Category Archives: Travel

Travelling Through Time

I have my sons to thank for one of my wonderful literary adventures this summer.  We were out on Long Island, spending the day canvassing the streets of Sag Harbor. My oldest son had noticed a used bookstore on our way into town and insisted that we backtrack to find it.  He headed off with one of his brothers on foot and I followed behind.  A few blocks away from the main streets of town, just when I was sure we had taken a wrong turn, there it was: Canio’s Books.  And waiting on a rickety old table out on the sidewalk was a book I had been looking for:  A Traveller in Time, the original paperback edition of the 1939 classic by Alison Uttley!

A Traveller in Time tells the story of a young English girl of the early twentieth century sent out to the country from London to recover her health.  She settles in with an old aunt and uncle, caretakers of an ancient farm and suddenly little Penelope is able to travel back in time, all the way to the sixteenth century.  There she finds herself involved in the famous (and historical) Babington plot, an ill-conceived plan to rescue Mary, Queen of Scotts. Anthony Babington was hanged, drawn, and quartered for his efforts, and Penelope knows what awaits her new friend and his family, but there is nothing she can do to prevent their downfall.

We know where the plot is going (it is history, after all) but the magic is in the details of this book. A Traveller in Time is chock full of glorious and mundane (but still lovely) details of sixteenth century manor life, everything from long descriptions of the herb gardens to mouth-watering accounts of the meals, and from needlepoint to falconry. And as an added incentive for us twenty-first century readers, the details of Penelope’s days when she is not traveling back to the sixteenth century but is toddling around the London of her times, or wandering happily around the backward country farm she loves, provide another stop for us on the time machine, and another delightful window into the past.

The store where I bought my beloved little Uttley paperback is also a journey back in time, not only for the antique nature of its housing but for what is contained within its somewhat creaky walls: books, old and new, and all of them offering adventure, whether it be  novels crossing back in time, across oceans, and into new universes; or poems of known and unknown bards; or essays on travel; or short stories, collections of Hemingway or  Alice Munro or David Barthelme.

A book is always a time travel experience, taking me out of one moment and into another, and out of one place and onto another, wholly different, piece of the rock.  Easy to come back — simply close the book — and just as easy to take off again.  So many books waiting to be opened, so many places to go. Time traveller, reader, and adventurer.  That’s me.

 

Happy Birthday, Dear Diarist


Sarah Kemble Knight was an early American teacher, traveler, adventurer, and diarist. Her travel diaries of a journey she took from Boston to New York in 1704-05 provide wonderfully vivid and entertaining accounts of the people she met on her way, the landscape she passed through, and the troubles she encountered. A woman traveling alone was a rarity and the comforts of travel were few. Yet Kemble keeps her wits (and her humor) about her. I recently discovered her travel diaries, available in paperback and entitled The Journal of Madam Knight, and as today is her birthday — she was born on April 19th, 1666, — I wish to offer my thanks for her careful chronicling and my cheers to her. Bravo!

Diaries, especially travel diaries, have always fascinated me. I recently visited The Morgan Library and Museum’s exhibit of diaries, entitled The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives and I loved it. Visiting the exhibit is possible online, and is a must for anyone interested in the private and very candid musings of humanity, both famous people, like Charlotte Bronte, Nathaniel Hawthorne (and his wife and child — they kept a diary jointly and it is so moving and charming!); Henry David Thoreau; Kingsley Amis; Tennessee Williams; Anais Nin; Sir Walter Scott; Albert Einstein; and ones we have never heard of but can never forget, once their private thoughts have been shown to us. I was particularly moved by the writings of an intrepid New England farm woman from the early nineteenth century who folded and sewed her own diaries, in-between spinning and sausage-making, and filled the pages with observations and insights.

Some of the displayed diaries would fit into the palm of the hand; some are so big and thick they could only be carried with two strong arms; but all are filled with open-hearted recordings of what mattered to the diarist, what was bothering them and what dreams were spurring them forward. The words are often accompanied by charming, if somewhat rough, sketches of people and landscape, and copied quotations from poems and novels.

Diaries and letters from the past offer a different lens with which to view history, an unedited and unvarnished version of what life was like, offering a distinct viewpoint than that provided in novels or contemporaneously-written histories. Sometimes these diaries and letters are boring, even repetitive, but even so, the sheer honesty of the writer ensures a freshness of the past — history come alive — that fascinates. With Kemble’s travel journal, there is no boredom at all: the Madam is on an adventure, and we lucky readers are allowed to come along.

