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4.2 out of 5 stars44
4.2 out of 5 stars
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on 19 October 2014
'He said that if I was a believer in yoga I wouldn't worry about catching trains. I said that was why I wasn't a believer in yoga.'

Marianne Macdonald nailed Paul Theroux when she referred to his 'somewhat pitiless craft', almost twenty years ago now, and 'he deliberately puts himself on the outside'. [Actually unfair. Could one pass through India unconcerned?] The dilettantesque pose should not deceive us. Besides being vehemently opposed to 'sightseeing' (box-ticking) as opposed to merely walking and looking, Theroux is fiendishly well read - on page 129 The Longest Journey gets treated with magisterial disdain - and once he relaxes (the initial carapace of smugness can be off-putting, not to mention the pair of stage Englishmen out of The Lady Vanishes) we do too, knowing we're in safe, albeit American, albeit Europeanised* hands. 'He was a small man, but I noticed that as soon as he stepped into the compartment he filled it; 'hunger's ear is not finely tuned'; 'the several tabernacles' [of a food vendor's trolley]; 'uninteresting acts of God'; a lone Turk 'like a weed' - all these by page 50! Yes, he writes sublimely - Indian passengers freighted with luggage as if 'lazily fleeing an ambiguous catastrophe'. He deploys with casual relish words like catamite, crapulous, epicene, eructating, rufous. Somebody has to. His distaste for his fellow countrymen is very endearing. Actually, come to think of it, his distaste is pretty evenly distributed. He even gets in a discreet lob at the Prophet, 'the only Arab in history to wear a size 14 triple-E sandal'; presumably these days the word Arab would be deemed racist. He responds to architecture rather more than to people (Bombay's 'threadbare metropolitan hauteur', Simla's 'rusty roofs') but can be scathing about both; Singapore's 'new hotels and apartment buildings.. look like juke boxes and filing cabinets respectively' - and people photograph them (modernity)! If the anomie gets in the bones, it's also addictive - surely there's no one one would rather be in Simla with? - and if Paul begins to pall, well, how very like life, alternately entertaining and depressing, with occasional depths - page 65, maybe? Like life then, not perfect but - by golly! - memorable, this has five stars in my heart

* the kind of American who doesn't mind not showering for five days (for our sins, we Brits seem servilely to have gone the other way). It's a shock to stumble on center (p79) or the scattering of gottens (pp 104, 147, 333 - did I miss one?) It picks up with tyre-with-an-i on page 138, stogie [cigar](p154) and mold (p162), then there's a lull till labor (p231). Not much to show, is it? Bar these 'blemishes', and the quaint part (for parting) and lean out (the door) rather than out OF, Paul's sensibility is European theroux and theroux
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VINE VOICEon 31 December 2013
This book, Paul Theroux's first travel book, was published in 1975 and has been held up as a classic travel book ever since. This version has an introduction written in 2008 by PT where he explores the idea of travel writing and describes the principles to which he subscribes.
He has a writing style which reads like a novel. The people he meets are presented as caricatures which works well to draw a quick picture of the individuals. The problem with this is that they are all very difficult to relate to as PT seems to emphasise extreme characteristics and other elements he dislikes about people.
PT comes across as someone not really enjoying his travelling although the level of detail in the book is superb. Also the experience of travel is easy to imagine due to the clever writing.
I have found this book difficult to read but clearly lot of people do love it.
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on 20 July 2009
This book came highly recommended to me and I was expecting much more than I got.

First, the things I liked: Theroux is a very good storyteller and this book carried the narrative well. His descriptions of the trains he travelled on, the places he travelled through and the people he met were very realistic; especially during his descriptions of weather and landscape I felt as though I were present. He has a gift for observation and description, and this book was no exception.

However, I was very disappointed in the author's attitude. I found the tone and manner in which he describes people different to him as dismissive and condescending; in some cases his mannerisms are borderline racist. This work seems to carry a superior attitude and describes other human beings as might a scientist working with dried insects in a lab: dismissing entire populations with a mere paragraph does nothing for the work's reputation.

