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The Best American Travel Writing 2008 

Raiders, rulers, pirates and falconers. This year's best travel writing reflected a dark and conflicted world.

“Yes, dear readers, travel writing — hold on to your hats — can be shallow and dishonest!” So writes Jason Wilson, series editor of the Best American Travel Writing series, in the foreword of this year’s installment. “You may never again be able to completely believe it when … a travel writer tells you an inn is ‘quaint,’ a beach is ‘sun-drenched,’ … or a dish is ‘mouth-watering.’”

Wilson promises that the ninth edition of the series will be an antidote to the prosaic travel writer “tell all,” and guest editor Anthony Bourdain (of culinary fame) notes his selections were guided by an exploration of the moral ambiguities encountered in travel. That’s a relief. Guest Editor Frances Mayes’ penchant for the mouth-watering and sun-drenched in 2002 was almost unreadable.

But moral ambiguity doesn’t always sing, either. Several of Bourdain’s selections were weighed down by waffling plots and weak conclusions — episodes that didn’t amount to enough in the end. The best of the bunch dive down into the murky water to find the cold bottom. John Lancaster explores poverty tourism in “Next Stop, Squalor,” for example. Paul Theroux delves into the sleazy dictatorship of Turkmenistan in “The Gold Man.”

Indeed, of all the installments in this series, this one serves as the best time capsule, with a fine selection of essays highlighting the zeitgeist of 2008. There’s an inordinate focus on the Middle East, an evocative entry on piracy in the Indian Ocean, a Jeep ride around Chad and Darfur and a pleasant voyage on a Chinese train to Tibet.

If nothing else, the book is worth its price for New Yorker China correspondent Peter Hessler’s last entry from the People’s Republic, in which he expounds on Chinese driving customs — particularly the national penchant for honking, about which an inordinate number of questions are posed on the written drivers test. Here’s question No. 269 on the test: “When you enter a tunnel, you should (a) honk and accelerate, (b) slow down and turn on your lights, or (c) honk and maintain speed.”

Talk about the confusing ambiguities of travel.

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