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For armchair travelers

February 15, 2004|Marion Winik | Marion Winik is an NPR commentator and the author of "First Comes Love."

No Touch Monkey!

And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late

Ayun Halliday

Seal Press: 274 pp., $14.95 paper

*

Yoga for People Who

Can't Be Bothered to Do It

Geoff Dyer

Vintage Books: 258 pp., $13 paper

*

12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time

A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe

Mark and Rae Jacobson

Atlantic Monthly Press: 272 pp., $23

*

Somebody's Heart Is Burning

A Woman Wanderer in Africa

Tanya Shaffer

Vintage Books/Random House: 324 pp., $13 paper

*

Dark Star Safari

Overland From Cairo to Cape Town

Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin: 472 pp., $28

*

In his introduction to "The Best American Travel Writing 2000," the inaugural edition of that anthology, Bill Bryson was pleased to note that the genre was finally catching on. When Bryson ("A Walk in the Woods," "In a Sunburned Country") started writing travel books in the 1980s, he explained, there was no shelf for them in U.S. bookstores. The travel section contained only guidebooks; if you were looking for William Least Heat-Moon's "Blue Highways" or the most recent Paul Theroux -- about all the American travel writing there was -- you had to look hard. Bryson attributed this mainly to our self-absorption, the same reason our newspapers and magazines seemed to favor domestic news over word from abroad.

But perhaps because we've discovered that travel can be a form of self-absorption, American travel writing has since taken off. Much of the new work seems to constitute a second wave of the memoir trend that swelled a decade ago. As any memoirist learns, one's childhood, coming of age, illnesses and marriages eventually get used up; a whole generation of writers may have drained the dregs of its collective life story. One solution is to take your scribbler's self-consciousness on the road. Just as Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff and Jennifer Lauck chronicled the alarming series of mishaps that were their early lives, we now have writers such as Ayun Halliday, Geoff Dyer and Mark Jacobson chronicling the alarming series of mishaps that are their journeys abroad.

In a parallel development, not long after Bryson's essay was published, the outside world finally managed to capture U.S. attention. After Sept. 11, the insulated solipsism of peacetime was replaced with a sharpened interest in the foreign, and that may have increased the audience for travel writers. If a book can deliver not just the adventures of the storyteller in various exotic locales but also an enriched grasp of a distant place and culture, it qualifies as self-improvement as well as entertainment.

Solidly in the entertainment category is Halliday's "No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late." Halliday has been a penniless backpacker in many remote places and has had some rather bad experiences, both in and out of the toilet facilities of which she is quite a connoisseur. Fortunately, she is able to turn almost every one of these into a funny, memorable essay. What you will remember, though, is the author. For example, what you recall about Amsterdam is that it was there our narrator was attacked by infuriated prostitutes. Sumatra is not a place to dislocate your knee, and watch out for the marijuana in Saigon or you'll end up like Halliday and her boyfriend, flat on your back in the guest house, praying to come down

Killer weed also plays a significant role in Geoff Dyer's "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It," another collection of mostly humorous essays. Dyer is a delightful stylist; "Out of Sheer Rage," his attempt to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, is a landmark in stalker lit, the writings of writers obsessed with other writers. Though not as good as that one, this book has its moments, and many are drug-induced. Skunk weed in Paris, mushrooms in Amsterdam, Ecstasy in Thailand -- but even when Dyer is straight, his intense self-consciousness is an altered state. For example, here is Dyer on the rice paddies of Ubud, Indonesia:

"We'd never seen anything as green as these rice paddies. It was not just the paddies themselves: the surrounding vegetation -- foliage so dense the trees lost track of whose leaves were whose -- was a rainbow coalition of one colour: green. There was an infinity of greens, rendered all the greener by splashes of red hibiscus and the herons floating past ... as if sheets hung out to dry had suddenly taken wing. All other colours -- even purple and black -- were shades of green. Light and shade were degrees of green. Greenness, here, was less a colour than a colonizing impulse."

By the time you finish an entire page devoted to green, you are certainly transported: not to any rice paddy in Southeast Asia but to the verdant reaches of Dyer's mind. The best essay in the book, "Leptis Magna," is named for the Roman ruins in Libya to which Dyer travels with considerable hardship. In this stripped-down, symbolic landscape, his internal and external environments merge, with results deeply funny and just plain deep.

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