Read Your Way Abroad: 10 Top Books

(Note: This is a reprint of an article that I wrote for “The Examiner” in December 2007.)

I am an avid reader and love everything about books; from the smell of the ink on the paper, to the feel of the pages between my fingers.

When I’m not able to get away, I can usually be found with my nose in a great book.  With the holiday season rapidly approaching, I thought it would be helpful to share with you a few great reads. Each one of these books offers a chance to learn about another culture – either directly (travel writing) or through a work of fiction that provides clues to a culture’s daily routines and or history. Some of these are personal favorites, while others were recommended to me by friends. Here are a few titles to consider the next time you’re mulling around the bookstore or library.

1. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho:  Highly recommended by a dear friend, this story is about a young shepherd boy in search of a treasure. He lives in the mountains of Andalusia but his quest takes him to the Great Pyramids. Having to overcome many challenges, the young man discovers the treasure within.  It’s an excellent tribute to the power of believing in your dreams, trusting your instincts and never giving up.

2. Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff by Rosemary Mahoney:  This beauty of Mahoney’s writing is that she makes it clear that she’s solely looking to offer an American perspective of her travels – an outsider trying to understand, rather than define the Egyptian culture for her readers. This particular book chronicles her solo journey down the Nile River, in a small rowboat, despite the barriers that exist with every move.

3. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert: This memoir chronicles the journey of self-discovery of a recently divorced woman, Gilbert, as she travels around the world: she learns Italian in Italy, finds spirituality in India, and falls in love in Indonesia. Don’t discount this one as a book solely for women.  There are many valuable lessons on life, courage and love.  It’s a must read for anyone who has ever fantacized about ditching the daily grind for an extended adventure abroad.

4. French or Foe by Polly Platt:  For those traveling or moving to France, this book offers insight into the minds of the often misunderstood French.

5. God Grew Tired of Us:  A Memoir by Jon Bul Dau, Michael Sweeney:  Mr Bul Dau grew up in a traditional  cattle village in Sudan.  The 1987 civil war forced him as a child to flee his home in the middle of the night. As one of thousands of “lost boys,” he survived hunger, violence and exhaustion. His life story was recently chronicled by National Geographic.

6. Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah McDonald: Written by an Australian journalist who swore that she’d never return to India – then does when her fiance is sent on an extended work assignment to New Delhi – this book is pure joy and wit. McDonald’s spiritual journey is educational. She writes about Hinduism, Jainism, Island and other religions practiced in India. The miracle of this story is her growing love for her temporary home, despite a negative experience as a young woman.

7. In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson:  I had a difficult time selecting which read American author, Bill Bryson, I should add to this list. Carefully crafting humor with history, you’ll be laughing until your sides ache while you learn the nuances of Australia’s values and history.  His writing about his visit to the beach truly had me in stitches!

8. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini: In his first book, Hosseini tackles the emotional tale of two childhood friends growing up in Afghanistan. This book was made into a feature film and ironically, four of the child actors in the film have left Afghanistan, fearing that they could be subjected to violence as a result of one of the film’s scenes. (Read the book, I won’t give it away!)

9. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver:  A work of fiction, this book chronicles the story of an evangelical Baptist who, in 2959, takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo.  The family’s journey is intertwined with that of the Congolese’s fierce fight for independence.  This ambitious novel has landed on many favorite book lists.

10. Shogun by James Clavell:  A dear friend from the Philippines told me that this book had such a profound impact on her that it inspired her to visit Kyoto, Japan for her birthday. It’s a fictional account of the exploration and exploitation of the Orient in the 16th century.

  • Maite

    I'll take out Holy Cow- would love to travel through India one day. I laughed like a lunatic reading Eat Pray Love, squirmed with God Grew Tired of Us and could not get through Kite Runner… Shogun inspired an 18 yr old me to read more about the dynasties of Japan. Where would we be without books?

    • Maite,
      Thanks for your comment! I discovered "Holy Cow" in an airport in Delhi (or was it Varanasi?)… it was tremendously helpful in terms of what I was experiencing and feeling, and a great laugh too. McDonald's writing is very witty. Enjoy!
      Missy