Drinking from the travel literature firehose and choking on my last gulp

One of the unexpected little perks of working at Lonely Planet is that there’s a steady stream of other publishers flinging free books our way in the hope that they’ll end up on the website,  and I’ve joined the group of volunteers who sip daintily at this firehose of new books and write up reviews for them.  As this isn’t exactly what I was hired to do, it’s a purely an extracurricular activity, but I do get a small consideration, a shiny new book to keep, and a captive audience for my immortal thoughts.

Over the past year of doing this, though, I’ve come to realize that travel literature is really heavily competed field, and in the words of Finnish poet Lauri Viita, while there are plenty of writers who can speak five languages, precious few of them have anything to say.  Here are my last five reviews that made it onto the site, with the rather decent up top and the fairly awful at the bottom:

  • A Tiger in the Kitchen, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, 9/10.  “A deep travelogue this is not, but if you’d like to vicariously eat your way through Singapore, take a peek inside a Nonya kitchen and have a nifty stack of recipes left over, add this book to your shopping cart.”
  • A Geek in Japan, Hector García, 8/10.  “If you’re looking for a gift for a teenage nephew who already has the full set of Neon Genesis Evangelion on DVD, you could hardly do better than this book – but if you’re looking for a scholarly treatise on the Land of the Rising Sun, then, well, a book called A Geek in Japan probably wasn’t too high on your radar in the first place.”
  • In Praise of Savagery, Warwick Cairns, 8/10.  “If you haven’t read Arabian Sands yet, buy that first. But if you have, want more and can’t find a copy of the long out-of-print Danakil Diary, this is an engaging and often thought-provoking substitute.”
  • Trip of the Tongue, Elizabeth Little, 7/10.  “What the cover promises to be a ‘witty and endearing’ tour of America’s lesser-known languages turns out to be a sequence of potted histories recounting why that particular language is dying or already dead.”
  • The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds, Eric Enno Tamm, 5/10.  “Even through Tamm’s rose-tinted glasses it is ‘as dry of titillating details as the Taklimakan is of water’ and characterised by a ‘stiff unreality’, which would explain why it languished for nearly 70 years without a reprint.”

In retrospect, all those ratings seem a little overly positive, as I recently read Redmond O’Hanlon’s Congo Journey and was completely bowled over by its brilliance: this, ladies and gentlemen, is what travel literature should be like.  By turns both hilarious and deeply disturbing, the book and, above all, the people in it are simply so vivid that by the end you feel like you’ve been trekking in the Congo yourself, and weeks later you still find yourself thinking about what happened to the people you just “met”.

Which brings me to the main reason I’m writing this blog post.  In the same way that Lonely Planet guidebooks don’t include hotels that aren’t worth staying in, the Lonely Planet website doesn’t review books that simply aren’t worth reading.  Unfortunately, I recently pulled the short straw and ended up with a mug-puckering lemon unfit to print, so here it is its review for posterity.

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You’d be excused for thinking that Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and Hopeful is a travelogue about going on three very different pilgrimages around the world, but you’d be wrong. As the author candidly admits, “I only like travel writing when it’s not about travel at all but rather about friendship, lies, digression, amateurism, trains and sex.”

A worrisome premise to start with, but turns out there’s precious little friendship, lies, trains or even sex in this book. The main topic of digression – or, rather, the actual theme of the book – is Lewis-Kraus’s conflicted relationship with his father, a closeted rabbi who came out and, in the author’s view, more or less abandoned his family so he could carouse in the gay bars of New York and New Orleans.

So the author flits aimlessly from one hipster mecca to another (San Francisco, Berlin, Shanghai), laden with angst about how hard it is to have relationships or write this book. He does the Christian pilgrimage of Camino de Santiago across Spain (800 km on foot) on a drunken lark, finds it interesting enough that he tries the Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan (1,100 km) solo, and finishes off attempting to reconcile with his brother and father at the Hasidic Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah in Uman, Ukraine. Yet with little interest in his surroundings or ability to communicate with the locals, the pilgrimages consist of griping about the weather, poor wifi and blisters, with endless tedious mulling over the last e-mail or phone call from his father and its inevitable subtext of implied insults and insufficiently sincere apologies. And every now and then there’s a slab of dense to indecipherable philosophising, often quoted directly from someone like Mircea Eliade or Paul Elie:

What would presumably, then, be something other than an imitation of life would be an experience the cost of which we do not simultaneously calculate, an experience the consequences of which we do not simultaneously fear; it would mean the sort of presentness generated by utter certainty.”

Since this book made it to the printer, I can only presume there are people who enjoy this sort of thing, but I nearly gave up 50 pages in and regret plowing through to the end in hope of it getting better. Steer clear.

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