Eastern Horizons – Levison Wood

Well, we can safely say that my plan to come right back from near a month in England and just dive into blogging again was a failure.

For an actual note, I’ve decided that I need to start focusing more on editing my book and less on making sure I read and blog a travel book every week (especially since I’ve been doing this for over a year). The point of this blog, initially, was to get me up to date on the genre I’m working in as well as let me examine how other travel writers execute their own stories. I’ve learned a lot–both good and bad–and feel like I’ve done enough for now. There will still be posts, especially as I am thoroughly enjoying reading American road trip theory books, but not nearly as frequent.

This week’s read is Levison Wood’s Eastern Horizons: Hitchhiking the Silk Road.

So I’m going to do a disclaimer up front: I didn’t finish this book. I couldn’t bring myself to and, in the recent past, I’ve learned that if I’m not enjoying a book, I should put it down rather than devote more hours of my life to reading it. Our time is limited, and if a writer can’t or won’t produce quality/engaging/thoughtful/well-written content, then I won’t read/buy their books.

It’s a trade. And if the trade isn’t fair, you don’t have to engage.

Wood did preface this book with an author’s note, which reads as follows:

“The text itself is largely unchanged [from when he wrote it fourteen years earlier, fresh out of college], therefore I should probably apologise for the perambulating style and literary immaturity of the narrative. But rather than change it, I have chosen to keep it as it is and retain the essence of the memory.  Because, for me, that is what travel is all about: good memories — whichever direction they take you.”

I take two things from this which, in turn, dictate the rest of this blog.

  1. He knows the writing is not good.
  2. He published it anyway.

We’re going to disregard, for the moment, that a publishing house agreed to publish this book. That people read it and were like, yeah, that’ll sell. This is worth investing our time and money in.

Now, part of that was probably that he has, since his youthful forays into traveling and writing, written at least one award-winning travel book. And he’s now a journalist, etc. So there’s street cred there.

Moving on from that.

I find it incredibly selfish, suprisingly naive, and self-sabotaging that Wood went through the entire process of having this published. Released to the public.

Stay with me now.

There’s a thing that literary folks refer to the “writer/reader contract.” In sum, it’s the idea that encompasses the relationship and interaction between a writer, their book, and the reader. The reader invests time/energy/emotion/money into a book, not knowing if it’s going to be good or not. They allow the author into their heads, allow the author to incite emotion and ideas into them. In turn, the writer is supposed to guide them well (through structure and writing style) through these mental and emotional journeys, trusting in them to understand the content and respect their vulnerability. (You can read more about this here.)

Wood knowingly published slapdash writing, violating this contract. Instead of enjoying what I’m sure was an amazing travel adventure, I spent the first near 200 pages of this book in irritation, being distracted by poor writing–awkward similes, wildly excessive adjectives, repetitive verbiage, rampant cliches, tense issues, the worst sort of dialogue attribution, redundant information, and so on. (What finally prompted me to abandon all hope ye who enter here was a sudden condescending white-man-from-a-first-world-country attitude, causing me to desert any faith I had in young Wood being a good travel companion.)

And he excuses all of this in his author’s note, talking about good memories.

I mean, re-read this: But rather than change it, I have chosen to keep it as it is and retain the essence of the memory.”

But I don’t have these memories. Neither do other readers. In fact, no one has these memories but Wood. Which mean this book is great for him to re-read, but terrible for me.

Honestly, it makes me more than a little mad. To have invested the money, time, and emotion into a book that the author knew wasn’t good, but kept it that way for the memories.


(The self-sabotaging comment from earlier was made because now I have no interest in purchasing and/or reading any other books by Wood, and I doubt that I am the first to have this response. You don’t know in what order someone is going to read your books, and this is a poor first impression.)

Some quotes so you can see what I’m talking about:

“‘How about both?’ I stuttered, out of breath as we climbed a steep gorge, the square-jawed Sergeant Major now shouting at us to stop chattering and get on with the march.” (An occasional dialogue attribution other than “said” or “shouted” is fine, but this book is filled with constant “artistic” attributions and I am so damn over it.)

“The sauna was the hottest I have ever had, and after another plunge in the cold pool, we left this masochist’s delight. Too exhausted by the rigours of the bath to endure a night on the town, we slept like babies that night.” (The “babies” language is cliche, that last sentence has two uses of the word “night” which is jarring as hell. Read it aloud.)

“‘If the road is closed, then I’m definitely going home,’ he said after a brief silence. ‘I don’t want to leave, but I can’t afford to get stranded in Georgia, because my job starts in a couple of weeks. Plus, I’m fed up with getting arrested and to be honest I’m not overly keen to get my head cut off by Islamic nut jobs.’ He reminded me of Kathy’s advice that the region was still very hostile.” (All of the dialogue is this awkward. Also, having the dialogue about the region being hostile and the reminder that the region was hostile is completely redundant.)

“But as the shaky old bus pulled out of the station and sped eastwards, I felt a tinge of regret that I would never be able to fully repay the debt that I owed these humble people.” (First, you don’t need to describe the bus at all because your reader is going to be assuming information about it anyway, so you definitely don’t need two adjectives. Second, “humble people” refers to their economic status. This is not the first time Wood refers to someone in a second world country as a version of “humble” or “simple poor people.” Their entire description, their entire existence, to Wood is summed up by their income. He could have chose “friendly,” “welcoming,” or “generous,” which would have been totally accurate to the story. Instead he went with the degrading, classist “humble.”)

“‘Tell me more,’ I said, captivated by a pair of emerald eyes. She brushed her hair from a mesmerising brow.” (…I just… no. First, no brows are mesmerising. Second, “a” mesmerising brow? Whose brow is this? Is it hers? Is it a neighbor’s? Is it a yet-to-be-mentioned hypnotist–thus the ‘mesmerising’ comment? WHO KNOWS.)

“I peered out of the window to see his romantic vision of liberality and instantly began to question my own sanity. […] Lost were the loose hijabs and bare forearms among a sea of black chadors: the tent-like robes that cover an entire woman’s body except the eyes. Almost all the men had buttoned-up, long-sleeved shirts. No, Nasser, there is a long way to go yet, I couldn’t help concluding, but decided to keep the thought to myself.” (Cliches: questioning sanity, long way to go, I couldn’t help. That’s a minor issue compared to the overlaying of Western Christian values onto Eastern Islamic ones, which I’m not going to even get into but is not great at all.)

“‘No. This is not possible,’ barked our man. ‘You cannot go south. It is now forbidden for tourists.'” (Another example of bad dialogue attribution. Also an example of the excessive amount of stereotypical ESL accent/dialogue that permeates this book.)

Okay, those are your quotes and my brief notes. I could have opened the book to any page and pulled out several examples of errors. It’s rife with them. I’m so glad to be done with this book.