my kind of place
by Susan Orlean
(Random House, 277 pages, $24.95)
In the movie Adaptation, which was loosely based on the nonfiction bestseller The Orchid Thief, the character of the book's author, New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, is played by Meryl Streep. It's that backstory--what happens to a reporter after you've been portrayed by the country's leading actress in a film that spins your account of an orchid poacher into something else entirely--that casts a shadow over the writer's latest collection.
My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere is billed as dispatches from someone who doesn't travel lightly, and as a book it fails for not having the ambition to add up to anything more than a pile of magazine stories. There's no account of Orlean's reaction to her Hollywood treatment. Instead, too many pieces in this collection--like a short bit about "My Life," a 1990 bauble describing the writer's birth-college-first marriage-purchase of New York apartment as performance art--seem as dated and flat as convention balloons.
As in Orlean's last collection, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, the reporter's best subjects are those plucked from what might be considered the cultural underclass, places and people mostly unseen in a world obsessed with the hot air of Streep-sized celebrity. For example, there's "The Place to Disappear," Orlean's heated profile of Bangkok's Khao San Road, an Internet clubhouse for most of the world's young beer-drinking, bargain-hunting travelers. Another fine study, "All Mixed Up," is an intense, sociological view of the complicated world of one independently owned supermarket in Queens.
At her best, no matter where Orlean is reporting from, it's her eye for the quirky digression that helps her find her way, whether she's climbing Mount Fuji in a lousy rainstorm or watching a touch-up artist create an "heirloom" out of a reproduction by "Painter of Light" Thomas Kinkade. Like Kinkade, Orlean the reporter highlights the specificity of her collected details with calibrated precision, as in her descriptions of two Oregon-centric examples: the unsightly pimply condition and droopy dorsal fin of former Newport resident Keiko, the world's most domesticated killer whale, and the complicated, flimsy houses and come-and-go lives of residents of Portland Meadows Mobile Home Park.
In the book's subtitle, the author is branded as a woman who has been everywhere. Yet Orlean, the writer, seldom draws upon the authority of introspection or analysis rightly earned from all the miles she has traveled.
Susan Orlean, the bestselling author of The Orchid Thief and former WW reporter, will read at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Sunday, Oct. 10.