I’ve been reading Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between . . . albeit slowly. I don’t seem to have much time for reading these days, which is horribly depressing. But I have made progress with this book, and for good reason — it’s the best travel book I’ve read in some time.
The story is simple: The book chronicles Stewart’s walk across Afghanistan in winter, the first winter after 9/11. Stewart tells of guns and war and its aftermath matter-of-factly. He is in danger for much of his walk, and while this provides tension in the narrative, it’s not overdone. It’s the kind of book that makes you think “I could never, ever do what this guy is doing,” (the fact that I am a woman aside…his gender first and foremost enables him to do the walk.) But there’s also rich description of a faraway landscape, the meditative power of his steps, and a bit of history woven in.
The writing is crisp and compelling without being overwrought. The best thing, I think, is that Stewart is not a pretentious narrator. I have been a bit jaded about travel writing in the past couple of years, as the snobbish and know-it-all voices of the writers of many books and essays I’ve picked up have really turned me off from the genre. But Stewart, despite having the experience of walking across Iran, parts of Pakistan and India and Nepal, and of speaking Persian enough to get by, does not let those things go to his head.
There are odd little illustrations in the book, which at first I found unnecessary (this guy walked across Afghanistan, and wrote a book about it….wasn’t that enough?) but which I now, halfway through the book, find endearing and a symbol of his persistence.
And talk about a dedication to writing! Stewart walks miles a day among men toting guns, in vicious cold, in rain. He never knows whose home he will sleep in the next night. He seems to subsist on naan and tea. But every night, in villages with no electricity or running water, in unfamiliar, sometimes threatening homes, he writes for two hours in a journal.
-Another travel writing-related tidbit: One of my favorite authors, Pico Iyer, has an in-depth interview on a new travel lit site, RECCE: Literary Journeys for the Discerning Traveler. If you’re not familiar with Iyer, go out and pick up his collection of essays, Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World, or his memoir of Japan, The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto…two of my all-time favorite books.