The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” ― Dr. Seuss
One of my all time favorite genres of non-fiction is the travel memoir. Memoirs on their own are usually more enjoyable (imo) than autobiographies since they only cover a certain period of a person’s life, rather than the entire thing, or a certain theme. And a travel memoir not only gives you insight into the person writing it but also into the cultures experienced and countries visited by the author.
I love that, even in the ones that aren’t super well-written, such as “Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia”, the authors always share small details that bring to life the places they describe. Details that another author might not notice. Details I might never learn otherwise.
Travel memoirs are a fun way to get a snapshot of a culture, a glimpse of understanding of a country or people you may know nothing about. They might inspire you to do research (which leads you to a four hour Wikipedia rabbit hole….) or even visit that place yourself.
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An Age of License: A Travelogue by Lucy Knisley
A graphic travel memoir. Genius idea that resulted in a fun, quick but not frivolous read. She deals with anxieties and fears with charm and honesty.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost
A young Dutch-Canadian man follows his girlfriend (who’s moving for a job) to Tarawa, a remote South Pacific island in the Republic of Kiribati. I’ve read this book three times, and each time enjoyed it. Some might not enjoy the author’s acerbic and somewhat arrogant writing style but I thought it was funny and eye-opening.
198: How I Ran Out of Countries by Gunnar Garfors
The book doesn’t work entirely as a cohesive memoir but rather like a long string of blog posts glued together to tell the whole story, so sometimes there are abrupt endings to his tales or no connection between sections. And since it was originally published in Norwegian and translated into English by the author himself, there is some awkward phrasing and a lot of typos.
But I will forgive it those structural and grammatical faults for two reasons: Gunnar is so much fun to read, I felt like I was with him the whole time. He’s a guy I’d definitely want to hang out with (but maybe not travel with because he gets into some tight spots)! Secondly, he introduced me to places I’d never heard of or had forgotten about, places I would never have even considered wanting to visit or that I would never have given a passing thought to. It took me a month to finish reading this book because every chapter lead me to google something. So as a memoir, it might not hold up on its own, but as an inspirational travelogue, it was great fun!
Hitching Rides with Buddha by Will Ferguson
Thoroughly entertaining and educational memoir about traveling through Japan in the 90s. He hitch-hikes from the southern-most point of Japan to the northern-most point, following the Cherry Blossoms. His journey and experiences made me laugh a lot, often out loud. Some of his descriptions were just too funny. Definitely a page turner, and I found his insights into Japanese culture fascinating. I find Japan to be mystical and other-worldly in some ways, and want to visit to experience it for myself. But this was a nice peek into a perplexingly polite society. I would read another book by this guy for sure.
My Life in France by Julia Child
Having only “Julie and Julia” as my reference, I didn’t know a lot about Julia Child before reading this memoir. I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly did NOT expect to fall in love with in the way that I did. This woman was a straight up bad ass who defied all conventions of the time and did what she wanted.
Not only was it an inspiring read, it provided a cultural and historical snapshot of life in a France I’ve never known. It was fun to compare her experiences to mine, and research more about life in the country at the time. I also found her writing to be warm and cheery, as if she were hanging out chatting with you. Her voice came alive in my head. I read this one very slowly to savor it.
Tales of a Female by Rita Golden Gelman Nomad
It’s been YEARS since I’ve read this one but I remember the feeling I had when I finished it: astonishment and inspiration. This was one of the first travel memoirs I ever read and it made me fall in love with the genre.
Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez
An intriguing read, every step of the way. I’ve never known anything about Afghanistan, so I liked this introduction to the culture: sort of a soft way to enter – through the eyes of an American hair stylist – though a lot of the tales in this book were anything but soft. It kept me up until 2 am one night reading because I just couldn’t stop; The people and culture were page-turning.
Many of the negative reviews comment on the writing, saying it’s very blog-like or informal. But, like, duh? An easy-to-relate to writing style is part of what makes a piece of travel writing successful, as long as it’s backed up with heart and substance as this book is. Her writing is easy to read and doesn’t speak down to anyone, letting the author tell it like it was, as if she is sitting across the table from you talking over tea.
Around the World in 72 Days by Nellie Bly
This book was originally published in 1890, so the pacing is slower and the overall style stiffer than what we would see today. Style aside, it’s a fascinating peek into the time period and a woman’s mind of the era. And not just any woman but a young, strapping, independent woman ahead of her time. It was fun to see the world through her eyes — though many of her observations would be considered ‘racist’ today. Definitely worth reading, and I wish someone would turn it into a movie – there’s a whole subplot that Nellie doesn’t even know about until after she returns to NYC: another female reporter, from another newspaper, competing with her to win the record.
Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah Macdonald
I enjoyed this look at India through an Australian’s eyes. In some ways it gave insight into two cultures, for even though Australia is very similar to the US, there were still subtle differences. Mostly, her account was just pure fun to read, and I enjoyed how she explored all the different religions practiced in India. A lot of the reviewers said they found her to be superior or condescending but I never really felt that way. She seemed way more accepting of the squalor and differences in cultures than I think I would have been in her situation; she was way more go with the flow and seemed to relish in learning more about the Indian ways of life. Overall, I found it fascinating and would definitely like to read more about this country.
The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
Not technically a travel memoir but an utterly captivating tour through history and geography exploring the origins of the English language. Bill Bryson is a celebrated travel writer so he brings that same feeling to this account of our mother tongue.
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Do you like to read travel memoirs? Who are your favorite travel writers? Favorite travel memoirs? Have you read any travel memoirs written by non-Americans about the US? I’m always on the hunt for books about our country by foreigners, to better understand how we are perceived around the world. Leave me suggestions in the comments!