Book Review: Best American Travel Writing 2016 Edited by Bill Bryson and Jason Wilson

I’ve been wondering lately: if most of what I write is science fiction and fantasy, why don’t I read more of it? I don’t keep up with even a fair percentage of what comes out in the genre every year. I passed on voting for the Nebula Awards because I hadn’t read any of the nominees. I usually catch up on most of the acclaimed short stories and novelettes of the previous year in the best of the year volumes. Even when I do read speculative fiction, a lot of what I favor is what is known as “new wave” writing that came out in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Why? Well, there’s no problem. It’s just that there’s so much to read and my tastes run so wide that I can’t keep up. To maintain a balance, I tend to alternate between reading fiction and nonfiction. And when I’m reading fiction, I tend to alternate between reading science fiction and so-called literary fiction, which in my broad definition includes just about anything that’s not science fiction and fantasy, which I know is way too broad. Anyway, who cares? Let’s move on to the volume at hand.

I picked up The Best American Travel Writing 2016 at a library sale for a buck. I definitely found a bargain. It’s a great book. Usually when I read anthologies I only sort of like about half the stories or essays, and I really like even less. In this collection, though, there was only one dud in the bunch. Just one. The reason that one essay didn’t work is that, unlike all the other entries, the writer was so hung up on himself and trying to write fancy words and phrases, he forgot that he was supposed to be writing about a place that he traveled to. Damn, that one is boring. It sticks out like a sore thumb, to use a cliché. It’s somewhere around a third of the way through the book, and I’d been humming along marveling that all the pieces were so much fun and how magnificent it would be if every single one turned out to be great, and then suddenly: bam. Massive let-down. At least it was just the one.

One odd thing that I noticed while reading this volume: very few of the chosen essays are from travel magazines. Most are from general interest magazines or literary journals. Perhaps that accounts for their high quality – or perhaps there simply aren’t many superlative magazines devoted to travel available.

I got to thinking while I was reading all these first-class travel essays, wondering how they managed to all be so great. One reason must be that the editor, Bill Bryson, has excellent taste in literature. I’m sure that’s part of it. Another reason could be that travel has always evoked a profound sense of wonder in me, and since I haven’t been able to travel for so long, fantasizing about it by reading about these places is the next best thing. Let’s say it’s a combination of the two. Regardless of the reason, I had a great time reading this book.

Let’s see if I can pick out a few highlights. “Rotten Ice” by Gretel Ehrlich is about the melting glaciers and ice fields of Greenland. The author’s firsthand experiences and observations over years of visiting the area belie the ridiculous claims of those who insist that there is no such thing as global warming. “Off Diamond Head” by William Finnegan is an excerpt from his great book Barbarian Days in which he recounts his teen years surfing in Hawaii. “About Face” by Patricia Marx is a humorous piece about the South Korean obsession with plastic surgery. “The Reddest Carpet” by Mitch Moxley recounts a bizarre trip to North Korea to attend a film festival. One of the most disquieting but fascinating essays is “Growing Old With the Inuit” by Justin Nobel. Before recounting his journey to far northern Canada to attend a convention of elderly Inuit, the author spends a few pages describing all the ways that various cultures around the world used to murder their elderly members when the folks got too old to be of use. Gruesome stuff; especially difficult to read since I’m getting on in years myself.

These are just a few examples of the numerous superlative essays in this book. As I said, it’s fun to hop from one place to the next in essay after essay, enjoying a bit of armchair traveling. It makes me want to pick up some more volumes of this series when I get a chance – and also, of course, makes me want to visit all those places.

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