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.
Lone Star Book Reviews
of Texas books appear weekly
Clara Bensen’s 2013 Salon.com article entitled “The Craziest OKCupid Date Ever” was read by more than half a million people. The story of her luggage-less adventure attracted major national and international attention, with coverage in USA Today, and appearances on The View and Fox News. No Baggage has also been optioned by New Line cinemas.
Clara and her partner, Jeff, have made four subsequent no baggage trips, to South America, the Caucuses, Scandinavia, and Japan. She lives in Austin, Texas.
Hardcover, 9780762457243 (ebook also available), 288 pgs., $26.00
January 5, 2016
Clara, a smart, observant introvert, a “nice girl who played by all the rules,” was raised in an evangelical household terrified of Sartre. She had a crisis of faith and then, Sartre-like, an existential crisis. Recently surfaced in wonderment and determination from two years of a nervous breakdown, Clara is starving for life.
Intent on the “unconventional life,” Jeff is intense, charming, and either adventurous or reckless, depending upon your tolerance for risk, with a tendency to allow “playful disruption” to escalate into heedless exhibitionism. His motto is “We’ll see.” As in, where are we staying tonight? “We’ll see.” How are we getting from Budapest to Sarajevo? “We’ll see.”
No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering is a hybrid of memoir, travelogue, and psychological and philosophical rumination on the American condition in a time of rapid transformation. After meeting in Austin, Texas, through OKCupid and dating for a month, Clara and Jeff bought plane tickets to Istanbul and return tickets from London for a three-week trip through Europe. They used Couchsurfing.com to lay their heads at night—“no hotels, no reservations, no itineraries,” relying on serendipity, synchronicity, and the kindness of strangers. The “no baggage” in the title is literal—Clara and Jeff took only the clothes on their backs. It is also figurative in that they were in the midst of a relationship experiment—no traditional commitments—trying to travel without emotional baggage.
This free-form, tour-bus-free travel initially leaves Clara unmoored, but she finds her stride. It allows them to meet diverse and fascinating people: an Iranian tree-planting bicyclist, a Greek translator with a broken heart and passion for modern dance, a Hungarian film critic, a Turkish fisherman. These connections inform Clara’s awareness as she riffs on history, politics, religion, international relations, and economics, with literary allusions referencing John Muir, Lewis Carroll, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Sylvia Plath, and Diogenes. Her imagery brings famous landmarks to life, describing the minarets of Istanbul as “stacked like upturned teacups” and the inner basilica of the Hagia Sophia as a “gilded orange sliced in half.” The thermal spring-fed bathhouses of Budapest have “enough pools for a Dr. Seuss poem: indoor pools, outdoor pools, hot pools, cold pools, mineral pools and wave pools.”
This trip is Clara’s challenge to her wounded psyche, a sort of shock therapy to come to terms with the fundamental uncertainty of life by deliberately choosing the unknown. “Oh, you know, I’m feeling paralyzed by the human condition,” she writes candidly and humorously of her mental illness, “and I don’t know what to do except curl into the fetal position like a frightened pill bug.” Clara struggles with the ambiguities of the relationship as she and Jeff test “whether it was possible to love without grasping.” The “modern” experiment is alternately empowering and like a toddler with too many choices and not enough structure.
No Baggage is about exploring potentialities through journeys: those you take on planes, trains, and automobiles, and those you take through mental illness, friendship, and, maybe, love.
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