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I purchased¬†Hard Travel to Sacred Places¬†for $3 at a library book sale three years ago. It’s been in my collection ever since. It’s a Buddhism-themed book by Shambhala Publications, a publisher I like, so I’ve been saving it for a period of time where I need a little refuge. I needed that these past two days, so I pulled it off the shelf.

It’s a simple travelogue, describing a trip to Southeast Asia by Wurlitzer and his wife, Lynn. They visit Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. The couple have a business reason for being there (Lynn is a photographer and is assigned to photograph ancient sites). In addition, they are in a period of grief following the death of Lynn’s natural and Wurlitzer’s adopted son, Ayrev, in a car accident.

I’ll be brief: I did not like this book very much. What I liked about it is twofold. First, what I like from all and any travelogue: descriptions of foreign lands, their peoples, their customs. It’s always intersting. Second, Wurlitzer is observant, patient and thoughtful, and the couple’s journey through the three countries plays like a single, slow, deliberate meditation in three movements. You really do feel the strong current of emotion in the author’s life, and it is touching in that respect. You are also grateful for the moments of insight that Wurlitzer shares with you. My favorite is when he contemplates the statue of the walking Buddha at Wat Mahathat, near Sukhothai, Thailand. He successfully translates how the frozen gestures of a statue can invoke a great amount of feeling and a sense of wonder.

The book suffers from a couple major flaws, though, that mostly diminish any of the positive effects.

The first is that we barely get anything about Lynn or Wurlitzer’s feelings towards her. There might be a good reason; there might not be; but whatever it is, Lynn is almost a non-character, and this is jarring. I feel a big lack. I know she is grieving, but I doubt she is as silent as she appears. Towards the end of the book she suffers a severe episode of mixed physical and emotional pain, and it’s dealt with using the same detachment as everything else. It could have happened to a strange woman sleeping in the next hotel room, for all the narrative is concerned.

The second might actually be a reason to explain the first. This book is overloaded with quotes from Buddhist books. It distracts from the narrative. Personally speaking, I have a serious dislike for quotes and footnotes in literature- I feel that if something cannot be explained in the narrative itself, it should be left out. Exceptions abound (Melville), but, for the most part, they ruin a book for me. And the quotes in this book ruined it for me.

Here it goes a little farther. Here the quotes don’t just add extra time – they seem to be a replacement for the author’s own thoughts and reactions to situations, which is what I would like to read in a book like this in the first place. Interestingly enough, at the very end of the book Wurlitzer wonders if all the quotations aren’t hiding him from the reality that Buddhist teaching is supposed to get him to face. The answer is yes. I suppose this gives a self-conscious quality to the detachment from the story that the quotes cause, but, even so, it was not worth it. They were tiresome, and I missed more of Wurlitzer’s own perspective on his travels. This makes it less of a travelogue: it feels like we are getting less of a description of the places he visited than of the books he was reading while he was there.

The emphasis on Buddhist texts makes the Buddhism invoked in this book very academic. I cannot ever know ultimately what Wurlitzer’s understanding of Buddhism is or was, but, for the duration of this book, it’s very idealized and not of much value to anyone interested in what I consider to be an active, practical understanding.

Assessment:

This book would be enjoyable for people enjoying a quiet meditation on Buddhism, grief and Southeast Asia (in that order). But – and this is important – readers must also either like or not mind a large amount of quotes from other books. If those things are true, the beautiful heart of this book will warm you.

The book has its good moments, but a lot of the passion and insight is filtered through a deadening devotion to literary Buddhism.

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