Summer Reading Special: Escapist Travel Books
The summer is winding down now and it may be time for some of you to head back to school or college, or to knuckle back down to work after exciting vacations. But it’s never too early to start planning your next big adventure. This selection of escapist travel books – novels and nonfiction – should whet your appetite for new experience as you dream about what trip you’ll take next. And even if you don’t get there anytime soon, these books will make you feel like you’ve been somewhere completely new – without ever getting up from the sofa.
General travel books
While you’re still at home mulling it all over, spend some time ruminating over The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton, a thought-provoking look at the philosophy and psychology of travel. Why do vacations never live up to our expectations? he asks. Because we always take ourselves – and all our hang-ups, fusty habits, and misconceptions – along. A great companion read would be the “Travel” chapter of Roman Krznaric’s The Wonderbox, a profound, wide-ranging book on the art of living. Both de Botton and Krznaric are committed to helping readers learn everything history’s best thinkers have to convey. Tag along (in the authors’ virtual company) as, across the continents and centuries, pilgrims and explorers perfect the art of travel.
The undisputed doyenne of British travel writing is Jan Morris (I’ve also celebrated her as a gender pioneer); from her quaint home in Wales to the peak of Mount Everest, she’s seen it all in her decades as a travel writer. For a manageable introduction to her varied writing, try dipping into The World: Travels 1950-2000.
Another inspiring read for women who long to see the world is The Virago Book of Women Travellers, edited by Mary Morris with Larry O’Connor. You’ll encounter some familiar names, such as novelists Edith Wharton (who wrote a whole travel book about Morocco), Mary McCarthy, and Willa Cather, but you’ll also meet some truly extraordinary women who don’t typically make it into the history books. Isabella Bird, for instance, was a hypochondriac Scotswoman who found that intrepid travel in Hawaii and Colorado kept illness at bay. She travelled on horseback, lived alone in a cabin in the Rockies, and fell in love with frontiersman “Rocky Mountain Jim” Nugent. She would become the first female Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and her memoir, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, is still in print today.
If your dream is to live abroad someday, you’ll doubtless find much to envy in the Lonely Planet anthology A House Somewhere, edited by Don George and Anthony Sattin. Along with extracts from well-known second-home enthusiasts like Peter Mayle and Frances Mayes, a couple of stand-out pieces come from Isabel Allende (about moving to California) and Pico Iyer (about the many bewilderments of life as a Westerner in Japan).
For those list-lovers among you (of whom I am chief), you’ll want a copy of Patricia Schultz’s 1000 Places to See Before You Die or one of its sequels to use as a checklist. I consider myself a bit better traveled than some, but still I have only ticked off 47 places so far.
I wouldn’t find myself in a foreign country without at least the requisite Rough Guide, but I also like to consult a relevant DK Guide: the wonderful photo spreads are like a menu for choosing the best new experiences.
And now for the whirlwind world tour!
It’s hopeless to even attempt to narrow down the heap of books about Europe; after all, I’ve already made whole lists just for France and Italy. But here, nonetheless, are a handful of favorites that might give you a hankering for a European Grand Tour:
If you haven’t read a book by Bill Bryson, you haven’t lived yet. He’s a fantastic travel writer, as well loved for his humor in his adopted England as he is at home in America. You simply must read Notes from a Small Island, in which he revisits the highlights of his early years in England, but for a more pan-European perspective I recommend Neither Here Nor There, which takes him all over Europe and back in his memory to his similar travels as a penniless college backpacker with his hapless friend Katz (who you’ll quickly fall for – and subsequently be overjoyed to hear also appears in Bryson’s Appalachian Trail saga, A Walk in the Woods).
Along with Bryson, the author who first helped me fall in love with England, long before I moved there for good, was Susan Allen Toth. Her delightful trilogy, comprised of My Love Affair with England, England as You Like It, and England For All Seasons, invites you to some of her favorite off-the-beaten-path destinations and presents her unique travel philosophy: limit yourself to a one-inch square of a small-scale Ordnance Survey map; rather than trying to dash all around, just explore and appreciate that one area thoroughly.
Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart is a likeable memoir (from the former drummer of Genesis) of moving to the Andalucia region of Spain. I’ve read two very different novels set on fictional Greek islands: Michael Frayn’s novel Skios had me laughing out loud at a case of mistaken identity at an academic conference, while John Fowles’s The Magus left me puzzled by a sinister tale of psychological mind control. And for a glimpse of somewhere completely foreign to most of us, I recommend Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea: a memoir of her family’s sojourn in Iceland in 2009 which she says is, simply, about “living in a new place and asking questions” – among geysers and elves.
China, India, and Japan almost certainly deserve their own themed book lists (perhaps a project for the coming months), but here’s a random sampling of books about this very varied region that I’ve read and enjoyed recently:
Nothing to Envy, a journalistic exposé by Barbara Demick, is not so much a book to be enjoyed as one to be endured: it’s a bleak look at the real lives of North Koreans, whose everyday freedoms are stifled by starvation and propaganda. I wrote about it in relation to Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son in our book debate a few months ago. Also of note is The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble, a novel that blends eighteenth-century Korean history and a modern academic’s research in fascinating ways.
Accounts of intrepid treks around Asia are a dime a dozen, but two I’m partial to are To a Mountain in Tibet, in which Colin Thubron travels to the holy Buddhist and Hindu mountain of Kailas, and Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast by Samanth Subramanian, a quirky book that views India exclusively through fish: specifically, encounters with fishermen, fishing boats, and fish dishes.
