November 11, 2012

Travel book jackpot: Sam McManis lists his 10 favorites

The world, without question, is shrinking. I don't mean in the climate-change, global-warming sense. That may indeed be true, but it's outside this story's purview, so hold off with the flaming online comments.

The world, without question, is shrinking. I don't mean in the climate-change, global-warming sense. That may indeed be true, but it's outside this story's purview, so hold off with the flaming online comments.

By shrinking, I mean that the world is coming closer to us than ever, and we to it. A Sacramento barista can live-chat with a supplier of shade-grown coffee in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to discuss special brews. A globetrotter can breakfast in Paris and be back in downtown Sacramento for a fashionably late dinner at Ella.

Why, then, should people pay attention to travel writing when many have the means to jet there and experience, rather than merely read about, far-flung locales? Or, lacking resources, why commit to a book when they can learn all they think they need to know about Oman or Andorra by skimming 140-character Tweets?

Here's why: Travel books – true literature, not user-friendly guides dealing in starred hotels and Zagat-rated bistros – provide context beyond the tourist facades. They promote understanding, focus an analytic eye on places and events. We need someone to make sense of what we see.

As Mark Twain, arguably America's first travel writer, mused in "Innocents Abroad": "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

Unless, of course, you're curled up in that little corner with a nightstand full of good travel books. Travel writers can be stand-ins for us, emissaries enabling us to broaden our minds from the comforts of home.

Those usual-suspect, best-selling travel books – "Eat, Pray, Love," "A Year in Provence" and "Under the Tuscan Sun" – need no more hyping. But in the past 30 years, a steamer trunk full of wonderfully wrought travel literature has been published.

What follows is a personal top 10 great travel reads. We're interested in yours. Send a top 10 to or via Twitter, @SamMcManis.

1. "The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas," by Paul Theroux (1979)

Theroux is widely considered the dean of living literary travel writers. His most lauded work is "The Great Railway Bazaar," his early-1970s exploration of traveling through Asia. But for sheer masterful writing and reader engagement, "Old Patagonian" eclipses it.

Its premise may be gimmicky – Theroux boards the subway in his home in Medford, Mass., and keeps taking trains, whenever possible, as far south as they will go to Patagonia in Chile. Theroux announces early on that this travel book will differ because it's solely about the process of travel, not what you'll find at the destination.

Why go by train?

"The rapidity diminishes the pleasure of the journey," he writes. "... Although it has become the way of the world, we still ought to lament the fact that airplanes have made us insensitive to space; we are encumbered, like lovers in suits of armor."

At times, Theroux can be condescending and a tad misogynistic – he was writing in the mid-'70s – but, all told, the book is knowing, funny (especially a scene in which he's stuck on a train in Central America with a boorish American tourist) and crackling with descriptive writing.

Excerpt: "It was, mainly, my other fear: the distortion of companionship. I did not want to see things with anyone else's eyes. I knew this experience. If they point out something you have seen already you realize that your own perception was rather obvious; if they indicate something you missed, you feel cheated, and it is a greater cheat to offer it later as your own.

"Because I had no camera and had written so much, my impressions of what I had seen were vivid. I could call up Mexico or Costa Rica by glancing at the conversations I had written, and from the particularities of the railway journey from Santa Marta to Bogotá I felt I could reinvent Colombia. Travel was, above all, a test of memory."

2. "My Kind of Place: Travel Stories From a Woman Who's Been Everywhere," by Susan Orlean (2004)

The celebrated New Yorker magazine writer, best known for narrative nonfiction books such as "The Orchid Thief," shows that great travel writing does not have to involve excursions to distant lands. Here, she examines the wonders of such exotic locales as Midland, Texas, Prattville, Ala., and Dimondale, Mich.

Sure, there's also a memorable piece about traveling to Bhutan with a group of American women desperate to get pregnant by participating in a Bhutanese fertility ceremony involving ivory penises. ("The penises in Bhutan amazed me, there were so many of them," is how she begins the story.)

Orlean excels at finding juxtapositions and incongruities.

"To find a country adorned in such a way was as astounding as it might be if the Amish decided to decorate their barns with enormous breasts," she writes of Bhutan.

Excerpt (on spending time at a mineral water spa in Hungary): "I realized then the Hevis canon is that you come and get cured of your aches and pains and then get younger and younger; once you plateau at whatever age you're going to regress to, you go and eat a lot of hot dogs and chocolate cake and loll around."

