To say that my reactions to this book were "mixed" would be an understatement. The volume left me, at some points, half-decided to abort reading it altogether, but at others, deeply appreciative that I'd read it.
Pay more attention to the subtitle, "Flights into the Foreign" than to anything you might have read about Iyer being a travel writer in the spirit of the incomparable Jan Morris. That expectation will lead to a frustrated sense of false advertising. Iyer possesses some of Morris's gift for conveying a sense of place, and what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, but only on occasion does Iyer choose to exercise it.
No, this book is about "flights into the foreign" in a more introspective sense, as in visiting unfamiliar states of mind. Sometimes, this occurs because Iyer has gone to an exotic land. At other times, because Iyer has interviewed someone with a unique perspective. At others, because he has read what he regards as interesting fiction. And at others, simply because Iyer finds himself somewhat out of sorts, for whatever reason.
The book gets off to a rocky start. Not only did I dislike the first two chapters (on Leonard Cohen and the Dalai Lama), I was offended by them. The chapter on Cohen is downright exasperating. It purports to be about someone who is trying to leave the mundane world behind and to find simpler, higher meaning. But in reality it's about Iyer's fascination with celebrity. The name-dropping is endless: Norman Mailer, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Michelle Phillips. I really don't care that Leonard Cohen wasn't able to commit himself to a relationship with Rebecca de Mornay. The chapter is really all about the chic of being celebrated, but affecting not to care. It's a pose that is at least as old as Louis XIV's court, and doesn't impress any more in its modern guise.
The chapter on the Dalai Lama still engages some name-dropping, but tones it down a bit. Still, it's remarkably devoid of a sense of place. Iyer visits the Indian town in which the Dalai Lama lives, but manages to convey very little sense of the place.
On the other hand, there are magnificent selections in this book. "A Haunted House of Treasures," set in Cambodia, is almost worth the purchase price by itself. Granted, Cambodia is a can't-miss subject, as anyone who has been there can testify. But Cohen really conveys what is haunting about the place, the thing that gets into your soul and makes you determined to get back there. He captures the voices of the children, the contradictions in the cultural landscape, the crowing roosters amid the luxury hotel construction. After reading it, my first rreflex was to share it with my wife, so that she could understand the mark that my 1.5 days there left upon me.
But there are other outstanding pieces as well. "Nightwalking," Iyer's rumination on jetlag, is brilliant, and I've never read another travel piece quite like it. It seems a natural subject for travel literature, but in my reading only Iyer has really captured the out-of-body, out-of-normal-behavior sensation of the jetlagged traveler.
Two other outstanding pieces are "The Khareef" and the immediately following piece on La Paz, Bolivia.
This book is a mixed bag. Don't buy it if you are expecting a beautiful collection of travel pieces. Only buy it if you're willing to indulge Iyer's various fascinations, even when they turn superficial and tedious. If you dislike one piece, hang on: there may be a truly beautiful one around the corner.