Richly detailed reports from the road

October 17, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun Staff

My Kind of Place: Travel Stories From a Woman Who's Been Everywhere, by Susan Orlean. Random House. 304 pages. $24.95.

Susan Orlean's latest collection of stories includes a report from a baseball diamond in Cuba, a search for fertility in Bhutan, and a meditation on child labor (why don't more babies work?) As always, Orlean is funny without being snarky, and poignant without being precious.

All 31 stories in this volume were previously published in magazines -- mostly in The New Yorker, where Orlean is a staff writer. (She is the author of five other books, including The Orchid Thief -- the basis for the 2002 movie Adaptation.) This collection is billed as travel writing, but that is true in only the loosest sense of the term. For the most part, these stories describe people, or cultural events, rather than places that one would visit.

The book begins with "Lifelike," a report from a taxidermy convention. Orlean writes: "As soon as the 2003 World Taxidermy Championships opened, the heads came rolling in the door." You can't help but smile.

In "Madame Presi-dent," she inserts herself into a New York City public high school and describes a rowdy classroom as "noisy but contained, like popcorn."

Orlean reports just as well as she writes. "All Mixed Up," a long essay on a grocery store in Queens brims with details that could only be gleaned after weeks, if not months, immersed in her subject. Grocery stores, particularly those that aren't computerized, teeter on the edge of chaos. Thousands of tiny decisions are made every day to maximize the infinitesi-mal profit margin. And the people who make these calls do it based on knowledge they've been gathering for decades. But such stores are also social hubs, with relationships -- even romances -- forged on the basis of delivery schedules. Buying trout at the corner store will never be quite the same.

In "A Place Called Midland," she shows her knack for dismantling conventional wisdom on a subject. During his first presidential campaign, a folksy Gov. George W. Bush told voters that to understand him, they needed to understand Midland, Texas, and "the attitude of Midland." Taking him at his word, Orlean decided to profile the town.

It isn't Everytown, U.S.A. Losing or gaining a few million dollars is commonplace. The local phone book has 13 pages of oil-company listings. Extraordinary risk-taking is smiled upon, and success is measured primarily in material gains. Orlean's profile of Midland reveals much about Bush's background, probably more than he would want people to know.

The weaker stories in the collection come when Orlean shines the light on herself. In one such story, she wonders how Tina Turner would like her apartment. It strikes the self-obsessed tone more suited to a certain all-female quartet that used to reside on HBO. In another, Orlean discusses her feelings toward the SkyMall catalog; although there are some humorous bits to this essay, she has picked a target already amply lampooned by others.

Furthermore, these personal meditations lack the intense reporting that make her other work stand out. Mercifully, they are short and at the end of the book.

But these stories don't detract from the whole, and with this book Orlean adds another set of witty, thoughtful works to her impressive canon.

Annie Linskey is an editorial assistant at The Sun.

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