3. "Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World," by Pico Iyer (1993)

Iyer is a writer who roots for the underdog locales, "the places that have no seat at our international dinner table."

He's the author a dozen globe-trotting travel books, and this work serves as a tidy omnibus. He reports on places such as North Korea, Iceland, Cuba and Bhutan.

His style is more open and forgiving to these foreign places, differing greatly from strong-opinioned writers such as Theroux. But that doesn't mean Iyer lacks insight. Hardly. While in Cuba, he notes that the cars are fin-tailed 1950 American-made relics left over, pre-Castro, imbuing the country with "the ramshackle glamour of an abandoned stage set."

Though thoughtful and measured a writer, Iyer is not averse to fun and danger. He takes a harrowing jeep ride through Bhutan's curvy roads ("Sometimes I was thrown on top of the driver sometimes I was pushed into the woman – or, after she left, towards the door. This was unfortunate because the jeep had no door.")

Excerpt (On Iceland): "There was something going on in the chilly, haunted silences. After a while the preternatural stillness of the treeless wastes can get to you, and inside you, and you can feel a Brontean wildness in the soul. Sometimes it feels as if the land itself invites you almost to see in its changing moods a reflection of your own and, in the turning of the seasons, some deeper, inner shift from light to dark."

4. "Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone," by Mary Morris (1988)

Long before "Eat, Pray, Love," Morris deftly conflated travel and memoir writing. She's either fleeing from personal crisis or traveling to a new life – or both – in a picaresque account of traveling solo through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Remember, this was at a time of considerable unrest in Latin America, so the risks were many.

But Morris doesn't exploit danger, nor does she overly romanticize her stops along the way. She begins in San Miguel, Mexico, populated by American artistic aspirants nursing all sorts of psychic wounds.

Soon, she lights out to the jungles and sea in search of well, she's not sure. Love, of course. Self-awareness, certainly. Ripping yarns, too.

She is chased by a barracuda at one point. Here she is traversing through a jungle: "A giant rodent the size of a small pig crossed the path in front of me. It looked like a souped-up hot rod, its hind legs raised well above its front."

Excerpt: "Women who travel as I travel are dreamers. Our lives seem to be lives of endless possibility. We forget that this is not our real life – our life of domestic details, work pressures, attempts and failures at human relations. We keep moving. From anecdote to anecdote, from hope to hope. Around the next bend something new will befall us. Nostalgia has no place for the woman traveling alone. Our motion is forward, whether by train or daydream."

5. "Riding Toward Everywhere," by William T. Vollmann (2008)

In the hands of a lesser writer, a book about "catching out" on trains with the dispossessed could well dissolve into saccharine nostalgia about the noble "hobo." But Vollmann's critical eye is too precise, his writing too pointed to venture into that territory.

Though the bulk of the book (adapted from an essay he wrote for Harper's magazine) is actually about his railroad adventures with his fearless Sacramento pal Steve, how they dodge the authorities ("bulls") and flirt with the shady characters found along the way, there is a simmering anger about what Vollmann calls our "increasingly un-American America." Or maybe it's just the whiskey talking.

Vollmann is as much social critic as travelogue author. He rides up and down California, into Idaho, Wyoming and Washington, always coming back to Sacramento. He never stays anywhere long, and his elliptical prose reads the same. Much of what he sees appalls him. And, remember, this is a writer who has traveled with the Mujahedin in Afghanistan and hung out with Thai prostitutes.

Excerpt: "We were riding a lumber gondola whose huge packets of planks bore one rectangular gap on the right-hand side, another smaller gap on the left, and a passage between them. It was the perfect refuge; we could dodge the bulls no matter which side they came on. Hunkering down against officialdom, we passed through the yard at increasing speed, reached and left that former overpass in a couple of breaths, and off we sped, accompanied by fog, mountains, and water-lined fields, with the dim dusk scrolling by, the train shuddering and groaning, the wood groaning. Our hope was Santa Barbara."

6. "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," by David Foster Wallace (1997)

OK, this is technically not a travel book. It's a compilation of essays. But Wallace's account of the existential horrors of sailing on a "luxury" cruise ship – the title piece – has achieved near-legendary status among the literary set.

What if travel writers could really tell the truth? I mean, the brutal, unencumbered truth, detail the absurdity of the assignment, make it both funny and heartfelt?

Harper's magazine sent Wallace on a cruise to do just that. Knowing, smirking, footnote-laden and digression-packed, Wallace's account is like no other travel story you'll read.

