The Places In Between. Rory Stewart was born the same year as me, and I am as dumbfounded by all he has done in his life (diplomat, politician, academic, administrator) as I am by this book, which poignantly describes his walk across Afghanistan, from Herat to Kabul, which he began in the dead of winter four months after 9/11. This walk was actually part of a larger 6,000-mile walk through several countries, during which time he stayed in 500 homes. And this is what I love about him: he takes his time to see a place, with courage, and introduces us to society and culture through intimate encounters with ordinary people. This is not a book about the author; it is about a ravaged, impoverished country and the worldview of its people, and it illustrates the worth, perhaps even the necessity, of seeing a place close-up to have any hope of understanding it. The Places In Between may be the best travel narrative I’ve ever read.
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. I underline and notate when I read, and few of my books have as much pencil graphite as this one. Through journeys in ten countries, Eric Weiner explores what makes for happiness. He does it with humor (“Charles Dickens once said, ‘One always begins to forget a place as soon as it’s left behind.’ God, I hope he’s right.”); through conversations (a man in Bhutan tells him, “You need to think about death for five minutes every day. It will cure you, sanitize you.”); and with food-for-thought research summaries (“Social scientists estimate that about 70 percent of our happiness stems from our relationships…with friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors. During life’s difficult patches, camaraderie blunts our misery; during the good times, it boosts our happiness.”). This is the sort of book I could reread several times and still be laughing and thinking. It’s a treasure trove.
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy. After visiting Normandy in 2014, I wanted to learn more. I had seen Antony Beevor’s book at a museum gift shop and once home I ordered it. The book is a gripping account of the Battle for Normandy, following the course of events all the way to the liberation of Paris. Many Americans know that around 3,000 U.S. military personnel died on D-Day, and this book chronicles all that, as well as what went on with the British, Canadian, German, and other forces involved. But the book also details how devastating the months of fighting was for Normandy itself, both the land and people. In the first five months of 1944, fifteen thousand civilians died in preparatory bombing; 20,000 more died from June 6 through the months of fighting that followed. Normandy was, as Beevor writes, the sacrificial lamb for the liberation of France. The book brings to life this terrible summer of battle — the logistics involved, the brutality and humanity on all sides, the personality conflicts among generals, and what the battle meant for the people who called Normandy home.
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. Read Bill Bryson’s book and you’ll improve your vocabulary (“Katz was almost cataleptic with displeasure”), learn things (“The Appalachian Trail was formally completed on August 14, 1937”), and laugh often. An excerpt from the book: “Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret.”
From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East. In 587 A.D., a Byzantine monk named John Moschos embarked on a journey across the Byzantine world. (At the same time, in Arabia, a person the world would soon know as the Prophet Mohammed was coming of age.) John Moschos left a written record of his journey, and author William Dalrymple uses it to retrace the monk’s remarkable journey through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Egypt. The result is a fascinating (and troubling) look at a land and people in transition, both in the late 6th century and in the 1990s. A line from the book: “Certainly if John Moschos were to come back today it is likely that he would find much more that was familiar in the practices of a modern Muslim Sufi than he would with those of, say, a contemporary American Evangelical.”
City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi. What happens when a scholarly, curious mind, which also has the gift of storytelling, is submersed into the capital city of India? This book. I picked up City of Djinns when traveling across Asia in 2004, and the cast of characters in it reads like a novel. William Dalrymple introduces us to the man who “spluttered and spat like a well-warmed frying pan,” and the men who “swam together through great oceans of nostalgia before finally coming ashore on a strand of melancholy.” Read this book and you’ll learn that words such as pajamas, veranda, and thugs came into English usage via the East India Company, that 150,000 civilians died in a single day in 1739 when the Persian army came to town, and that historically Hinduism and Islam looked at eunuchs in very different ways.
The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam. Sometimes you meet a local who shares his soul with you, who paints evocative images of a place and time and invites you to see it too, even if only through words on a page. In January 2004, thanks to a kid selling pirated books on the streets of Hanoi, I was introduced to Bao Ninh’s novel The Sorrow of War. Born in 1952, Ninh served in the North Vietnamese army. Of the five hundred men in his brigade, only he and nine others survived the conflict. The book has been compared to Enrique Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and for the main character Kien, who is trying to regain his place in the world now that the war is over, it is “hard to remember a time when his whole personality and character had been intact, a time before the cruelty and the destruction of war had warped his soul.”
Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown. Nearly 50 years after first going to Africa (Malawi) as a Peace Corps volunteer, Paul Theroux returns to travel overland from Cairo to Cape Town. He introduces us to people, history, and landscape, as well as his way of traveling. An excerpt: “I hated parachuting into a place. I needed to be able to link one place to another. One of the problems I had with travel in general was the ease and speed with which a person could be transported from the familiar to the strange, the moon shot whereby the New York office worker, say, is insinuated overnight into the middle of Africa to gape at gorillas. That was just a way of feeling foreign. The other way, going slowly, crossing national frontiers, scuttling past razor wire with my bag and my passport, was the best way of being reminded that there was a relationship between Here and There, and that a travel narrative was the story of There and Back.”
Fresh Air Fiend: Travel Writings. This is a richly eclectic collection of about 50 essays and articles by America’s best known travel writer, Paul Theroux. Among my favorites are “Dead Reckoning to Nantucket”, a reflection on how the means by which one reaches a destination will affect how one sees and experiences the destination, and “The Worst Journey in the World”, which looks at Apsley Cherry-Garrard and the ill-fated Antarctic journey of which he was part. Of Cherry-Garrard, Theroux writes, “He saw himself as weak and nearsighted but regarded these apparent handicaps as a lasting source of strength.” Fresh Air Fiend is a smorgasbord of people, places, and ideas.
Fidelity: Five Stories. The American novelist and poet Wendell Berry excels at writing about the land, relationships, and what makes for home. This collection of five short stories is a good introduction to his work. Here is a line from “Making It Home”, the story of a soldier returning from World War One: “Once it had seemed to him that he walked only on the place where he was. But now, having gone and returned from so far, he knew that he was walking on the whole round world. He felt the great, empty distance that the world was turning in, far away from the sun and the moon and the stars.”
Hannah Coulter. This novel by Wendell Berry is narrated through the voice of Hannah, a resilient, wise, twice-widowed woman. The book explores the theme of “membership”, how people belong to one another in a community, and how they are present even when they are absent. An excerpt: “Watching him and watching myself in my memory now, I know again what I knew before, but now I know more than that. Now I know what we were trying to stand for, and what I believe we did stand for: the possibility that among the world’s wars and sufferings two people could love each other for a long time, until death and beyond, and could make a place for each other that would be a part of their love, as their love for each other would be a way of loving their place. This love would be one of the acts of the greater love that holds and cherishes all the world.”
Little Bee: A Novel. I found this book in a guesthouse on a Thai island, read it, and reread it a few years later in Tennessee. Author Chris Cleave is a columnist for The Guardian, and his novel tells the powerful story of the intersection of two lives, one Nigerian and the other English. If you’ve ever wanted to understand better how an immigrant or refugee might see the world, or if you’ve ever met someone in your travels and keenly felt the inherent awkwardness in how only one of you is privileged and safe, or if you’ve ever asked the question “Who is my neighbor?”, you will likely love this book. An excerpt: “No, it wasn’t going to work anymore, denying her, or denying what had happened in Africa. A memory can be banished, even indefinitely, deported from consciousness by the relentless everydayness of running a successful magazine, mothering a son, and burying a husband. A human being, though, is a different thing entirely. The existence of a Nigerian girl, alive and standing in one’s own garden — governments may deny such things, or brush them off as statistical anomalies, but human beings cannot.”
The Painted Veil. An English couple journeys to Hong Kong, where the wife, Kitty, has an affair and the husband finds out. He forces her to accompany him to the Chinese hinterland, where he has volunteered to take charge of the response to a deadly cholera epidemic. They arrive with their relationship a cold shambles, and in this landscape of death and fear Kitty reassess her life and what it means to love. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil is evocative, beautiful, and tragic, and has lines like this: “The heat hung over [the city] like a pall. But the river, though it flowed so slowly, had a sense of movement and it gave one a melancholy feeling of the transitoriness of things. Everything passed, and what trace of its passage remained? It seemed to Kitty that they were all, the human race, like the drops of water in that river and they flowed on, each so close to the other and yet so far apart, a nameless flood, to the sea. When all things lasted so short a time and nothing mattered very much, it seemed pitiful that men, attaching an absurd importance to trivial objects, should make themselves and one another so unhappy.”
