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.
Novelist Tash Aw takes us to Indonesia on the eve of violent civil war; a history of Austen appreciation, Jane's Fame, traces the author's rise from obscurity to ubiquity; Sam Lipsyte brings the funny to academia in his latest satire; and Enlightened Sexism aims a Buffy-style stake at the media's warped portrayals of "girl power."
Map Of The Invisible World
By Tash Aw
Tash Aw's highly anticipated sophomore release since his acclaimed debut, The Harmony Silk Factory, is set in Indonesia on the eve of its bloody civil war in the mid-1960s. The regime of authoritarian leader Sukarno is coming apart and the military begins its crackdown on suspected "enemies of the state," including Communists, foreigners and dissidents. The story follows Adam de Willigen, a 16-year-old Indonesian boy searching for his adoptive father, a Dutchman named Karl. Along the way, we meet a well-intentioned but naive American anthropologist, her violently radical graduate student, a CIA operative and others.
What Tash Aw did so well in his first novel, he manages to replicate easily in Map of the Invisible World. Though fans of Harmony Silk Factory might find the characters in this book slightly disappointing and far less complex, Aw's clear, crisp writing more than makes up for it. He has been compared to Graham Greene and even Joseph Conrad for obvious reasons: Aw writes about the post-colonial world. But like those writers, he uses words sparingly. Descriptions are straightforward. The prose is so unfussy that he must have fussed and fussed to get it that way. 'Night falls quickly in these islands,' reads his description of a remote village. 'And once it arrives you can see nothing. If you light a lamp it will illuminate a small space around you quite perfectly, but beyond this pool of watery brilliance there is nothing. The hills, the scrubby forests, rocky shoreline, the beaches of black sand — they become indistinguishable.' This is signature Tash Aw. He manages to capture a time, a place and a feeling without beating us over the head. — Guy Raz, weekend host of All Things Considered
Hardcover, 336 pages; Spiegel & Grau; list price, $25; publication date, Jan. 5
How Jane Austen Conquered the World
By Claire Harman
Award-winning biographer Claire Harman's lively compendium of all things Austen is suited for neophytes as well as scholars. She tracks the author's phenomenal arc of fame with a sure hand and provocative insights. In the beginning, Harman notes, Austen was writing for her small circle of family and friends. In 1869, 52 years after Austen's death, her nephew's Memoir of Jane Austen created the first of endless Austen revivals, seeding the notion that Austen appreciation was a litmus test for taste and intellect. The Janeite cult of the late Victorians included Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, William Dean Howells and E.M. Forster. By the time Austen's novels — love stories with clear-cut heroes and heroines and lots of knowing satire — were adapted to film and television, Austen-mania spanned the globe. The rise of the Internet has only expanded the influence of the "Divine Jane."
I read the Austen classics as a teenager (I found Emma racy), and revisited them in graduate school and later in my novel group. Jane's Fame was a delicious surprise, adding immensely to my understanding of the Austen legend. Harman shows why Jane Austen has enchanted readers for two centuries — why her fame has grown exponentially from her anonymous first publication in 1810 (Sense and Sensibility, by 'A Lady') to last year's quirky mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Harman crisply analyzes Austen's long-lasting appeal to readers — her clarity of language, her realistic descriptions, her skill at dissecting the social web and revealing the heartbreakers and dissemblers. She devotes most of Jane's Fame to putting together the pieces of the Austen puzzle, showing how Austen repeatedly hit the breaking wave of literary fashion. And she is particularly eloquent at describing the missing pieces in the Austen legend. Austen wrote for 20 years before publishing her first book and went to her grave as an anonymous author. Most of her letters and manuscripts disappeared in the years after her death, and her work would have gone out of print if her nephew hadn't written his intimate memoir. Jane's Fame is a cautionary tale: Without the intervention of biographers and critics, Jane Austen's work might have disappeared, virtually unread. Imagine that! — Jane Ciabattari, NPR book reviewer
Hardcover, 304 pages; Henry Holt; list price, $26; publication date, March 2
By Sam Lipsyte
It's been six years since Sam Lipsyte's novel Home Land first started causing isolated bursts of laughter on various forms of public transit. Lovers of quiet commutes should gird themselves for a renewed affront: in Lipsyte's new novel, The Ask, protagonist Milo Burke is a frustrated artist/sad sack recently fired from his position as a development officer raising funds for an unremarkable New York City university, where people pay "vast sums of money so that their progeny [can] take hard drugs in suitable company." When the school is contacted by one of Milo's oldest — and now insanely successful — friends, they give Milo a second chance: Get this guy to donate, and donate big, and you can have your old job back.
