So Near and Yet So Far
And a Right Good Crew
Pleasure by the Busload
- Emily Kimbrough
Emily Kimbrough's account of a trip to Greece, Water, Water Everywhere, was one of my favorite discoveries last year, and it inspired me to collect more of her books. I have definitely found them a mixed bag, and the three I'm going to talk about here are no exception. Book Riot has a feature with book recommendations called "Buy Borrow Bypass." I am borrowing that, except that my version is more "Buy Borrow Throw Across the Room."
The "throw across the room" book for me is So Near and Yet So Far, published in 1955. It describes a tour of south Louisiana, with several of the friends from the 1954 book Forty Plus and Fancy Free, some of whom would also join the trip to Greece the next year. Chief among them was Sophy (Sophia Yarnell Jacobs), a friend of Emily Kimbrough's from their days at Bryn Mawr. Sophy was usually the navigator, the driver, and the voice of reason on their trips. She was also the head of the Greater New York Chapter of the Urban League at the time of this trip, fighting for the desegregation of schools and an end to discriminatory housing practices. Emily Kimbrough joined her in this work. She was well aware of the racism in American society. She wrote about its presence in Hollywood and in her hometown of Chicago. So I don't quite see how she could write a book about Louisiana that includes just three African Americans, two maids and a shoeshine boy. Or how she could mention in passing, with apparently no irony, that the unnamed shoeshine boy "was longing to come North and get an education there," in a book written the year after the Brown vs. Board of Education case ended segregation in schools (in law though not in practice). The last straw for me was when she wrote about the romance of staying in a guest house converted from the slave quarters of a plantation. All she apparently saw were the pretty rose-colored bricks, not the reality of the lives lived there in suffering. I understand that this was not an investigative report about life in the South, or about its history. Maybe she didn't want to upset her Southern friends or fans, including her hosts in Louisiana. But I wish she had skipped writing about this trip, or I had skipped reading about it.
And a Right Good Crew, published in 1958, isn't a great book, but it came as something of relief after the previous one. It recounts two trips by canal boat through Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Oxfordshire. Emily and Sophy were on their own for the first. For the second, they were joined by three friends, a married couple (the wife a Broadway actress) and a single man (a well-known playwright). This book felt a bit repetitive to me, because it describes two similar trips, and I had already read about a boating trip Emily and Sophy took, in Water, Water Everywhere. It also seemed more about Emily and her friends than their travels. Wacky incidents like almost falling into the canals get full play, but the humor felt a bit stretched at times. There were a few too many visits to villages along the banks, where Emily would try in vain to buy some familiar item like potholders, or a thermos to hold the ice for their cocktails, to the confusion of the local shopkeepers (some of whom must have thought she was bonkers). At least she didn't play the Ugly American, except for lecturing one poor visitor to the boat about how "British housewives . . . waste time and energy in daily shopping" because of "poor or no refrigeration." She assured her readers that the visitor "was not offended." I found this a pleasant enough read for an afternoon, but it would definitely be in the "borrow" category.
The best of the books was the last I read, Pleasure by the Busload, which was recommended to me in a comment on my post about the Greece book. Published in 1961, it is an account of a month-long tour of Portugal in a VW microbus, with Sophy at the wheel. Joining them this time were Gina Bachauer, a Greek classical pianist; her husband, the English conductor Alec Sherman; and Alec's brother Theodore. Looking these people up reminded me how well-connected Emily was to the world of theater and music, as well as to writing and publishing. Reading this book made me aware of how little I know of Portugal. I couldn't have named any of its cities, beyond Lisbon and Fatima, and I couldn't have found either of those on a map. Though I knew a little of Portugal's Age of Exploration, I know nothing of its ancient or more modern history. Emily wasn't much better off, and it felt like I was exploring this new country with her. She was excited and interested by what she saw, which gives this book a different kind of energy. Though she included the usual wacky incidents among her companions, her focus was more on the sights and sounds around her, and that made the book more interesting to me. I did note though that the tour (and her narrative) really picked up after Alec and Gina Sherman left the group. I am sure that Portugal has changed greatly in that last fifty years, but if I am ever lucky enough to visit, I might take this book with me. It's definitely a keeper.
I still have four more of Emily Kimbrough's books on the TBR stacks. I am most curious about Floating Island, which covers another canal boat tour, this time through France. I only realized last week that the crew for this trip includes Cornelia Otis Skinner, as well as Emily's brother and his wife. I don't expect it will live up to Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, but I don't think anything could.