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.
What I thought: Bill Bryson is another one of those must-reads, mainly for his humor. This book is a collection of columns he wrote about life in America after two decades in Britain. It’s not about travel, per se, but it gives some perspective on the ridiculous things we encounter in our daily lives, from unhelpful computer user manuals to USPS failures to shopping and eating cultures. It doesn’t even feel like he’s exaggerating.
What I thought: I’ve read Into Thin Air several times and love it. This was my first read of Into the Wild, and I really enjoyed it as well. Krakauer is a great reporter and writer (check out Under the Banner of Heaven if you’re looking for a non-wilderness-adventure book), and though these stories are nothing close to what I’m doing, they’re exciting and inspiring and get my adrenaline going. I’m learning to appreciate the outdoors a little more than I used to — other than the beach, I’ve always appreciated the beach — and I’m looking forward to doing some hiking, trekking, maybe even some camping while I’m in Asia. Gotta start somewhere.
Life is a Trip, Judith Fein
What I thought: This book got good reviews as a must-read for travelers, and while I definitely enjoyed it, I wasn’t blown away by it. It was interesting for the author’s search for really unique local experiences centered on religious customs and cultural traditions. It’s a serie of vignettes that are easy to read — another bonus.
The Longest Way Home, Andrew McCarthy
What I thought: If you’re new here, you should know that Andrew McCarthy played a huge role in the origin of this journey. I first read his work in an issue of Traveler, through which I discovered that he had a soon-to-be-released book. So I bought it and read it and became even more inspired/convinced that I had to travel. I even got to see him live and in person and ask him a question! Truth be told, I am not bowled over by his writing style 100 percent of the time, but I do relate to his message, and I actually see a lot of my own fears and insecurities in his experiences. I think the concept of running off and traveling in order to get comfortable staying still is an interesting one, and that’s a little bit how I envision my own trip.
The Lost Girls, Jennifer Baggett/Holly Corbett/Amanda Pressner
What I thought: I really wanted to like this book. I thought that since the authors were my age and doing something similar to my trip, I’d find them likeable and relatable. Not so. I felt like there was a lot of exaggeration, and it felt like a gossipy beach read (which is fine, but not what I wanted). I actually skipped the middle third of the book — divided by country and then by writer — because I just wanted to get to Southeast Asia and then be done with it.
Misadventures in the Middle East, Henry Hemming
What I thought: I bought this book for my Kindle because it was on a super-special discount. I enjoyed it, mostly. It’s written by a British artist about a road trip he and a friend take through the post-9/11 Middle East with the goal of “making art” along the way. They meet a lot of interesting people in forbidden places — like Iran, Kurdish Iraq, and Baghdad just after the U.S. invasion — and through exhibitions of their work they realize how much the trip changes them. It’s a bit scattered, but overall it’s a unique perspective on a part of the world most of us know nothing about outside of news coverage and preconceived ideas.
The Misremembered Man, Christina McKenna
What I thought: This was a $1 book I purchased for my Kindle, and it was a nice break to read a novel. I’m still counting it as a travel book, though, as it’s set in Ireland in the 1970s. The plot follows a man and a woman with tumultuous paths looking for love, and they find it in each other but in a very unexpected way. I may be dense, but I was actually surprised by the ending.
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
What I thought: Obviously this is a classic. I read it in high school, but you never really appreciate books you are forced to analyze in class. I picked up a copy in my PP hostel in exchange for another book I was carrying and am glad I did. Even if Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are nuts and their journey totally unrelated to what I’m doing, it makes me want to just GO.
The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma, Thant Myint-U
What I thought: A great way to learn about Burma’s origins up to its present woes, though the book covers such a huge time period that it doesn’t go into much depth on anything. I really wanted to know more about the goings-on since the end of British rule, as well as the economic and social factors (not just the politics). But this was worth a read, especially while I was in Myanmar and trying to sort it all out.
The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong, Edward Gargan
What I thought: This is the best book about SE Asia I’ve read so far. I found a used paperback copy in a small bookstore in Battambang and read it in just a few days. Gargan, a former NYT reporter, travels by boat (and auto, when he has to) from the mouth of the Mekong in Nepal through China, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam to where the river meets the sea. He weaves in history and the stories of people he meets along the way. I think part of the reason I loved it so much is that I was read about things on the same day I was actually seeing them — the killing fields and S-21 in Phnom Penh, for example. I also learned a lot. You can tell Gargan has a background in journalism. I highly recommend this for anyone who has traveled, is traveling to, or is interesting in this region.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, J. Maarten Troost
What I thought: This is my D.C. book club’s book for January (you’re welcome, ladies) and I hope everyone read it because it’s hilarious. It’s basically a series of the author’s misadventures on a small island in the middle of the Pacific, where he moves for two years with his fiancee. It’s far more remote and ridiculous than anywhere I’m going, but I had to laugh (and I could relate) to some of the general frustrations of being in a completely foreign place where things don’t work like you expect them to. Worth a read if you need a laugh.
What I thought: I am not all that good at learning languages, but linguistics and how language is interwoven with history and culture totally fascinate me. Little travels all over the U.S. to study the many languages (besides English) that are spoken, explores the history behind them and how they may be affected in the future. She goes to Miami for Spanish, but she also looks at creole and Native American languages that are found in tiny towns no one has ever heard of. I really enjoyed the stories of the people she met, and though her voice is a bit annoying at times, anyone interested in language will enjoy this book. There’s a documentary about a few guys who did a similar journey around the globe, but the name escapes me at the moment.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed
What I thought: First, this is one of my favorite books of all time. Despite all of the hype (didn’t you hear, Oprah is a fan), I’m not sure I would have picked it up had it not been for my book (read: wine) club, and I am so very glad that I have friends who are wiser than I. Strayed is a total badass — not because she tries to be, or because she is looking for a life-altering adventure, but because she is just naive enough to do something crazy. She is funny and easy to relate to, and her words are sure to inspire you to get up and go. Her ability to tell a good story makes you feel like you’re right there alongside her, carrying a ridiculously heavy pack, hiking in ill-fitting boots, thirsty for Snapple. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak here in D.C., and her book persona is very, very real. I totally believe in her philosophy of “motherfuckitude.” Go read this if you haven’t already.
Non-travel books read in Southeast Asia:
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed
Non-travel books read in Colombia: