It’s that time of year again, when we take a look at the year in travel books. There were plenty to choose from in 2009. Here are the 52 Perfect Days picks.
The prophets of doom should fall silent: this has been an excellent year for new travel writing, including books by authors who made their name with travel, then moved to other genres. William Dalrymple hasn’t written a travel book in a decade, but Nine Lives (Bloomsbury £20) sees him in India, following pilgrims and searchers of spiritual enlightenment.
Each of the “lives” in the title is a story from a different religion or cult — a Buddhist monk, a Jain nun, a Brahmin idol-maker and so on. Dalrymple’s storytelling skills and eye for the bizarre and exotic make this a fascinating and entertaining window onto spiritual India.
The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders by Emmanuel Guibert and Didier Lefèvre
A mix of photography and graphic novel, this book tells the story of Lefèvre’s journey across Afghanistan in the 1980s during the Soviet Union’s invasion. Gripping, gritty, honest and raw, it’s a fascinating look into a place most of us will never see.
An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town by David Farley
The story of the quest for Jesus’ foreskin will be, I hope, the first of many books about Italy on subjects other than the Mafia or some discovery of timeless wisdom via real estate. Farley’s humor and curiosity make him the best kind of travel companion. A frequent World Hum contributor, he spoke to us about the book in July.
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
This may be the best book I read this year—from any genre. McDougall travels deep into the Sierra Madres looking for the answer to a question about human evolution. A worthy successor to (and with a more robust conclusion than) Bruce Chatwin’s “The Songlines.”
Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire Between Moscow and Beijing by Jeffrey Tayler
Easily one of the best travel writers working today, Tayler, a frequent World Hum contributor, turns out yet another fine book about a rich journey, all the while posing larger questions about what unites us with and divides us from the people he meets along the way.
Nomad’s Hotel: Travels in Time and Space by Cees Nooteboom
While Nooteboom is known more for his novels, this welcome collection rounds up some 40 years of his travel writing about places like Italy, Ireland and Africa. But Nooteboom’s real journey is through the world of ideas—among other feats, he constructs his perfect hotel from all the places he’s traveled in life. In this way and others, Nooteboom pushes the borders of travel writing a little further.
Off the Tourist Trail: 1000 Unexpected Travel Alternatives
Normally I hate these kinds of list books, but this volume won me over. A beautiful book (with a short introduction by Bill Bryson), it doesn’t insist that you go anywhere, but merely gives alternatives to the usual beats. It’s a great reminder of just how big the world is.
Chucking It All: How Downshifting to a Windswept Scottish Island Did Absolutely Nothing to Improve My Life by Max Scratchmann
Not exactly the “War and Peace” of travel writing, but you have to love the concept, as well as Scratchmann’s cojones for skewering a narrative that is getting more and more tired.
Earthbound: A Rough Guide to the World in Pictures
Make no mistake, though this is billed as a guide, it isn’t one. It’s essentially an art book, which harks back to the “Day in the Life” series, and the photos capture aspects of people’s daily routines with sections such as “Belief,” “Keepsakes” and “Transport.” This is the best kind of travel book: a book about life.
Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail From Istanbul to India by Rory MacLean
This book about going across Asia by land along the “Hippie Trail” is full of insight and history. It’s a great journey into the past as well as through the present—and one that MacLean spoke to us about in January.
Far Flung and Well Fed: The Food Writing of R.W. Apple, Jr.
This collection gives us some of the best food writing by the beloved and venerable journalist, R.W. Apple, who died in 2006. A man of legendary appetite, he traveled the world musing on everything from porridge in England to dim sum in Singapore to bratwurst in Wisconsin.
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
Vivid and fast-paced, Grann’s account of his search for the mystery behind the death of explorer Percy H. Fawcett became the year’s breakaway bestseller, and rightly so, given its seamless mix of old and new stories. We interviewed him about it in March.
The New Age of Adventure: Ten Years of Great Writing edited by John Rasmus
Alas, a great magazine goes out with a bang. This anthology of writing from National Geographic Adventure magazine, which shut down shortly after the book was released, is full of great travel writing by Tim Cahill, Kira Salak, Scott Anderson and others, and will sit nicely next to great anthologies like Out of The Noosphere and Wild Stories. Rasmus spoke to World Hum about the book in September.
Bangkok Days by Lawrence Osborne
Far and away the best book written by an outsider about Bangkok, if not Thailand. Osborne, featured in a World Hum interview earlier this year, captures the city and all its various currents better than anyone has done so far, and better even than I imagined it would be possible to do.
A couple of years ago, Jan Morris published what she said was her last book, but she has raised the curtain once more with Contact! (Faber £15). This collection of paragraph-long recollections, taken from 50 years of encounters, is both hypnotic and suggestive. Some of them are inconsequential, but many have the power to conjure up both character and place.
There’s an equally eclectic collection of characters to be found in Bicycle Diaries (Faber £15), by the former Talking Heads front man David Byrne. He began riding around New York in the 1980s, but here he also describes encounters in Istanbul, Manila and other bike-hostile cities. Byrne writes at greater length than Morris, and with just as sharp an eye and as lively a sense of humour.
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A bicycle sits at the heart of Andrew Eames’s Blue River, Black Sea (Bantam £18), which is unexpected, as he is following the Danube. Eames also follows the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor, who walked across Europe in the 1930s. Wanting to see what remains of old Europe, he proves himself both witty and willing, and his tale, while not as elegantly told as Fermor’s, makes for fascinating armchair reading.
Peter Ackroyd has been a passionate chronicler of London, most recently with his bestselling book on the Thames, but he has now written Venice: Pure City (Chatto & Windus £25). The city’s history has been well told often enough, and Ackroyd’s TV spin-off delivers no revelations, but it is a lively, learned, warts-and-all portrait of a place most of us tend to glamorise.
Life on an Aegean island also tends to get glamorised, but not in Dmetri Kakmi’s autobiographical novel. Mother Land (Eland £17) may take us back to the innocence of summery days in the early 1960s, with wine-dark seas, dusty lanes and big feasts, but the idyll is riven by tensions between Greeks and Turks, and between a sophisticated mother and a fisherman father. Beautifully told, sensitively observed and painfully poignant, this is a gorgeous memoir of an island life that is now lost to us.
Photographic Books that Stood Out in 2009
d out from the decorative pack. Los Angeles (Taschen £45) is a suitably outsize, 572-page celebration of the city where big and bold are best. By contrast, the slender, elegant Desert Songs (AUC £30), by Arita Baaijens, is a beautiful, evocative record of three journeys across Egypt and Sudan, with several short, fascinating essays on life in the sands.