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Fiction, nonfiction and young adult fare: What we read on the road

Posted by on November 13, 2012
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Since I’ve been home, a lot of my friends have been asking me what Eaman and I did in our spare time for entertainment during our trip. (Does eating count as entertainment? It does to us.) We rarely had TV, and even when we did, we were less than thrilled to watch The Big Bang Theory (in Argentina), soaps (in India) or wildly histrionic love-song music videos (all of Asia). We did have WiFi almost everywhere, so yes, a lot of my free time was (happily) spent blogging and, when he managed to pry the iPad from my blogging fingers, Eaman caught up on the news.

But during most of our down time, we were reading — and not just guidebooks. Reading fiction and nonfiction, short stories and memoirs, magazines and newspapers. It was such a nice change of pace to dig into some literature during those long bus rides and before bed, a treat I rarely got to partake in in New York because I was usually too exhausted by bedtime.

Here, a rundown of what we read*, what we thought and, sometimes, what we learned. The list may stack up as short or long, depending on your own proclivity for reading, but keep in mind, blogging (and the laborious photo editing that comes with it) took up a lot of time, and Eaman was busy reading his issues of Entrepreneur magazine cover to cover.

That said, let’s share! (I took a lot of reading inspiration from fantastic travel blogger Jodi of Legal Nomads fame. She has a really stellar two-part post on her favorite on-the-road reads.)

Shantaram. Most travelers have read this one. Yes, author Gregory David Roberts, who based much of the events in the book on his actual life, goes a tad overboard with the sweeping adjectives and a bit off the deep end towards the finale, but he still paints a beautiful and poetic portrait of India. I dare you not to be moved.

The Glass Castle. In this memoir, Jeannette Walls weaves a personal tale about her radical, nonconformist parents, her family’s struggles to simply live and her efforts to break free from their shackles. As awful as her parents sound at times — especially her dad — you still love them in a weird way, which I think is a testament to Walls’ writing. It’s a quick, fascinating read that’s sometimes so crazy, you’ll have to remind yourself it’s a true story.

How Did You Get This Number? There are beloved snarky female writers like Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling, and then there are snarky-just-to-be-snarky female writers like Whitney Cummings. Thankfully, Sloane Crosley and her sharp and hilarious stories, in which she travels through Portugal and encounters a bear in Alaska, fall in the former category. She’s smart, talented and a great role model for funny prose.

Travel as a Political Act. I got this book for Eaman as a gift while we were in Hawaii. In it, travel wiz Rick Steves breaks down barriers and preconceived notions about so-called dangerous countries. He emphasizes how travel can expand our minds and challenges antiquated notions. We heartily co-sign!

Little Bee. This isn’t an earth-shattering work of fiction, but it is a simple, sometimes sweet, sometimes terrifying tale about an African girl and English couple. I shouldn’t say much about the plot since it’ll ruin the story, so I’ll leave you all in suspense!

The Help. The only thing I think of when I think back to my time reading The Help is Eaman vomiting. We were in Cusco, Peru, and he had just contracted salmonella poisoning. I wasn’t feeling too hot either, but he was in bad, bad shape, so while he was wretching in our 8-person hostel room’s ensuite bathroom, I was getting lost in the world of the South, slavery and Minny Jackson. I know the tendency is to sneer at these books of mass popularity, especially when said books are then turned into glitzy Hollywood movies, but I thought it was a really fun read with a great pace to keep me going in that awful hostel dorm room.

Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam. I loved this book by Andrew X. Pham, and not just because it seemed romantic to be reading about Vietnam while in Vietnam. (I know! I’m so clever!) The story, in which Pham travels through his native country by bicycle, is equal parts sad and uplifting, and I felt a little extra something for this memoir, probably because I can empathize with the duality of having roots in one country and an upbringing in another.

The 48 Laws of Power. Considering my pitiful lack of business prowess, this is an Eaman read for sure. It’s all about strategy, business, negotiation and enemies. He loved it, and so did the airport workers at LAX who saw him toting the heavy book, which he had borrowed from our Panama friend Mike, and made it a point to tell him just how much they loved it.

The Geography of Bliss. I used to be a fiction reader exclusively. But as I traveled, in the absence of a job, smart New Yorkers or instant access to The New York Times, I quickly realized it’s a good idea to educate myself beyond the admittedly wonderful conversations we had with other travelers. This nonfiction work by Eric Weiner was a perfect choice, as he explores the levels of happiness in various countries. It fed my travel bug and taught me a thing or two. For example, I now want to go to Bhutan — apparently the happiest place in the world — very badly.

The Hunger Games. I finished Suzanne Collins’ trilogy¬† well before we left last September and am a huge fan girl. So, during the trip, I constantly badgered nonfiction-loving Eaman to read it, and I finally won my battle when he downloaded it to the Kindle midway through the trip. He read only the first installation, but I beg you, read it all!

Eleven Minutes. Alchemist author Paulo Coelho narrates the tale of a Brazilian prostitute trying to create a new life in Geneva, Switzerland. I found it a bit tedious, and at times, like I was reading a romance novel. Not a huge fan.

Various books on Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism and their histories. I’m not sure you’re looking to read this stuff, but they were all a bit textbook-y and served a specific purpose for us. We were doing some soul-searching, figuring out where our own spiritual sides lie and what the road ahead looks like for a Hindu-Muslim couple. We also wanted to learn more about Buddhism after such extensive travel through SE Asia. As I said before, what we learned is that there’s a lot more same in this world — religion included — than different.

Siddhartha. Along the lines of religious material, we read Hermann Hesse’s classic about a Nepali man’s spiritual journey during the Buddha era. Or rather, Eaman did. I could barely get through it. Though now that I’ve experienced Vipassana, I’m curious to take another stab at it.

The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011: True Stories from Around the World. This compilation of travel essays comes out with a new edition each year, but this particular volume had stories from India, Costa Rica and Korea among other locales. Reading these pieces was a wonderful way to rev up my travel engine when fatigue began to settle in.

The Lonely Polygamist. I loved morning meetings at my old workplace, and I distinctly remembered that when this book by Brady Udall came out, the staff was abuzz. After reading his novel about a tired, slacking, confused polygamist husband and his circus of a family, I totally get it. Out of all the books I read on the road, this one had me hooked with the greatest intensity. The story is simultaneously sad and mesmerizing.

Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn Stars: A Hitchhiker’s Adventures in the New Iran. Eaman read this book by Jamie Maslin and loved it. In the memoir, Maslin talks about traversing the Silk Road route and winding up stranded in Iran, but much to his surprise — and perhaps a lot of people’s — he’s embraced by the locals, who take him under their wings — and show him Iran’s underground party scene.

*We opted to read mostly on our Kindle and iPad to save valuable backpack space.

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