Treat for Readers: Treason at Lisson Grove

Anne Perry’s latest novel starring the intrepid Charlotte Pitt and her perfect Pitt husband (and with lovely long intervals of the marvelously unflappable Aunt Vespasia), entitled Treason at Lisson Grove, is an absolute treat of a read. As always Perry provides an entertaining foray into Victorian England and a marvelous and intelligent plot of intrigue and mystery. This time around it is the Irish question combined with the revolutionary goals of nineteenth century Socialists (Rosa Luxemburg plays a part) combined with Pitt’s own sworn loyalties that create an absolutely mind-spinning, teeth-gnashing, breath-holding ride of a read — a ride that is fun and lovely and thrilling, and in the end, completely and utterly satisfying. Hurrah for England, the Queen, and the Pitts.

Set in France, at St. Malo; in Ireland, at Dublin; and in England, both at home in London and on the Isle of Wight at Queen Victoria’s beloved retreat, Osborne (see photo), Treason at Lisson Grove not only serves as a thoroughly engaging read but also a lovely travel guide to places I would very much like to visit. Now at least I’ve been there in the nineteenth century, thanks to Perry.

Time Machine: The Travel Books of H.V. Morton

I love the travel books of H.V. Morton. Not only because of the fascinating tidbits of folklore, local history, and personal experience that he added into every book he wrote (and he wrote fifty books and pamphlets about his travels, starting with London and going on through the British Isles and all across Europe, right on into the Middle East and back again). But also because he wrote so firmly within his own time, making his books not only an armchair vacation to the wonderful places he toured with such enthusiasm and open-mindedness, but also a trip in a time machine back to the world of the early twentieth century. Many of the monuments of that world still exist (and had already existed for centuries when visited by Morton) but the people of that world, from Wales to Seville to Rome to Palestine, have gone, along with many of their customs and traditions. Fortunately for us, such people live and breathe and tell tales in Morton’s books. Morton traveled by foot, motor car, and train, and used his friendly personality and sincerely-felt respect to get local folk to open up to him. He relates the conversations he had with strangers who became friends and we become friends with the strangers, and become acquainted with the ordinary and extraordinary details of their lives.

Frontpiece From H.V. Morton's IN Search of Wales, 1932

Take a good look at the photo above. Can you identify where these four women are from or why they have white frills descending from their black caps? Read In Search of Wales, first published in 1932, and find out. Morton’s huge — and hugely informative and entertaining — A Traveler In Rome, guided my first tour of Rome twenty-six years ago and made me achingly and happily aware of the history, ancient and recent, emanating from every stone, statue, and fountain. I have no trips planned to the Middle East but I will be going there soon, now that I’ve recently tracked down an old copy of In the Steps of the Master, Morton’s chronicle of his journey through Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon.

Armchair travelers, be warned: after traveling through Morton’s time machine, you will be tempted to make your own way to the villages, towns, and cities of Morton’s travels. Who knows? Maybe your own travel journals will provide the time machine for future travelers to our twenty-first century world. Just make sure to your eyes open to the world all around you, your mind curious, and your hand busy recording all you see and hear, just as Morton did.

H.V. Morton: Enchanted Travel

H.V. Morton wrote more than thirty travel books over a span of fifty years, chronicling his travels across the Middle East, through Europe, and up and down the British Isles.  His books are the most charming and engaging travel books I’ve ever read.  They are full not only of his observations of the physical landscapes and the traditions and customs of the lands he traveled through, but also of the many, many people whom he befriended.  Most charmingly of all, the books burst with how he felt about everything he saw and everyone he met.  Morton can be very, very funny but he was also completely uninhibited in expressing how deeply moved he was by a cathedral or the sun setting over a lake or an old man he’d met on the road.  I just finished his In Search of England, first published in 1927, and I was transported, enchanted by this England before World War II and fascinated by her people.

The variety of people whom he met make the Morton books unique in travel literature, not only for the humorous and insightful way he describes them but also for the fact that many of these types — for example, in In Search of England, Morton meets bowl turners, milkmaids, vergers, the blacksmith who doubles as a priest for secret marriages, vagabonds who can depend on a cup of ale and loaf of bread every week from a local monastery, vicars who grow every variety of flower and know every body in the cemetery and have yet to hear a wireless — are gone forever, preserved only in the observations of Morton.  Not only are these types interesting in themselves but each one shared with Morton some little known legend about their village or bit of grass, and Morton shares each story, legend, and tidbit with us.  There is the saint of one village, her saintliness proved by the fact that when her lantern went out, she carried on reading her prayers by the light of her fingertips; the same lady went naked every night to swim in the local pond, and no one bothered her in her nightly ablutions.

