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Divine Magnetic Lands: A Journey in America [Hardcover]

Timothy O'Grady
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
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Book Description

3 July 2008

In 1973, aged twenty-two, Timothy O'Grady left America for Europe. He had grown up through the time of moonshots and protest marches, new music and unprecedented economic expansion and of hopes for a new society, a new democracy and a new kind of man.

For the next thirty years he lived in and wrote about Europe. As he did, the American counter-culture crashed, Ronald Reagan came and went, wars were declared and the country was attacked by air. Much of the world began to look at America in a new way, wondering what had happened to it and where it was going. Among them was Timothy O'Grady, and he decided to go back and investigate.

Following in the footsteps of such Europeans as de Tocqueville, Dickens and Simone de Beauvoir, and such Americans as Henry Miller, Kerouac, Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie, he went out onto the American road, travelling over fifteen thousand miles through thirty-five states. He met academics, the homeless, war veterans, political activists, New Orleans rappers, billionaires, novelists and a Ku Klux Klansman. A Yale legal historian told him why there are a million lawyers in America, a Chicago broker how executive pay is set and how the lobbying system works in Washington, and a Salvadorean gang member how life is on the streets of East Los Angeles. In every bar he stopped in, it seemed, there was a story of American life to be heard.

Using history, memoir, state-of-the-nation analysis and a novelist's skill at evoking places and people, Divine Magnetic Lands presents a picture of America as it evolved and how it is at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 530 pages
  • Publisher: Harvill Secker; 1st edition (3 July 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0436205130
  • ISBN-13: 978-0436205132
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.6 x 4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,096,743 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'...fascinating... it is [the] double perspective of estrangement and familiarity that makes his inquiry so interesting...' -- Sunday Times, Ed King

'a noteworthy addition to the tradition [Max] Sebald pioneered, a tradition that mixes travel, history, fiction and introspection' -- Independent, Clive Sinclair

`As a memoir of the road, O'Grady's work is hugely successful. In many ways it is a literary guide to the US...'
-- Irish Times, David Gardiner

`As a memoir of the road, O'Grady's work is hugely successful...it is a literary guide to the US...'
-- Irish Times, David Gardiner


'His routes are fresh and all his own. O'Grady writes wonderfully well on contemporary America. There is no better guide'
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not So Divine, Totally Unmagnetic. 23 Oct 2008
Timothy O'Grady is an American born novelist who has spent most of his adult life outside his homeland. For Divine Magnetic Lands he revisited the country of his birth for a road tour and to report on the state of the nation. Sounds like a great idea. It has appealed to many novelists in the past including, notably, Henry Miller, John Steinbeck and (in fictional form) Jack Kerouac. However O'Grady doesn't really deliver the goods. The book lacks momentum. As a novelist he must appreciate the importance of identifiable goals and obstacles in building up a story but it's not clear what O'Grady was actually searching for and there are certainly no pitfalls in the book as he cruises from one town or another. It ends up making the book very put-downable. Part of the problem is that he doesn't seem to have decided what sort of book he wanted to write. Was it to be a travelogue? An encyclopedia of interesting facts about America? An analysis of the health of the union? A series of encounters with interesting Americans? He's unsure which to plump for and so he makes it a bit of each of these and in doing so satisfies no-one. He never left me feeling that I was with him on the journey and this is partly because he tries to jam in so much information about each town he visits that it ends up reading like a 'Believe it or Not' entry. When he hits Tutwiler, for example, he manages to mention Elvis Prtesley's father, Son House, Bukka White, Mose Allison and federal judge William C. Keady all in one paragraph and then at the start of the next paragraph he's 'pulling back onto Highway 61' and we're into a description of bluesman Robert Johnson. There were times when I wondered why he bothered even visiting these places. He could have written most of this book by Google. Read more ›
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Travel for the author, travail for the reader 10 April 2010
Since I knew I'd be back on the road again through small-town USA this spring, I bought this book and William Least Heat-Moon's 'Roads to Quoz'. The mistake was to read Heat-Moon first. O'Grady's work has neither the eloquence nor the consequence of Heat-Moon, so reading this book afterwards quickly became anticlimactic. Another reviewer has already pinched the "Are we there yet?" tag: that's exactly how I felt after the first 150 pages or so. One needs only to compare the handling of the authors' friends and families to see the gulf between these two books: O'Grady has no soft pedal, and when the style moves into hectoring gear, any message beyond the topographical is diminished, and the going gets tough for the reader.

Make no mistake, there is good and valuable content in 'Divine Magnetic Lands', and I am glad to have read it: after all, I have read much worse on the subject in the past. Had there been no immediate comparison available, an extra star might have squeezed onto the tally. But there was, so it didn't.

I'll be packing 'Blue Highways' for the flight next week: it's a few years since I last read it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In the Spirit of Kerouac 20 May 2009
Having lived in Europe for thirty years Timothy O Grady has the distance and objectivity of an outsider looking in - but at the same time has the concern of a child witnessing the terminal decline of a parent. Traversing the vast continent from coast to coast twice - he sees the land of his birth crumbling before his eyes - an obesity epidemic - a badly run economy - suppression of voter rights - the Hi-jacking of Washington by Southern Style politics(Pro big business - Low corporate taxation - against public spending).
Along the way he encounters Musicians - Actors and writers as well as ordinary Americans variously jaded and disappointed at what The United States has become under George Bush's presidency. The exploration of such a vast subject area encompassing (culture - politics - religion - history and social study) is accomplished with keen perception and erudition making the book a compelling read - and a must for anyone with an interest in the United States.
On the Road
History of the American People
America in PassingMade in America
The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and Sensitive Look at Today's USA 14 Aug 2009
It would be difficult to over emphasise how much I enjoyed this superb book. I, like Mr O'Grady, am an expat American who has spent the majority of my adult life in Europe. This really is so much more than a travel guide - it is rich with descriptions of not just places but the people he met throughout his travels. As much as I love the US - my heritage and roots afterall - I also have become very disenchanted with many aspects of its present makeup. The insularity, lack of compassion for the less fortunate, fear of "foreigness" in anything new as well as the narrow-mindedness and sheer anger of many American citizens has left me with a sadness and resentment towards those who could educate but choose not to: media, politicians, and the priviledged who care not at all. Please read this and learn - you will also be hugely entertained.
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