Monday, November 10, 2014

Book Review: “The Best American Travel Writing: 2013” Ed. Elizabeth Gilbert

Hello everyone! So sorry for the delay, but I’ve been pretty ill—I came down with walking pneumonia—so please forgive me! I hope you enjoy my latest (belated) post!

I’ve been waiting to do this book review for quite some time…like from the second I bought the book! I picked up 2013’s edition of “The Best American Travel Writing” at a library sale for 50 cents. I was overjoyed when I found it, especially since it was edited by Elizabeth Gilbert of “Eat, Pray, Love” fame.

This book is like a whirlwind RTW tour, introducing you to no end of fascinating people with equally fascinating stories. There’s a trip to visit in-laws in Cuba, there’s a delightfully refreshing and determined run with the bulls in Pamplona, there’s a nonchalant dentist appointment in France. Then there’s a fun foodie adventure in Vietnam, on the hunt for a mystery recipe to the perfect cao lau noodle.

What I loved most about this book was the fact that it introduced me to places and cultures I had never thought of visiting before. Before I read The Bull Passes Through, I’d never wanted to run with the bulls, but author Kevin Chroust gave me that little itch. I’d never had cao lau, but after reading Vietnam’s Bowl of Secrets, I wanted to.

My favorite piece of all had to be Blot Out, a highly moving piece by Colleen Kinder. I found this piece extremely thought provoking. Kinder’s story centers around her experience as a woman in the Islamic, male-dominated city of Cairo, and her desire to, as she puts it “pass invisibly” without being harassed as a Western woman in an Eastern world. Thus begins her quest to venture out into the market of Cairo—dressed in the traditional (and highly controversial) niqab. The niqab, which was most recently banned in France, is that all-covering black sheath that Americans were so violently introduced to after 9/11. With only a small screen for seeing, the woman inside the niqab is completely covered, and completely hidden. Together with a friend, Kinder ventures outside to one of Cairo’s more famous everything-including-the-kitchen-sink markets, disguised in niqab. Instead of being stared at and cat-called for being a Westerner exposed, Kinder and her friend move through the crowds with relative invisibility, blending into the everyday scene of Cairo. Without walking around completely exposed, the two are able to move through the market, observing and shopping like local women.

The scheme goes well enough for a time. However, even with the cover of niqab, Kinder proves that even local women are not free of harassment. Towards the end of her experiment in the market, Kinder is “ass-grabbed” proving that women in any dress can be harassed on the streets of the city.

What I liked most about Kinder’s story was the ability to blend into another culture, totally unseen, without that invisible billboard that shouts “Westerner,” or, even worse, “American!” to the rest of the world. What would it be like to walk down the streets of any city, not just Cairo’s, and be able to totally blend into the scene? It reminded me of the time I tried to make my way through the crowds in a pub in Ireland using my best Irish accent. Unbeknownst to me, the crowd was a group of American tourists. “Oh isn’t she cute?!” crowed an American lady, thinking a very polite Irish girl had just tried to not knock her pint out of her hand. I felt a similar thrill when reading Kinder’s piece. The thrill of blending in, or, in Kinder’s words, “blotting out.”

There’s so many different experiences and places chronicled in this book. Like I said before, it was like a mini-RTW trip, exposing the reader to a potpourri of sights, sounds, smells and tastes from the comfort of the couch (or a booth at Panera, where I read Bombing Sarajevo and The Mad Dogs of Istanbul). Unlike a lengthy travel memoir (which, don’t get me wrong, I love!) this collection offers up enough of a tease that makes me want to go off and do my own exploration and fill in the next chapter of the adventure.

I’m now on the hunt for all the “Best of American Travel Writing” installments, because this volume made me want more and more stories to devour, because that is what you’ll be doing when you read this book, devouring each and every adventure that comes along, and become even more eager to make your own.

Post Script: Interesting note, my copy of this book appears to have been spirited from the library of a Viking River Cruise ship. I must not have been the only reader who could not part with their copy after they read it!

Thanks for reading everyone! And I'll do my best to have a new #TBT on Thursday!!!

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