22 Books for the Armchair Traveler
Paging through China (DK), a treasury of photos illuminating the people, culture, and history of this vast and storied country, you may feel a little like Marco Polo, bedazzled by his explorations. Modern skyscrapers and ancient pagodas; rice paddies and bamboo forests; medieval villages and Tibetan temples; the daily lives of herbalists, musicians, calligraphers, schoolchildren, opera stars, and sellers of pet crickets; an astonishing variety of ethnic minorities, religious practices, cuisines, festivals, classical landscapes, and literary masterpieces—it's all here, and more. You can't help marveling at the ambition of the project and the daring of tackling it—squeezing so much beauty, time, and drama between the covers of a book—even as the book makes you appreciate a country that's so much richer and broader and more complex than you could have imagined. — Francine Prose
Next: A memoir that puts the lust in wanderlust
By Elizabeth Eaves
In a memoir that spans 15 years of travel from Pakistan to Fiji, Elisabeth Eaves explores these diverse landscapes in lush detail, tackles the ongoing challenges of assimilating into a new culture, and confronts both the burden and beauty of taking on life as an independent woman. Along the way, of course, she meets an array of lovers (note the "lust" in Wanderlust). There's the cosmopolitan British businessman, then the adorable Canadian sweetheart, then the macho Australian hottie. What's most interesting about these encounters, however, is how Eaves approaches the topic of love, consistently describing her relationships with a sense of detachment. Does she really want to find the meaning of home, as she suggests at the beginning of the book? Or does she really want to continue living without ties, pursuing "the excitement of disorientation?" It's not clear, but her vivid tales—Cairo to Yemen to Vancouver—make the journey a vicarious pleasure. —Amber Kallor
Next: Lessons in life, love and language from Bejing and Shanghai
By Deborah Fallows
You don't have to know Mandarin to be captivated by Dreaming in Chinese, Fallows' memoir of living in Shanghai and Beijing and learning the language. A journalist with a PhD in linguistics, Fallows wears her erudition lightly as she meets locals and tries to unravel the mysteries of their mother tongue. Why is it, for example, that a tableful of Chinese diners might seem to be barking orders at each other? Because they believe using "polite" terms (please; thank you; would you mind...) creates distance, and that direct language is more appropriate for intimates. Forget Berlitz—that just teaches words. Deborah Fallows shows us that the cultural implications of those words teach us about each other.
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Next: Marco Polo's tales of world travel
By Italo Calvino
Author Pat Conroy calls this 1972 novel "utterly magical. I first read Calvino's Baron in the Trees, and it utterly worked for me. Then I read this, and I think it's one of the greatest books I've ever read. Marco Polo has traveled to the realms of China to get to the court of Beijing. He is speaking to the emperor, trying to describe places to someone who has never seen and will never see them. He begins making up cities and stories. I thought the book was poetry: It has a looking-glass feel, a fun-house feel. I could not get enough of it. If you travel with Calvino's work any distance, if you just go with it, when you're done, you feel like you've been living inside a poem."
See the other books that made a difference to Pat Conroy
Next: One woman's true tale of taking on the Atlantic Ocean
By Tori Murden McClure
Maybe it was the snacks: Who wouldn't row alone across an ocean for the chance to eat like a teenager? Whatever it was that propelled Tori Murden McClure to the far side of the Atlantic in her homemade barge, the American Pearl, she muscled through 12-hour days of rowing, capsizing (she rescued the M&M's), being eyeballed by a hammerhead shark and clobbered by a hurricane. In A Pearl in the Storm (Collins), McClure tells how, on land and sea, she exuberantly bucked the tide.
