The Best Books I’ve Read During my Travels, Part 2

In my 5+ years living in New York, I never once went to a movie. The truth was, if I had a few hours to spare, I preferred to read a book. So it is fair to say I am a voracious reader, especially when travelling where there are plenty of long bus, boat and train rides on offer. And with so many months of travel, it is also fair to say that one best books list would not suffice – so now I’ve compiled a second one. The first 20 recommendations are on my Best Travel Books I’ve Read During my Travels, Part 1 post. Here are the rest:

My Picks for Best Travel Books, Part 2

best books i've read on my travelsbest books i've read on my travelsbest books i've read on my travelsbest books i've read on my travels

The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time by Simon Winchester. I’m not always a fan of Winchester’s style, but this book remains my favorite in his extensive bibliography. Drawn to the beauty of Ten thousand li, a stunning 53 foot scroll by Wang Hui, Winchester decides to delve deeper into the massive Yangtze for his next book.  He works his way along the length of the river in reverse, from its mouth at the South China Sea to the looming plateaus of Tibet where the river begins. The history and geography of the Yangtze unfolds beautifully, punctuated with Winchester’s personal anecdotes about what he calls  “the delicious strangeness of China.” The book was written in 1996, and the ruminations about the Three Gorges Dam (now essentially complete) are interesting to digest in retrospect. While the book does not paint a thorough narrative of modern China, it is a well-researched, fascinating way to discover the tangled mass of culture, people and geography along the Yangtze’s edge.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. Eagleman’s succinct fables about the afterlife were a thought-provoking, poetic pleasure to read. Written with loving detail, the stories vary wildly from detailed to abstract, from humorous to somber, each extremely creative. Given the title, people make the false assumption that the book has religious undertones – it does not. The 40 completely unrelated short stories comprise a non-partisan, secular collection of imaginative options about the afterlife. In one of the stories, God is a constantly quibbling couple, distracted from their duties by their own domestic incontinence. In another, the afterlife is a choose-your-own adventure, where the straightforward search for a simpler life leads one man to chose an animal, not realizing that “the slide down the intelligence ladder is irreversible … you forget what it was like to be a human wondering what it was like to be a horse”. With concise chapters and a wide-range of vocabulary, Sum is also a great option for people learning the English language.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Though I usually stick to a ‘nonfiction while traveling’ rule to keep my brain working when I’m gallivanting, I would be remiss to omit the excellent Oscar Wao from this roundup. Set partially in the Dominican Republic and partially in New Jersey (where Diaz was raised), the book tells the story of Oscar de Léon and his extended family, cursed by fukú (“generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World”) and decimated from the inside out. Told in turn by Oscar’s troubled sister Lola and family friend Yunior, the book blends science fiction, nerdy fandom and history in one sad but unforgettable narrative. From the family’s initial wealth pre-Trujillo to the complicated alienation Oscar feels within the Dominican dispora, the novel was beautifully written, engaging and mesmerizing. I couldn’t put it down.

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. From the author of the equally compelling Proust Was a Neuroscientist comes a book about mechanics, movement and the construction of the human brain. His book draws on research from a wide range of scientists and illustrates their findings with a slew of real-life examples: poker players, pilots, firefighters and television producers. He also peppers the book with examples of when the brain ceases to make decisions smartly, discussing the science of serial killing, compulsive buying and other hiccups of logic. By learning more about how our brains process information and make decisions, Lehrer believes we can make better choices in our lives. Let me be clear: How We Decide is no instruction for betting living. However, the book did provide me with insight into why I do the things I do, and how to be more conscious of the rationale underlying my decisions.

Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures in the Kitchen by Bill Buford. Heat was one of those books that I just did not want to put down. Part autobiography, part kitchen horror, the book follows Buford’s decision to quit his job at The New Yorker and become a line gopher at one of Mario Batali’s New York restaurants. Drawn to the secrets behind the food, Buford finds that his stint at Babbo isn’t sufficient to satisfy him and subsequently embarks on a journey to Italy to learn both how to make pasta in Poretta, and how to properly slaughter a big in Tuscany. Throughout, Buford’s lyrical, softly self-mocking writing style and hopeless misadventures made the book a complete pleasure to read. Bonus: plenty of information about the history and origins of Italian food. Highly recommended.

How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer. Foer, an editor at The New Republic, provides an enthralling and entertaining narrative about soccer and its place in today’s global world. The title is somewhat misleading: the book is truly a series of unconnected essays about sociology, economics and politics and how each relates to soccer. But each chapter was informative and provided a snapshot into a world I would never otherwise inhabit. The chapters on Serbia’s Red Star Brigade and its role in Serbian nationalism and on the Celtics vs. Rangers rivalry, with its foundation in religious and political anger, were particularly intriguing. An easy but interesting book.

