Reading Travel: New and Old Books We Loved This Year
Travel Books: More than two dozen contributors and friends of World Hum recall their favorite travel reads of 2011
12.20.11 | 11:24 AM ET
We asked more than two dozen contributors and friends of World Hum to tell us what travel-related books they read this year and whether they had a favorite. There were no ground rules. The books could be fiction, non-fiction, even poetry, and published in any year. Here’s what they told us.
Two of my favorites that I read in 2011 are Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz and the modern classic Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. The Pacific has always intrigued me. The epic voyages of some of the world’s greatest explorers, in particular Captain Cook, might just pale in comparison to the journeys undertaken by some of the earliest settlers of the Pacific islands. The two books reminded me that we are capable of great things, and that for every awe-inspiring story that survives the passage of time, the names and accomplishments of so many are lost to history.
Mike Barish is a freelance writer, host and regular contributor to Gadling. He’s also (unofficially) the world’s foremost authority on the SkyMall catalog.
I really enjoyed re-reading The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, by Dean MacCannell, a classic sociological look at modern travel. It was written decades ago but almost could have been written yesterday. MacCannell examines the modern traveler as an anthropologist might observe an Amazonian tribesman, revealing just how bizarre so many modern travel customs are. I read Paul Theroux’s The Tao of Travel, which deserves a place on any traveler’s bookshelf. And I finally got around to reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It’s such a classic travel tale. I’m embarrassed it took me so long to get around to it. It should be required reading for travel writers.
Jim Benning is the cofounder and coeditor of World Hum.
I got to do quite a bit of traveling this year, so a lot of my reading revolved around that. When I went to Guyana, I reread Shiva Naipaul’s book about the Jonestown massacre, Journey to Nowhere, which still shines more than 30 years after it was written. While I was in Guyana, though, there was much giddy talk about John Gimlette’s new book, Wild Coast, which has since come out, and looks excellent. I was in East Africa for about six weeks, and as it happened, I ran out of things to read (even though I brought about 20 books—I know, but it was research) so I picked up a copy of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, which was an excellent read full of black humor about Indian cast relations, and kind of a murder mystery too.
Closer to home, I reread Michael Perry’s classic, Population 485, which is so good it makes me ache with envy. Likewise John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, which has some of the best essays I’ve read in recent years. But I think my favorite book of the year was Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones, which had been hovering mid-pile for a long time. I’ve read his other books, and his magazine work, but “Oracle Bones” just made me feel humble as a writer, seeing how easily he wove together his stories and research and ideas and into such a heartfelt and profound piece of work. Oddly, I read it before Hessler was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, but couldn’t help coming to the same conclusion.
Frank Bures is a contributing editor to World Hum. His World Hum story, The Roads Between Us, was a “notable” pick in the Best American Travel Writing 2011.
Among other books, I read Just Kids, by Patti Smith. When I am homesick for New York City, as I often am, it’s not the gleaming city of today, but the grimy, dangerous, pungent, and fertile city of the 1970s. We all miss it, those of us who came of age at that time. Even friends who still live in the city are homesick for it. New York City was hardscrabble but earnest, as was the life Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe lived among the artists and iconoclasts there at the birth of the punk scene. They are a few years older than I and we didn’t run in the same circles, but their haunts were my haunts and the city they describe is familiar and dear. Smith’s story is Zelig-like, with all manner of celebrity artists passing through. But what I took away most from the book were memories of that time and place, and a longing to revive the fervor of my own creative youth.
Dallas-based writer Sophia Dembling’s book “The Introvert’s Way” will be published by Perigee Books in fall 2012.
While walking around old New Orleans ogling the Spanish colonial architecture, I was seized by a desire to know the history of the city. I found Ned Sublette’s The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square in a local bookstore. It’s comprehensive and totally absorbing, encompassing Europe’s 16th-century religious wars; the colonization of the Caribbean; the rise and fall of the sugar economy; and the history of slavery in America.
