Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Booklist's Top 10 Literary Travel Books: 2011

--titles chosen by Brad Hooper (article first published in Booklist (September 15, 2011) and individual reviews published in earlier Booklist issues by their writers)
Ardent travelers are not about to give up traveling or reading about other travelers’ experiences. T
here is much to appreciate in each of the following exciting travelogues, all reviewed in Booklist over the past year.

l Jacobs) - On average, the Andes range is second only to the Himalayas in elevation. The Andes is also the longest continuous mountain range in the world, stretching more than 5,000 miles from Panama to the southern tip of South America. Jacobs, author of several travel books, inherited his interest in the Andes from his grandfather, who spent extensive time there and later enthralled Jacobs with his tales. So this book is a saga of Jacobs fulfilling his dream of traveling the full length of the range that is filled with encounters with diverse, colorful characters as well as the ghosts of near-vanished Native American civilizations. Historical figures who have made their mark on the region, including Simón Bolívar and the explorer Alexander von Humboldt, flit in and out of the narrative. As Jacobs travels, he seems alternately laid-back and awed as he becomes overwhelmed by the immensity of the landscape. This absorbing and charming travelogue will be of particular interest to those who have already visited or plan to visit South America. — Jay Freeman

Day of Ho
ney: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War (Annia Ciezadlo) - “I cook to comprehend the place I’ve landed in,” muses Ciezadlo early in her first book, a vividly written memoir of her adventures in travel and taste in the Middle East. Like any successful travelogue writer, she fills her pages with luminous, funny, and stirring portraits of the places and people she came across in her time abroad. But there is also, always, her passion for food, and through it, she parses the many conundrums she faced in her wanderings, such as the struggle to define identity, ethnic and personal, and the challenge of maintaining social continuity in wartime. The capstone to all her thoughtful ruminations is a mouthwatering final chapter collecting many of the dishes she describes earlier in the book. She does this all in writing that is forthright and evocative, and she reminds us that the best memoirs are kaleidoscopes that blend an author’s life and larger truths to make a sparkling whole. — Taina Lagodzinski

India Calling
: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking (Anand Giridharadas) - The author’s parents, from India, lived a comfortable, professional life in the U.S. “Shaker Heights [Ohio],” Giridharadas says, “was a warm and generous place.” While growing up, Giridharadas recognized his mother's and father’s continued love of their ancestral homeland, but at the same time he witnessed that “they accepted and came to savor the American way of life.” Hearing an inner call to reverse the migration process of his folks, he flew, as a new college graduate, to Mumbai to work, having already secured a position in the local office of an American management-consulting firm. He plunged into Indian life in the midst of the country’s awakening as an economc and technological giant, as an ancient culture surfacing as a world power. The author is now a New York Times and International Herald Tribune columnist stationed in India. His perambulations around the subcontinent have revealed to him significant aspects of India’s changes to meet modern ways, and this anecdote-rich account of what he did and saw is as well expressed as it is well informed. — Brad Hooper

Molotov’s Ma
gic Lantern: Travels in Russian History (Rachel Polonsky) - British writer Polonsky moved to Moscow and took up residence in a once-opulent old building that had been a favorite of the Soviet elite, including the monstrous Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s second in command. Invited into Molotov’s apartment, still owned by his granddaughter, Polonsky is morbidly fascinated by Molotov’s belongings, including a magic lantern and a stash of books from his formerly enormous library. And so begins Polonsky’s book-steered journey through modern Russian history. Cogently descriptive, empathic, plucky, and acerbic, Polonsky begins with a tour of Moscow’s grim landmarks of the Stalin era, then ventures out into the countryside, excavating the tragic and heroic stories of writers and scientists who suffered banishment and worse, many the victims of Molotov’s industrious murderousness. She visits the site of Dostoyevsky’s dacha and Rostov-on-Don, the world of the Cossacks, which Isaac Babel so bravely infiltrated. She travels north to the formidable Kola Peninsula, then to Siberia, the realm of shamans, exiles, and prisoners; a Buddhist enclave along the Mongolian border; and imperiled Lake Baikal. Polonsky is so steeped in Russian history and literature that everywhere she goes, her inner magic lantern projects the past onto the present, the imagined onto the real, and what we see is an illuminated land of immense brutality and beauty, suffering and spirit. — Donna Seaman

Saved by Beau
ty: Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran (Roger Housden) - Both readers new to Housden and fans of his poetry will treasure this memorable account of what may be a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Even better, his insights are also sure to inform and maybe even re-form preconceived notions many hold about Iran. Housden acknowledges he has long been fascinated by this ancient country, its culture, and its poets but had not visited it until the winter of 2008–09. His fine prose constructs an enchanting picture book of Iran’s majestic architectural achievements. From his visit to the locale where writing was invented to his conversations with Iranian artists and philosophers of today, Housden shines a light on an Iran few Westerners will ever glimpse. These are young, creative people who are striving to marry the best of Iran’s culture, its 6,000-year-old roots, with the best of a new, secular culture that prizes the freedoms of speech and religion as well as gender equality. He is much inspired by Iran’s gleaming mosques and these sophisticated individuals, even though he is interrogated and threatened with imprisonment by representatives of Iran’s paranoid government. It is impossible not to lose oneself in Housden’s many-faceted narrative. — Donna Chavez

