Pam Houston is the poster woman for "it's not what you write, it's how you write it." A dust-jacket glance at her new novel, Contents May Have Shifted, reveals an Eat, Pray, Love-esque memoir of a white woman gallivanting about the globe, eating, exploring, and pursuing cultural spirituality. But it's a comparison that's blasphemy of the highest order. Houston is a consummate yarn spinner—smart, funny, and elegant—and her autobiographically tinged book is full of vignette realizations, beautiful scenery, and amazing adventures by a narrator you'd kill to have as a best friend.
Contents is a dizzying kaleidoscope of travel entries by narrator Pam (who Houston has said is approximately 82 percent autobiographical), as she darts from Tibet, Bhutan, and Newfoundland, to her ranch in Colorado and back to her creative writing professorship in Davis, California. Houston's micro-fiction-like chapters skip by, populated with lovers and friends whose commonality "is a love of the world so fierce it makes us edgy"—at cowboys bars, spas, during dog sled trips, and increasingly strange New-Age treatments. There's very little framework to string Pam's thoughts and locales together, but as Houston's crisp storytelling braids along, a conventional hanger for Pam's travels starts to seem silly; all the juicy bits happen in her head, as she tries to find her place in a dead-end relationship and deal with her itchy wanderlust and suicidal inclinations.
Pam is at once fearless and paralyzed by the fearsome need for ultimate freedom. She struggles with injuries inflicted by her alcoholic father, terrible luck with men, and a need to clear her head on airplanes destined for somewhere. Contents is both a gorgeous travelogue—in Argentina "the turquoise of glacier water spun up in wind-created waves coming right at us like giant plates of sea glass"—and the inner monologue of a lady who lunches... on mountaintops. "I have spent my life trying to understand the way this rock and this ache go together, why a granite peak is more dramatic half dressed in clouds... why sunlight under fog is better than the sum of its parts, why my best days and my worst days are always the same days." Reading Houston is a fireside cup of tea with a sleeping wolfhound and a friend, legs tired from a day of hiking.