Hitch A Ride! We've Got Road Trip Reads For Every Passenger
Remember maps? A lot of these writers do. They use them to drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, Tangier to Cape Town, and Xinjiang, China, to New Delhi, among other places.
Who needs destinations? This summer, we're focusing on the journey. All these books — some old, some new — will transport you: by train, plane, car, bike, boat, foot, city transit, horse, balloon, rocket ship, time machine and even the odd giant peach. Bon voyage! (Taxes and fees not included).
Not so long ago, before there was GPS or Google Maps or even MapQuest, there were plain old maps. They were made of paper and folded up into neat rectangles. But when you opened them out in a car, they became big, unwieldy things that required a fair amount of concentration and pretty good eyesight to use. The blue lines on these maps represented smaller, less traveled roads. These are the "blue highways" William Least Heat-Moon chose to use in his journey around the country during a turbulent time in his own life. He found towns with odd names like Remote, Ore., and Whynot, Miss. He also met lots of people, listened to their stories and wrote them down. We should be grateful for that. The America he captured probably doesn't even exist anymore, making this is a literary journey well worth taking.
-- Lynn Neary, correspondent, Arts Desk
The Watsons Go To Birmingham — 1963
It's 1963, and tensions over desegregation are roiling as the nation reels from the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. In The Watsons Go to Birmingham, Christopher Paul Curtis describes the civil rights era from the perspective of a young, mischievous boy and his family. When Byron Watson becomes too much to handle, his parents decide to send him to his legendarily tough grandma in Alabama — and the whole family piles into the car for the journey. Before he became a writer, Curtis made his living in a car factory. As he loaded 80-pound doors onto the frames of Buicks, he'd come up with stories in his head, and then write them down during breaks from the assembly line. Curtis eventually took time off from his job to write the Watsons' story, which won a Newbery honor in 1996. (For ages 8 to 12)
-- Michele Norris, special correspondent
Go, Dog. Go!
Cars. Dogs. Dogs driving cars. Who can resist? The catchy text is simple yet says a lot as numbers and words complement and collide. Dogs of all shapes, sizes and colors come and go, and sometimes come back again, in choreographed chaos. A recurring character asks, "Do you like my hat?" (The answer is, "I do not.") And just when you wonder where all this is taking you, everyone arrives at the ultimate destination — a fabulous dog party set in a tree. Give P.D. Eastman's Go, Dog. Go! a go and see why it has been delighting young readers for generations. (For ages 3 to 7)
-- Lisa Yee, author, most recently of Warp Speed
Looking For Lovedu
In Ann Jones' Looking for Lovedu, the author, an American woman of a certain age, and her young, irrepressible companion, a British photographer named Kevin Muggleton, travel by jeep from Tangier to Cape Town. Their ostensible purpose is to meet Queen Modjadji V, the rainmaking queen of the Lobedu tribe in South Africa. (One of Modjadji V's predecessors, incidentally, was said to be the inspiration for H. Rider Haggard's classic novel, She). The journey not only illuminates the state of Africa (circa the turn of the 21st century) from north to south and east to west but is also a very funny account of two very different people trying to travel together.
-- Nancy Pearl, librarian and book critic
The Last Days Of California
If you think it's impossible to reinvent the American road trip novel, read Mississippi author Mary Miller's novel as soon as possible. The story of Jess, a teenage girl on a trip to California with her parents and secretly pregnant sister, is one of the best debut novels to come out of the South in years. Jess' father drags his family from Alabama to the West, hoping to be among the first in America to witness the rapture, which he believes is imminent. Miller's descriptions of the highways and roads that traverse the South are pitch perfect, and Jess is one of the most real and unforgettable characters you're likely to encounter in contemporary American fiction. This is a beautiful and largehearted debut from a writer you're bound to hear more about in coming years.
-- Michael Schaub, book critic
The Savage Detectives
In The Savage Detectives, a book he called a "love letter" to his generation, Roberto Bolaño is at his lyrical best. The novel follows the adventures and misadventures of poets and prostitutes, critics, painters, and lovers. Seventeen-year-old poet Juan García Madero narrates the first section, a glorified diary chock-full of odd happenings. It's quick-moving and intense, ending in the middle of a high-speed car chase involving a young girl, her pimp and a dirty cop. The second section boasts close to 40 unique narrators who sleep around, steal books and make themselves heard no matter what it takes. The last part of the book picks up where García Madero's diary left off, with an account of what happened to the fugitive poets and their movement. At its core, The Savage Detectives is a look at the seemingly invincible nature of youth. You'll want to hop in the car and head quick fast to Mexico City, if only to trace the steps of some of Bolaño's most complicated characters.
