Book Review: Sailing through China

Sailing Through China
by Paul Theroux
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984

Paul Theroux has authored dozens of travelogues, many of which have made The New York Times bestseller list.  He has traveled extensively by rail on all continents, including lines in Africa and South America that have long since fallen victim to civil wars or economic downturns.  These are journeys that you can now experience only through travelogues from decades past.


Book Review: Zephyr

Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America
by Henry Kisor
Times Books (Random House), 1994. ISBN 0-8129-1984-X

This is the first of three reviews of Amtrak travelogue books. The other two books reviewed are Making Tracks and Booked on the Morning Train.

Zephyr concentrates on one train in the Amtrak system — the California Zephyr, which makes a 51-hour run between Chicago and Emeryville, California (just across the Bay from San Francisco).  Kisor is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and writes as a journalist would.  He describes the passengers, the route, the sights, and the history of the areas that the train passes through.  He participates in some whimsy himself, spending a couple of hours concocting a murder mystery set aboard a train after meeting a fellow writer.  He tells of passenger antics, of the forced camaraderie of the assigned-seating in the diner, of the reactions to the views from the lounge car.


Book Review: Making Tracks

Making Tracks: An American Rail Odyssey
by Terry Pindell
Hardcover: New York: Grode Weidenfeld, 1990. ISBN 0-8021-1279-X
Softcover: Henry Holt and Company, 1991.

This is the second of three reviews of Amtrak travelogue books. The first book review is of Zephyr, and the third is of Booked on the Morning Train.

Unlike Zephyr, this book approaches the subject strictly from the passenger’s point of view.  After experiencing his father’s death, along with a failed run for mayor, Terry Pindell decided to take to the rails.  He crisscrosses the country from his starting station of Springfield, Massachusetts, the closest major station to his home in Keene, New Hampshire.  He rides on at least a portion of every Amtrak route, and he ends up only a few hundred miles short of riding the entire Amtrak system.  His ambition was:

"travel the entire country without ever eating in a fast-food restaurant, spending money in a mall, driving on an interstate, or waiting in an airport ... I wasn't looking for: the people who travel by train ... the decision to take the extra time to travel by train implies a certain set of worldviews and priorities ... here are two stories: one of the historical American landscape defined by the passenger rail routes that shaped it; the other of the people who travel these lines today."


Book Review: Booked on the Morning Train

Booked on the Morning Train: A Journey Through America.
by George F. Scheer III
Hardcover: Chapel Hill, Algonquin, 1991. ISBN 0-945575-40-8

This is the last of three Amtrak travelogue book reviews. The first two were on Zephyr and Making Tracks.

Here is another book which takes you around the country, but it is much more of a personal story than the previous two travelogues.  Scheer does not seem to be a railfan, and most tidbits on locomotives or the route network comes from railfans or Amtrak personnel that he he chats with.  After giving a brief history of Amtrak in the introduction, the book launches right into the journey.  In a way, we experience the same disorientation that Scheer himself experienced when he boarded a train in the middle of the night.  The pattern of the book only becomes clear on p.66:

"I was out simply to see what travel by train was like in our time in this country, where trains have been, admittedly, so much debased recently and are so often vilified.  (Paul Theroux has called Amtrak the worst railroad in the world, and he should know.)  My plan was to see just what sort of journey one could have by train these days, provided only that he could pay the fare, had a few dollars left over to arrange for shelter and food, and remained open to whatever fortune, good or bad, turned up.  Friends at every stop are not part of the bargain ... and I made exceptions.  I also counted it in their favor if they had a washing machine."


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