Read the first chapter of A Pearl in the Storm
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Next: Faith and reason collide in Pakistan
By Uzma Aslam Khan
Set in 1970s and '80s Pakistan, a young math whiz called Noman writes pseudoscience for his father's cohort of religious extremists while secretly gravitating toward a diehard evolutionist and his adventurous granddaughter, Amal. As faith and reason fatally collide, Amal's blind younger sister, Mehwish, tries to decipher a world she cannot see but understands better than most. Khan's urgent defense of free thought and action—often galvanized by strong-minded, sensuous women—courses through every page of this gorgeously complex book; but what really draws the reader in is the way Mehwish taste-tests the words she hears, as if they were pieces of fruit, and probes the meaning of human connection in a culture of intolerance, but also of stubborn hope.— Cathleen Medwick
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Next: The most misunderstood woman in Egypt
By Stacy Schiff
Mention Cleopatra and you probably think of Elizabeth Taylor batting her violet eyes at Richard Burton. Or maybe Shakespeare's temptress fooling around with Julius Caesar and dying for love of Mark Antony. But it turns out we have seriously underestimated the last Egyptian queen. In her provocative new biography, Cleopatra: A Life, Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff makes the case that the richest and most powerful woman of all time was less "wanton temptress" than savvy politician. — Liza Nelson
Read the complete interview with author Stacy Schiff
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Next: Get to know a mother adjusting to life in Beijing
By Susan Conley
An American mother recounts her struggle to adjust to a new life in Beijing—and then face another challenge, this one medical. — Karen Holt
Read an excerpt of The Foremost Good Fortune
Next: A boy sets sail with the worst travelling companion
By Yann Martel
"God was going to love him, no matter what he had to do to survive. He was on the trip with him," says actress Andie MacDowell of Martel's popular fable about a 16-year-old boy's harrowing journey on a lifeboat with a 450-pound tiger. "This book makes you wonder: Has Pi actually been on a fantastic adventure, or is the truth far more realistic?... My older sister wanted to believe the fantasy. I was kind of surprised by that, because she's so doggone bright. For me, there was no way the story could be real. It had to be a way to deal with something that was impossible to deal with. That's what this book does: It tells a painful story as a fantasy because the reality is too brutal."
See the other books that made a difference to Andie MacDowell
Next: Cultures and cuisines collide when an Indian family eats its way across Europe
By Richard C. Morais
"My first sensation of life was the smell of machli ka salan, a spicy fish curry, rising through the floorboards," recalls Hassan Haji, in Richard C. Morais' The Hundred-Foot Journey, a mouthwatering debut novel of colliding cultures and cuisines. Cooking has always sent Hassan into a "magic trance," but when his family's grand Bombay restaurant burns to the ground, they go eating across Europe: A "platto di Mussolini" is a plate of mussels, not the dictator on a dish, Hassan has to explain to a waiter in Tuscany. The family finally opens Maison Mumbai in a small French mountain town and incurs the wrath of the imperious chef across the street, in this hilarious romp through life, love, and the workings of a French kitchen. — Louisa Ermelino
Next: Stories that show the gap between traditional and modern-day China
By Yiyun Li
The tales in Yiyun Li's second collection often take on the otherworldliness of myth, in a country where "big tragedies and small losses [can] all be part of a timeless dream." But what makes Gold Boy, Emerald Girl fascinating is the conflict between traditional and modern-day China. In the wrenching "Prison," for example, a Chinese-born woman, still grieving her daughter's death, goes home to hire a surrogate to provide her a second chance at motherhood. When reading Li's deceptively simple writing, you appreciate the subtle sociopolitical commentary, but her characters' vivid interior worlds—full of loss and hard-won wisdom—lift smart subject matter into masterful storytelling.
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Next: Have you ever asked: Is there anybody out there?
By Paul Bowles
In this intensely fascinating story, Paul Bowles examines the ways in which Americans' incomprehension of alien cultures leads to the ultimate destruction of those cultures. A story about three American travelers adrift in the cities and deserts of North Africa after World War II, The Sheltering Sky explores the limits of humanity when it touches the unfathomable emptiness and impassive cruelty of the desert.
Why Gwyneth Paltrow loves The Sheltering Sky
Next: Learning a new language in a foreign country helps one woman shed her past of mind-numbing jobs
by Katherine Russell Rich
What do you do when rotten luck leaves you speechless? After two bouts with cancer and the shock of getting fired, Katherine Russell Rich "no longer had the language to describe my own life. So I decided I'd borrow someone else's." Dreaming in Hindi is the verbally and emotionally dazzling story of Rich's passage to India, where she tried to master an intricate foreign tongue—and became fluent in the language of human possibility.
