It’s that time again.
I typically read about 100 books a year. Everything from travel literature to poetry, history, psychology, fiction and memoir. I love reading lists and recommendations, and I bet a few of you do, too.
So at year’s end, I like to take a moment to share my top reads of the past twelve months.
Here are the books that got my Road Wisdom Stamp of Approval, from one book lover to another.
In the category of travel literature…
Deep South by Paul Theroux
Our greatest living travel writer does it again. I think Deep South may be Theroux’s best travel book yet. It’s more considered and introspective than some of his previous (all thoroughly excellent) books, perhaps because it’s based on repeated journeys through the same places over the course of four seasons, rather than a journey through a place wth an end goal in mind.
I admire his writing because it’s always so incisive. He has a gift for dialogue, and an eye for that perfect detail or phrase which reveals so much about a place or a person. I’ve read everything he’s published, and he’s long been a source of inspiration for me as both a traveler and a writer.
I enjoyed Theroux’s thoughts on Southern literature, and I love how he brings his broader reading and the thoughts of the literary greats into his day to day life, and into the book. He strikes me as the sort of guy I’d love to sit down for a drink with and talk about our favourite books.
Reading Deep South also brought back so many memories of my childhood in small town Ontario. We never had the poverty or racial discrimination of the South, nothing like that. But I did experience some of that openness and kindness, nature, the St. Lawrence River, good neighbours, country fairs, simple home cooking, and more. Theroux brought so much of that back, and as an expat and nonstop traveler he encouraged me to reevaluate it, and to get curious about my roots again.
This is a well written, insightful book which will reveal new worlds in a place that you may have prejudged, and that you probably didn’t know much about before. Highly recommended.
Isles of Illusion by Asterisk
I first heard about this book while reading Slow Boats Home by Gavin Young. A contact in a Hong Kong shipping office had loaned Young a beaten up copy of this long out of print classic. And Young carried it with him as he travelled by freighter across the South Pacific. The quotes and references he shared were so intriguing that I was determined to track it down for myself. Thankfully it was reissued, and resurrected from the shadowy world of forgotten stories.
“Asterisk”, as the author was known, was a dissatisfied British schoolteacher who had read the letters that Robert Louis Stevenson published from Samoa. And in 1910, at the age of 33, he set off to find his own South Pacific dreams.
Asterisk hoped to make his fortune working on a plantation, but the brutal life that he found quickly disillusioned him. This book — edited and compiled from letters he wrote to his friend Bohun Lynch, and published by that friend without his knowledge – are a masterpiece of directness and honesty.
Asterisk chronicles the hardships of his life and his descent into 7 years of misery with cutting wit and scathing honesty. He wrote about another side of a place that many dreamed of as an enchanted tropical paradise, and he captured a vivid snapshot of a vanished age.
But don’t expect a depressing book. His observations are often hilarious in their inventiveness and language. Take this, for example:
“That very night I caught and slew over 30 fleas inside and outside my trousers. I didn’t try and count the host that escaped me. No, if one is going to be a rough traveler, it doesn’t do to be finicking. […] It is simply impossible to keep free of them. That’s why I don’t keep a dog. The poor brute’s life would be one long martyrdom.”
Yes, the is thoroughly a book of its time, and Asterisk’s racist comments about the natives can be off-putting to modern audiences. On the other hand, he also showed great compassion for the islanders he lived among. He doctored them when they were ill, and hated white planters or traders who maltreated or cheated them.
This is a gritty, honest book that’s extremely difficult to forget. A true travel classic.
A Ride to Khiva by Frederick Burnaby
Frederick Burnaby was an adventurer in the classic sense. A soldier at the time of the Great Game, when the British Empire and Russia were vying for power and territory in Central Asia, he spent his leave time exploring the world’s fringes.
In 1875, Burnaby decided on a whim to venture deep into Russian-controlled territory, hoping to gain a sense of whether the Great Bear was indeed planning to invade India, as many strategists feared. His target was the legendary oasis town of Khiva — now a Russian city closed to European travellers.
Burnaby was a giant of a man: standing 6’4” and over 200 pounds. He spoke 7 languages, including Russian. He set out in the depths of winter, traveling by horse and sleigh, bundled in furs and battling blizzards, snowdrifts, temperatures that plunged below -30C, and finally deserts. And he encounters many strange characters along the way.
But it isn’t all just high adventure. Burnaby’s descriptions are filled with humour and cutting wit. I could vividly imagine myself eating dinner in a smoky hut among these tribesmen deep in Russian Central Asia:
“Each man strove to outdo his neighbour. Belts and broad sashes were loosed from around the loins, and Nazar, who had made up his mind that he ought to eat for his master as well as himself, was actually swelling before my eyes, and becoming wheezy in his utterances.”
Burnaby did succeed in reaching Khiva, where he had an audience with the Khan. But he was ordered home by an alarmed government when word reached them by telegraph of his feat. They of course had no idea what he was doing there, and they feared a diplomatic incident. Forbidden by the Russians of crossing into India as he had planned, he turned around with a shrug and made the long trek back to Europe via St. Petersburg.
