The best companion you can take along on any journey is a great book, especially one by an author who invites you into his or her dazzling, exotic surround-sound world. Join these travel memoir writers as they bicycle through the noisy courtyard lanes of old Beijing, traipse southern France in search of the ultimate cassoulet, jump into a beat-up sedan to chase down Africa’s legendary Timbuktu, go head to head with a maharani in an antique palace in India, or start a new life on a sensual — and unexpectedly odd — Tahitian island. Author Alison Singh Gee offers up some of her favorite new travel books and global memoirs to enjoy this year.
1. Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West
Peter Hessler begins his collection of China essays with a question he was asked in a Southern Chinese restaurant: “Do you want a big rat or a small rat?” After more than a moment’s hesitation, the New Yorker correspondent chooses the small rat, but he nonetheless takes us on a big adventure: his decade of traveling and reporting all over the massive Asian country, offering readers an insightful and funny interview with Yao Ming, China’s basketball superstar, a chance to follow him on a forgotten stretch of the Great Wall, and his casual observations of the social enclave that forms around a Beijing neighborhood’s new public toilets. Hessler is, in some senses, this generation’s Good American, a smart, compassionate, and intrepid guide to a world that might otherwise remain impenetrable to most of us.
2. To the Moon and Timbuktu: A Trek Through the Heart of Africa
Nina Sovich, a business journalist living in Paris with her French husband, had always yearned for adventures in faraway places; like so many independent women, she imagined herself leading the life of a solitary traveler. Yet at the age of 34, she found herself married and contemplating having a child. Inspired by female explorers like Mary Kingsley, who explored Gabon’s jungle in the 1890s, and Karen Blixen, who ran a farm in Kenya during World War I, Sovich packed her bags and hopped on the next plane to Africa in search of adventure.
While reading To the Moon and Timbuktu I had to fight off the call to pack up my suitcases and book the next flight to Mali. Sovich’s luscious and deeply philosophical memoir of a solo trip to the almost-mythical land of Timbuktu reminded me of my own wild side. Her surprising narrative reminds us that it’s in exploration that we find freedom, humanity and our true selves again.
When her diplomat husband, Calvin, was awarded a prized three-year post in Paris, Ann, a lifelong foodie and Francophile, knew she would savor her time in the City of Light dish by exquisite dish, especially with her charming fluent-in-French husband beside her. But soon after relocating to the European city, Calvin is reposted — to Iraq, where he will serve out a yearlong post by himself.
So, inspired by another diplomatic wife, Julia Child, Mah decides to embark on a gastronomic tour of France, searching out iconic French comfort foods, their recipes and history. Somewhere between Paris and the south of France, she uncovers not only the perfect cassoulet but a few of life’s big truths, as well. The result of this delicious year is Ann’s memoir.
4. All Good Things: From Paris to Tahiti: Life and Longing
If you are one of the thousands of travel book lovers around the world — myself most certainly included — who devoured Sarah Turnbull’s best-selling first memoir, Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris, as if it were a hot croissant, you’d know that Turnbull has the ability to fully transport readers into her romantic, funny and dazzling life. Her tales of her years in the City of Light with her Parisian husband Frederic made so many of us want to marry a handsome Gallic lawyer and move to the 16th arrondisement, tout de suite. In her expansive, intimate sequel, Turnbull explores a new paradise: Tahiti.
Turnbull’s three-year South Seas sojourn began when Frederic is offered the opportunity to start a French law firm in Tahiti. Thus, the Australian-born author leaves behind life in the world’s most beautiful city for the spare and fabled island across the world. There, she finds intriguing Tahitian neighbors, deep-sea diving adventures, artists’ legacies, and the biggest challenge of her life: Trying to start a family against all biological odds. Turnbull is a charismatic narrator — equal parts cherished guide, art history wonk, intrepid journalist, and incorrigible romantic. In this lovely memoir, she spins Tahiti into a captivating new literary landscape.
If you’ve ever wanted to go on a rollicking royal adventure through the fabled grand palaces of India, I’d like to invite you on my own wild rickshaw ride through Asia. In my 2013 memoir, Where the Peacocks Sing (in paperback, Feb. 11, 2014) I take readers through the bustling streets of Hong Kong and to the fraught and wild lanes of Old Delhi, and finally to the genteel terraces and fragrant mango groves of the 100-year-old palace. Mokimpur is the rambling ramshackle manor that has belonged to my husband’s family for the past century and my memoir is my comic chronicle of my deeply flawed relationship with the house, with Ajay’s idiosyncratic landed gentry family and with India itself.
A National Geographic Traveler Book of the Month, travel writer Don George called the memoir “a revealing triumph.” LA Weekly’s Pamela Chelin said of the book, “With its blend of humor, sincerity and seriousness, Gee’s story easily could be Eat, Pray, Love’s down-to-earth cousin, offering a unique twist on the typical tale of Westerners traveling to India to find themselves.”
By Alison Singh Gee for PeterGreenberg.com. Gee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the author of Where the Peacocks Sing: A Prince, a Palace and the Search for Home, a comic chronicle of her relationship with her husband’s 100-room manor and his idiosyncratic landed gentry family.