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Review: The Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman

Review: The Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman post image

Title: The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World… Via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes
Author: Carl Hoffman
Genre: Literary Journalism
Year: 2010
Acquired: Received from the publisher for review.
Rating: ★★★★☆

One Sentence Summary: The subtitle sort of says it all — journalist Carl Hoffman traveled across the world taking the most dangerous conveyances he could find to see what it’s like to travel outside the developed world.

One Sentence Review: Hoffman’s book could have been a journalistic stunt, but straddles the line carefully and delivers a melancholy and moving memoir dressed up like an adventure tale.

Why I Read It: I love travel books, and this one caught my eye because it looked like something different from the norm.

Long Review: As I was traveling out of town for the 4th of July holiday, I had Carl Hoffman’s The Lunatic Express in my head, and not just because of how many friends I’ve recommended the book to in real life. The book stuck with me because of how appreciative it makes me to live in an area of the world where I can get to the places I need (and want) to go while only having to worry about how I’ll pay for gas or if I’ll get lost. I certainly never worry that I’ll be killed, even in the worst of winter driving conditions.

For most of the globe, this simply isn’t true, and those are the stories that Hoffman is trying to tell. In the first chapter of The Lunatic Express, Hoffman sums up his quest like this:

For most of human history, travel, after all, was an arduous necessity. The word itself comes from the French travailler — to toil or labor, reflecting the difficulty of going anywhere in the Middle Ages. … Today, however, we think of travel as a joy-seeking, the pursuit of pleasure, a vacation, and tourism is the largest industry on earth, generating $500 billion a year in revenue. But tourism is a relatively new phenomenon, barely 300 years old. As a journalist who frequently ended up in some of the world’s oddest corners and crevices, I gradually began to realize that the big numbers of today’s tourism industry obscured a parallel reality, excluded a whole river of people on the move. It excluded, in fact, most of the world’s travelers, for whom travel was still a punishing, unpredictable, and sometimes deadly work of travail.

And deadly it is. Hoffman’s journey takes him from the United States to South America, over to Africa, then up and through Asia before heading home. Before each chapter, Hoffman shares a report of an accident from that region that constantly reminds the reader what the book is actually about — forty-five people killed when a passenger bus fell into a ravine in Peru, 840 people drowned when a ferry sank off the coast of Indonesia, or a young girl who lost both her legs after being pushed off a crowded passenger train in India.

But even with those statistics, there’s a fine line between serious journalist inquiry and a stunt to sell books, and in concept this book could be either. There are a couple of ways in which Hoffman leans towards journalism and away from stunt (but not entirely) that I think are significant.

First, he never loses track of the fact that even if he’s taking these modes of travel he’s still a white American and that privilege follows him around. He consistently notes ways in which he is guided, protected, and sheltered from what is truly the worst of these experiences. In fact, he gets through the quest relatively unharmed — a feat I have to admit I wasn’t always confident would happen.

Second, the book maintains a sense of humanity and melancholy that a stunt book would have ignored. Although Hoffman doesn’t get to the core of why he took on this project until about two-thirds of the way through, the emotional depth that his longing (and the source of that longing, which won’t share for fear of spoilers) kept the book from feeling “stunty” to me.

Hoffman also devotes a lot of space to anecdotes about the people he meets when he travels. Ever person has a story, and Hoffman is generous with them, while not being overly sentimental or condescending. Their stories probably do more to illuminate what its like to travel when its incredibly dangerous even more than Hoffman’s experience does.

I’ve recommended this book to at least five different people since I started reading it because I think it straddles the line between nonfiction and adventure so well. There’s something terrifying and appealing about Hoffman’s journey, and that combination creates a book that can be about traveling to find adventure, but is more about traveling to find yourself.

Other Reviews: Book Addiction | Book Foolery and Babble |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Amy July 7, 2010, 6:20 am

    I saw a review of this over at Book Foolery and Babble and I want to read it! It sounds incredible and just up my alley being as all the places that I most want to go are some of the worst places to travel!

    • Kim July 9, 2010, 10:28 pm

      Amy: There are a lot of terrible places to travel, some because you seek it out and others because that’s just the only way to get anywhere. I think there’s a map on his website about the route he takes, so you could see where he went.

