Touch Anywhere to Begin by Mark Anthony Jarman

“Keep the bad roads, I think. I like this place exactly as it is.”  p 42

 “Here is the crux: Venice is a true marvel, except for the crowds drawn to it. Tourism must die, but I am a tourist.” p 227

Touch Anywhere to Begin is a rich and satisfying collection of personal essays garnered from the journeys of a wanderer by nature. Mark Anthony Jarman is a quirky and sometimes irritable travel companion who describes himself as a rotten traveller (“my eye and tongue are too critical”), but whose deep love for the places and people he meets along the way (even when he doesn’t like the places and masses of people he encounters) will have you hanging on every word. And it’s not just what he writes about that will keep you riveted; it’s his first-rate writing that will hold you.

“I like to reserve rave praise (yes, you heard it coined here) for the truly exceptional. Mark Anthony Jarman’s Touch Anywhere to Begin is that kind of standout.”

I am not one to rave. I compliment regularly, and I am quick to point out things I like, but I rarely rave about something. I don’t believe in it (I also don’t give standing ovations just because). I like to reserve rave praise (yes, you heard it coined here) for the truly exceptional. Mark Anthony Jarman’s Touch Anywhere to Begin is that kind of standout. I was raving about it as I read it, and I’m raving about it still. I love this book, and so will you. Boom. There it is. A standing ovation. This is the stuff you wait for.

I don’t want to say too much about the travel essays themselves, I want you to come to this writing with the same clean slate I did. I want you to pick it up and be surprised and fall in love with this writer and his writing all on your own. But I should say a bit more about the book – so you have an idea why I’m recommending it so highly – and this is a book review, after all.

I literally laughed out loud reading parts of Touch Anywhere to Begin, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve laughed out loud reading a book. Don’t get me wrong, Jarman is not a humorist. Some of his stories are tragic and grief-stricken, and Jarman is a thoughtful, eloquent and often critical observer of the places he writes about. But within serious musings, he can’t seem to help himself but crack a joke (and you’ll be glad he does). Amidst a monologue about the history of invasion and war in Croatia, he throws in a zinger (“In Zagreb even the cats smoke”), or he plays with a word or idea for a line or two to release tension (“Meat is hate and meat is love, meat is public and deadly and meat puts me to sleep…”), or he distracts us with: a bizarre sign he saw (“To the right of the road I spy a modest building with the sign (and I am not making this up) Happy Time Home for the Blind”), or a mis-translated phrase he heard yelled (“Drunkards! I molest you!”), or a random turn of self-deprecation (“Kids adore the noise and lovely lunacy, and I would have loved this in grade four, where I scored poorly on impulse control.”) – and you’ll almost get lost in the random fun. But you don’t; you hold on tight and stay on.

Jarman doesn’t apologize when he digresses or when, for instance, he gets distracted by a couple in a café and what they’re arguing about, he just weaves stuff in and out as it occurs to him, and you follow him gladly wherever he goes. He writes about place like he’s a douser. He intuits where and what the best stories are, and that’s what he shares.

Jarman’s writing in these essays is imaginative, skilful and, if you have writing aspirations at all; enviable. I could share two pages of favourite quotes from this book. I love his mea culpa perspective, I love that he starts one essay with “I kind of hate Vienna,” (what kind of travel writing is this?!), I love that he reminds me vaguely of Hunter S. Thompson and a little of Kurt Vonnegut, but he’s not like them either and isn’t trying to be.

One thing I didn’t enjoy about the book, though (and I hate to even bring it up) is the cover (because people really do judge books by their cover, and this one is not appealing). This writing deserves a package that reflects the quality of writing within, or at very least doesn’t repel the reader. If the book gets a second printing (and it will), it deserves an updated cover. Give me the empty, pre-pandemic Venetian streets Jarman wandered, or the old train bridge that spans the river in Fredericton, or the wheat fields in Norway his old girlfriend Liv worked in, or the clogged super highways of China that repelled him. A classic painting would even work. Whatever the case; give this book the show-stopping cover it deserves.

 I also don’t love the names Jarman gives his essays. If I flip through the book and only read the titles (as I just did), I am not reminded of a single story he told (an exception: “Vienna’s Apology to Pigs” – that title landed).). Though they’re catchy sounding and often amusing, the titles don’t set up or enhance the stories that follow (at least they don’t for me). It’s a minor criticism. I’m still on my feet applauding at the end of this masterful collection, and I’ll read it again.

I almost wish I was still a student at UNB Fredericton so I could be in Mark Anthony Jarman’s creative writing class. This is writing to aspire to. Touch Anywhere to Begin is a great ride, and Jarman is a fantastic travel companion and interpreter of place. I recommend it highly.

“An aneurysm alters your brain and any voyage alters your brain. I was a tourist in Zagreb and Togir, a tourist in Red China, then a tourist trapped in the stroke ward; I know that floor, that ward’s a strange country … “ p 157

Mark Anthony Jarman is an award-winning Canadian author of six books of fiction and the critically acclaimed Ireland’s Eye. He has won a National Magazine Award in non-fiction, and his essays have appeared in the WalrusCanadian GeographicHobart, the Barcelona ReviewVrig Nederland, and the Globe and Mail. He lives in Fredericton.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Goose Lane Editions (Sept. 20 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 256 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0864929196
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0864929198