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*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
**      = Enjoyable
*        = Good, with reservations


***The Best American Travel Writing 2002

edited by Frances Mayes

Jason Wilson, series editor

Reviewed October 9, 2003.
Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2002.  351 pages.
Available on in paperback for $10.40.
Available at Sembach Library (818.5408 BES).

The idea behind the Best American series is that the series editor reads hundreds of magazine pieces in the given category and presents them to a guest editor to make the final selection for the collection.

I like travel writing, so I was sure I’d enjoy this collection.  The Foreword and Introduction by the two editors made me excited to read what they’d collected.

In Immediate Fiction, Jerry Cleaver teaches that writing is boring if the characters don’t have problems.  I agree with that a little bit, but I also think, along with Frances Mayes, that “it is indisputably harder to write well about happiness than it is to write well about travail.”

I enjoy reading travel books, but most of them have been set in Europe, in places like Italy, Spain, England, and Paris.  Reading books like In the Hills of Tuscany by Ferenc Mate and Extra Virgin by Annie Hawes make me feel tremendously lucky that I, too, get to live in Europe for a time.  I feel a vicarious thrill in their experiences and feel a new sense of understanding of these different places.

Not many of the pieces in this book were like that.  Most of the places discussed were places I don’t have any desire to visit myself.  I have to admit that once a writer mentions that a place is hot, I lose any desire I might have had to see it.  Still, I’ve never longed to make my way through the jungles of Papua New Guinea or hitchhike on my own through Africa.  It had never entered my head to learn about Cambodian cuisine in Cambodia or to see firsthand the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.

So this book wasn’t quite what I expected from a book of travel writing, but it was still fascinating in a different way.  As Jason Wilson pointed out in the Foreword, “All the writers whose work you will read in this anthology share the ability to transcend their chosen destinations, to understand that a trip’s context—whether personal or political—is as important as the trip itself, and they all deliver a compelling and beautiful narrative.”

Reviews of other books by Frances Mayes:
Under the Tuscan Sun
Bringing Tuscany Home

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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