I discovered Jonathan Raban through "Arabia", confirmed his brilliance in "Bad Land" and read "Driving Home" in the hope of rekindling some of the old magic. This is a collection of essays published in magazines and newspapers in the period 1991-2009, following his decision, as a middle-aged "Brit" to move to Seattle.
For me, Raban is at his best as a travel writer, the observant rolling stone who combines descriptions of landscapes and people met in passing with history, politics and culture to create a vivid sense of place. This is typified by the essay used for the book title, in which Raban drives a round trip from Seattle "a western city built in the wilderness and designed to dazzle", over mountains like "the backside of the Bitteroot range", across the valleys of the Columbia, the Clearwater and the Snake, to the dead level plateau of "the Christian Right" where it is "a big thing to raise a tree", since only stunted sagebrush grows there naturally. To give us background, he weaves in anecdotes about the explorers Lewis and Clarke, and introduced me to two neglected literary talents, the poet Roethke and the novelist Bernard Malamud, whose writing captured the essence of the north-western states.
Raban's political articles on the aftermath of 9/11, the newly elected Obama and characters like Sarah Palin are entertaining, informative but perhaps not as "striking" as some of his other work since so much has already been written on them by others, plus this material will date quite fast.
His essays on famous literary figures probably require some prior knowledge of their work. For instance, I enjoyed the article on the in many ways rather unpleasant Philip Larkin, and was interested to learn how much he feared death and pleased to be taught to appreciate his poem "Aubade". However, the piece on William Gaddis left me cold and caused me to begin to skip in search of essays with more immediate appeal.
In the main, Raban can make watching paint dry interesting, but the occasional piece requires too much effort to be worth the trouble. The least successful category seems to me to cover those on a specific theme like "On the waterfront" which appears too much of a contrived exercise in writing.
If these essays were thrown together in a single book to earn a few bucks, I don't blame Raban. His tendency to write articles based on his daughter, or to name-drop holidays with "the Therouxes" detracts somewhat from his writing.
Despite a few reservations, there are sufficient excellent passages in this book to make it worth reading and keeping on one's shelf to revisit later.
I came across this amazing collection of articles written so well by an author who was unknown to me until I speculatively ordered it from my local library! Although I was initially put off by the size (over 600 pages), I have been on a journey of discovery! Jonathan really tests his reader, living up to his quoted inspiration by William Empson's 'Seven Types of Ambiguity'! - One is obliged to read his detailed but flowing prose with care and attention - So welcome to yours truly in an age of scanning and butterfly minds - However, apart from his superb introduction which I had to re-read several times, the following chapters are re-printed articles, so smaller and manageable gems to dip into at one's leisure!
Jonathan 'reads' landscapes as palimpsests with the appropriate literary associations/connections to each new area he explores - This works so well, it is not only a delightful and engaging read, but also has been an inspiration to this reviewer too - I am an amateur landscape photographer, but now I will be trying to combine my landscape photography with Jonathan's descriptive techniques to contextualise my photographs.
I can't recommend this book highly enough - Needless to say, I have ordered my own copy from Amazon (whilst they are still available in hardcover), so this chunky tome can take pride of place in my personal library! - I'll be investigating the author's entire oeuvre too, now I've had my 'eyes opened' (metaphorically and even literally!) - 'So many books, so little time', eh? - Phew, aren't we the lucky ones though? - Jonathan Raban is a superb author and this is a great introduction for those who have not tried him before, but also another worthy read for those who have, I'm certain.
Excuse my gushing admiration, as I'm not usually prone to this, so praise indeed perhaps?! ;-)
This is a christmas pudding of a book for those who admire raban's writings. there are plums in it and also some ingredients of unfamiliar taste and texture. This is to be expected from a collection from a variety of published sources not necessarily familiar to the general reader or to her particular interest.Overall a taster or a nice reminder of what he is capable of and perhaps a forerunner of another reflective journey?
What a great compilation of short pieces; whitty, warm and thoughtful. His use of the english language is stunning. Jonathan Raban remains at his best in these works. When will he next travel to Britain to speak about his writings...? I look forward to that.