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Nonfiction in Brief

PATHS LESS TRAVELED Dispatches From the Front Lines of Exploration edited by Richard Bangs and Christian Kallen (Atheneum: $24.95)

September 18, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

In an inspired marketing concept, Sobek, an Oakland-based travel company, sent 12 top writers on all-expenses-paid vacations and asked them to write pieces for this book to publicize Sobek's wild adventures down raging Indian rivers, up Himalayan peaks and inside Madagascan jungles. The result, more than publicity, is unusually good travel writing, stories richer than most travel articles but shorter than the adventures detailed in the new travel book imprints that have been proliferating lately. The stories also reveal the authors' widely divergent ways of approaching the exotic, from Bobbie Ann Mason's wonderment ("drunk" on New Zealand's prettiness, she hikes through forests and across plains, where 20 million sheep graze in a country of only 3.3 million) to Roy Blount Jr.'s humor: On an Amazon voyage, he spots philodendrons "large enough to swallow a child" and tribespeople so primitive "that many of the villagers could not be dissuaded from shaking newly-snapped Polaroid pictures vigorously, which hasn't been necessary for years."

Not all of the writers are keenly attentive to their environment. Jay McInerney, for instance, seems to recreate Manhattan in the jungle, substituting rhinos for drugs as the focus of danger and profiling traveling companions so self-absorbed in a vague quest to find "the deepest, darkest Africa" that they end up missing Africa altogether. Essays by Alex Shoumatoff and Barry Lopez, on the other hand, poetically capture the feeling of place, the character of the people and the values of the culture. Lopez's piece on South Africa is particularly unusual, for he writes about both politics and nature, linking the two with introspective thoughts on the travel writer's search for meaning. "Sitting here in the darkness," he writes at one point, "the bellowing of hippos, now, comes downriver--and feeling the slight weight of my note books in my lap, I am acutely aware of the sense we wish to derive from the meager bits of information about life that are our lot."

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