Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Aleph – Paulo Coelho

Upon finding himself stuck on his spiritual journey, a famous Brazilian writer, knowing that his soul connects with movement, fills his life with a lengthy and erratic schedule of publicity events around Europe. The biggest of these commitments is traveling the 9,288 kilometers along the trans-Siberian railway in Russia, a trip of numerous stops and even more weeks that will test the patience, endurance, and stability of everyone in his traveling party. Shortly before leaving, his group of companions is joined by a strange woman, Hilal, who insists that she must travel with them because his soul is calling to hers. Without understanding what she means, the writer agrees to have her join the party. As they spend increasingly more time together, the writer begins to realize that she is a direct connection to one of his past lives, and to an event in particular that has haunted him through all his incarnations since it happened. Although some answers only lead to more questions, it seems as though his soul has finally found the impetus needed to overcome the obstacles in his spiritual path as he seeks to discover his past while also protecting Hilal in the present.

“Aleph” by Paulo Coelho is a story of magic, time travel, reincarnation, and the patterns of behavior, choice, and life that persist through subsequent incarnations. Although not advertised as such, “Aleph” is a roughly autobiographical account of Coelho’s travels during the same time period in which the story is set. This indistinction allows the story to be read as real without logic entirely taking over and denying certain aspects of the account as impossible. As always, Coelho finds a way to describe in simple yet stunning language the complexities of both spiritual disillusionment and awakening, giving voice to those feelings that evade expression due to an inability to capture and convey the essence of it. The physical journey of traveling through Russia by train takes on a secondary importance in the story, serving as more of a metaphor for spiritual growth than as the main element around which the story is told. The multifaceted experience of travel validates the various struggles and accomplishments that often come with encountering the unfamiliar, humbly offering hope and guidance for other travelers.

I was more inclined to interpret “Aleph” as a work of fiction rather than an actual recounting of his travel experiences, but it was still a classic Coelho novel. In terms of his other work, I would say it falls somewhere between the best stories I’ve read by him and the somewhat-less-than-inspiring stories I’ve read by him. I can always find something to relate to in his stories, and I appreciate his emphasis on the journey – life is constantly changing and we need to grow with it rather than strive for perfection. Classic Coelho. If you’re only going to read one book by him, then I probably wouldn’t recommend this one, but if you’re going to read multiple of his works, then this one could certainly be included.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Best American Travel Writing 2013

The Best American Travel Writing 2013

In this collection of essays, authors share their experiences of travel, which range from putting their lives in danger to literally following their dreams, and encompasses all the bliss, serenity, chaos, and awe that results from putting oneself in unfamiliar places. Often, all of these experiences happen on the same trip. Through adventures ranging from bushwhacking up the precarious mountains of Papua New Guinea, to an unfortunately authentic recreation of Dickensian London, to staying in exactly the same location with all the familiar surroundings, the learning and growth that comes from travel contributes to a deeper understanding of self, others, and the world. Whether describing in hilarious detail a trip to the dentist, respectfully observing generations-old traditions, or offering commentary on wild dogs running rampant in the city, this collection of essays provides enough variety in travel experiences to suit those who are comfortable with staying home and those with insatiable wanderlust.

“The Best American Travel Writing 2013” was a compilation of pieces chosen by guest editor Elizabeth Gilbert. Her main criteria for inclusion was finishing a piece and not feeling a desire to travel to whatever place had been described, but feeling as if she had already been there. Reading these pieces with that perspective in mind certainly brought that experience to the fore. Each author write with their unique style and voice, and the collection of pieces offered a fairly balanced mix of observation of other cultures and traditions and personal reflection on what is gained, or lost, through travel. Not every piece appeals to every audience, though, which is bound to happen with an anthology.

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but anthologies are somewhat tricky to review because they cover such a wide variety of stories, styles, and purposes. Unfortunately, the amalgamation of travel experiences was not as immediately enthralling as I was expecting. The thing I forgot about travel writing is that it often includes nuances in language and geography that must be described in a roundabout way rather than directly translated, so I found myself caught up in details more than I would have liked, which meant losing perspective on the big picture of whatever essay I was reading. On top of doing this with individual essays, it happened in piece after piece after piece, making the anthology somewhat of a chore to get through. In fact, when I misplaced my bookmark and skipped 60 pages of the book, I continued reading without realizing this discrepancy until I finished and had to go back to the pieces I had missed. Individual essays about travel are certainly captivating and worth reading, but I may not read another whole book of individual travel experiences pieced together.