I travel, primarily for work, but I am not a Happy Traveler, and most everything about the experience makes me extremely anxious, including the seemingly simple event of leaving home. But my new book, Book Lust To Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers, is filled with accounts of great explorations, novels set in countries other than the U.S., histories and pure armchair travel.
So, in one way of looking at it, I am the entirely wrong person to write a book recommending travel books. But, in fact, I am probably one of the best people to write this kind of book, because all my life I have been a virtual traveler — through books — to places far and near. Here's an eclectic and eccentric list of some of my favorite travel books.
Adele & Simon
By Barbara McClintock, hardcover, 40 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, list price: $16
When Adele picks up her younger brother Simon from school, he starts out with his hat, gloves, scarf, sweater, coat, knapsack, books, crayons and a drawing of a cat that he did that morning. But as their walk home progresses — with slight detours at two museums and a pastry shop, a stop to watch a parade and a puppet show, acrobats and a sword swallower — gradually many of Simon's possessions disappear.
How they're returned to Simon will delight young readers of Barbara McClintock's Adele & Simon. There's a map from a 1907 edition of Baedeker's Paris and Environs on the endpapers showing the children's route home and a guide to the illustrations at the close of the book.
The detailed and intricate pen-and-ink illustrations are filled in with soft watercolors and if you look closely, you'll find McClintock has introduced some familiar characters from another beloved picture book set in France in the early 20th century ...
Map of the Invisible World
By Tash Aw, hardcover, 336 pages, Spiegel & Grau, list price: $25
Tash Aw's brilliant novel Map of the Invisible World explores the lure of home and family. It takes place in 1965, during a particularly bloody crackdown on Dutch citizens in Sukarno's Indonesia. Karl, who moved back to his island home from a sojourn in America, is arrested by the Indonesian police. Margaret, an American professor who knew Karl in the U.S., and Adam, his adopted son, both travel to Jakarta to search for him.
Aw's first published work of fiction, The Harmony Silk Factory, provided a strong hint of his talents — and his second book confirms them. So, remember, you read it here first: I believe that someday Aw will win a well-deserved Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax
By Dorothy Gilman, paperback, 208 pages, Fawcett, list price: $7.99
Should you find yourself planning an excursion to Albania, the perfect accompaniment to the trip is Dorothy Gilman's The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, the first in a series of light and entertaining novels, each set in a different country. Widowed, a bit depressed, and thoroughly bored with her life as a suburban Washington woman-of-a-certain-age, she goes to CIA headquarters and volunteers to become a spy.
Through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings (some comic, some not), she ends up being kidnapped in Mexico and imprisoned in a mountain fortress in Albania. In the process of reading about how she deals with her incarceration and the unexpected heights she reaches as she deals with her jailers, you learn (painlessly) about the history, politics and geography of a country that is generally regarded as a cipher to many people.
Into Thick Air: Biking To The Bellybutton Of Six Continents
By Jim Malusa, paperback, 336 pages, Sierra Club/Counterpoint, list price: $16.95
Jim Malusa is a botanist whose specialty is the biogeography of the plants of southern Arizona, so you wouldn't necessarily pick him as the go-to guy to write about a series of bike trips. Yet, as he describes in Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents, he spent parts of six consecutive years riding his trusty bicycle to the lowest spots of all six continents, overcoming everything from extreme weather to extreme insects, not to mention the possibility of land mines if he strayed off the road in Africa.
It's clear that Malusa would be a fun guy to bike with — he has a knack for meeting interesting people, hearing some fascinating stories, and ending up in amazing places.
Berlin: City Of Stones (Book 1)
By Jason Lutes, paperback, 209 pages, Drawn and Quarterly, list price: $22.95
Berlin: City Of Smoke (Book 2)
By Jason Lutes, paperback, 200 pages, Drawn and Quarterly, list price: $19.95
Using the medium of the graphic novel to great effect, Jason Lutes's Berlin: City of Stones and Berlin: City of Smoke offer a history of the city in a way that's accessible and yet mind-opening. All the benefits of a good novel are here: three-dimensional characters, a dynamic plot and a well-drawn setting.
As in the best graphic novels, the pictures expand the story in a most satisfying way. These two volumes were originally part of Lutes' ongoing comic book series, called, quite simply, Berlin; they offer the reader a history of Germany in the 1930s, in the years leading up to Hitler's rise to power and the outbreak of World War II. Comparisons, as the saying goes, are odious, but this is equally good — though very different — from Art Spiegelman's iconic Maus.
Dark Star Safari: Overland From Cairo To Cape Town
By Paul Theroux, paperback, 496 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, list price: $15.95
Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town is an olio of history, anecdotes, opinions and description. I was immediately hooked by how Theroux begins his tale:
All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the hot spots, the massacre-and-earthquake stories you read in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again.
(Hooked? Click here to read on...)
In this book, Theroux seems to have recovered his emotional equilibrium and shed most of the grumpiness and petulance that marked some of his earlier titles; all of his talent for discovering the unusual in the ordinary people he meets and places he visits is evidenced on every page.
Theroux travels by nearly every sort of conveyance you can imagine: a variety of trucks, a ferry, train, bus and dugout canoe (a particularly fascinating section). He talks to people — Africans and others — from all walks of life, such as missionaries, tourists and aid workers from Western countries, which gives him (and us) a well-rounded portrait of the continent.
(Incidentally, there's a very funny joke on page 123 of the paperback edition.)
By Emma Bull, paperback, 432 pages, Tor Fantasy, list price: $7.99
Emma Bull's novel Territory belongs to a sub-genre that I find hard to resist, one that I have taken to calling "elastic realism" (thanks to the suggestion of Morning Edition listener Abby Kos). This type of novel typically starts with places and people that we think we know all about, and then gives them a subtle twist, creating a sort of parallel world that is different, in ways large and small, from the world we inhabit.
The territory referred to in the title is Tombstone, Ariz. The "familiar" historical events that anchor the novel are those leading up to the famous shoot-out at the O.K. Corral on Oct. 26, 1881. Part of the fun here is having what you thought you knew about all those events undercut. And a typical result is to find yourself, as I did when I finished Territory, half-way convinced that Bull's version has as much truth in it as the old legends do. Maybe more, in fact.
Mildred Benjamin is a widow who earns her living setting type for the local newspaper. She also, unbeknownst to her neighbors, writes genre Westerns, or as they might have been called then, dime novels, all filled with the requisite themes of strangers come to town, heroism, moral frailty, and much derring-do involving guns and bars. When she meets Jesse Fox, a stranger from the East who's recently arrived in Tombstone, the two realize that — for good or ill — they share an ability to see beyond the appearances of things. Their discoveries about the dark forces afoot involving Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and others lead us to re-examine all we thought we knew about the time, the place and the people.
Bull's descriptions are captivating — about Doc Holliday, she writes:
... no amount of wanting would make Doc an upstanding member of the community. He was a fine dentist — he just wasn't a fine person. And he was so good at being bad that it seemed like a genuine gift. One ought not to waste one's gifts.
(Read more from 'Territory' here.)
I was especially intrigued by the way Bull made use of the belief so prevalent among 19th century men and women — that one can go west and reinvent themselves — one of the themes of the novel. As Millie's boss tells her: "You're whoever you say you are, Millie. That's the point of coming west." I'm eagerly waiting for Bull to write the concluding volume in this two-book series.