Monday, December 07, 2009

Armchair Traveler: Best American Travel Writing

--by Hanje Richards

The "Best American" series has been the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction since 1915. "Best American" includes series such as Best American Magazine Writing, Best American Fiction, Best American Short Stories, Best American Science and Nature Writing – and the subject of today’s piece, Best American Travel Writing.

Each volume's series editor selects notable works from hundreds of periodicals. A special guest editor – a leading writer in the field – then chooses the very best twenty or so pieces to publish. This unique system has made the "Best American" series the most respected and popular of its kind.

The Best American Travel Writing series editor is Jason Wilson, who teams up with excellent travel writers for each title in the series. Whether you are traveling from your armchair or doing some of the real thing, you might just enjoy what others have had to say about their experiences. All over the map. Literarily and figuratively.

The Best American Travel Writing 2000 (Edited by Bill Bryson). The first book in the series, BATW 2000 includes articles by such well-loved writers as Bill Buford and Ryszard Kapuscinski, as well as articles by exciting new voices. Ranging across myriad landscapes, from Central Park in New York City to the Ouadane oasis in Saharan Mauritania, BATW 2000 showcases the diversity and creative power of travel writing today.

The Best American Travel Writing 2001 (Edited by Paul Theroux). A far-flung collection chosen by travel writer extraordinaire Paul Theroux, who has selected pieces about "the spell in the wilderness, the letter home from foreign parts, the dangerous adventure, the sentimental journey, the exposé, the shocking revelation, the eyewitness report, the ordeal, the quest . . . Travel is an attitude, a state of mind."

The Best American Travel Writing 2002 (Edited by Frances Mayes). Giving new life to armchair travel for 2002 are David Sedaris on God and airports, Kate Wheeler on a most dangerous Bolivian festival, André Aciman on the eternal pleasures of Rome, and many more.

The Best American Travel Writing 2003 (Edited by Ian Frazier). Journey through the 2003 volume from Route 66 to the Arctic; go deep into Poland's Tatra Mountains and through the wildest jungle in Congo. Selections this year are from equally far-flung sources, including "Outside," "Food & Wine," "National Geographic Adventure," "Potpourri" and "The New Yorker."

The Best American Travel Writing 2004 (Edited by Pico Iyer). Editor Iyer writes in this volume’s Introduction, "Restlessness is part of the American way. It's part of what brought many of the rest of us to America." BATW 2004 displays American restlessness at its most tantalizing and entertaining, transporting readers from Patagonia to Ivory Coast to small-town Vermont. Readers are treated to car and truck trips across America, can fall "in lust" in the South Pacific, and go into the heart of the Congo to rescue gorillas.

The Best American Travel Writing 2005 (Edited by Jamaica Kincaid). BATW 2005 includes pieces by William Least-Heat Moon , Ian Frazier, John McPhee, William T. Vollmann, Simon Winchester , Tom Bissell, Madison Smartt Bell, Timothy Bascom, Pam Houston, and more.

The Best American Travel Writing 2006 (Edited by Tim Cahill). Here are twenty-six pieces that showcase the best travel writing from 2005, filled with "keen observations that transform ordinary journeys into extraordinary ones."

Mark Jenkins journeys into a forgotten valley in Afghanistan, Kevin Fedarko takes a wild ride through the rapids of the Grand Canyon, and Christopher Solomon reports on the newest fad to hit South Korea: downhill skiing. For David Sedaris, a seemingly routine domestic flight is cause for a witty rumination on modern airline travel. Alain de Botton describes the discreet charms of Zurich, and Ian Frazier recalls leaving the small Midwestern town he called home. Michael Paterniti gives a touching portrait of the world's tallest man — eight and a half feet and growing, while P.J. O'Rourke visits an airplane manufacturer to see firsthand how the French make the world's biggest passenger plane. George Saunders is dazzled by a trip to the "Vegas of the Middle East," Rolf Potts takes on tantric yoga for dilettantes, and Sean Flynn documents a seedier side of travel — the newest hotspot in the international sex trade.

The Best American Travel Writing 2007 (Edited by Susan Orlean). The twenty pieces in this year’s collection showcase the best travel writing from 2006. George Saunders travels to India to witness firsthand a fifteen-year-old boy who has been meditating motionless under a tree for months without food or water, and who many followers believe is the reincarnation of the Buddha. Matthew Power reveals trickle-down economics at work in a Philippine garbage dump. Jason Anthony describes the challenges of everyday life in Vostok, the coldest place on earth, where temperatures dip as low as minus-129 degrees and where, in midsummer, minus-20 degrees is considered a heat wave.

David Halberstam, in one of his last published essays, recalls how an inauspicious Saigon restaurant changed the way he and other reporters in Vietnam saw the world. Ian Frazier analyzes why we get sick when traveling in out-of-the-way places. And Kevin Fedarko embarks on a drug-fueled journey in Djibouti, chewing psychotropic foliage in “the worst place on earth.”

Closer to home, Steve Friedman profiles a 410-pound man who set out to walk cross-country to lose weight and find happiness. Rick Bass chases the elusive concept of the West in America, and Jonathan Stern takes a hilarious “Lonely Planet” approach to his small Manhattan apartment.

The Best American Travel Writing 2008 (Edited by Anthony Bourdain). Here you will find Seth Stevenson’s extraordinary experience of “Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World” as he makes his way through sweltering and paradoxical Dubai. Exotic tastes and larger-than-life personalities abound as Bill Buford accompanies the chocolate maker Frederick Schilling to the rain forests of Brazil. And, on the other side of the world, Calvin Trillin trolls Singapore for the ultimate street food, while Kristin Ohlson delves into the harrowing challenges faced by proprietors of restaurants in Kabul, Afghanistan. The twenty-five pieces in this collection have their fair share of the absurd as well. David Sedaris explains the hilarious highs (sundaes) and woeful lows (sobbing with your seatmate) of flying Business Elite. Gary Shteyngart goes “To Russia for Love” during St. Petersburg’s vodka-soaked wedding season. And Emily Maloney gets up close and personal with her fellow travelers — and their massage devices — in a South American hostel.

The complete Best American Travel Writing series is shelved at 910.4 BEST upstairs in the Copper Queen Library’s History and Travel section, and BATW 2000-2008 will be joined shortly by Best American Travel Writing 2009, edited by Simon Winchester and including such authors as Kiran Desai, Calvin Trillin, Dimiter Kenarov, and Patrick Symmes.