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The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific Paperback – December 8, 2006
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"A superb blend of sharp-eyed observation and pungently expressed opinion. It's hardly paradise, this lovely part of the world, but Theroux makes it endlessly fascinating." Newsday
"Feisty, eloquent, and vast in scope...a multilayered odyssey." The San Francisco Chronicle
"Perceptive, terribly readable, and wickedly funny...[An] exhilarating book." --Book Review The Los Angeles Times
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I have visited many of the islands covered in this comprehensive overview of Oceania and found the descriptions to be remarkably consistent with my experiences. If you've never been to the Pacific Islands, this will give you a true feel for the varied and exotic peoples and locations. Mr. Theroux spent a good deal of time in the Solomons, which are not nearly as developed and accessible as the better known chains (Cook Islands, Society Islands, Hawaii). I found his description of American Samoa particularly interesting as I was married to a Samoan and visited family on the island. The comments about Pago Pago are spot on. The opening chapters on Australia and New Zealand were fascinating.
If you have never read Paul Theroux, then perhaps you will be a bit shocked at his raw cynicism. I, for one, am a big fan. This is the blood and guts of world travel. Nobody can be completely open to a new culture or worldview, and certain things are bound to be annoying. The entire adventure of his literary tour in Australia, for example, points out the nagging, dragging questions of people unfamiliar with his work yet trying to conduct journalistic interviews. It isn't until he is rumbling over the outback that he meets a rural Australian who knows and admires his work - rather unexpectedly, at that. Also, one must remember that Theroux puts it right on the table that he is going through some serious issues in his life - a rough marriage break up, health issues, and feelings of alienation - and is removing himself from the mundane to paddle away his problems.
I, for one, feel like this is one of Theroux's finest books. It is devoid of a real theme and lets you paddle alongside Theroux and his emotional travails. I've traveled a bit in Melanesia, and I find his descriptions to be quite apt. Trouble is everywhere in paradise. Murky, trashed lagoons and quarreling kin networks. Bugs, nagging children, and hustlers. But also, there is the hospitality, the betel nut, the amazing conversations, the unique and unexpected characters and, of course, the bleeding sunsets and turquoise, coral-studded seas.
A lot of people have been very critical of Mr Theroux's travel writing but I do not share their opinions for the most part. I am not a happy traveler so I like to hear about somebody else's experiences in places I will likely never visit. I don't require a thorough, properly researched and documented sociological study in these books... I just want to be entertained. Theroux does so in this book and quite a few of his others that I have read.
After reading this book I had a fuller appreciation that many of these pacific islands are considerably less like the paradises they have elsewhere been held out to be. Perhaps Theroux rather crankily overstates this, as some have suggested, but I recognize people will come away from a given place with different impressions than others. That is only to be expected and should in no way diminish one's enjoyment of a good read.
C John Thompson