Photo: fortune papers tied onto cherry tree branches

Japan, Iwate Prefecture, Morioka, Fortune papers tied with branches of Cherry tree, close-up

Photograph by Pete Kobayashi, Getty Images

By Don George

September 2010

Book of the Month
The Wishing Trees,
by John Shors

This poignant novel begins with a daunting scenario. To fulfill his dying wife's last wish, the protagonist Ian sets out with his ten-year-old daughter, Mattie, to retrace the grand odyssey he and his wife had once made. This quest takes the grieving duo through Japan, Nepal, India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Egypt.

Through Ian's and Mattie's experiences, Shors masterfully depicts the atmosphere and idiosyncrasies of each country, beginning with the "wishing trees" of the title, which the couple first find in Japan. Following local tradition, Mattie writes a wish on a slip of paper and ties it to a hilltop bough. As their odyssey unfolds, they hike in the Himalaya, where Shors evokes the irises, orchids, and magnolias, herds of yak, and fields of wheat. They swim with sharks off Koh Phi Phi, among sea grass, mounds of coral, hundreds of multi-colored fish, and "clams the size of ovens."

In Ho Chi Minh City, the differences wrought since Ian's first visit bittersweetly embody the irreversible passage of time: "Fifteen years earlier, mostly everyone in Ho Chi Minh City rode bicycles. Now everyone, it seemed, owned a scooter. The black and red contraptions darted around the city like millions of water bugs released into a series of small streams."

Ian and Mattie visit monuments such as the Taj Mahal and Karnak, but they also forge memories of a more personal kind: carrying firewood for a Nepalese mountain girl; helping a Thai child-prostitute return to her parents; befriending an orphaned Indian boy. Country by country, their odyssey transforms into a journey of worldly healing and renewal, nurtured by the wisdom and compassion they discover in the cultures they pass through, and by the realization of the commonalities—hope, death, love—that bind all fathers, mothers, and children.

From the Mountains to the Deserts to the Sea

Kissing Kilimanjaro: Leaving It All on Top of Africa, by Daniel Dorr, is an ordinary guy's entertaining account of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro after an impromptu promise to a girl he wanted to impress. From the Sahara to Samarkand: Selected Travel Writings of Rosita Forbes, edited by Margaret Bald, gathers the essays of the extraordinary English explorer written in the 1920s and '30s as she travels in the Libyan desert, horseback rides into remote Abyssinia, and sails across the Red Sea. The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, by Susan Casey, journeys from south Africa to Hawaii searching for monster waves and interviewing the scientists who explain what produces them and the surfers who dare to tackle them.

If You Liked ...

... David Ignatius's Body of Lies, check out The Network, by Jason Elliot. This Afghanistan-set debut thriller is loaded with spycraft and based on real characters and events pre-9/11. The novel gets its vivid sense of place from Elliot's extensive covert travels throughout Afghanistan, first in 1979 and again ten years later (which he wrote about in the best-selling memoir An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan).

One Last Thing:
Terminal Velocity

The next time I'm stuck in a seemingly endless airport security line, I'm going to think of Alain de Botton, who took up temporary residence in England's Heathrow Airport for his new book, A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary. In this concise and delightful account, de Botton brilliantly and movingly deconstructs the worlds that intersect at the airport, artfully demonstrating his thesis that the air terminal "neatly captures the gamut of themes running through our civilization—from our faith in technology to our destruction of nature, from our interconnectedness to our romanticizing of travel." Perfect for your carry-on bag.

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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