Book Reviews

Couchsurfing: The Musical by Gary Pedler

Genre Gay / Contemporary / Nonfiction
Reviewed by ParisDude on 16-March-2020

Book Blurb

Couchsurfing: the Musical charts both a physical and psychological journey as author explores the fast-growing travel phenomenon of Couchsurfing. Middle-aged and set in his ways, he starts as a skeptic. Who would want to spend the night in the home of a complete stranger? While knocking on the doors of thirty-five of these strangers across nine countries, starting in Tel Aviv and ending in Boston, he realizes that He would, and maybe he’ll not only save money, but find himself changed for the better by the experience. Balancing the forward motion of his Couchsurfing adventures are glimpses back into the past, seen through the quirky lens of musicals that have played a part in his life.


Book Review

I met Gary Pedler last week at a meeting of the Club littéraire du Marais, a Parisian gay writers’ club where I and my better half were invited to talk about our French review site livresgay. The next day, he sent me an email asking if I would care to read his travel memoir ‘Couchsurfing’, and I accepted. Of course, reading the book of someone I know personally is always a challenge for me. What if I don’t like the book? What if I find the writing bad, the topic dull, the plot daft? I don’t know how to be diplomatic; on the other hand, I hate conflict and gratuitous meanness even more. It is a walking-on-a-knife’s-edge-thing to read and criticize a friend’s book at the best of times. Dilemma, dilemma.


But I downloaded the galley copy, opened it, started to read… and finished it almost in one go, with my better half reminding me at one moment that it would be time to have supper (I think I remember a sigh and the words “If you’re able to unscrew your eyes from the screen, do you think we might have supper at last?”). That means my anxious anticipation was totally unwarranted. I don’t know what I feared, bitchy rants or self-satisfied explorations of to-be-places maybe, but I didn’t get these. I read the last chapter the next day, with the same enjoyment as the first, between the apéritif and our (for once early) supper.


This book is exactly what I think a travel memoir should be. Exotic places (well, for me, most of them were) told from a particular point of view. In this case, the particular aspect starts with the travel mode. Couchsurfing is a way of travelling without paying for accomodation—or, as the website of the same name claims, “You have friends all over the world, you just haven’t met them yet.” In other words, you join the website, you select the places you want to visit, and you contact several available hosts to ask if they can take you in during the selected period of time. For free. The book starts with Gary Pedler explaining that he was on a world trip and that, while staying in Amman, Jordan, he decided he’d try out couchsurfing. He also explains his book’s peculiar title (namely, the subtitle ‘A Musical’), the first passage that made me giggle—there were several more to come. I guess that was the moment he had me hooked. I followed Gary to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Rammalah, and Nazareth (Israel and Palestine); then to Paris, France (no touristic exotism there, at least for me); Hamburg, Cologne, and Constance (Germany); Bregenz, Vienna, Klagenfurt (Austria, so of course I knew these cities); Trieste and Venice (two of my favourite Italian cities); the UK and Ireland; the US East Coast; and last but not least, Montreal, Canada.


Now, if you are looking for a book about tourist attractions and decriptions of famous sights, you had rather pick up a tourist guidebook. Travel memoirs sometimes include these, but they are not their main focus, and that is a good thing. As I said, I hoped for a particular point of view, and Gary provided it throughout the book. For one, he is gay and doesn’t hide the fact. Secondly, he focused on the look-and-feel, the personal sensation of the places he visited (not all of them touristic highlights), and most interestingly: he focused on the people he encountered. That is what travelling should be, in my humble opinion: meet people, share things with them, exchange with them. As he swapped accomodations rather often, that allowed me to get a better feeling of, say, Israel or Palestine, or Hamburg, or crisis-shaken Ireland. For not only is Gary a keen, astute and honest observer—I wouldn’t dare write half as many candid physical descriptions of people who actually exist and have met me—, but also someone who, despite his protests to the contrary, likes to meet people and likes to ask questions. These questions tend to be very personal and to-the-point, in what he himself would dub a US-American way, but at least, they always trigger interesting reactions, if not telltale answers. The discussions about Israel that he generated were priceless in their insights—you cannot explain the Middle East, I’m sure; you can only experience it and try to find the words to describe it. These are two of the best things I found in this book: Gary has a unique way to look at himself and his fellow humans, and he also found a pleasant way to put these things into words.


While reading on and on, I was reminded of Graham Greene, namely his ‘Travels with My Aunt’ (the main character being one of those post-Victorian pseudo-straight males who always felt crypto-gay to me, with very little ‘crypto’ about them), but also of Mark Twain’s countless travel books. Pedler’s writing is nowhere as “antiquated” as Twain’s may sometimes seem, but his analyses are just as wry and tongue-in-cheek, in other words, highly enjoyable and giggle-inducing. For instance, to me as a foreigner living in Paris, his assessment of Paris as a whole, the French. and notably the Parisians in particular, felt quite often as if I knew the persons he described. Types who, far from being stereotypes, almost became archetypes. Intertwined with Pedler’s exploration of humans and (mostly suburbian) cityscapes are memories of his younger years spent in the Napa Valley in California, which are just as rewarding. I not only got to meet strangers from different countries, but also this particular stranger that is Gary Pedler. An endearing lad with sometimes strange actions and reactions, but with an interesting way of thinking and pondering and analyzing. Picture a shy gay man in his early fifties who for his travels ventures using a mode of accomodation that, at first sight, is absolutely not his cup of tea. Who time and again has to get far out of his comfort zone in order to enjoy his adventure. Who in the end not only enjoys it even during more dour experiences, but also gets something out of it that he is able to share with his readers.


Reading this book was a wholesome adventure for me, a highly enjoyable voyage. I’m not sure I’m ready to go couchsurfing, but I’m sure I can recommend this book without a moment’s hesitation.





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Additional Information

Format ebook and print
Length Novel, 234 pages
Heat Level
Publication Date 19-April-2019
Price $7.24 ebook, $19.60 paperback
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