You know that saying, “you are what you eat”? I’m going to take a spin on that and say, “you are what you read”.
Granted, I read a lot – but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that all of the novels I love most have fed my passion for travel and culture. In no particular order, I’ve summarized 12 of my favourite novels that inspired me to get up and get out there!
1. The Beach – Alex Garland
What: Freedom vs Isolation, Insanity
If you’ve seen the movie with a young and wild Leo Dicaprio + Tilda Swinton, please promptly erase it from your mind. Except for the scene where they leap into a tobacco field from a waterfall – that was pretty accurate. The Beach is a classic, lucrative, seeping-with-danger travel fic. You’ll follow Richard’s derail from an average 9-5 joe to a schizophrenic maniac as he develops malaria on his adventure in Khao Sang Road, Bangkok. If you were to find an elusive island paradise in the middle of Thailand, what measures would you take to hide it from society? When do the risks outweigh the costs?
2. The Backpacker – John Harris
Who: 3 Western Backpackers
What: Drugs, Danger, Adventure
Based on a true story, although after you’ve read it you’ll be questioning whether or not Harris is a fugitive for his misdemeanours. After ditching his long-term girl friend, job, and life in general in lieu of the epiphany that he’d rather continue travelling around Had Rin & Koh Pang, John embraces the most reckless lifestyle you can possibly imagine. Chopped off fingers, moonlit LSD beach parties, and stolen boats ensue. Come to think of it, enjoy The Backpacker for the dangerous sociopathic novel that it is, but maybe consider it as more of a “How Not to Travel” guide.
3. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
Who: Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty
Where: North America
What: Madness, Thrill Seeking, Man vs. Self
Arguably the mother of all travel literature, On The Road inspired millions throughout the Beat Route generation to escape in search of classic American culture. A hymn to lunacy and impulsivity itself, Kerouac’s stream of consciousness leads readers through his character Sal’s impromptu lifestyle while he seeks out the true grit behind his country’s character; improvised jazz, pie for breakfast, the madness of the men he associates himself with. There’s more behind the characters than meets the eye, as they disregard empathy & connections in order to seek freedom & adventure. If you’re on the road to self discovery, do you abandon all morale in order to find it?
Who: Ray Smith, Japhy Ryder
Where: Continental U.S
What: Zen Buddhism, Man vs. Self, Man vs. Nature, Mountaineering
The concept of “Dharma” is generally interpreted as the righteous way of living, to hold, or to keep. Ray Smith is based on Kerouac himself, during a period of time in which he discovers Bodhisattvas, decides to hike up Desolation Peak in Washington, and embarks upon a pensive monk-like journey of self discovery. By the middle of the novel you will feel right at home with Ray, wishing that you, too, were barefoot on a tatami mat translating ancient Buddhist poetry into English.
5. A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
Who: Mariam, Laila, Tariq, Rasheed
What: Women overcoming oppression, Sexism, Islam
Every one of Hosseini’s works should be included on this list. No other author can possibly immerse you in the black-tea, licorice and spice, almond and dust laden Afghan world quite as well as he can. This novel will offend you in the worst ways, hurt your heart, and call out your inner feminist roar, all while somehow maintaining a level of true appreciation for Kabul’s culture & landscape. You know it’s a good read when evil leaves a foul taste in your mouth but is eventually trumped by justice.
6. The Hundred Foot Journey – Richard C. Morais
Who: Hassan, Madame Mallory
Where: India and France
What: Indian Boy meets Pompous French Chef, Clash of Traditions, Culture Shock
For the Gordon-Ramsay wanna-bes out there who have an insatiable appetite for both travel and the exotic foods of different cultures: welcome home. Racist themes are tackled with humor and wit in Morais’ novel, which leads readers through spicy and colourful markets in Mumbai to a lush and green city just outside of Paris. Imagine an elderly, stereotypically “French” (read: traditional) female version of Ramsay, meeting a young unconventional Indian and being forced into the same room for days on end – enchanting, humorous, inspirational.
7. Pink Boots and a Machete – Mireya Mayor
Who: Mireya Mayor, NFL cheerleader / Nat Geo explorer
Where: Madagascar jungle
What: Female Empowerment, Overcoming Stereotypes, Primatology, Biography
Last summer I got through Jane Goodall’s biography and this novel in the same week – although there’s a few decades between these ladies, they’ve got a lot in common. Both throw themselves into the heart of a wild jungle and check their boots for deadly snakes on the daily, in the name of primate conservation. Both prove that their feminine charm is an asset to the rainforest as they make invaluable contributions to the scientific community. However, Mireya’s got a factor that Jane never did: she started out as a cheerleader. From stilettos to goretex, anything is possible – watch as this Barbie grows up and learns to get her hands dirty.
