I’ve always been a fan of travel writing. I mean, I wanted to be a travel writer — still kind of do. As a literary genre, if you can call it that, it is a great source of inspiration *and* a way to experience faraway places you can’t quite get to. I’m keeping a list of the books I read before, during, and after my trip so that I can remember my favorites and pass along great titles to others!
Please note, these thoughts are not meant as book reviews. All titles I either discovered on my own or had recommended to me, and I chose them because they were informative, inspirational, funny, or all of the above. I tried to find as many as I could at the D.C. public library. Those I couldn’t check out were purchased for my Kindle.
Current read(s): Letters from Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi
A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East, Tiziano Terzani
What I thought: This was similar to Paul Theroux’s adventures but with a twist: In every locale, Terzani visits a fortune teller, motivated by a prophecy that he shouldn’t fly for an entire year. Instead, he travels by land, and that aspect was something I could relate to — I want to fly as little as possible once I reach Asia. I really enjoyed the stories about the people of region, and the running theme of fortune was interesting, but it got old by the end of the book — especially as Terzani became more cynical (and honestly, rude) about the experiences. The best part of the whole thing, actually, was after he’d finished his train journey back in Europe and then returned to Asia via ship, where he met with a Burmese heroin king and spent time at an ashram under a vow of silence. These two experiences felt disconnected from the rest of the book, and maybe that’s why I enjoyed them so much.
A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson
What I thought: I (appropriately) finished this while in Cameron Highlands, where I did a lot of trekking (and getting lost in the woods). It’s similar to Wild, just that it’s a man on the Appalachian Trail rather than a woman on the PCT. Obviously I relate more to Cheryl Strayed. But the stories are funny, and it definitely got me excited about hiking. It was also fun to read because I’m more familiar with the AT — I was pumped when he mentions crossing through Shenandoah and Skyline Drive!
Burmese Days, George Orwell
What I thought: I feel like there is a huge gap in my literary education where Orwell should be. I am also a complete cliche for reading this while traveling in Myanmar. But despite all the completely reprehensible characters, it’s a great book.
What I thought: I actually didn’t get to finish this book before I left, and since I was reading a hard copy I didn’t want to pay to download it to my Kindle as well. The author, who spent much of his life in California, rides his bike through Vietnam to rediscover his heritage. It’s peppered by flashbacks of his family’s life in — and subsequent escape from — Vietnam. I expected to love it for the cycling aspect, but I got confused by the switches in perspective and time.
The Coroner’s Lunch, Collin Cotterill
What I thought: This was another random book I picked up in my hostel. It’s a whodunit novel about a coroner in 1970s Laos who stumbles upon a government conspiracy and has to solve who (and what) is behind it. It was a nice break from the nonfiction I’ve been reading, but it’s not outstanding literature by any means. I felt a bit like I was skimming through parts just to get to the end.
Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin
What I thought: I had no idea that George Orwell had a connection to Burma, not to mention that it was the subject of some of his writing. Burmese Days is an obvious one, but the author contends that 1984 and Animal Farm actually served as blueprints for what became of post-colonial Burma. She traces his life as a British police officer trained in the then-colony and finds the people and places that played roles in his tales. It’s a bit disjointed at times, but it inspired me to go back and read Orwell’s work. I was also captivated by the idea that a young American girl (writing under a pseudonym) has managed to move about and report from a country that is very unfriendly to journalists. As I’ve said, Burma is very high on my must-visit list.
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Theroux
What I thought: This has been on my book list for a long time, and I originally picked it up because I thought it would have a lot of great stories about traveling through Russia by train. Turns out that even though Siberia is nearly half of Theroux’s journey, it merits only a few chapters at the end of the book. The pleasant surprise was the time devoted to Southeast Asia — and even some of the train journeys I think I’ll be taking! Theroux is one of those prolific travel writers that everyone must read, and though I don’t always enjoy his voice, I do appreciate the massive, information-packed volumes that offer a different perspective on places. They are personal experiences of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and I think a lot of travelers 1) don’t dive that deep and 2) either complain or glorify but rarely do both.