April 25, 2013
(+++) TRAVELS REAL AND UNREAL
The Turk Who Loved Apples and Other Tales of Losing My Way around the World. By Matt Gross. Da Capo. $15.99.
Otherworld Chronicles #1: The Invisible Tower. By Nils Johnson-Shelton. Harper. $6.99.
Otherworld Chronicles #2: The Seven Swords. By Nils Johnson-Shelton. Harper. $16.99.
Travelogues have a long and honorable history, as well as a sometimes checkered one (think of Gulliver’s Travels). Matt Gross, editor of BonApppetit.com and a frequent contributor to the New York Times travel section, certainly fits The Turk Who Loved Apples into the historical pattern, but readers not familiar with or enamored of the style of the Times should be forewarned that this book, broken down into a sufficient number of parts, would fit into that newspaper’s pages very well indeed; indeed, these are basically newspaper and magazine essays, modified to form a book-like connected narrative. What Gross does is elitist travel posing as “getting to know people” – travel in which he disdains tour guides, guidebooks and travel agents and uses the Internet only in limited ways. There is abundant room for First World guilt and soul-searching about Third World countries, for instance, presented in the vocabulary and the adjectival and adverbial style favored by the Times and other “high-class” media and sometimes making it seem that travel writers are paid by the word: “Spend twenty-four hours in Southeast Asia, of course, and you’ve got a history with hookers. They are tragically, stereotypically, everywhere. …They can be aggressive, bashful, bipolar, stoned, confused, haughty, alluring. …And this is only the beginning – there’s a whole rainbow of prostitutes, an infinite spectrum of the savvy and the innocent, the willing and the enslaved, the vigorous and the ailing and the desperate. …Are you supposed to be offended by the intrusion of their presence into your vacation? Or amused, as if they’re scenery in the louche, Third World atmosphere?” Much of the book is like this – very well written in a very New York if not quite New Yorker style, elevated and erudite and seeming to stand back from and examine experience even while experiencing it. It is scarcely surprising that Gross names Argentina and Vietnam as his favorite countries among the 60-plus he has visited – because of their “energy.” And it is equally unsurprising that he has little interest in returning to Germany or Croatia, which he found “boring” in their resolutely ordinary (to him) everyday pace of life. Gross says the best way to enjoy travel – and keep it affordable, although it is hard to imagine him really “roughing it” – is to make friends with the locals and let them help you with their natural hospitality and warmth. This is surely a wonderful experience when it happens, and it is surely more likely in a genuinely unplanned “losing my way” trip than in a carefully guided and managed one (although Gross never seems really to lose his way, even when he gets lost here and there). Gross is more than a privileged American – he is a privileged American journalist, frequently traveling on assignment and on someone else’s money, and all his protestations of simply being a tourist evaporate whenever he pauses for self-consideration, as when he cannot figure out what to write about Chongqing: “…I considered fleeing not just the city but the country. Could Cathay rebook me to Hong Kong or Japan? …This trip was an adjunct to an assignment for another magazine; it would barely cost the Times a thing; it would be okay.” Gross certainly writes well – in a particular style that some will like and others loathe; and whatever you may call him or he may call himself, he is certainly well-traveled and has met and written about some very interesting people. Probably The Turk Who Loved Apples will be of most interest as a book to carry along while traveling to some of the places that Gross has visited – assuming your sensibilities are more or less the same as his.
Travels in imaginary lands have the advantage that they can be arranged just as the author wishes them to be – think again of Gulliver’s Travels – but when those lands are designed for exploration by preteens, as in the Otherworld Chronicles series, they tend to have certain predictable characteristics. In fact, much of the fun of the first two books in Nils Johnson-Shelton’s sequence comes from watching Artie and Kay Kingfisher go on predictable quests in predictable ways with some predictable results – but with everything just sufficiently skewed so that readers will not quite know what is coming next. The basic plot here is a familiar one for a modern preteen novel series, involving a video game whose setting is real in a parallel dimension of some sort (Vivian Vande Velde, among others, has used this trope successfully several times for this age group of readers). What is also familiar, with a character named Art(ie) King(fisher), is that the protagonist turns out to be a reincarnation of King Arthur, complete with nobility and quest requirements and Knights of the Round Table and all that. But these unsurprising elements are nicely handled by Johnson-Shelton, who has a good sense of plot pacing and does not delay the expected revelations – he gets them out of the way quickly so he can develop the story. The King Arthur element, for example, shows up within 30 pages of the start of the first book: “I know much about you, Arthur. You have nothing to fear from me. You are my king! You are my king and I am now and forevermore at your service!” Johnson-Shelton does a reasonably good job of leavening the adventure with levity, thanks in part to his chapter titles, most being of the “In Which” variety: “In Which Artie Wonders, What the Heck Is a Font, Anyway?” “In Which Artie and Kay Are Tested One More Freaking Time.” “In Which Artie Plays a Little Let’s Make a Deal!” “In Which Merlin Apologizes for Being an Insensitive Wizard.” And as for plot – well, in The Invisible Tower, originally published last year and now available in paperback, Artie learns of his kingly provenance and, having won the video game about Otherworld, has to find a way to save the real Otherworld, which comes complete with wolves and dragons and all those sorts of things. In The Seven Swords, the newly published second book, Artie must send his knights to find the swords of the title; he must battle giants and ogres and all those sorts of things; and he needs to deal with a few surprises, such as the fact that the Peace Sword turns out to be the weapon used by Mordred to kill the original King Arthur. There are enough twists and turns in the Otherworld Chronicles to keep the series interesting – and it is a series, not just a two-book sequence. Nevertheless, the formulaic plot elements both in “quest” terms and in “video game” terms somewhat hold back the entertainment value of Johnson-Shelton’s books. The novels are not quite romps, not quite adventures to be taken seriously, not fully innovative but not entirely derivative. They are a blend of pluses and minuses, more positive than negative on the whole, but ultimately best for readers who enjoy dialogue along these lines (Kay speaking to Artie): “Far out, Your Kingliness.”