Also, I read All Over the Map, by Laura Fraser. It’s a memoir about traveling, being a freelance writer, looking for love, and reflecting on whether all those life choices were such hot ideas or not.
Finally, I read The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox, by Nina Burleigh. Burleigh tells the true story of a young American woman who went to study in Italy, and after her housemate was murdered, found herself in the grips of a legal culture clash that put her in jail for four years. Burleigh, who moved to Perugia to follow every twist and turn of Knox’s trial, captures the spooky and superstitious underbelly of the hilltop city.
Elisabeth Eaves is the author of Wanderlust: A love Affair with Five Continents, which has been called a “heady, headlong chronicle of a decade and a half spent adrift” (The New York Times), “fabulously addictive” (The Awl), and “a vodka martini served straight up with a twist” (Forbes). Elisabeth is also the author of “Bare: The Naked Truth About Stripping,” and lives in New York City.
In preparation for a trip to Ethiopia, I read Camilla Gibb’s novel Sweetness in the Belly, about a young English girl who is raised in a Sufi shrine in Morocco and comes of age in Harar, a walled town in eastern Ethiopia. Eventually she settles in London. The book is lush in its vivid imagery and impressively evokes a sense of place through characterization and culture and history.
David Farley is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town and co-editor of Travelers’ Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories. He’s a contributing editor of Afar magazine.
Haley Sweetland Edwards
I’ve read quite a few wonderful travel-related books this year, so it’s hard to narrow down a favorite. A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople, by Patrick Leigh Fermor, was wonderful—a lovely, grimy must-read for all lovers of travel narratives. I also read Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, by Tom Bissell, about the Aral Sea’s creeping decline and, more broadly, about modern Uzbekistan. And then there was Wendell Steavenson’s charming collection, Stories I Stole, which gives a fantastic glimpse into pre-Rose Revolution Georgia.
But if you’re going to make me decide on a favorite, I’d have to go with Annie Dillard’s collection of loosely-related musings, travel essays and philosophical rants, For the Time Being. It’s first-person narrative of her journey through her own personal philosophy—but if that sounds harrowing, don’t be intimidated. It reads like an old friend’s diary, part travelogue about her time visiting places like China and Israel, or maternity wards in the U.S., and part an intellectual exploration of a vast array of literature, including the Old Testament and the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I fell into it accidentally one Saturday morning and clambered out the other side two days later, gasping, depressed, exhilarated and refreshed.
Haley Sweetland Edwards is a writer based in Sana’a, Yemen and Tbilisi, Georgia. Her journalism appears in the Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy and The Atlantic.
I found myself returning to old favorites. In the Arctic, in Montana, in the Mojave Desert and beyond—safely snug in my bag were my well-worn copies of Blue Highways and Charles Kuralt’s America. But I also enjoyed in various places, at my son’s suggestions, Travels by Michael Crichton.
Chris Epting is the author/photographer of 18 books, including “James Dean Died Here,” “Roadside Baseball,” Led Zeppelin Crashed Here” and “Hello It’s Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie.”
We went to Australia this year, so I reread Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country and enjoyed it very much again although a little like cotton candy; after a while it made my teeth ache. Not so Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore, which purports to be a history of colonial Australia but turns out to be a history of the human heart and spirit. It tells how the English shipped their scum and dregs off to the other side of the world hoping to be done with them only to have them build this quite remarkable country and culture. A wonderful story. I also read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which paints a picture of what Newt Gingrich wants us to think the world will look like if we don’t elect him president, and reread Moby Dick, the mother of all American travel books; what wayfarer can’t identify with Ishmael saying that when he feels like “stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
Peter Ferry is the author of the novel Travel Writing.
