Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Myself and Strangers (A Book Review)

Another book review… I know, but I haven’t felt up to finishing some of the other stuff I’m writing. However, I do hope to write a travel piece for Travel Tip Thursday and publish it late tomorrow. This is one of the books I read while in North Carolina. Last year, I read another of Graves’ books, Goodbye to a River, which I really enjoyed. This book is interesting, but not as enjoyable. In other words, read my review, not the books! Hope you’re having a good week.
John Graves, Myself and Strangers: A Memoir of Apprenticeship (New York: Knopf, 2004), 235 pages, a few photos, mostly snapshots.
Favorite Quote (he's discussing off-shore fishing): Nor was such a team endeavor, aided by the boats powerful motors, an agreeable kind of angling to me, being too far removed from the personal poking about on rivers and creeks and salt inlets that has always been my favored form of the sport.” (228)
As a returning Marine from the South Pacific, John Graves set out to discover more of the world as he prepares himself to become a writer. In the ten years after the war, Graves married, finished school, divorced and traveled and lived in Mexico and Europe. In Europe, he primarily lived in Spain, a country a decade after it’s own Civil War that reminded him of the American South (165). There, he spends his free time sailing and touring on a motorcycle, keeping a notebook of his activities while writing magazine articles and a novel. The novel was never published. In the mid-50s, Graves returned to America. Although he completed his novel manuscript on Long Island, it was in his home state of Texas that he eventually returns and finds his first publishing success with his book, Goodbye to a River, which is still in print some fifty years after its first publication.

Myself and Strangers draws heavily on Graves’ notebooks during this era of his life, notebooks that he burned after the completion of this book. Although he was in his eighties when the book was published, he sees himself as saying “adios” to the Young John, a man fifty years younger. (235) Certainly, as he points out, Young John was often naïve and prone to make generalizations (152). He was also narcissistic as he went from one love affair to another. Although he leaves out a lot of the details, he recalls many of the women he was involved with in Europe. He was very found of Simone, a French woman living in Spain, till she became possessive. Even then, he noted that he couldn’t stay away from her, “for she was very good in bed.” (54) He describes another woman as a “a young person of beauty and charm though no overload of intellect.” (71) Then there was Lena, who’d married for life even though her and her husband had separated and were no longer together. She had “a slim responsive body and a wry earthy intelligence” (81) And then there was Paula, who’d he’d hoped to have a casual affair, but realized at the end that she wasn’t content and wanted more. Graves laments, “Maybe I was simply not drawn to hedonistic women, or they were not drawn to me…“ (212) Despite looking at woman in this way, he’s bold enough to suggests in his journals that the difference between him and “the great lovers and cocksmen of the world is that he sees women as people.” (218) Two weeks later, he also wrote in his journal, comparing himself to other men, that he’s “preserved the illusion that integrity is possible.” (221)

Unlike Theroux, whom I recently reviewed, Graves avoids other writers. On several occasions, he crosses path with Hemingway, but he never goes to present himself to the table where the writer is “holding court.” (67) Interestingly, though, he often reflects on things with his own internal dialogue with Faulkner, the subject of his Master’s thesis, and an author who was content to stick around Mississippi and not spend long periods of time in traveling or in Europe.

Throughout the book, Graves reflects on his reading. He dislikes Michener and although he didn’t want to meet Hemingway, does like some of his work. He reads Thomas Wolfe and the classics and sees himself influenced by Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, F. M. Ford, O.Henry, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and Mark Twain. (219) Commenting on the Bible, he notes that he’s always been a “sometime Bible-reader,” and while the reverence that drew him to the Scriptures have changed, what hasn’t changed is his reverence for the King James Version. (173)

There are numerous parallels that draw me to Graves. We’re both Southerners (although I’m loathe to include Texas in my South). Graves noted that he’d believed “until he was twelve or thirteen that Yankees were malevolent creatures who had destroyed the world of my forebears.” (77) He enjoyed fishing, especially in streams (see quote at beginning) and with a fly rod. Once, while fishing off Sags Harbor, he noted that he’d caught some nice fish, “though I wish now that I’d had the sense to use a fly rod on them, which would have given double the pleasure.” (224) He also enjoyed sailing, not for the competition, but for the pleasure of being on the water. He criticizes one friend for being too competitive. "Sailing with Wally, even when there was no race, was a straining to get the most of out of the boat, with no time for simply basking in the pleasure of the water and the wind and the day."

Although I enjoyed the book, I don’t really recommend it as it seems to be mostly patched together. At the end, Graves refers to his younger self as a “backward bastard’ and wished he’d “been a bit quicker to discern and pursue right directions.” (235) He has tried to tie the book together, showing him coming home to find himself and his true purpose and his connection to the land; however, little is seen of that when he’s wandering around the world, enjoying parties and bull fights and chasing women. The book does show us how he struggled as an author and reminds me that I might want to destroy my earlier journals before I am in my eighties. I also wished he'd revealed how his financed his travels as he certainly didn't sell enough magazine articles to live like he did.


  1. Texas is a bit different from the rest of the south. Can't wait to read your travel story tommorrow. I need to pick mine back up.

  2. Yankees as the root of all evil? I seem to have stumbled upon that notion among some of my older relatives a time or two.

    As for Texas being in the South, I'm somewhat ambivalent. I know many people don't consider Missouri as part of it either, but it has a much more southern orientation than one realizes.


  3. Jen, yeah, I just hope to get it ready!

    Randall, I confess, I'm bad. I'm sure that quote will get a rise out of some readers! Although MO was a border state, I agree it's a lot like the South--especially St. Louis.

  4. We Yankees come to expect such quotes since they are normal from losing sides!

  5. Thanks Ed! I told Randall that quote would get a rise out from some of my readers! :)

  6. I'm not really familiar with his work. I do enjoy reading other writer's take on the craft though. Burned those notebooks? Man I don't think I'd ever do that.