Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Condé Nast Traveller Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Book Review

The previous two reviewers [on Amazon US, where I posted this review today] both gave this two stars only. I think the arrangement of the articles, alphabetically by country, detracts from the power of the best entries here. The magazine obviously can attract top authors to contribute, yet the selections vary widely in length, focus, and inherent interest. While there are eight or ten fine pieces, too many others trudge along dutifully and make you wonder why, except for the commission from their publisher, the author bothered at all.

There's not much in the way of editorial guidance. A skimpy introduction, and while each entry does have appended a relevant supplement that appears to be lifted from what would have accompanied the original article, there's no byline to verify or deny this. These "service addenda" are credited only in a list ending the acknowledgements. So, I'm not sure who wrote each one; only two of the authors appear here in this endnote. These suggested itineraries, reading lists, or travel tips, as with the original entries, veer all over the place in quality. From two decades, if these are the best 21 articles from "eighteen eminent contributors," then I'm glad I did not have to read the rest of the magazine's articles that didn't make the cut.

Gregor von Rezzori floats down the Romanian Danube but fails to make us want to follow; Russell Banks did the same for me in the Everglades. Jan Morris on the Big Island of Hawai'i, Nik Cohn in Savannah, Edna O'Brien at Bath, and Patricia Storace in Provence all provide serviceable reports, but none of these grabbed my interest enough. Nicole Krauss enters Japanese gardens in Kyoto, and she does conjure up if you're curious why they cast their spell. Shirley Hazzard tells where to go on Capri, and again the appeal may lure those so inclined. Robert Hughes on Barcelona-- he wrote a long book on the city-- falls into masses of detail beyond the scope of a short essay. Philip Gourevitch uses his experience as an African reporter well, and if you're more curious about safaris than I am, it's a helpful primer. But, despite the noble attempts at ecological journalism by Suketu Mehta from along the endangered Himalayas, his contribution's tonally out of place among the more personal approach of the other entries. I liked better Edmund White's discussion of Petra's natural beauty and eerie remains. Simon Winchester dares to hike up volcanic Mount Mayon in the Philippines and you feel his pain.

My favorite essays? Pico Iyer's visits to Iceland and Ethiopia both reveal, in a very religious vs. a rather secular locale, a poignant sense of the primeval beauty and terror that seem to have endured before mankind's arrival. Francine Prose in tracing Kafka through Prague certainly follows a well-worn path, but her knack for the uncanny makes her essay succeed: she ends it with a vignette of walking along as the streetlights blink out, rather than timed on, at her approach. William Dalrymple finds along his own pilgrim's trail to Compostella a vigorous counter to the pieties and predictabilities of a familiar traveller's tale. These three writers manage to show us what we may already know, as they do, while keeping an eye out for the happenstance. They mix the historical and the recent well, and do not descend into a potted recital of guidebook lore or hackneyed glimpses of quirky local color.

Patricia Storace shows how invisible the reality of Athens is in its ruins and its legends that persist amidst a gossipy, noisy, and frank exchange of daily routine among its bustling and busybody natives. Similarly, Robert Hughes enters the funereal remnants of ghostly Etruria to plumb sarcophagi where the natural and the man-made appear to have exchanged places, such is their decay into the caves beneath the glare.

Finally a couple of places I had no interest in going to, but whose narratives kept me eager to find out what happens next to the writer. James Truman drolly does this in Iran to elegant effect. John Julius Norwich elbows us through the Vatican; it's accompanied by a very detailed insider's walking tour of how to navigate the labyrinthine museums. Whoever wrote this skillful guide on what to see and what to miss amidst the Roman throngs deserves extra editorial credit.

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