8. A House in the Sky – Amanda Lindhout
Who: Amanda Lindhout
Where: Somalia, Africa
What: Survivalism, Islam, Biography
I read this novel after my mum, who wearily demanded that I read it once she learned my intentions of travelling through Africa. The chord it struck was instantaneous: me and Amanda are both young girls from Calgary, Alberta. We both spent our childhoods sitting on the floor flipping through National Geographic, then spent our teens working up the money to get there. By the time her intentions to benefit society by becoming a journalist emerged, I realized why my mother was horrified – Lindhout’s bravery grows with each voyage she makes until she’s abducted in Somalia, where she spends 15 months in captivity, suffering Stockholm syndrome, torture, and is forced to convert to Islam. Through the sheer power of will, Lindhout manifests tragedy into freedom, futility into hope, and darkness into magic.
*Many critique the author’s lack of judgement upon entering the most precarious country on Earth, claiming that the government shouldn’t have to pay for foolish underqualification. No, Amanda had no formal education – she was a freelance journalist with barely 2 years of experience in Kabul, Iraq, and Iran. Yes, she had a brief career in modelling. What’s your opinion on this one?
9. Into The Wild – Jon Krakauer
Who: Chris McCandles (Alexander Supertramp)
Where: Continental US (Alaska)
What: Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Self; Self discovery, True Story
Some critiques consider his mission suicidal, some consider it foolish. I consider it to be more of a religion than a book simply for the overall theme at the end. Krakauer’s retelling of real life Christopher McCandles’ solitary voyage of self discovery into Alaska reveals all of the most important virtues of character along with flaws that ultimately destroy them. Disgusted with the materialistic excess of first class society, Chris, a 4.o GPA graduate, celebrates by embarking upon a year-long trek into complete independence: Alaska. He burns his credit card, defaces government property (in the form of his I.D), and changes his name, all in the name of his odyssey.
“The basic core of man’s spirit is his passion for adventure… The joy of life comes from new experiences.” – Alexander Supertramp
Who: Vladimir Markov, Yuri Thrush
Where: Sobolonye, Russia
What: True Story, Survival, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Beast
Taiga: |the coniferous forests extending across much of subarctic North America and Eurasia, bordered by tundra to the north and steppe to the south.|
Interestingly enough, The Tiger dwells within the Taiga. And this tiger is hungry for blood & revenge. Vaillant’s brilliant portrait of vengeance explores the gap between our species, the non-existent coexistence with these Amur beasts, and the brutality of this remote and desolate climate. What would you do, once the hunter becomes the hunted?
11. Cry of the Kalahari – Mark James Owens
Who: Mark & Delia Owens
Where: Botswana African Reserve
What: Wildlife Conservation, Man vs. Nature, Survival
Mark & Delia’s recount of their 7 year experience living amongst the beasts of the African Savannah is a cry to humanity, to the wilderness, to the long forgotten primal nature of man. In 1974, the pair drops everything they used to know about their life in the States in favour of moving to Botswana with nothing but two backpacks, sleeping bags, one pup tent, a cooktop and camera, and $6000. Their mission: to live amongst the flora & fauna of Africa, observing wildlife habits that no one has seen before. Not only did the Owens provide important information for ecologists; they do so in such a way that you’ll fall in love with the Kalahari, the silhouettes of the baobab trees, the hum of the desert buzzing with life at night.
12. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
Who: Nitta Sayuri
What: Man vs Society, Tradition, Japanese Culture
Literally translating to “artist” in English, a Geisha encompasses so much more than a single word can let on. We follow Sayuri’s journey from average fisherman’s daughter to a professional of all trades: dancer, musician, entertainer. Sold to a renowned geisha house, the girl absorbs what feudal Japan considers “the art of being a woman”; she’s forced to either prostitution, or to make a legacy of herself as becoming the most renowned Geisha Japan has ever seen. Wrap yourself up in the complications of the kimono (each silk pattern tells its own story), the secretive dances, the Sakura blossoms dancing in the street: the art hidden within life itself.