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.

Beautiful And Bizarre Bookstores Of The World

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Wherever I travel, I always find myself drawn to bookstores. They’re a pleasant comfort zone when far from home. I love hunting for local authors and books of local interest while chatting with the people who frequent these places. I’ve found that bibliophiles are pretty much the same whether they’re American, Ethiopian, Arab, Tibetan or whatever.

One bookstore I haven’t shopped in (but would love to) is the Shah Mohammed Book Company, the subject of the famous “Bookseller of Kabul.” Yes, books and adventure travel go together, as Peretz Partensky showed when he took this photo. I’ve been to plenty of other bookstores in out of the way places, though, and enjoyed them all, like the dusty bookshop in Harar that saved me with some timely Tolstoy when I’d run out of things to read, or the Tibetan bookshop in McLeod Ganj where the owner holds forth on Asian politics. Whenever I’m in a bookstore, I feel at home.

Of course, I also frequent bookstores when I really am home. One favorite here in Santander in northern Spain is Librería Gil. Like all good indie bookshops, it has a knowledgeable staff and a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. The kids’ section is well stocked and as soon as we enter my son grabs a book and plops down in the little red plastic chair in the corner, only to emerge when we tell him we’re leaving. The bookstore hosts lots of readings and even had a guest appearance by Geronimo Stilton, a time-traveling mouse detective who is hugely popular with Spanish kids.

Upstairs is a large exhibition space filled with customers’ photos of bookstores around the world. Some are old, some are ultra-modern, and then there’s that one in Indonesia that’s floating on a barge. The best of the ever-growing collection are being turned into posters and make for a fun viewing. You can see the world of readers all in one room. It inspired me to scour the web to bring you a gallery of beautiful and odd bookstores from all around the world.

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Do you have a favorite bookstore I missed? Tell us about it in the comments section. To navigate the world of books, there’s a handy online Bookstore Guide that has plenty of good, detailed reviews of stores in more than a hundred cities, mostly in Europe. They’re always looking for new additions, so tell them too!
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[Photos by Sean McLachlan featuring some of the posters in the exhibition]

Travel Clichés: They Go With The Territory

ClichésI’ve recently been dipping into “The Cat’s Pyjamas: The Penguin Book of Cliches” by Julia Cresswell, which is a good summer read.

Cresswell really put her nose to the grindstone for this weighty tome, leaving no stone unturned in her quest for the real deal about cliches. We’re informed that “wend your way” dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, with “wend” meaning “to go.” It was on its way out as a word when Sir Walter Scott and other nineteenth century romantic authors breathed new life into it.

Other cliches come from the Bible, like “the four corners of the earth” and “the ends of the earth.” Cresswell writes, “the persistence of an expression once it has become fixed is evident in the way that no one is uncomfortable with these phrases, despite the fact that flat-earthers are few and far between.”

Some phrases are of more recent vintage. “The fast lane” can only be traced back to 1966.

Bad travel writing is filled to the brim with cliches. Terms like “unique” or “hidden” or “authentic” or “off the beaten path” are like nails on a blackboard to my ears. Yet none of these chills me to my marrow more than that most wretched of adjectives: “quaint.”

When I became a travel writer ten years ago I swore upon a stack of Bibles never to use “quaint” in an article. I have stuck to that vow like glue, except when a snake-in-the-grass copy editor stabbed me in the back. I had written an article about British thatched roof houses for a certain magazine that shall remain nameless and titled it simply, “Thatched Roof Houses.” The copy editor stole my thunder by adding the subtitle, “The Story Behind The Quaintness.” This led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Sometimes travel cliches can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, especially when they perpetuate stereotypes. Here’s some tongue-in-cheek advice on writing about Africa that will have you splitting your sides with laughter. So, fellow travel writers, I beg you on bended knee, when you put pen to paper and are stuck for the right word, don’t fall back on cliches. Avoid them like the plague.

[Photo courtesy shutterbug Jonas Bengtsson]

The art of William S. Burroughs on display in Germany

William S. BurroughsWilliam S. Burroughs is most famous for his experimental novels about heroin and gay sex, yet he was active in many arts. Now a new exhibition at the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, is focusing on his lesser-known artistic output.

The exhibition, “the name is BURROUGHS — Expanded Media,” highlights the author’s film, photography, collage and audio experiments. Much of this work reflects the style of his writing. Burroughs developed what he called the “CUT-UP method” in which he wrote a text, cut the pages into pieces and rearranged them. What’s interesting about this technique is that the sense, style and tone still come through. Try it on a political speech and you’ll see what I mean.

The CUT-UP method is especially evident in his film work, which looks like it was edited with a paper shredder. Like his books, much of Burroughs’ art is more emotionally experienced than intellectually understood. His photography is often more straightforward and includes some interesting self-portraits from various periods of his life.

The exhibition runs from March 23 and does not yet have a scheduled end date.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Longreads introduces curated travel reading with Travelreads

travel reading homepage travelteadsThanks to the Internet, social media and our various smartphones and e-readers, you no longer have to rely on the airport newsstand’s collection of John Grisham novels for travel reading. You can browse the New York Times from your cell phone, read a guidebook on your Kindle or start dreaming about your next trip with an e-magazine like TRVL. If you’re a fan of long-form journalism and fiction, you may look to Longreads for a constant stream of links to new and classic content online.

Today, Longreads has launched Travelreads, a destination-specific channel for travel reading with partner Virgin Atlantic. Compiled by links submitted by readers and curated by the Longreads team, the channel will include traditional travel writing as well as short stories and non-fiction set in a particular destination. “Geolocated Longreads, basically,” as founder Mark Armstrong has called it. All of the links are 1500 words or longer with offerings ranging from 1932 to brand-new content.

Travel blogger Jodi Ettenberg, a long-time contributor and lover of Longreads, was recently hired as a contributing editor and is helping to run the Travelreads feed. “It’s a great place to highlight the best of long-form travel writing,” said Ettenberg. “It’s also wonderful to expand it beyond purely non-fiction travel narrative. To include classics and fiction gives the feed a roundness that I feel sets it apart.” So far, you can find everything from Hemingway’s report from the Spanish Civil War front, to a Haruki Murakami fiction piece on Tokyo cats and a straight-up travel piece on Penang, Malasia. You can search for any place or author you like on the site.

You can find Longreads for your next trip at Longreads.com/travelreads, or by checking their Twitter or Facebook feeds for “the raw feed” of links submitted by readers. Share your own favorite stories by tweeting links with the hashtag #travelreads. Happy reading!