How to Shit Around the World: The Art of Staying Clean and Healthy While Traveling by Jane Wilson-Howarth. This book might not be of the highest intellectual order, but it was extremely useful, downright hilarious and well worth reading in public places if only for the reactions of those around you. Double takes on public transportation are a given. With special sections devoted to women’s health and what to eat while traveling, the book is a perfect introduction to venturing out into the culinary unknown when travelling around the world. I particularly liked Howarth’s endorsement of street food (the turnover is quick, the food fresh and the locals know something you don’t), and the no-nonsense tips for dealing with sickness on the road. Bonus: the “too gross to be true” sidebar stories from interviews Howarth conducted during her travels.

Seven Ages of Paris by Alastair Horne. “Whereas London…has clear male orientations, and New York has a certain sexual ambivalence, has any sensible person ever doubted that Paris is fundamentally a woman?”  Thus begins Horne’s long love letter to Paris, starting with Caesar and Abélard and moving through the ages. Horne tackles the tumultuous history of Paris in a series of ambitious biographical essays, infused with captivating narrative and an attention to detail. The book skilfully blends the passionate politics of the city, with its art and music and scandalous royal class, resulting in a dense but enlightening book spanning Paris’ lifetime. As Maurice Druon notes in the forward to the book “Horne is everywhere and knows everything.” After reading this book, you cannot help but agree with Druon.

Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam by Andrew X. Pham. Caught in the cross-roads of many decisions, Pham abandons a burgeoning career in engineering (despite his parents’ pleas to the contrary), and embarks on a new path of freelance writing. “I am a mover of betweens” he writes, “I slip among classifications, like water in cupped palms.”  Who among us hasn’t felt this way? After his sister’s suicide, Pham decides discover his roots by travelling Vietnam by bicycle, beginning in Ho Chi Minh City. Alternating between Pham’s desperate desire to find himself and the painful, often harrowing flashbacks of his father’s imprisonment in a Viet Cong death camp, the book comes together beautifully. Disgusted by modern-day Saigon and alienated from the Vietnamese he meets on his trip, Pham tries to find a balance between his family’s haunting saga, the country he thought he loved and the person he has become.

Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Santé. Born in Belgium, Santé’s take on New York and the down-and-dirty roots of its old city is a pleasure to read. Though there are no shortages of New York history books for the taking, Santé’s perspective and writing style make this book a worthwhile purchase: his gory, lurid descriptions of New York’s underbelly, from saloons to drug dens to gambling and prostitution, are framed by the political upheaval, architecture and literature of the era. Bonus: black and white photographs from the 19th century provide a welcome break from the history-laden pages. Thoroughly enjoyable.

At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay by John Gimlette. A must-read for anyone travelling through Paraguay or interested in its convoluted history and ego-driven dictatorships. For a fairly small country (given the size of the continent that houses it), Paraguay has endured a mind-boggling series of wars, tremendous poverty and some unsavoury leadership. While not usually on the South American “must see” circuit, Paraguay is a terrific place to visit and rendered that much more enticing when you’ve read up on its historical follies. Gimlette braids together megalomaniac rulers, cultural oddities and personal, humorous anecdotes with terrific effect: you’ll want to visit this “island surrounded by land” once you’ve finished his book. My only complaint: the cover art was a horrible choice, with the cartoon pig on the cover in no way doing justice to the depth and scope of Gimlette’s writing.

The Discoverersby Daniel Boorstin. As the former Librarian of the U.S. Library of Congress, Boorstin is one of those people who I would love to meet and sponge up the content of his brain by osmosis. A good start is this book, the first in a series of three. The Discoverers walks through the history of human discovery, including the many fortuitous coincidences that often preceded them. In the thirst to soak up other cultures and traditions, we sometimes forget to learn about their initial discovery and the incremental impact of those who made a first foray into a foreign land or a new idea. The Discoverers covers the fascinating and often checkered pasts of economics, astronomy, geography and history with extraordinary gusto. Highly recommended as are the other two books in this series, the Creators and the Seekers.

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner. This book was a donation from friends and it accompanied me on my epic 36 hour trip home from Bangkok. Divided by country, the book details Weiner’s search for the origins of happiness, from Moldova (not so happy) to Iceland (surprisingly happy) and the places in between. A self-described grump, Weiner stays at an ashram in India, talks to monks in Bhutan (a particularly lovely portion of the book) and interviews the godfather of happiness research himself, Dr. Ruut Veenhoven. While some chapters did not resonate with me (notably the ones on Thailand and the UK), the natural style of Weiner’s prose and his unique perspective after years of working as an NPR correspondent vaulted this book to my favourites list.

The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee by Stuart Lee Allen. A friend of mine gave me this book in Bangkok and while it is not a thorough history of coffee, it remains an educational, fun read and is full of interesting facts about coffee’s role in world history. Investigating whether “the advent of coffee gave birth to an enlightened Western civilization”, Allen embarks on a whirlwind world tour. Starting with Africa and  tracing coffee’s roots to through Kenya, the villages of Yemen and then Ethiopia, Allen moves on to India, Europe and finally the USA. Educational without being pushy, offbeat and fun as hell to read, The Devil’s Cup taught me a lot about my favorite drink. Might as well know the history of your addictions, right?

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And thus concludes Part 2 of the best books I’ve read in my time on the road. I’d love to hear more suggestions in the comments!


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