Books of 2008

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

I’m running through my travel lists for 2008, we started with 10 interesting hotels, moved on to my best music experiences and  then the views out the window from my favourite flights. Next it was cars & drives and then museums, galleries & exhibitions followed by photographs. Today it’s the travel books of 2008 (some of them rather out of date!).

I read some great travel related books in 2008, starting with a novel that nearly won the Booker Prize in 2007 and ending with a semi-autobiographical journey by one of the 20th century’s most enterprising journalists.

Mr PipMr Pip was one of my favourite books of the last year, it’s set in Bougainville, the much troubled island province of Papua New Guinea which was essentially cut off from the outside world for over 10 years. The brutal civil war which raged on Bougainville somehow never made it to more than a byline in the world’s consciousness. Yet Mr Pip brought that sad story home, ‘rarely,’ wrote the London Independent in its review, ‘can any novel have combined charm, horror and uplift in quite such superabundance.’

My travels to Haiti and Colombia in the first half of 2008 also took me to a number of books about those countries. Bonjour Blanc – A Journey Through Haiti by Ian Thomson is the best contemporary traveller’s account of the country, even though it was written nearly 20 years ago. And Graham Greene’s The Comedians is, of course, the best known novel set in Haiti. I stayed at Greene’s Hotel Trianon when I was in Port-au-Prince, in real life it’s the Hotel Oloffson.

After the DanceI also read Edwidge Danticat’s After the Dance, she’s the best known contemporary Haitian writer and has a number of novels to her name as well as this account of a visit to Jacmel at carnival time.

Marching PowderMoving on to Colombia The Fruit Palace by Charles Nicoll is probably an equivalent to Bonjour Blanc. Published in 1986 it’s equally out of date, but once again nothing better has come along in the interim. This madcap venture is heavily dusted in cocaine, the drug which also plays a big part in Marching Powder. Marching Powder is set in Bolivia rather than Colombia, but I bumped into the author, Rusty Young, when I was in Bogota. Which seemed to be entirely appropriate, meeting the author of a book on cocaine in the best known cocaine country.

Jack de CrowAt the Byron Bay writers’ festival I was on a panel with A J Mackinnon whose delightful book The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow traces a crazy voyage from west England up and down assorted rivers and canals (plus the open sea crossing of the English Channel) all the way to the Black Sea in a tiny, wooden Mirror dinghy. Crazy voyages in unsuitable transport have always appealed to me and this laugh-out-loud book is one of the best.

Three Cups of TeaGreg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea follows the adventures of an American mountaineer who may fail in his attempt to climb K2, but certainly succeeds in his efforts to build schools in remote regions of Pakistan. It’s been a huge best seller although at times it feels a little far fetched, as if the co-author David Oliver Relin was working too hard to make Mortenson sound heroic. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we spent more money on building schools in Pakistan and less on military expenditure? Unfortunately arms makers have lots of money for political lobbying. School makers don’t.

How Low Can You GoThen there was Alexander Frater’s Tales from the Torrid Zone, which wanders all over the region between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?,  by Morgan (Super Size Me) Spurlock, was a bit of a disappointment. It covers some of the same territory I explored in Bad Lands. Tom Chesshyre’s How Low Can You Go? checks out how low the air fares can go when you set out to explore European destinations you would never have heard of, if EasyJet or Ryanair hadn’t started flying there.




KazakhstanMy visit to Kazakhstan to see a space tourist go into orbit in October was a brief one, so I tried to make up for it by reading In Search of Kazakhstan – The Land that Disappeared by Christopher Robbins. The author is probably over-enthusiastic about Kazakhstan’s larger-than-life president, but he makes his feelings clear from the very beginning and this is a far better introduction than the one Borat provided. My last travel book of 2008 was Ryszard Kapuściński’s Travels with Herodotus, the travelling tales of the Polish journalist whose adventures proved, once again, that less is often more. His expense account was as threadbare as the Soviet-era Polish economy and he made up for it by ingenuity and getting far closer to his sources than any gold-plated credit card would have allowed.

Finally Chris Taylor’s China novel Harvest Season isn’t out yet, I read the manuscript by this ex-Lonely Planet author and Chinaphile. I hope you’ll be able to read his Beach-like thriller in 2009.