Monday, December 29, 2008

AA Gill is Awesome

There are some travel writers, like Rory Stewart of the Places in Between fame, who focus so little on themselves that they seem to vanish from the page. AA Gill is not one of those writers. His giant personality, opinion and humor threaten to crowd out whatever subject is at hand. When he is focused he can be quite acerbic, although generally in a witty manner. In AA Gill is Away, his takes on Japan (populated by aliens who are trying hard to look human) and Germany (the section is titled Hunforgiven) flirt with offensiveness, but the humor wins out.

You can tell when he is truly angry when the humor disappears. He thunders at the pharmaceutical industry for it's limited investment in tropical medicines as he watches a Ugandan girl undergo a spinal tap and a Uganda boy take arsenic based medicine to test for and treat sleeping sickness. This and his harrowing visit to a Sudanese refugee camp are highlights of the book.

It's not just multinational corporations that get his goat, it is also communism. While I have read of the tragedy of the disappearing Aral Sea (bad economic policy managed to kill the fourth largest lake in the world,) Gill shows the terrible effects on the people still living there.

It's not all doom and gloom though. Gill also manages to convince a pornographic film company to let him write an adult film and goes to see it shot. The story is hilarious but also told quite straight. His treatment of the actors as real people alone sets the story apart.

This recent restaurant review will give you a sense of whether you will like his writing. Here are many more. Here is an enjoyable interview with Gill on restaurants and food.


kwandongbrian said...

Gill sounds interesting. I haven't read many travel books, aside from Bryson's...Actually, I guess I have read many travelogues - Iyer, Thoreau, Hamel and a few others. Anyway, I'll look into Gill.

I'm more interested in one of the books on your 'currently reading' list: Six Frigates. I really enjoyed Horatio Hornblower as a youth and his The Age of Fighting Sail, his account of the British-American naval battles. He focused more on the battles and less on the logistics, which I think is featured more in Six Frigates. Anyway, looking forward to hearing about it.

kwandongbrian said...

Ah, "...his The age of Fighting Sail" refers to the author of the Hornblower books - I know that Hornblower is a fictional character and hasn't written any books. I meant Forrester.

Anonymous said...

I liked that book a great deal, although I agree with you that the quality varies a bit. I thought the first essay, on famine in the Sudan, makes the book worth owning all by itself. Citizen Reader is a big fan of Gill's. Steve

Anonymous said...

Steve knows me too well--I only logged in here to say I'm so GLAD you enjoyed the AA Gill (if "enjoyed" is really the right word). I wish I could have dinner with AA Gill, although I would be too starstruck to talk (which would be okay; then I could just listen). I'll revise my previous opinion on "Previous Convictions," too--if you liked this one, you'll like the travel pieces in that one too. He has a particular affinity and feel for Africa, I think, which is hard to find in many travel writers.

Happy new year!!

Tripp said...


Gill has a bit more an edge than those folks. I should have mentioned his pieces are from the Sunday Times and are short. Maybe it makes him drive to be more controversial.

I just finished Six Frigates and was quite happy with it. I will be writing about it shortly. He does balance the battles and the logistics. You learn quite a bit about the political and economic process (in an entertaining way, mind)


Tripp said...


I will certainly be trying more of Gill and am I happy to see that CR has revised her opinion of his most recent book upward. It would appear that Gill has yet to reach his decadent phase.