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Summer reading picks

Summer reading picks: editors' favorite reads
/ Source: Independent Traveler

If you're reading this, you are likely old enough not to have any school-assigned summer reading. Thank goodness. But that doesn't mean you want to spend your hours on the road (or in the air, or on the beach) this summer staring into space. The staff of decided to pick a few books -- some brand-new, some you have no doubt been meaning to read for years -- that we think you might like. The only condition for choosing the books was that they had to have something to do with traveling. Have a great summer and enjoy!

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GENEVIEVE'S PICKS Miss New York Has Everything
By Lori Jakiela

A small-town girl wants to get out and leave the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and her family, behind. What's a girl to do? Lori Jakiela became a flight attendant and got ready to see the world. The trouble is, short layovers, even if they are in Paris, do not a world traveler make. Instead of the glamorous life she imagined in New York, she finds herself broke and living in a decidedly unglamorous neighborhood in Queens filled with roommates and roaches. As we follow Ms. Jakiela through her stumbles and struggles, we begin to understand just how strong the ties that bind her to her small-town life are -- particularly to her father, with whom she has a complicated but deeply loving relationship.

This memoir is a sometimes humorous and sometimes painful look back at one young woman's struggle to create a new life and to escape the people and the places that define her -- until she realizes that back in suburban Pittsburgh is exactly where she belongs.

Not only was I not glamorous. I was also not a German speaker.

This is what I told Sheldon in Scheduling, when he called, for the third time in one month, to give me another twenty-four-hour layover in the industrial wasteland of Frankfurt, Germany.

Lost and Found
By Carolyn Parkhurst
"You've lost the game, but what have you found?" That's the question posed by the host of a ficticious "Amazing Race"-type reality show that serves as the backdrop for this new novel, in which teams are eliminated from a worldwide scavenger hunt. Chapters are devoted to individual players and even the show's host as we learn their secrets -- what's behind the mother/daughter team with the strained relationship? What's with the newly married couple who, until just recently, were both leading lives as homosexuals? Why are the two former child actors really on the show?

Fans of "The Amazing Race" will love the moments when we get a glimpse of the show's production team trying to "out" a participant or the contestants' struggle to complete the tasks needed to get ahead. However, the book is much less about the contest than it is about the people who are playing the game -- and in the end, they are all able to answer the question, "What have you found?"

"I'm just going to the bathroom," I say to him. "You can stay with Abby."

"Sorry," [the cameraman] says. "I've gotten instructions to follow you."

I was going to go around the far side of the column, out of Abby's sight, but I change course and head towards the public restrooms near the steps of the terrace. I hope Ken will follow; I don't know how I am going to manage a private conversation with him, but he clearly has something to say to me, and I can't have him following me and Abby.

Robert and I reach the door of the men's room, and I step inside alone. ... After a moment, Ken walks in. It embarrasses me to look at him directly. I turn on the water and hold my hands under the cold spray. Ken walks over and stands at the sink next to mine.

"Hi there," he says. "Romantic little spot you've chosen."

Traveling While Married
By Mary-Lou Weisman

Though not necessarily a how-to guide on traveling better with your spouse, "Traveling While Married" does provide insights, many of them hilarious, into what it is like to travel with your husband or wife. It's largely an account of the travels of Mary-Lou Weisman and her husband Larry, but any married couple will see themselves in the pages of this book. Weisman touches on topics like traveling with other couples, doing things you hate because the one you love wants to, and "fantasy real estate" -- the compulsion to own property in every wonderful place you visit.

For couples who love each other and love to travel, this is a touching and insightful read. We can all relate to the opening page of the book when the author professes, "I, Mary-Lou, take you Larry, to be my constant traveling companion, to Hong and to Kong, in Cyclades and in Delft, for deck class or deluxe, so long as we both can move."

Travel can put an extra strain on a marriage. Being the same old couple in a new and different place is a disorienting experience. All too often, when people don't know where they are, have jet lag, don't speak the language and can't figure out the money or maintain intestinal regularity, they get hostile. And since they don't know anyone else in Kyoto to take it out on, they take it out on each other.

Some marriages are saved by going on vacation. While the marriage is at home, the partners may be contemplating divorce, but send the marriage on vacation and they're on a second honeymoon. On the other hand, a marriage that gets along swimmingly at home can be a fish out of water on vacation.

SARAH'S PICKS 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.


