Don’t know about you, but I love a good story. Especially it it’s true.
If the book touches on human issues or the meaning of life and gets me thinking, and if it’s set in a country with a different culture, then generally I’m hooked.
I wonder if you’ve read and enjoyed any of the following 10 books that I’ve selected? They are not in any particular order.
1. When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin.
Peter Godwin says it like it is, and then some.
“I am on assignment for National Geographic magazine in Zululand when I get the news that my father is gravely ill.”
He hooks you from the start and he’s compelling. Actually, I didn’t know whether to choose Peter Godwin’s autobiography about childhood entitled, Mukiwa (A white Boy in Africa), or this his second African memoir which is a story about the disintegration of a family set within the collapse of a country.
Both are gripping, but this one is a real page turner.
Peter returns to Zimbabwe from America when he hears that his father is dying. What he finds is a country teetering on violent chaos, destruction and famine – but a country which his English parents refuse to leave. Like many good books, this memoir involves a secret – a fifty year old family secret and an omen – for ‘when a crocodile eats the sun’ is how the Shona people of Zimbabwe describe a solar eclipse – the celestial crocodile that consumes the life giving star as a warning that he is displeased with man below. Peter Godwin’s writing is as always, astute, informational and very moving.
Loved it. There’s not a shred of self pity and the book is full of humour and wisdom.
2. The Sheltering Desert by Henno Martin
After living in and traveling around Namibia for two years in 1986 I could relate to the scenery and the feeling of being a miniscule dot in an enormous vista in this fascinating, true tale. What I couldn’t relate to, and what was even more fascinating, was the concept of seeking shelter in a desert.
The book is all about the power of survival in a harsh but beautiful environment. During World War II in South West Africa (now Namibia) two German geologists, Henno Martin and Hermann Korn were threatened with internment. They fled into the Namib Desert where they, “Sought the shelter of the desert in order to escape the madness of the Second World War.”
In this harshest of places they and the dog Otto, eked out an existence for 2.5 years, independent of human society living like primitive hunters, governed only by the laws of the wilderness and their own limitations.
3. These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach
OK so you’ve seen the movie? Haven’t you? The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? Now it’s time to read the book which is a comedy of manners about how different cultures cope outside their comfort zone – in this case in a ramshackle guesthouse in Bangalore. Funny and full of colour it’s also an insightful view of old age and what it has in store.
Couldn’t put it down.
4. Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
Extraordinary, astonishing testament to the power of the human spirit. How climber Joe Simpson survived against the odds when he fell down a crevasse is told in one of the classics of mountaineering.
Joe Simpson and his friend Simon Yates manage to get up to the top of the Siula Grande, a perilous Peruvian mountain. Unfortunately, on the way down, Simpson breaks his leg. At one point, in trying to lower him down with a rope, Yates unknowingly dangles Simpson over a huge crevasse over which he is not able to climb back. Yates makes the agonising decision to cut the rope and Simpson falls seemingly to his death.
But he lands on a ledge … and the rest you have to read.
Not only is it a heart stopping adventure it also touches on great life questions that really make you think. It’s all true, about the spirit of a man and the life force that drives us all. There’s a movie too – have you seen it?
Ohhh, gruelling, but I couldn’t peal my eyes away from the screen.
Harrowing. I was repulsed by the agony and equally amazed by the human spirit.
5. I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann
I defy any mother not to fall to pieces while reading this fast paced memoir. It’s a haunting, poetic and incredibly moving story, capturing the magic of Kenya with all its perceived wealth, its beautiful landscapes, its isolation and drama. But the African dream of the book is pierced by human tragedy so intense that it stops you in your tracks.
I’d give the story away if I tell you too much here.
If you’ve ever been to Africa, or if you’re a Mum – just read it and weep.
One box of tissues is not enough.
6. Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer
We moved to Kathmandu, Nepal when our son was five weeks old. I found this book in second hand book shop in Thamel when one day I diverted from my quest to buy spices for dinner.
As a severely sleep deprived, breast feeding mother, this book had to be gripping to keep my attention – and gripping it was. Heinrich Harrer, a mountaineer escaped from an internment camp in 1943 at Dehra Dun and headed for Tibet. He was a fugitive with no status and no papers traveling on foot with his companion Aufschnaiter.
They arrived in Lhasa penniless and in rags, but were met not with hostility but with kindness, and Harrer later became tutor and confidant to the young Dalai Lama. Life in Lhasa and the Chinese invasion are all covered in a memoir that gives a glimpse into another, and at that time relatively unknown world.
For anyone interested in Tibet and the Dalai Lama, this book gives a fascinating glimpse into a once forbidden country.
7. In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut
I admit. I’m an expat. I suffer from rootlessness and loneliness. Galgut, who was born in Pretoria, South Africa addresses these issues in an unsettling, beautifully poetic way using sparse but vivid language.
He uses three journeys to tell his story. Journeys that take him through Greece, India and Lesotho in Africa. Each journey ends in some kind of disaster, and each journey changes his life in some way. If you’ve ever searched not only for love, but for a place to call home, you’ll probably adore this somewhat bleak, intense book too.
I kept having to read sentences twice. Mr Galgut has a disarmingly lovely way with words 🙂
8. Don’t let’s go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
For me there’s nothing like a well written memoir, and if it involves either Asia or Africa, then I’m probably going to buy it.
Alexandra Fuller writes about her African Childhood in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia with great wit and insight, relating her experiences of living through a civil war at an extraordinary time with an eccentric family that displayed an unbreakable loyalty to their family farms as well as Africa, despite overt violence and uncertainty.
Alexandra can be so funny that she’ll have you laughing out loud, while at other times there’s an underlying sadness and hopelessness running through the story.
After living for many years in Africa I both laughed and empathised with this memoir. It’s true that Africa seeds herself deep into your veins.
9. One Thousand Chestnut Trees, a Novel of Korea by Mira Stout
A young woman embarks on a journey of self discovery by traveling to her mother’s homeland. She discovers a legacy left behind by the noble clan from which she’s descended and finds a temple, shielded by one thousand chestnut trees … A temple that was erected by her great-grandfather in defiance of centuries of invasions against Korea.
I was hooked and fascinated very early on in the book.
Made me cry
10. As I walked out one Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee
It’s a classic, it’s sensitive and it’s very readable.
Back in 1934 a young man walked from the security of his home in the English countryside to London, and from there went on to Spain, tramping through a violent country on the brink of civil war.
The book is lyrical and encompassing, capturing the atmosphere of Spain in an undiluted way.
As a writer, I wish I had Mr Lee’s way with words. As a traveller, I wish I had his powers of observation.
Have you read any of these books? What did you think? What’s your favourite travel book of all time?