Smooth and snazzy collection of travel and set pieces from New Yorker staffer Orlean (The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, 2001, etc.).
Orlean’s not just a sharp writer, but a generous one, giving the most unlikely places a chance to show her their stuff. Like Midland, Texas, the bleached and searing town where George H.W. Bush made his fortune and George W. Bush never made a dime. Or Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Manhattan, where she hobnobs with the class president and pokes her head into the detention hall: “The pent-up annoyance and disaffection and peevishness, the teenage fury of the fifty or so kids inside the room, almost blew me out the door.” She climbs Mount Fuji in a wild storm and marvels that “Thailand, the most pliant of places, has always accommodated even the rudest of visitors.” Orlean’s sly humor perfumes her writing with a wonderful quiet crackle, like pine needles on fire. “The Bannicks are among the last people in the state of Michigan, and possibly in the entire known universe, who still have their telephone service on a party line.” She creates an atmosphere of surprise and amazement when attending a fertility blessing in Bhutan (depicted in a peerless, vest-pocket travelogue) or visiting an African music shop in Paris. She is a master at grabbing attention with a story’s first few lines: “When I went to Scotland for a friend’s wedding last summer, I didn’t plan on firing a gun. Getting into a fistfight, maybe; hurling insults about badly dressed bridesmaids, of course.” Orlean closes with some short items that highlight the devil in her: a tour of the Maidenform Bra Museum, an explanation of why she is glad Tina Turner didn’t stay in her apartment when she was away—nothing against Tina; all visitors are homewreckers.
A gathering of savories, many revelatory, each a delight and a small work of art.