The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma. I first saw this book in a bookstore at a Bangkok shopping center, and it was love at first sight. I mean, of course, the sight of the back cover, which had recommendations by Rory Stewart and Pico Iyer (two writers I admire), and also the sight of the preface, in which the author says, “I wrote this book also with an eye to what the past might say about the present. Since the 1988 uprising, Burma has been the object of myriad good-faith efforts…all trying to promote democratic reform. But the net result has been disappointing at best and may very well have had the unintended consequence of further entrenching the status quo and holding back positive change. And, given that result, I think it is no coincidence that analysis of Burma has been singularly ahistorical, with few besides scholars of the country bothering to consider the actual origins of today’s predicament.” Author Thant Myint-U is a Burmese-American historian. In 2013, Foreign Policy Magazine named him one of the “100 Leading Global Thinkers”. His grandfather U Thant was Secretary-General of the United Nations in the 1960s.
Finding George Orwell in Burma. Early in his life, George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, spent five years in Burma working for the Imperial Police Force. He called the experience “five boring years within the sound of bugles,” but it clearly shaped his worldview and his writing. This book by Emma Larkin (a pseudonym) is a bittersweet journey through Burma/Myanmar, in which the reader is introduced to the places where, and the era in which, Orwell worked. Just as much, it is a journey through the present, through a nation ruled by a repressive police state. Larkin’s conversations in tea shops, her poking around old buildings, and her sifting through the notes of Orwell himself, illuminates what repression means, and shows us the people who bear its heavy weight. The book was published in 2005.
I Have Seen the World Begin (Panther). The poetry of this travelogue, written in the mid-1990s by a Dane named Carsten Jensen, is as compelling as the stories it contains. Here is Jensen on traffic in Vietnam: “The young women wove in and out of the traffic like motorized flowers and I forgot the architecture and abandoned myself to the sight of them.” And here he is observing the scenery outside a train in southwestern China: “The landscape magnified everything. The people looked as though they were the last human beings in a depopulated world, or the first in a world still waiting to be populated. A lone figure walking became the epitome of solitude; a child gathering plants in a field, an image of isolation; a grubby, ragged boy with an appallingly adult face which lit up as he waved to the passing train, an assurance of the capacity for joy; peasants lying side by side around a fire in the twilight, the embodiment of human fellowship. There was a timelessness about these people, more than in the mountains that surrounded them and which they were forever grinding away and down.”
The Quiet American (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition). Somewhere in central Vietnam I picked up a pirated copy of Graham Greene’s 1950’s classic The Quiet American, an eerily prophetic novel about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. I was drawn to the character of Alden Pyle. An American involved in covert operations designed to bring democracy to Vietnam, Pyle holds deep convictions about the way the world should be, but he is, according to Fowler (the English reporter through whom we learn about Pyle), “impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.” Throughout the novel this is precisely what handicaps Pyle in his work in Vietnam. Steeped in book knowledge, he is naive about reality outside of academia, and this makes him dangerous. In observing Pyle, Fowler concludes that “innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.” Pyle is likeable and his intentions good, but by holding ideas so tightly that even actual events can’t change them, he is destined for tragedy and contributes to the tragedy of others. Like most of Graham Greene’s books, The Quiet American skillfully evokes a sense of place, in this case Vietnam.
Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War. The country of Bosnia and Herzegovina is a beautiful place to visit today, but it’s worth reading this book to understand what it was like in the 1990s. “In Bosnia,” Maass writes, “you never heard the phrases ‘collateral damage’ or ‘saturation bombing’ or ‘heat-seeking missiles.’ Sniping and raping and pillaging — yes, you heard those words every day.” Maass recounts this intimate war with clarity and anguish, and readers feel as if we’ve entered alongside the author into some absurd alternate universe, in which U.N. peacekeepers might shine a spotlight on fleeing refugees who are then gunned down by Serb snipers, or in which a drunk war criminal might belt out Sinatra’s “I did it my way”. Maass writes, “It was, at times, a miniature war in which you could leave the Holiday Inn at ten o’clock in the morning, nearly be killed by a sniper’s bullet, and then, at eleven o’clock, be on the other side of the front line, talking to the sniper who tried to murder you just an hour before, and watch as he took aim at your friends as they left the Holiday Inn.”
Shadow of the Silk Road (P.S.). A journey of eight months and 7,000 miles takes Colin Thubron from China to Turkey. His keen eye and articulate storytelling introduces the reader to the shape of life today on the historic network of trade routes called the Silk Road. Thubron, who before this journey had already been writing about the world for four decades, says at the start of the book: “Sometimes a journey arises out of hope and instinct, the heady conviction, as your finger travels along the map: Yes, here and here…and here. These are the nerve-ends of the world… A hundred reasons clamour for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart. You go to encounter the protean shapes of faith. You go because you are still young and crave excitement, the crunch of your boots in the dust; you go because you are old and need to understand something before it’s too late. You go to see what will happen.”
