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Top 10 Books for Travelers


The Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground
By Rosemary Mahoney

Trudging on weary feet along Spain's road to Santiago de Compostela, visiting the holy shrine at Lourdes and rowing down the waters of the Ganges, Rosemary Mahoney is a modern-day pilgrim, traveling to some of the world's holiest sites in search of answers to her own spiritual questions. As a self-described rational person who is predisposed to doubt rather than to believe, she views the passion of true believers with mingled fascination, envy and bemusement. Can she find her own faith by following in the footsteps of the faithful before her?

I was drawn in immediately by Mahoney's compelling, ruminative account of her own pilgrim's path. She describes each stop on her journey with insight and compassion, but the chapter that lingered in my mind was the one about her stay in Varanasi, India. There she meets Jaga, a remarkable 16-year-old boy who is not only her guide to the city but also a kindred spirit: "His faith, I knew, was similar in nature to mine -- faded, worn, resentful, and stubbornly evasive. And yet it was there." By the book's end, Mahoney's faith is not drastically changed; there are no easy answers to the difficult questions she poses here. But her journey leaves both her -- and the reader -- with a measure of peace.

I was only halfway to Santiago. I folded the map up and threw it across the room so that I couldn't touch it. I fumed a while longer, then went quiet, because I knew that what was really upsetting me was that love was failing in my life. At its core, love, like faith, was not a product of reason. ... Real love required a risk, an act of daring. In my relationship there was not enough trust and too little daring. Walking to Santiago I had tried not to think too much about it, but it was the most important thing in my life at that time, and it kept cropping up in front of me and blocking my path.

Honeymoon with My Brother
By Franz Wisner

What happens when the worst thing that's ever happened to you turns into the best thing? Franz Wisner learns the hard way when his fiancee, whom he'd loved for the better part of a decade, breaks up with him only five days before their wedding. Devastated and confused, he decides to go on his honeymoon anyway -- with his younger brother. The two-week honeymoon proves only a taste of what was to come. Soon after they return home, the brothers do what many of us have only dreamt of: quit their jobs, sell their houses and take a much longer honeymoon, this time around the world.

In this memoir, Wisner captures their two-year, four-continent journey with a keen eye and an appreciation for the little ironies they encounter in their travels -- like the time they show up at a restaurant recommended in their guidebook and find "ten tables, Anglo faces at each one ... Mass at the Church of the Lonely Planet." (It's then that they decide to ditch the guidebooks and rely on the kindness and wisdom of locals, a decision they never regret.) The brothers gradually fall into the rhythm of the road, leaving their past lives and loves behind and developing a deep friendship with each other. Wisner's straightforward, concise writing style isn't always effective; I found myself wanting more detail in some parts of the book and grimacing at a few cute but clunky rhymes ("the tired, hired, and mired trying to replace the fired"). But for the most part I found "Honeymoon with My Brother" a moving, funny account of the best kind of travel: the kind that not only takes you around the world but also changes your life.

Vietnam today is the young Buddhist monk, draped in orange robes, taking pains to prune a bonsai tree on the grounds of an ancient and decaying temple. ... It's the women in their pencil tip bamboo hats, crouched on the sidewalks, hawking delicious noodle soups piled high with bean sprouts and fresh basil. ... It's the dragon face long boats on brown rivers that shuttle tourists during the day and sleep families of ten at night. It's warm Cokes and bad karaoke (is that redundant?), a new house for every thousand old steel-roof shanties, bicycle rickshaws carrying dead cows, and bootleg everything. It's fishing nets, war trinkets, and warm baguettes.

The Poisonwood Bible
By Barbara Kingsolver

The setting is the Belgian Congo in the 1950's. Fresh off the plane is a fundamentalist Christian preacher from the American South named Nathan Price, who has brought his wife and four daughters with him to spread the Word to what he considers a godless continent. But as Reverend Price aggressively pursues his missionary agenda in the face of increasingly fierce local resistance, it is his family who must suffer the consequences.

"The Poisonwood Bible" is a haunting novel about what happens when cultures collide -- specifically, when an outsider blunders up against the customs and beliefs of a society he doesn't even try to understand. Kingsolver effectively captures that prickly feeling of being outside one's comfort zone, one many will recognize from their own travels. She also writes beautifully about the landscape of Africa, its colors and smells and sounds, in the voices of four very different young women attempting to adapt to their alien surroundings. The novel builds steadily to a devastating climax, but then inexplicably continues for another several hundred pages -- making the last quarter of the book feel a bit directionless. But that's a forgivable flaw in a novel as lush and powerful as this one.

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping vines. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

Dave Barry Does Japan
By Dave Barry

If you've read too many deep, nuanced, "I went around the world and found myself" travel books, here's your remedy: "Dave Barry Does Japan." The syndicated columnist known for his sophisticated sense of humor (booger jokes, anyone?) hits the road with his wife and 10-year-old son, leaving political correctness and cultural sensitivity back in the U.S. The family spends three weeks bumbling around "in a disoriented, uncomprehending manner" in search of their next train, their next meal (preferably food that isn't still alive) and the secrets of Japanese success in the auto industry (hint: robots). Along the way Barry presents indispensable travel tips such as how to eat with chopsticks: raise them in the air to call your waiter and ask him for a fork.

I found myself laughing helplessly throughout the book, but my favorite part was Barry's description of the Kabuki play he went to see in Tokyo. Here's part of the plot as he understands it: "Everybody is upset and whining. Meanwhile some assassins are lurking around." If you're looking for an in-depth analysis of Japanese culture, look elsewhere. Aside from a chapter on Hiroshima, which not even Barry can joke about, this book unapologetically aims no further than drawing a few laughs -- and he succeeds, effectively skewering not only Japanese culture but also our own.

One night in Tokyo we watched two Japanese businessmen saying good-night to each other after what had clearly been a long night of drinking, a major participant sport in Japan. These men were totally snockered, having reached the stage of inebriation wherein every air molecule that struck caused them to wobble slightly, but they still managed to behave more formally than Americans do at funerals. They faced each other and bowed deeply, which caused both of them to momentarily lose their balance and start to pitch face-first to the sidewalk. Trying to recover their balance, they both stepped forward, almost banging heads. They managed to get themselves upright again and, with great dignity, weaved off in opposite directions.

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