Reviews provided by Syndetics
Kirkus Book Review
In a slender volume that contains multitudes, the award-winning critic and novelist details his travels in such far-flung places as Tahiti and the Arctic Circle. In the author's note, Dyer (Writer-in-Residence/Univ. of Southern California; Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, 2014) proclaims the subsequent "chapters," for lack of a better word, are "a mixture of fact and fictionthe figure at the centre of the carpet and a blank space on a map." Prefacing each chapter with a brief anecdote relating to a physical landscape of memorye.g., a rock formation called Devil's Chimney at Leckhampton Hill that his uncle climbedDyer creates a pictorial framework for his digressions on place and culture. (There are also photographs throughout.) Referencing D.H. Lawrence's use of the term "nodality" and how certain places feel "temporary" and others "final," the author inflects his musings on place with a mystical quality as he recounts experiences tracking Paul Gauguin's footsteps in Tahiti, a trip to upper Norway to see the northern lights, and a pilgrimage to Theodor Adorno's Brentwood, California, house, among others. The two standout chapters focus on Dyer's adventures experiencing Walter de Maria's The Lightning Field and Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, both landmarks of the land art movement. Though the author's travels are diverse, he has an outsized fascination with the vastness of the American West. However, his interest in landscape goes beyond a sacrosanct connection to the Earth. With philosophical incisiveness, Dyer extols the virtue of landscape to conjure in himself the tangible and the mirage, the real and the illusion, the possessed object and the desired object. There is an undeniable joy throughout Dyer's writing, an affirmation that travel and the experience of placenot merely being someplace, but being present in itis a gateway to the humanity of past, present, and future. A mesmerizing compendium that reflects on time, place, and just what, exactly, we are doing here. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
New York Times Book Review
SOME WRITERS - Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, William Least Heat-Moon - are prolific globe-trotters, repeatedly channeling their wanderlust into best-selling travel yarns that span the world. Then there's a literary subset for whom such writing is a sideline, a secondary calling to successful careers as novelists, journalists and culture critics. Andrew Solomon, Bob Shacochis, Russell Banks and Geoff Dyer all made their names as masters of other genres. In four travel-writing anthologies out this spring, the authors amply display the powers of observation and empathy that animate their other work. Andrew Solomon is best known as the author of two ambitious books of nonfiction that explore human psychology and family relationships: "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression," which won the National Book Award in 2001, and "Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity," the winner of the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award. But he has also roamed the globe for magazines ranging from Travel & Leisure to The New Yorker, casting his gaze on fragile societies in the midst of upheaval. In "Far and Away," Solomon gathers nearly 30 travel pieces over three decades that reflect, he writes, "my lifelong fascination with ... places in the throes of transformation." Solomon's early articles focus on the changing art scene in countries recently freed from the grip of repression. In "The Winter Palettes," an evocative time capsule written for Harpers & Queen in 1988, Solomon meets avant-garde Soviet artists in the age of glasnost and finds their solidarity fraying in the face of overnight fame and fortune. Attending Sotheby's groundbreaking auction of contemporary art in Moscow, where the works of former outcasts fetch six-figure sums, he notes with amusement the hype and hysteria surrounding artists once ostracized by the Communist regime. "Elton John's manager exchanged pleasantries with the sister of the king of Jordan," he writes. "A retired baseball player escorted a small bevy of titled Scandinavian ladies." The Ministry of Culture, meanwhile, "which retained a sizable part of the takings, suddenly began looking at the once-detested artists with a self-interested kindness now that they had become a prime source of hard currency." Solomon's more recent reportage widens his scope to whole societies in transition - Afghanistan in the months after the Taliban's fall, Myanmar during the halting changeover from military rule to quasi-democracy, Rio de Janeiro's favelas in the midst of a huge crackdown on organized crime in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Posing as a "British Christian archaeologist rather than as an American Jewish journalist," he visits Libya in 2006 during a dramatic thaw in relations between Qaddafi and the West. The mercurial dictator has renounced state-sponsored terrorism, and cut back on the torture and executions of dissidents. Yet Solomon finds a deep-seated contempt for the regime that foreshadows Qaddafi's downfall half a decade later. Inquiring about the heaps of garbage that litter the magnificent ruins of Cyrene, Sab rat ha and Leptis Magna, he is told by one Libyan academic that "it's how the people of Libya piss on the system.... The Leader doesn't actually care about this country. Why should we keep it beautiful for him?" Solomon's pieces occasionally read as though he is emptying his notebooks, with long, rambling quotes from a succession of interview subjects. Far more often, his prose sparkles with insights and captivating description, whether he is observing camels in Mongolia ("When they lack water, their humps droop like aging bosoms. At night, they howl - an eerie sound, like the spirits of purgatory crying out") or eating his way through China. "The throbbing bass beat from the nightclub downstairs obtrudes," he writes of a hedonistic night in Shanghai, "but not enough to diminish the lotus root stuffed with sticky rice or the teasmoked duck, which is to waterfowl what Lapsang souchong is to Lipton." BOB SHACOCHIS'S WANDERLUST has infused much of his fiction, including his debut collection, "Easy in the Islands," which won the National Book Award for first fiction. It has also led him to some of the roughest corners of the planet - the mountains of Nepal, the slopes of Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey, the lawless badlands along the Kosovo-Albanian border - on assignments for magazines like Harpers and Outside. Many of the pieces collected in "Kingdoms in the Air" are vivid portraits of iconoclasts and