By Don George

August 2008

Book of the Month:
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, by Paul Theroux

This month Trip Lit is popping a bottle of vintage bubbly to celebrate Paul Theroux's new tome, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, the writer's best book since The Great Railway Bazaar, the masterwork that launched his travel writing career—and liberated an upcoming generation of travel writers, including me—when it was published in 1975.

This triumphant similarity is no coincidence: In Ghost Train, Theroux retraces the journey he made in Railway Bazaar, traveling by rail (resorting to a few bus, ferry, and plane rides when unavoidable) from England to Japan and back. His quest is to see how that world has changed in 33 years—but invariably, his account also measures how much he has changed as well.

For Theroux, train travel is "probably the best way of getting a glimpse of how people actually live—the back yards, the barns, the hovels, the side roads and slums, the telling facts of village life, the misery that airplanes fly over." His method is to hop a train from one place to another, and then to pause and wander the markets, museums, and back alleys for a few days, meeting random people, sometimes touring with local experts. While this kind of drop-in journalism presents obvious limitations, Theroux is such a honed observer and expert at extricating the telling detail or anecdote that his observations and analyses ring true.

In his new account, Theroux focuses on a dozen and a half countries: England, FranceRomaniaTurkeyGeorgiaAzerbaijanTurkmenistan, UzbekistanIndiaSri LankaMyanmarThailandLaosSingapore, CambodiaVietnam, JapanRussia. His descriptions of despotic Turkmenistan, heartbreakingly benighted Myanmar, bright-blossoming Vietnam, and ineffable off-the-beaten-path Japan are especially transcendent.

Part of the power and appeal of Ghost Train derives from trademark Therouxian characteristics: detailed dialogues; an embrace of the uncomfortable and idiosyncratic; a meticulous avoidance of the easy epiphany and travel-brochure cliché; an unflinching ability to explore and evoke a place's dark side; impassioned indignity at the follies of political officialdom and the depravities of war.

But retracing an old route bestows an even deeper-layered poignancy, enabling him to recognize and celebrate people and places whose lot has improved in the past 33 years—and to recognize and celebrate the improvements in his own life, too. Incisive as always, but wiser now and happier too, Theroux infuses his new-old world with a wider, more compassionate worldview.

So—pop! Here's a Trip Lit toast to a career-capping classic from a travel writing mentor and master.

Short List: New & Noteworthy

Train to Trieste, Domnica Radulescu's debut novel about a teenage girl's escape from Ceausescu-era Romania, leaving behind an unforgettable first love.

Babylon Rolling, Amanda Boyden's unvarnished novel of pre-Katrina New Orleans, warts and eccentric beauty and all.

This Must Be the Place, an offbeat love story between an American woman fleeing post-9/11 New York and a has-been German actor, set in Berlin, by Berlin-based Anna Winger.

Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of a Natural History Museum, a surprisingly fascinating behind-the-scenes look at London's 127-year-old Natural History Museum, by the museum's former senior paleontologist, Richard Fortey.

New Book Roundups

By the Water
Even Venetophiles will have a new perspective on Venice after reading Italian author Tiziano Scarpa's ode to his hometown, Venice is a Fish: A Sensual Guide.He divides the chapters by body parts and their corresponding senses, beginning his insider's tour with the feel of the city's smooth paving stones underfoot. La Serenissima also provides the backdrop in the debut novel A Stopover in Venice,by Kathryn Walker, about an unhappily married American woman who unravels the mystery behind a lost masterpiece found in a Venetian palazzo. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows, reveals a place that's considerably less known than Venice: the British island of Guernsey in the English Channel. In this warm-hearted epistolary novel, it's 1946 and a London author begins a correspondence with a Guernsey native, who is a member of an unusual book club that was formed to protect its members from arrest by the occupying German army during World War II. In Descending the Dragon: My Journey Down the Coast of Vietnam, author Jon Bowermaster and photographer Rob Howard kayak an 800-mile stretch of Vietnam's northern coast, encountering floating villages and remnants of the war.

Journalist Kira Salak draws on her own experiences in war zones from Mozambique to Bangladesh, as well as from her solo journey into Papua New Guinea, in her debut novel, The White Mary, a riveting and often harrowing tale of a war reporter's search for a missing colleague in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Bestselling Spanish author Matilde Asensi's latest historical thrillerEverything Under the Sky deals with a Spanish painter's hunt for the lost treasure of China's first emperor, taking readers on a ride from Paris to Shanghai.

Reading Matchmaker: If You Like...

…Isabel Allende, check out The Seamstress, by Frances de Pontes Peebles. Like the bestselling Chilean author, Peebles, in her first novel, deploys a richly detailed South American canvas, an epic family-centered plotline, and strong female characters. The story follows two sisters from their rural upbringing in 1920s Brazil to their very different lives as adults: Emília marries into a well-off family in Recife and has her own dress-making shop, Luzia becomes the wife of an infamous scrubland cangaceiro (part-bandit, part-revolutionary), earning her own nickname, The Seamstress. Vivid scenes of a place and a time in history that many readers will know little about make this a page-turner for armchair travelers.

One Last Thing: A Different View of China

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is an elliptical antidote to the predictable portraits of Beijing and China that are bound to dominate the media during the Beijing Olympics this month. Xiaolu Guo's pathbreaking novel crafts a cubist portrait of a young woman's contemporary coming of age. At 17, Fenfang Wang abruptly runs away from her stifling, sweet potato-framed village in deep rural China for the bright blunt promise of Beijing. Her life in the big city, told in a snapshot succession of jobs, homes, and companions, presents glimpses of a country and culture rarely viewed in Western accounts. Guo's edgy, staccato voice, wrought with an engaging raw energy, offers fresh insights into the drudgeries and dreams of independently minded young Chinese today, and new perspectives on the potentials and problems of China to come.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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