The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road
(Paul Theroux) - As a travel writer, Therou
x has few contemporary rivals and no peers. His many books have hammered home the axiom that in meaningful travel the destination is never as significant as the journey itself. Theroux’s descriptive faculties and his deft, if often pitiless, eye for the insincere and the dishonest in the array of characters he encounters on his worldwide voyages leave readers indelibly haunted. Theroux’s admirers will welcome this anthology of those travel accounts that he himself has found admirable or influential or enlightening for his own literary achievements. A fecund resource for anyone who might wish to follow in Theroux’s footsteps, this is a remarkably perceptive and incisive annotated bibliography of travel books. Having surveyed this array of literature and having pursued the peripatetic existence, Theroux arrives at a destination: 10 brief commandments that serve as a vade mecum for travel and for life itself. — Mark Knoblauch

Through the Eyes
of the Vikings: An Aerial Vision of Arctic Lands (Robert B. Haas) - Aerial photographer Haas continues his magnificent Through the Eyes series, following volumes on Africa and Latin America with an on-the-wing tour of the Arctic Circle. Why through the eyes of the Vikings? Because of their “hardy and adventurous spirit of exploration and enterprise.” Not to mention pillaging. While humans are rarely in evidence in these dramatic aerial views, the fact is we are everywhere in this seemingly pristine realm in the insidious form of pollution and the rapidly increasing effects of global warming. That concern aside, Haas’ exquisitely patterned panoramas invite awed contemplation. The stunning variety of landscapes is a surprise, the grand spectrum of turquoises, whites, and earth tones an astonishment. Haas’ gaze reaches whales beneath the sea, and caribou, polar bears, Dall sheep, and Icelandic horses on vast vistas of ice, peatland, and mountains. Haas invites us to contemplate the Arctic’s forbidding yet endangered glory in the belief that the battle between those who would exploit it and those who would protect this wilderness will “test the contours of the human spirit itself.” — Donna Seaman

To a Mount
ain in Tibet (Colin Thubron) - Kailas is a sacred, snow-capped mountain of the Himalayas in a remote area of western Tibet. There have been no recorded attempts to climb it, in deference to Buddhist, Hindu, Bön, and Jainist beliefs. Award-winning British travel writer and novelist Thubron (Shadow of the Silk Road, 2007) traveled along the Karnali River (a tributary of the Ganges) by foot with only a guide, a cook, and a horse man on a long and often treacherous trek to visit this mystical peak, considered holy by one-fifth of humankind. The journey is the reward, for both writer and reader, in this rich, beautiful account of the landscape, people, culture, and politics of Tibet. Much more than a travel guide or history lesson, this engrossing and gorgeously written book is also a stirring memoir tinged with the author’s own grief, reflecting on the joys and losses he’s experienced. Thubron is the steward of his father’s legacy and keeper of his mother’s memories, sharing familial recollections on a pilgrimage toward one of nature’s precious jewels, and his own parentless future. — Chris Keech

To the Diamond Mountains: A Hundred-Year Journey through China and Korea
Tessa Morris-Suzuki) - The Diamond Mountains, located primarily in North Korea, are renowned for their beauty and have been an object of interest, even adoration, by sages, poets, spiritualists, and ordinary Koreans for centuries. Currently, the region has been a site of increased tension between North and South Korea, as they had shared administration of a tourist park there. Morris-Suzuki, an Australian professor, recently traveled through northeast China and the two Koreas; she was retracing the route of Emily Kemp, an extraordinary writer, artist, and intrepid adventurer who wrote about her experiences a century ago. Morris-Suzuki, like her predecessor, is a keen observer and a fine writer; she has combined the disciplines of history and travel writing in an absorbing analysis of the past, present, and future of this volatile region. China and South Korea, with their dynamism, seem a world apart from the repressive, static North Korea, but Morris-Suzuki succeeds in putting a human face on the long-suffering people of that pariah state. — Jay Freeman

The Year W
e Seized the Day: A True Story of Friendship and Renewal on the Camino (Elizabeth Best & Colin Bowles) - They barely knew each other — Best a young writer just starting off and Bowles a middle-aged writer of several books. She suggests he accompany her on a 500-mile walk on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrimage on the Spanish coast to the tomb of St. James. They set off on a 36-day journey that will test them physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. They met fellow pilgrims of all nationalities, shape, sizes, and dispositions, from devout to flighty, and their hosts ranged from kind to exploitative — and then there was the screaming nun. Bowles was to be her rock, get her through the pilgrimage, but within weeks, his demons were roaring. Their alternating perspectives run the gamut from hilarious to tragic as they reveal more and more of themselves on a wrenching journey across endless wheat fields, forests, roadways, and small villages, suffering blisters, dehydration, fever, and murderous fights. This is more than a travelogue, though the beautiful scenery and intriguing history are here. This is a journey of self-examination, a tortured experience of friendship developed and strained to the breaking point, then repaired, as two individuals prepare themselves to resume life after the Camino. — Vanessa Bush