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Good writing, diverse topics but lacking in a woman's voice
on December 1, 2010
This is an unusual collection of the "best" travel writing for 2010. Although none of the articles are by any means bad, truly just a few really impressed me as outstanding travel writing.
But first, perhaps the genre of "travel writing" should be defined. To me, it's a story about an event that happened outside one's native town, state or country. There is always a sense of being a stranger in a place. Good travel writing details the stranger's experience. It's not a travel guide for tourists who are looking for bargains and deals. Travel writing is informative, written in the first person. "Place" is always important but so is the personal experience. Travel writing entices readers to want to go to the places the strangers wrote about to see that place for themselves. If there is no enticement, it's not really good writing.
Good travel writing can also include historical events that took place in the areas written about. This is my personal favorite, writing about a new place because of its historical significance, interfused with the writer's personal reaction in modern times to that "place." And there are some good stories in this "Best of" that fit this genre.
At first I was taken back by this collection when discovering that the first story was a short (thankfully!) story by Henry Alford about a gay man's fantasy in Instabul, Turkey. "Appointment in Instanbul" fits the description of travel writing but lacks detail and significance to be considered "best of." Luckily the subsequent stories fare much better:
Tom Bissell, "Looking for Judas" (Virginia Quarterly Review) writes about his off-the-beaten path in Jerusalem looking for THE spot where Judas killed himself and instead writes about his impressions of well-armed Israelis and their heightened security awareness everywhere.
Colby Buzzell writes "Down & Out in Fresno and San Francisco" (Esquire). This was not so much a travel article, but an honest look at how many ex-cons and other down-and-outers live in these cities during our recent recession. It's a good article worth reading. But is it truly a travel article?
Avi Davis, "The Undead Travel" writes about his trip to Romania to "find" the old Prince Dracula's former home. This is an interesting article because he infuses much history into this article. Dracula was a real person in medieval times. Unfortunately, his claim to fame was impaling people rather than biting them in the neck. People like Avi travel to Romania just to look for anything Dracula-related, and this article is for people like him.
Michael Finkel writes "The Hadza." This National Geographic author describes a baboon hunt and other Hadza customs in Tanzania in that renowned NatGeo style. It's very good, very detailed and worth reading.
Ian Frazier (The New Yorker) writes "Travels in Siberia," a summary of his new book by the same name. This is the longest article in this collection, and also, IMO, one of the best. It's a traditional travel article in that Place and experience and person all matter. It's like a detailed, exciting 1980s article about the Soviet Union. No detail is left out. Frazier is a good writer and worth reading. This article was an excellent choice for this collection.
Ted Genoways (Outside Magazine) writes "Batman Returns," an ingenious article about his experience with his father in the Suriname Brownsberg Nature Park. Nature, human interaction (a sensitive father-son experience) and place make this an interesting read.
J.C Hallman's "A House Is a Machine to Live in" is an interesting sort. It takes place in mostly Norway (inside a friend's Oslo home and later inside a cruise ship cabin) but discussions with his friend deal with ocean liners, ocean travel, cruise ship travel and some of its history.
Peter Hessler, "Strange Stones" (The New Yorker) is another good article. Hessler's fame is from his beautifully-written, detailed and sensitive articles and books about China. "Stones" is no different. His latest book about China, "Country Driving" is reflected in this work.
Christopher Hitchens from Vanity Fair writes "The Lovely Stones," a short article about the Partheon and its place in history today.
Garrison Keillor (National Geographic) writes "Take in the State Fair." This is not about a specific state fair, but a synopsis of what the average midwestern state fair is. It's written in the typical Keillor style.
Peter LaSalle writes "Walking: an Essay on Writing." Just like Keillor's abstract article before this, this is an article about walking, but it in airport terminals, across Paris or in Brazil's Rio de Janeiro. This article works, because LaSalle interjects this essay with his surroundings.
Peter Jon Lindberg writes "In Defense of Tourism" (from Travel and Leisure) and this is perhaps the one weak article along with Alford's "Instanbul" article. It's more of an essay on trveling in general. This is better placed at the end of the book.
Susan Orlean (Smithsonian Magazine) writes "Where Donkeys Deliver," a clever article about Fez,Morocco and its strange Islamic ways. It's also about the doneky and its importance to the town. It's the only article by a female writer. Too bad, because this article is one of the better ones in the book.
David Owen from The New Yorker writes "The Ghost Course," an interesting bit on a Scottish golf course and the regional history of golfing. History comes up a lot in this article, but so does the here and now. Well done.
George Packer from The New Yorker writes "The Ponzi State," an interesting article about the Florida housing boom and bust. It's a good article and very informative, but is it true travel writing?
Matthew Power from Men's Journal writes "Lost in the Amazon." It's a good article. I didn't even realize that Men's Journal publishes articles this good about travels!
Steven Rinella from Outside Magazine writes "Me, Myself and Ribeye" and his quest for the perfect Argentinian steak. It's a very detailed, adventurous article that is typical of Outside Magazine. Rinells writes about both the landscape, its people and the quest for beef. Nicely done.
David Sedaris from The New Yorker writes "Guy Walks into a Bar Car" about his adventure in 1991 (!) traveling by train from New York to Chicago and back. It's filled with the usual comedic dialogue that made Sedaris famous.
Patrick Symmes from Conde Nast Traveler writes "The Filthy, Fecund Secret of Emilia-Romagna" and the experiences he had living there for a week with his family. It's a good article, very detailed, and unlike most articles published in Conde Nast. It's about the town's food, its people, and its rich soil. It's not an ideal travel spot, but this article makes the Italian village downright appealing.
Simon Winchester from Lapham's Quarterly writes "Take Nothing, Leave Nothing" about his experience on a South African island in the 1980s. He wasn't a very considerate tourist, and this article explains why. He writes in detail about what not to do to and with the locals. Not bad.
These are the articles in a nutshell. Some where about experiences written long ago. Only two, the ones in CA and FL, are current. All have a serious tone to them. Most are informative. I've mentioned my personal favorites but perhaps others will disagree with me. The articles as a whole are good and editor Bill Buford did a good job. Next time he should really look at more women writers, though. There's a whole new experience left out by excluding women writers.