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February 29, 2024

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    Richard Saker/Contour by Getty Images As we end Black History Month, here is one of my favorite poets, Danez Smith, who writes on intersectionality between their Black and Queer identities. At the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Kansas City, MO, I had the opportunity to personally meet Smith, and they are […]
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Book Reviews

The role of travel writers is much like that of the early explorers, writes Jason Wilson, an editor of ‘The Best American Travel Writing 2000.’ Their common goal is to ‘chart

this new world in all its rich detail, then report back.’

The 25 articles in this collection — selected from nearly 300 publications including Outside, Sports Illustrated and the New Yorker — use personal experiences to

contradict the idea that the world is turning into a global monoculture.

In Greenland, one author recounts the popular pastime of ice golf, which is played on frozen lakes with purple balls. Another writer attempts to smuggle some of

France’s popular raw, or unpasteurized cheese into the United States. And in Cuba, a couple finds that hitchhiking is an essential mode of transport.

The essays cover a wide range of topics and locations but are common in their approach to human experience. Each succeeds in capturing the subtle nuances of life,

whether it be the taste of the day’s first drink or the start of a sailboating race.

‘Lard Is Good for You’ by Alden Jones uses the author’s love of coffee to launch a clear and witty recount of life in a Costa Rican town. Deprived by her coffee-growing

host family of the coveted beverage, she yearns even more for the delightful drops of caffeine: ‘I was a contemporary version of the Ancient Mariner: Coffee, coffee,

everywhere and not a drop to drink!’

In the midst of her struggle with coffee deprivation and a little too much lard, Jones also tackles the conflicting influences battling in her head. As an English teacher in a

new culture, she faces the constant bickering of the culturally insensitive tourist and the adaptable traveler.

Other selections have more of a documentary feel. They use a country’s historical background as a poignant silhouette for their characters and actions. In ‘Spies in the

House of Faith,’ Isabel Hilton details the exiled Dalai Lama’s choosing of the next Panchen Lama, the reigning religious authority in Tibet. Hilton is drawn into a process

that challenges her to understand the power of spirituality in an atmosphere of religious eradication.

‘I was astonished by the events and the proposition that was unfolding,’ she writes. ‘Now the child was about to be chosen and I would be recording the result.

Suddenly I was intimately involved in an extraordinary story I could reveal to no one.’

Some selections provide less informational context, focusing more on experiencing the world through adventure travel. In ‘Storming The Beach,’ Rolf Potts attempts to

land himself on the temporarily forbidden shores of Thailand’s Phi Phi Leh island — as Leonardo Di Caprio and crew film ‘The Beach.’

The book’s accounts are varied in location and experience although a majority focus on the intrigue of adventure travel, often with exotic locales as a backdrop. One

selection, however, manages to turn the mundane into the exotic as the author spends a frightening night in New York’s Central Park.

‘The writers here are all keen observers who bring places to life by honing in on particular, human details,’ Wilson writes in the introduction. ‘Their writing also pulsates

with true emotion — love, desire, humor, fear, despair. They give us just a slice of the world, but in that slice they teach us a great deal.’

The authors’ backgrounds are impressive. Many have published novels and works in well-respected magazines and journals. Yet there are some that have managed to

make it in without the cushion of mighty credentials. One writer is simply described as ‘a biweekly backpacker’ and another wrote her piece while teaching English

abroad as a volunteer.

Not every article is gripping to every reader. Some authors may appear too preoccupied with detail. Others concentrate their focus on a topic to the point of being

exclusive. Yet the compilation as a whole leads the reader to a more complete understanding of the ever-changing word and the humanity that fills it — one slice at a

time.

‘copy; Knight-Ridder Tribune, 2001

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