Monday, February 16, 2009

Ten Travel Books - Part 3

This is part 3 of my posts on my recent favorite Travel books.
Part 1 was about books 1 through 5. Part 2 covered books 6 through 10.

In summary,

Top 10 Travel Books Read in 2007/2008
1. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star – Paul Theroux
2. Hearing Birds Fly Mongolia – Louisa Waugh
3. Best Travel Stories 2008 – Traveler’s Tales
4. River at the Center of the World – Simon Winchester
5. Apples are from Kazakhstan – Christopher Robbins
6. Marco Polo Didn’t Go There – Rolf Potts
7. The Age of Kali – William Dalrymple
8. A Sense of Place – Michael Shapiro
9. Wanderlust – Don George
10. Unlikely Destinations – Tony Wheeler

In this list there are four books that cover one country or region in depth (Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan and the Indian subcontinent) while Theroux’s book covers his 28,000 mile land journey across Europe and Asia.

The other 5 books are compilations and anthologies. Best Travel Stories and Wanderlust are straightforward collections of great pieces. Rolf Pott’s book is a compilation of his writing, with his commentary added in. Tony Wheeler’s book covers pretty much his entire travel biography as he builds the Lonely Planet empire. And Shapiro’s A Sense of Place pays homage to the giants of this genre.

But ten is actually is a small number and I had to leave some really good books out.
Honorable mentions: Cambodia Calling; Eat, Pray, Love; Snow Leopard

Early in 2007, I stumbled upon and read a book called Cambodia Calling. It is written by Richard Heinzl, a young Canadian doctor who served with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) in Cambodia. Heinzl shares his personal and professional challenges in bringing humanitarian aid to Cambodia, but I had to leave it out simply because I ran out of room in the top 10.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is still in the best seller list as I write this. It is a very smart and funny book and Gilbert writes from the heart. Women everywhere are not able to get enough of this book. The only reason I left it out is because the book (due to its structure and subject) is forced to be reductive about all 3 countries – Italy, India and Indonesia. I felt that it didn’t quite fit my ‘Travel book’ category.

I have the most misgivings about leaving out Peter Matthiessen's Snow Leopard, which I was read enthralled. For sparkling and measured prose, it cannot be beaten. I left it out only because it is also a fairly big journey into Zen and the sacred and the spiritual. People who are drawn to spiritual topics should absolutely read this book.

I would also have definitely included Cathy Davidson’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji except for a technicality – I read it in 2009. It is a fantastic series of vignettes into Japan and I will post about this book separately.

Finally, here are the Travel Books on my To Be Read list: A Year in Provence; River Town; The Size of the World; Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes and Somebody’s Heart is Burning.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Top 10 Travel Books Read in 2007 and 2008 continued

This is Part 2 of my list of the 10 Travel books that I read in 2007 or 2008 that I can recommend to any travel enthusiast.
Books 1 through 5 can be found in Part 1. I will post Part 3 (honorable mentions) soon.

Title: Marco Polo Didn’t Go There
Author: Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts, the guy who brought the term vagabonding into mainstream travel vernacular, is back with his second book – a collection of his travel stories. Rolf used to write for and so I had read a few of the pieces in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There before.

The re-reading was even more enjoyable. His description of the tantric sex ashram and how he tries to gate crash the shooting of the movie 'Beach' were just as funny the second time around. But the real value of the book (and the reason I am including it in this list) is the unique behind-the-scenes look that this book offers.

At the conclusion of each story, Rolf shares with us some of the decisions he had to make while creating and presenting the story. Why he included certain aspects, which ones he had to leave out, how the story developed are very illuminating to read. Sometimes, a travel writer has to take a few liberties (for the sake of the narrative) and he tells us where he had to do so.

Please note that these are great stories in their own right, but reading about Rolf’s thinking makes us appreciate them even more. (This is similar to viewing the director’s narration in the Special Features part of a movie DVD.)

All travel writing aspirants (and travel bloggers) should definitely check out this book. Be sure to check out his The Art of Writing a Story About Walking Across Andorra which is very post-modern and very funny.

Title: The Age of Kali
Author: William Dalrymple

For a travel book to really succeed its author should not be completely enamored or infatuated with the place. This is definitely true of Dalrymple, the English journalist and historian who has lived in India for long periods and writes about it.

Surely, the fact that I hail from India is one reason I picked this book over many others. By the way, Indians will recognize that the title refers to Kali Yug (the final epoch) and not to goddess Kaali.

In 2008, for 10 days I got to travel around Rajasthan in India as a tourist. The resonance of reading this book while traveling in Jaipur and Udaipur was wonderful.