  • Heather @ Book Addiction July 7, 2010, 7:26 am

    I’m glad other bloggers are enjoying this one as much as I did. Excellent review, Kim!

    • Kim July 9, 2010, 10:28 pm

      Heather: I hope other people will read it and enjoy it, too.

  • Trisha July 7, 2010, 7:58 am

    This sounds like a unique read, and oddly enough, I now want to find a book on the history of travel…. Thanks for the suggestion!

    • Kim July 9, 2010, 10:30 pm

      Trisha: I was intrigued by that too; it’d be interesting to look at how the tourism industry developed. I didn’t think about that much before reading the book.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) July 7, 2010, 8:21 am

    I think I would really enjoy this book, but I’d never have the guts to take a journey like that.

    • Kim July 9, 2010, 10:30 pm

      Kathy: Me either! That was one of my favorite parts — it’s something that I don’t think I’d ever do.

  • Jeane July 7, 2010, 8:52 am

    Every review I read about this one makes it sound better and better. I’m always nervous about getting lost or the tank running dry, so I can’t imagine at all taking risky modes of transportation!

    • Kim July 9, 2010, 10:31 pm

      Jeane: I am too. I’m a pretty organized traveler, and when I’m not organized it’s because I’m going somewhere safe. I can’t imagine doing this.

  • Jeanne July 7, 2010, 11:14 am

    Your description of this book reminds me of a book I enjoyed in the 80’s, PJ O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell, where he visited some of the world’s most dangerous places. He didn’t comment much on the effort of getting there, though, and the book was pretty firmly in the humor category.

    • Kim July 9, 2010, 10:32 pm

      Jeane: I think someone else recently mentioned that book to me. It sounds interesting — I’ll be looking for it. This book has some humor too it, but I definitely wouldn’t call it a humor book.

  • Carin B. July 7, 2010, 11:54 am

    What a fantastic review! I saw this book on Amazon.com and immediately wanted to read it. I will definitely be reading this book in the near future! 🙂

    • Kim July 9, 2010, 10:32 pm

      Carin: Awesome! I hope you like it as much as I did.

  • Andi July 7, 2010, 1:28 pm

    Excellent! I’ll definitely give this one a try at some point. I’m glad it’s not all show and no go (or all stunt). Sounds like a book I’d love.

    • Kim July 9, 2010, 10:33 pm

      Andi: I was a little worried about whether it would feel like a stunt. Sometimes I like those books, but I think it would have been inappropriate for this topic.

  • Clerisy July 7, 2010, 2:37 pm

    Oh man this sounds like a book I need to read! Have you ever read Robert Young Pelton’s “The World’s Most Dangerous Places”? That’s a great travel book as well. I love travelling, but I doubt I’d want to explore some of these places, especially without an escort hahaha

    • Kim July 9, 2010, 10:35 pm

      Clerisy: That one sounds interesting too. I like reading travel books like these where people do things I’d never be able to do myself.

  • Jenny July 7, 2010, 4:18 pm

    I saw Heather’s review of this recently and thought it sounded excellent. I can’t wait to read it – I am a nervous traveler myself, but I like to read about people who are braver than I am. And I particularly like travel books that are full of anecdotes about the people the author encounters. 🙂

    • Kim July 9, 2010, 10:36 pm

      Jenny: I’m pretty nervous traveling too, especially in foreign countries. I love hearing about people in different places since I’m not sure I’d ever get to meet them.

  • Tina July 8, 2010, 8:00 am

    Thanks for such a great review. I featured this one in my Wednesday Wishlist post on Tutu’s Two Cents yesterday. In my travels around the world, I’ve done several kinds of these things, although I usually try to obey my gut and avoid the really dangerous ones. Can’t wait to read it.

    • Kim July 9, 2010, 10:38 pm

      Tina: How serendipitous! My boyfriend has traveled in Nepal, so he talked about some of the things he saw that were similar — buses off cliffs, stuff like that.

  • Christy (A Good Stopping Point) July 15, 2010, 10:33 am

    I often read news headlines of disastrous accidents with boats and buses around the world. I am a fan of travel tales, so I think I’ll have to check this one out. Thanks for the review!

    • Kim July 15, 2010, 4:48 pm

      Christy: Each of the sections starts out with some stats, which really help ground the story. He also talks about many of these disasters in each section, which is also interesting. I’d think you’d enjoy those parts.