Read the prologue of Dreaming in Hindi
Katherine Russell Rich on her passport for life
Next: The best places to find what you hunger for
by Elizabeth Gilbert
After the end of her seven-year marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert embarked on a journey of self-discovery that changed her entire life. Luckily for us, she captured this whirlwind adventure through Italy, India and Bali in her best-selling hit, Eat, Pray, Love. You may be inspired to do an internet search for Bali or your nearest ashram, but we dare you to read about the food she discovers during her time in Rome and not book your own trip to Italy on the spot.
Elizabeth Gilbert shares her amazing personal and spiritual transformation
How Eat, Pray, Love became a phenomenon
Go behind the scenes of Eat, Pray, Love the movie
Next: The may-be diary of a Russian ballerina, mistress and mother to the czar's heir
By Adrienne Sharp
Mathilde Kschessinska, the narrator of Adrienne Sharp's brilliant The True Memoirs of Little K, was a real person: a famous dancer in the Imperial Ballet of Russia at the end of the 19th century. Beyond that, we can trust very little of what we learn from and about the 99-year-old heroine of this diary-within-a-novel, which even she admits is a "concoction of fiction and lies." Once the mistress of the last czar, Nicholas Romanov, she may well have also been the lover of several members of his family and court. But was her son really the czar's heir, or did she just use the boy to manipulate the heartsick sovereign, whose only male child, a hemophiliac, was unlikely to live to succeed him? We'll never know, but then, neither did the Romanovs, who were slaughtered in 1918 following the Russian Revolution.
Conniving, social climbing, and largely insufferable—"I have always admired an opportunist, being one myself"—Little K (as Nicholas supposedly called her) is the most unreliable of narrators about affairs of her own heart. But when reporting on a time, place, and disappearing way of life, especially with her sumptuous, often loving descriptions of Russian dance and culture, she emerges as the ultimate truth-teller. If only we'd had history teachers this knowledgeable—and this much fun.— Sara Nelson
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Next: Let Ernest Hemingway guide you through the literati of Paris
by Ernest Hemingway
For its musings on creativity ("Write one true sentence, and then go on from there") and for its heady Parisian ambience, for its poison darts of gossip and vignettes about literary lions from Gertrude Stein to F. Scott Fitzgerald, read the latest incarnation of Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast (Scribner), first published in 1964. His widow, Mary, oversaw the heavily edited original; this one, edited by grandson Seán, takes Hemingway at his word and restores his original manuscript—less a finished book than a trove of sketches, some unfinished, just as the master left them. — Cathleen Medwick
Read an excerpt from A Moveable Feast
Next: Follow one executive chef to the brink of madness
By Monica Ali
"When he looked back, he felt that the death of the Ukrainian was the point at which things began to fall apart," begins Monica Ali's In the Kitchen. "He could not say that it was the cause...because the events that followed seemed to be both inevitable and entirely random, and although he could piece together a narrative sequence and take a kind of comfort in that, he had changed sufficiently by then to realize that it was only a story he could tell, and that stories were not, on the whole, to be trusted."
The he is Gabriel Lightfoot, executive chef, and the kitchen is the high-end, high-stress orchestra of multinational sous-chefs, grill men, and pastry chefs (sometimes a United Nations Assembly, Gabe thinks, sometimes a pirate crew) behind restaurant Jacques, in London's once grand Imperial Hotel. Jacques' kitchen is full of stories, hard-luck tales the staff has brought from Byelorussia, Romania, Moldavia, Liberia, India, the Congo, even France, and amidst these stories, Gabe's life plan—opening his own restaurant, marrying his canny, gorgeous girlfriend Charlie, obliterating his father's provincial worldviews once and for all—begins to unravel like a piece of cloth in the textile mill where his father spent his life. Deeply flawed and wildly sympathetic, obsessed, hypocritical, delusional, humane, Gabriel Lightfoot is an unforgettable protagonist, his descent into lunacy frighteningly recognizable, individual, profound. — Pam Houston
Next: A teenager's road to self-discovery reveals generations of family secrets
By Jeffrey Eugenides
An Oprah's Book Club selection in 2007, Jeffrey Eugenides' Pultizer Prize–winning Middlesex follows the history of Calliope Stephanides and her Greek-American family. As Calliope struggles to make sense of who she is and her family's past, she discovers she has a genetic condition that has been passed down through three generations of her family.
