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The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking Hardcover – December 31, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* British journalist and writer Laing (To the River, 2012) conducts and chronicles intrepid and divulging literary journeys, here recounting her travels across America, tracking the role alcoholism played in the lives of John Berryman, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams. She lifted “Echo Spring” from Williams’ Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, because it’s Brick’s “nickname for the liquor cabinet,” based on a brand of bourbon, and because the writers’ painful experiences echo one another’s and often converge. In this enfolding and exposing inquiry, Laing analyzes and intermeshes the lives of her subjects and her own as a child in a household poisoned by drink. She learns how alcohol affects the brain and discovers clues to each writer’s addiction in their published and private writings as she visits their haunts in New York, New Orleans, Key West, and the Pacific Northwest. As she investigates the symbioses between alcoholism and trauma, creativity, and repressed homosexuality, she recalibrates our perception of the suffering and brilliance of these seminal writers. Intently observant, curious, and empathetic, Laing, with shimmering detail and arresting insights, presents a beautifully elucidating and moving group portrait of writers enslaved by drink and redeemed by “the capacity of literature to somehow . . . make one feel less flinchingly alone.” --Donna Seaman


Rather than lightheartedly skipping stones along the surface of the queasily common connection between great authors and their drinking habits, Laing dives deep, plummeting into some of her subjects' darkest impulses....Impecabbly researched...exposing details that, while mostly sad, are almost sickeningly absorbing. The result is a multilayered biography that reads quick as fiction, and is teeming with fantastically melancholy details of the writers we thought we knew. (Lauren Viera, The Chicago Tribune)

Most beguiling and incisive. (The New York Times)

[A] charming and gusto-driven look at the alcoholic insanity of six famous writers…There is much to learn from Laing's supple scholarship--and much to enjoy, too. (Lawrence Osborne, The New York Times Book Review)

Her exquisite readings of Hemingway's short story 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro' and Cheever's short story 'The Swimmer' will make you want to reread those anthologized chestnuts and delve into Carver's and Berryman's perhaps less familiar poetry....Laing, wisely, doesn't reach any one-size-fits-all conclusions about the bond between the pen and the bottle. Some of her writers drink, it seems, to quell panic and self-disgust; others as a stimulant; others for who-knows-what reason. And, though she's a marvelous writer herself, Laing sticks to her original premise that alcoholic writers are the most eloquent chroniclers of their own addiction. (Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air)

[An] eccentric, impassioned, belle-lettristic, graceful and haunted book....[Laing's] story has a rambling, daydream quality. (The Wall Street Journal)

The Trip to Echo Spring is a rewarding book to wend your way through even if the writers Laing focuses on Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver and the American poet John Berryman--aren't among your particular favorites. Laing writes a fluid, fertile nonfiction... Although Laing isn't an alcoholic herself, she alludes to several adult relationships blighted by the disease, and her second-hand understanding of it is manifestly detailed and deep....Another powerful draw of The Trip to Echo Spring is the flashing imagination of Laing's literary criticism....A wondrously rewarding book. (Laura Miller, Salon)

Laing's writing is beautiful, her insights frequently surprising and powerful. The book's greatest virtue, however, is that it positively swells with empathy. (Rosie Schaap, Slate)

Olivia Laing's book is an exploration of alcoholism in six 20th-century American writers...that dazzles in both the scope of its ambition and the depths it reaches in analyzing its subjects. Laing, through the lens of extensive research both into the writer's biographies and into literature about alcoholism as a disease, paints these writers with a brush that renders them in new light....While there may be more uplifting books about writing and writers, few present the reader with such sobering realities about the downside to all those romantic, drunken nights in Paris or Key West. (Interview)

Olivia Laing emerges as a kind of British Susan Orlean, combining nonfiction narrative, travel writing, literary criticism and a touch of memoir in a personable style....Her descriptions of the landscape she sees, the conversations she overhears and the people she runs into are sparkling....Without building to a specific point or climax, Laing keeps you on board through her journey...Your head filled with the questions and answers so interestingly raised here, you will want to take a long look at both. (Newsday)

The Trip to Echo Spring...contains astute observations about addiction....Laing provides a remarkably cogent explanation of alcohol's effects on the brain and emotions. (Tampa Bay Times)

