The Best American Travel Writing 2011, by Sloane Crosley (ed.)

The intensely personal relationship between travel writer and reader proves difficult to boil down into a formula omnibus.

The Best American Travel Writing 2011

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 246 pages
Author: Sloane Crosley, editor
Price: $14.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2011-10

Although it would seem a natural for light summer fun, I’m not sure a 'Best of Travel Writing’ annual is as good an idea as you might think.

Travel writing, more than most non-fiction genres, is about individuality – it exists, in the most fundamental terms, as a means to convey unique experiences, as chosen by a reader who likewise has a very personal relationship to the material: want to understand this exotica better, always fantasized about going there, would love to know what this author thinks about this place I love…

I’m very sure that in their original settings (mostly higher-end magazines), as deliberately chosen by an intrigued reader, nearly all of the 18 pieces here came across as fascinating in that exact manner, and as thoroughly able to entice on their own merits. There's some absolutely excellent writing in this volume, from Annie Proulx among others; there's a lot of detail about not only interesting but relevant places and people.

If the overall selection felt more trendy than terrifically novel, and the list of contributors not particularly familiar, at least the travelers’ eyes and interests range pleasingly wide both geographically and socially -- from the struggles of the Middle East, a Copenhagen commune and the Shinnecock tribe of Long Island through to lighter explorations, as of NASCAR’s struggles with authenticity vs. commercial success, or the seedy wannabe underworld of Miami Beach.

My personal favourites were the less fashionable and more intriguingly idiosyncratic; in perhaps the most intimate essay of the lot, a young woman makes a pilgrimage to a Mediterranean villa in search of the romance or reality behind a Monet painting; another explores the frankly surreal black comedy that is Moscow gridlock. There’s even a piece -- whose geekily eager self-consciousness makes it my personal favourite -- chronicling an expedition into the Eastern European heartland, searching for the ‘real’ vampires of Balkan legend. (It should hopefully be spoiling nothing to note that they are, as it turns out, the pure antithesis of sparkly.)

But reading all of them one after another, without respect for context or truly piqued interest… after awhile, I found myself being worn down by sheer sameness of style. I’m not sure whether it’s the result of a general trend in the genre or the preference of the single editor, Sloane Crosley – her Introduction, along with her status as an acclaimed novelist, leads me to believe it might be about both -- but, save for welcome flashes (the aforementioned idiosyncratic bits among them, along with Proulx’ gracefully immediate insights into, of all things, New England wildlife) all these experiences seemed to be narrated in a single voice, and that voice might best be described as Effortlessly Stylised.

Perhaps this is in fact what you get when you assign a novelist to the job: a dedication to the literary flourishes. Or perhaps it’s simply a matter, again, of the subject being so intensely personal. Crosley makes an eloquent -- if slightly clichéd -- argument for all of these pieces having touched and impressed her greatly, even opened her mind to new ways of seeing the world; but they didn’t me, so much.

Largely because (oddly enough, in a collection helmed by someone Amazon describes as 'hilarious') there's precious little real humour here. Not in the sense of knock-knock jokes, so much as the fundamental appreciation of human foibles. In its place is a lot of political... not correctness, exactly… evasion, that works better.

Now, I am not campaigning for, say, a discussion of the decline of NASCAR that doesn’t make the effort to reach past the author's personal opinion of redneck stereotypes; and I can understand why the white man who is in the midst of poignantly retelling the story of a charming-but-shiftless young Haitian hustler in the years leading up to the earthquake feels the need to avoid outright condemnation, both from a literary and a humanitarian POV.

As Crosley correctly points out, the detached voice is that of reason, of the thoughtful, unbiased and fully-rounded insight, and I cannot say that any of the authors here are at fault for providing same. Still, the deliberate authorial distancing from anything resembling an immediately human take on humanity meant that I was steadily becoming less and less content with literary excellence as a motivation for finishing the book.

By the time I got round to the one truly infuriating piece, near the end – a tour of the disputed Middle Eastern Kurdish territories that’s so completely ironically detached it never gets around to grounding itself in such basic travelogue-type details as where the author is, never mind who the people are, let alone the roots of their conflict – I was reduced to flipping listlessly through accounts of horrific random violence. Which is clearly not how it’s supposed to work.

Crosley makes mention of the ‘formulaic’ nature of pitching an essay in this genre, and I think she’s got something there. I would in fact really like to have heard from someone who wasn’t consciously Travel Writing, if that makes sense. I’m more used to the likes of Bill Bryson, PJ O’Rourke, Anthony Bourdain, even Michael Palin to a certain extent. People who go places and see things for their own personal but overwhelmingly urgent reasons, and are most concerned with how the landscape fits their needs and suits their (often equally personal) opinions, not the other way around.

This style make no pretense to inoffensiveness, let alone objectivity, but it's always grounded in the immediate, niggling, hopelessly un-literary mundane details of daily existence -- and I do find I get a whole lot more in the way of international understanding out of it. I'm more than willing to make allowances for authorial interference, provided it is thus both cleverly put and bluntly honest, and I suspect this may be truer of my fellow travel-writing enthusiasts than the editor of this volume realises.

Go pick up a copy, browse it for awhile, read the pieces that catch your eye. If all, some or any of them hit straight at your heart and stay there, then by all means this is the book for you.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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