to Timbuktu is the true story of a couple living abroad after graduating college. The idea, written by Casey Scieszka and drawn by Steven Weinberg, sounded promising. But sometimes a book is like a dish that sounds creamy and rich on a menu, only to come out an over-sized portion of mush.
The authors met while studying abroad in Morocco. Upon graduating they know three things: 1) they want to get out of the country 2) pursue creative interests 3) be together. They arrange jobs teaching English in Beijing through a relative and off they go.
The first 100 pages or so take you briefly through the choices that set them on their journey and into their time creating lesson plans in a sparse, but cozy apartment. Sketches of street food, steaming dumplings and hand-pulled noodles will give you an unbearable craving for authentic Chinese food.
Then it all falls apart. Huge blocks of poor syntax take over. Maybe the writing style is trying to appeal to a young audience, but teens are smart and appreciate transitions, too. I had to flip back several times certain I’d missed a page, but nope. The narrative jumps around in a very we-did-this-then-this-then-this tone. I like this approach when it’s done well, but here it felt lazy not stylized.
After China, they go to Hanoi then Thailand where they stay in a $5/night oceanfront bungalow for a few days. Then it’s off to Mali for 8 months where Casey has a Fulbright. Her topic of research had something to do with the influence of Islam in schools, but it’s hard to say because she herself didn’t know for sure.
Mali makes up a huge chunk of this book. While the authors say they love it, none of that joy comes across on the page. Part of the problem is that the book is twice the length it needs to be. The authors made strange choices, or no choices at all on what to keep in and take out. Very little happens and most of the anecdotes are inconsequential or in the vein of guess-you-had-to-be-there.
If you’re looking for travel writing that digs deeper to tell either a story bigger than itself or so intricate you feel like you’re there, you’ll find this easy to put down. I kept waiting for a glimpse out the window, but the only consistency is that it remains self-involved no matter where they are.
A quick bounce around showed that many people disagree with me and enjoyed to Timbuktu. So there, me. One takeaway is that I now have a craving for Chinese eggplant!
Here’s a positive review from Sonderbooks.