rugged individualists who have surrendered their Western comforts for adventure and higher purpose in the developing world. In the opening story Shacochis profiles Tom Laird, a one-time hippie drifter who joined "the great transcontinental traveling freak show" to Kathmandu in the early 1970s, and there morphed into a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, photographer, mountain guide, development expert, "Sherpaphile" and confidant of the renowned author and naturalist Peter Matthiessen. Laird leads Shacochis and a team of fellow trekkers on a journey on horseback to Upper Mustang at the northern reaches of the Kali Gandaki gorge, a once secretive kingdom that, with Laird's gentle prodding, has recently opened to the outside world. Shacochis evokes the pains and pleasures of the trek with lyrical prose. Traveling up the valley, he finds himself the "point man in a nightmare, riding a horse high on a cliffside along an 18-inch-wide trail of crushed rock, the river slurping the base of the wall far beneath me." As they ascend to the 15,000-foot plateau, he writes, "We are immediately sobered by the desolation we ride into, its lifeless, lunar magnitude, the dense stacking of scorched, scoured mountains, so unwelcoming, we had quickly learned, that even the Maoists were giving Mustang a wide berth." Arriving in Lo Manthang, Mustang's walled capital, Shacochis meets the king, explores 15th-century temples and ponders the trade-offs between environmental protection and development. Laird, who once was celebrated in Mustang for raising the quality of life in the region, now finds himself vilified for having taken photos of sacred paintings in the temples, and for smuggling out art and animal parts - a false accusation spread by rivals. "The last thing Tom Laird could ever have imagined for his life had come true," Shacochis notes with irony. "He was the Ugly American." In "Gorongosa," first published in Outside, Shacochis travels to Mozambique's most famous game reserve, which was devastated during the 16-year civü war that broke out soon after independence from Portugal in 1975. Once the habitat of thousands of elephants, the park, Shacochis writes, became "a shooting gallery, a shifting headquarters for both armies, the area swarmed by destitute refugees, the footpaths ... rigged with land mines, its animals serving as a type of A.T.M. machine to fund and supply the combatants." Enter another of Shacochis's heroes, Greg Carr, a telecommunications and Internet entrepreneur turned philanthropist who donated $40 million to revitalize the ruined park, and now works closely with Mozambican conservationists to protect the newly introduced wildlife from poachers. Shacochis weaves an engaging profile of this American original, "whose permanent optimism was exceeded only by his irrepressible, well-aimed and sometimes kooky enthusiasm (like plopping down on a restaurant floor to do push-ups)." THE MASSACHUSETTS-BORN novelist RUSsell Banks achieved prominence for "The Sweet Hereafter," set in a small town following a deadly bus accident that killed many of the community's children. (It was later made into a movie directed by Atom Egoyan.) In "Voyager," he ventures farther afield in a series of pieces that seamlessly combine globe-trotting and autobiography. The title story is the best in this fine collection, a novella-length account of the 60-day island-hopping boondoggle he took through the Caribbean for a glossy travel magazine, joined by Chase, a University of Alabama professor who would soon become his fourth wife. "One travels to the Antilles driven by vague desires, mostly unexamined, rarely named, never advertised," he writes. "One goes like a bee to a blossom, as if drawn by some powerful image of prelapsarian beauty and innocence." Banks's exploration of the islands by ferry and small plane begins as a soothing balm following the wreckage of an earlier marriage, but soon morphs into an agonized journey of self-revelation. Banks's narrative seductively juxtaposes rambles through lush volcanic mountains, white sand beaches and coral reefs with a barrage of memories of the hash he's made of his private life - a short-lived first marriage at 19, a second to a folk-singing college student with whom he had three daughters and a third to a failed novelist from Fort Worth. "I was ... reenacting my parents' catastrophically broken marriage," he writes of his leaving his first wife and infant daughter, "my father's rampaging violence and alcoholism, his relentless womanizing and his abandonment of his four children." Self-flagellation mingles with moments of romance, and meditations on the slave trade, Caribbean poverty and the perils of overdevelopment. Looming over the journey is Banks's desperate hope for rejuvenation in the tropics, a magical place of second, third and fourth chances. "I'd come back for the bone-clear light and the depth and power of color and the abundant, tumultuous play of forms," he writes. "I simply open my eyes and look, and I start to feel healed from a sickness I hadn't known I was afflicted with." THE BRITISH WRITER Geoff Dyer won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism for "Otherwise Known as the Human Condition," a collection of meditations on everything and everyone from 1980s Brixton to jazz to the photographers Richard Avedon and Ruth Orkin. Dyer's new collection, "White Sands," anthologizes his travel writing over the past decade, displaying the author's mordant wit and penchant for misadventure. In the title story of this slim volume, he and his wife, here given the fictional name Jessica, stop in the desert for a hitchhiker, who may - or may not - be an escaped convict. "We are totally in a nightmarish situation, I thought to myself," he writes. "Before I could pursue this thought the guy in the back seat cleared his throat. In the tense atmosphere of the car the sound was like the blast of a gun going off." In "Northern Dark," he and Jessica head for the Arctic Circle in Norway in winter to see the Northern Lights, only to find themselves waiting in vain in round-the-clock darkness and a hostile environment that resembles "Ice Station Zebra" "with elements of the retreat from Moscow thrown in." The trip culminates in an ill-fated dog sledding expedition led by a pair of m ushers named Birgitte and Yeti. "Everything about this environment was quite unsuited to photography, human habitation, tourism or happiness," Dyer grumbles after losing control of his sled in the deep snow and terrifying his wife. "Jessica had had enough too, was persuaded to continue only on condition that she was driven by Yeti or Birgitte and not by 'that idiot.'" JOSHUA HAMMER'S most recent book is "The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu."