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The read less traveled
Feeding wanderlust with writing that goes beyond Frommer’s and Fodor’s

When it comes to gift books, travel titles usually do not leap to mind. After all, unless you have the extra cash to pay for the recipient’s airfare and lodging, wrapping up Frommer’s Caribbean 2004 seems more than a little bit cruel.

However, a host of new books and writings by both emerging and classic authors features the types of experiences that inspire people to travel in the first place: serendipitous encounters, nearly unimaginable landscapes, and humorous mishaps. So whether you’re shopping for a sibling who can’t sit still or a roommate who never leaves the apartment, you’ll provide a way to transport their minds beyond their ordinary routines for a few hours — even if they remain homebound in body.

No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late, by Ayun Halliday (Seal Press, 2003; $14.95). With a title like No Touch Monkey! and a crazy, teeth-baring primate on the cover, this book offers irresistible treats for the travel-literature shopper. While only the most intrepid backpackers will likely relate to Halliday’s familiarity with washing in train-station bathrooms, anyone will relish her honest, often painfully funny recollections of "authentic" travel experiences gone awry. In Amsterdam, a prostitute attacks Halliday for taking a photograph in the red-light district. In Bali, a pack of feral dogs prevents her from attending a midnight wedding celebration. In Kashmir, she’s forced to explain tampons to soldiers: "They’re for ladies. Bleeding ladies." And in Paris, Halliday attends a lip-implant exhibit at which an aging, trembling model has her already bulbous lips injected with collagen.

The Best American Travel Writing 2003, edited by Ian Frazier (Mariner Books, 2003; $13). A collection of 20 nonfiction stories from the likes of Outside, Food & Wine, National Geographic, and the New Yorker, this is a great read whether you enjoy traveling or not. In fact, the travel experience is often secondary to the other truths contained within these stories. In Lisa Anne Aerbach’s witty "Pope on a Rope Tow," an avid skier journeys to Cracow and Poland’s Tatra Mountains to explore rumors that the shepherd of the Roman Catholic flock was once an incorrigible snow bunny. Tom Bissell’s "Eternal Winter" is a bleak and cautionary tale about how human interference and industry dried up Karakalpakistan’s Astral Sea, bringing abject poverty and illness to the region’s citizens. And in "A Cup of Cuban Coffee," Stephen Benz illuminates the daily hardships of life in Cuba through his quest to savor the café cubano he grew addicted to in Miami.

Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists, by Tony Perrottet (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003; $12.95). When it comes to tourism, all roads lead from Rome. And history buffs will surely relish learning how Marcus Agrippa’s creation of a world map in 5 BC inspired hordes of travelers to follow its clearly marked highways and sea lanes to exotic and fabled destinations. Modern travel writing often advocates the idea that true travel involves going where no one has gone before. However, Tony Perrottet writes that "for those first tourists, the whole point of travel was to go where everyone else was going — to see what everyone else was seeing, to feel what everyone else was feeling." With this in mind, the author and his pregnant girlfriend follow the ancient Roman tourist trail, providing an amusing and engaging look at the similarities between travelers then and now.

A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines, by Anthony Bourdain (Ecco, 2002; $14.95). Anthony Bourdain’s book about his worldwide quest for the perfect meal delivers perhaps the most intimate look at a variety of cultures. The author of Kitchen Confidential tries everything from traditional peasant foods to cutting-edge haute cuisine, journeys from the Sahara to Caribbean beaches to an icy Russian lake, and subjects himself to various foods that could kill him. In Vietnam, the author drinks with veteran after veteran of the "American War," hoping to not add further insult to the list of injuries inflicted on the nation by blowing chunks all over his hosts. In "Where Food Comes From," a trip to Portugal — where a co-worker’s family has been fattening a pig — gives the cavalier carnivore an unexpected twinge of conscience. And in Normandy, Bourdain and his brother try to recapture the perfect meals of their boyhood summers, only to realize that it is impossible, given their father’s passing.