Very happily, writing the monthly Trip Lit column for National Geographic Traveler forces me to read a lot of new travel-related fiction and non-fiction. So the list of all the books I read this year stretches toward 100. My three Honorable Mentions would go to: Maya Roads, Mary Jo McConahay’s impassioned account of adventures in the Maya tropical forest; Radio Shangri-La, Lisa Napoli’s open-hearted memoir of moving to Bhutan in 2007 to help start a youth-oriented radio station; and Man Seeks God, Eric Weiner’s provocative—and often hilarious—quest to understand the planet’s most pervasive (and in some cases, just intriguingly idiosyncratic) belief systems.
My top three books would be: #3, Wanderlust, by Elisabeth Eaves, an intensely lived and beautifully rendered autobiographical celebration of the world’s life-changing possibilities; #2, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, Mark Adams’s learned, evocative, rollicking historical-homage-cum-adventure-saga that traces Hiram Bingham’s storied journey; and #1, To a Mountain in Tibet, Colin Thubron’s eloquent, empathetic, encyclopedic and poignant tale of a personal pilgrimage to sacred Mount Kailas, an amazing book by one of our greatest travel writers.
Don George has been travel editor at the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle, founded and edited the Wanderlust section of Salon.com, and most recently was Global Travel Editor at Lonely Planet Publications.
This year I read several books by Croatian authors, including A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism by Slavenka Drakulić and Café Europa, her book of essays on life after communism. Both were hilarious and insightful.
Early this year, while on a train in Portugal, I read The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliot—a hybrid of memoir and true crime. It’s gritty, violent, and provocative—not exactly a happy-go-lucky travel narrative! I have a fascination with Geoff Dyer and just recently re-read Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. I am riveted by its sense of place and dual narrative. One of my all time favorite travel related books is Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson. It’s a madcap spoof of the ubiquitous Italian travel-cooking memoir set in Tuscany and complete with insane recipes that will make you shoot Chianti out your nose. Spot on and laugh-out-loud funny.
Marcy Gordon is the editor for Travelers’ Tales new humor writing collection Leave the Lipstick, Take the Iguana, due out Spring 2012. She writes about travel, food and wine for a variety of media and on her blog Come for the Wine. Visit www.comeforthewine.com for more information.
Not sure if it counts, but the 2011 and 2012 catalogs for Geographic Expeditions made the list this year. For a tour company, GeoEx produces some surprisingly good writing in the descriptions of places and summaries of tours. Other than that, I churned through my never ending pile of Eric Newby, Tim Cahill, Bill Bryson and Travelers’ Tales anthologies that sit next to my bed. Not specific, I know, but inspirational when ideas aren’t coming easily.
Spud Hilton is the travel editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.
I managed to read a lot of travel books in 2011. (This was an unexpected accomplishment: Most years, I’m more likely to buy a heap of them, put them on the shelf and stare at them, but never actually sit down and read them.) I read classics like Jonathan Raban’s Hunting Mister Heartbreak, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey and William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, and I read a few new releases too—Wanderlust, by Elisabeth Eaves, and Rachel Friedman’s The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost. I also dug into essay collections from Granta, Men’s Journal, Outside and National Geographic Adventure.
But my favorite of the bunch was Passage to Juneau, Jonathan Raban’s account of sailing solo from Seattle to Alaska via the Inside Passage. I’m a Raban fan in general, and I think he’s at his best whenever he writes about being on the water, but “Passage” took his usual mixture of eloquent description, historical context and thoughtful reflection, and added a deeply personal element that, for me, made it the most memorable book I read all year.
Eva Holland is the senior editor of World Hum.
My friend Miranda Kennedy wrote an evocative and very witty book, Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India, about her years living in the subcontinent. Her book did what all great travel books do: It helped me understand a great culture, and its place in a fast-changing world, through an engrossing narrative that combined history, great characters and a clear love of place.
Joanna Kakissis reports for NPR and TIME Magazine out of her base in Athens.
You’d think the subject of Tony Perrottet’s The Sinner’s Grand Tour, A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe is what makes the book hard to put down. But in fact, the writing is so consistently, ridiculously vivid that his least sexy encounters—my favorite involves a cranky, backwoods restaurant hostess with “the pageboy haircut of a warrior monk”—are as absorbing as any with Sade, Casanova or porn-loving popes.
