“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

When we plan a trip, we usually reach for the indispensable travel books: the Fodor's, the Frommer's or the Eyewitness travel guides. I want to write about an entirely different kind of travel book: travel books that have no practical use to a traveler! These travel books are a genre unto themselves - travel literature, as opposed to travel guides. While there may be lots of information in these travel narratives, they do not recommend reasonably priced hotels with excellent service, first-rate restaurants with fine cuisine or notable must-see places. Neither do these travel books offer an iota of useful advice on what to pack or the amount of currency you should carry. The books mentioned here are travel narratives with vividly atmospheric prose, subjective and emotional, and every bit as satisfying as if you were experiencing it all first-hand: the sounds, the smells, the tastes and the texture. In short, these wonderful travel narratives offer us a little bit of everything about the place - the mundane and the profound - that has grabbed the interest of the peripatetic writer.  When reading these travel narratives, not only do you travel vicariously, but it is as if you are traveling with an interesting companion.  As you read these books, get ready to be transported to foreign lands, bump into diverse and eccentric groups of people, and encounter unfamiliar rituals and different foods. I can assure you that you will enjoy the journey!

Paul Theroux is renowned for his travel writing. One of my all-time favorites, TheGreat Railway Bazaar, is an entertaining and exciting travelogue that is classic travel literature. If you are an aficionado of train travel, you will savor this book. The Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian Express, the Frontier Mail, and the Mandalay Express are some of the famous trains that Theroux uses as transportation in his journey through Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Ever since he was a child, Theroux was enthralled by trains and "...seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it." An astute observer, with a wry sense of humor, Theroux has an impressive way of describing the ever changing landscape, the different cultures, and the people, all of which makes this book a tremendously enjoyable read. As we travel along with Theroux, we understand, when at the conclusion of his journey, he writes " ...the difference between travel writing and fiction is between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knew."

Theroux had made his train journey through Europe, Asia and the Middle East in 1973-74 and The Great Railway Bazaar was published in 1975. Thirty years later Theroux recreates this same journey in GhostTrain to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar. Of course, the train routes have changed, the landscapes are different, as is the political climate of the places he had visited in the past. For me sequels rarely possess the magical flavor of the original, but this book has a lot to offer: full of vivid observations and eloquent writing, this is a recommended read for all armchair travelers.

Like Theroux retracing his steps, Bill Bryson, who had backpacked through Europe in his youth, decided to return to Europe twenty years later. The product of his travel is the hilarious book: Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe.  With a keen eye and his typical tongue-in-cheek style, Bryson gives us not only the flavor of the places and the people of each country, but he also juxtaposes this trip with his previous trip as a twenty year old when his interests were - as you would expect- very different!

A writer who had lived in England for almost twenty years, Bill Bryson, a Midwesterner, decided to return home to America. But not before he takes a "valedictory" tour of England, Wales, and Scotland by foot, by bus, and by train. Notes From a Small Island is the result of Bryson's farewell tour. As an unabashed Anglophile, I relished every zesty morsel and did not want it to end. As usual, Bryson's genial and lively sense of humor makes this book an engaging read and you will find yourself laughing out loud as you read about his neighbors in the farming village in Yorkshire Dales or his list of incredibly funny place names. Mordecai Richler states in his review of this book "... if you're planning a first trip to the U.K. this summer, it is an amusing guide to that country's foibles, as well as a tribute to its enchantments, by an unabashed Anglophile" (New York Times Book Review, June 16, 1996). 

Atthe Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay by John Gimlette deals with an entirely different kind of island. An island surrounded by land, Paraguay has been the home of Nazi dictators, smugglers, eccentrics and exotic wild life. Gimlette's book offers us a valuable cultural insight as he chronicles the history of Paraguay, including a helpful chronology with dates and events. This book is by turns delightfully entertaining, ironic, bizarre and almost always informative. Ben Macintyre (New York Times Book Review, February 29, 2004)  asserts "Gimlette does not so much travel as wander, ranging across the history, the people and the landscape." Macintyre further states that this book "... is an emotional evocation, partial in every sense of the word, of a place the author has come to love."

Another island nation is the subject of a travel narrative by Will Ferguson - HokkaidoHighway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan. Having lived in Japan for over six years in the 1980s, I was obviously drawn to read this book when it was first published in 1998. Ferguson's travelogue is a record of his travel - by hitchhiking - the length of Japan, from the South to the North, on the trail of the cherry blossoms.

Every spring, a wave of flowers sweeps across Japan. It begins in Okinawa and rolls from island to island to mainland...They call it Sakura Zensen - the "Cherry Blossom Front" - and its advance is tracked with a seriousness usually reserved for armies on the march. Progress reports are given nightly on the news and elaborate maps are prepared to show the front lines, the back lines, and the percentage of blossoms in any one area...Nowhere on earth does spring arrive as dramatically as it does in Japan. When the cherry blossoms hit, they hit like a hurricane. Gnarled cherry trees, ignored for most of the year, burst into bloom like fountains turned suddenly on...Crowds congregate beneath the flowers, saké flows, neckties are loosened, and wild spontaneous haiku are composed and recited. These cherry blossom parties, called hanami, are a time for looking back and looking ahead, for drowning one's sorrows or celebrating another successful year.  (Ch. 2, pp. 5-6)

I remembered this book as an extremely satisfying and evocative read. Upon rereading it for this blog, I found myself laughing, feeling nostalgic and nodding in agreement with the author's affectionate and insightful depiction of Japan and its people.

New York-based writer and editor, Chris Wallace, says it best as he concludes his essay Literary Excursions (New York Times Book Review, June 2, 2013) "The best travelogues are like little countries we can visit on the page, civilizations unto themselves, complete with elements we can borrow or bemoan."

-Rina B.


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