Doug's Reviews > The Best American Travel Writing 2008

The Best American Travel Writing 2008 by Anthony Bourdain
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Sep 07, 09

Read in November, 2008

I had my reservations about a collection of travel essays edited by celebrity chef (and author of food-themed gangster novels) Anthony Bourdain. As it turns out, he has impeccable taste. I'd expected, of course, a few more essays on food than in past years, a few more taking place in zany or dangerous locations—and there are a few—but it's the uncommonly high quality of the writing that really unites these pieces. As I flipped through the book, trying to make a list of which essays deserved a mention, I found I'd copied down half the table of contents. And the other half was pretty great too. The collection starts out with one of its strongest, Extreme Chocolate, by Bill Buford. It follows an impulsive slacker who enters the world of organic chocolate on a whim, and rises to become one of its stars. Buford has a wonderful, deadpan style of reporting events—often things happening to his own person. "Wild tobacco is toxic," he tells us, matter-of-factly, after popping a large chunk of it into his mouth, then proceeding to chew it and observe the effects. In another scene we find him staring into an extremely hot vat of fermenting cacao beans, when... "I took off my shirt, shoes, and pants, and, with my boxers on, I swung myself over the side and into the beans. They really were very hot." His article delivers fully on its title, and is simply enormous fun to read.

An essay in this collection that influenced me personally was John Lancaster's Next Stop, Squalor. In it, he describes a pair of young entrepreneurs, one British, one Indian, who conduct tours of Mumbai's Dharavi slum—billed as the largest in Asia. It struck me as appalling at first, as it did the author, but in reading the essay you find that the tours are ethically run, putting most of their proceeds back into charity, and promote a positive view of the slum, as a place, not of crime and depravity, but of hard-working yet disadvantaged families. I read it while in India, shortly before going to Mumbai, and took the tour while I was there. It turned out to be one of the most affecting experiences of my trip.

Other strong pieces here include an in-depth story on those pirates we've been hearing so much about, an essay on the rich-man's sport of falconry, as practiced by the wealthy of the Gulf States today, portraits of Hong Kong's infamous Chungking Mansion and of Georgia's jewel-like capital, Tbilisi, an affectionate memory of Brighton Beach seediness by the very funny and talented Simon Doonan, and a trip on China's ominous new train to Tibet. Special mention must also go to two long-time favorites of mine, Peter Hessler, who contributes an excellent article on driving in China, and Paul Theroux, who delivers one of his very best, on the rule of Turkmenistan by "one of the wealthiest and most powerful lunatics on Earth." Finally, two pieces I found near-poetic in their beauty: Jeffrey Tayler's The Woman in the Kuffiya, a snapshot of a brief, intense meeting between himself and a woman in the ancient land of Harran, and Catherine Watson's moving recollection of the time she spent, twenty-five years ago, living on Easter Island.

Series Editor Jason Wilson begins this collection with a rather lame defense of travel writing, in the face of many recent, embarrassing travel tell-alls. He really didn't need to bother. There could be no better statement about the health of travel writing today than the one made by this collection.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by anne (new)

anne Damn good reviews on here, Mr Tebay.


message 2: by Stewart (new)

Stewart I'll second that. You write so well, and whatever you've read simply comes to life in your reviews. I always look forward to them!


Doug Stewart wrote: "I'll second that. You write so well, and whatever you've read simply comes to life in your reviews. I always look forward to them!"

Thanks Stew! Guess I need to start writing reviews again. I stopped with The Brothers Karamazov, because it was too intimidating to review, and then just got lazy.


message 4: by Stewart (new)

Stewart Three great essays I've read over the past month that are all available for free online:

"Lost Cat" by Mary Gaitskill in Granta

"Trial By Fire" by David Grann in the New Yorker

"Strained By Katrina, A Hospital Faced Deadly Choices" by Sheri Fink in the NYT Magazine

If you are interested, google will find them for you.

I just realized that they all deal with loss and death -- interesting. If you read any of them, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


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