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Book Review - Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux

According to Mr. Paul Theroux a travel writer should be able to make a decent living if he's capable of making breezy generalizations. This I inferred from a paragraph about Prince Charles, one of the many people you meet as you journey across Asia through Mr. Theroux' wonderful travelogue. The author does not refrain from sweeping declarations himself, from "a country's pornography offers the quickest insight into the culture and inner life of a nation" to "Ugly and soulless, China represented the horror of answered prayers, a peasant's greedy dream of development".

I found myself agreeing with much of Mr. Theroux' impressions of India, especially the ones about modernity and development and what those concepts translate into on the ground. In other parts of Asia, in Sri Lanka and Vietnam for example, the author does sometimes display a bit of the western liberal's tendency to romanticize when confronted with the untouched countryside and laidback village life, but he then walks back, cognizant.

The book takes you from London, to Paris, Romania, Turkey, Mary, Tashkent, Amritsar, Mumbai, Chennai, Colombo, Rangoon, Bangkok, Hanoi, Kyoto, Vladivostok, Perm and then back to London through Berlin. Some of those cities are close friends of mine, some are mere acquaintances, most I will probably never meet. It is nice then to have an observant and tireless guide like Mr. Theroux show you around. He also is kind enough to take the time to sit down and talk to two of my favorite authors, Mr. Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul and Mr. Haruki Murakami in Tokyo. On the way we meet other colorful characters, an obnoxious environmentalist in the train to Jodhpur ("a gargoyle in horn-rimmed glasses") and a creepy pimp in Lee's Singapore. Speaking of Singapore, the writer gives the country a scathing treatment, portraying it more as an Orwellian dystopia than as the uber-efficient city state we all hear of.

Ghost Train to the Easter Star is an eminently quotable book, with several interesting thoughtful observations, both original and borrowed. It is also, like many books ambitious in scope, sometimes flawed in its generalizations. But that's okay. This is not a book on economics or sociology, it is a book of impressions, and impressions filtered through perspective are imperfect by definition.

An enjoyable read. Recommended.

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