The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing's remarkable book about six alcoholic American writers, reminds me of the overhead projections we watched in classrooms before PowerPoint came along, in which several transparent sheets were artfully lined up atop each other to produce a complex document....I've read many words about the alcoholism of literary writers, and many more words about the 12 Step model of addiction and recovery. But until "Echo Spring," I'd never read a writer who bridged both worlds with such intelligence, grace and thoughtfulness. (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

A funny, tragic, and insightful journey for anyone who has read F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, or John Berryman; prepare to be smitten with this fresh offering. Those unfamiliar with these writers will want to read their works. (Library Journal (starred review))

Laing, with shimmering detail and arresting insights, presents a beautifully elucidating and moving group portrait of writers enslaved by drink and redeemed by 'the capacity of literature to somehow...make one feel less flinchingly alone.' (Booklist (starred review))

The tortured relationship between literary lions and their liquor illuminates the obscure terrain of psychology and art in this searching biographical medidation....Laing's astute analysis of the pervasive presence and meaning of drink in the writers' texts, and its reflection of the writers' struggle to shape--and escape--reality...A fine study of human frailty through the eyes of its most perceptive victims (Publishers Weekly (starred))

A provocative, evocative blend of memoir, literary history and lyrical travel writing. (Kirkus Reviews)

I'm sorry I've finished this wonderful book because I feel I've been talking to a wise friend. I've been trying to work out exactly how Olivia Laing drew me in, because I hardly drink myself and have no particular attachment to the group of writers whose trials she describes. I think the tone is beautifully modulated, knowledgeable yet intimate, and she can evoke a state of mind as gracefully as she evokes a landscape....I think this is a book for all writers or would-be writers, whether succeeding or failing, whether standing on their feet or flat on the pavement....It's one of the best books I've read about the creative uses of adversity: frightening but perversely inspiring. (Hilary Mantel, Booker Prize–winning author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies)

I loved The Trip to Echo Spring. It's a beautiful book that has stayed with me in a profound way. (Nick Cave)

The Trip to Echo Spring...thank God, never reductively answers the question [why writers drink] but thoughtfully explores it through an examination of the lives and careers of 'Tennessee Williams, John Cheever and Raymond Carver among others. (Jay McInerney)

A beguiling, beautifully written journey in search of six famous literary drunks. What gives her book its brilliance and originality...[is] the quality of its writing. (The Sunday Times (London))

The beauty of Laing's book lies not just in the poetry of her prose, the rich array of images, and literary allusions to her chosen subjects evoked during her transcontinental ghost-hunt, but intriguing links she makes to a wider literary landscape. (The Independent (London))

Laing's analysis of the complex addiction is consistently shrewd. But what makes The Trip to Echo Spring truly worthwhile is that she, like those she writes about, is a terrific writer. (The Times (London))

This book is a triumphant exercise in creative reading in which diary entries, letters, poems, stories and plays are woven together to explore deep, interconnected themes of dependence, denial and self-destructiveness. It is a testimony to this book's compelling power that having finished it, I immediately wanted to read it again. (Scotland on Sunday)

Like a night out with an academically-inclined Elizabeth Taylor or Ava Gardner. Sodden, surprising, riotous, and crazily up and down. Welsh puritan that I am, I loved it. (Daily Mail)

The book's subtitle, Why Writers Drink, undersells her achievement. …[Laing has produced] a nuanced portrait--via biography, memoir, analysis--of the urge of the hyperarticulate to get raving drunk. (New Statesman (London))

It's deliciously evocative, Laing's melancholic and lyrical style conjuring the location, before effortlessly segueing into medical facts about alcoholism, the effects on the lives of each writer, and well-chosen passages from their work. This is a highly accomplished book, and highly recommended. (List (London))

Matches smart textual analysis of 20th-century greats with down-and-dirty ferreting....A superb idea, exceptionally well executed. (Metro (London))

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; First Edition edition (December 31, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1250039568
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250039569
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.3 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (113 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #156,196 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Larry Feign on December 31, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Many critics and biographers have speculated, pontificated or poked fun at the symbiosis between writers and the bottle, but Olivia Laing delves into their psyches in a quest to truly understand. This book can't help but move you.