Even on a third reading, you'll laugh out loud. It sends up the bloated cruise line industry – and its pampered, monied passengers – with both a scalpel and a cudgel.

Excerpt (from one of the scores of footnotes): "Trudy was 56, the same age as my own dear personal Mom, and looked – Trudy did, and I mean this in the nicest possible way – like Jackie Gleason in drag, and had a particularly loud pre-laugh scream that was a real arrhythmia producer, and was the one who coerced me into Wednesday night's Conga Line, and got me strung out on Snowball Jackpot Bingo ..."

7. "Round Ireland With a Fridge," by Tony Hawks (1997)

Hawks is a comedian from London who has made a nice side living pulling travel stunts and writing about them. To wit: hitchhiking around Ireland accompanied by a refrigerator, all to win a bar bet.

The book teems with gags and set pieces – the fridge gets baptized, the fridge gets its own pub stool, the fridge goes surfing, the fridge gets embarrassed when it's forced to watch Hawks have a one-night stand – but you also get a true sense of the Irish people and the countryside.

Excerpt (on hitchiking in Northern Ireland during "The Troubles"): "Apart from the fact that I'd been told that drivers very rarely stop for hitchers there, I was conscious of the interest a small white container might hold for the security forces. Of all the romantic and heroic ways to leave this world, being part of a controlled explosion with a large kitchen appliance rated very poorly. Folk songs and poems were unlikely to be written, and not just because fridge is a very difficult word to find a rhyme for."

8. "Four Corners: One Woman's Solo Journey Into the Heart of Papua New Guinea," by Kira Salak (2001)

In her early 20s, Salak left graduate school and boyfriend behind to try to become the first woman to cross Papua New Guinea using the same path as British explorer Ivan Champion did in 1927.

You might think her fearless but, actually, Salak was confronting her fears, trying to shed demons of a close call on her life during a previous adventure in Mozambique. This is no shrinking violet; as a child, she wanted to be a Green Beret.

What follows is not an exercise in bravado; rather, it's a journey of self-knowledge sans self-pity. She gets in dicey situations and, even though the reader knows she pulls through, the immediacy of her prose keeps you interested. She's hard on herself and doesn't fall back on platitudes and homilies. That's what elevates her story beyond women's studies required reading.

Excerpt: "I know now what I refused to believe for most of my life: There is only one world to be found – this one I'm in. I must erase all the file-box stories of my youth, all those imaginary worlds promising an ultimate peace and transformation if only I travel long enough, go far enough."

9. "Equator," by Thurston Clarke (1988)

The idea of traveling around the world, never straying from the equator, may seem as gimmicky as traveling around Ireland with a refrigerator. But Clarke takes his mission seriously and trains an unsparing anthropological eye on the global similarities and differences in these middle regions.

In Somalia, he writes wrenchingly of "Lepers (who) could not afford wheelchairs had strapped plastic sandals onto whatever was left and scuttled like water bugs at ankle level."

It's not all grimness, though. He writes about the plan by the governor of Macapa, Brazil, to erect a soccer field right on the equator – "One team defends the northern hemisphere, the other the south."

He enjoys himself on Christmas Island – except for that pesky lingering radiation from nuclear testing.

Excerpt (on the atolls): "Twenty years of sun and salt had transformed this 'laboratory' into the landscape of a post-nuclear nightmare, a wasteland where everything had the look of being roasted in a nuclear flash, leaving as sole survivor the land crab. Jeep doors banged in the wind, hinges creaked, and the crabs scuttled through the pancaked Quonset huts. You could imagine this disintegration continuing for centuries, unheard and unwitnessed."

10. "Travels in Siberia," by Ian Frazier (2010)

Frazier is the most serious humor writer around. Hard to believe the same man who pens hilarious satire in the New Yorker magazine – he's won two Thurber Prizes for humor writing – can also play it straight (OK, somewhat) and write so well about bereft places.

He managed to make tumbleweed-strewn stretches of nowhere come alive in "Great Plains," and he does the same thing with the 7,000-mile expanse of Siberia.

Frazier is at his most lively when he goes all picaresque, detailing everything from salmonella poisoning to plagues of mosquitoes to tense exchanges with border guards.

Checking out Stalin's gulags is not the stuff of knee-slapping humor, but Frazier writes with infectious verve. One memorable scene: Frazier wanted to photograph a prison camp, but his driver, Sergei, refused to stop. Frazier jumped out of the van and click off some shots. Sergei, incensed, sped off.

Excerpt: "My stock of landscape adjectives was running low."

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