Abbie Kozolchyk is a New York-based writer who contributes to National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Allure and other publications.
I spent a good chunk of 2011 in Asia, and found myself gravitating towards books on this beguiling, bewildering continent. Starting off with Peter Hessler’s stunning Oracle Bones, I next read The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen and The Quiet American by Graham Greene. All three authors impressed me with their observations—about China, Nepal, and Vietnam respectively—by writing thoughtful passages that often revealed something larger about the subjects. The character development in each also reminded me that great travel literature is also filled with fascinating people, not just strange things and foreign places. And finally, shortly after returning to the US, I raced through Christian DeBenedetti’s lively compendium of beer destinations, The Great American Ale Trail. If I owned a car, it would be the kind of book I’d toss in the backseat alongside my road atlas.
Ben Keene is the author of Best Hikes Near New York City. His work has appeared in DRAFT, Wend, the Village Voice, Beer Connoisseur, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He blogs about beer and travel at Where and Back.
I spent most of the year making excuses to my highly cultured fancy-pants friends for why I devoted so much time to devouring the Game of Thrones books (yep, all five). I’ve never been much for Renaissance Faires, fantasy novels or knights in chain mail sword-fighting on horseback, but what got me about these books was the sense of place. In his made-up universe, George R. R. Martin luxuriates in creating dozens of distinct, richly detailed settings loosely modeled on real-life places and cultures, from the familiar Anglo-European highlands of Westeros to the Mediterranean warmth of Pentos to the desert sands of Dorne. His characters are perpetually moving through these landscapes, which makes the whole series feel, at times, like a very dramatic, very bloody travel magazine.
Compared to the thousands of pages that comprise the Martin novels, John McPhee’s Oranges seems just a trifle at 149 pages, but it stuck with me all year. Admittedly, I came to this book late—by about 45 years—but the subject matter is so timely it’s worth a reprinting. It’s basically a biography of the orange, which emerges as the Forrest Gump of the fruit world, having hitched a ride to America with Columbus and playing a crucial role in the reign of Louis XIV. McPhee travels to Florida in 1966 to chronicle the then-rapidly industrializing orange juice industry and, amid miles and miles of orange groves, finds it nearly impossible to get a glass of fresh-squeezed. “Oranges” is not a travel book, but it underscores something often experienced by travelers: the distance between what one expects to find in a new place, and the sometimes-disappointing, sometimes-beautifully serendipitous reality.
Maya Kroth’s writing has appeared in Budget Travel, NYLON, Frommer’s, the San Diego Union-Tribune, San Francisco Weekly and more.
When I finally got around to reading David Grann’s The Lost City of Z this year, I raced through it in just a couple of days—or rather, a couple of long, giddy nights in which I stayed up hours past my bedtime, entranced. It’s the perfect match of writer and subject: Grann, the master reporter for The New Yorker, and a famed Amazonian city that may or may not have ever existed but which has long lured real-life Indiana Jones types like the legendary explorer Percy Fawcett, who set off on his quest for the city in 1925 and was never seen again. Fawcett was a swaggering colonel, an archetypal old-school explorer. Grann, by his own admission, is rather the opposite—he’s an out-of-shape, out-of-his-element writer—and to my mind, that makes his own story of trekking in the Amazon all the more interesting and appealing because, well, I can identify with him.
I’ve long thought, though, that some of the best travel stories are the ones that take a unique perspective on familiar places, which is why I also loved Sloane Crosley’s How Did You Get This Number, a collection of essays including several set on the road. These tales are more on-the-beaten-path than Grann’s—Alaska, Lisbon—but unequivocally offbeat in tone, and therein lies the charm. Crosley’s style is breezy and humorous, but mixed in with her perfectly crafted bon mots and tales are subtle but compelling ruminations on what makes a place worth visiting or living in, and the joys of serendipitous encounters on the road. It’s a compelling testament to why we travel, one whose very brilliance lies in its reliance not on platitudes but on story and wit.
