[BOOK REVIEW]Lonely Planet supremo gently grinds his axe

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[BOOK REVIEW]Lonely Planet supremo gently grinds his axe

The premise for this book is that land is not bad, people can be and President George W. Bush most definitely is.
Author Tony Wheeler takes issue with Bush’s reference in his 2002 State of the Union Address to the “axis of evil,” namely Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
“What makes a land bad?” Wheeler writes. “It’s got nothing to do with geography or topography. Rivers don’t invade, deserts don’t become corrupt and, while terrorists may hide out in a country’s mountains and valleys, the land itself has nothing to do with why a Bad Land turns to the dark side.”
At this point I thought Wheeler might start quoting Woody Guthrie. Or George Lucas.
Wheeler, who founded and used to run Lonely Planet Publications, the most recognizable guide book in bookstores, travels through the Evil Axis countries, as identified by Bush, to prove his theory.
Not satisfied with three evil nations, he selects other reprobates to visit. How? Using his Evil Meter, of course, a concept that gets a ™ with each reference.
The Evil Meter™ calculates the badness of a country by assessing its human rights record, involvement in terrorism and overall bellicosity.
This parlor game conjures up Afghanistan, Albania, Burma (Myanmar), Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Saudi Arabia .
Albania? I can’t remember the last time I read about Albania from any news source. Cuba? What has Cuba ever done to the world except irritate the pants off right-wing Americans?
And no China?
The author also chooses his “Top Ten” countries that also qualify as Bad Lands — Somalia, Israel/Palestine and Haiti, among others — but which he skipped. Were they just too dangerous to visit? He doesn’t say.
Bad Lands is a light read and Wheeler is an affable companion, but the book is flawed.
One problem is it fails to deliver any surprises. It’s not hard to anticipate that the author is going to find wonderful people, great food and interesting cultural sites in these countries, subverting any notion of evil.
His take on the governments in North Korea and Saudi Arabia, where Wheeler is strongly critical of medieval attitudes to women, is also predictable: They’re bad.
Perhaps the book is just too ambitious. By trying to cover nine nations, Wheeler hardly has time for in-depth analysis. That’s why we get clunky sentences like “Kabul has seen more than its fair share of bloodshed over the years” or “The DMZ is in fact the world’s most heavily armed frontier.”
All very true, but every tourist who visits these two countries will read something similar either before they go or while they are there.
If Wheeler were a better prose stylist, the book would benefit. But he’s not. Wheeler carved out a career putting together country reports in his LP guides — where to go, where to stay, what to eat, dos and don’ts, et cetera.
So don’t expect the kind of wit, observation, insight and poetry you might find in the work of travel writers of the caliber of Paul Theroux, William Dalrymple or Jan Morris, three I admire.
With Wheeler, we have to endure the kind of puns you or I might write in a postcard or a blog. “From being the rice basket of Asia, Burma has spiraled steadily downwards to its present position as the basket case of Asia.” On encountering an electric guitar in a North Korean music shop, he says: “I guess George W. would call it an evil ax.”
That said, Wheeler is a knowledgeable tourist, and after more than 35 years on the road, he has plenty of anecdotes.
He’s at his best telling us about his early travels in places like Afghanistan. He arrived there in 1972 in a “beat-up old English mini, having driven across Asia from Europe.” Those were the days.
But for an old hippie, Wheeler can sound patronizing. “Iran can be a surprisingly sophisticated country, well aware of the outside world and how they connect to it.” Whoever said Iran was unsophisticated? The country has one of the richest cultural heritages on Earth.
Other travel writers have covered the worst-place-to-visit theme, perhaps with more success. I enjoyed “Utopias Elsewhere: Journeys in a Vanishing World” by Anthony Daniels and “Holidays in Hell” by P. J. O’Rourke.
That said, I read this book in a day, a rare event for me and, if anything, I know I will never visit Saudi Arabia.

BAD LANDS

Author: Tony Wheeler
Genre: Travel
Publisher: Lonely Planet Publications

By Michael Gibb Features Editor [michael@joongang.co.kr]

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