-- Juan Vidal, book critic
It's 1992 and Robert Johnson, on the run from the devil, has turned up on the Spokane Indian Reservation of Wellpinit with the guitar he sold his soul to play. There he meets Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the town's unpopular storyteller, who takes the guitar off Johnson's blistered hands; moved by its whispers, Thomas decides to start an all-Indian band called Coyote Springs. Composed of Thomas, local bullies Victor and Junior, and two Flathead sisters named Chess and Checkers, Coyote Springs tours the Midwest in Thomas' old blue van, going from gig to uncertain gig, running on Indian time and a prayer. When a New York label called Cavalry Records offers to sign them, however, things take a turn for the complicated. A beautiful, heartbreaking tangle of personal histories, reservation life, difficult relationships, song lyrics, magic and myth, Reservation Blues is luminous, playful and dead serious all at once.
-- Amal El-Mohtar, book critic and author of The Honey Month
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
If you're gonna take a road trip and you're gonna do it by car, I'm sad to say that the best you can hope for is for yours to be the second-greatest of all time. Why? Because Hunter Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta have already taken the top slot and will hold it forever.
Not fair? Shut up. As detailed across the full, whacked-out expanse of Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas, their one drug-fueled, paranoid, multiply felonious burn back and forth across the desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas will forever stand as the model road trip against which all others must be judged.
-- Jason Sheehan, author, most recently of Tales from the Radiation Age
After her husband dies, First Lady Cornelia (Nealy) Case is pressed into ceremonial service for the new president, a widower. When her promised vacation never comes, an exhausted, burned-out Nealy escapes — only to end up stranded at her first rest stop when her car and cash are stolen. Lucky for her, she parked next to Mat Jorik, a closet hero who hides his rescue tendencies under a grumbling exterior and who's driving his two wards across the country in a beat-up RV to hand them off to their grandmother. Nealy wants anonymity and a taste of reality. Signing on for nanny duty, she steps into the RV and gets the ride of her sheltered life, a ready-made family and more love than she's ever known — but when the dust settles, Mat proves to have a few unwelcome secrets of his own, including the fact that he's a disillusioned journalist looking for a Big Story to get him back on top. As usual, Susan Elizabeth Phillips delivers pitch-perfect conflict and sigh-worthy romance.
-- Bobbi Dumas, book critic
When I was young and stupid, I read Lolita and thought it was about a doomed love affair. This is why we kept it out of reach — not because it contained sex but because it was a horror novel disguised as a mystery and a romance. This is a book about a sociopath, a sexual predator and murderer, but there's another thing about it that you may not remember: It's also about that most American of traditions, the road trip. Once the loathsome Humbert gathers up his prey, Dolores Haze, they hit the open road — crisscrossing the country, "putting the geography of the United States into motion." It's a desperate attempt to keep her with him, and stay unexposed. "I have never seen such smooth amiable roads as those that now radiated before us, across the crazy quilt of forty-eight states. Voraciously we consumed those long high-ways, in rapt silence we glided over their glossy black dance floors." If you forget that he is a rapist carting around a girl of 12, then Roadside America comes alive — the diners and gas stations, motor courts and beaches, caves and battlefields. And of course, it's all part of the dark magic of this book that is so many things — a horror, a mystery, a road novel, and, for poor Lolita, a tragedy.
-- Barrie Hardymon, editor, Weekend Edition
Rhode Island Notebook
Your marriage is falling apart, but you want to fix it, and your wife and beloved 5 1/2-year-old daughter live two days' drive (between Rhode Island and Illinois) away from the only place you can get a teaching job. What do you do? If you're Gabriel Gudding, you write a hilarious, sad and sloppy epic poem on the epic drive you regularly make to get home from work and try to catch a few of the falling bricks of your life before they hit the ground. The stakes here are high — Gudding is literally driving and writing for his life — but this is one of the funniest book-length poems ever written, full of offhand lists, drifting meditations and strange insights: "A substantial portion of a cat's energy / goes into the production of fur." A little irony and self-mockery are powerful fuel between rest stops. You may not want to join Gudding on this whole exhaustive and heartbreaking journey, but riding shotgun for a leg or two may change the way you see things — and the things you see — for good.
-- Craig Morgan Teicher, book critic
From Heaven Lake
This book by Vikram Seth holds a special place in my affections. I first read it in the early 1990s when travel books were the only way for me to see the world outside India. I'd read travelogues before, but Seth was the first narrator I'd come across who ostensibly looked like me, recording impressions from a worldview with which I could identify. The book tells the story of Seth's overland journey from Sinkiang (now Xinjiang) to his home in New Delhi, through Tibet and Nepal. That the journey was made is itself a miracle, given that he received his permits because of the serendipitous popularity in China of an old Indian film song; add to that the fact that the trip was undertaken in the early 1980s when China hadn't fully opened up to the world; and that Seth hitchhiked with a truck driver for much of his journey, which included parts of the country that would have been forbidden to someone of Indian nationality. From Heaven Lake has been described in the press as the "perfect travel book," a description I can't argue with.
-- Krishnadev Calamur, editor, NPR News