The Grapes of Wrath. I bought John Steinbeck’s powerful novel in Bangkok shortly before checking into a hospital for back surgery. Reading it from the hospital bed while pondering a back that I knew might never be quite right again, I felt something of the exile of the main characters, something of the Oklahoma Dustbowl, something of the necessity of looking and moving forward even as you lose a piece of yourself (in my case, a bit of cartilage in the lower back). Also — and completely unrelated to my back — no American novel brings to my mind the conflict in Israel/Palestine like The Grapes of Wrath. The smoldering anger of the Joads as they are displaced from their land and forced into exile captures the emotions of many Palestinians I’ve met. Ma Joad, for example, struggling to keep the family together, always makes me think of a woman named Om Rajah in Jenin refugee camp, and her son Tom reminds me of so many young Palestinian men, not least when he says things like, “Why, Jesus Christ, Ma, they comes a time when the on’y way a fella can keep his decency is by takin’ a sock at a cop. They’re workin’ on our decency.” But much of the book, like much of life in Israel, Palestine, and every other place, is full of family wisdom, brokenness, and love that isn’t necessarily all that connected to the politics and history of one’s setting. Some things are just universally shared among us.
The Alchemist. This modern classic by Brazil’s Paulo Coelho is a global hit, with more than 65 million copies sold. It also has set a record as the most translated book by a living author. Since half of all backpackers were reading it, I bought the book in Thailand in 2004 and, while on a beach drinking fruit shakes, enjoyed the tale of an Andalusian shepherd boy in pursuit of his Personal Legend. Some of the lines sounded wise, and I highlighted them. But months later, when I reread the lines during a gut-wrenching week preparing for possibly traveling solo across Afghanistan, they seemed shallow, and I made a note that what we read while sunbathing with fruit shakes might not resonate the same in a setting more fraught. Whatever one thinks of the book (and I did enjoy it), it’s worth the read given its broad popularity.
Into the Wild. Jon Krakauer tells the story of Chris McCandless, a 1990 graduate of Emory University whose two years of subsequent travel would tragically end in death by starvation in an old school bus in Alaska. McCandless’ worldview has been a topic of debate, and Into the Wild invites the reader to question how and why we live as we do, too. Here’s one passage from the book, in which McCandless is writing to a friend: “I’d like to repeat the advice I gave you before, in that I think you really should make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one piece of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure.”
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster. A year into an overland journey across Asia, and at the suggestion of a former Peace Corps volunteer, I stopped at the U.S. Peace Corps office in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan and asked if they had a duplicate book in their library that they could spare as I continued westward. They gave me a copy of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and I devoured it, both his writing style and the story itself. A line from the book: “My hunger to climb had been blunted, in short, by a bunch of small satisfactions that added up to something like happiness.” And this: “Although in a few hours we would leave camp as a group, we would ascend as individuals, linked to one another by neither rope nor any deep sense of loyalty.”
Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff. Rosemary Mahoney rowed alone down a portion of the Nile, a highly unusual act, not least for a woman. And the resulting book is good, alive with keen observation and dialogue that give insight into modern Egypt. I love that she weaves in the past too, borrowing from the diaries of two well-known Victorians, Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale, who traveled on the Nile in 1849. A excerpt from the book: “Holding these fragments in the palm of your hand is a way of connecting to the distant past. Some potter had made this now broken cup three thousand years ago; the fine lines that his fingertips had left on the clay were still visible. He had held it in the palm of his hand, exactly as I was holding it. When he looked up at the night sky, he had seen virtually the same stars as I saw now. The thought of it made me realize that the potter and I were not so different; I could almost hear him breathing.”
Cairo: The City Victorious. Max Rodenbeck, a writer for The Economist, called Cairo home, and through this book he helped it better became my home for a while too during the year I lived there in 2000-01. The details of this book are myriad and enlightening, and gave richness to the many days I wandered the streets, napped in medieval mosques, and talked with Cairenes over cups of hot tea. A random selection of excerpts: “Records from the Cairo religious courts in 1898 show that there were three divorces for every four marriages in that year.” Writing about King Farouk’s wedding in 1938: “so fervent was the patriotic mood that the Cairo pickpockets’ guild had advertised a moratorium on liftings for the royal wedding.” And concerning a tenth-century Fatimid caliph’s desire for cherries, which didn’t grow locally: “The governor of Lebanon had clusters of the berries tied to the feet of flocks of doves, who flew their sweet cargo by relays the whole 400 miles to Cairo.”
