Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Favorite travel books - a never-ending list

As a travel writer, the one question I get asked more than any single question is: "Where's your favorite/most memorable/most exciting place/trip/experience you've been/had...etc.?" in all its shapes and forms.

My answer is pretty standard: Don't have one. Unless it's the next place I'm going to, maybe... I've had memorable experiences - good and bad - everyone I've traveled. There is no one place I would pick over any other. I'm not fence-sitting - that's just the way I feel. It reflects my experiences and the way I deal with things, I guess. Doesn't matter where I've been - Thailand or Peru, the Cayman Islands or Africa, Malaysia or Belize - I've had some good times and some bad times. Obviously, I've had much more good than bad, or I wouldn't do this any more. But I digress from the real subject of this blog post.

Probably the second-most asked question I get regards travel books: What's my favorite?

Again, I don't have one favorite. I do have several I'd recommend, though. (You know what's coming next, don't you? Another list ...)

Some of these are literary travel books; others are guide books; some are collections of travel stories and some are not even strictly travel, per se, but there is an element of travel to them.

Some I've read only once; others are I've poured through and dog-eared the pages or highlighted the trips (if they're guidebooks). Some I read almost daily, like a religion.

Hard to pick a Top 10 in this category, for, as the title of this post suggests, it's really always growing. But as of this moment in time, to the best of my mind's recollection, these are my current Top 10 Favorite Travel Books. They aren't in any particular order, they're just in the order in which they popped into my head.

1. From a Wooden Canoe by Jerry Dennis. So, right off the bat, I name a book that probably has much less to do with travel than it does the outdoor life. However, my first real "travels" did involve canoeing. Besides, it's my list. This book features a collection of essays Jerry wrote for Canoe & Kayak magazine over the course of several years. At times funny, at other times poignant, but always very well written, I read stories from this at least once a week. My favorite is the essay on "Camp Coffee" that begins, "Morning isn't morning without a cup of coffee, but not just any cup will do ..."

2. 1000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz. If you're making a bucket list, this book is indispensable. Before I even got it, I'd done several of the trips described in its pages. I've done more since then, and it helped me plan part of my itinerary for a recent trip to Thailand. Great book to read for fun while planning holidays during a long winter evening, it's also great for the kind of quick glance required during "bathroom reading" sessions.

3. Smile When You're Lying by Chuck Thompson. A hilarious read for travel writers and tourism industry reps alike, even if you're not in the biz, it's an entertaining read. If you are considering a career switch to travel writing, you might think twice after reading this - or maybe it'll push you to jump even quicker! He's come out with a sequel I have yet to read, but sooner or later, I will get around to it.

4. Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm. Along the same lines as Thompson's book, but much more fictitious in nature. Entertaining - but don't believe that everything the author cites in here actually happens to guidebook writers on assignment. This book cause a bit of a stir in Vancouver in 2008, when a local columnist for a North Vancouver weekly who shall remain nameless (she knows who she is) reviewed the book, but also used it as a vehicle for launching into a critique of travel writers everywhere (she's not a travel writer herself). While some of her points were valid, publicly critiquing others in your profession is a bit unethical; if a lawyer or doctor or accountant had done that, they would have quickly lost their accreditation in any professional association in which they held membership. That aside, it is funny and worth a read - just bear in mind it's as much fiction as it is fact.

5. Tigers in Red Weather by Ruth Padel. This book is part memoir, part travelogue, part conservation story. It details the author's travels around Asia, in an effort to try to see every species of the seven tiger species left in this world before more become extinct. In addition to describing the hoops she has to jump through to try to see these animals, it details her own struggles to find a way to make a difference, to help them survive and avoid extinction. She also sprinkles in moments about the kinds of struggles most travel writers - or travelers, for that matter - can relate to: the scramble to find ways to pay for her odyssey.

6. Travels on my Elephant by Mark Shand. A memoir about the author's journey around India, riding the back of an elephant. It's been years since I read this, but I loved it. The one thing that's stayed with me about the story throughout the years is the end of it: Shand forms a very close bond with both his elephant and the mahout hired to take the pair around India, and the author finds it incredibly difficult to part ways when their journey is finally done.

7. Dining with Headhunters by Richard Sterling. One of my favorite writers, he combines food, adventure and travel into all his books. This collection is kind of unique, because it consists of short anecdotes based on his travels around southeast Asia, mainly while stationed aboard a U.S. naval vessel during the Vietnam War. Each story has food in it, and at the end of each story, recipes are supplied so you can re-create his experiences. So it's a cookbook as well as a travel book. My favorite? The "Feasts of Fatima," wherein the author falls in love with a lady of the evening. Very poignant. Great satay recipes, too.

8. Shadow of the Bear by Brian Payton. Very similar to the Padel book described above. Vancouver writer Brian Payton wanders the world, trying to gain a view of every kind of bear found around the globe. His travels are much more global than Padel's, since wild bears can still be found on four of the six continents, the exceptions being Australia (koalas are not bears) and Antarctica (those are penguins, not small bears in tuxedos!). He asks many of the same questions about bears and their future in our world as Padel asks about tigers. If you enjoy one, you'll probably enjoy the other.

9. The Tent Dwellers by Albert Bigelow Paine. Okay, you there had to be at least one book in this list that details a paddling trip, right? This is it. Paine was Mark Twain's biographer. He also spent a summer canoeing, camping, fishing and generally exploring the wilds of Nova Scotia in the first decade of the 20th century. That tale is told in this little volume, which I read myself back in 2000 - right before I planned a canoe trip in Kejimkujik National Park, which I then wrote about in Ski Canada's Outdoor Guide and the Georgia Straight. I didn't follow his path precisely, as he and his companions only spent a bit of time in the waterways of the national park, the rest of the time paddling outside of the boundaries in the vast waterways of the area.

10. The Art of the Airways/All Aboard! Okay, so I fudged it. These are really 10 and 10A. But I didn't know how to include one without the other. They both feature vintage art from the Golden Age of Air and Rail Travel. The first is a beautiful hardcover, coffee-table type book with many reproductions of posters from the airlines that first began taking people around the world. The second is a paperback book that I enjoyed while traveling across Canada by train, myself. If you love history, art deco style art, if you're in love with what many refer to as "The Golden Age of Travel" - or any combination of all three, you'd probably enjoy these books.

Well, there you have it. It was tough keeping it to 10 (well, okay, 11!) but I did have to cut off the list somewhere. Of course, now that I've done this, next week I'll probably read a new book that I'll wish I could have included here. Just like the wistful adage of travel (So many places, so little time...) there are so many books, and so little time ...

1 comment:

  1. These travel books are very interesting to read specially if you will personally be traveling to the place in the story itself. This is a good list!

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