The Best Travel Writing 2008

Beirut. Click on photo for credit.

Subtitle: True Stories from Around the World

Edited by James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger and Sean O’Reilly

Introduction by Sara Wheeler.

2008. Solas House. Paperback. 323 pages.


I have previously read books from the Best American Travel Writing series  and really enjoyed them.  I noticed my library also had several books from The Best Travel Writing series, so I decided to check out this 2008 edition, because Sara Wheeler (Terra Incognita) wrote the introduction for it.

Despite the similar names, the two series are not related to each other. The Best American Travel Writing series are one genre segment of the Best American Series run by Houghton Mifflin.  The Best Travel Writing series is published by Travelers’ Tales.  Another major difference is that essays chosen for the Best American Travel Writing series have been previously published, usually in magazines.  The Best Travel Writing essays, from what I gathered, have not been previously published and are frequently the winners of the Solas contests sponsored by Traveler’s Tales.

In travel writing, the writers are often balancing between an outward and an inward focus.  If there is too much focus on the personal, the writing is in danger of a self-absorbed tone.  A complete lack of the personal, however, and the narrative may seem cold and unengaging.  Successful essays may reside on either end of the spectrum, but I usually like essays somewhere in the middle.

I want to say that many of the essays in The Best Travel Writing Series 2008 were too inward-focused for my tastes, but that doesn’t quite hit the mark.  It was how the personal was described that bugged me.  I don’t mind writers’ personalities coming through and knowing something about their background and where they’re coming from.  But in a number of these essays, the writer didn’t really say why they were in a particular country or what drove them to be there.  So when the writers wrote about their emotional response to a place or event, I found it hard to be on board, because I felt distanced from them.

Also, another problem I had with some of the essays was over-wrought poetic-to-a-fault writing.  The writer would take a moment – watching a flamenco dance, or visiting a Filipino faith-healer – and endow it with so much Meaning, and so many adjectives, that it was tipping over into the ridiculous – at least for my tastes.

Of course this wasn’t true for all of the essays.  The following avoided the above pitfalls and were the highlight of the collection for me:

“Heroes of the Caribbean” by Kevin McCaughey

This is a humorous essay describing the writer’s time on a luxury cruise with his seventy-something parents and a friend.  He and his friend hang out some with the crew members, and get a little behind-the-scenes knowledge.  My favorite part was the writer and his friend’s fascination with a manic electric fan on the island of Guadeloupe.

“Key to the City” by Catherine Watson

Watson used to live in Beirut as a graduate student in 1963.  Decades later, she returns to the city, with the key to her old apartment still in her possession.  While on her visit, she experiences great hospitality from a family living in her old neighborhood.

“Mount Rushmore Revisited” by Tony Perrottet

Perrottet delves into the history and controversy of Mount Rushmore.

“The Tides of Burano” by Eliot Stein

Stein tells of his trip to Burano (near Venice).  There he meets a 90-year-old woman and her daughter.  The elderly woman is one of the few that still knows how to make the famed ‘Air Stitch’ in Burano’s lace-making trade, a trade which died off eventually.  This was a sweet essay without being cloying.

“Once that Gun Goes Off” by Laura Katers

In this essay, the writer gets spontaneously swept up in Sydney’s 14km race.

“Tortola” by Richard Goodman

Goodman’s essay covers a not-so-great trip to this Caribbean island.   He finds himself in the uneasy situation of witnessing his hotel’s housekeeping staff participating in an ugly and public domestic dispute.

“Above Crystal Mountain” by Michael McCarthy

Following in the steps of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (which I have not read), McCarthy’s exhausted Himalayan hike with a Lama is interrupted by a robbery by Maoists – an event that has been expected by the travellers.

“Death of an Adventure Traveler” by Rolf Potts

On assignment to write about accessible adventure travel, Potts simultaneously tries to locate Mr. Benny, an old Burmese immigrant he had known from his previous stay in a remote town in Thailand.  Mr. Benny was a fascinating individual who had done everything from diving for pearls, to guiding on a rhino poaching expedition, to working for the CIA.  In parallel to his search, Potts laments the commercial idea of ‘adventure travel.’

Burano. Click on image for credit.



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2 responses to “The Best Travel Writing 2008

  1. I know exactly what you mean by poetic-to-a-fault. Doesn’t tend to work for me either.

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