Review: The Best American Travel Writing (2011)

How to Land a Spot in the Best American Travel Writing Anthology

I’m sure Rolf Potts was at best surprised when he opened up the advanced reader’s copy of this year’s The Best American Travel Writing (2011), scanned the Contents page for his name and discovered no mention of himself whatsoever.

Also, Seth Stevenson.
Ditto, Jeffrey Tayler.
Too, Tony Perrotett.

Things could be worse. I didn’t even make the Notable Travel Writing runners-up page (but Joyce Carol Oates, Pico Iyer, and Ian Frazer did). Perhaps I was looked over for inclusion because the huge wad of online publications I sent to series editor Jason Wilson arrived at a “locked box.” Hm, I thought, “Is Jason giving me the silent treatment?” Boy, was I relieved to discover that the editorial op had just moved into new digs at Drexel University, also home of the cognoscenti-ruled website The Smart Set.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure I’ve met guest editor Sloane Crosley before at some budget beach resort somewhere: there is something familiar about those soulful eyes on the back cover.

At least, I’m sure, from reading her introduction, that she was sure she made the right choices: all the names looked familiar, but I have to admit the only real travel writer, included among the auteurs, was William T. Vollman, whose book The Atlas really was revolutionary in the literary travel world. When I first read his ambitious book, with its clashing Rorschach images, I wondered if he was some sort of computer-search collage artist. Upon closer inspection, I realized he had typed in every single damned word, albeit under a delirium.

Unsurprisingly, Vollman’s “A Head for the Emir” (from Harper’s Magazine) is the standout essay, taking us into the unfamiliar territory of “Kurdistan”—an unstable unofficial nation bordering Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

Anyway, Sloane Crosley, author of the acclaimed I Was Told There’d Be Cake: Essays (which was a finalist for the Thurber Prize), can be congratulated for reintroducing us to authors not usually associated with travel magazines. André Aciman’s lead-off dream of following Monet to the villa in which he worked on the Italian Riviera is a hard act to follow. Until we get to Mischa Berlinski’s “Venance Lafrance Is Not Dead,” about the “loup-garou” (werewolves) in Haiti.

But even this is trumped by Téa Obrecht’s wonderful “Twilight of the Vampires,” about the Balkan vukodlak (vampire): “a far cry from that dirty, bloated wanderer of graveyards. . . . as a lover, he has worked hard to overcome his cadaverous locomotion, his ungainly south Slav diction . . . so that the mere sight of his fangs now inspires young maidens to bare their throats of their own accord.”

Other noteworthy reads include Maureen Dowd’s account of etiquette in “A Girl’s Guide to Saudi Arabia,” including “a Barbie-like doll, accessorized with headscarf and abaya.” Plus, Porter Foxes’s “The Last Stand of Freetown,” a wonderful take on the independent country of “Christiana” inside Denmark.

Other reliable tour guides into formulaic unfamiliar terrain include Gary Shteyngard’s comical “Moscow on the Med,” about the influx of pork-eating Russian Jews remaking Israel, and Justin Nobel’s frozen prose capturing “The Last Inuit of Quebec.”

However, it is Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx’s elegiac “A Year of Birds” which casts the strongest spell. “One bald eagle was in the nest tree, the other flying down-river. The cliff turned the color of a russet apple, and I enjoyed the rare deep orange sunset smoldering under the edge of a dark dirty-sock cloud.” It doesn’t get any better than that, Proulx prose.

If I’ve left anybody out, this is not a comment on their worth for inclusion. Some of the stories are a little unsurprising, but not forgettable, including David Baez’s “The Coconut Salesman,” which I really liked mainly because it was short and sweet.

How to land a spot in the annual anthology The Best American Travel Writers (2012)? Just write for one of the major magazines such as Harper’s, Condé Nast Traveler, The Atlantic, Travel + Leisure, and The New Yorker. Or, a serious paperback literary magazine such as The Missouri Review. Alas, there are no surprise entries from experimental amateur zines inclus. Even so, I predict that I might have a surprise waiting for you in the next issue.

The Best American Travel Writing (2011)

Editor: Sloane Crosley
Series Editor: Jason Wilson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, pp. 255, $14.95
Reviewed by John M. Edwards


John M. Edwards is an award-winning travel writer who has written for CNN Traveller, Missouri Review,, Islands, The Expeditioner, and North American Review. He is editor-in-chief of the upcoming annual Rotten Vacations.

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