Home Land was one of those books that made you want to accost passersby and read entire paragraphs to them. Sure, Lipsyte was on to something when he constructed that novel as an extended, soaringly funny, bitterly honest rant to an alumni newsletter ('Let me stand on the rooftop of my reckoning and shout naught but the indisputable: I did not pan out'), but what you really fell for was his sure, muscular prose, so packed with energy — and good, solid jokes. The Ask adopts a more conventional narrative structure than Home Land, and the book's plot frankly takes its own sweet time to kick in. But while you're waiting you're treated to language like this: 'I stared at my own hands, soft, expressive things, gifted, even, like specially bred, lovingly shaved gerbils.' I love how Lipsyte blithely frontloads that sentence with all those momentum-killing adjectives and adverbs, because he knows his kicker — the terminal noun gerbils — is so strong. Comedy is a function of rhythm, of cadence, and just as I did with Home Land, I find myself admiring how effortlessly Lipsyte not only brings the funny, but factory-installs it into every sentence. — Glen Weldon, NPR book reviewer
Hardcover, 304 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; list price, $25; publication date, March 2
The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work Is Done
By Susan J. Douglas
Susan J. Douglas is a cultural critic whose earlier books include Where the Girls Are and The Mommy Myth. In her new book, she continues her spirited exploration of women's status in America, arguing that the media in the new millennium are promoting the contradictory ideas that feminism has succeeded and is no longer necessary, and that the sources of real "girl power" are beauty and consumerism, not economic and political clout. Taking on the gamut of American popular culture, Douglas reveals how it promotes false images of women in power, and how these images undermine real women's progress.
The fact that the media can be sexist and unrealistic is hardly news. Yet Douglas offers a cultural critique that is fresh, scathing, insightful — and often very funny. This is a woman who's probably seen every episode of Gossip Girl; she finds our escapist culture delicious even as she sounds the alarm. Enlightened Sexism is a brilliant jeremiad against the myths about equality, ambition and femininity that are currently being served up as 'reality' in America. Douglas drives a Buffy-style stake through the heart of a multitude of culprits — from TV shows and tabloids to toy companies — challenging their insistence that feminism is outmoded. Best yet, Enlightened Sexism proposes creative solutions. It's a call to action as well as a blueprint. A must read. — Susan Jane Gilman, reviewer for All Things Considered
Hardcover, 368 pages; Times Books; list price, $26; publication date, March 2
Sometimes, the best way to capture the scope of vast international movements is to burrow into a single life.
That's how author Tash Aw explores the landscape of post-independence Indonesia in the novel Map of the Invisible World.
The book's main character, a 16-year-old orphan named Adam, is on a quest to find his stepfather. "He has to face, like his country, questions of where he's from and where he's going to who his family really is," Aw tells NPR's Guy Raz.
Adam's country, Indonesia, is in turmoil. It's the mid-1960s, a decade and a half after the nation of islands won independence from the Dutch. And the first president, Sukarno, has created a governing system he dubs "guided democracy."
"By 1964, the wheels are coming off this rather rickety bandwagon," Aw says, "and Sukarno's losing his grip on the situation and things are tumbling into disarray."
Indonesia is about to suffer through an attempted coup and violent civil war. And in that era, Aw finds parallels with modern Indonesia. "In the '60s, the great radicalizing element was Communism," the author says. "Today it's much more likely to be Islam."
Tash Aw was born in Taiwan and grew up in Malaysia. He now lives in London. And he admits that what he calls his "cultural DNA" is reflected in his characters' rootlessness.
"They're all living a life that seems to have a big part of it missing," Aw says. "Some of them can't let go of memories. They can't let go of something that no longer exists. Their present lives, in a way, seem less important than their past lives, their invisible lives. And so the novel's really about how they come to grips with this invisibility ... or not."