Armchair Travel

by Kirk Henley, Public Services Librarian
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.

For all its allure, traveling abroad can be a daunting proposition. The expense, the long lines at the airport, the feeling of being an outsider and the vague warnings to not drink the water can make the average person want to just stay home and read a book. Luckily, for all those who would prefer to remain “armchair travelers,” there are plenty of good writers venturing around the globe and sharing their experiences, be they adventurous, insightful or humorous.

Travels in Siberia

Those who wish for a literary escape from Missouri’s summer heat and humidity should consider “Travels in Siberia” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) by Ian Frazier and “The Magnetic North” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) by Sara Wheeler. Both authors visit the vast northern regions of the Earth to tell the history of its inhabitants and examine its forbidding, yet beautiful, landscape. Frazier makes his way across the whole of Russia while Wheeler travels to a number of locales above the Arctic Circle, studying the effects of pollution and global warming on the region as she goes.

In “India Calling” (Times Books, 2011), Anand Giridharadas returns to his parents” homeland to find out what makes modern India tick. Focusing on family and personal relationships, he paints a picture of a country struggling to maintain its cultural identity as it transforms into an industrialized superpower. In a similar vein is Martin Fletcher’s “Walking Israel” (St Martin”s Press, 2010). Fletcher, a journalist who has spent years reporting on conflicts in the Middle East, takes a stroll down Israel’s Mediterranean coast to learn more about the country and its people. Along the way, he speaks with many interesting individuals and compiles their stories, hoping to show the nation is more complex than how it regularly is portrayed on the nightly news.

Three Ways to Capsize a Boat

Sometimes how you travel is as important as where you travel. In “Three Ways to Capsize a Boat” (Broadway Books, 2010), Chris Stewart jumps at the chance to captain a sailboat for a summer in the Greek Isles. The catch is Stewart, who has held a number of interesting jobs in his life, including being the original drummer for the band Genesis, has never been sailing. As you might guess, hilarity, and a little bit of danger, ensues. The chosen mode of transportation for veteran writer Paul Theroux is the train. During a literary career that spans more than three decades, he has traveled through Great Britain, Central and South America, China, India and Africa, mostly by rail. His latest offering, “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” (Mariner Books, 2009), chronicles his journey from Eastern Europe to the Far East. In this book, he re-creates a previous trip, documented in “The Great Railway Bazaar” (Penguin Books, 1977), to see how the areas have changed in the intervening years and how his views of them have changed as he has aged.

Panther Soup

While Theroux chooses to retrace his own steps, many travelers attempt to follow in the paths of others. In “No Man’s Lands,” Scott Huler becomes obsessed with the epic journey of Odysseus and attempts to visit the same exotic locales as the legendary hero. As he travels, Huler also offers insights into the lasting popularity of Homer’s poem and the lessons it can teach us about how to live. The path of the U.S. Army through Europe in 1944 and 1945 is the subject of John Gimlette’s “Panther Soup” (Alfred A Knopf, 2008). Guided by a World War II veteran who offers plenty of input, Gimlette makes his way through France, Germany and Austria, describing how the route might have looked to American soldiers and speaking with a variety of people whose lives were affected by the conflict.

For anyone who has ever dreamed of leaving everything behind to travel, there is “Tales of a Female Nomad” (Crown Publishers, 2001) and its follow-up, “Female Nomad and Friends” (Three Rivers Press, 2010), both by Rita Golden Gelman. After her marriage failed, Gelman sold all of her personal belongings to live out her dream of traveling around the world and connecting with people. Since then, she has never had a permanent address and has depended on her knack for making friends to help immerse herself in the cultures of the places she visits. The second book is composed of her further adventures as well as those of others who submitted their own stories to her. Recipes also are included.

Double Take

And finally there is “Double Take” (HarperStudio, 2009), the memoir of Kevin Michael Connolly, who was born without legs. As a college student, he traveled around the world on a skateboard and was greeted with curious stares at almost every turn. To cope with these situations and hopefully raise awareness of how people look at each other, he began taking pictures of those who stared at him. He ended up with thousands of photos that became part of a traveling exhibit that was shown worldwide. Several of these photos appear in the book as chapter dividers.

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