Holly's Reviews > The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking

The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing
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it was ok
bookshelves: 2014-reads

A British woman-journalist traveling around the U.S. thinking about alcoholism - though not very deeply - and trotting out the biographies of very well-known American writers - while filling the pages with her own self-indulgent descriptive writing and a superficial survey of the meaning of alcoholism (she seems to think the Twelve Steps of AA is the key to understanding everything and we get the full list at least twice and the individual steps countless times). The framework of the roadtrip to visit each writer's haunt, complete with frontispiece map, seemed unnecessary and simply another excuse for Laing to talk about herself (train travel, plane travel, etc). And despite filling the pages with herself and hints of her personal relationship to alcohol/alcoholics, this too is unsatisfying and thin: How many times did she begin a sentence with "It was hard to express ..."? She cops out of writing about women writers because "their stories came too close to home" and that's all we get of that.

After the first section disappointed me I began to read back to front, jumping to the Raymond Carver section next. Unfortunately (for the author) the Port Angeles pages revealed that her landscape descriptions were romantically overwritten and her facts were fuzzy if not inaccurate (she omits to mention the inelegant truth that Tess Gallagher's Sky House is more or less in a subdivision that sits above a movie theater). The Gordon Lish name-drop glosses over a fascinating story (though it has little to do with alcoholism?). I can believe Laing got lost on the way to Carver's grave (and I'm unsurprised to learn that Gallagher actually writes responses to visitors in the grave's ledger). But I'd have learned more about Carver reading one chapter of Carol Sklenicka's biography.

I think I'm becoming irritated by these recent books that are ostensibly biographies and "hard" nonfiction that end up being a hybrid of their personal "exploration" of a subject - complete with road trip - and their personal memoir (think Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Rachel Cohen did this more skillfully and less ostentatiously in A Chance Meeting). Are publishers asking for this? I read plenty of memoirs but I accept that "contract" between the writer and myself before I begin reading (e.g.,, I plan to read Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn and I know it's a memoir-with-physics). Mostly what I was left with, besides annoyance, was the thought that it's time to re-read Tom Dardis's excellent 1989 book on American writers and alcoholism, The Thirsty Muse.
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Reading Progress

July 8, 2014 – Started Reading
July 8, 2014 – Shelved
July 11, 2014 – Shelved as: 2014-reads
July 11, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Ingrid (new)

Ingrid I always remember some observations our book group, lawyer friends made about Tess G in the Port Angeles courtroom when I hear Raymond Carver stories. I am curious to hear about this book. . . Wondering also about women, writing, and alcoholism.

Holly Unfortunately this book doesn't consider women but TG is mentioned. I don't remember Manek & Jodi's observations!

Holly Ingrid, I've composed a review of the book now if you're still interested. Cheers.

message 4: by Elaine (new)

Elaine I think it can be a very powerful form when done right. I think of Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn. But that was very openly about a personal quest so maybe not a fair example. I do think there is a trend in journalism and long form non-fiction to make the creation - and the creator - of the story part of the story. This may be more "honest" but it is also more solipsistic.

Holly Books that do this well are among my favorites! (this = biography/history and combined with the author's personal exploration of a subject ). Just my mini-backlash: I don't want to see it attempted in every biography. I don't want to think the writer was nudged into it because of publishing trends. (I never did read Mendelsohn's Lost - thanks for the reminder.)

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