Six Terrific Travel Books
Having been inspired by the Australian Travel Writing Festival last weekend, here are six ‘travel’ books I’ve loved, from memoir that opened up another way of life for me, to novels that have recreated other lands so vividly they’ve inspired me to travel there.
My Family and other Animals by Gerald Durrell
We had never been certain of my mother’s age for the simple reason she could never remember her date of birth; all I can say is she was old enough to have four children. My mother also insists that I explain that she is a widow for, as she so penetratingly observed, you never know what people might think.
Naturalist Gerald Durrell wrote a number of books about his travels through exotic lands and experiences with animals (A Zoo in my Luggage is another great read) but this one is my favourite - perhaps because I read it first. A deservedly much-loved travel narrative, Durrell depicts his childhood spent on the Greek island of Corfu with his eccentric family in hilarious, heart-warming fashion.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
There is the city where you arrive for the first time; and there is another city which you leave never to return. Each deserves a different name; perhaps I have already spoken of Irene under other names; perhaps I have spoken only of Irene.
I became obsessed with visiting Venice at a young age when someone informed me that the place was sinking, a notion that seemed unbearably romantic to me, and when I later discovered Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, I was determined to go. I travelled there a few years back where it rained the entire week, I narrowly escaped staying at a hostel with bed bugs and later, accidentally spent 20 euros on a hot chocolate. I re-read Calvino’s book during my trip and found myself even more interested in his language and ideas than ever.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
I didn’t get to grow up and pull away from her and bitch about her with my friends and confront her about the things I’d wished she’d done differently and then get older and understand that she had done the best she could and realize that what she had done was pretty damn good and take her fully back into my arms again.
From the outset, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods (which I also loved), giving us the story of an inexperienced female hiker who impulsively decides to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. But Wild is a different kind of book. At twenty-two, Strayed lost her mother to cancer sending her ‘off-track’ and her hike along the PCT comes four years later at a very low time in her life. Her struggles with nature are invariably linked with her emotional state and I became completely invested in them both.
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda
Me gustas cuando callas porque estás como ausente / y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te toca.
When I finished high school I went to live in South America for a year where I learnt how to dance the salsa and speak Spanish - both badly- and this book was a big part of why I went. Reading Pablo Neruda’s poems in English was wonderful but I wanted to understand them in more detail, not just be able to read the Spanish words but to understand some part of the context from which he was writing. Reading the same work in different languages is a terrific experience and if you’re interested then be sure to have a look at the latest issue of McSweeney’s, described as a ‘monumental experiment in translated literature’.
Riding the Trains in Japan by Patrick Holland
On my first night riding the trains in Japan I felt the logic of journey dissolve; I was travelling nowhere, travelling only in order to be no-place - in an ahistorical, de-territorialised and perpetual ‘non-place’…
I’m only part-way through Riding the Trains in Japan but am enjoying so much already I’ve included here. Patrick Holland’s collection of personal essays take us through Japan, Vietnam and China, with reflections on travel, identity, the relationship between modernity and tradition and more. His writing is intimate and open, and endlessly thoughtful.
What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg
Winds shake the leaves and for a moment I smell smoke. I concentrate on the scent, but it vanishes into the aroma of rain and tree bark, the way one life can collapse into another and different people can stir within the same body, like bats thrashing inside a secret hollow.
From classics such as The Great Gastby, to new, exciting writing such as Swamplandia!, I’m regularly entranced by the writing that comes from America, a somehow familiar yet entirely bizarre place. I’ve included this collection in particular because not only do I want to recommend Laura van den Berg to every single person in the world, but she also has an amazing story in here that features the Loch Ness monster, stirring up a wholly new interest in visiting the famed loch.