Doug Mack is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. His travel memoir Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day will be published in April 2012 by Perigee Books/Penguin.
I read a biography of scientist Nikola Tesla, Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney. It gives a fascinating look at one of the most eccentric and underrated inventors of the 20th century. It also follows him around the world from Croatia to Yugoslavia, Budapest, Paris, London, New York, Colorado and Chicago at the peak of the industrial revolution. Tesla’s enigmatic experiments were enthusiastically funded by the likes of George Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan, allowing unprecedented ingenuity. His world-changing inventions brought him to fame as they bewitched the public, Golden Age socialites, and high-profile friends like Mark Twain. But media wars with arch rivals like Thomas Edison and his lack of demanding royalties on patented inventions (still) used throughout the world left Tesla to eventually die broke, alone, and absent in most U.S. history books. The author does a terrific job of bringing context, interactions, and innovative wonder to life in vivid detail. The book should not be judged by its (dumb) cover; it’s an absolutely fantastic way to geek out on science, history, travel, and to be inspired by an almost unlimited imagination.
While traveling through Tanzania in September, I read—well, actually, I listened to an audio version of—The Tree Where Man Was Born, Peter Matthiessen’s account of his travels in that country. During the day, I’d watch the landscape unfold and at night, while I tried to sleep in my tent, I listened to Matthiessen’s descriptions of some of the very places I’d been that day. It was as though Mattheissen was teaching me to write about what I was seeing—the language was spare and beautiful and while not romanticizing the country, it felt honest as it reflected so much of what I’d witnessed with my own eyes. The day I hit the chapter when locals warn Matthiessen off taking a particular track into the savannah—“Hey, there are lions there!”—I heard lions roaring in the night. The book is inseparable from my own Tanzania experience. I’ll read it again when I find myself having trouble remembering what my trip was like and I suspect it will all come rushing back.
Pam Mandel is a freelance writer and photographer from Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in a variety of print, radio, and web publications and she’s contributed to two guidebooks. Learn more at her personal blog at Nerd’s Eye View.
My favorite book I read this year was Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. It’s a travel book in the sense that it takes you to a 1970’s New York I would have loved to have known. I’m reading Paul Bowles’ Travels: Collected Writings 1950-1993. He really captures place. My favorite essays: “A Challenge to Identity,” on the nature of travel writing, and “An Island of My Own” about the private island he owned for a time.
Also I really enjoyed the new book from Richard Grant, Crazy River, about a trip to East Africa. Don’t know why he did it. But I know he’s crazy. I also really enjoyed Uneasy Rider, by an Englishman named Mike Carter, about a motorcycle ride through Europe. He’s good, boozy company.
Andrew McCarthy is an editor-at-large at National Geographic Traveler, as well as an actor and director.
A lot of travel-themed books stood out for me this year. In the fiction realm, I loved the far-flung short stories in Anthony Doerr’s The Shell Collector—and Tony D’Souza’s novel Mule offered an engrossing depiction of low-level drug running in the United States. In the nonfiction arena, Paul Theroux’s The Tao of Travel was a great compendium of travel wisdom—and I’ll be the millionth person to point out that John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay collection Pulphead is brilliant.
My top two travel-oriented books of the year would have to be Karl Taro Greenfeld’s short story collection, NowTrends, and On Holiday, Orvar Lofgren’s history of vacationing. Greenfeld’s book (which was published by Short Flight/Long Drive Books, a tiny independent press) offers an authentic and affecting look into various corners of Asia, Europe, and North America. Though obviously fiction, “NowTrends” has a journalistic attention to setting and detail—which is no surprise, since Greenfeld cut his teeth as a writer for magazines like Time and Sports Illustrated. Lofgren’s book takes an academic and analytical approach to travel, but I found it accessible and full of quotable details about how Westerners have approached travel over the years.
Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer.
