Without Reservations

Without Reservations - Alice Steinbach I picked up this book because it was recommended on The Ultimate Reading List. The back cover called Steinback a "Pulitzer Prize-Winning" journalist, so I anticipated something special. Unfortunately, the author inspired the snarky in me right from the introduction. She said she decided to travel because she had dropped into "the habit of defining myself in terms of who I was to other people." Oh, so this was going to be one of those "find myself" books, was it? I'm rather suspicious of that kind of quest--I don't think we can plan self-discovery, and if and when we do it's often in challenging ourselves in some in some way--not by being tourists in comfy vacation spots in Paris, London and Milan. Travel books are interesting for two reasons. Either the traveler--and their voice, their writing--makes it interesting, or the destination does--because it's exotic to the reader or the traveler finds themselves in the midst of exciting, historic times. Neither is the case here. I found the writing, at best, undistinguished. One reviewer noted the overuse of the colon. I thought Steinbach overused the question mark--use of the rhetorical question abounded. I agreed with the reviewer who called Steinbach's metaphors and literary allusions forced. And I found the chirpy postcards she sent to herself heading the chapters--signed, "Love Alice,"--trite and cringe-worthy. Worse, I found no particular insight into the places she went to. Except for her time in England, she didn't even know the languages, nor did she stay long enough to be more than a tourist. The one place she went to I had personally visited was England. But I didn't feel any pull or identification with her experience of London and other places I had visited. Maybe it's because she had visited before, but I didn't find reflected here all the little details that stood out and made England feel paradoxically at home and yet strange as an American. She might as well been describing my hometown of New York City. After putting down this book, I next read Conway's The Road from Coorain, the memoir of a woman who grew up on an Australian sheep farm and would go on to become the first woman president of Smith College. At one point she visited London and other parts of Europe with her mother--and here, in a memoir not focused on travel per se, in the one chapter about her visit to Europe, I found more keen observations and insights in each paragraph than I did in the whole of Steinbach's book.