Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman
by Alice Steinbach

Random House, 2005. ISBN 978-0-812-97360-0.
Reviewed by Sharon Lippincott
Posted on 03/18/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure

If you love to travel, love to learn, or love great writing, Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman, is just the book for you. Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Steinbach quit her job as a journalist to pursue her dream of combining travel and learning. She spent eighteen months taking breathtaking trips and seeing the world in ways few of us will ever be able to emulate. When she returned, she wrote a memoir of her experiences. Readers share her adventures as she takes lessons and courses in gourmet cooking at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, Japanese culture in Kyoto, art at the British Institute in Florence, the life of Jane Austen in Winchester and Exeter, art and architecture in Havana, gardening in Provence, writing in Prague, and Border collie training in Scotland.

I love all traveling, learning and great writing, and I love this book for many more reasons:

Steinbach's mastery of the writing craft is evident in every story. Although each trip is an independent story capable of standing alone and she gives no details of her life before, between, or after these trips, she quilts them together into a unified account with the thread of her evolving long-distance relationship with a Japanese widower she met on a train in France sometime before this story began. She lets us glimpse flashes of intimacy in fragments of letters to him. Thoughts of him twinkle like fireflies throughout, and we meet him in person in Kyoto.

Steinbach attracts spontaneous adventures that supplement her planned activities, adding depth and intrigue to her tales. In Kyoto she is unexpectedly able to meet and interview geishas. In Florence she wanders into an old church and is drawn into the mystery of the flood that nearly destroyed it. The life of a Jewish girl who perished in the Holocaust intrigues her in Prague. Twining serendipity and mystery with the predictable adds spice to what could be a bland tale.

Everyone has experienced flashes of memory that pop into awareness at the strangest provocation. Steinbach's stories glitter with such sequins, recalling moments with her dearly beloved grandmother, a woman of style and dash, and moments with her mother. These personal anecdotes endear Steinbach to me, revealing her own personality and humanity.

Steinbach herself emerges gradually into view as the stories continue. I felt as if I were seeing the view from behind her eyes, listening to the conversation she carried on with herself inside her head. She shares her reactions to things she sees, and describes the memories they evoke. She writes as freely of words uttered by her "thinking voice" as she does of spoken dialog. She's a master of metaphor and simile, using phrases such as, "If Louisa Jones were a garden, she would be the garden of the Martin-Ragets."

A writer myself as well as a leader of writing workshops, I was especially drawn to the section on Prague. Steinbach had little good to say about the writing workshop she took there, finding it intimidating and less than helpful. It seems the participants felt an obligation to tear apart each other's work rather than suggesting ways of building on what was working. Though she never directly states this, the chapter is a strong warning to be careful where and with whom you study writing and avoid competitive critiquing.

Steinbach's work sizzles with rhythm and a variable beat. This is no formula travelogue. On some trips, she goes into detail about the tribulations she overcame to get there. On others, she starts further into the trip and works her way back. She generally, but not always, follows a chronological approach within each story. The constants throughout are the memory sprinkles and juicy descriptions.

This book went beyond teaching me all sorts of exotic and fascinating tidbits about life and history in far-flung places, and inspired me to seek nontraditional ways of learning in my own travels. It nudged my imagination to new levels as I think about creatively compiling assorted memories around a theme. Now I'm eager to backtrack and read her two earlier works, Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman and The Miss Dennis School of Writing and Other Lessons From a Woman's Life.

Alice Steinbach, who lives in Baltimore, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her Feature Writing work at the Baltimore Sun before she turned to freelance writing in 1999. She has taught journalism and writing at Princeton University, Washington and Lee University, and Loyola College. She has also authored Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman and The Miss Dennis School of Writing and Other Lessons From a Woman's Life.

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