ work. It’s absolutely worth your time if North Korea is a subject that fascinates you; it s a perspective that my reading has been lacking and I’m glad to have been able to ‘see’ Pyongyang from a non-North Korean’s viewpoint.

I’m in more than a bit in awe at Guy Delisle’s sense of adventure. Had I received the offer to work in or travel to North Korea, accepting wouldn’t even occur to me as a possibility. There’s no way I would ever feel comfortable traveling there, not as long as the country is in the state it is, with its leadership the way it is (*glances around, laughs nervously*). Its own citizens aren’t safe; I wouldn’t labor under the delusion that I’d be safe, either. But I’m grateful that Mr. Delisle has written and illustrated his experiences in this book. His story does beg the question of how his story would have differed had it been a woman traveling there for work, but it’s fascinating to see North Korea through an outsider’s eyes.

Visit Guy Delisle’s website here. (En français!)

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream- Eric Dregni

There aren’t a whole lot of books out there about Norway, nor are there books set in modern-day Norway (other than Nordic crime fiction, and I’m not a huge fan of mysteries and crime fiction in general). I’ve looked. But my search, done years ago, did turn up In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream by Eric Dregni (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), and onto my want-to-read list it went. The author and I both come from Norwegian stock (shoutout to Ole and Alfa, my great-great-grandparents, who came here from north of Bergen somewhere around the 1890’s, and to the relatives in Norway now that pop up on 23 and Me), and it’s always fun to read something by an author who has as much interest in his family’s background as I do.

Eric Dregni won a Fullbright Fellowship to study in Norway for a year on the same day he learned his wife was expecting their first child. Their sense of adventure packed in between their warmest clothes, the two of them headed off to his ancestral homeland so he could learn, study, and eventually write a book about Norway. It’s a definite change, to be sure. The people aren’t as open or outgoing as they’re used to, the language is a challenge (fortunately for them, most Norwegians speak perfect English), the cost of living is astronomical, the food is much different than they’re used to (gas station sausages, lutefisk, and rakfisk, oh my!) and the weather is…well, it’s Norwegian weather, so dress accordingly, like with spikes on your shoes so you don’t slide off the sidewalk and into traffic. And then there’s the colicky baby…

But there’s also the beauty of the mountains and the fjords, the joy of meeting long-lost relatives and discovering the places his ancestors once lived, the complete acceptance of children in Norwegian culture (even at their worst!), and the friends they manage to make along the way. Slap your skis on your feet and join the Dregni family for a year abroad in a country you probably don’t know much about!

In Cod We Trust is fun and informative. I had to giggle a few times at his stories of how the language tripped him up; the first time I ever saw Norwegian, it looked bizarre and unlike anything I’d ever seen before and now even the words I’m unfamiliar with have a certain familiarity to them (except for the more dialect-y words, and outside of Oslo, it’s all basically dialect!). His descriptions of the Norwegian landscape are stunning, and his recountings of the various surprising meals he ate there are…less than entirely appetizing, to be honest. Norway isn’t exactly known for its cuisine (if it’s white and made of cod, potatoes, or flour, they’ll eat it), but Mr. Dregni should definitely be applauded for his willingness to put himself out there and slurp down rakfisk. (Fortunately, no mention of smalahove- look it up if you’re curious.)

His wife is a pretty good sport, I have to say. I’d love to spend a year abroad, though I’m not sure I’d be willing to do it while pregnant (I’m an utter wreck while pregnant with the vomiting and constant nausea all the way to the end. My son put me in the hospital twice. Not great for international travel, even to places with great medical systems!). She seemed to take most of it in stride, or, if she struggled, Mr. Dregni kindly left that out. I admire her for being willing to follow him on this journey.

Turns out I’ve also read Eric Dregni’s Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America, which I didn’t enjoy as much as this, though it was still okay. In Cod We Trust fits the bill for the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt of a book with a pun in the title, so hurray for another one biting the dust there!

Have you ever read a book set in Norway? What about one set where your ancestors came from, if you know where? I’d love to hear about it!

I can’t find a website or Twitter for Eric Dregni, but if you’re aware of one, let me know and I’ll post it here! 🙂