Perceptive Travel Book Reviews November 2010
by Gillian Kendall

In this issue: An anthology of great travel stories, a no-holds-barred guide to making a living as a travel writer, and Big Bang Symphony, a novel about women working in Antarctica.

Travelers Tales: The Best Travel Writing 2010
Edited by James O'Reilly, Larry Habegger, and Sean O'Reilly

Having recently edited an anthology of travel writing, I now approach such collections with respect and dread. Respect, because I know how impossible it is to define and select the "best" writing — best in what way? Best for which readers? And dread because I expect any collection to contain a couple of clunkers. For reasons editorial, political, and personal, editors often include substandard submissions that bring down the overall tenor of a book and which the editor hopes to hide somewhere in the middle pages.

But this collection has no sore thumbs. Every piece is a solidly written account of extraordinary experience. Even though the voices are disparate and each reader will find some more appealing than others, collectively they're a pleasure to engage with. My one complaint is the low proportion of women writers: of the 30 pieces, only 10 are by women. (Editor's note: Traveler's Tales does put out a whole "Best Women's Travel Writing" collection each year, but no such anthology for just men. )

Maybe one reason the collection is so disparate — and so consistently good — is that there's no unifying theme required. Consequently, the pieces vary greatly in tone as well as subject matter.

Several in the book blend history, politics, fact, myth and experience. Peter Wortsman's "Epiphany of a Middle-Aged Pilgrim in Tea-Stained Pajamas," Cameron Smith's "A Viking Repast," and David Peters' "Takumbeng, C'est Quoi?" seem to have been informed by academic study, but they are none the worse for that.

Others of the "scholarly" or political type I found equally interesting but also disturbing. In Tim Ward's study of Dionysian rituals in Greece, "Frenzy and Ecstasy," and Gary Buslik's coverage of cock-fighting and politics in Grenada, "In or Out," the narrators' apparent disregard for animal cruelty seemed to take the pieces from the realm of travel narrative and into objective sociological study. It may be aesthetically preferable not to sentimentalize animals or go overboard with empathy, but at times I felt alienated by the detachment of the narrators.

At the other end of the scale are the stories that feature the writer's personal experience, such as Tawni Waters' moody-but-not-melodramatic study of death and life in Mexico, "Ashes of San Miguel," Brad Newsham's "Can I Help You?", Pico Iyer's fresh and insightful "Living Among Incompatibles," and the heartbreaking final piece, "French Dolls" by Catherine Watson. While none of the selections in this book are notably bad, these last are notably excellent.

The Big Bang Symphony: A Novel of Antarctica
by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

A crash landing in Antarctica opens this braided narrative from the point of view of Rosie, the working-class woman who comes to "the Ice" for the money; she soon meets Mikala, a composer who is hoping to be inspired by the new environment, and Alice, a repressed, over-intellectual scientist leaving home for the first time. Each of the three narrators is in Antarctica on a work mission, but each has personal motives as well.

The characters' inner lives and their outer actions are woven together in a graceful, compelling narrative of thought, feeling, and behavior. The plot develops in chapters from alternating points of view, a treatment which could potentially be confusing but which works cleanly here, thanks to Bledsoe's depth of imagination and her handling of vast emotional terrain as well as geographic landscapes.

I appreciated the different tones of the women's internal monologues. Rosie is straightforward and relatively easy-going, though tumultuous. The scientist (Alice) thinks in terms of lists and charts and analysis, while the musician (Sarah) processes the world around her by listening to its sounds. One of the best scenes in the book is the one in which Rosie, a line cook, gets Alice, a geologist, to describe her last romantic encounter as a scientist would, as an observer. There's a wonderful back-and-forth as Rosie manages to get Alice to talk about her feelings by describing her love life as an observer would, using dry, objective statements.

'Pretend you're a scientist.'
"I am a scientist.'
'Right. I know. So I'm saying, just tell me what you observed. As a scientist. Last night.'
'Okay.' The idea cheered Alice. 'First I would have seen a woman board a van on the road between McMurdo Station and Scott Base….The woman gets out of the van at Scott Base where there's a big party happening. She stops just inside the door and listens. Oh darn.'
'You see, this is precisely the problem with science. What I need to tell you next is what the woman was thinking, but a scientist observing an organism can't know that or even if the animal thinks.'
Rose made a small exasperated sound.

With three narrators, some gay and some straight, there are a number of emotional/sexual entanglements, and the women interact not only with each other but with a large cast of secondary characters. After chapter 43, the pace picks up and becomes almost like a mystery for several chapters, as Alice and others try to work out what has happened to Rosie after she goes missing.

Tonally, this reads a bit like a novel by Anne Tyler — the depth of character and the unexpected turns of relationship. But in the way that the characters are affected by their environment, Big Bang Symphony was uniquely successful. A lot of great contemporary travel writing (such as Llamas and Empanadas by Eleanor Meecham) shows how people are affected by their environment, but nonfiction travel writing can't show the environments' effects on more than one character, usually the narrator. Being a work of fiction, Big Bang Symphony extends that possibility and shows the extraordinary affects of the extraordinary environment on three entirely different women.

Travel Writing 2.0: Earning money from your travels in the new media landscape
by Tim Leffel

Although I'm reading this book in the month of its publication (October 2010), I sure wish I'd had it earlier. If I'd known about the possibilities for blogging, web publishing, and internet ad revenue a decade earlier, I'd be rich now — at least as I define "rich," which means making a profit from travel writing instead of having it as a "paying hobby" year after year.

By turns sobering and exciting, Leffel's no-bullshit guide to cranking out a living disabuses wannabes and fantasists of the idea that travel writers get paid to drink margaritas in deck chairs all day. Although he — and even I, until now pretty much of a loser travel writer — do indeed drink on the job, we're often tasting stuff we don't much care for at inappropriate times of the day while lurking, alone and jetlagged, in the lobby of an insalubrious hotel and scratching notes that will be hard to transcribe later on deadline in another city. Travel writing can be fun, but as Leffel repeatedly emphasizes and emphatically repeats, it's rippingly hard work.

Despite the horrific and lamentable decline in all print media outlets, Leffel's career is proof that there's still money to be made in travel writing. After all, he writes, "By some estimates travel itself is the biggest industry in the world by revenue." Someone's making money. Some writers even support families — and Leffel's one of them. His book shows the not-living-up-to-potential travel writer how to accelerate into the fast lane or at least keep up with web traffic.

As with Leffel's Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America, this book is dense with resources, suggestions, and useful references, and unlike every other travel-writing guide in the offing, this one doesn't waste time "teaching" its readers how to write or take nice photos. The assumption is that anyone reading the book can already write their way out of an airsick bag but wants to bring in more money. And now, please excuse me; I'm going to start a niche blog… (See the related blog, with writer interviews, at

Soft adventurer for hire Gillian Kendall is author of Mr. Ding's Chicken Feet, a New York Times notable book, and editor of Something to Declare: Good lesbian travel writing. Living in Australia and the USA, she is planning her umpteenth trans-Pacific trip and desperately seeking upgrades.

Also in this issue:

Travelers Tales

Buy Travelers Tales: The Best Travel Writing 2010 in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Big Bang Symphony

Buy The Big Bang Symphony in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

international travel

Buy Travel Writing 2.0 at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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