Among many other books, I read Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport. More books should be like this, short and with photos. Also, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which is ridiculously good, essentially a who’s-who travelogue of ‘20s Paris. And Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, which some say is the great Canadian novel (‘40s Quebec).
But my favorite book was Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. Bitten by “Russia-love” decades ago, Frazier spent as long on “Travels in Siberia” as Axl Rose did on “Chinese Democracy”: 17 years. Most would take just a portion of the book—like a 9,000-mile trip with a bad van and two bad Russian guides—and let that stand for Siberia, but that’s just not enough for Frazier, who returns on several exhausting trips (none of which, it’s worth pointing out, are on the Trans-Siberian Railway). It’s memorable for the sweet dedication poachers give Frazier on 9/11 and a babushka breathlessly retelling the tale of how flamingos fell from the sky. “Russia is both great and horrible,” Frazier writes early on. After spending months of my life in Russia and Siberia myself, I know the feeling.
Robert Reid is the U.S. travel editor for Lonely Planet. He writes and speaks about travel from his base in New York City.
I read An Irreverent Curiosity, David Farley’s tale of a weirdly fascinating relic and its shared history with the equally weirdly fascinating Italian town of Calcata. It had me laughing so frequently on a flight to Colombia that I attracted both amused and angry stares. In reading it, I learned plenty about strange religion, and I convinced my local bookseller to carry the book when I returned home.
Jill K. Robinson is a Half Moon Bay-based writer who contributes to the San Francisco Chronicle, Journey, Lonely Planet and Frommer’s, among other publications.
Allow me to combine an introduction and a disclosure: all three of these are books by friends (and, in one case, a colleague), and only one is really a travel book. But all come thoroughly recommended.
Over the course of my buddy Kim Severson’s book Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life—part memoir, part food celebration—she revisits the women behind the experiences that defined her as a dining reporter for The New York Times (she’s now the Atlanta bureau chief), taking her from California (Alice Waters, Marion Cunningham) to the Deep South (Edna Lewis, Leah Chase). It’s a lovingly written and amazingly honest thing—and Kim’s lively voice pulls it all together.
Tony Perrottet has carved out quite a niche for himself in the travel writing world: delighted degenerate—and I mean that in the most loving way. In The Sinner’s Grand Tour, he drags his wife and two kids around Europe, as he surveys only the most scandalous of locations. It’s terrific fun.
Jim Meehan runs PDT, my favorite cocktail bar in New York. And like the bar, to which you get access via a telephone booth with a fake back door, his PDT Cocktail Book is a reflection of Jim’s encyclopedic knowledge and unending love of all things cocktail. Through it, I’ve discovered long-lost recipes (the De La Lousiane, which dates to the early 20th century, is now part of my regular drinking repertoire) and was dazzled by both Jim’s writing and Chris Gall’s wonderful WPA-style illustrations.
Dan Saltzstein is assistant editor of The New York Times Travel section.
Instead of traditional travel writing, I tend to do my mind wandering through fiction, memoir, cookbooks, whatever. When I made my first trip to Ireland in 1999, it felt more like a return trip thanks, for the most part, to a thorough reading (and re-reading) of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy. It’s been a decade since my last visit but I returned to Doyle’s Dublin with the trilogy this year and, though it upped my must-go-back to an almost painful level, it still satisfies. I also finally read Doyle’s short story collection, The Deportees. The stories of Ireland’s immigrant population helped update me on the ways the country’s language and flow has changed. I can’t wait to hear and see it all for myself. Ireland is high atop my list of airline tickets to buy for 2012.
But I also did some wordy travel back in time (and back to my home turf) through Patti Smith’s Just Kids. I’ll admit I wasn’t as taken with the whole of the book as many other people I know but spending time with Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe at the Chelsea and around Andy Warhol just deepened what is already my crazy love for the city. Oh, one last one: a mystery. Because I’m just about physically unable to write something about travel without trying to work some Alaska into it: the first book in Stan Jones’ Nathan Active mystery series, White Sky, Black Ice. The mystery in the book was a good tale but spending part of a winter in remote Northwest Alaska without fighting frostbite-evil cold was even better.
