Sunday, February 08, 2009

Travels With Alice by Calvin Trillin

I re-read Travels With Alice because Deciding the Next Decider was so disappointing, and I wanted to remind myself of what Trillin could do when he was in better form. This was the first Calvin Trillin book I ever read -- it was on a freebie pile very early in my days at the book clubs, some time in mid-1991 on the cold, dark, mostly-empty forty-second floor of the Bear Sterns building. And I haven't gone back to it since then, though I have read nearly everything else of Trillin's in the years between.

Trillin is generally pegged as a curmudgeon, and it might say something about me that I find him mostly friendly and even-tempered. He's exceptionally observant, and can find the odd detail in any situation -- and then, usually, focus obsessively on that detail while ignoring everything else.

Travels With Alice is a collection of loosely-linked essays about various vacations Trillin took with his family, mostly, from internal evidence, in the late '80s. His two daughters are mostly in their teens in these stories, though -- reading this book again, as the father of two children of my own -- I notice how private he keeps their lives, and the life of his wife, Alice. It's not simply that Trillin himself is at the center of his stories, and the butt of his own jokes, but that he presents the rest of his family in their public personages: a little caricatured, with some quirks and foibles, but nothing to overly embarrass even a touchy teenage girl.

Trillin loves food -- this is even more clear in his books all about food like, Feeding a Yen and Alice, Let's Eat, but it comes through here as well -- odd sports, and just the idiosyncrasies of a place. He's the kind of traveler who settles into a minor French town for a summer and spends the time not going to museums, historical sites, or great cathedrals, but just living there. It's the kind of life many of us aspire to, and Trillin makes is deeply appealing.

Travels With Alice is a short book, but a lovely one -- Trillin may be a curmudgeon (and I still mildly dispute that), but he's also a wonderful writer and a man with a great eye for the unique and out-of-the way.

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