A tale that straddles the transitions between past and present, immigrant and American, childhood and adulthood, Middlesex is as complex as it is tender and honest.
Read the first chapter of Middlesex
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Jeffrey Eugenides answers all your questions
Next: Go inside the lives of New York City's Italian immigrants in the early 1900s
By Rohinton Mistry
With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recalls masters from Balzac to Dickens, this novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism of India. Set in 1975 at a time when the government has declared a state of internal emergency, the story focuses on the lives of four unlikely people who find themselves living in the same humble flat in the city. Through the dramatic and often shocking turns their lives take, we get an intimate view, not only of their world, but also of India itself in all its extraordinary variety. As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.
Meet author Rohinton Mistry
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Next: War, romance, class struggle and the teacher that ties them together
By Janice YK Lee
"I hope I don't destroy you," whispers the seductive Trudy Liang, a nervy, glamorous Hong Kong socialite, to Will Truesdale, a wildly attractive Englishman with a practiced aversion to love. It is June 1941. The international community in this British colony is still riding high—obscenely wealthy, genially intolerant of the local population, intoxicated with power and prestige. All that is about to end, as Japanese forces herd the privileged into internment camps, and loyalty is undermined by pride, self-interest, and fear. Janice Y.K. Lee's intensely readable debut novel, The Piano Teacher, alternates between that nightmarish moment in history and a decade or so later, when Claire Pendleton, a peaches-and-cream-pretty, unhappily married young English piano teacher with a tenuous connection to Hong Kong's expatriate society, finds herself drawn to the ambivalent Will, a man in thrall to a ghost. Lee, who grew up in Hong Kong and lived in New York, has a visceral understanding of cultural isolation and of the ruthless imperatives of race and class. War is the awful darkness at this novel's core, but there, too, is Trudy Liang, a fiercely willing prisoner of love. — Cathleen Medwick
Next: A touching memoir of two college friends who travel to China with unexpected results
By Laurie Fabiano
In her debut novel, Elizabeth Street, based on her family's history, Laurie Fabiano examines the lives of Italian immigrants who struggled to survive in the tenements of New York City in the early 1900s. Giovanna is mute when she embarks for America, her voice having disappeared as news of her husband's death arrived. But once she sees land several months later, she can speak: "[Her voice] wasn't loud; it was strong and deep as if it had been buried...." Determined not to become another immigrant broken by poverty and prejudice, Giovanna immerses herself in the shadowy world of extortion and murder to fight the Black Hand, a precursor to the Mafia, and save her family. "What plans do you have for me...L'America?" Giovanna asks. Over almost 20 years and more than 400 pages, we watch her naïveté turn to wisdom in a place where the reality of daily survival quickly overshadows even the idea of prosperity. — Elizabeth Thompson
More reads from O's 2010 summer reading list
Next: An Oprah's Book Club pick that recalls masters from Balzac to Dickens
By Susan Jane Gilman
In 1986 two hyperverbal girls who have just graduated from Brown decide to take off on an around-the-world adventure. The two are yin and yang—Claire is a wealthy New Englander, tall, wispy, entitled, toting Nietzsche; Susie is New York tough, broke, buxom, Jewish, and a fan of astrology. They strive for authenticity: no hotel chains, no predigested itineraries. First stop is Hong Kong, then straight to the People's Republic of China (pre–Tiananmen Square and pre-9/11). Culture shocks hit the minute they step off the plane, but something much worse is rocking Claire's foundation—she's coming undone, descending into schizophrenia. As they travel deeper into the country, we grasp before Susie does that Claire is not just spoiled and moody. Others see the warning signs, too ("Your friend has some real problems"), but Susie writes it off as melodrama until they're in so much trouble they have to flee for their lives.
This is riveting stuff; part coming-of-age story, part travel journal, part political thriller, and completely unputdownable. — Elaina Richardson
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