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.

Isabel Allende: Report from Chile

Renowned author and humanitarian Isabel Allende is one of Chile’s most acclaimed and beloved writers. Currently a resident of California, she flew to Chile last Friday to witness firsthand the effects of the devastating earthquake and tsunami on her homeland and to raise funds for the country’s rebuilding. I interviewed her by email on Sunday night. Here is her report.

Don George: Where are you in Chile now, and why have you traveled there?

Isabel Allende: I am in Santiago. I came to participate in a 24-hour television fundraiser “Chile Ayuda a Chile” (Chile Helps Chile) hosted by Don Francisco, the celebrity host of Univision. The goal was to raise the equivalent of $30 million. Amazingly, they were able to raise $59 million in an incredible effort that joined the whole country. Everybody is participating in the reconstruction and emergency effort. Kids in schools collect food, blankets, diapers, clothes, etc. They package them and then big trucks distribute the donations where they are most needed. Banks are open day and night to receive cash donations. Volunteers collect in the streets. Everybody is cooperating. The devastation in the south is impossible to describe. Images on TV can’t really give an accurate idea of the suffering. Whole fishing villages were wiped out by the tsunami. Hospitals, schools, bridges, and roads were destroyed, not to mention houses.

DG: What is the mood in Santiago and in the country as a whole?

IA: Chileans are stoic people; they live in the most beautiful country in the world, but it’s also a land of earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and droughts. In 1960 Chile suffered the worst earthquake in history: 9.5 on the Richter scale. The recent tragedy left people stunned and horrified, but soon the mood changed. Solidarity is the word that best defines the mood. People want to help.There is also a sense of shame for the looting that happened in some southern cities. Shame because most of the looting was not for food or water; angry mobs stole electronics, assaulted cars and houses, and even started fires. The government was able to control the situation rapidly, the police and the military were in the streets and a strict curfew was enforced where needed. Two days later the looters started to return the things they had taken either because the police raided their houses or because they were shamed by the public outcry.

The earthquake showed that in Chile social inequality is still appalling. Chile’s sustained economic growth has placed it among developed nations, but its distribution of wealth is one of the worst in the world.

DG
: Can you describe what you have seen and heard since you arrived in Chile? What is the condition of the affected regions?

IA: What we have seen on TV is a fraction of reality. The destruction in the south — Concepcion, Talca, Chillan — is horrific, but considering the damage, there are fewer casualties than could be expected. In the coastal villages most people ran to the hills as soon as the earthquake began; they knew a tsunami could happen. Chile has strict building codes, so most of the buildings that collapsed were either old or the code had not been properly enforced.

In the affected regions there was no electricity, phones, communications, and water for several days, but slowly things are coming back to normal. The government, the military, the police, churches from all denominations and hundreds of thousands of volunteers are working to help the victims. There is order. As soon as looting was controlled, people started to feel safe. They know that help is there or on its way.

DG: What is the country’s and people’s greatest need at this point?

IA: We need to rebuild hospitals, schools, bridges, roads, houses and much, much more. The winter is starting soon and thousands of Chileans are homeless. The organizations that are building emergency housing are, among others, Un Techo para Chile, Hogar de Cristo, and Fundación para la Superacion de la Pobreza.

DG: What have been the most moving scenes you have witnessed or stories you have heard since arriving?

IA: How could I list the most moving scenes? There are thousands, from the mother who was taken by the tsunami with two children in her arms and later she was rescued, but the sea took her babies, to teenagers gathering food and driving to the disaster zones to feed hot dogs and apples to the hungry, to a seven-year-old girl who survived under her bed when the house collapsed, or a man who cried for his young grandson on the rubble of his house, to a family that lost everything and has organized communal meals for all the neighbors where their house used to be, or a group of seniors on vacation who were taken by the tsunami, or the pets left behind that are starving, and on and on. It’s a never-ending story of grief and loss, but also of courage, patience, solidarity, generosity and even humor.

DG: What are you feeling now?

IA: When I arrived in Chile I was heartbroken and depressed, but now I am hopeful. Chileans are at their best in times of need; we rise to the occasion every time. All our pettiness and arrogance disappear in a crisis, but soon we forget and go back to our old ways. I know that Chile will recover from the material loss. I hope that this tragedy will force us to focus on the moral fabric of our society and that we will remain as generous and united as we feel today.

DG: How long will you stay?

IA: I am leaving tomorrow. I will try to do some fundraising in the States.

DG: What message would you like to give to Americans reading these words?

IA: There is no safety in the world, as anyone who is not a spoiled idiot knows. Relax. You are not in control. Bad things happen. Good things happen. We can lose everything material in an instant but we can always start again from scratch. Human resilience is astounding. Fear is useless; an open heart works much better. Breathe, love, give, rejoice, share, know your neighbor, and don’t waste time in pettiness. Sorry, I sound like a preacher, but this is the lesson I am learning this week in my devastated and beloved country.