Friday, June 20, 2008

Around the World in 80 Dinners

Around the World in 80 Dinners, by Cheryl and Bill Jamison, is a book to check out from the public library; it is a fast read and has its entertaining parts, but it isn't worth paying $25 for or adding to your shelves. The idea is interesting: they travel around the world and eat as much good food as possible in a wide variety of countries in three months. Unfortunately, the book reads more like a series of lists than a story: lists of what clothes they took for the trip, where they went, what they saw, what they ate, when they needed their stain stick for food-related mishaps. In only a few places do they develop the narrative into a story with some interest, such as their TV adventures in Hong Kong. The rest of it remains resolutely superficial, with none of the charm or cohesiveness of A Year in Provence or any of Calvin Trillin's writing about searching out unusual foods.

Part of the problem may be that they couldn't decide if they were writing a travel guide (all the hotels and restaurants are listed at the end of each section, with contact information) or a food book or a memoir. They have written travel guides in the past, especially travel-to-eat books, and this reads like one that they have tried to doctor for a wider audience. Unfortunately, they miss. There is little to make this a good book for armchair travelers or foodies. Other than the lists of ingredients in lists of dishes, there is little exploration of the various food traditions; comparisons between related food traditions is limited to a couple of comments in passing, although Creole foods rate a slightly longer discussion. In spite of the advance research that the Jamisons appear to have done regarding each stop, the various hotel rooms get more paragraphs than the cultures they pass through and the end result is very much a sense of "It's Tuesday, so this must be Belgium".

The Jamisons have a few writing quirks that can be irritating, too. They can't decide if they are writing in the first or third person, so they refer to themselves jointly with "us" or "we", but then refer to themselves individually by name, giving a sense that a third person traveled with them and is describing everything. The dialogue is equally off-kilter; they write it the way people write, not the way people speak, making it sound stilted. In many cases, simply getting rid of the quotation marks would improve the way it reads without diminishing the interest or personal touch.

If you want to replicate their journey, the information you need is all here. If you like reading travel guides, this will be a fun book to read. If you prefer good food or travel writing, stick to Mayle or Trillin.

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