Dalrymple really mixes it up in this book and providing vignettes because India is simply too vast of a subject otherwise. This is a fairly small paperback and the pieces can be read individually and in any order. He writes about Bollywood socialites, the vestiges of the ancient practice of Sati that still linger and about the unfortunate women of Vrindavan. He visits Imran Khan in Pakistan and a few LTTE camps in Sri Lanka.

Whatever his chosen topic, I always learned something from each piece and enjoyed the whole book. I am hoping to read his City of Djinns or In Xanadu soon.

Title: A Sense of Place: Great Travel writers talk about their craft, lives and inspiration.
Author: Michael Shapiro

This is more a book about travel writers than a travel book. There is a decent-sized profile about each travel writer followed by an interview/discussion with that same writer. Michael Shapiro is a true travel devotee, and it is his discursive Q&A in which he gets the authors to open up is why I liked this book. It often does feel like we are sitting down next to our favorite authors and listening to them.

Interestingly, almost every other author in my top ten list has been interviewed in A Sense of Place. I also learned about a few authors that I had not read and ended up adding to my travel books to read list.

The stellar list of writers interviewed includes Paul Theroux, Jeff Greenwald, Tim Cahill, Bill Bryson and Jan Morris and a number of others. I particularly enjoyed the discussions with Rick Steves and Arthur Frommer, both of whose guidebooks I have long benefited from.

When leading travel writers talk about their craft, lives and inspiration, all we have to do is listen.

Title: Wanderlust: Real-Life Tales of Adventure and Romance
Author: Don George

Any book created by Don George is a safe bet. Don George used to have a column in titled Wanderlust. He would tap some of the very best travel writers and they contributed in first person narrative about their adventure and romance. The best of those have been collected to create this book. The common theme among all these stories is romance, love with even a hint of lust.

The usual travel ‘name’ crowd shows up here as well – Pico Iyer has written the foreword and also about his surreal experiences in Bali. And there are contributions from Tim Cahill, Tony Wheeler, Peter Mayle, Isabel Allende, Po Bronson and Jan Morris.

Don’t miss Simon Winchester’s piece on how he takes a hotel receptionist on a ride in his borrowed Rolls Royce. Rolf Pott’s ‘Storming the beach’ makes an appearance in this book as well as in his Marco Polo book, mentioned above. Laura Fraser writes with candor and vulnerability about finding a lover in Italy after her marriage dissolves. From London to Mozambique, this book covers a lot of ground.

These pieces were written for an Internet audience and that makes them very immediate and accessible. These stories might have all been lost in the depths of internet archives, but thanks to this book (a good sized paperback) we can now enjoy 40 wonderful pieces.

Title: Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet story
Author: Tony Wheeler

Purists may feel that Unlikely Destinations is not a travel book. They have a valid point: it is certainly about travel and it actually blurs the line between a travel book and a business book. I’ll ignore the purists because this is a very good book and a lot can be learned from reading it.

As I compile this list it occurs to me that I might be a little obsessed about the behind-the-scenes in travel. This book is the Kitchen Confidential for the great guidebook empire that Tony & Sara Wheeler built.

By far the biggest debt I owe in my travels is to Lonely Planet guides. I don’t think I would have survived or had anywhere near as much fun, if we didn’t have an LP guide with us at all times. It is inconceivable to leave the US without one (often several) LP’s about each trip's destinations.

So how did one guidebook corner the entire world market? What is the story behind its creation? Tony and Sara Wheeler’s story is the story laid out in Unlikely Destinations. Tony is UK born, was raised partly in Pakistan, resided in the US and settled down in Melbourne.

It is perhaps easy for many to envy Tony today because he heads up Lonely Planet and gets to jet-set around the world all year long. But this book tells us of all the years and the difficulties and sacrifices that it took for him and Sara (with two young children) to get to where they’ve reached.

Reading this book we appreciate how complex it is to bring out a travel book about a place. And that can only add to our awareness and enjoyment the next time we set out with a LP in hand.

And this book is also a good place to end my list. I had to leave some really good books out because I restricted this list to 10 books. I will mention those in my next post.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

My Top 10 Travel Books Read in 2007 and 2008

After learning that I had read a number of travel books, a friend and ex-colleague, DH, asked if I could send her a list of my top 10 favorite travel books. I created a list of my recent favorites and decided to post it here as well.

This is Part 1 of 3 linked posts.
Part 1: Books 1 through 5; Part 2: Books 6 through 10; Part 3: Recap, honorable mentions and future reading.

I have included only the books that I read in 2007 or 2008 though many were published much earlier.