There is wisdom to be found in Morton (over The Pump Room in Bath, the town famous for its waters since the Romans, hangs the motto “Water is the Best Policy”, good advice for the ages) and there is wonder, as when Morton describes dusk in Beaulieu, “There is one moment at sunset in the country when the whole visible world seems to gather itself in prayer, and it seems to you strange that men should move on unconscious of this with spades on their shoulders, instead of falling on their knees in the grass; for in that hush, in the benediction of seconds before the first star shines, the universe seems waiting for a revelation, as if the clouds might part and Man know something of his destiny….” or when he describes his first sighting of a tiny lake of the Lake District: “It was a clear, moonlit night, with no breath of wind among the trees.  In the middle of the little lake, round and gold as a guinea, lay the moon.  Sights such as this, hiding around a corner, lurking behind trees and suddenly revealed, pull a man up sharply and fling him on his knees.”  I long to see the lake, be flung to my knees, and rejoice in England (or Palestine or Italy or Spain, or any of the other places he wrote about).  At the end of In Search of England, Morton writes,
“as long as one English field lies against another there is something left in the world for a man to love.”  As long as I can read books like this, there will always be new places for me to visit — and love — without even leaving my chair.  And when I do travel, taking Morton with me makes the trip even better.  I read his A Traveler in Rome when I first visited Rome;  the trip and the book are linked as my wonderful experience of that great place.

Morton said that “all journeys should have a soul” and so should all books.  Morton’s journeys and books all have soul, a very old soul and a luminescent one, to light the way to enchantment with beautiful lands, interesting people, and enchanting tales.

Searching Spain

Yesterday I read a very moving travel memoir, The Tomb in Seville, written by Norman Lewis when he was ninety-three about a trip he made to Spain when he was in his twenties, in the fall of 1934.  Spain was on the brink of civil war and Lewis was on a quest, together with his communist brother-in-law, to search out a family tomb in the Cathedral of Seville.  Their adventure is recounted through the eyes of Lewis as a young man, robust with humor, mettle, and sympathy, and with an easy fascination for everything he encountered.

Spain in 1934 was a country with one foot in the twentieth century, evidenced by  some industrialization and pollution, and another foot back more than a few centuries into the past.  People literally still lived in caves in many of the towns Lewis visited throughout the province of Zaragoza, and further south in the province of Andalucia.  A side trip through Portugal brought Lewis to a town that had just witnessed a witch burning and everywhere he went he saw abject poverty accepted as the norm of peasant life.  Lewis doesn’t judge Spain harshly for her backwardness; he does, however, become entranced by her old-fashioned charms of civility, sociability, the cafe life and the evening paseo, and even the piropos, sexually-explicit complements offered on the street to attractive women. He recounts charming tales, like that about a city park marked off-limits to men in the early afternoon to allow an army of several hundred wet nurses privacy when offering milk to their charges on pleasant tree-shaded benches, and sad stories, like the friendships he makes with two Spanish communists, both of whom disappear, one unexplained and one arrested, and the brutal death of a bull fighter.

Lewis’s book was so immediate and personal that I felt as if I were along for the tour with him, holding my hands high above my head to avoid being shot on the streets of Madrid, sharing bread and sausage with fellow travelers on a slow-moving train, or walking through the ancient forests north of Zaragoza.  While passing under the huge trees, Lewis remembers thinking that “[f]aced with these towering oaks that had grown from seeds no longer than fingernails to dominate their environment for centuries — or even a millennium — one was encouraged to speculate over the possible duration of life itself“:  a sobering yet optimistic thought, especially given the carnage and massive killings that waited just ahead in Spain’s civil war.

When Lewis and his brother-in-law finally reach Seville, it is to find that the family tomb, contracted for only a quarter of a century, has been dismantled and tossed in with other old tombs, in order to make room for more recent, and more distinguished, dead.  No matter, comforts Lewis’s father-in-law, “Was it not pride in its most absurd form to be able to claim that one’s grandfather’s tomb was a few metres from the sarcophagus of Pedro the Cruel?”  The conclusion reached by Lewis is that it is more important to acknowledge he has fallen in love with Spain, and will hold on forever — or at least, as his book proves, for another seventy years — to her beauty, her grace, and her timelessness.  For anyone who has ever traveled to Spain, or is planning a trip, or might consider a trip, The Tomb in Seville is a must-read that offers not only an awestruck portrait of Spain, but also presents a very unique moment in time for a country and a very special moment in life for a man.

