Reading a compilation of travel essays by authors Joyce Carol Oates, Tea Obreht, Peter Matthiessen, Alexander McCall Smith, Isabel Allende, Frances Mayes and Pico Iyer sounds like a dream come true for any addicted travel reader. Add in other scribes who have been awarded or nominated for the Man Booker or Whitbread Prize, the National Book Award, Orange Prize for Fiction and additional literary prizes and Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers, edited by Don George, should be a winning proposition. You might assume that this book contains lyrical literary facsimiles of perfect travel experiences as described by some very talented writers.
But, wait! Those of you intending to kick off your shoes and drink in the evocative descriptions of the highest mountains, clearest blue seas or most charming world villages are in for a bit of a shock. Although there is a bit of this, most of the essays are thought provoking and memorable riffs on travel, but not normally what one would think of as the consummate vacation. Consider some of the entries:
-a young woman going down into an old dangerous mine in Wales alone for contemplation and quiet.
– a trip to Mexico City in a VW bus with high school buddies where they were welcomed into a working class area and participated in a neighborhood US vs Mexico soccer match.
-visiting former Princeton friend, Carlos, an enigmatic revolutionary, in his home country of Nicaragua during Somoza’s reign, after which Carlos disappeared during that country’s revolution.
-an inadvertent holiday in Malawi at a deserted abandoned resort near a shimmering lake next to a tribal village.
-a frigid trip to remote Antarctica with a bittersweet aftermath.
-standing up to a military goon as he shakes down passengers for a ‘transit fee’ on a train in rural Namibia.
-finding solace on a trip to India after the heartbreaking death of a daughter.
Other essays are lighter and humorous, but as a whole this collection should appeal to others who have read The Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman in which he realistically describes the harrowing modes of transportation in developing countries. Together, these two books may change your view of travel but will certainly not dampen it.