Book Review

by Joel Smith & r & The Best American Travel Writing 2005 Edited by Jamaica Kincaid & r & If I learned anything on my way to a degree in travel writing, it's the importance of the opening line. Whether it's the panoramic visual of the writer's exotic surroundings, the "Even as a child I yearned for Myanmar" chronological opener, or the jarring dive into the middle of the action, a good opener sets the tone for the whole trip.

It can also be a much-needed guide when navigating through a collection like this, the sixth annual entry in a series of sometimes uneven anthologies. As always, the volume owes its particular flavor to its guest editor. This year it's novelist Jamaica Kincaid, who leans toward bare, descriptive, almost Hemingway-esque explorations of "place."

Sartorially speaking, my father was a man of almost spectacular dullness. That, from William E. Blundell's "My Florida." Wry and funny, the essay has almost nothing to do with travel but everything to do with "place." Seemingly little more than a short sketch of his father's last years, the essay is a brilliant exploration of the Florida phenomena, of the way the swampy, oppressively sunny state lures in the huddled geriatric masses, traps them, changes them and eventually buries them.

Here's the truth: I have traveled more than four thousand miles to the middle of the Peruvian Amazon to be "cured" by shamans. Kira Salak's frank opener in "The Vision Seekers" is perfectly in line with the rest of her brief essay, as she follows wizened Amazonian healers up crooked rivers, downs shots of vine juice and struggles to figure out if she's completely crazy for doing so.

It's OK to hate a place. It needed to be said. Seth Stevenson, in "Trying Really Hard To Like India," offers up an antidote to all those starry-eyed, wind-swept travel narratives with this series of diary entries for, in which he does just what his title suggests and then gets the hell out of India.

Stevenson's cynicism evens out the florid, glowing travelogues elsewhere in the collection, especially Mark Jenkins' bloated treatise on the good life in Spain. But the real gem of Kincaid's collection is Simon Winchester's "Welcome to Nowhere." Stranded for a night on a tiny island in the South Atlantic, Winchester ends up on the beach on a warm night, drinking chilled Vouvray and eating strawberries, watching comets streak overhead and sea turtles lay eggs on the beach before diving back into the surf. It's one of those "eureka moments" of which every travel writer -- and travel writer wannabe -- dreams.