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The Lunatic Express
Discovering the World... Via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes

by Carl Hoffman


There really was a railway called the Lunatic Express because of how many men died of disease, exhaustion, and—oh yes—lions, while building it. The author rides its truncated remains in the chapter titled "Agents of Death and Destruction." But The Lunatic Express of the title has a broader application. On the one hand itís the dance with death taken by the mostly poor people around the world who ride known deathtrap boats, trains, busses, etc as matter-of-fact aspect of daily life. But it also describes the authorís own journeys in the book: both the physical one, where curiosity sends him off traveling on those same deathtraps, and the internal journey that gets triggered by his experiences, including a look at what just might be some lunatic express patterns in his own life. Donít let that put you off, thinking it sounds like a book long on philosophy and short on entertainment. Thatís far from true. But the best travel books have both kinds of journey—if you arenít affected by your travels then you havenít really left home.

The cumulative effect of all those little news bulletins you see about ferries sinking and busses going off cliffs in faraway places sets travel writer Carl Hoffman considering the difference between travel and tourism. The tragedies are widespread and common enough to indicate that the sort of travel for pleasure Carl usually writes about—tourism—bears little relation to most peopleís experience of travel—simple moving from place to place. So he sets out to find the real thing, actively seeking out the deadliest and most notorious forms of mass transit around the world. What he finds are not only the expected hairy rides, but also an unexpected level of community amongst the people who use them. Real community, generous enough to embrace him as well and helping to set off that internal part of the journey, comparing his own life to theirs, with the positives and negatives not always where one would expect. Along the way thereís a lot of color, adventure, humor, conversation... did I mention color?... and enjoyable reading.


The Book

Broadway / Random House
March 2010
Non-fiction / Travel
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The Reviewer

Kim Malo
Reviewed 2010
© 2010