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An inconsistent collection
on 23 January 2010
It's difficult to give an overall review of this collection of Lonely Planet travel stories, because it's so patchy. I found some of the stories early in the collection off-putting, because they seem to represent a rather obnoxious form of travel writer. The typical pattern of the tales in the first third of this anthology runs roughly as follows: an American who considers himself to be a bona fide traveller, rather than - heaven forbid! - a tourist, and therefore wants to head off the beaten track and find the *real* Tibet/Vietnam/Iraq/etc. Without bothering to read up on the are, or pay much attention to the locals, he finds himself in entirely preventable adverse circumstances and appears somewhat bewildered by the inability of the locals to speak English. This leads to startling discoveries, such as, "travelling on Iraqi railways was not exactly the Orient Express" (Cesar G Soriano, "Baghdad to Basra"). Most irritating is Bill Fink's "The End of the Road", in which two young men drive a jeep through rural Thailand close to the borders with Myanmar and Laos, blasting out Jimi Hendrix and calling each other "dude", utterly oblivious to the political and military tensions of the region and wondering why none of the locals want to come out and chat with them.
Luckily, I persevered despite the dispiriting nature of the first five or six pieces, because things really started to pick up with Jason Elliot's "A Visit to Kanasankatan" (and I won't spoil the punchline, but I fell for it totally). From here on in, the stories get a lot less culturally imperial, and begin to revel in the generosity, hospitality, and downright quirkiness of humans from Morocco to the Australian outback, Hawaii to Turkey. The writing in "Wangara's Cross", "A Slight Leaning Backwards" and "Egg Child" is beautiful, the pieces managing to be delicate short stories whilst still conveying enough of a very particular place to be classes as travel writing.
All in all, a strange mix which has given me some ideas about writers whose other work I would like to seek out - but also pointers as to whose to avoid.