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Better Than Fiction - Don George

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Paperback: 320 pages / Publisher: Lonely Planet / Published: 9 Nov 2012

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      13.09.2013 10:38
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      Worthwhile read for travel writing fans.

      BETTER THAN FICTION

      Better Than Fiction is a compendium of true travel stories written by famous fiction writers and published by Lonely Planet, the guide book company. In this book of 320 pages there are 32 tales, mostly brief, but extremely varied in location and type. It is rare in any collection of short stories (true or fictional) that I like all of the collection, but in this case I thought they were all of a good standard, although obviously I did have some preferences over others.

      Favourite contributions include Shooting Pompeii by DBC Pierre (author of Booker and Whitbread prize-winning novel Vernon God Little) about his return to Central Mexico, a place he had visited many times as a young man. The theme of returning is also in Tom Carson's (Gilligan's Wake) segment, entitled The Tin Can, when he returned to Berlin having spent time there in his childhood as the son of a US State Department employee. As you can see many of these stories aren't your typical traveller's tales but journeys these writers have taken.

      Poet Frances Mayes writes one of the lengthiest contributions, entitled Quetzel, about the Nicaraguan man she met whilst her husband was a grad student studying at Princeton. Later she went to visit him and his family in Nicaragua. Her writing was subtle and her unrequited feelings for this man can be glimpsed just below the surface.

      Travel tales of the more conventional style are here, as evidenced by the piece by Marina Lewycka (A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian) who writes engagingly of travelling independently around Malawi with her daughter. Charles Finch (A Burial at Sea) writes about his time in Cape Town during the 2012 World Cup with some interesting observations of the international fans he met, and how some conformed (or otherwise) to their national stereotypes.

      Steven Amsterdam (Things We Didn't See Coming) was affected by his anti-malarial drugs in Sulawesi and went a bit crazy, his amusing story is entitled Confessions of a Coconut-Soup Eater. Joe Yogerst (White Tiger) had me gripped with his tale of how he and his friends stood up to a bully and extortionist from the Sudanese military in The Scarface Express. Another favourite was Into Unknown Climes by Nikki Gemmell. Gemmell went to Antarctica, to the Australian base, on a journalistic assignment where she found and lost the love of her life. This inspired her novel Shiver. Gemmell is not alone in being one of the many authors that I have not heard of before, but will be the first one I look to read again.

      Not all authors will be unknown to everyone. Isabel Allende, Tea Obreht, Stephen Kelman and Alexander McCall Smith are also featured in this book. Other contributions include that of Peter Ho Davies (The Welsh Girl) who writes of tragedies that have happened to others whilst he has been travelling away from home, the most recent example being September 11th 2001, when he was in Washington, in his piece called Death Trip. American author Carol Anne Oates (Mudwoman) writes a gripping and chilling account of visiting San Quentin maximum security prison in California with some criminology grad students. As I have already mentioned, many of the pieces in the collection, are not your typical travel tales.

      Stories include tales set in India, China, Ireland, Solomon Islands, Saudi Arabia, USA, Tahiti, UK (West Sussex), Cuba, Argentina, Italy, Luxembourg, Austria and the fictional city of Hav. The themes vary from returning to destinations in the author's past, to exploring other people's pasts, making discoveries and meeting the unique characters, the quirky destinations and unexpected events that often occur in travel writing. What makes it different is that the authors are not travel writers but fiction writers (although some have written non-fiction work in the past) so they approach their contributions differently, and I found their writing engaging as the wove their facts and experience into a story. Recommended to all fans of travel writing, and to those who may have not dabbled in that genre before.

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