Travel is a great test of compatibility. Sometimes people take a holiday together and become closer; sometimes they are heartily sick of each other by the time they get home. Similarly, fans of travel writing wish that some armchair voyages would never end—and find others to be interminable. Along with the many peripatetic authors this season, three with strong and utterly dissimilar personalities convey readers to faraway places with strange-sounding names. A collection of informed and intermittently absorbing essays by Vancouver dean of letters George Woodcock spans nearly 40 years. Toronto journalist Paul William Roberts traverses several millennia to create a passionate portrait of Egypt. Meanwhile, Time magazine essayist Pico Iyer runs away from America and discovers a parallel universe of odd, lonely places. Three writers, three books, three highly diverse vicarious vacation options.
The octogenarian Woodcock, a prolific biographer and literary critic, describes himself as “a travel writer deeply concerned with the way people live in the countries where I make my journeys.” He is right about that. Letter from the Khyber Pass and Other Travel Writing, edited by Jim Christy (Douglas & McIntyre, 213 pages, $16.95), proves that Woodcock is at his best when chronicling the daily routines of living communities rather than ancient ruins. One of the book’s best essays is “A Northern Journal,” first published in 1969 after a tour of the Canadian Arctic. Woodcock memorably captures the limbo existence of the region’s Inuit, caught between their own vanishing traditions and the ways of interlopers from the south. Visiting a new school in Baker Lake, the author laments that “the alphabet is taught by B for Bull and C for Cat in a land of Bears and Caribou.”
But when he is writing about ancient caves in China or the historic temples of Cambodia, his prose becomes aridly pedantic. And no matter where he is, Woodcock seems more inclined to observe the locals than to attempt conversation with them. As a result, much of Letter reads like a lecture.
Roberts, on the other hand, appears
to have talked to about half of Egypt’s 55 million inhabitants, including Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz and a group of Bedouin nomads. His ambitious book, River in the Desert: Modem Travels in Ancient Egypt (Random House, 394 pages, $28), is as intricate and vibrant as an Islamic carpet. Present-day Egypt, the author finds, is a land where overwhelming generosity
and maddening bureaucracy co-exist, where massive Western hotels are rising—and where the sweat of tourists is crumbling the murals of Tutankhamen’s tomb.
The formidably adventurous Roberts (he makes middle-of-the-night ascents of a pyramid and Mount Sinai) is an erudite guide who skilfully interweaves the present with the ancient past. However, as a travel companion, the writer has his faults. His tone is often arrogantly superior. And, for some reason, he succumbs to spells of New Age swoonfulness every time he looks up at the sky. “I lay back, feeling the planet was my pharaonic ship of millions of years, ensnared by a net of starlight,” he burbles on one occasion. But Roberts’s real passion for his subject makes such lapses forgivable. “If this book encourages one reader to visit Egypt,” he writes, “it will have fulfilled its purpose entirely.” It certainly succeeds on that count.
While Woodcock can be dry and Roberts sometimes errs on the side of mushiness, Pico Iyer, in Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World (Random House, 190 pages, $24.50), offers travel writing of a near-perfect consistency. Iyer is the sort of graceful, incisive writer who could make a trip to the Kmart sound fascinating. In Falling Off the Map, he concentrates on “the places that don’t fit in; the places that have no seat at our international dinner tables.”
Iyer’s travels take him to such locales as Iceland and the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, accumulating offbeat experiences the way other travellers amass tacky souvenirs. In the heart of the Paraguayan jungle, he sojourns with hospitable and phenomenally tidy German Mennonites. In Reykjavik, he dines in a dim cavern where waiters dressed in friars’ robes serve up pan-fried puffin.
Despite all the amusing anecdotes, however, a melancholy thrum of loneliness pervades the book. Iyer describes Cuba as a mix of elegy and carnival that “catches my heart, then makes me count the cost of that enchantment.” Cuba, he adds, is “smiles, and open doors, and policemen lurking in the corners; lazy days on ill-paved streets and a friend who asks if he might possibly steal my passport.” Please hang on to your passport, Mr. Iyer, and give armchair tourists the pleasure of travelling with you again.
1 The Bridges of Madison County, Robert Waller (1)
2 Pleading Guilty, Scott Turow (2)
3 The Scorpio Illusion, Robert Ludlum (4)
4 A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth (3)
5 Gai-Jin, James Clavell (5)
6 Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, John Irving (10)
7 Griffin & Sabine, Nick Bantock (6)
8 The Client, John Grisham (9)
9 Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel 10 Headhunter, Timothy Findley (7)
( ) Position last week Compiled by Brian Bethune
1 The Great Reckoning, James Dale Davidson and Lord Rees-Mogg ( 1)
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.