"Around the World in 80 Days": A Companion to the BBC Mini-Series of the Same Name
By Michael Palin

In 1989, Michael Palin succeeded in getting someone to cover the necessary expenses to travel around the world. His premise involved following the route -- as precisely as possible -- taken by Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days." Palin would restrict himself to the means of travel available to Fogg -- so boats, trains, horse-drawn coaches, children and camels would all be allowed.

In an effort to squeeze every penny out of Palin, the BBC decided to publish the journals he kept during his trip. And although the book was intended as a companion to the 1989 BBC mini-series of the same name, the journals really do stand alone. The feel of the book is fully informed by a man who took every occasion to dress up in women's clothes for a laugh (stirring conclusion to "The Meaning of Life" for instance). He doesn't take himself very seriously, and yet his intelligence and self-awareness allow him to convey the ridiculous circumstances in which he finds himself. At the Pyramids, a camel renter insists that the camel is named "Michael" and that Palin don a traditional Arab headdress. He dines on salted squid innards -- a dish his guide tells him is literally unpalatable to Europeans -- in Tokyo, before giving a rousing rendition of "You are My Sunshine" at a local karaoke bar. Aboard an L.A.-bound container ship, he takes part in a bizarre ritual involving copious amounts of fake blood (ketchup), break-dancing and King Neptune's blessing as he crosses the International Date Line. But you don't have to take my word for it. Read it yourself.

I venture into the streets of Bombay in search of someone to remove eight days' growth of beard ... Sandwiched in between a professional letter writer and a man who organizes mongoose and snake fights, I find a barber who shaves me then and there on the grubby pavement with a cut-throat razor. Not something I shall tell my mother about, especially as I'm convinced from the way his fingers rather than his eyes seek out my face that he is blind. By the time he's finished shaving me, a crowd has gathered that would not disgrace a third division football club.

The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life

By Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard
Instead of detailing an actual road trip, "The Monk and the Philosopher" is a book about the "spiritual journey." Jean-Francois Revel, a prominent French intellectual entrenched in Western science and thought, meets his son Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, in Katmandu to discuss both why Ricard decided for a clean break from the West and the difference between Eastern and Western thought in general. Ricard was once a promising young scientist in France, but after successfully defending his doctoral thesis, he shocked his family and friends by moving to Bhutan and becoming a monk. What drew him to the East? What are the points of contention between father and son? How have the ways each has chosen to live affected their relationship? These concerns drive the dialogue.

The book begins with a conversation about how Ricard has evolved from aspiring scientist to ordained Buddhist monk. But after clarifying how and when Ricard abandoned his research career, the men begin to engage in a dialogue informed by pride, bitterness and sincerity. Much of the book is an elucidation of the Buddhist approach to life, and Ricard's insistence that Buddhism is not unflinching dogma, but a living, breathing framework, from which one can arrive at a spiritual destination. Revel seems incapable or unwilling of understanding this key point, and this tension speaks volumes about the differences between East and West, father and son. Even for a Buddhist monk, the very embodiment of serenity, Ricard's patience is repeatedly tried. Both are trying to come to some understanding of what the other holds dear, while also resolutely defending their methods for tackling philosophy's primary quests -- eliminating the fear of death, while living the "good life." Their unique experiences traveling through life are certainly food for thought -- perhaps inspiring enough to start the reader on his or her own quest.

No dialogue, however enlightening it might be, could ever be a substitute for the silence of personal experience, so indispensable for an understanding of how things really are. Experience, indeed, is the path. And as the Buddha often said, "it is up to you to follow it," so that one day the messenger might become the message.

Travels with Charley in Search of America
By John Steinbeck
As one of the great American authors, Steinbeck has little to prove in terms of writing. But there came a time in his life where he began to get the sense that the America he had written of in his seminal works had morphed into something wholly unfamiliar. To reacquaint himself with a clearer picture of his motherland, he decided to set out on a three-month journey with his friend Charley the standard poodle. The natural beauty he encounters along the way in places like Montana and the redwood forests of California are juxtaposed against the ugly bigotry and closed-mindedness of many Americans he meets. This hatred is certainly very painful for Steinbeck, and the sad realization that his ideal vision of America -- an America where the loss of innocence may open the door for positive growth -- may never materialize makes for a melancholy experience.

Steinbeck is a natural reporter, able to convey scenes, such as his route through the changing New England foliage, with great accuracy. But he also injects his writing with experience and passion, and this is what makes "Travels with Charley" so engaging.

For many years I have traveled in many parts of the world. In America, I live in New York, or dip into Chicago or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus, I discovered I did not know my own country.

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