The Ancients Vacationed Here

Shirley Hazzard writes in her introduction to Ancient Shore, a collection of her essays written from and about Naples, that “I wake these mornings in Naples ….realizing, in surprise and gratitude, that….I — like Goethe, like Byron — am living in Italy.”  I was looking forward to feeling some of that same surprise, gratitude and awe through her essays; I anticipated sentences that set me firmly in the port town that dates back to the Ancient Greeks (Naples was their northern most port) and I wanted to be surrounded by neighborhoods, monuments, and churches, ensconced in Neapolitan lore and volcanic epics, and immersed in tastes and sounds specific to this town of such good and bad repute.

But instead Hazzard’s essays are somewhat cold, a cataloguing of historic events, personages, villas, and volcanic eruptions. People have been reviving themselves in Naples for centuries (why do you think all these seaside villas were built?) but nothing personal about Hazzard’s own reviving or enlivening or just plain vacationing is shared.  For me, books about travel should come with connections between reader and traveler through personal moments observed and related, or fun or interesting or sad stories about a locale-specific occurrence.  Details of Hazzard’s own actual experiences, observations, and feelings would have told me why she loves Naples. Instead I’m kept outside of her own experience and given history, ancient and modern, some journalistic renditions of current events, and a lot of described vistas, one not so distinguishable from another.

It was only when I read the included essay by Francis Steegmuller entitled “The Incident at Naples” that I finally landed in Naples. Steegmuller was Hazzard’s husband (not that she mentions the connection in the book) and in his essay he writes about a mugging that occurred in Naples when the two of them were out together and in which he was brutally injured.  The incident and its aftermath, including their up close and personal experience with the public health system of Italy, is marvelously told by Steegmuller.  He shares the entire experience, the personal fears and surprises, the details of the impromptu ambulance service and care in the hospitals, his observations about the other patients and the doctors, nurses, and hotel staff, and his changing and growing affection for the town he thought he knew but after this crime, he knows much better.  Thanks to his meticulous and heartfelt writing, so do I.  His moving piece that told me more about the city of Naples and its people than any of Hazzard’s essays or any of the beautiful but somewhat blank and cold photographs that complement the volume.

In the final essay of the book, Hazzard states that Italy provides its visitors with a respite from the known and the ordinary, and restores them to “unclassifiable experience: we are encouraged to stop defining life, and to live it.  The element of chance regains importance; we recover the capacity for astonishment, and the gift of taking some things for granted.” I would argue that all travel away from home, all journeying that take us out of our known environs and familiar routines, restores within us a sense of wonder and possibility and allows us to throw off cares, roles, and game plans.  Freedom of unknown possibilities:  that is what is so wonderful about travel and why so many people hit the road.  If not to Naples, then somewhere, anywhere.  Anywhere but here (guess who needs a vaca

An American To Find: Nelson Algren

Yesterday I read Algren at Sea, two of Nelson Algren’s two books of travel gathered in one volume by Seven Stories Press in commemoration of the 2009 centennial of Algren’s birth.  The two books, Notes from a Sea Diary and Who Lost An American? are simply wonderful, offering up Algren’s dry humor, quick  wit, deep perceptions, graceful writing, and most of all, his very engaging humanity.  Algren was a tough cookie but a big-brained and big-hearted one.  He was a man I’d want in my corner as friend and defender, and the one who would most definitely point out any bullshit I might try to peddle.  He dealt honestly and slyly at the same time with his readers, and with his writing.  Algren is one of the great American writers, and these beguiling and moving travel stories prove it.

