August 20, 2012

My 25 Favorite Travel Memoirs

Whether sitting around the fire in grizzly bear country reading A Walk in the Woods;  hiking along a slick trail in the highlands of Papua New Guinea with Islands in the Clouds in my daybag; or cruising down the the Yangtze River reading Simon Winchester, my travels  have been enriched beyond measure by the great literature of travel.

I was reminded of that last week at the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference, where literature of travel was on full display.

At the conference the conversation often turned to travel books, and we compared notes on our favorite travel memoirs. That got me thinking. So today, I’m sharing my own list of favorite travel stories. It’s skewed, of course, to the places I’ve visited. There are so many great books out there I haven’t read–and so many great places I haven’t seen. I’d better get busy!



1. Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin.  Memoir of Godwin’s boyhood in white-ruled Rhodesia in the 1960s, through the turbulence and violence that finally resulted in black rule and changing the name of the country to Zimbabwe. Godwin returned as a journalist to cover the transition to black rule.


2. River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong by Edward A. Gargan. Fascinating memoir of this New York Times reporter’s year traversing the Mekong from Northern Tibet to Lijiang to Luang Prabang to the delta in Saigon.


3. River Town: Two Years of the Yangtze by Peter Hessler.  The story of Hessler’s two years as an English teacher in a small village on China’s Yangtze River

4. The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time by Simon Winchester. Compelling, fascinating. This story really moves. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a cruise on one of the world’s great rivers.

5. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang:  Gripping memoir of three generations of Chinese women – from concubines to revolutionaries to victims of the cultural revolution. Great read and wonderful introduction to 20th century Chinese history from the inside.


6. A House in Bali by Colin McPhee: A love song to a people and their gamelon music tradition. Written in the 1940s and recently brought back into print

7. Shooting the Boh: A Woman’s Voyage Down the Wildest River in Borneo by Tracy Johnston: Tracy Johnston was fit but had never thought of herself as a buffed backpacker type. And, at 40, she wasn’t a young wonder woman type.  When she joined an expedition to explore an uncharted section of the Boh River in Borneo, she had more “adventure” than she could have imagined, from bees to leeches to wild rapids. A hair-raising tale told I a lovely voice.


8. The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen: Peter Matthiessen’s memoir of  his trek through Nepal with zoologist George Schaller is on every list of great travel memoirs I can remember. The book weaves his journey to find the elusive snow leopard with his internal journey, through Zen Buddhism, to find his own calm center.

9. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakaur. This sKrakaur”s account of the disastrous expedition to Mt. Everest that resulted in the death of eight clients and two guides, including renowned guide Scott Fisher.

10. Climbing High by Lene Gammelgard:  Another view of the 1996 Everest disaster than killed eight climbers. Not as well written as Jon Krakaour’s Into Thin Air but possibly more ‘true.’


11. Islands in the Clouds: Travels in the Highlands of New Guinea by Isabella Tree:  Maggots, mountains, deeply-held superstitions are just some of the obstacles that confront Isabella Tree on her epic trek through Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya.


12. Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje:  The author of The English Patient returns to the home of his youth in Sri Lanka and revisits the exploits of his eccentric Dutch-Ceylonese forebears.


13. The Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron:  A wonderfully written travel memoir of his journey to revisit cities of the Silk Road–25 years after his first trip.  Key cities include Turpan, Tashkent, Samarkand, Burkara.



14. Hummingbird House by Patricia Henley:  Engrossing memoir about Henley’s time as a midwife in war-torn Guatemala in the 1980s. National Book Award finalist

15. Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest by Mary Jo McConahay:  Mary Jo McConahay fell in love with the Maya as a young woman and later returned as a journalist covering the revolution and civil war. The result is a heartfelt book, called by famed travel Don George “a moving testament to a region and a life.” Winner Best Creative Nonfiction Book of the year — 2012 Northern California Book Awards.


16. The Maya: Diego de Landa’s account of the affairs of Yucatan by Diego de Landa and and A.R. Pagden: Maya history written from the point of view the Spanish conquerors. It’s a fascinating look back into the history of the Spanish conquest by one of the key participants.



17. Iberia by James Michener:  This has to be one of the finest travel books ever written. Jack and I have used the book to discover some of Spain’s best: Rioja wine, treasures in the cathedral museum of Toledo, or an understanding of the bullfights. A tour de force of travel writing by a man who clearly loved the country.


18. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway:  Hemingway’s classic memoir of his years in Paris in the early ’20s as an up and coming member of the Lost Generation of expatriate artists: Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald. Always a favorite of mine.

19. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle:  The travails of an outsider renovating a house in Provence provide a counterpoint to the joys of discovering this region.


20. The Summer of My Greek Taverna by Tom Stone:  A fun “beach read” account of Tom Stone’s experience as an expatriate in the Greek Isles and his attempt at running a Greek Taverna. It’ll be fun for Taverna lovers.


21. Road Fever by Tim Cahill:  Wacky, terrifying, hilarious, Tim Cahill shares the roller-coaster adventure when he joined long-distance driving pro Garry Sowerby in an attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records time for a 15,000-mile road trip from the tip of South America to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.



22. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson:  A sometimes hilarious, sometimes scary account of the not-quite-buffed middle-aged author’s attempt to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. A true masterpiece of travel writing. The sections about the bear are sidesplitting! I read it while camping in grizzly country in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia.


23. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson:  With this book, Bill Bryson demonstrates that great memoirs don’t require travel to exotic places. I loved this book for its sweet nostalgia and wonderful sense of place: the US Midwest in the 1950s and ‘60s.


24. Coming into the Country by John McPhee:  A superb travel memoir of the author’s adventures when he took a year with his family to travel around Alaska. Written in the 1970s it is still a wonderful accompaniment to Alaska travel. Scenes about mushing with the Eskimos and about the isolated life of the Alaskan frontier have stayed with me for years. This is on almost every list of “Best Travel Memoirs” I’ve ever seen

25. Looking for Alaska by Peter Jenkins: Jenkins and his family left their farm in Tennessee to spend a year in Alaska, with a base in Seward. An engrossing memoir, not as powerfully written as McPhee’s book, but more up-to-date.

What are your favorite travel memoirs?

Filed under:Travel Books

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