Vietnam: A History. I traveled through Vietnam with this book, and at 1.6 pounds it is the heaviest I’ve carried on a trip. It was, however, worth it. Stanley Karnow, a historian and journalist who covered Asia throughout the years of the Vietnam War, lays out the history of the conflict. He also helpfully offers background to Vietnam’s history and culture before the war. When you read, for example, that Ho Chi Minh, referring to a controversial agreement with the French in 1946, could say, “Better to sniff a bit of French shit briefly than eat Chinese shit for the rest of our lives,” you get a feel for the communist leader’s pragmatism. And when you read that South Vietnamese officials “were so receptive to bribes that 70 percent of the Vietcong suspects captured bought back their freedom,” or that, “the United States had dropped on North Vietnam, an area the size of Texas, triple the bomb tonnage dropped on Europe, Asia and Africa during World War II,” or that, “the struggle for Khesanh cost the Communists at least ten thousand lives in exchange for fewer than five hundred U.S. marines killed in action,” you’ll know well the terrible cost of this conflict, and value all the more that it is over.
Seven Years in Tibet (Cornerstone Editions). The Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer is one of very few people who could say that he’d had his picture taken with both Adolf Hitler and the Dalai Lama. But it is his epic 20-month journey across Tibet to Lhasa, and his subsequent friendship with the Dalai Lama, that he is known for. I bought his book in Dharmsala, India, and enjoyed learning about his journey. Just as much, I enjoyed his observations on Tibetan culture. For example, “As in every other place in Tibet there were no public inns here. Billets in private houses are assigned to travelers by the authorities. This is done by rotation, so that the population is not too badly inconvenienced and the arrangement forms part of the taxation system.” Or this, “In the spring there is a regular bathing season in this place. Swarms of Tibetans came along and bamboo huts sprang up everywhere….Men and women tumbled naked into the pool and any signs of prudishness provoked roars of laughter.”
The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. In 2003 I worked for five months in the West Bank and Israel. I’ve traveled to the region many times before and since, and I’ve read more than a few books about the conflicts. By “conflicts” I mean the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the conflicts within each of these communities about how to approach the larger conflict. When I’m asked to recommend a book on the topic, this one, by Sandy Tolan, is it. Why? Because it follows at length the lives of two actual people, a Palestinian named Bashir Al-Khayri and an Israeli named Dalia Ashkenazi Landau. The two meet in 1967 when Bashir knocks on the door of an old stone house that, until the creation of Israel in 1948, had been his family’s home. Now it belongs to Dalia, whose family had arrived in Israel after the Holocaust. The book follows their respective lives and relationship over the next 35 years. That Dalia and Bashir chose to have a relationship is remarkable. For us the reader, it is also a gift, a vivid human window through which to better understand both sides of this ongoing struggle.
Silence. A work of historical fiction written in 1966 by a Japanese Christian named Shusaku Endo, the story follows a Portuguese Jesuit missionary sent to 17th century Japan who eventually is thrown in jail. The story illustrates how a journey to a land and circumstance so different from your own can change you, including theologically and spiritually. An excerpt: “These guards, too, were men; they were indifferent to the fate of others. This was the feeling that their laughing and talking stirred up in his heart. Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”
A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East. In 1976 a Hong Kong fortune teller warned Tiziano Terzani that 1993 would be a dangerous year for him, and he better stay off of airplanes. The result is this book, a ground-based travelogue in which Terzani, a veteran journalist, takes his sweet time in several Asian countries. His years of experience in the region serve as a backdrop to the reflective year-long journey, putting him in position to offer his take on the changes he sees. In Malaysia, for example, he writes: “Where was the Malaysia of twenty years ago? The women in sarongs, wearing brassieres that always seemed a size too small, and skin-tight lace blouses? Where were the rich colours and bodies whose joy seemed to reflect nature’s? Swept away by Islamic austerity? In the Malaysia I knew in the seventies, religion was marginal. The Malays had their mosques and the Chinese their temples. The Malays ate their goats, the Chinese their pigs. But then, to defend themselves against the overwhelming economic power and materialist culture of the Chinese, the Malays began slavishly following Islam.” My favorite aspect of the book is its insightful cultural backstories — for example, the Thai general who changed his name so that the evil eye couldn’t fall on him.
Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East. Pico Iyer’s book, a collection of travel narratives spread across several Asian countries, offers a unique angle on the early days of globalization. A line from his chapter on Tibet: “The dull-eyed Chinese were generally withdrawn, even sullen toward foreigners; the Tibetans, by contrast, were incorrigibly merry with quick animation in their faces, ready at any moment to break into ruddy smiles that felt like benedictions.”