In my book bullpen: five very different travel memoirs


I haven’t read them all yet, only bits and pieces, but reading-time is scarce this fall season, and I’m doing the best I can. I’m also interested in these titles because I am writing my own travel memoir, even as the publishing world continues to implode and naysayers say nay, doom, and gloom, especially about the memoir. It’s the hardest-hit genre unless you’re a huge celebrity, they say. Yet here I am, immersed in memoir, specifically, the loose travel-essay/lit shelf, that ragtag stepchild of the orderly aisles of guidebooks found in any bookstore.

Four of the authors’ books in this stack—Andrew Zimmern, Eve Brown-Waite, Alan Cheuse, and Rick Steves—are new and fresh and hot off the presses. I wanted to list them here for your consideration before I review each more thoroughly. The other two titles are a couple of years old and are there purely for inspiration, the result of trusted friends’ recommendations. Multiple colleagues told me that Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight is a model for a tight, gripping, personal memoir. Then, last summer in Nicaragua, photojournalist Brent Stirton told me I absolutely had to read Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun and he made sure I jotted the name into my book. Brent had traveled to all the places Kapuscinski wrote about, and he told me that no other writer has captured Africa the way this Polish journalist did.

Here’s a rundown of the others:

  • THE BIZARRE TRUTH: How I walked Out the Door Mouth First … and Came Back Shaking My Head, by Andrew Zimmern, the worm-slurping Travel Channel host who believes “there is no distinction between travel writing, food writing, and anthropology.” I would add “storytelling” to that list, to show the extra glaze of entertainment that Zimmern adds to his narratives. Each chapter is a tale from Zimmern’s deep bag of painstakingly gathered stories from the course of filming his show all over the world (plus, he mentions me in the introduction, in reference to pig, a snake, and a shitting cow).
  • TRAVEL AS A POLITICAL ACT: Rick Steves’ most far-reaching book to date, a narrative about how the guidebook guru’s travels have shaped his politics, broadened his perspective, and taught him to move more thoughtfully through the world. Steves recently became the first travel writer to receive the  the Citizen Diplomat Award (from the National Council for International Visitors, placing him among notable recipients like Senator J. William Fulbright and Maya Angelou). Steves writes, “Travel connects people to people, helps us fit more productively into a shrinking world, and inspires new solutions to persistent problems.”
  • FIRST COMES LOVE, THEN COMES MALARIA: How a Peace Corps Poster Boy Won My Heart and a Third-World Adventure Changed My Life, by Eve Brown-Waite. I’m a sucker for any Peace Corps writer. This one is a self-described “fish-out-of-water memoir, in which an overly pampered college grad recounts her (mis)adventures as she tries her hand at saving the world and winds up in Ecuador and later Uganda.” It is more of an overall romantic narrative than the other collections listed here.
  • A TRANCE AFTER BREAKFAST AND OTHER PASSAGES: Travel essays by NPR book critic Alan Cheuse (“collection that masterfully lures the reader around the world, from Bali and New Zealand to Mexico and back home again to his native New Jersey, making the foreign familiar and the familiar slightly foreign.”) Haven’t cracked this one open yet. Have you?
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