Who Lost An American? follows a plane of action that starts high and hilarious and then swoops downwards, the mood sobering, the humor becoming darker, the observations more pointed and aimed from and for the heart.  The action starts in New York with a skewering of American literati and the New York publishing world of flirts, farts and fiascos, and then moves on to Europe. Algren travels from Ireland (recorded in a wonderfully ludicrous essay, Brendan Behan notwithstanding), then on to England where he draws on his remembrances of being stationed in Wales during WWII, and then moves onto the continent.  First Paris, where Algren fell in love with the city, the existentialists, the artists, and most of all, Simone de Beauvoir.  He tells of the friends he made, friendships to last his lifetime and cause him heartache (de Beauvoir loved him back but would never leave Sartre for him).  His friends impressed him by their embracing of the demands of life:  “to the multitudes that despair at risks involved in living, [existentialism] offers the answer that not to try is to die.  It answers that there is no alternative but to assume the responsibility of giving oneself”, and they gave freely, gifts of their intellect and of their comaderie.

From Paris Algren traveled through Spain and his pieces on Barcelona and Seville are among the most piercing and most beautiful travel writings I’ve ever read. There is a wonderful rendering that turns a grove of olive tress into a sea of humanity, a deceptively simple tale of cigarette-swapping and photo-taking in Barcelona, and a strange journey to the cave people of Almeria. Algren’s writings on Spain are tinged with his humility before their suffering and his deep anger for their being left by the world unprotected against the Franco regime with its hypocrisy, corruption, and repression: “Spain is the spiritual center of humanity…when Spain loses, mankind loses.  When the Spanish people were forced back into the Middle Ages in the 1930s, they pulled the world back with them.  Anyone who tells you we’re out of the Middle Ages today is somebody whose mind has snapped.”

From Spain Algren traveled on to Crete, which he tolerated, and then to Istanbul. which he despised, lavishing both his blackest humor and his blackest mood to tell of his days spent there.

Who Lost An American? ends with chronologically pieces on Chicago, Algren’s true hometown.  The first, “Chicago I”, relates childhood memories, both charming and sharply-drawn: “On weekdays I got a penny for candy and blew my nose into a rag.  But on Sundays, I got a dime and a clean handkerchief.”

The second, “Chicago II” is Algren’s chastisement of the local press, politics, the plight of prostitutes (“what was she doing in that room that was so awful if there wasn’t somebody just as awful helping her to do something awful? If there was a pair of pants on the bedpost, where is the spendthrift who walked into the room inside them?  Why isn’t he entitled to get his name in the paper and a ride downtown?  Why doesn’t somebody give him a chance to stand up in front of a judge and get fined a hundred dollars or fifty days in County?“) and the blight of men with nowhere to go:  “From the bleak inhumanity of our forests of furnished rooms, stretching doorway after anonymous doorway block after block, guarding stairways leading only to numbered doors, out of hallways shadowed by fixtures of another day, emerge the dangerous boys who are not professional burglars or professional car thieves or pete men or mobsters…but are those who go on the prowl without knowing what they’re after. Their needs crisscross, they’re on the hawks, and will take whatever comes alone first — a woman, money, or just the cold pleasure of kicking a queer’s teeth down his neck.  Whatever wants to happen, the dangerous boys let the damn thing happen — and we’ll all read about it in the papers tomorrow.”

In “Chicago IV”, Algren takes a break from the darker side of Chicago but finds just as much to lament over in his very funny piece about Hugh Hefner and the first playboy mansion in Chicago. Written in 1962 it could serve as a corrective for current times: it is laced with wit and insight into young Americans (“more at ease with a depiction of passion than with passion itself, [wishing] to look longer upon pictures of passion, hear more songs about passion, and read more comments upon passion — anything to avoid feeling passion“) and grief for their disengagement:  “young Americans are revealed as lacking any way of bestowing themselves upon the world…those who cannot bestow themselves become severed not only from the world but from themselves.”  Today, 47 years later, that severance is deepened even further through the de-personalization of entertainment through computers, virtual reality, and anonymous gaming, leering, and lewding-out. Playboy is small potatoes compared to the methods out there now for utter disengagement and complete lack of connection: are we seeing a dreadful completion of Algren’s prediction of failure to “bestow”?

