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Arts

Armchair traveling

Stay at home and see the world

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Published 11/22/2006

Thailand's overrun with Brits and Costa Rica with eco-travelers. As travel becomes accessible to more and more people, the road less traveled can begin to look like a highway. As a result, book series, such as Lonely Planet, tout unusual experiences loosely grouped under the heading of anti-tourism.

There are trends like Dark Tourism, whose practitioners base trips around death and/or the macabre (Holocaust death camps are obvious examples, as would be a tour of Jack the Ripper's London haunts). Or "Experimental Travel," in which participants might, for example, suss out dining and lodging destinations by solving puzzles (i.e., your own Amazing Race). In this vein, the best travel books can serve as inspiration for treks that you may never be able to pull off, but would like to think you could.

In Theatre of Fish: Travels Through Newfoundland and Labrador (Vintage Books, $15), John Gimlette ditches life as a lawyer in London to spend time in some of North America's most isolated places. He introduces us to a history not told in most schools and to terrain that is tough, to say the least. Life on the eastern shore of Canada is not for the faint of heart nor for the social butterfly, but Gimlette's affection for the salty individualists he meets shines through.

While Paul Theroux might be best-known as the author that brought us Mosquito Coast, the terrifying vision of a genius-cum-madman and his off-the-grid Central American dystopia, he initially built his reputation as a travel writer. In Dark Star Safari ($15, Mariner Books), Theroux returns to his roots, recounting his overland journey through Africa from Cairo to Cape Town — via truck, bus, canoe and even armed convoy. Theroux's exceptionally vivid descriptions of the continent's natural wonders, cities and people set him apart from other chroniclers. But most powerful are his pointed opinions on the effect foreign aid agencies have on the continent's ability to heal itself.

Daniel Kalder's Lost Cosmonaut ($13, Scribner) is nowhere near so heavy, but that's not a bad thing. Kalder, a thirtysomething Scotsman who's lived in Russia for almost a decade, tells of his visits to four of the nation's most obscure provinces. In Mari El, he finds pagans and a booming mail order bride industry. He goes to Udmurtia "on the basis that it had a strange name that echoed the words 'ugly' and 'mud'." Kalder is acerbic, always a fine quality in a travel companion, but what keeps him from spiraling into the territory of jaded world traveler is his attention to Russia's sweeping and little-known history. His book lets us know that it's much bigger than the vodka-filled glass through which we Westerners view it.

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