Book Review: Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails by James Dorsey

VANISHING TALES FROM ANCIENT TRAILS by James Dorsey, 2014, Vagabundo Magazine Publishing. Buy on Amazon.

DorseyVanishingTrailsWhen I first found his writing on celebrated travel webzine Perceptive Travel, there was one thing that made me an instant James Dorsey’s fan. It was the amount of literary adrenaline he was able to inject straight into readers’ eyes with the opening three lines of each and every story. Indeed, James would pull out his wordy meathook, and catch you right under the chin, pulling you into the action. You would feel the smells, sounds and fear he was trying to tell you all about. I don’t know why, but one of his simplest descriptions, “Akira tells me to follow him closely and I am practically in his back pocket” stayed with me until today: now, whenever I tell people to stay very close to my back, I tell them to “stick to my back pocket”, and I think of Dorsey’s time in Cambodia.

This is the best quality I admire in Dorsey’s writing: his simple, dry, straight forward and damn catchy list of words that one after another “dance on the page”, as Bukowsky put it. But in this case, they dance at the sound of tribal drums during a secret and ancient ritual consumed under a moonlit forest thicket. VANISHING TALES FROM ANCIENT TRAILS is a collection of Dorsey’s new and previously published short stories documenting 30 years of forays into the known and lesser known paths of Asia, Africa (prominently), and elsewhere. Whether he’s recounting his time demining a Cambodian field, visiting a Shaman in the Amazon, tracking back a Masaai PHD student from America to Kenya, or overnighting with the Mursi tribe of Ethiopia’s Omo valley, Dorsey comes always across as a modest, tenacious, and eagle eyed explorer. What I like about this book is its down to earth spirit which can be epitomized by some of Dorsey’s own introductory words: “Like most naïve young travelers, when I first stepped out that doorway into the vast world, I was full of hopes and dreams, convinced that at some remote time or place a great sadhu or shaman would impart the knowledge of the universe to me as a true seeker. While I learned no great secrets along the way, I do believe I got just a tad wiser with each trip, and have no doubt that many of the people whose stories I collected are much further along the path to enlightenment than I am. People are the same the world over, but it is their stories that make them fascinating.” It may be because of his more mature age and the less flamboyant attitude I find in other younger travel writers, but by having gotten “wiser”, as he puts it, Dorsey instantly attracts the reader’s sympathy and support.

VANISHING TALES FROM ANCIENT TRAILS reads fast and easy as it is a collection of magazine-size stories, and also because of the many excellent black and white photographs Dorsey took around the world, which lure the reader further in. There’s a good balance of extreme adventure and culture shock that leads to cultural understanding, quasi-anthropological explanations, and pure thirst for wild adventure.

However, the small downside of this book is that, like most other short story collections, the quality floats. In this regard, I believe Dorsey should have avoided inserting too many of the shorter pieces, especially those centred on his fellow travel partner and wife Irene. I believe they are far too short and kind of out of focus from the rest of the excellent narrative flow, which is expertly centred on the outside critical view, and mostly because Irene is not prominently described as a proper character in none of Dorsey’s pieces.

Besides this glitch, I believe that VANISHING TALES FROM ANCIENT TRAILS does exactly what it sets off to: enchant and educate the reader with engrossing narratives from very exotic locations around the world. That’s the job of an explorer, and one Dorsey seems quite good at. I hope that next Dorsey will try to write a longer, novel sized narrative, trying to bring all the pieces of his dramatic travel puzzle together in a spectacular fresco, rather than leave them to the readers to pick up as they please in capsule-sized bits of reading.

Posted by | Comments Off on Book Review: Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails by James Dorsey  | September 28, 2014
Category: Africa, Asia, South America, Travel Writing

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