The second volume of travel writings, Notes from a Sea Diary combine Algren’s praise of Hemingway with his own travels through Asia as the only paying passenger on a freighter. Throughout all his travel writings Algren comments freely and with great insight about the writers he knows, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, William Faulkner, Nazim Hikmet, Camilo Cela, Fitzgerald, and Sartre, Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir.  In Notes from a Sea Diary, Algren reveals his true and deep admiration for Ernest Hemingway.  Foisted on the public as a gun-toting, animal-killing, bull-running, wild man, Algren says in fact Hemingway was a thoughtful, big-souled, generous man and the very best of writers. Algren understands Hemingway as a man “broken in two” by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War who then “healed strangely. As though his hold on life, having been loosened, now took a grip that possessed iron control.  And from it derived a tension that fixed scenes dead-still as in dreams – yet flowed with a secret life of their own.” Algren is particularly impressed by Hemingway’s ability to portray unsympathetic characters without caricature but instead as real beings, and he himself is able to do the same: inspired by Hemingway, Algren’s trip through Asia is a tale of women and girls in every port, grubby hands and fast talkers looking for the American dollar or just a taste of a cigar, and troubled men safer at sea than on land.  No one presented is blemish-free, clear-souled, or easy to understand, but all are presented with a humanity that is as real as it is touching.

Algren’s gift of humanity — of writing from the heart with an acutely accurate brain — is felt most keenly in his treatment of women, particularly prostitutes, throughout his travel writings.  More than any author, fiction or non-fiction, whom I’ve read on the issue of sex slavery and prostitution, Algren had a strong affinity for women out of luck, a sorrowful pity for their circumstances, and a completely realistic understanding of their lot: “How many midnight passages with the robbed drunk sleeping it off and the desk clerk waiting below?  How many madams?  How many jails?  How many slicky-boys?  How many blows?  Seamen on leave or on the beach, M.P., tourist, policeman and pimp, each had taken his measure of her flesh. No one had let her go…chance had pitched her, small and weak. She’d made shore on her own strength alone.” His observations, again and again throughout the writings, surprised me by their wisdom as well as by their mercy, and by his respect for the downtrodden who keep on going.

Algren lived as he wrote, committed to the moment and committed to the existentialist guidance that “the only way to be alive was to belong to the world of men.”  Throughout his writings collected in this volume, he lives and writes resolutely “in the first person” as he calls it, versus “the third person.”  And resolutely versus, even worse, the dreaded “we” of “Allen Howlsburg“.  Algren rejects standing shielded within a group and instead believes wholeheartedly in declaring himself as one amongst the world.  And so on he traveled, engaged with the world, meeting characters everywhere he went and recording them with heart and wit. He admires Hemingway for always leaving “a door wide open for others to enter.”  In these writings, Algren has left a door into the world open for us and how very lucky we are. Congratulations to Seven Stories to reissuing Notes from a Sea Diary and Who Lost An American? together in one volume, Algren at Sea.

Andrea Lee Went to Russia

Yesterday I read Andrea Lee’s Russian Journal, essays about the ten months she lived in the Soviet Union in the late 1970s.  It is a prosaic memoir of the telling details that made up life under the Soviet System, the cramped housing and long lines for goods and food, the black market for jeans and anything western, the dual lives of Soviet citizens, the private life hidden from outside (KGB) surveillance versus the public responsibility of compulsory meetings and work assignments and mouthing of Soviet allegiance while decrying the decadence of the West.  Jimmy Carter was President, the Soviet Union was preparing for the Olympics the United States would end up boycotting, and the idea of a crumbling Soviet system symbolized by the fallen Berlin Wall was really inconceivable, no matter what people say now, in retrospect.

Lee writes about how unnerving it was to be stared at so blatantly in Moscow, to be reached for by these Russians crazy for a piece of the west, for the jeans and the music, for the writers and the movies.  She says, “It was a heady and unhealthy feeling to be looked at like that; I understood all at once why even the most level-headed Americans abroad sometimes succumb to the urge to act like traveling princes.”  That line resonated with me and my own experiences as a child in the 1970s visiting relatives both in western and eastern Europe. My sisters and I felt the admiration we evoked, it was palatable in looks and questions and touches.  Relatives and strangers were envious of our American-ness, our easy access to jeans and the hottest music, and our easy and friendly ways of getting around.  Yes, we were bumbling but because we were American we were also cool.  Those days are long gone.  Already dying under Reagan and the new conservatism, the final death knell of our popularity was pounded in by the Bushes, senior and junior.  Obama has brought back a certain admiration for us, perhaps, but the worldwide financial crisis is linked with what many see as a peculiarly American trait, greed.

What is most interesting about this memoir are Lee’s many conversations with Russians who were convinced (no matter how western-crazed they were) that America and its way of life — decadent, materialistic, lacking patriotism and spirituality — would inevitably fail and that the Soviet System would triumph. They were wrong about the Soviet System.  But given where the United States is right now, after decades of materialism gone wild and capitalism gone rampant, they may have been right in their predictions about us.