Destination: Tijuana, Bali, Indonesia and other
Book: A Trance After Breakfast by Alan Cheuse
(Note: I read an uncorrected review copy, supplied by a publicist.)
I always enjoy the book reviews by Alan Cheuse on public radio, so when I was offered a review copy of his new book about travel, A Trance After Breakfast , I jumped at the opportunity. Publishers borrowed the name of the book from a short travelogue piece he wrote about a religious experience in Bali.
The book offers a jumble of published articles, essays, short travel pieces and long thought pieces. The style differs from piece to piece because Gourmet does not demand the same style as Antioch Review, for example. Although the introduction claims it is a travel book, it is more than that, and certainly a large hunk does not meet your usual expectations of essays on travel.
Although the book begins with a theme of water (in his boyhood home of Perth Amboy, New Jersey) and flows through the final group of pieces (memoirs of travel on or near water), that theme disappears in the articles about Tijuana in the center of the book. Long thoughtful pieces on life in Tijuana seem to have dropped in from some other manuscript.
It was the Tijuana border pieces that stuck with me in the months since I first read the book. It seems a shame, in this time of focus on the problems of the American/Mexican border, that his three pieces on Tijuana could not have been expanded into a book of their own, instead of buried inside the water-themed short travel pieces here.
In Tijuana, philosopher Cheuse fades into the background, upstaged by reporter Cheuse. He observes a border crossing during a night’s activities, compares the schooling of poor and wealthy Tijuana families, and explores the unlikely small community of Jews in the border city. I became totally hypnotized by the tedious jobs of the border officers and saw the border in a new way after reading this.
A piece called “Reading the Archipelago” toward the end of the book puts Cheuse back in the role I am most familiar with–book reviewer. I enjoyed his musings on literature tied to Indonesia, and am inspired to follow up on his recommendation of Somerset Maugham’s Far Eastern Tales. But most of the authors in his reading list, he realizes, are outsiders writing of an “exotic” culture. To get an insiders view, he turns to some Indonesian writers, particularly Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
Perhaps the best part of the book, for travelers, comes right at the beginning. In introducing the book, Alan Cheuse writes a graceful, personal, moving description of why we travel. Here’s a bit of it:
“…the best travel writing carries us along on a soul-journey, the sort of trip that may or may not tell you about the best hotels and the good places to eat but certainly, if it lives up to this standard, dramatizes how the heart learns about itself in relation to the world, making the foreign familiar and the familiar slightly foreign…” “…this definition embraces just about any serious variety of narrative, personal history, social history, character study or study of the land and landscape.” He gives some examples and says, “All of these are varieties of narrative you might not think of at first as travel writing.”
I liked this introduction, not just because I agree with it, but because Cheuse’s own personality and style come through. Despite this attempt to explain the mix of stuff in this book, I came away with the feeling that there were pieces of two different books cobbled together here. Cheuse is a good observer and thorough researcher.