Good Stuff to Read
Photo: Rachel's beloved "Mamacita" reading at a cafe in Chengdu, China
The world is but a book and the person
who stays inside reads but one page.
Antoine de Saint Exupery
It could be said that traveling without the shared joy of reading is similarly tragic. Like cooking blindfolded. You can guess your way around the kitchen but you don’t truly have a complete perspective on what’s happening around you: You’re going to miss out on the added insight that others have on this region of the world.
The following are a few of my favorite travel adventure books. This list continues to build with every year. Another great list to check out is National Geographic Adventure’s list of 100 Best Adventure books of all time. My recommendation? Pick up the book, read a chapter, and if it doesn’t resonate with you by the end of the first chapter, then toss it and move on. Life is too short to waste your time not enjoying 200 pages.
For the purposes of travel, I’ve arranged my reading list like I do my address list: geographically.
If you have any others to add to this list, a book that you think I must absolutely add, please feel free to make a suggestion.
Click on the section you're interested in:
The following are three of my favorite places to buy books:
The World and the Whole Shebang:
Book Passage: An excellent, independently run bookstore based in Corte Madera, California (across the bridge from San Fran). They're also home to one of the country's best Travel Writers and Photographers Conferences.
Powell's: World's largest used bookstore based in Portland, Oregon. Their store covers a whole city block. Their website also offers book reviews.
Amazon: Need I say more? Always a favorite. It's a great place to peruse and read customer reviews.
Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, Road Fever, Pass The Butterworms by Tim Cahill. Cahill's stories are always refreshing and great fun to read.
What Color Is Your Jockstrap? edited by Jen Leo. This collection of stories (including one that I wrote titled "Mama Chihuahua: World's Fiercest Travel Partner") about men and women's misadventures abroad is third in a humor travel anthology series including The Thong Also Rises and Sand In My Bra, edited by Jen Leo. Featured stories by Tim Cahill, Susan Orlean, Rachel S. Thurston, Elliott Hester, and Rolf Potts. For more info, click here.
The Last Breath by Peter Stark. For the macabre-fascinated readers, Stark's collection of essays illustrates the various ways extreme athletes/travelers can die...from the slow decay of scurvy to the nearly immediate collapse of the human body to dehydration and exposure.
Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World by Rita Golden Gelman.
Flying by the Seat of My Pants edited by Don George. Published by Lonely Planet Flying is an excellent collection of humorous travel stories featuring works by Doug Lansky, Tim Cahill, Pico Iyer, Don George, and Rolf Potts.
Plane Insanity by Elliott Hester. This is a hilarious collection of true stories about Hester's countless years enduring the wrath of angry passengers while he worked as a flight attendant for a major airline (and he's never telling WHICH one!).
Adventures Of A Continental Drifter by Elliott Hester. I haven't read this one yet but I really enjoyed Hester's last book.
In Xanadu: A Quest by William Dalrymple.
The Best American Travel Writing 2005 edited by Jamaica Kincaid and Jason Wilson.
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The Cruelest Journey by Kira Salak. I always enjoy Salak's writing and especially admire the fact that she's one of the few regular female contributors to National Geographic Adventure magazine. Her writing is poetic and insightful and her bravery traveling to remote parts of the world, albeit as a woman, is inspirational.
Stolen Lives by Malika Oufkir. Not intended to be a travel book, Lives is an unintented candidate for a travel adventure book. A reverse "riches to rags" true story of a privileged daughter of a Moroccan general who, along with her mother and siblings, was thrown into a desert prison and left for dead when she was twenty-two years old because of her father's alleged role in the attempted assassination of the then king. This is an incredible look into the royal lives of Morroco and the disparate under-culture of “disappeared” people, who whether intentionally or not, have been caught up in the North African country's politics.
Cry Of The Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens. Having read this many years ago, it has remained in my memory as a thrilling account of one couple's struggles to survive in the Kalahari Desert and protect the wildlife they've devoted their lives to. An international bestseller.
Long Walk To Freedom: Autobiography of Nelson Mandela Tag. According to my mother this is an incredible read about Nelson Mandela's (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the first democratically-elected leader of South Africa) life-long mission to fight for South Africa's freedom from apartheid. Interestingly, Mandela began writing this book at the beginning of his 27-year prison sentence.
