Perceptive Travel Book Reviews September 2013
by William Caverlee

In this issue: Noted fiction authors in a compilation of travel essays, an expletive-filled guide to sex and partying around the world, and a visceral look at traveling through war-torn West Africa.

Better than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers
Edited by Don George

For his latest anthology, Don George asked thirty-two fiction writers to switch hats and submit essays on memorable travel experiences. As is usual in a concept book like this, George jump-starts things with a core group of traveling big-shots—in this case, Isabel Allende, Pico Iyer, Peter Matthiessen, Francis Mayes, Jan Morris, Joyce Carol Oates, and Alexander McCall Smith.

The rest of the authors were new to me—like M.J. Hyland, whose witty dispatch, "The Thieves of Rome," relates four or five popular scams used by Italian pickpockets. She adds that, as a single woman during a year in Rome, she spent nearly as much time eluding would-be Romeos as thieves.

In other tales, California's Joe Yogerst runs for his life from corrupt Sudanese railway police. Australian DBC Pierre inquires about a witch in Mexico. Mark Dapin remembers island-hopping in the Solomons: "What comes back to me is an overwhelming feeling of angry, hungry, constipated nausea—dampened then inflamed by Spear tobacco smoked in exercise-book paper—and a growing concern that Chris might be going mad." On a beach in West Sussex, Steven Hall rescues a beached, two-foot-long shark—twice. Nikki Gemmell visits icy Davis Station in Antarctica.

Among the headliners, Joyce Carol Oates contributes "A Visit to San Quentin" (the longest chapter in the book), an account of a day trip to the infamous California prison in the company of several young women graduate students. It's a scary, gripping, emotionally overwhelming piece of Oatesian bravura. I'm not exactly sure how the essay qualifies as travel writing, but, for me, it takes first prize in the collection.

In a haze of discomfort, I followed the lieutenant in the 'walk-around-the-block.' I did not inflame any inmate by passing too near his cell, or looking overtly into it; but I was aware of the rippling, rising excitement in my wake, as the young women were forced to march past the cells, one by one by one. The slumberous hive was being roused, shaken; the buzzing hum rose to crude shouts, whistles, whoops. But I am spared, this time.

A fine anthology, with numerous fiction writers from Australia and New Zealand joining their colleagues from the UK and the US.

Off Track Planet's Travel Guide for the Young, Sexy, and Broke
By Freddie Pikovsky and Anna Starostinetskaya

Hipsters have their problems. How do you mark off new territory, new modes of rebellion and misbehavior, when there's no new thing under the sun?

The website Off Track Planet was founded in 2009, and its newly published travel guide is an iconoclastic, techno-savvy variation on the standard backpacker's manual invented by Lonely Planet and Rough Guides in the far-off 1970s and '80s.

The OTP authors embrace hipster casualness with a vengeance. There are "shits" and "fucks" on nearly every page. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except for one's suspicion that a lack of imagination might be as much at hand as the desire to shock the aged, hopelessly square readers of Travel+Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler.

Well, épater la bourgeoisie, I always say. If it was good enough for the Woodstock generation, then why not this one?

And who doesn't like a book section entitled "Sex and Partying"? Here are ever helpful tips on sampling weed in Amsterdam, a shout-out to Greece's nude beaches, and an illustrated sidebar on South America's most famous attractions: "Brazilians Have Butts in the Bag."

While there is a lot of nice ass out in the world, Brazilians always get the Booty Olympic Gold. Whether it's all that late-night samba, or just raw natural talent, these butts wipe out the competition.

Unfortunately, this kind of insipid non-writing is typical fare from Off Track Planet's Travel Guide. Unfortunate, since otherwise, the book is stylishly packaged, filled with handsome photos, useful travel tips, zany digressions—even an admirable section called "Make Yourself Useful," with links to volunteer programs, environmental agencies, the Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity, and so on.

But this last gesture is too little, too late. I may be wrong, but I suspect that constant four-letter prose is as boring for OTP's target audience as it is for the rest of us. Youthful travelers may not be quite as illiterate as the authors suppose.

The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World's Poorest Countries
By Mark Weston

For travelers thinking about a trip to West Africa, please consider this roadside moment in an over-packed minibus in which author Mark Weston and his wife are being harangued by an unwanted preacher:

As hawkers and beggars grab at my elbow through the window; as a baby screams and vomits on the floor behind us; as our row fills up and we are compressed so tightly that we must take turns leaning forward to allow our neighbours to sit back; as the sun pelts us with its rays and pools of sweat form at our feet; and as the preacher bellows at us with ever-increasing urgency and volume and the driver continues blithely with his chequers game, I wonder, from my zone of resigned but patient misery, if this is what hell will be like.

Actually, it won't be like that at all. Hell has already appeared on earth, given full flower during the civil war in Sierra Leone. The words and numbers are Dantesque: Over fifty thousand dead from 1991-2002. Diamonds used as a currency of murder. Grotesque warlords named Siaka Stevens, Foday Sankoh, and Charles Taylor (the last was convicted at the Hague in 2012 of crimes against humanity). Amid his travel reporting, author Weston recounts the war's ghastly history.

It is difficult to comprehend a conflict with no victors, whose main targets were innocent civilians, and whose worst atrocities were perpetrated by children, a war in which combatants devoured their enemies' hearts, raped their sisters and gambled on the sex of unborn babies before ripping open the mothers' stomachs to find out who had won the bet. How can anyone make sense of this? How can a country come to terms with such horrors, and its wounds heal sufficiently to move on?

Weston, of course, has no answers. His tour of Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, and Burkina Faso sounds like the most depressing read of the year; and it would be, if not for Weston's fine writing, his well-paced travel narrative, and his many profiles of doughty penniless Africans, in small towns and large, who haven't succumbed to despair.

While West Africa's internecine warfare horrifies us with its brutality, Weston is quick to recall the contributions of Europeans—those blood-soaked colonial predators from Portugal, England, and France. Slaves, gold, oil, and diamonds have long been considered commodities ripe for the picking. And if a village doesn't bend to the conqueror, well, then, just wipe it off the face of the earth. Joseph Conrad's Kurtz was a fictional monster, but he had many real models. Weston notes that "Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull that gave Portugal the right to 'capture, vanquish and subdue Saracens, pagans and unbelievers, and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.'"

William Caverlee is an American freelancer who has written for numerous journals, such as The Oxford American, The Christian Science Monitor, Aviation History, Flight Journal, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. He's the author of a collection of essays, Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays. One of his articles, on Flannery O'Connor, was reprinted in The Writer's Presence, 7th Edition.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

Better than Fiction

Buy Better than Fiction in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Off Track Planet's Travel Guide for the Young, Sexy, and Broke

Buy Off Track Planet's Travel Guide for the Young, Sexy, and Broke in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

The Ringtone and the Drum

Buy The Ringtone and the Drum at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK<

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