A freelance writer and editor for publications including National Geographic Traveler, Viv, and Entrepreneur, Jenna Schnuer has a no-permanent-address life. She has a car named Zeb. Read more of her work online at www.jennaschnuer.com and see some of her photos here.
The best travel book I read in 2011 was a novel published in 2009: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, by Geoff Dyer. Dyer is good on Venice, but when he gets to Varanasi the writing soars and then descends, brilliantly, into madness. I enjoyed James Attlee’s Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight, not just for his descriptions of moon-besotted places (Japan, Naples, Arizona) but for his dogged discoveries of the satellite in art and literature. And I was moved by the final sentences in Oliver Sacks’ The Mind’s Eye, which mount a strong, if inadvertent, defense of travel writing. “Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible,” Sacks writes after telling of a blind woman who travels with friends and asks them to describe to her the scenes in front of them. “It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.”
Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, “Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland,” and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years.
This past year, as in years past, I’ve returned to the greatest travel book of all time, Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Greatest because Cervantes sends his hero (and sidekick) on a literarily-inspired journey that both covers a lot of ground, and leads to self-knowledge. As a true journey should.
Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of many books, including “River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia’s Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny.” His second book, Facing the Congo, ranked No. 28 on World Hum’s Top 30 Travel Books of all time.
By far the best book I read in 2011 was Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. There was a lot in this book that engaged me, from the discussions of English literature in the beginning to the complex and dark relationship between two of the main characters, Madeleine and Leonard. But I also loved the travel aspect of this novel, as two characters backpack across Europe, North Africa and India. In this passage, depicting Mitchell and Larry’s arrival in Paris, Eugenides’ descriptions are vivid and straightforward, which are two of the qualities I appreciate most in prose: “The trees were thick with late-summer leaves. They wore iron grilles around their trunks, like aprons. The broadness of the sidewalk accommodated newspaper kiosks, dog walkers, chic ten-year-old girls on their way to the park. A sharp scent of tobacco arose from the curbside, which was the way Mitchell had thought Europe would smell, earthy, sophisticated, and unhealthy, all at once.”
Rob Verger is a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
In the spring of 1989, the poet Czeslaw Milosz returned to his native Lithuania, newly independent, after 50 years in exile. The collection of poems he wrote there, Facing the River, has always found a place in my backpack during my travels, as the aging poet meditated on loss, memory, the passage of time, and, as always, the richness of the human experience. In “Lithuania, After Fifty-Two Years,” he reflects on the changes to both himself and the village of his childhood, “simultaneously, year after year, losing leaves…and again…gathered in our common old age.” A place, he suggests, doesn’t exist in itself: It exists in the ever-changing eye of its beholder.
Travel, for me, has always been as much about coming back as going. The Brooklyn of my youth—its row houses and ailanthus trees and plaster saints in the gardens—has changed through the years; its place in my heart hasn’t. Coming back for the holidays this year, faced with the same stirrings of memory and longing, I return to Milosz’s plea to the world of his youth to somehow keep time at bay:
Be yourselves, things of this earth, be yourselves!
Don’t rely on us, on our breath,
On the fancies of our treacherous and avid eye.
We long for you, for your essence,
For you to last as you are in yourselves:
Pure, not looked at by anybody.
Christopher Vourlias is a freelance writer based out of Johannesburg.
My favorite new travel book of the year was Tom Scocca’s Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future. As I wrote in my review for TIME Asia, the “same sort of equal-opportunity irreverence” you find in Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad (which stands at the top of my all-time top travel books list) is on “abundant display” in this look at Beijing, which is as unsparing toward American foibles as it is toward Chinese ones. The other book that stands out for me from this year of travel reading is one that I can’t believe I went so long without reading, Emma Larkin’s extraordinary Finding George Orwell in Burma. It’s an elegantly crafted work, which combines evocative and often amusing descriptions of people and places with deft analysis of the workings of a difficult to penetrate and particularly harsh authoritarian regime. This very special book first appeared six years ago but it makes wonderfully timely reading at a moment when there has been renewed hope at last that at least modest changes in the Burmese political situation may be on the way.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a contributor to World Hum, is the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know and a frequent contributor to the China Beat blog.
