Saturday, February 12, 2005

Travel Books Too Depressing?

Travel Writer at Work

Ever since Paul Theroux penned his enormously successful book about his train travels in Asia (two decades ago!), travel writing has turned away from sunny dialogues to stories of trials and tribulations. You know, some travel writer signs up to go fishing in the Arctic Ocean in the dead of winter, and almost dies, but produces a book about his foolish adventure.

Also see: Tim Cahill.

The following article is somewhat of a new approach, in that it openly dislikes these tales of woe and wishes for a return to happier times. Sort of like Lowell Thomas -- all the adventure without the pain.

I've won two Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers, and his lovely mug, on the award plaque, is posted on my wall just below the clock. Nice mustache, Lowell!

Thanks, Jen. Great find. How's life in San Mateo? Ready for Vegas?

Jen Leo at Written Road

The good, bad and the self-indulgent
TRAVEL BOOKS: Around the world from an armchair
Tom Spears
CanWest News Service
February 06, 2005

The Cat in the Hat would make a successful travel writer today because he has the right attitude. He says: "Look at me, look at me, look at me now!"

Repeat: I am radical! I am extreme! I am snooty!

Yup, must be a travel writer. The good news: If you plow through the travel section at the book store, you can find some good books among the show-offs. But first you have to work past items like this:

- Hell or High Water, by Peter Heller. It's about some guys kayaking a fearsome river in the Himalayas.

He writes like this: "There was no guarantee any of them would get back alive . . . If anyone could get it done, though, it would be these seven."

That's the narration. The dialogue runs like this: "Nobody has ever died on my watch." A kayaker talks about how he can't get hurt any worse and the doctor will shoot in "stuff," and it's just a matter of how much he can endure.

I felt that way, too.

- The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer, by Eric Hansen. His adventures include birdwatching with strippers (which is a little creepy, despite his hands-off approach) and recovering body parts, including half a head, after a plane crash.

OK, but what if you want to go somewhere and read about what it's like first? Or even read about a place where you don't plan to travel? What if you just want a travel book about travelling? Travelling by non-extreme people like yourself?

You're in luck. You do not, as one writer recently claimed, have to settle for crass pitches for tawdry resorts. There are some fine travel books. Among them:

- New York, the Unknown City, by Brad Dunn and Daniel Hood (Arsenal Pulp Press, $22.95). The series is Canadian, with previous books on Toronto and Montreal. Which may explain the toned-down approach: It lists hundreds of neat facts but doesn't scream about New York being the biggest and best.

Instead you'll learn where mobster Lucky Luciano hung out; why the bedrock allows skyscrapers only in some locations; where Woody Guthrie met Pete Seeger; how organized criminals shoplift from high-priced retailers; and where Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, performed. He was an actor, too.

- Time's Magpie , by Myla Goldberg (Crown Journeys, $23). This short book is a loving look at Prague, the title referring to the city's ability to hang on to buildings from its past and store their rich history-- a heritage that got bombed out of many European cities.

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