To Timbuktu: A Journey Down The Niger by Mark Jenkins. One of my favorite travel books that I can read again and again. Jenkins has the ability to make the simple motion of paddling a kayak along the Niger River appear beautiful and sensual. A gifted storyteller and poet, his quest to descend the Niger River from source to sea does not end like one expects but, the outcome is just as riveting and more moving than could be hoped for.
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Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing.
South: A Memoir of the Endurance Voyage by Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Shackleton’s Boat Journey by Frank Worley. Shackleton’s captain shares his side of the story of The Endurance. A lesser-known account but equally valid and enlightening. One haunting moment, Worley describes the feeling that someone else was with them as they made their way across Antarctica by foot.
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The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz. This may possibly be one of the most miraculous tales of survival that I have yet read. One of the lesser known stories of the World War II, a Polish soldier escapes a prison camp in northern Siberia in the dead of winter and—with seven other escapees—walks across Siberia, Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayas into India. One hint: not everyone makes it. Truly incredible story. This story will stand the test of time and is one of my top ten all-time favorites.
Genghis Khan And The Making Of The Modern World by Jack Weatherford.
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen.
Beyond The Earth And The Sky by Jamie Zeppa. A vivid and poetic narrative about a young, Canadian idealist who moves to teach English in the isolated Kingdom of Butan. I don’t want to spoil the surprise but, she becomes entangled more intimately with the country than she expects to be working as a govt.-funded teacher. Beautifully written.
River Town: Two Years On the Yangtze: by Peter Hessler. Although quite long, this is the most thorough and articulately written book I've ever read about Chinese rural culture from the perspective of an outsider. Hessler's knowledge of Mandarin Chinese and persistent self-deprecating humor allow him to infiltrate aspects of Chinese culture inaccessible to most foreigners.
Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present by Peter Hessler. This is Hessler's newest nonfiction release. Based on his last work, this should be well done.
Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. I’ve heard this newest biography is a must-read for lovers of Chinese history.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.
Extreme Continental: Blowing Hot and Cold Through Central Asia by Giles Whittell and Victor Gollancz. Shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Whittell travels across Central Asia, exploring the region which had, for many years,prior, been closed off to foreigners.
Any of Alexandra David-Neel’s journals. A pioneer in the exploration of Tibet as one of the first westerners, she traveled in the guise of a peasant woman during a time when Tibet was closed to foreigners. Some believe that her “adopted Tibetan son” was also her lover. Scandal indeed, ladies!
Yak Butter And Black Tea: A Journey Into Tibet by Wade Brackenbury.
Among Warriors: A Woman Martial Artist In Tibet by Pamela Logan.
A Single Pebble by John Hershey. A short, Hemingway-like novel about an engineer who’s sent to old China to travel by traditional boats and research the construction of a dam.
Journey Across Tibet: A Young Woman's Trek Across the Rooftop of the World by Sorrel Wilby.
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The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. This book is one of my top ten favorite novels of all-time. Roy is a genius and her prose twists and teases the English language into new forms. Banned for his mention of taboo subjects (incest and relationships between members of different castes), this book has been controversial in Roy's home country. She and her mother have both been politically and environmentally involved in India for many years now.
India edited by James O'Reilly and Larry Habegger. A collection of humorous, provocative, and disturbing stories about travels through the great subcontinent.
Shooting The Boh: A Woman's Journey Down the Wildest River in Borneo by Tracy Johnston.
Gecko Tails: A Journey Through Cambodia by Carol Livingston. An account of one woman’s voyage through Cambodia.
Voices From S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison by David Chandler. This is the most macabre book I have EVER read. It's a disturbing investigation into the mentality of the Khmer Rouge's secret prison and the methods of torture used on thousands of Cambodians during the few years of Pol Pot's reign. What is disturbing is that this happened as recently as the 70s and these types of human rights' abuses continue to occur around the world to this day. Though a dark and grisly one, Cambodia's history provides us with an excellent opportunity for reflection on what drives our race to torture and to abuse.
Cambodia: Year Zero by Francois Ponchaud. Although not a travel adventure story, this is a good supplement to the Khmer country's history and a frightening illumination of the events leading up to the Khmer take-over.
