What Should I Read Before My Next Trip?

LessJust read the novel Less in under 24 hours. I had to find out what happened next, then discover the ending. Andrew Sean Greer won the 2018 Pulitzer for fiction with this travel novel. Most booksellers will rightfully shelve it in fiction. I have placed it with my favorite travel reads.

Similar to Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir, it is the tale of an author traveling the globe to escape heartache and to find oneself. Except that Arthur Less is fictional. In this story Arthur learns to love himself a little more as he turns the big 5-0. It also gave me insight into gay culture. The author also exploits the advantage of a narrator who seems to be in Arthur’s head. We travel with Arthur from San Francisco to New York City to Mexico to Turin Italy, to Germany, to Morocco, to India, to Kyoto Japan to the Vulcan Steps in San Francisco. The descriptions are delightful, awful, and sometimes also funny, depending on the circumstance.

I have started to highlight “sparkletts” that I love rolling off my tongue or around in my head. Samples from Less include: …that crazy quilt of a writer’s life: warm enough, though it never quite covers the toes …what he met were not young Turks but proud bloated middle-aged artists who rolled in the river like sea lions… The kind of guy who wore his bicycle helmet while shopping…knuckle-whitening rattletrap wellspring of trauma.

It got me thinking about the various books I’ve read to prep for travel or to temporarily satisfy the need for travel in my life. My favorite travel authors whose work I’ve read EVERYTHING include: Bill Bryson Notes from a Small Island, and Tony Horwitz Confederates in the Attic. I just learned that Tony Horwitz has a new book coming out May 14, 2019: Spying on the South. (Just preordered!)

I consume a lot of podcasts. One of my favorites is What Should I Read Next? with Ann Bogel. And I was thinking about promoting the release of my travel guide for planning your own civil rights crawl. I thought about applying to be a guest–and there is a questionnaire to complete–so I’m practicing here. The topic I would want to discuss with her is travel literature. Not guidebooks, per se, but the broader idea of books where the characters or author travel. Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley is a classic, but there are many more that take a little effort to find.

IMG_7759You may also find suggestions for the place you are traveling next from Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust to Go. I have found some terrific books from her recommendations and some duds. Sometimes I discover that my interest in, say Norwegian, literature is limited. One of her recommendations is in my top three travel books I love:

1. Come On Shore and We Will Eat You All by Christina Thompson, a New Zealand story.

It is hard to choose among so many great books, and yet I remember #2 book having a tremendous impact on me, perhaps because my heart was already tenderized by Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham classics.

2. Looking for Lovedu by Ann Jones, a memoir of traveling from Africa top to bottom

Choosing the third book is really tough because there are so many options. I only have one continent left to visit–Antarctica. I have read the journals of explorers and book about penguins by scientists. When I was in Australia I discovered #3 on my list.

3. Shiver by Nikki Gemmell, a novel set in Antarctica

Ann Bogel also asks her guests for one book they hate (or didn’t care for if you hate the “h” word, haha). This is harder to select because some years ago I learned to abandon books I do not enjoy. In knitting an abandoned project is “frogged” so I write this in my the back of my journal with a note why. I had to rack my memory for a travel book I abandoned or read with a sour face. In college I tried reading something by Paul Theroux. I can’t remember exactly what but I was completely turned off by his tone of disdain for the place or for the reader or both, my memory is fuzzy after 35 years. Nancy Pearl tried to convince me to give him another try, but alas, one chapter in a book store and I returned The Great Railway Bazaar to the shelf. I will provide a more current answer though. After PBS began showing The Durrells television series, I mentioned to someone that I didn’t enjoy the show as much as I hoped (I love Keeley Hawes mostly). They said, “Oh, you have to read the book it’s based on! I loved it.” So I dutifully bought Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals about their life on Corfu and waited for it to get good. And waited. And waited till the end. It’s not for me.

Ann Bogel also asks guests what they are reading now. I have several books on the go, but in keeping with the theme of travel, I am reading next: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. This stretches the theme of travel as it is historical fiction involving travel by hot air balloon.

If Ann Bogel asked me what I’d like to be different about my reading life, I’d be hard pressed. I love the variety of my reading, and the amount I read. I enjoy both printed books and e-books. I listen to a lot of podcasts but I’m not that keen on listening to books. Although sometimes the narrator experience tempts me–like when I heard a review of Lincoln at the Bardo–a book I struggled to read and keep the characters straight. Hearing Liz Dolan recommend the audio version with dozens of actors sounded like fun. I don’t like headphones either, so that makes it hard to listen to books on planes or in public. I was feeling bad about not getting more books from the library until I heard one of her guests refer to her book buying as being a patron of the arts. That’s me! Plus when I buy them used from Time Tested Books, or new from Avid Reader, I can share them with my mom and others and keep my local bookstores open.

I write this blog to inspire travel. I am pushing myself into writing travel guides, where I am much less comfortable, because I want to help people design their own more off-beat adventures. Just as Arthur Less and Elizabeth Gilbert learned aspects about themselves that they’d never had known if they had not left home, I always discover so much about what I love, what’s not for me, and what I want to do next when I travel. And always, I pack books I can leave behind so I can lug more books home that I discovered along the way.

