Perceptive Travel Book Reviews March 2010
by Joshua Berman

In this issue: Chuck Thompson's follow–up to Smile When You're Lying, a bizarre food stories collection from Andrew Zimmern, and a long–gone journey that reads too much like a grocery list.

To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism
By Chuck Thompson

Sharp–tongued Chuck Thompson stares down his personal bugaboos on four separate trips: to the Congo, India, Mexico City, and (gasp) Disney World. He calls these places the "four horsemen of my apocalypse" then delivers three hundred pages of irreverent, beverage–out–your–nose narrative as he visits each one. Sure, Thompson uses a time–tested, oft–repeated formula of travel writing to set up Hellholes, but he does it well and it works. The steps are:

(1) Explain why your chosen destination is so perilous and horrific (always include advice from sensible friends and paranoid quotes from the U.S. State Department),
(2) State that bad places are never as bad as people say they are, then
(3) Go to said places where, using self–deprecating wit and personal flair, simultaneously debunk and reinforce the stereotypes of danger and/or discomfort.

The first two steps are easy for Thompson, who tosses in a few Outward–Boundish maxims about leaving one's comfort zone to add some loft to his otherwise open–ended plans ("one should never let one's own moral compass go unchecked for long," "Comfort is the enemy of creativity"). Taking things one step further, by choosing unlikely (or in the case of Disney World, overly–likely) destinations, Thompson claims he is combating nothing less than the "pussification" of our great nation. Americans have become soft, he says, "Like Jell–O … a nation of fearful twats." It was his duty to march out and man–up for the rest of us, he implied, and I cheered him on as I scratched my belly and sipped a beer.

In step 3, the going there, the step that makes or breaks a travel book, Thompson digs in—no matter what is happening or (in the case of Mexico City, where he unsuccessfully tempts the danger gods) not happening to the author. Thompson is particularly skilled at observing people and moods wherever he gets stuck and bored. Along the way, he's not afraid to take on clichéd travel scenes, including the proverbial sick–in–a–dirty–hotel scene (best use of the phrase "butt glop" ever!). In the end, I think Thompson's summation of Africa speaks for the whole book: "I'd survived, met a lot of nice people, a few dickheads, and nothing was as life threatening as it might have been."

The Bizarre Truth: How I Walked out the Door Mouth First … and Came Back Shaking My Head
By Andrew Zimmern

Chef, food writer, and burly culinary adventurer Andrew Zimmern hosts one of the most popular shows on the Travel Channel, "Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern." In the hour–long reality show, Zimmern travels "mouth first" around the world, in search of moose cheek jelly, cow urine smoothies, and fermented fish stomachs. As he seeks out these rare (and culturally–relevant) delicacies, Zimmern—a.k.a. "the stomach of steel," a.k.a. "El Pelón que come gusanos" (the bald one who eats worms)—has pulled fifty–pound mudfish out of African rice patties, sparred with olive oil wrestlers in Turkey, and slurped cheese maggots in Nicaragua.

In interviews, Zimmern insists that the popularity of his food/travel show is about more than just watching a bumbling bald guy eat bugs and get spit upon by witch doctors. There is a serious back–story behind each dish, he says, "like a bon–bon wrapped in entertainment." Zimmern's first book, The Bizarre Truth, is a low–key, conversational attempt to collect and serve a tray of those bon–bons, collected from hundreds of thousands of miles of travel while filming more than sixty episodes around the globe.

Zimmern once told me, "Having been around the world several times, I've had the opportunity to do some comparative cultural studies (and I use that word loosely, I'm not an anthropologist and I'm not a sociologist), [and] when you've seen people cooking grubs in fifteen different countries around the world and you've seen how people react to them, both visitors and natives, you get a chance to put these stories in silos. The book is organized according to these themes that emerge—like disappearing cultural elements, or things that were once popular that are no longer popular. [I tell the story of] the last bullfighter restaurant In Madrid, and the last conch diver in Tobago—things that the modern world has bowled over. I think there's a lot to be learned from these people and their stories."

The themes that run through the collection include cultural relativism, dying breeds and languages, and advice for getting off the beaten path (just travel to the last stop on the subway, he says). They are delivered in short, random dispatches, all awash in Zimmern's breathless, bumbly excitement. The book is entertaining, despite a few clunky clichés and repetitiveness in the writing. It focuses not on Zimmern's life, but on the beefed–up back–stories and behind–the–scenes fun of his show. It is as much about traveling to unique places with a run–and–gun film crew in tow as it is about the menu items and the people he encounters.

Letters to Zerky: A Father's Legacy to a Lost Son … and a Road Trip Around the World
By Bill Raney and JoAnne Walker Raney

The author lays it all out in the title, and he admiringly acknowledges his motives right up front: "Letters to Zerky is an adventure book, a tale told by people who loved what they were doing. It was never meant to be a message book, but, should there be one, it is probably this: JUST GO."

Simple enough, but the Raneys' is a remarkable story, more complex than this common–denominator message to just set out and travel. As the title implies, there is tragedy hidden behind the epic road trip that is the center of this book. That one word, "lost," is a ghost of disaster not revealed until the final chapters—and it is a long road and many miles before the reader gets there.

But first, the trip. In 1967, Bill and JoAnne Raney sold everything and hit the road in a Volkswagen bus with their dachshund, Tarzan, and infant son, Eric Xerxes, a.k.a. "little Zerky." They were off: around Europe, across Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, into the Himalayas and Asia… an incredible trip. But as a publisher once told me, "an impressive itinerary does not a great travel book make." The writing, she explained, cannot just plod along with "and then we did this; and then we saw this; and then we went there." Raney's narrative has wonderful moments, and the tone is honest and likable, but the traveling parts fall flat, like travel grocery lists of sights, albeit frequently garnished with funny observations and interesting historical tidbits.

Overall, I would have preferred a straight narrative to the repetitive epistolary form, which is so hard to justify. I realize that is the entire point of this book, a "legacy to a lost son," and I respect the need to put it down and frame it that way. I just think the same goals could have been accomplished without all the "Dear Zerkys" and "Love Dads," which made it feel like something was being re–set with each chapter, instead of moving forward.

Joshua Berman is a freelance writer and Spanish teacher based in Boulder, CO

Also in this issue:

To Hellholes and Back

Buy To Hellholes and Back in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

The Bizarre Truth

Buy The Bizarre Truth in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Letters to Zerky

Buy Letters to Zerky in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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