Great, because you meet people with different opinions. Terrible, because you meet people with different opinions.
But I had a recent encounter with a blog post and a comments section where I met a person so honest and perceptive that I decided to buy her book.
M.M. Justus is a museum curator by profession living in the Pacific Northwest. She is the author of the Time in Yellowstone series, the first of which, Repeating History, concerns time travel to the 19th century in Yellowstone National Park.
I have to confess that time-travel books do not grab me. I read The Time-Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger just like everyone else obediently did back in the day, and I thought it was ultra-creepy as well as being scientifically impossible. Even intelligent time-travel stories like the film Primer just don't compute to me.
So instead of Justus' novel, I bought her memoir.
Cross Country: Adventures Alone Across America and Back, is brand-spanking new (publication date this past December), and a worthy read. It is in the spirit of memoirs such as William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, and Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent-- a travelogue-cum-reflection on America. But is it's own thing, and good for M.M. Justus in carving out her own niche and point of view.
Among the remarkable things about this book is its ordinariness. And when I say that, I mean that what Justus did is extraordinary, but that she made it seem ordinary. in 1999, she left her home in Tacoma, Washington, by herself, and drove cross-country in a Chevy Cavalier named Owl (a "he," by the way), and traveled around three months and through about 30 states in the continental US, taking notes and making observations all the way.
Then, probably the most extraordinary part, she wrote a lucid account of it all and published it herself, without making the trip or herself into a bigger deal than it was.
As such, Cross Country distances itself from such recent travel memoirs as Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Wild, by the serendipitously-named Cheryl Strayed. These two authors parlay personal and psychological crises into self-generating money machines.
M.M. Justus simply writes about her life.
Not to take anything away from the significance of these authors transformational journeys-- the reading public loves a story with an arc, after all.
And I'm sure M.M. Justus would welcome sales.
But there's something refreshing about an epic cross-country drive (and it is epic) where the author returns home richer (in experiences), wiser, but without a new life and/or a new man.
The pleasure in Cross Country, therefore, consists not in deriving joy from sighing through the angst and self-indulgence of another human being, but in sitting, virtually, in the passenger seat as the author takes us on her well-planned and yet spontaneous tour of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
Having never been to Yellowstone National Park, for example, I revelled in the attention given to geysers and the park library and archive. In fact, the first part of the journey, from Washington south-south-east to Minnesota, helped me to visualize a part of the country I know only from maps.
The central section about the East Coast engaged me less; I am much more familiar with these states, and her impatience with things like traffic jams in Great Smoky Mountains National Park made me impatient, too.
Then Justus turns west and returns to the left coast by way of places like New Orleans and her family home, Bastrop, Louisiana, where her relatives live on Justus Road.
And wait for it, but there's a fun (for the reader) bang at the end.
I can just see a literary agent reading the synopsis of this book and suggesting that the whole thing be rewritten based on that bang, and how it changed the author's life.
No, here's the thing: if you are up for a three-month drive with a well-spoken, educated, adventurous, and yet eminently sensible travel companion, Cross Country is for you.
Call it See, Drive, Live.