The Book: All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith
The Challenge: One book set on every continent (Latin America)
I debated whether to write the reviews for this challenge one at a time or all at once when I finally finished all seven. As you can see, I chose the "one at a time" approach.
All Roads Lead to Austen is a mixture of book club literary analysis and one woman's travel memoir. After reading the book Reading Lolita in Tehran, Amy Elizabeth Smith (professor of English from California) decided to take a year and explore how Jane Austen's works would translate into Latin America. Armed with three of Austen's novels (Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility), Smith got book groups in six countries (Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Paraguay, Chile, and Argentina) and asked them what they made of Austen's works. In addition, she asked the groups to provide her with recommendations for books that she should read to understand the literature of their country.
This is not a book for those looking for a biography of Jane Austen, as Smith makes the assumption that the reader is a least partially familiar with Austen's life and the plot of her novels. This is, however, a book for those who want an insight into how literature translates across cultures. It gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of people from the countries by using their responses to something the reader is probably already familiar with. The result is that while some concepts may be presented using different languages or terms, in the end, certain things really are universal. My two favorite groups were the Mexican and the Argentinean ones; in Mexico, the group Smith assembled easily and humorously slip into discussing the fact that examples of many of Austen's characters are alive and well today in the U.S.'s southern neighbor, while Argentina sounds like a book lover's paradise vacation locale and the frank, outspoken members of the group were greatly amusing.
I enjoyed All Roads Lead To Austen, but the book has one major failing: while the discussions of the book clubs were fascinating, the travel memoir aspect was rather.....typical. Too often, Smith sways into the "trying to hard to be humorous" category and winds up with a fairly average description of events. There were the "Oh, no, I don't speak the language well" scenes and the "I'm trying hard not to be that tourist" scenes, and so forth. These are always present in books of this nature, and usually I'm a fan of travel memoirs, but this one felt a little too cliche and weak. Basically, if you want a good travel memoir, try Isabella Bird or Mary Kingsley. If you want a fun book about cross-cultural book groups and bibliophiles from several countries that happens to be mixed with a woman's travel story, then go for All Roads Lead to Austen.
At any rate, All Roads Lead to Austen is a light, fast, enjoyable read that will leave the reader with a portrait of book lovers from countries they might not be overly familiar with. Looking at the various countries via the swapping of literature is a fairly unique approach that will get an appreciative chuckle from any Jane Austen fan or member of a book group.
As a closing note, for me the book fit into something I dealt with in college that a professor of mine referred to as "The Anthropology of Literature". It was an idea that a few of the students in the Anthropology, Classical Studies, and English departments were interested in and wrote papers about, and if you ever have a half hour to spare, I'll be happy to ramble on about it. This book would definitely be on the list if I ever had to teach a course on the subject.