Thursday, November 5, 2009

Review: Essays capture delight of travel

It's a doozy of a title: The Third Tower Up from the Road: A Compilation of Columns from McSweeney's Internet Tendency's Kevin Dolgin Tells You About Places You Should Go. And the cover photo of the Great Wall of China is a bit misleading. Yes, there's a funny, lovely column in the collection about Dolgin's adventures on the famous structure, but the bulk of the book covers other places, particularly in Europe (the original focus of his column, before his editors at McSweeney's gave him freer rein).

Dolgin's day job, as a professor of marketing at the University of Paris, frequently takes him to cool spots around the world. So he started writing about them: first about the French island of Corsica, where his wife's family is from, and later about spots as diverse as Moscow, Cairo and Chennai.

Like any writer, he has his favourite themes: city squares, oddball food (don't read the column on Manila if you are weak of stomach), quirky monuments (the hunt for Frank Zappa's statue in Vilnius is a hoot). If you read the book all in one go, these themes quickly become apparent. But, as Dolgin points out in the introduction, the book began as a series of columns written over several years and should be approached with that in mind: "I can't help but think that the dispatches in this book might best be read like one eats peanuts: a couple here, a couple there." He's right, and that's how I found myself reading the book, which is why it has taken me so long (I got my review copy in August) to post a review.

Not that I didn't enjoy the book. In fact, I loved it. Dolgin has a captivating voice: funny without being forced, smart without showing off, self-deprecating without being pathetic. He has a novelist's knack for capturing dialogue and a great eye for what makes each place he visits unique.

As he freely admits, this isn't a book for people who want addresses, phone numbers and prices; he points readers to guidebooks for this sort of detail. He is much more interested in capturing the essence of a place, and this he does with great skill. Falafel shops in Beirut, sandcastle builders in Rio, soccer fans in Madrid: all come to vibrant life in these pages.

However, there was one column in particular that made me bark out loud with laughter (and since I was reading it while standing in line to catch a VIA Rail train in Toronto's echoing Union Station, I attracted a bit of attention). It's called simply "Useful Phrases," and Dolgin says it's probably one of his most popular columns.

Here's his theory: when travelling somewhere where he doesn't speak the language, he learns one nonsensical phrase. As he writes:
The principal reason for the nonsensical phrase is that it's a sure conversation opener. No one will imagine that the only thing you know how to say in their language is "my hovercraft is full of eels" (to borrow someone else's nonsensical phrase) and therefore an immediate cultural exchange will ensue. Really, this works.
Among the phrases he has memorized are "My hedgehog isn't stupid" (in Swedish), "Watermelons don't bounce" (in Korean) and "There is a penguin in my closet" (in German). I laughed. A lot.

And on the other end of the spectrum, the column titled simple "Crater Lake, Oregon" was immensely touching. I sniffled. A little.

A travel book that can make you laugh and cry, and teach you how to say "Is that a kind of frog?" in Japanese, is certainly worth $18.95 Canadian ($16.95 U.S.), in my opinion. But don't just take my word for it. Publisher's Weekly raved about it, too.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review purposes.

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