My collection of books is one of my most prized possessions. There’s nothing like a good paperback to drift away to a far off land when I’m looking for inspiration, to reminisce, or to fill those quiet months between holidays.
Amongst the classics, Passepartout’s “curiosity drew him unconsciously farther off than he intended to go” in Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ – something many adventurers can relate to! Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful tales of India filled my childhood imagination with dreams of watching elephants dance in their secret meeting place in the ‘Jungle Book’; while the ‘Plain Tales from the Hills’ and ‘Kim’, have inspired a yet unfulfilled longing to go to Shimla, a “centre of power as well as pleasure”.
Then, of course, you have great autobiographies by some of the world’s most influential leaders. Nelson Mandela’s immersive ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ is essential for anyone who wants to learn about South Africa’s history. The ‘Autobiography of Martin Luther King jr’ offers insights into one of America’s most turbulent times. The Dalai Lama inspires with his descriptions of growing up as a spiritual ruler in ‘Freedom in Exile’. But it’s not only the big names that have great stories; ordinary individuals like Anne Frank have had some of the greatest impact (standing in the secret annex just days after reading her diary gave me goosebumps).
Anyone who’s intrigued by changing borders and pioneering voyages into uncharted territory, or pores over historical maps, would be delighted with a copy of recently published ‘The Golden Atlas: The Greatest Explorations, Quests and Discoveries on Maps’, or ‘Prisoners of Geography’ by Tim Marshall.
I’ve read quite a mix over the years, but I’m always on the lookout for a travel tome to devour, whether it’s a factual journal or a novel that captures a country’s spirit. If you have any recommendations, please let me know in the comments below. But in the meantime, here’s a few more of mine…
In modern Europe, there’s increasing pressure to pursue the perfect life. The Scandinavian countries are considered to be leading this race to utopia, but are they all that they seem? ‘The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia’ questions this view. With an informed eye, Michael Booth looks at the different quirks and foibles, tribes and taboos of the five nations, with a dash of affection, praise, dry wit and bizarre facts, which were fun to recite to my Norwegian friends!
There are many books that bring the great Greek myths to life, but which to choose? I suggest ‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller. The author has taken the stories from existing texts and created an epic tale of Achilles, a brave and handsome warrior who goes to war in Troy to free Helen of Sparta. This adaptation of the Trojan War with heroics, love and loyalty doesn’t shy from questionable conduct in Ancient Greece – including slavery and human sacrifice – so this might not be for everyone.
For Kenyan inspiration, I recommend a memoir – ‘An African Love Story: Love, Life and Elephants’ by Dame Daphne Sheldrick. It’s an enchanting tale of the Kenyan conservationist’s 60 year plight to save orphaned elephants. Sheer determination and admiration for these vulnerable giants drove this ambitious task; and the book talks about hurdles such as poachers and creating the first-ever milk formula to keep the calves alive. When you observe wildlife on a grand safari in Kenya, your mind will recall the elephants that returned to the wild thanks to Dame Daphne’s pioneering Wildlife Trust.
Asian culture has always interested me, with so many different beliefs and traditions held in each country. William Dalrymple gained an unusually personal insight into nine citizens of India who have one thing in common – faith – and collated them in ‘Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India’. Their religious beliefs differ, and the paths they chose are pretty extreme, leaving me in awe of their dedication. It shows India’s diversity without judgement, focusing on ancient beliefs and ways of life (both good and bad), and asks how they continue to survive in the modern world. A must-read!
The Silk Road brings to mind images of caravans of camels trekking the ancient trade routes that connect China to Europe. ‘Shadow of the Silk Road’ is a modern adventure told vividly and informatively, swapping camels for buses, donkey carts, trains and jeeps. As Colin Thubron travels 7,000 miles from the heart of China, across Afghanistan and Iran, into Turkey, he gathers extraordinary tales about life in Asia today. He shares local insight into the history, religion, cultures and challenges facing the peoples of these lands.
Margaret Craven’s ‘I Heard the Owl Call My Name’ is a simple, thought-provoking novel based in the wilds of British Columbia in the mid-20th century. You follow a young missionary priest who is sent to work with an indigenous tribe; and learn of stories and customs that embrace the natural and spiritual world. It beautifully preserves some important values and simplicities of life that many of us forget in the modern world.
Savour the Southern Sights and Sounds as you join the adventures of ‘Huckleberry Finn’ (by Mark Twain). This great American novel tells of young Huck, and an escaped slave called Jim. Together they travel down the Mississippi facing racism, bravery and hope, with the familiarity of local dialects which transport you straight to the Deep South during the cotton bubble of the 1830s-40s.
The big American road trip is on a lot of people’s travel list. Some dream of driving big, open-top Cadillacs on long, dusty freeways. In ‘Route 66’, Billy Connolly fulfils his dream of racking up the miles on his custom-made trike. With the great humour and enthusiasm he’s renowned for, Billy follows the ‘Mother Road’ to national icons and hidden gems, meeting some characters along the way.
You can’t go far on a Cuban Discovery without hearing of Ernest Hemingway. Havana entices you into bars where he drank daiquiris, or on excursions to his feline-filled home just outside the capital. But where to start when choosing one of his publications? How about the best? He won the Nobel Prize for Literature “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style”. The short story of an old man, a young boy and a giant fish set just off the coast of Havana, is a simple, thought -provoking tale of memories and loneliness.
The Maori have a rich collection of myths and legends that fill the imagination. I became fascinated by them in New Zealand, and couldn’t wait to read more when I came home. One of my purchases was ‘The Bone People’ by Keri Hulme. This Booker Prize winner is a haunting story of Maori and European cultures,. Bringing traditional stories to the modern world, she tackles difficult and compelling scenes with some wonderful oddities in her vocabulary. Her evocatively descriptive narrative took me straight back to the South Island beaches.
I couldn’t write this blog without mentioning Bill Bryson at some point. ‘Down Under’ was the first book of his that I read, just before my journey across Australia. I couldn’t help but feel little jumps of joy as I turned the pages, knowing that I too would experience “the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents”, and fall in love with the cheerful, quick-witted people as I explored their clean cities and drank their cold beer. My thoughts turned to this book several times as I planned my next move.