July 16, 2024
Eight new travel books you should be reading
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A great travel read is an ideal companion for warm-weather vacation time, whether you’re beach-bound or staying home. After all, books are fellow travelers on demand: In their company, you can catch vicarious thrills without budging from your preferred mix of sun and shade. And this year has brought a fresh crop of travel writing worth exploring, tales that include illustrated Siberian journeys, brooding mysteries and continent-hopping memoirs.

Craving distant horizons? Scratch the itch with one of the best travel books of 2022 — so far.

The Slow Road to Tehran: A Revelatory Bike Ride Through Europe and the Middle East,” by Rebecca Lowe

When reporting on Lebanon’s 2014 simmering refugee crisis — a trip that included a bicycle journey against all recommendations — London-based writer Rebecca Lowe drew one important conclusion: “Never trust people who say things can’t be done.” Such can-do spirit suffuses her new book about a 2015 solo cycling journey from London to Tehran, which unfolds across 20 countries and nearly 7,000 miles.

“We think you’ll probably die,” one friend told Lowe on the eve of her departure. She didn’t, and Lowe, whose winningly self-depreciating tone persists through adventures and misadventures alike, is no naif. A veteran journalist with a focus on human rights, Lowe is clear-eyed about the fraught history of Western adventurers in the Middle East, with a reporter’s knack for depicting the vivid characters she encounters. Available in travel-friendly e-book format, the book’s hardback edition will be released Sept. 6.

Border Crossings: A Journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway,” by Emma Fick

The Instagram-era ubiquity of travel photography can lend a curious sameness to strangers’ shots of hotel breakfasts and tropical beaches. Watercolor sketches depicting artist Emma Fick’s 2017 journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway offer a refreshing alternative, with paintings of bathroom fixtures, local officials and Russian cafeteria food that dodge the genre’s cliched tropes altogether.

Why you should pack physical books when you travel

Handwritten notes accompany the images, which are sometimes framed with a traveler’s-eye view of train windows and passenger compartments. Others serve as whimsical compendiums: Fick lists Mongolia’s five domesticated animals; documents fellow passengers’ fuzzy-slippered train wear; and ranks the quality of second-class dining cars by country. The effect is charming, yes, but it also invigorates.

Crossed off the Map: Travels in Bolivia,” by Shafik Meghji

As prologue to this thoughtfully reported book, British travel writer Shafik Meghji recounts a telling bit of apocrypha. Following a diplomatic kerfuffle, Queen Victoria is said to have taken a pen and crossed Bolivia off her map of South America, insisting the country could therefore not exist.

Despite a 21st-century increase in tourism, much of Bolivia remains largely unfamiliar to foreigners, says Meghji, who has written guidebooks for more than a decade. For a better acquaintance, this book is the next best thing to a slow journey through the country’s staggeringly varied topography. Readers can tag along with Meghji by Amazonian riverboat, follow in the footsteps of jungle Jesuits or go on foot into the high-altitude Potosí silver mines that enriched an empire.

Riverman: An American Odyssey,” by Ben McGrath

Americans have long loved tales of traveling folk heroes, such as Johnny Appleseed and Chris McCandless. When New Yorker writer Ben McGrath first encountered Dick Conant — a bearded, overall-clad wanderer then traveling by plastic canoe from New York to Florida — he seemed to have stumbled upon the real deal floating past the backyard of his Hudson River home.

After Conant’s boat was found abandoned in North Carolina, McGrath set out on a quest to learn about the life of a man he calls a “modern-day Huck Finn.” There’s plenty of fodder for romance: Conant logged thousands of miles on American rivers, and many of the people he met along the way remember him, years later, with astonishing clarity. But darker sides of Conant’s life emerge in McGrath’s reporting, which illuminates but does not resolve the book’s central mystery.

A Hard Place to Leave: Stories From a Restless Life,” by Marcia DeSanctis

In writing that spans continents and nearly four decades, Marcia DeSanctis mines a lifetime of travel for this new collection of essays. That time lends depth that first impressions cannot touch. She retraces portions of journeys through the Soviet Union and Russia, layering memory upon place to rich effect.

Some pieces originally appeared as stand-alone stories in publications such as the New York Times Magazine and Vogue, but together they take on a journey’s momentum. Along the way, DeSanctis encounters spies and love interests, but it’s her lushly polished writing that makes this book a joy to read.

Lost in the Valley of Death: A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas,” by Harley Rustad

After an Instagram-famous traveler vanished in Northern India’s Parvati Valley, his followers and family were left wondering: Did he walk away for good, or is it something worse? In one of his final posts, Justin Alexander Shetler announced his intention to “wander alone in these majestic Himalaya,” adding: “I should be back soon.”

Travel guidebooks aren’t dead, but they’ll never be the same. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Rustad’s gripping investigation of Shetler’s life showcases a late-model brand of very online enlightenment seeker. Think: flowing clothing, lots of meditation and shirtless pics captioned with inspirational platitudes. But there’s more to Shetler than such cliches might suggest — and more to this story than an ad hoc vision quest gone wrong. The Parvati Valley has a dark reputation as India’s “backpacker Bermuda Triangle,” Rustad reports, and dozens of travelers have disappeared there.

The Catch Me If You Can: One Woman’s Journey to Every Country in the World,” by Jessica Nabongo

When Ugandan American blogger Jessica Nabongo touched down in Seychelles in October 2019, she became the first Black woman to visit every country on Earth. Her longtime followers will recognize the chatty, clear-eyed tone that makes this country-by-country book such breezy fun to page through. (It’s further enlivened by images of Nabongo looking unflappably glamorous, with far-flung places as her enviable backdrops.)

Still, Nabongo’s love of travel shines brightest in encounters with the countries she was warned most vigorously against. She finds warm hospitality in Iran, a joyous welcome in Haiti and selfie-seeking crowds in Afghanistan. In passages recounting racism at home and abroad, she also writes frankly about the challenges of traveling while Black. Available June 14.

Imagine a City: A Pilot’s Journey Across the Urban World,” by Mark Vanhoenacker

If you’re not tussling for legroom and overhead bin space, it’s easier to remember that flying is a spectacular way to see our planet. Belgian American pilot Mark Vanhoenacker blends privileged cockpit views with travelogue and memoir in his new book, which reads as a love letter to the cities he’s returned to again and again.

Chapter names — “City of Signs,” “City of Gates” — recall those in Italo Calvino’s sublime metaphysical travel tale “Invisible Cities,” Vanhoenacker notes, but the places that fill this volume are more concrete. When seen from a cockpit at sunset, Salt Lake City is “the city of the reddening peaks.” While passengers snooze on predawn flights to Kuwait, pilots watch gas flares illuminate the desert. As in a previous book, “Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot,” Vanhoenacker captivates when describing the silent beauty of a world glimpsed from above. Available July 5.

Smith is a writer based in Vermont. Her website is jenrosesmith.com. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @jenrosesmithvt.