Natural Opium: Some Travelers' Tales

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The widely acclaimed novelist, essayist, and cultural and social critic is one of the characters in these ten striking pieces, each of which is part memoir, part short story, part sharp observation of the world today. This is a book about contemporary travelers in far-flung places, about the inner compulsion to travel, and about the condition of being a traveler. For the past ten years, Diane Johnson has roamed the world from Taipei to Tanzania to Teheran, from St. Petersburg and Bangkok to Delhi and the Great ...
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Overview

The widely acclaimed novelist, essayist, and cultural and social critic is one of the characters in these ten striking pieces, each of which is part memoir, part short story, part sharp observation of the world today. This is a book about contemporary travelers in far-flung places, about the inner compulsion to travel, and about the condition of being a traveler. For the past ten years, Diane Johnson has roamed the world from Taipei to Tanzania to Teheran, from St. Petersburg and Bangkok to Delhi and the Great Barrier Reef. In these pieces she answers dramatically, and with a constantly refreshing wit, the question of why we travel and how travel changes us. In Switzerland, the travelers' willingness to face danger in the name of adventure is made clear as a festive midnight toboggan ride turns into a terrifying slide through a pathless forest ... in London, the author's physician husband discovers that the patient whose life he is in the middle of saving is an international drug lord ... en route from her daughter's wedding in Paris to her son's in Taipei, the author glimpses a Russia she thought no longer existed. Full of humor and with a nonstop storytelling pull, Natural Opium is a new kind of travel book, pure Diane Johnson.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this singular collection of 10 travel pieces, Johnson ( Health and Happiness ) claims she ``almost always travels reluctantly''; she also admits to disliking air travel, which imposes on her the ``feeling of being in mortal peril, suspended outside the world.'' Nonetheless, the writer continually finds herself in transit, often accompanying her husband, a doctor, on business-related excursions to such locations as Cairo, Guatemala and Thailand. In writing, her eye zeroes in on odd situations, and is not easily dazzled: sailing to the Great Barrier Reef, she speaks disdainfully of her boisterous Australian shipmates, then sheepishly realizes their genuine kindness; high on a Swiss mountain after dark, she encounters tour guides who expect her and her fellow travelers to toboggan down a steep slope to their hotel; in AIDS-ravaged Tanzania, she witnesses an immense herd of wildebeest (``So many, and yet each an individual . . . they were like humanity itself''). Johnson writes lyrically, using wry humor and biting criticism. Her honest observations of human nature and sharp, unapologetic style prove refreshing, though at times she takes for granted the privilege of mobility. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Anyone with a penchant for travel will be delighted in these ten slice-of-life travel essays by Johnson. Whether discovering the mysteries of the Great Barrier Reef, observing wildlife on the Serengeti, or accompanying her physician husband on excursions abroad, Johnson brings alive her experiences and encounters with people and places. One of the most appealing features of the book is Johnson's conversational style of writing. She writes as if she is relaying events to a good friend. Natural Opium is an excellent choice for any library's travel section, due to the diversity of locations covered, the caliber of writing, and the book's absorbing entertainment qualities.-- Jo-Anne Mary Benson, Osgoode, Ontario
Roland Wulbert
Johnson joins the exodus of writers thronging to that marginal literary place that is not quite autobiography or short story or essay. "Auto-fiction" it is called by Johnson's beloved French belletrists, who, never having read, say, Paul Theroux, much less D. H. Lawrence, seem to believe they just invented it. Johnson, an accomplished novelist, calls her contributions to it "tales" and in them is concerned with her travels. Unlike such intrepid travelers as Bruce Chatwin or Ted Hoagland, she merely accompanies her husband to his medical conferences, and the persona she assumes is an antitraveler aghast at even the suggestion of danger. When the host of the World Health Organization's International Infectious Disease Council conference in Grindlewald, Switzerland, proffers an after-banquet toboggan ride, she could hardly bring herself "to believe that the organizers intended that this group of doctors, many stout and elderly, or delicate island people, should go outside and hurtle into the night on these dangerous contraptions." The "I" who tells the story is a bit spoiled and sometimes (when, for example, she suspects sarcastically that "Old Black Joe" is "probably politically incorrect") exasperatingly insular. The ambiguity of "I"'s ironic distance from the author adds, however, to the fun of this unfailingly well written collection.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679413462
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/11/1993
  • Pages: 234

Meet the Author

Diane Johnson
Diane Johnson
A two-time finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Diane Johnson has drawn comparisons to Jane Austen and Edith Wharton with her comedies of manners about Americans living and loving abroad.

Good To Know

In our exclusive interview, Johnson shared some fun facts about herself:

"I worked for the UCLA library for a few months when I was 19 -- otherwise I never had a job until I became a professor, and I know people debate whether that is a job -- perhaps it's a privilege or a scam. So I'm not sure I've ever had a real job. My writing comes from life and from books, as everyone's does, and from my head. I try to nourish my head with art and wandering...."

"I am rather domestic and like to cook and sew, though not to do housework. And I love to ski. To wander around. To read. Am interested in animals and politics."

"I am always appalled when people send me books that they think I will like because of what the books I write are like. I almost always think they are too light and silly, and it rather hurts my feelings to see what people imagine. I don't really like to read novels -- I find it more amusing to write them to read them, but maybe this is only because reading them gets in the way of what I am trying to write. I am reading Max Weber at the moment, and some early Henry James -- The American. I am fond of a lot of people and try to make time to see them. Life seems to sweep by at such speed...."

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    1. Hometown:
      Paris, France, and San Francisco, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 28, 1934
    2. Place of Birth:
      Moline, Illinois
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Utah; M.A., Ph.D., UCLA, 1968

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Preface
Great Barrier Reef 1
Wine 29
The Wildebeest 53
Cuckoo Clock 81
The Heart of Pakistan 103
Rolex 125
Power Structures 151
White Hunter 167
Fellow Travelers 181
In the Land of the Patriarchs 207
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