This Great Game classic is wonderfully written, uncompromisingly direct and honest. Track it down if you have any interest in Central Asia.
Bearback by Dr. Pat Garrod
I came across this book while researching overland possibilities in the south of Africa. I want to buy my own Land Rover or Toyota and kit it out for long journeys, and I stumbled across a web page by an author who did exactly that. He bought a used Defender in South Africa, and he outlined the costs in great detail. Seeing his summary enlarged the scope of my plans, and set me off on a different tangent.
But that was just a sub page of a much larger site. Before he ever thought of owning a 4×4, Dr. Pat Garrod had set off with his girlfriend Ness — now his wife — to ride their BMW motorcycle The Bear around the world. This massive book is the account of their 4 year journey.
I knew I’d stumbled across a kindred spirit when I opened the first page and saw my favourite poem, Ithaka by Constantine Cavafy, as the epigraph. And it only gets better from there.
I enjoyed Garrod’s sensitive insights into the places he passes through, and how he shares the struggles and joys of their remarkable journey in straightforward prose. And I enjoyed the slow accumulation of practical details I gleaned from its pages. I came away with a much better sense of how to prepare for long overland journeys, beyond the scope of the expeditions I’ve done to date.
Bearback is a wonderful tale of adventure, optimism, big dreams and overcoming adversity. It’s also a love story and a celebration of the magic of discovery. But be warned: this is a very dangerous book. It will have you buying maps, drawing up lists of supplies, and planning your own vanishing act, whether you go on two wheels, four wheels, or just a sturdy pair of boots.
Those were my favourite works of travel literature among the pile I read this year. I hope one of them catches your interest, and that you enjoy the journey as much as I did. Next up…
A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich
I read this massive brick of a book before flying up to Venice with my wife to see the in laws last Spring. They were on a European tour which wrapped up in this watery, mysterious city. And it was the perfect excuse for a quick weekend trip.
Norwich is one of my favourite history writers. I thoroughly enjoyed his account of the Catholic Popes, Absolute Monarchs. And his Venice holds up just as well.
In his introduction, Norwich talks of his father’s love of the city, and of how he travelled there often as a child. He traces the story of Venice’s rise from town to city to empire, from its 5th century beginnings as a haven for those fleeing the remains of the Western Roman Empire to the dark day in 1797 when Napoleon put an end to the thousand year old Republic.
This is a wonderful and highly readable account of a unique city, the life of its people, and some of the most interesting events in European history.
Read it even if you don’t think you have any interest in Venice. And definitely read it before you go there. You’ll explore the alleyways and canals with a much deeper appreciation for the uniqueness of this magical place.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer
This is a brilliantly readable account of one of the darkest times in human history, by a man who was living in Germany as a foreign correspondent during the rise of Hitler. But The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is especially interesting because it covers the rise of Hitler and the Nazi’s in great detail, and not just the war years, like so many other WWII histories.
It amazed me how transparent Hitler was with his agenda — to invade the east, to persecute the Jewish people, all of it. It was all right there in his book Mein Kampf, in plain sight for British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin or any of them to see. And sure enough, Hitler carried it out to the letter. But the other Great Powers wanted to remain in denial, and to convince themselves that Hitler’s deception and bluffs of peace were true. They delayed the inevitable war and thus made the solution much worse for themselves.
The other thing I found fascinating about Rise and Fall is that it was largely researched from Nazi documents and testimony, and it revealed just how many chances the Allies had to stop Hitler early on. There were several key points where calling his bluff would have finished him off — and he and his generals knew it. But Hitler had such an instinct for reading his opponents that he knew when he could bluff and bluster with extreme confidence. There were also just as many turning points where, had he acted differently (in Russia or in North Africa, for example), Hitler could have turned the tide back against the Allies. But his own personal flaws and his increasing megalomania led him inexorably to disaster.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich walks you through those early victories and later disasters one meticulous step at a time. It’s a massive brick of a book, but I found it impossible to set down. Essential reading for anyone interested in WWII.
And, finally, in fiction…
Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a story of loss and self discovery. The novel’s hero suffers a devastating loss in his second year of college. His four best childhood friends cut all ties with him, abruptly and without explanation. He accepts this far too easily, because he feels fated always to be alone. And he goes on with his colourless life.
But at the age of 36, Tsukuru’s new girlfriend pushes him to come face to face with his past. He spends the entire novel trying to figure out what happened back then, and what he could have done to ruin the years of his youth. His journey takes him to his hometown of Nagoya, and all the way to rural Finland.
And in the end, Murakami captures the fleeting moment of that period in all our lives, and how we only realize much later what an irreplaceable treasure our childhood was:
“It’s strange, isn’t it?” Eri said. “That amazing time in our lives is gone, and will never return. All the beautiful possibilities we had then have been swallowed up in the flow of time.”
That’s the feeling that stayed with me when I closed the cover of this novel.
So there you have it. My top reads from the past year.
What stood out for you in 2015? Please share your best reads of last year in the comments below. I’m always looking for recommendations.