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on 9 July 2004
This is NOT a travel book! This is people watching by words - in her unmistakeable individual style Jenny Diski 'talks' to you on such a level that you often feel like her thoughts are actually yours and you forget you are reading at all! I read this book on holiday and came home feeling more like I had been on a train in the USA for a week than on a beach! Her reminicenses of her past are touching and poignant. You finish this book feeling like this excentric, rather neurotic lady is your friend, and her journey, yours. A highly addictive book, I would recommend this to anyone who has ever found themselves transfixed by the actions of a complete stranger, no matter how mundane they may be.
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on 5 May 2004
Again, this book shows Jenny Diski's ability to tell a vivid, real life account, whil mixing in memories from her youth. She manages to see the positive in both cases and reminds us to learn from every experience. She inspires me to take time out to daydream and to keep an open mind.
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on 17 April 2013
What an amazing work, I thought this would be a travel book in the same style as Paul Theroux or similar, it is, but it is also so much more than that. Like "Catcher in the Rye" Jenny's dialogue confirms to you that there are people who really do think like you do, who experience life as you do,that what goes on behind the eyes really can be very profound indeed.The book overflows with her warmth and humanity,but there is a good sharp bite with some of her observations giving a real depth to her writing.She generously allows us a rare intimacy with her life that is hard to find, even in autobiography. An exceptional book that you will want to share with others.
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on 2 April 2012
I read this because it was recommended by my creative writing tutor, we were doing a unit on autobiography and she read some of it in a tutorial. It combines travel writing with her autobiography.
I found the structure really interesting, she related a meeting with a stranger during her travels, which in turn would provoke a memory from her life. You become interested in her journey around America for the insight on American train travel and her life is drip fed without much initial explanation, you have to piece it together.
It's quite introspective, philosophical and it isn't a fast paced page turner, but I enjoyed it. Much more than some of the other celebrity autobiography's I've also read as research and seemed plodding and dull chronologies by comparison.
I'd recomend it, but stick with the first few chapters as I do think it's an acquired taste.
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on 28 June 2015
Jenny is given a simple brilliant opportunity to ride the train around the USA and write a travelogue of her ensuing adventures, and she's a good writing. She's engaging and makes the monotony of the travel interesting by talking about her life so far. But, it's a wasted opportunity. This book could have been so much better. I wanted to learn more about the train, the country, the towns she passed through. Instead I get a story interpreted by the authors addiction to cigarettes and mental health issues, (I understand this would be a difficult situation to override such personal demons) it never the less interrupted the flow of the words, and the end of the book seemed squeezed. In all it was a dissapointing read, but perhaps because the beginning was quite good, or the authors talent obvious.
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on 25 January 2014
It has been a few years since I read this book, I was travelling on Amtrak from Seattle to Chicago so it caught my eye. As others have said its a book about people watching. Jenny Diski has a talent, not just for observation, but for bringing alive the characters she meets on the train, making the mundane journey compelling and totally readable. I loved also the way that She loved travelling but seemed to dislike travel, liked people watching but desired solitude. The story of the train trips intermingled with the autobiographical aspects of her early life.
Still my favourite travel book, partly because its less an observation on travel and more an observation on her life and of those she meets.
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on 3 March 2007
Loved this. Picked it up at random in the library and as soon as I finished it I went back to borrow Nothing Natural which I enjoyed just as much! There was something in both books that really spoke to me. Am about to start reading Like Mother, hope it's just as good!
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on 2 January 2016
This is only the second book I’ve read by Jenny Diski. I’d already read “The Sixties” and was curious to read another book by her.

It is an account of two extended train journeys in the USA. The first begins on a freighter across the Atlantic then takes trains from Savannah, Georgia to Tucson, Arizona. The second is even more ambitious: a round trip starting in New York and heading anticlockwise around the USA via Portland, Sacramento and Albuqerque. The main setting throughout these journeys is the smoking compartment (or equivalent) set aside for smokers and the interaction of those taking refuge within it. This environment is so well portrayed that I could smell the cigarette ash, see the drifting haze of smoke, sense the tired boredom of the occupants, visualise the varied conversations.

The book is both a hymn to the ritual of smoking and a meditation on the importance of a boundary between self and other. It becomes clear as Jenny’s daydreaming leads to reminiscences about her childhood and adolescence, that her need to maintain a distance from others in these superficially routine smoking compartment interactions, is no mere philosophical affectation but a deadly earnest struggle for survival of “self” rooted in an emotionally traumatic childhood and exemplified by significant in-patient psychiatric admissions (age 14/15, 1962, 5 months; age 20, 1967, 4 months; age 21, 1968, 9 months). This continued fear of intrusion from others adds an urgency and interest to her account that makes this much more than yet another travel book fulfilling a contractual obligation. Even the circuit of the USA has its parallels with how at age thirteen she would routinely spend all day travelling the London Underground Circle Line on its continuous circular route.

Here she is talking about the smoking carriage on her first journey:
“The smoking carriage was an oasis of tawdriness. It was a slum at the centre of the train that was in every other part designed to please the paying customer. Even in coach the seats reclined and were upholstered, there were carpets, windows that had been cleaned at least at the start of the journey, air conditioning that worked. …… The smoking coach, however, was the sin bin, the punishment cell, a capsule of degradation where those who were incorrigible would suffer the consequences of their obduracy. And it was wonderful.”

And again:
“The misfits and miscreants of the train, obviously in the real world a complete range of society, were equalised in their smoking-coach selves into a homogenous group with a fundamental set of values. Whatever our place out there, we were as Shakers or Albigensians in our train life: a despised community existing on sufferance in a world that no longer permitted itself the luxury of burning heretics.”

And here she is musing on her relation to others:
“What I experience most with other people is my estrangement from them, the distance of a mutually unique separation that words or touch never quite bridge. Unlike cats, people interfere with my apprehension of reality, they muddy how I can know myself, confuse my understanding of how I am, which is centred around the notion that solitude is a state of perfection, and the simplicity of being alone a desired goal.”

“A sense of belonging has always evaded me. For as long as I can remember I have felt myself to be not quite in the right spot, not exactly where I should be, in the wrong place, uneasy where I am, but uncertain where it is I used to be.”

I enjoyed this book. It held my attention throughout. I really appreciate Jenny Diski’s ability to articulate her unique viewpoint, and value the way she does not fit neatly into the conventional world.
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on 13 July 2011
Author Jenny Diski, for reasons best known to herself, decides to tour the circumference of America (or more or less; there's a big gap in the west coast) by train. But this isn't a travel book; it's mainly an account of the people she meets on these trains - mostly in the smoking carriages, and they're mostly people the rest of us would go out of our way to avoid - partly a reflection on the train service itself, where delays of up to half a day are not only not impossible but are almost expected, and, here and there, an introspective account of her early, troubled and abuse-ridden years. I would actually have preferred a travel book. My mistake.
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on 19 September 2012
I would recommend this book to everyone. Travel writing never usually appeals to me, nor do biographies, and yet the mix between both genres throughout this book is utterly brilliant. It's captivating, witty, enjoyable and has inspired a lot of writing from me. Definitely one of my favourite books of all time.
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