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Book Reviews

Way Stations to Heaven: 50 Major Visionary Shrines in the United States

by Sandra Gurvis

The Road Within: True Stories of Transformation Around the World

by Sean O’Reilly, James O’Reilly and Tim O’Reilly, eds.

Where Every Breath Is a Prayer: A Photographic Pilgrimage into the Spiritual Heart of Asia

by Jon Ortner

Frommer’s Nepal, 3rd. Ed.

by Karl Samson

Just when a reader of travel books might reasonably think there isn’t anything new to be discovered or a fresh viewpoint to be found, a new spate of engaging books appears on publishers’ lists reflecting current tastes in travel. Today, due to aging and affluent baby-boomers, travel is a thriving industry and will likely continue to grow in years to come. But consumers are looking for more than the traditional package tour, with predictable and commercialized perspectives. Adventure tours are in demand now, like tagging endangered turtles or joining archeological digs at Celtic ruins.

A new fashion over the past three years, too, is the revival of the voyage of self-discovery – the age-old pilgrimage – as more and more people seek an outlet for their spiritual needs. Regardless of whether the goal is a break from the pressures of everyday life or a wild escape, complete with high-powered thrills, travel in search of the spirit reawakens the traveller, opening his or her eyes to the world anew. This inner-style journey could arguably be said to be the most rewarding travel of all.

The following is a round-up of some of the most tempting releases for those in search of spiritual mystery.

Traveller’s Tales Guides, The Road Within: True Stories of Transformation Around the World is a collection of essays (many are excerpts from books) that are really mini travel memoirs, a genre dating back to the Middle Ages. With a common theme of reflective experience, writers young and old, famous and not so famous, describe how they travelled to new places in search of themselves and transcendence. Some were changed forever.

The book is divided into five parts: “The Hidden World”; “Changing Your Life”; “Transitions and Teachers”; “The Problem of Evil”; and “Simple Gifts.” The writing style is of a high calibre throughout and doesn’t succumb to the clichés of New Age psychobabble or hippie wisdom. One of my favourites was “In The Arms of the Green Lady” by Malidoma Some, an account of his initiation into another world. Some is a medicine man and diviner in the Dagara culture who holds three MAs and two PhDs from the Sorbonne and Brandeis.

Although the East is emphasized here, there’s a good cross-section of other cultures and locations, too, but it is disappointing there was no mention of Aztec, Mayan, or Celtic sites. The first half of the book is stronger, then seems to taper off and lose drive toward the end. But it’s a worthwhile contribution to travel literature, and a good starting-off point for further reading. Each chapter concludes with biographical information, including the author’s publications. Overall, this is provocative material and a good introduction to new writers.

As the millennium approaches there’s more activity closer to home. Sandra Gurvis’s Way Stations to Heaven catalogues 50 sites in the U.S. where miracles are said to have occurred. Gurvis researched news clippings and databases to write this guidebook to sights and visionaries. She has a light-hearted style and claims objectivity because of her Jewish faith. For each site there’s a description explaining what to expect, with quotes from skeptics and authorities as to whether they are real or fake, plus instructions on how to get there.

The sites include established churches and shrines, land, statues and icons, and group experiences. There’s a high preponderance of visions of Mary and Jesus and Roman Catholic iconography. The events range from the questionable sign made of pasta revealing Jesus’s crown of thorns above the words “Spaghetti Junction,” to the more serious. Rosa Lopez in Florida, for example, claims many apocalyptic messages from Mary, and her Polaroids of such amazing happenings as “mystical lights” surrounding her home are included. Way Stations to Heaven is an entertaining look at the bizarre and the unexplained that will interest the faithful and the ambivalent.

Jon Ortner’s Where Every Breath Is a Prayer is a fine coffee-table book and a visual feat that gives an intimate look at spiritual areas and holy people of Asia, a world that has been unchanged for centuries and whose landscapes give off a sense of mystery.

Ortner is a New York-based photographer whose work has appeared in GEO, Travel & Leisure, and Architectural Digest. He brings to the book a personal overview based on his extensive interest in Eastern philosophy and mountaineering. Ortner’s route moves through spectacular landscapes from the Himalayas to India, Java, and Thailand, and finishes in Bali. The text accompanying the striking photographs is insightful and explains local spiritual practices.

Walking tours of Nepal, challenging travel for those seeking spiritual treks as well as peace and quiet, are growing in popularity. Frommer’s Nepal is a detailed guide to planning a trip to Nepal and a perfect companion for the neophyte planning a trip to the East. A softcover book with a well-balanced blend of maps and places of interest, the book is filled with information on the historical background of the country, calendar of events, and how to find spiritual and yoga instruction. Families, singles, and couples will find this a good quick-reference guide to places of interest, night life, and trekking routes. There’s an appendix of basic phrases, as well as tips on how to shop for and negotiate bargain prices on carpets and jewelry.

One of the excellent Lonely Planet travel survival series is Tibet by Chris Taylor. Another pocket guide, the book covers the world of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, and practical survival topics such as how to get around, how to plan a solo trip, what to take, and how to stay healthy, and takes an in-depth look at monasteries and avoiding “undercover monks,” (Chinese undercover agents ).

In a similar vein, The Traveller’s Guide to Japanese Pilgrimages by Ed Readickher-Henderson offers a wealth of information and inspiration on Japan’s holy traditions. The guide begins by outlining the pilgrimage tradition in Japan and explains how to get started. As in medieval Europe, the traditional season for pilgrimages in Japan runs from mid-March to November. Options include day trips and longer journeys, and the book gives a detailed look at the three most popular routes in the country: Mount Hiei, Saigoku Kannon, and Shikoku Kobo Daishi. Myths and stories about shrines are told in a concise narrative style, and there are many colour photographs. Pilgrimage in Japan, as elsewhere in Asia, remains a vital part of life.

Back in Europe, focused on the creative inspirations of faith, is Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour: Discovering Europe’s Great Art. Many may remember Sister Wendy’s enthusiastic style in her recent BBC series on art. This book discusses masterpieces in 10 continental cities, ranging from Madrid and Rome to St. Petersburg. As Sister Wendy points out in her preface, she didn’t want to leave her solitude as a Carmelite nun in Norfolk, and she didn’t have a great desire to go on a grand tour. She says she didn’t go to sightsee, but to enjoy “with gratitude this great chance to see some of the most wonderful things that human beings have ever created.” The book has 62 high-quality plates with text alongside, and there are helpful brief lives of the artists included in the appendix. Sister Wendy writes as well as she speaks, with sensitivity and unpretentious insight. She always manages to find a spiritual message and a new way of looking at the artists’ work. In Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, for example, Sister Wendy points out the silence and peace of the tone, “so as not to drown out the heavenly greeting that comes to all of us.” And in Cezanne’s The Bathers, the figures are clothed in nature. The trees are “not real trees any more than these are real bathers, but the essence of tree, just as the young men are essential flesh. This anxious, beautiful joy is something that we actually need.” Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour is a beautifully written work about the masterpieces of Europe that could be enjoyed by an art lover looking for fresh perspectives, as well as an adolescent just beginning to explore and appreciate the visual arts.