October 2004

Sharon Adarlo

nonfiction

My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere by Susan Orlean

Admit it. You’re envious of Susan Orlean, that well-known and well-traveled New Yorker writer. She had the luminous Meryl Streep play her in a movie. In the film of your life, you’ll probably have Corey Feldman. She’s been to Khao San Road, Thailand -- the backpacker’s best worst kept secret; as for you, the closest you’ll ever get is that bowl of moldy pad thai in your fridge. But indulging in a pique of misplaced envy is one thing, reading 304 pages of kick-ass prose is quite another. Admit it. She earns her keep, and her newest book, My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere, showcases her entertaining -- and dare I say it -- the best travel writing this side of the hemisphere.

Orlean has the knack of mining from the mundane and strip mall culture of the United States and coming up with quirky and eccentric gems like the 2003 World Taxidermy Championships to the literally small world of little girl beauty pageants, all showcased in the first section of her book tidily called “Here.” I just became an overnight expert on stuffing a dead raccoon due to her taxidermy piece, which was probably the most engrossing thing in black and white I have ever laid my eyes on in a goodly while. Did you know taxidermy is a multi-million dollar business, teeming along with numerous websites advertising goat feet? Hell, color me daft. The very notion of obsessive-compulsive taxidermists, wrassling with antelope carcasses or debating on the fine points on whether acetone will do the trick on fluffing a squirrel’s tail, is all mighty interesting and can be easily rendered in a freak-show kind of way, but Susan Orlean is a quiet anthropologist. She lets the people and situations speak for themselves, and she doesn’t intrude too much by way of a strong and interfering authorial voice; a good thing, too, since it would be too easy to make fools of these people, especially the little girl beauty pageants. Susan Orlean, unlike some writers, respects her subjects. Everything is rendered simply, honestly, and mined for maximum effect. Some passages are rather sad and evocative, like her writing on a prize-winning taxidermy piece of tree sparrows -- dead and yet frozen in a fold of time -- ready to hop, skip, and fly away from their perches. Some are just drop-dead beautiful. I found myself re-reading the last paragraph on Orlean’s article about the New Jersey woman who kept tigers in her backyard. And Orlean writing about the Super Bowl, scrappy scalpers, and the attendant tailgate parties was the equivalent of swallowing a whole plastic tub of GNC’s DHEA 25 and chasing that down with a six pack of Red Bull; she drew the atmosphere as skillfully as Jerry Rice blithely dancing down the green to the chalked-out goal line.

Aside from “Here,” there is also “There,” the second section of the book where Orlean’s luggage and passport get a work out. We are treated to wonderfully written vignettes on a Cuban restaurant in Miami, a shop selling African music in one small corner of France, a skeet-shooting party on the outskirts of a Scottish castle, huge penises in the mountains of Bhutan, and didn’t I mention Khao San Road before?

"There" also serves as an excellent showcase to Orlean’s skill on grabbing onto good copy and writing really good opening paragraphs -- little metaphysical obento boxes that seem to hold the essence, the kernel of the entire story in its little space and at the same time leading the reader to delve deeper and deeper into the tale until the very end. For her writing on that African music shop, she starts off with: “Herve Halfon, a French person who hates French people, owns a record store on the rue des Plantes in Montparnasse, just a few Metro stops from the Eiffel Tower but spiritually closer to avenue Gambela in Congo or to the Mokolo district in Yaounde, Cameroon.”

And didn’t I say something about huge Bhutanese penises? Well, Orlean’s piece begins just as startlingly: “The penises in Bhutan amazed me, there were so many of them.” But not to worry for the more bluestocking among you; it’s a long and lingering article about a troupe of western women, plagued by infertility problems, traveling to the far kingdom of Bhutan and praying to the gods for a baby. They notice penises everywhere and some are really big and some are small. Some are painted on doors, walls, and on Buddhist altars or even on sacks, a constant reminder and potent symbol of fertility.

The last section, aptly titled “Everywhere,” is a hodge podge of pieces that seem to have no particular home and run the gamut from an article about a shower curtain to a an engrossing piece on Thomas Kinkade: Painter of Light, the Mitch Albom equivalent in the art world. Some of these pieces are rather weak, such as this nonsensical and tongue in cheek article on why babies don’t work for a living. There’s this experimental bit of pomo, ironic fluff called “My Life: A Series of Performance Art Pieces” that details Orlean’s life in a kind of indirect, annoying manner.

All the pieces in the book are rendered in that signature Susan Orlean style that is at once witty, dry, and deferential in its treatment of various subjects. And yes, I suppose you should indulge in a fit of envy because she writes the way Jason Kidd does a no-look pass, but I am packing up my suitcase and thinking of Khao San Road, real pad thai noodles, and a berth to some myth-shrouded lost jungle, hoping it will be just as interesting as she said it was.

My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere by Susan Orlean
Random House
ISBN: 0679462937
304 Pages