Book Review: Lonely Planet’s ‘Better Than Fiction’

What is travel writing? Is the genre defined by its commitment to true-to-life recounting of the people, places and cultures we have experienced and lessons to be drawn from them? Or is travel writing something more malleable, simply a style of writing, true or not, that utilizes places and people as vehicles for a good story? The tension between these two competing definitions is at the heart of the new travel-themed anthology, “Better Than Fiction” by Lonely Planet.

“Better Than Fiction” is a collection of short travel-themed works by some of the world’s top literary fiction writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, Isabel Allende and Alexander McCall Smith. Edited by Gadling’s own Features Editor, Don George, each of the 32 included short stories plays with this notion of “truth in travel writing,” bringing to bear the storytelling skills of veteran fiction writers to the world of non-fiction travel writing. Each of the varied works relates a true-to-life story from the author’s personal wanderings around the globe, all told with the writers’ rich storytelling skills intact.

For anyone who considers themselves a voracious consumer of travel writing, “Better Than Fiction” will make for a refreshing and illuminating read. In each of the short stories there’s a richness of character and crispness to the dialogue that makes them feel like excerpted chapters from a novel. Considering the growing glut of “Top 10″ and “destination tip” travel journalism that exists online, it’s easy to forget the best travel writing works because it’s good storytelling, not merely a laundry list of destination facts and to-do’s. Great travel storytelling, like the work showcased in “Better Than Fiction,” reminds us that ultimately discovering the truth about the places we visit involves more than just restating the facts.

2008′s best travel writing

While browsing my local Barnes & Noble earlier this week, I stumbled upon a display of The Best American Series – a collection of books recapping the year’s best writing. Among the collection is a travel-themed edition, curated this year by travel “badboy” Anthony Bourdain.

Gadling has given great reviews to these anthologies in years past, so I decided to pick up a copy. As a fledgling travel writer myself, I’ve found the pieces in this year’s edition to be highly compelling. The featured content covers a surprisingly broad array of topics. Foodies will savor writer Bill Buford’s account of Extreme Chocolate, which finds the author deep in the rainforests of Brazil in search of the perfect cacao beans. Adventurers will want to dive into James Campbell’s look at the Kapa Kapa Trail, a grueling overland route of American soldiers fighting in Papua New Guinea during World War II, in Chasing Ghosts.

For anyone who’s interested in the travel genre, this is a great recap of this year’s best-written and most interesting stories. Travel writing is a well-worn style – pithy descriptions of swank hotels and delicious meals can only take you so far. It’s the stories that are able to rise above the cliches and well worn metaphors to truly give a sense of place and its people that truly does these locations justice.

Let’s continue to encourage this sort of high-quality travel writing. Stop by Barnes & Noble or hit up Amazon and pick yourself up a copy.

One for the Road: More Sand in My Bra

Travelers Tales has released another title in their hilarious travel story series. First, there was the Leo Trio:Bra, Panty and Thong — three books bursting with funny tales from female travelers. Then the anthology series turned to the gents for their rip-roaring stories in What Color is Your Jockstrap. And now the series comes full circle, returning to the original sandy bra for yet another scoop of silliness and humor from wanderlust ladies.

More Sand in My Bra: Funny Women Write from the Road, Again! is a collection of on-the-road mishaps that is sure to entertain. Leo teamed up with fellow traveler Julia Weiler to co-edit this latest batch of travel blunders–take a booze cruise in Vietnam, get lost at a sex camp and tag along on tour with Ellen Degeneres. Throw this one in your beach bag ladies–I’m fairly certain that these 29 tales will keep you laughing all summer long.

One for the Road Review: The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007

I’ve been thumbing through Travelers Tales The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007 for the past week or so, diving in to different stories as they speak to me or call my name. That’s what I love so much about anthologies like this — you can read them any which way you please, in any order, at any time, again and again.

When I crack open a new anthology and scan the table of contents, sometimes I search for names of writers I may know. This time, I turned first to Abbie Kozolchyk’s “A.K. Phone Home”, because I recently had the pleasure of meeting her. The humorous and heartwarming story about Abbie’s travels in Bolivia is all about personal connections: with those she encounters on the road, and those back home that she makes special effort to remain in touch with.

Travelers’ Tales (and many other “best of” travel writing collections) usually include country names in the table of contents, so readers can easily find stories about a particular place. I next searched for stories about China (a place I’ll be visiting soon) and found two: Shari Caudron’s insightful piece about a three-week tour through China with her mother, and Nicole Clausing’s amusing holiday tale of two turkeys in Shijiazhuang.

Other navigational tactics I employ when reading travel anthologies is to scan the author bios at the end of each piece, in search of new writers. In this case, I found several first-time published writers, and particularly enjoyed Carmen Semler’s return to Malta and Laurie Coven’s Chaing Mai cleansing.

Editor Lucy McCauley did an excellent job of gathering a wonderful cross-section of voices and varied experiences, from Laurie Weed’s torrid love affair with a sexy Spaniard to Lonia Winchester’s moving personal piece about her life growing up in Poland during WWII. If a certain story doesn’t grab you at first, flip the page and move on to the next. Or put the book aside and return to it another day. There are countless ways to go about reading these adventures. It doesn’t really matter how you chose to do so, but just be sure you do.

Several of the contributors will be reading at bookstores later this summer. Check out Travelers Tales website to learn more about the book and upcoming events.