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Top Ten Travel Books as selected by Ayun Halliday

Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter

This novel follows a German ship traveling from Veracruz, Mexico, to Bremerhaven in the late summer of 1931. Like any deliciously dark soap opera worth its salt, it boasts a huge cast of characters, all despicable in some way. I first read this in my early 20s. This year, I reread it to see if I should continue referring to it as one of my favorite books. If anything, my enjoyment was heightened, but it's a bit unnerving how much the boho young American traveling with a lover she can't stand (the feeling is more than mutual) reminded me of me in my early 20s! (The 1964 film version of this tanks, but I'd recommend Fellini's And The Ship Sails On as a worthy companion piece.)

A Guide to Hemingway's Paris by John Leland

Long before I strapped on a dirty backpack to sleep in the great train stations of Europe and starve myself fat on nothing but French bread, I caught the travel bug courtesy of A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises. Liberally larded with modern and vintage photographs, the walking tours in this guidebook indulge the literary pilgrim with such tidbits as the former apartment of Shakespeare and Company founder Sylvia Beach and her lover Adrienne Monnier (Hem' killed a sniper on their roof in August of '44, then took their last bar of soap) and the church where our impotent newlywed / freshly divorced hero successfully prayed to get his mojo back. 

The Collected Stories of Somerset Maugham

Speaking from experience, these stories, spanning four fat volumes, are perfect for those who spend long hours with dislocated knees in foreign countries! Dishy tattle from a world that long ago ceased to exist will make you crave a drink, a steamer trunk full of evening clothes, and a postprandial smoke (even if you went cold turkey in Calcutta ten years ago). Don't even get me started on the dozens of film adaptations; most of them riper than moldy cantaloupes.

Swimming to Cambodia by Spalding Grey

Outdoing Somerset Maugham, Spalding Grey inserted himself into every story he told, and I couldn't get enough of the guy. His roman à clef, Impossible Vacation, may squeeze in more exotic destinations. Yet, Swimming to Cambodia, a recounting of some time spent on location in Thailand as a bit player in The Killing Fields, remains dearest to my heart, in part for the moment in the ocean off Phuket, when he finally quits worrying about sharks and beach bandits to become "a round, smiling ear-to-ear pumpkin-head perceiver, bobbing up and down" on the waves. Read the book and then rent Jonathan Demme's film — or vice versa. Make it an annual tradition.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that traveling together in a foreign land will spice up your failing relationship. Odds are one of you will get sloshed on a train and end up screwing a mutual friend, then whichever one was cuckolded will die a horrible, prolonged death from untreated dysentery. Then the now-slightly-addled first one will end up as the sexual plaything of a nomadic tribesman who doesn't speak so much as a single, cotton-pickin' word of English! Stay home and have a baby instead! (But don't rent the Bertolucci movie starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger. It stinks up the joint.)

Karma Cola by Gita Mehta

Western hippies running amok may be bad for India. Yet, they're the juiciest reading this side of Somerset's badly behaved sahibs. Fortunately, my male traveling companions all refused to play along with my hippie-dippie inclinations, or I might have wound up living under a tree, worshipping the memory of the deceased guru who enlightened/impregnated me. Guaranteed to make you think twice before dancing around the sacred fire in your jingle-bell-trimmed see-through harem pants.

A cook's tour

A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain

Note to self: write best-selling chef's tell-all, complete with gnarly insider information on swordfish and mussels, so when the publisher offers carte-blanche to write the next one, I can get them to send me around the world in search of the perfect meal, just like Anthony Bourdain. I actually read this before the deservedly lauded Kitchen Confidential and sensed myself to be in the hands of a reliable narrator when, on page 12, he comes clean that the swashbuckling culinary adventure he's about to describe was subsidized by the Food Network, who filmed his every move for a series (Don't ask me. I don't have cable.) Thus: "...when you hear me carping about how lonely and sick and frightened I am, holed up in some Cambodian backwater, know that there's a television crew a few doors down the hall. That changes things." Yes, but in his hands, it can only add to the hilarity.

Mundane Journeys by Kate Pocrass, illustrated by Patrick J. Kavanagh

One of my favorite locations in New York City is a lamppost where, if you position yourself just so, the Essex Street Retail Market sign is obscured in such a way as to read SEX STREET TAIL MARKET. Mundane Journeys, a self-published, illustrated guide-of-sorts to San Francisco, hips visitors and residents to this ephemeral, literally priceless serendipity. In my humble opinion, a single call to Mundane Journey's regularly updated hotline is worth more than twenty cable car rides, a lifetime supply of Rice-a-Roni and all the Escaped From Alcatraz t-shirts for sale on Fisherman's Wharf.

Another Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

While only some pieces in this collection are travel-related (I allowed myself to skip the one about tennis), the heavily footnoted titular essay is an excellent first-person travel reportage. Even though the closest I've come to a luxury cruise is the skanky-latrined, communal sleeping arranged Pelni ship that takes two days to cross between Jakarta and Medan, I could relate to the plight of the black-clad aesthete constitutionally unable to join in the carefully orchestrated on board merriment. Both an anthropological study of the incredible amount of planning, staffing, and filet mignon necessary to make even a short cruise function smoothly and a condemnation of the consumerism that passes for mainstream recreational fun, this cautionary tale is never less than howlingly funny, albeit in a queasy-making sort of way.

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