I am shedding no tears of sympathy for NPR book maven Nancy Pearl. As far as I’m concerned, she has the best writing job in the world. She gets to write books about books, and in the process, research and select the best of the books, including the ones she likes, and recommend them to others. In fact, she can create the categories to suit her literary proclivities. Heavens, is there no limit to this lady’s good fortune?
In this book about books, Pearl shines the luster of her book lust on books for travelers, both the inner and outer variety. BOOK LUST TO GO is subtitled “Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers.” Does this not include, well, just about everybody who can read?
This is not a trip read; it’s a book to read before you go, to help you choose some books to take along. If you’re traveling to Sweden, grab a trendy Stieg Larsson mystery for the journey (but be advised, as Pearl points out, Larsson’s books are as dark as a far northern winter). If to Botswana, throw in your pack the writings of the delightful Alexander McCall Smith and the more complex Bessie Head --- a study in contrasts, but both writers are equally true to the soil of their home. Head’s MARU, a bit darker and more poetic than the offering Pearl chose, is a near-poetic depiction of tribal prejudice and personal pride.
Going to Cornwall? Corfu? There’s a book for you.
Maybe you just want to travel “in the footsteps of.” Try Tim Butcher’s BLOOD RIVER: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, about the great explorer H.M. Stanley, or CHASING CHE: A Motorcycle Journey in Search of the Guevara Legend, by Patrick Symmes. If you’re a hiker, walk along with Dan White and his girlfriend Melissa in THE CACTUS EATERS: How I Lost My Mind – and Almost Found Myself – on the Pacific Crest Trail.
You may not wish to visit Haiti in these troubled times, but you can read about it in the classic TELL MY HORSE: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, by Zora Neale Hurston, a Southern black writer who is finally, posthumously, getting the attention she deserves. If Burma is on your literal or literary itinerary, you can read George Orwell’s remarkable BURMESE DAYS, and if that piques your interest, you can follow up with FINDING GEORGE ORWELL IN BURMA by Emma Larkin.
I agree with Pearl in hoping that people still read J. P. Donleavy and will do so if Ireland is the destination. His THE GINGER MAN is, as she attests, “probably one of the funniest, raciest, and most outrageous novels you’ll ever encounter.” And so Irish!
In such a collection, because it is expansive but not exhaustive, there are bound to be little sins of omission. I would have loved to have seen a few of the many books about the Pilgrim Walk in Spain, and was surprised at the exclusion of any but peripheral mention of India, home to some of the greatest literature of modern times. E. M. Forster’s marvelous A PASSAGE TO INDIA is de rigeur for the sub-continental vagabond, and no one should bypass the immortal Rudyard Kipling’s KIM or HEAT AND DUST by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Vikram Seth’s epic A SUITABLE BOY sprang at once to my mind, along with the older but no less powerful NECTAR IN A SIEVE by Kamala Markandaya. I read the latter as a child and was infused with the goal to see India, which I was able to fulfill in my 20s.
However, it would be churlish to complain that my or your personal picks are not included, because this is not our book. It’s Pearl’s, and --- I will say it again --- she is one lucky lady. But luck is made by being smart and being there. BOOK LUST TO GO is a fun read, an erudite view and a helpful guide, and I will be recommending it to my traveling companions.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on October 1, 2010