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Michelle Newby is contributing editor at Lone Star Literary Life, reviewer for Foreword Reviews, freelance writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and blogger at www.TexasBookLover.com. Her reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine, Rain Taxi, World Literature Today, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Collagist.
C. W. Smith has written numerous novels, a collection of short stories, and a memoir. He was a Dedman Family Distinguished Professor at Southern Methodist University. He lives in Dallas with his wife, Marcia.
Travel / Essays
C. W. Smith
A Throttled Peacock: Observations on the Old World
Dallas: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University
978-1-878516-09-1, hardcover, $25.00
April 30, 2015
Y’all know how writing guides advise an opening line that grabs the reader straightaway? The first essay in this collection addresses too much togetherness: “Searching for the flower clock in the Jardin Anglais, I think of nifty ways to kill my wife.” Yep.
So begins A Throttled Peacock: Observations on the Old World, Southern Methodist University professor C. W. Smith’s collection of essays inspired by six months in Europe with his wife, Marcia. Smith takes pains to point out that A Throttled Peacock is not a travel guide. He “sought rather to record the psychological, emotional or intellectual shifts that have come from being estranged from [his] usual life….Traveling in foreign countries…encourages comparison and contrast and calls on dormant parts of your psyche the way using weights in a gym results in new aches and pains but also new strengths.”
With a (mostly) pseudo-curmudgeonly humor, Smith muses on a wide range of subjects. He learns that “all manners are local” when a French chef is insulted by their brie-carving skills (this is also the location of the Great Texas Chili Debacle). The sometimes anxiety-inducing necessity of trusting strangers in an unfamiliar place where you don’t speak the language inspires “The Brotherhood of the Backpack” and Smith discovers that “what we thought were our ‘instincts’ about other people or a situation were feelings that depended upon an elaborate system of coded signals derived purely from a cultural context.”
Smith waxes philosophical about Mother England and her breakaway colonies while contemplating Thomas Hardy and the Ancient Mariner, as literature professors are wont to do: “The veneration of history, of tradition, gives people a sense of identity, but it likewise fixes their feet in concrete. If everything must be justified by precedent, how does something new come into being....So the idea of America begins for me in how you flee from history, not embrace it.” An encounter with an ascetic lifestyle prompts musings on American religion: “[O]ur televangelists constantly beseech us to see that wealth is how God shows his approval of our lives; therefore, the wealthy are the Chosen, their money’s the very sign of it.”
Smith’s imagery is richly evocative. On a wintry day in Geneva “the sun is a pearl button behind a gauze of high cirrus; the wind sweeps away its pale white light.” Marveling at the stone architecture during a stroll through the streets of Madrid: “[W]hat your Westerner’s eye sees as a hand-built canyon of stone, with a dry, cobbled creek bed and granite banks and neat gray or ocher bluffs coming up from the banks to box the sky above.” And at sunset in Oxford: “[T]he stone had caught the yellow light and held it. Spiced-mustard light, dusty dusky-yellow, wine-yellow, apple-yellow light thick as warm candle wax.”
A Throttled Peacock is a combination of the prosaic and the profound, of droll humor and thought-provoking observation. I recommend it for travelers planning to strike out across the globe on summer vacations and for all Texans abroad.
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