One of the more peculiar novels I’ve read this year (it came highly recommended by one of my literary gurus, Nancy Pearl, was Biggest Elvis by P.F. Kluge, which tells the regrettable story of twentieth-century American colonial and military influence in the Philippines through the experience of three Elvis impersonators.
Two classic fictional explorations of Japan around the time of the Second World War are Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden and An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro, but for something a bit different I advise you to seek out The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. He has two other novels set in contemporary Japan, but this one takes place in the eighteenth century, when Japan was still closed to foreign influence, and focuses on the misadventures of a clerk for the Dutch East India Company. It’s a fun historical romp that will amiably sit alongside Andrew Miller’s Pure and Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America on your shelves.
My experience of African literature – or even literature about Africa by Westerners – is, frankly, woefully scant, and clearly an area I need to focus on improving. However, here are a handful of Africa books I have found to be worthwhile:
Blood River by Tim Butcher is a gripping account of the author’s trip down the Congo River, retracing Victorian traveler H.M. Stanley’s perilous journey into the African ‘heart of darkness.’ Likewise, Mark Jenkins’s To Timbuktu thrills with dangerous adventures en route to the legendary city. If you have the emotional fortitude, you will find We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch’s harrowing chronicle of the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, well worth your time.
I’d be surprised if you don’t love perennial book club favorite The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel of missionaries in the Belgian Congo in the 1950s. Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson is a vivid, lively depiction of Nigeria in all its contradictions, narrated by eleven-year-old Blessing. I’m told the Botswana-set No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels (by Alexander McCall Smith) are pure pleasure, and I was charmed by Evelyn Waugh’s classic Scoop, a satire about a naïve newspaper journalist sent to war-torn Africa to uncover a big story.
Once again I turn to Bill Bryson, this time for a lighthearted introduction to a lesser-known region. In a Sunburned Country (published in the UK as Down Under) brings his trademark wit to those things everyone really wants to know about Australia: the food, the people, the tourist traps, the natural wonders, the weather, the flora and fauna – and the really silly place names.
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas opens with what seems like a harmless incident: a man slaps someone else’s bratty kid at a barbecue. The book was a phenomenon in its native Australia and apparently attracted lots of controversy; I can’t think why: it’s a brilliant multi-perspective take on a suburban incident and its aftermath – with just a touch of soap-opera melodrama.
In Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip, a Western teacher on an unnamed Pacific island inspires the native students with his enthusiasm for Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, though the novel takes a decidedly gruesome turn towards the end. English Passengers by Matthew Kneale and The Luminaries by twenty-seven-year-old Eleanor Catton (on this year’s Booker Prize longlist; I’ve reviewed it in full here) are two rollicking Victorian pastiches that search the high seas – and the skies – in search of antipodean adventure. Maori characters also appear in The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera and The Bone People by Keri Hulme, two modern New Zealand classics.
And now to return a bit closer to home…
Two terrific books about Chile are Travels in a Thin Country by Sara Wheeler and My Invented Country by Isabel Allende. From John Gimlette comes a stranger-than-fiction history of Paraguay, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig. In one of the more unusual episodes in the nation’s history, an Irishwoman ended up the mistress of the country’s third dictator; her story has inspired multiple novels, such as The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch by Anne Enright and The News from Paraguay by Lily Tuck.
Again Barbara Kingsolver offers an evocative picture of a different place and time: in The Lacuna, the life of a fictional author intersects in fresh and interesting ways with those of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Lev Trotsky. I look forward to sampling from the rich fund of Mexican travel books, including Tequila Oil by Hugh Thomson, Mornings in Mexico (and a novel, The Plumed Serpent) by D.H. Lawrence, and A Visit to Don Otavio by Sybille Bedford, which Bruce Chatwin called the best travel book of the twentieth century.
Will Ferguson is worthy to be hailed as the Canadian Bill Bryson; his Beauty Tips from Moosejaw is a hilarious trip through the forgotten corners of our vast but largely unfamiliar northern neighbor. For the often bizarre story of the eastern province of Newfoundland, have a look at eccentric travel narrative Theatre of Fish, another gem from John Gimlette, and The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Wayne Johnston’s 1998 fictional masterpiece tracking the history of Newfoundland through confederation with Canada and the tenure of its first premier.
And now we’re back full-circle to
The United States
Sometimes it’s surprisingly helpful to see an outsider’s perspective on one’s own country. In O My America!, Sara Wheeler revisits the America she had first encountered as a teenager 35 years before, this time retracing the steps of six lady travelers from Britain who, instead of meekly fading away in middle age, took off for America to seek new adventure. United States of Hysteria by Anne Dixey gives an Englishwoman’s perspective on the paranoia of post-9/11 Washington D.C.
I love these two accounts of natives rediscovering America: I’m a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson, in which he remembers why he adores Thanksgiving and the beach, but also why he despairs of bureaucracy; and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, which sees the novelist and his poodle setting off for a 1960s cross-country road trip, are not to be missed.
There are, of course, any number of novels about the Other’s / immigrant’s experience of America, such as Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee, but two I’ve particularly valued (and featured in previous articles) are The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka and The Celestials by Karen Shepard.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the great travel books and escapist novels out there. You’ll have no trouble finding your own favorite travelogues and foreign-set fiction, but I hope you might find one or two of my recommendations helpful.
And, just to remind you not to take everything too seriously, why not pick up a copy of Molvanîa, the first in a series of travel guide parodies featuring the jaded ‘advice’ of such cynics as Philippe Miseree, who won’t fail to be disappointed by any country he visits.
Have any favorite travel books? Share them with us in the comments box below.
[The featured image is of a sunset over Shark’s Cove on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii. By KenVanVleck (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.]