Review: How to Travel with a Salmon

I have FINALLY finished How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays by Umberto Eco. I have to say, Eco is a great writer. The Name of the Rose and The Island of the Day Before are some of my favorite novels by him; the former held me absolutely spellbound the first time I read it, even though I was really too young to completely comprehend all of it. (Sidenote: I read it when I was 12. It made much more sense and I liked it even more when I read it again at age 20.)

This collection of short stories is amusing, but not quite on the same level as Eco’s longer works. I mentioned in a previous post that this was a “candy book” and I stand by that original assessment. Have a little at a time, and it’s delicious and satisfying. Have too much, and it starts to get old. This is a bit of a new experience for me. I tend to be a literature glutton, stuffing myself until I tear through a book and have no capacity to rouse myself from the depths of my sofa. This, however, was the perfect before-bed book. I would lay down with How to Travel with a Salmon, read one or two essays, and then put it aside to go to sleep. This is quite a different mode of operation than the occasions on which I mean to read one chapter of a novel and find myself still reading at 3:00 in the morning (I’m looking at you, Dennis Lehane).

The essays in this collection are funny, but not hilarious. My mental comparison was to think of Bill Bryson on a calm day. Eco is a more sedate humor, but still very enjoyable. The titular essay may be the funniest in the book. Eco tried to stash a fresh salmon in a hotel refrigerator, and found himself being charged outrageous prices for alcohol and snacks that he removed from the fridge to make room for the fish. His descriptions of arguing with immovable hotel staff are something that many frazzled travelers can relate to.

Some of my other favorites were “How to Eat In-Flight”, “How to Use the Coffepot from Hell”, “How to Justify a Private Library” (big surprise), and “How to Recognize a Porn Movie”. The essays cover a wide array of topics, though the author himself is ever-present in all of his bemused, befuddled glory. Eco is witty and at times keenly satirical; other moments were slightly slower and more reminiscent of an older relative telling you a story that they’ve told you a dozen times before.

This was a fun, light, read – though reading more than two or three stories in a row tended to make the writing begin to blend together. Eco’s work here is definitely smile-inducing, a far cry from his darker and more philosophical novels. Still, I recommend it. Give yourself permission to read this book lazily, and enjoy!

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