Read All About It: Books and Travel

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dubuffet.jpg
Jean Dubuffet sculpture in Chicago

Mark Twain wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

When I travel, I like to remind myself of the interesting people and stories from those locations. Recently I visited Chicago and while trotting around, head craned to look up far beyond my normal range of vision at the dozens of buildings scraping the sky, made a mental list of famous writers associated with the city. Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, Sandra Cisneros, Gwendolyn Brooks, among others. I’ve read something from most of these. But reality doesn’t always match my imagination. It’s disconcerting to have an image in my mind about what a setting looks like, then run smack dab into reality. Hint: I saw few broad shoulders in Chicago despite what Sandburg claims.

Should I blush to admit the author I first associated with Chicago was Veronica Roth of the spec fiction book and movie Divergent fame? This dystopian novel, set in an undated future in Chicago, is sprinkled with landmarks that exist now and, one assumes, in that time to come. Somehow for me, it’s easier to envision something set in the future than the present or past. I’m constantly cross-checking details in books from those other times to see if they agree with my knowledge about them. “Lincoln Street wasn’t one-way in the 40s,” I’ll think, or “Two loaves of bread only cost twenty-five cents in the early 60s,” editing the writer as I read along. Believe me, this isn’t an entertaining way to absorb a a novel.

Roth’s book features a Chicago with a dry waterbed, the outlines of which I spotted during my river tour. It boasts the large Ferris wheel the characters in the book climbed, and slings a zip line down what I believe is the Willis Tower. Numerous warehouses, basements, streets and even the L or El, the elevated train, are part and parcel of the action. Seeing these was like spotting an old friend.

My trip brought to mind lots of other writers I’d love to revisit. I also discovered a small treasure, the American Writers Museum on North Michigan Avenue. Activities encouraged me to write a few lines and learn a whole lot about various writers, including Bob Dylan. But the benefits of travel to Chicago went far beyond writers. I love that the lake and shore are so visible. Denver has nothing approaching the division between land and water. I rediscovered Jean Dubuffet, a French artist whose immense white and black sculpture enlivens the James R. Thompson Center.  

I returned home even more convinced of the truth of Twain’s lines. It may take some effort and money to travel, but the return on the investment is priceless.


Dark Futures

What’s your vision of the future? I think we find it nearly impossible to believe life as we know it will continue past our own deaths, so our pictures tend to be catastrophic and depressing. Think of 1984, Brave New World, The Road.

This certainly is true with the current spate of dystopian novels targeted to young adults. Over the past year or so I’ve read four, beginning with The Hunger Games trilogy, continuing with Article 5, Legend: Day and June, and Divergent.

Some interesting points appeared as I reviewed the quartet:
• They all were written by women. When I began reading scifi years ago, few of these novels had female authors, and it was not uncommon for a woman writer to use a male or androgynous pen name.
• They all feature very strong female protagonists. To a greater or lesser degree, they don’t depend on men to get them out of trouble.
• The works all envision a future so wretched I’d certainly entertain the idea of suicide to escape.
• Violence is common, and the women indulge nearly as frequently as the men.
• The heroine has a male companion who verges on being a strong love interest. These are YA books, so the couples don’t have sex.
• There is hope at the end of the book (or the series) that the current order will be overthrown, and freedom, equality, and peace will prevail.
Unfortunately, the sub-genre is becoming formulaic, so I hope writers will start throwing in some surprises. . .NOT including zombies or vampires!

Why do these books appeal to teens, and to adults who don’t rule out the protagonists in their books by their ages? Yes, the tomes are escapist and entertaining, but I think there’s a little more at work. Consider this:
• Humans want perfection or as close as we can get in our everyday lives, but we also long for challenges. These plots provide thought-provoking trials
• We need contact and love, but we also seem to lust after violence and hate. As long as we’re not in danger. Stand-ins for brutality, cruelty, and sadism thrive in the narratives.
• It’s kind of nice to think the world will go to hell after we leave it. Like a mother saying, “I told you so” to the child who burns himself with a match.
• Through these books, we can explore the paths our society might be on, as well as eternal questions of good and evil, justice and injustice, individuals and groups, albeit in greatly simplified approaches.

I think I’m close to my limit on this type of novel, primarily because their visions are restrictive and repetitive. But I have something up my sleeve. My own dystopian novel entitled Emancipation. Whether it ever sees the light of day will depend on my reaching an Utopia, in which publishers are beating down my door to release my work.