I may know what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land. But whenever I wander streets home to Turkish immigrant communities in German cities or the stripmall gathering zones of the Vietnamese community here in Orlando, it hits me that I’ll never know what it’s like to be part of a tight knit immigrant crowd. So I enjoyed reading Doug Saunders’ book Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Shaping our World that explores these worlds within worlds in such cities as Los Angeles, Mumbai, Berlin and Herndon, VA, close to where I grew up. In his preface, Saunders had this to say: “The great migration of humans is manifesting itself in the creation of a special kind of urban place. These transitional spaces—arrival cities—are the places where the next great economic and cultural boom will be born, or where the next great explosion of violence will occur. The difference depends on our ability to notice, and our willingness to engage.” The more I travel—both in the US and abroad—the more that hits home.
Terry Ward is a freelance writer based in Florida.
Tara Austen Weaver
I’m fascinated by the tea trade and its history, so the story of Robert Fortune, the Scottish gardener charged by the East India Company with infiltrating China in the mid-1800s to steal tea plants and growing secrets, was fascinating. He traveled deep into China dressed in Mandarin robes, fought bandits and pirates, and ended up pulling off the greatest act of espionage ever, breaking Chinese hold on the tea trade. For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, by Sarah Rose, is the story of how it happened, and how the seeds and plants Fortune smuggled out paved the way for Britain to grow their own tea on Indian soil. It’s a crazy, implausible historical adventure travel story, the result of which is sitting in my tea cup.
Tara Austen Weaver is a freelance food and travel writer. She is author of “The Butcher & The Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp Through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis,” and writes the award-winning blog Tea & Cookies.
I was just in India, and picked up a couple of good reads. One is Mark Tully’s India’s Unending Journey. The title is a bit misleading. The book is actually part autobiography and part modern history of India. Tully is a giant among India-philes. He was born in Calcutta, raised in the UK and spent most of his adult life back in India. He was the BBC’s man in South Asia for years and was so well known (and loved) that any foreigner with a microphone, including myself, was often accosted by a group of adoring Indians shouting “Mark Tully!” They were always disappointed when I told them that, no, I was not Mark Tully. So Tully knows of what he writes. What I love about this book is that it is both knowledgeable and affectionate. Tully clearly loves India but his love is not a blind love.
I’m also reading Duncan Campbell’s novel, The Paradise Trail. This is more of a beach read, but a very smart one. It takes place in Calcutta in 1971 during the India-Pakistan War (also known as Bangladesh’s war of independence). I’ve re-read a couple of favorites this year, too, including Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia. It’s the book version of his famous monologue and Gray’s voice—manic, confessional, funny—comes across on every page. And I’m enjoying Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. While not technically a travel book—Calvino’s cities are imaginary—this is nonetheless a gem. Sitting in a garden, a young Marco Polo relays to an aging Kublai Khan tales of the cities he has seen: cities of the dead and the unborn, cities of the air, cities where everyone is a stranger. A work of immense imagination, it’s one of those books best savored slowly, and often.
Eric Weiner is author of Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine and The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. He is a former foreign correspondent with National Public Radio, and a former reporter for The New York Times.
David Mitchell dazzled me with the craft and complexity of his 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, which contains six interlocked narratives spanning from an 1800s voyage on the Pacific to a post-apocalyptic future in Hawaii. The four other narratives take place in 1930s Belgium, 1970s California, a now-ish UK and a future Korea. Among the things I loved about it: the emphasis on the power of storytelling through generations.
Michael Yessis is cofounder and coeditor of World Hum, and a special projects editor at USA Today.