Focusing on six well-known American alcoholic writers, Laing, a British author and literary critic, set out on a trip around the USA to visit the places these men inhabited, read through their letters and journals, and speak to surviving relatives, while poring through their published works, trawling for clues, aching for answers. Two committed suicide; two knowingly drank themselves to death. Laing strips the romance and the condemnation from their life stories and paints a picture of six deeply troubled artists.

The book is mostly biography, part journalism about the physiology and psychology of alcoholism, part literary criticism, tied together with interludes of travelogue and memoir, the latter to reveal the author’s personal motivations behind the project. Much emphasis is placed on setting—searching for meaning in the way the authors’ favorite haunts affected both their writing and their personalities—and some of Laing’s strongest writing is in her descriptions of place, in which the language soars.

Why Writers Drink. Does Laing find the answer? I think she does so in the cases of these six writers, though whether that can be extrapolated to all writers and their addictions remains to be seen. Though she demolishes the romanticism associated with artists and alcohol, and provokes deep, thought-provoking questions. Would there have been a “Great Gatsby” or “A Streetcar Named Desire” had their authors not been addicted to drink?
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Marci Kesserich on July 11, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The subject of alcohol and the American author has always fascinated us, for reasons both prosaic and prurient. We hold in our minds a certain romantic image of the hard-drinking writer, a marriage of the Dionysian libertine and the Apollonian artist, trading bon mots at the Algonquin Round Table or sweating pure gin as they hurriedly and brilliantly rewrite Act 3 during the middle of Act 2 on opening night. The gold standard on this subject is of course 'The Thirsty Muse' by Tom Dardis, a set of slim but rich biographical sketches not of his chosen writers but specifically of their alcoholism, written to brilliant effect.

As someone who has always enjoyed the subject, I happily picked up 'The Trip to Echo Spring', excited to read a young woman's perspective on six dead male drunks. In short, I came to this book wanting to enjoy it. I did not. I could provide a running annotation as to why, but that would be repetitive and tiresome. Instead, I will simplify by saying that it has two distinctive failings, one minor and one major, that crucially undermine both its intent and its presentation.

Its minor failing is that Ms. Laing's writing is just overly precious. This is a flaw common to many new talents: their ability to write prettily often precedes their ability to write well. This book is full of lovely, clever sentences, but they neither move her narrative along nor expand upon or elucidate her thesis. With her polished prose she builds landscapes on which nothing moves, houses in which no one lives, and characters who enter and leave the book without incident. Take for instance the following representative passage:

"There were rocking chairs at Charlotte airport and one of the concession stands sold barbecue.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful By MsMarino on January 23, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
I really wanted to enjoy this book. unfortunately i was deeply let down… meandering, confusing and disjointed was how i found it. the author traveled from city to city to do what? i found those travels to be unnecessary and while in each city she flits from one author to another, regardless of which author that particular city applied to. there were some enjoyable moments but for the most part i just felt duped by the books description. too bad really. it felt like i was reading a college term paper.
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Format: Hardcover
“The Trip to Echo Spring” written by Olivia Laing is a book that talks about the unusual connection between something we usually consider as human weakness, and on the other hand something that is timeless and gives inspiration.

It’s well known that many writers and artists in general liked drinking, and that many of them deeply steeped in alcoholism – to answer the question of why is this so is not easy, whether it comes to the release of inspiration that alcohol offers, running away from reality in the form of bottle or just to be an artist is not easy and you need something to help you bear the pain.

In her book “The Trip to Echo Spring”, Olivia Laing made extensive research about the work and lives of six extraordinary artists, writers whose lives have been marked by alcohol which due to it or despite it, created many literary masterpieces - John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver and John Berryman.

The author, who is from UK, set herself the task to go to places where they lived and worked, she talked to people who knew them, read their personal their personal belongings – journals and letters, unraveling the mystery and connection of their creativity and their weaknesses.
The sad truth is that two of six of them were killed by alcohol, while two of them made a suicide, forever hiding the secret of whether alcohol was a consequence or cause of their misery.

In her book, like in cocktail, she mixed lot of things – except presenting some biographical elements about the authors that are unknown to the wider public, she critically talks about the psychology of alcoholics and how alcohol affects the man and his abilities.
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