I also was quite disappointed by the disdain with which the author generally regards all sorts of sightseeing; he seems to regard it as beneath him and his dignity. I understand the importance of the journey and the mode of transport, but the utter dismissiveness and contempt in which he held anything outside of the actual train itself was quite a let-down.
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on 2 February 2001
Theroux sets off again in search of a distant destination - back home again - with the aim of observing life at all levels on the way. Leaving London, with a touch of intrepidation and a group of oddball passengers as companions, Theroux embarks on a trip involving stamina, audacity, several timetables and an insatiable nosiness. He penetrates into individual lives as if they represent newsagents magazines - picking them up, describing 2 or 3 pages of colour and animation, as well as the occasional irreverent advertisement - before leaving them unopened, picking up another. This window into the lives of those he stumbles across gives us glimpses into each culture encountered, though his questioning becomes a little repetitive, unifying some of the answers artificially. Overall a fascinating book, if only for the accounts of the terrifying nature of having to share a railway compartment with others, especially at night....
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on 24 January 2004
This is much better than I expected it to be.
The narrator has a spectacular voice that transports you to the Orient Express and makes you forget he's there. I think this is very important with audio books as often the voice can overshadow the words.
From the first word I was hooked and would have sat through the whole lot in one sitting if I had the time.
As for the story itself -
If you've read it you will find that this tape adds depth, smells, sounds and tastes. It's like reading a book a second time, but from a different angle.
If you haven't read the book yet - Listening to the tape won't spoil a reading (as in fiction books) as Theroux's writing is very cool and laid back, to be savoured and thought about after each sitting. The tape, on the other hand, is a fantastic way to make a tedious car journey into an exciting train journey.
If after listening to this you want to know what happenend to poor Mr Duffil read Kingdom by the Sea where Theroux stops by his house.
One last point, make sure you get hold of the unabridged version as the shorter three hour tape will leave you wanting more.
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on 16 December 2003
Grumpy but readable. Maddeningly self-centered but tolerable. This is a travelogue of Theroux's 1970s travel across Asia mostly by train including rides on the Orient Express and the Trans-Siberian Express. Theroux's strength is undoubtedly in conveying anecdotes. Bar for few exceptions he is not particularly skillful in conjuring images and sceneries of the countries he passed through as his focus is more on the variety of characters who seemingly tortured him by their infuriating sociability. The book is more of the flavour of a highly irritable Western writer sneering at idiots and seeking to get through one seemingly mostly dismal train trip amidst loathsome natives while trying to stay alive, healthy and sane in his misguided wanderings amidst a flurry of proposals for all kinds of seedy local services. You might find Theroux's wryly amusing style enjoyable and humorous or merely annoying, personally I can vouch for all these sentiments, but at least you can't accuse him of being overly exuberant in his descriptions.
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on 3 March 2015
One feels as if Theroux was writing the truth - or as close to the truth as possible here. Finding out about what was going on in his personal life (at the start of the follow up many years later) gives the book even more power. His decision to include certain scenes - such as ending up in an underage brothel whilst seeking an English whore in Madras - was brave. The book has some of the directness and comedy of Adam Sprode's Mamasan, another quintessential Asian travel book, albeit fictional.
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I recently read Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (which re-creates the trip described in The Great Railway Bazaar and comments on the earlier trip). Although I thought that the writing is better and more interesting in The Great Railway Bazaar, this book lacks the perspective on writing that makes Ghost Train to the Eastern Star special for authors.

For many years, I traveled across the United States by slow trains (on a free pass) over 72 hours. I was always glad to have the trip end . . . except for that one time I met an interesting young woman (but that's a story for another time).

I would find the kind of trip that Mr. Theroux describes to be unendurable. It's not surprising that he did, too. And that spoils much of the potential fun of this book.

He is fixated on giving you more than you ever wanted to know about bad meals, poor ticket-buying experiences, missing visas, getting drunk, poor sanitary facilities, and unpleasant companions. Mr. Theroux takes himself very seriously. That's too bad. A little humor about his situation would have helped.

From Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, it's not hard to know why: His marriage was falling apart and he couldn't really afford the trip. All I can say is that his problems show.

Imagine instead that a poor person had been granted this same opportunity: It would have been like a magic carpet ride. Unfortunately, you take yourself with you when you are a travel writer.

There are some good moments in the book. Occasionally, Mr. Theroux has enough knowledge about a country and its people to use his journey to comment in a helpful way about the culture. Most Americans will be fascinated to read about South Vietnam after American troops had pulled out and before the final reunification by force. In the early going, a fellow traveler makes the mistake of spending a little too much time at a station . . . with consequences that Mr. Theroux has some fun with.

Japanese people may not like the portrait that Mr. Theroux displays of their nation. It has little to do with railways and railway travel.

Fans of India, by contrast, may enjoy his relative enthusiasm for that populous and challenging nation.

Sometimes the material isn't in the best of taste. I didn't really need to read about his investigation of the ladies-for-hire offerings in an Asian country.
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on 6 April 2014
I was fortunate enough to read one of the chapters of this book on the very journey it was describing but for those not so fortunate I will say that if you enjoy travel writing this is a fascinating book. Well-written and engaging it whets the appetite for the journeys that he describes.
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on 8 March 2014
If you enjoy train journeys then hold onto your hats! Another great journey that only Theroux can describe. Whether you think he's a bit of a travel snob or not, read this book.
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