Better Than Fiction 2 (★★★☆☆)

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Edited by Don George   *   Lonely Planet   *   November 24, 2015   *   320 Pages

Advanced Reader Copy provided through Amazon Vine.

I think just about everyone is familiar with Lonely Planet travel guides. They’re everywhere, and I’d wager we’ve all at least looked at one at some point. Lonely Planet publishes non-guide books, too–including Better Than Fiction and its sequel. This particular series focuses on “true travel tales written by acclaimed fiction writers,” (hence the name). The first book was such a hit in 2012, they decided to make a follow-up. So here we are.

Truthfully, I’ve never really loved travel writing. It irritates me. There’s something about the surface-level and relentlessly linear reporting of places traveled and monuments seen that bores me to tears. I just don’t care that you and your boyfriend bought an open plane ticket and went here, then there, and, last, way over there. I don’t care that you barely had any money. I don’t care that the buildings were awe-inspiring or that the poor people showed you such generous hospitality. I’ve heard all this before. Give me something else, for Pete’s sake. Something more.

Thankfully, some of the authors in this collection do–not most, but some. I would encourage future readers to not lose heart while slogging through the first few essays. Keep the faith, keep going. At least until you get to Catherine Lacey’s Awkward Situations:

In the end it wasn’t the hitchhiking or the semi-indentured servitude, but my own loneliness and lack of context that were the most paralyzingly awkward. I was embarrassed by this at the time, the inevitable realization that I still needed more than just myself to survive. And not just the occasional stranger to drive me or house me somewhere; I needed people who knew me as more than a stranger.

And maybe until Porochista Khakpour’s My Mississippi:

Had I come all this way to not belong all over again?

And if you are very strong, until Dave Eggers’s The Road to Riyadh and Fiona Kidman’s The Road to Lost Places and MJ Hyland’s How I Evaded Arrest on a Train Platform (Somewhere in the North of England). If you push through to the end, you will be generously rewarded with one of the best stories of the bunch, in my opinion:  Aliya Whiteley’s The Places Where We Wait:

Sometimes the strictures of society part, and a gap is left in which two people, strangers, can see each other. I saw him then, and he saw me. We shared, in that look, the knowledge that every journey must end.

Without a doubt, the most enjoyable stories in this collection are the ones that focus on only a moment or two, maybe just a few key hours taken from weeks upon weeks of travel. Those expanded little vignettes…that’s where the good stuff is. There are a few gems in this collection, but you’re going to have to dig for them–patiently. I read the essays, finished the book, felt a few twinges of connection. But, in the end, I’m still not sure if the effort was worth it.

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