1. Title: Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
Author: Paul Theroux

To me, Theroux is the quintessential travel writer and so I start with one of his books. I could have picked one of many, but I chose this one, his latest. Most people either love or hate Theroux. I happen to love his writing. His writing is so honest that I am ready to cut him a lot of slack. Also, where others find him curmudgeonly, I am amused by how he says things to elicit a reaction.

In any case, his The Great Railway Bazaar purportedly kick-started the whole genre of travel literature and if that is true, then I am truly grateful. In this book, he revisits that journey alone 32 years later (he is now past 60) and covers over 28,000 miles mostly by train. You have to admire a man just for doing that. I liked this book because it is so much more mellow that Railway Bazaar. His sections on India I read avidly, because one can learn so much about one’s own culture when seen through the eyes of others.

This is a big book (over 400 pages) but one that I think is well worth the time investment. Even those who are absolutely pressed for time should borrow the book from a library and try out the chapters on countries and places that catch their fancy.

Addendum: I found this very recent interview of Paul Theroux in The Independent.

2. Title: Hearing Birds Fly: A nomadic year in Mongolia
Author: Louisa Waugh

A gem of a book by a British writer who writes about spending a whole year in a remote village in Mongolia. The only reason I found this book was that I was going to visit Ulan Bataar in 2008. Mine was just a short touristy trip, the kind that only permits a small glimpse into a fascinating country. I could visit Mongolia for months and still not get an experience even remotely like what Louisa experiences in her year there. The details, the incidents about the people in her remote village Tsengel in western Mongolia (by the Kazakh border) are wonderfully told in this book. This book won the Ondaatje Literary prize in 2004 for ‘the book which best evokes the spirit of a particular place.’ I was very fortunate that I read it, and am surprised that this book is not better known.

If you want to vicariously experience Mongolia without ever getting bored, read Hearing Birds Fly.

Aside: Louisa Waugh is now residing in the Gaza strip and writing what will be her third book and she posts regularly in her The Gaza Blog

3. Title: The Best Travel Writing 2008: True Stories from Around the World (Paperback)
Authors: James O'Reilly (Editor), Larry Habegger (Editor), Sean O'Reilly (Editor)

It is a very safe bet that you won’t go wrong reading any book in the Traveler’s Tales series. Starting from 2006, they have been bringing out a collection of travel stories every year. The true stories are about places that span the entire globe. There is a great variety in the places being written about, and also in the styles of the writers.

Please note that this series is different from the “Best American Travel Writing” series that Houghton Mifflin brings out every year. That too is a great collection, but it is much weightier and a lot more literary. The essays there are much longer.

In contrast, the Best Travel Writing is considerably lighter, and therefore fun and easy to read even when on the move. What I particularly like about this collection is that it is a paperback, and so I can take it with me everywhere and read individual stories whenever I get a few minutes. It is also a great for reading one or two stories in bed, just before falling asleep. I love the variety that is present in each collection. From their stories in this collection, I’ve discovered several writers whose books I hope to read.

I have promised myself to not ever miss a single year of Best Travel Writing that gets published in the future. That’s how much I like this collection.

4. Title: River At the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time
Author: Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester has written a number of great books about many places and his work is always very well researched. And his writing is so good that in his case, the research actually helps rather than slowing down the narrative.

I loved the structure he chose for this book. He starts in Shanghai, and travels upriver, his journey paralleling the unfurling of a famous scroll about the Yangtze. Over the course of several months, traveling with his Chinese companion Lily, he covers the entire length of the river, crossing Nanjing, the Three Gorges dam area, Kunming, Dali, Lijiang and eventually ending up in the Tibetan plateau.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the book could have been written as an adventure trip. However, Simon Winchester makes this a series of lessons in history, geography and Chinese politics and so much more.

If there is a right way to read and learn about a country, this book is it.

5. Title: Apples are from Kazakhstan
Author: Christopher Robbins

The definitive book about a country that most people don’t know much about. Yes, it was a former Soviet republic, but it is now a huge country in its own right and this book is one interesting way to learn about it. (Sasha Cohen’s movie Borat, didn’t do Kazakhstan any favors whatsoever with its portrayal.)

The author meets an airplane companion who’s off to Almaty, and realizing that he doesn’t know anything about the place, Robbins starts to research it. This research turns practically into an obsession about the country, leading to multiple visits over two years and this book is the result.

This book greatly benefits from the fact that the author gets practically unlimited access to interview and chat with the president of the country – Nursultan Nazarbayev. I also enjoyed the many sketches that the author has included. Kazakhstan is a very newly independent country that is trying to get it right, and the book is a fascinating read.

I haven’t been to Central Asia (to any of the ‘Stans) but thanks to this book, Kazakhstan is high on my list of places to be visited.

Related Posts:
Apples are from Kazakhstan
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star