No matter how many summer vacations you plan or how well you plan them, a moment comes when you realize that you will never sword-fight with Lord of the Rings fans in Kazakhstan or reach that tiny island off the north coast of Australia where the school shuts down for Scabies Day and the last handful of speakers of an obsolescent Aboriginal language say ngimatimingilimpangipulampiwhen they mean That's what I dream about. They're too far away; there's so much else to do; and places change into entirely different places so fast nowadays. Luckily for you, Gayle Forman fenced with the faux Middle Earthers and Mark Abley learned some long Tiwiverbs, and both are the authors of new books.
Travelers' tales have cast narcotic spells ever since Herodotus enthralled ancient Greece with his descriptions of Phoenicia or the first sailor spun the first yarn about a massive squid -- dispensing that vicarious buzz of actually having been somewhere. If the main reason we read at all is to escape ourselves and our sock-strewn carpets and the same old swatch of sky over the same old Wal-Mart, then true accounts of real escapes transform our transit into a near-total immersion. Reading about good writers' trips is the next best thing to being there, or sometimes actually better, because you can emerge from those pages clean and dry and not riddled with intestinal parasites.
In this X-treme age, in which your Bingo-playing grandparents just got back from Ulan Bator and your mail carrier kicked butt on the latest Survivor, it's not enough for travel writers to just travel anymore. Now they have to go somewhere outrageous or lethal, or if they go somewhere ordinary, they must arrive with an insane agenda. In this self-indulgent -- some would say narcissistic -- age, travel narratives are as much about the teller as the tale. When ex-Seventeen reporter Forman recounts circling the globe with her ex-punk librarian husband, she radiates all the look-at-me clamor of a self-described "weird girl" and "self-righteous brat." In these Dr. Phil days, travel writers are constrained to spill, disgorging shameful confessions alongside descriptions of hammocks and yak milk. In this explicit era, rambling writers have to tell us when they get some.
Or not. Forman comes right out and broadcasts the news that, between nightclubbing with members of a not-exactly-queer third gender in Tonga and talking gangsta rap with Tanzanian rappers, by the time she and Nick reached Central Asia, "we'd stopped having sex." Okaaay. They reconnected in South Africa, though, and "it felt like a second honeymoon." Later still in this quirky, chatty narrative, they hit Amsterdam, where a savvy prostitute warned Forman that marriage "is like a poison."
Overlaying one's own sojourn over a historic or celebrated one is a classic starter. Sometimes painter James Morgan (who honed his chops as a teen, painting Elvis Presley over and over and over) left Little Rock to follow in his idol's footsteps through France, Corsica and Morocco; the warm if often wistful result is Chasing Matisse. British newspaperman Andrew Eames retraced Agatha Christie's journeys via the Orient Express. In The 8:55 to Baghdad, his sections on Christie -- though it is fun to picture her screaming hysterically when awakened by rampant cockroaches at 2 a.m. in Iraq -- take a dusty, faded back seat to Eames's own droll, keenly observed real-time saga, in which a canned drink called Pipi Bubble offers succor in Bulgaria; the odor of Venice's canals "was so strong you could have taken it away and colored it in"; and Trieste's port is a huge abandoned wasteland ("You could parachute a Disneyland in here, and still have room for a university"). Eames dubs Turkish high schoolers clad in plaid uniforms "teenage clan McTurks." The real mystery afoot is whether your laughter will withstand Eames's relentless mockery of Americans -- for example, the two Arizona backpackers who visit Sarajevo "because friends had told them it was a cool place...to buy cool T-shirts with real bullet holes."
Eames traveled to Baghdad so that you wouldn't have to -- not anytime soon, at least. Performing a similar service, Howard W. French of the New York Times visited Kikwit, Zaire, during the Ebola outbreak, and Monrovia, Liberia, as "looting binges and torrential, blinding rains" ravage a city where rival armies fire RPGs. Warned by his Monrovian host that "we were free to wander outside the embassy compound, but...if we did so, we would be entirely on our own and should not count on being rescued," French wandered anyway, encountering the corpses of those "who had been caught in the crossfire, or executed during stickups." French's fiercely sad A Continent for the Taking is armchair travel for those who need to be reminded of how lucky they are to have armchairs.
Granted, only the brave and the few will brave bullets and pestilence. But to get away with visiting ordinary places, authors either need a good gimmick or need to be famous already for something else. The latter explains Peter Carey's Wrong About Japan, in which the Booker Prize-winning novelist squires his twelve-year-old manga- and anime-obsessed son to Tokyo. He's a neophyte compared to old Nihonhand Donald Richie -- whose Japan Journals 1974-2004 oozes intensity and encyclopedic knowledge on everything from Zen to Sanyo, even revealing casually at one point that the Japanese term for clitoris is a compound of the words for squirrel and chestnut. Musing about whether "we might enter the mansion of Japanese culture through its garish, brightly lit back door," Carey is clearly coasting, like an A student who has rushed his homework a bit. His eloquence is evident but offhand; backstory on Tokyo's perennial flirtation with the future comes not from him but from others.
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