 

 

Reading on the Go

Kafka’s statement, “A good book should be an axe for the frozen sea within us,” is actually something I read in David Whyte’s book The Heart Aroused whilst traveling.

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gratuitous photo of grandson reading! 

Many people travel to break open the confines of their perspective and cages of habit that can inhibit creativity. When people ask me to name times of my life when I felt most truly alive, I invariably think of times when I am abroad. So combine reading and travel and you have something powerful indeed.

First, there is reading to prepare for a trip. Before I went to Venice, Italy this year I read John Berendt’s City of Falling Angels. If I had not read this book I might not have prioritized Peggy Guggenheim’s exquisite museum. It also helped me gauge my expectations and I found myself liking Venice more for seeing it less romantically.

Second, there is reading while you are on the trip to better understand the people and culture. I am not talking about guidebooks, although they can be helpful. If you are in New Zealand, than any book by Barry Crump (whose short story inspired the wonderful movie The Hunt for the Wilderpeople) will help you understand any number of bastards* you will meet. To find those books you only need pop into an independent bookstore in the country you are visiting. My favorite in Auckland is the incomparable Unity bookstore. Or if you are going to a predominantly non-English speaking country, check out Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust To Go and take a few books with you.

Then there is reading to imagine that you are traveling when, in fact, you are not or cannot. This is the most important reading of all. In one of my favorite movies about CS Lewis, Shadowlands, Anthony Hopkins as Lewis tells a young student that we read so that know we are not alone. Yes, and we read so we don’t feel stuck. I am not brave enough to travel to the Middle East to visit the Christian holy sites, so I am reading James Martin, SJ’s Jesus, a Pilgrimage.

Finally, and perhaps best of all, we read to laugh. We laugh at cultural misunderstandings, travel mishaps, and more. The master of the travel book that will make you laugh is Bill Bryson. I laughed through The Road to Little Dribbling as I have through his other books.(The movie of A Walk in the Woods was wry and a good excuse to watch Robert Redford. Imagine being an author and having Robert Redford play you in a movie!)

What will you be reading in 2017?

*you will find “bastard” is not a shocking swear word in New Zealand, only mildly so.

How to Keep Your Sense of Humor Whilst Traveling

After 24 hours on the road it can start to become a challenge to see the lighter side of situations. I like to laugh instead of getting angry, but sometimes your nerves get frayed from crying babies keeping you awake and one too many hurdles to overcome. This is when a great travel book comes in handy. Sometimes it is enough to know that someone had it worse than you. Even sweeter, if the travel book is also full of humor.

DribblingIt was serendipitous that on the afternoon that my travel plans dissolved like sugar in hot tea, I discovered Bill Bryson has a new travel book. If you have never read Notes from a Small Island or Walk in the Woods (or any of his dozen books), then you have many great days of reading ahead. Just one warning: do not read in public because you will laugh out loud so hard you will snort embarrassingly. I had no idea that it has already been 20 years since his memoir of tramping around the UK was published. He did some more long walks to celebrate and captured his misadventures in The Road to Little Dribbling.

I was in the Gatwick airport bookstore and it was already past the 24-hour mark since I departed from Sacramento when I discovered Bill Bryson wrote a new book. My flight had already disappeared from the marquee, and I knew it had been rerouted to Pisa and was delayed 2 hours. I was going to miss dinner with my cycling fan friends but still had hopes of getting to the Villa I Barronci before midnight.

As soon as I boarded the sauna like Vueling flight and wedged myself in the middle seat, I cracked open the Bryson cure. If anything could inoculate me from grumpiness, reading Dribbling would. Sure enough before they could circulate the air in the cabin I was smiling. I did not worry about my fellow passengers noticing my mirth as they were so absorbed in their electronic gadgets that they did not even acknowledge me.

I am so glad I had taken the cure because as we stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac it began to rain in Pisa. I made friends with Janet from Cambridge, England and we helped one another figure out where to catch the bus to Florence. As she predicted, there was much faffing around before everyone collected their bags, and the airline provided us buses, and we loaded on, and they counted people and we finally began the journey to Florence.

I was punchy by the time I collapsed into a taxi at midnight and gave him the Villa’s address. I thought if my mom was with me we would have been side-sore from giggling as the GPS sent my driver on U turn after U turn. I called Jacinta my tour guide when we turned on the road to Rome. Once she put us in touch with Leonard from reception to speak to my driver in Italian, we course corrected and arrived about 30 minutes after we should have. The driver took 20 Euros off the bill, which was very decent of him.

Leonard was handsome and welcoming and made more attractive by bringing me a plate of Italian ham and cheese with bread. My room is so comfortable and this morning I discovered the views just shout “Tuscany!”

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View from the gate of the Villa I Barronci.

We cannot control very much when we travel. We do get to choose our attitude. I am so glad Mr. Bryson gave me a much needed assist so I could see the brighter side of the situation.