Lonely Planet and Don George have a thing going. This is the seventh book George has edited for the company. Don George, in case you have not met, writes just about the best travel articles you could wish for. He used to be the editor of the travel section for the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle. He reviews travel books and writes and edits for websites. And he stuffed all that experience in a book, Lonely Planet Travel Writing, that everyone says is the best of the many guides for travel writers.
In his introduction to Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales From Great Fiction Writers, George says that despite owning a collection of guidebooks, two novels on Greece, “..proved to be the best guides of all, immersive, enlightening introductions to the landscape, people, and culture I was discovering….As I have learned over and over in my wanderings, some of the best travel writing is fictional.” He certainly will get no argument here, will he?
The book, Better than Fiction, a collection of 30+ travel experiences from fiction writers, will introduce you to the writing style of a crowd of writers.The collection includes authors from many countries, so you are almost guaranteed to hear a voice that is new to you. The best of the essays are very personal experiences with meticulous description of place.
It is a stretch to call all of these people “great” as the subtitle does, but most have pretty impressive credentials. For instance, Joyce Carol Oates, not known for inspiring travel (external, at least) provides an emotionally chilling visit to San Quentin–which wouldn’t be MY choice of travel experience, but she certainly evokes the way it felt.
Alexander McCall Smith, on the other hand, in his mystery series set in Africa or Scotland has inspired many a traveler. (A fact demonstrated in this video of a walking tour of Edinburgh from the Guardian and in a recent blog post from Anne-Sophie Redisch about 44 Scotland Street.) McCall Smith chooses to write about his reasons for wanting to visit certain places–many of those reasons literary. He once read an Auden poem on Freud which led him to read more about the father of psychoanalysis and incidentally to learn from a publication that Freud’s theories are even more popular in Argentina than in New York. “Streets were named after prominent figures in the Freudian movement, it revealed, and the conversation in cafes was as likely to be about neuroses as it was about sport or politics.” “I filed this information away,” McCall Smith continues, “thinking that it would be interesting one day to visit the Freudian quarter in Buenos Aires…” The Freudian quarter?
The skillful writer of mysteries, builds up the suspense until he finally gets to visit Buenos Aires and the Cafe Sigi, named for Sigmund himself. He finds what he has been looking for, and ends up asking himself deep questions about the meaning of it all. Why Argentina? How did it start? Why did he feel compelled to go? After all, there are no accidents. His ruminations are as entertaining as his wonderful books.
I can’t resist mentioning that Edie Jarolim, who writes Freud’s Butcher, would not be at all surprised by all of this. After all, Freud lived upstairs over her great unchle, the butcher in Vienna, and Argentine’s main occupations are growing cattle and eating beef. No, there are no coincidences.
Chris Pavone was an editor until he wrote The Expats, reviewed here last year. His essay about the bumps in the road of living in a new country takes place in Luxembourg, the setting for The Expats.
Two stories in this book are worth the entire price and then some. Isabel Allende, whose novels depict locations with almost startling clarity, writes about a trip to India that spurred her to start a foundation to help young women and girls. Her story squeezed my heart and reminded me of how I love her writing. So why haven’t we talked about some of her books here? We will.
The second entry in Better than Fiction that I truly loved was Suzanne Joinson’s Chasing Missionaries. She relates a research trip to Kashgar , a rebellious section of western China, looking for background for her book A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar. She has 2nd thoughts about leaving her baby behind with her husband when riots break out. Foreigners are supposed to leave. She stays longer than she should. The story is gripping and her telling of it skillfully underplayed.
The final piece in Better than Fiction, presents a perfect coda. Tea Obreht‘s haunting book about the struggles in the Baltics, The Tiger’s Wife, made my favorites list of 2011 books. She is represented in this book by an essay on an unlikely shrine in Los Angeles, the Watts Towers. She says, “Now I realize that the builder, Simon Rodia, was doing exactly what writers do: making a patchwork out of fragments, a whole out of disparate realities.”
And isn’t that what travelers do, too?
So I recommend that you add this book of travel temptations to your travel library. First thing you know, you will succumb to the lure of these masterful writers and go off to explore the corners of the world they so enticingly recreate.
Disclaimers: The publishers provide the book for review, which does not affect my judgement. Links to Amazon are affiliate links, meaning your purchases help keep A Traveler’s Library in business, even though it costs you no more to shop that way.