Paris in Mind: Three Centuries of Americans Writing About Paris, edited by Jennifer Lee (Vintage Books, 2003; $13). This collection’s diverse array of writings on Paris will surely please any Francophile or lover of classic literature on your list. Inside, you’ll find the requisite excerpt from Ernest Hemingway’s "A Moveable Feast." But you’ll also read why David Sedaris prefers movies to museums, how E.B. White reacted to the news of the city’s liberation in 1944, and why Bricktop (a 1920s American-born showgirl) felt her friendship with Josephine Baker soured. One particularly mesmerizing, if disturbing, read is Janet Flanner’s "Tourist," which details the murder of a young American woman by a serial killer and the subsequent investigation and trial. Short works by Mark Twain, Saul Bellow, Edith Wharton, Anaïs Nin, Langston Hughes, and others round out the comprehensive offerings.

Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon, by Chuck Palahniuk (Crown, 2003; $16). For an interesting, in-depth look at another city that starts with a "P," consider this combination of travel guide and memoir from the author of the cult classic Fight Club. The least expensive major West Coast city in which to live, Portland apparently draws creative, pioneering, and occasionally deviant individuals ... the kind who, with a little imagination, just might remind you of the 1920s expats in Paris. Obviously besotted with his hometown, Palahniuk gives the kind of tour that only a local can give, touching on everything from the city’s haunted history to its booming and varied sex industry. He also shares the scoop on the Apocalypse Café, at which guests pretend to celebrate the first potluck after a nuclear holocaust; secret tunnels; the Santa Rampage; the "l-tit-a-rod" race; and recipes from local institutions, such as Delta Café’s corn fritters.

Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World, by Sarah Vowell (Simon & Schuster, 2001; $12). Although not strictly a book of travel essays, this collection by This American Life correspondent Sarah Vowell bears mentioning for its coverage of diverse emotional and physical ground. Lighter pieces document her travels to places such as Frank Sinatra’s hometown, New York City’s legendary Chelsea Hotel, and the Disney-planned community of Celebration, Florida. However, Vowell’s intensely personal "What I See When I Look at the Face on the $20 Bill" recounts how she and her sister investigated their family’s heritage by following the Cherokee Trail of Tears. A particularly awkward but affecting passage has the author seething over Andrew Jackson’s unforgivable treatment of Native Americans to the hapless woman who leads tours of Jackson’s old plantation. And, in the title story, Vowell reassesses her use of The Godfather saga as a moral guidepost when she goes looking for the town of Corleone in Sicily.

A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveller’s Tale from Mexico, by Sybille Bedford (Counterpoint Press, 2003; $16). "I had a great longing to move, to hear another language, to eat new food, to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past, and as little present history as possible," writes Sybille Bedford in this reissue of her 1953 book, A Sudden View. Her travels begin in Grand Central Station, where she sets off with a picnic basket for Mexico. She endures a most miserable journey by train and enjoys an idyllic stay at the lakeside home of Don Otavio, a bankrupt squire with 17 servants. Along the way, she recounts her brushes with Mexico’s people, landscapes, and history in a highly entertaining, often hilarious, sometimes poetic, and always thoughtful manner.

The Kindness of Strangers, edited by Don George (Lonely Planet, 2003; $14.99). Many of the best travel tales involve strangers meeting on the road, and this compilation seeks to share stories of such strangers in their finest hours. Although a bit hit or miss, it includes a few standouts, such as a candid essay by Dave Eggers on how he was moved and — regrettably, more often than not — unmoved to help the people he met in Cuba. Meanwhile, Douglas Cruickshank’s "Losing It in London" is a lively and affirming tale of luck and friendliness that ends with the teenage daughter of a moth-loving, mystery-writing cab driver who drives 40 minutes to return an art book and £160 left in a taxi. In short, this book is a far more palatable alternative for the Chicken Soup for the Soul reader on your list.

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at

Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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