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Asia: Everest and Himalayan Mountaineering (Tibet/Nepal/Pakistan):
*Because I’m a glutton for mountaineering reading, this one deserves a section of its own. My mother and I, first drawn in by Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, have gone on a bit of a quest to read as many accounts of Everest (especially concerning the 1996 storm) as we can get our hands on. In 2001, we trekked in the Khumbu Region and visited a couple of mountaineering expeditions (the Japanese and Brazilians) slated to climb there.
For as romantic of a notion as it seems to climb Everest, the reality of the environment at base camp is jolting: sub-zero temperatures at an altitude incapable of sustaining life.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. If you haven’t read this book, shame on you! Go out and buy it immediately. Whether or not you agree with Krakauer’s take on the events of the 1996 climbing disaster, his narrative is compelling, well-researched, and will set the standard in mountaineering writing for decades to come. Possibly one of the most well-written investigative adventure books I’ve ever read. His recent installation, Under The Banner Of Heaven—on fundamentalist, polygamist branches of Mormon—is just as riveting, if not better than this one.
The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev. Not written at the same literary level as Krakauer's (but equally powerful), this account of the same events provides a compelling opposition to Krakauer’s. His afterword is heartbreaking as the reader is reminded of the power that a best-selling writer like Krakauer can have on a climber’s career and reputation.
Touching My Father’s Soul by Tenzing Norgay. The son of Tenzing Norgay—and a climber who was on the IMAX expedition during the 1996 disasterr—Norgay provides a thorough and provocative look at the climbing of Everest from the lesser-heard culture of the Sherpa People. (The word Sherpa comes from the name for the people who inhabit the area around Everest. Many of the men who portage bags and set the routes for the Khumbu are of Sherpa descent. But not all Sherpa men are sherpas nor all sherpas of sherpa descent. Hence the confusion of the word).
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Tracks by Davidson. Awesome, awesome crazy adventure about a naïve, young woman who decides it would be a brilliant idea to ride by camelback across the world’s driest continent. By herself. No, she’s never been on a camel before. And no, she’s never been to Australia before either. What follows is a candid self-examination of the drive which pushes her to succeed and the guilt she feels for her actions. Wonderful.
In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. This was recommended to me by a good friend. Bryson is always entertaining.
Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I really liked this one. Marlo’s book has been dogged by controversy ever since critics demanded she retract her claim that this is nonfiction. Although she swears she really did do walkabout across the Australian desert with a nomadic group of Aboriginal People, experts vehemently argue that there are no known surviving groups which fit her descriptions and that her comments are flat-out lies designed to up her marketability and credibility.
Fatal Shore by James Michener
Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. This guy’s narrative is all over the place at times but it is the only book which I’ve read to date that describes the songlines of Australian Aborigines so clearly. When Chatwin’s good, he soars. But when he’s bad, I’d rather be flossing my teeth with rusted metal wire than reading another page.
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*I must admit that this section is a little lean based on two factors: 1) It’s so dang expensive to travel there and 2) I’m not as drawn to western Europe as I am to other parts of the world which are recovering from recent civil wars, have a distinct disrespect for woman, and a paucity of flushing toilets. Now that’s travel!
Sappo’s Leap by Erica Jong. Yes, that’s right. Erica Jong of The Fear Of Flying. What’s she doing writing a travel book you ask? Well, technically she’s not. But this was such a great companion book to traveling through southern Croatia (Dalmatian Region and Eastern Europe, I know) along the sparkling Adriatic that I had to include it. If marriage, lesbian lovers, court musicians, Egyptian lore, centaurs, and Amazonian women are your thing, then you’ll enjoy this fictionalized memoir of Sappho, the world’s greatest known Greek female poet from the island of Lesbos (yes, that’s where the word “lesbian” comes from) and her epic journey into literary history. This would be a wonderful traveling companion for journeys through the Mediterranean or the Adriatic.
Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves by Gary Nabhan. This is a beautiful, naturalist-style narrative of ethnobotanist Nabhan's trek through rural Italy following the Saint Francis of Assisi's footsteps.
The Literary Cafes of Paris by Noel Riley Fitch. Noel is a mentor of mine and a fantastic authority on all things Parisian...literary or involving anything with good coffee. This has been a best-seller for many years now.
Under The Tuscan Sun: At Home In Italy by Frances Mayes. American-born Mayes doesn’t venture far beyond her Tuscan doorstep (why would you if your backyard was filled with lemon and olive trees and vineyards?!) but her writing is poetic, sensual, and can make a naked aubergine seem sexier than Angelina Jolie in a black silk negligee. Your mouth will be watering over the food and the landscape. All without leaving your chair!
