Travel by book
Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic I decided that if I couldn’t travel physically, I’d travel with my mind.
I started reading books about the remotest of countries—places I probably couldn’t even get to if travel was something humanity did again.
This ongoing reading binge has several benefits: most importantly, it takes my mind of the stuff that’s happening around me (I’m referring to the pandemic but also to my two loud kids).
Also, it’s the cheapest and most healthy way I’ve gotten a good laugh lately—reading about someone else’s mishaps as a travel writer in places like China or Micronesia can be hilarious.
Finally, reading a well-written travelogue or journalistic work about an exotic country can be much more adventurous than actually visiting the country. This might sound funny, but reading a thoughtful piece about life in Hong Kong, for example, has given me much more insight into the place than when I was there myself for a few days.
I don’t like writing book reviews, but I’m happy to share some of my reading highlights from the past few months. Because I really, really enjoyed these books. (PS Some of these I listened to with Audible while cleaning the house and going for walks. That’s how I create time for reading!)
The Sexlives of Cannibals by Maarten Troost
Written by a Dutch-American author, I found the humor in this book more than a little appealing. This guy lived on a tiny island called Tarawa for two years and boy was that interesting (and funny!).
The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall
The first installment of this series didn’t teach me a lot about Botswana, but it certainly transported me to Africa. Having lived in Nigeria for a year I felt the authenticity and appreciated reading about some of the things that amazed me about the continent when I was there, like the wildlife, superstition, enslavement, and gender relations. Despite some disturbing stories this is a feel-good book.
Lost on Planet China by Maarten Troost
So Maarten Troost became one of my favorite authors overnight, although I liked this book less than The Sexlives of Cannibals. The picture he paints of China is one of terrible crowdedness and unbelievable pollution. It’s an interesting but not very flattering portrait. Then again, he explores more of China than I ever have and the United States is so wonderful in comparison that I can’t help but feeling great about my life.
VIETNAM & HAITI
The Quiet American & The Comedians by Graham Greene
I’m a major Graham Greene fan and these books are wonderful forays into the recent past. The topics of the books are the Vietnam War and the terror of the secret police (Tontons Macoute) under François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, respectively. You don’t learn a ton about these countries through these stories, but you get the sense of being present at an important time in history at a place where few western civilians got to observe what was going on.
IRAQ, UGANDA, CUBA, ALBANIA, CAMBODIA
How to feed a dictator by Witold Szablowski
The same can be said for this book. It’s about crucial moments in five countries’ political histories as told by people who had nothing to do with politics or war. The personal chefs of Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Enver Hoxha, and Pol Pot talk about the entire reign of these dictators, which is a crash course in political history and great gossip rolled into one.