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Former Yugoslavia. This isn’t exactly a page-turner but it was one of the few books I could find which covered the contemporary history of a few parts of former Yugoslavia: Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia. Recommended if you’re heading to that area. If not, then move on to the next book.
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Latin America (Central/South America and the Carribbean):
The Shaman’s Apprentice by Mark Plotkin. This is a classic ethnobotany tale about a scientist working in the Amazon rainforest.
Serpent And The Rainbow by Wade Davis. Awesome must-read for any adventurer and lover of black magic and the underworld.
Tequila by Gary Paul Nabhan.
I haven't read this one yet but have ordered it. I am very familiar with Nabhan's nonfiction books. I always love Nabhan's writing which effortlessly combines extensive research with a distinctly personal ethnobotanical approach to conservation, food, and indigenous-related issues. Plus, I've never met a true tequila I didn't like.
Aztec by Gary Jennings. I've just ordered this book and can't wait to read it. This long piece of historical fiction has received rave reviews in its ability to humanize the people and oft-maligned rituals of the Aztec era. Looking forward to reading it...
Native Roots and Indian Givers by Jack Weatherford. Weatherford is a sociocultural anthropologist who has the rare ability to translate his vast breadth of knowledge about native American peoples' contributions to North and South America without coming off as overly-academic or stuffy.
I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala by Rigoberta Menchu, Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, and Ann Wright. A disturbing but important story to read of Riboberta's gripping life-long struggle (many of her closest family members were brutally killed) to fight for indigenous rights in her home country.
House of Spirits, My Invented Country: A Memoir , and Zorro by Isabel Allende. This literary fireball (living in California for many years now) can be credited with my initial inspiration to travel to Chile many years ago. Although fiction, her works are very much rooted in her own experiences with the political overthrow of her homeland. Her memoir of Chile is also a wonderful read and uniquely her own. If her writing doesn’t make you want to quit your job and head for a then there’s something wrong with you! She's also got a great personal website to check out.
Travels In A Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile by Sara Wheeler. This was an excellent reading companion to my four-month travels through the "thin country." Sara is a journalist by training; her writing is thorough—if not tedious at times—and most enjoyable for those who have been to Chile or are traveling through.
The Chilean Jungle phrasebook. Great reading and insight into the Chilean lexicon of slang and multi-layered sayings. Slip a couple of these into the conversation and cut-off the pronunciation of the last half of each of your words, and the Chilenos will think you’re one of them!
Into Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin. I can't understand why this is such a "classic," but Chatwin does bring the legendary aboriginal "songlines" alive in a way that few other books have. Most of this is slow and dry but some sections are worth reading.
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The Middle East:
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles.
Kingdom of the Film Star: Journey into Jordan by Annie Caulfield.
Travels With A Tangerine by Tim Mackintosh-Smith.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. This best-selling novel is a lyrical reclamation of a biblical story told from a feminist perspective. Diamant captured the 2,000 year old history so vividly that I felt I could smell the flowers along the Nile River as I read it.
Arabia: A Journey Through the Labyrinth by Jonathon Raban.
Searching For Hassan: A Journey to the Heart of Iran by Terence Ward.
The Road To Ubar by Nicholas Clapp.
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North America (the U.S. and Canada):
Eiger Dreams by Jon Krakauer. A collection of magazine articles about his mountaineering exploits (some American and some international) ranging from a bush plane landing in Alaska to being tent-bound in a snowstorm for several days. I got a special kick out of his tent-bound story after a trip to Patagonia during summer storms and found myself wondering, "How many packages of ramen noodles can I eat in a day?" and constantly dogged by one haunting nightmare, "What if I run out of reading material?" I know. A nightmare!
A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson.
Even Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston. This is a collection of "fictionalized" stories about Houston's exploits with rough-around-the-edges but damn sexy men. I especially enjoy Houston's candor and self-deprecating humor about her frequent and abhorrent taste in men.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. To be honest, there’s only so much of Abbey that I can take but in short doses, he does the trick. An excellent, fiery reading companion to travels through the red rock of the beehive state (that’s Utah for all you Utah-virgins out there).
any Travelers Tales' anthology. Check out their website for a list of all their titles.
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