Georgia Hesse's List of Recommended Books for Travel Writers

A number of members asked Georgia Hesse for a copy of her list of recommended books for travel writers, and she has generously let us post it.  Thank you, Georgia
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Booking Ahead for Travel Writing

Surely the best preparation for becoming a good writer (about travel or food or anything else) is being a good reader.  Following are four lists. The first concerns some books read over the last two years that  are noteworthy because of fine writing,  novel ideas, or inspirational approaches to the art — or all three.  The  second tackles the tricky and toothsome world of words and the reading of them. A third provides a look at the English language and the magic that has made it (in a delicious pun)  the lingua franca of the 21st century. Last come samples of essential sources that should live next to a writer’s desk

— Georgia I. Hesse


(Cast alphabetically by author)

“Island Beneath the Sea,” Isabel Allende, HarperCollins, 2010.  The wizardry that makes me believe Rosa in “The House of the Spirits” was born with green hair continues with Zarité, the beautiful slave of Haïti. A real person with a name that sounds like an Allende creation, Toussaint l’Ouverture, steps onto the scene. Myth meets history: mirabile dictu.

“Destiny Disrupted,” Tamin Ansary, Perseus Books Group, 2009. The subtitle tells the story: “A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes.” In June, I heard the author speak during a panel at Carleton College in Minnesota (his school for two years, my school for four).  He proved most entertaining and even eloquent. Half a century after he was given a copy of Hendrik Van Loon’s “The Story of Mankind” by historian Arnold Toynbee (who just happened to be passing through his tiny Afghan village of Lashkargah), Ansary has written his story of the faith professed by more than a billion human beings. He has mastered the art of simplifying the most recondite concepts. He enjoys playing word and name games: Did you know Kandahar (which the Taliban considers its capital) is a transformation of Alexander (as in the Great)?  Or that the word “sheikh,” title for a tribal leader, really meant only “old man”?  (Ansary runs the San Francisco Writers Workshop.)

“The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred,” Phil Cousineau, Conari Press, 1998.  Probably most travelers go in search of rest or recreation. Some walk in the footsteps of heroes: Toulouse-Lautrec, say, or Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Here, the pilgrimages and the process itself are sacred and arduous and not for the shrinking spirit.  The wanderer seeks a sense of self.

“Seven Gateways,” Tony Grey, Halstead Press, 2008.  The foreward to this book reads in part: “(This)  is a pageant of…instances, played out in antiquity, that transports the reader into other times, other places entirely except that they seem times and places we know, `ours’ in an ineffable way.”  Why is it that some places leaved us unmoved while prickle our skin and make our minds swim: Assissi, for instance, or Delphi or Mount Kailash in Tibet? Grey knows and tells.

“Gandhi & Churchill,” Arthur Herman, Bantum Books, 2008. Kipling wrote, “But there is neither East nor West, Border nor Breed nor Birth/ When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!” Herman, in masterly manner, reintroduces us to rivals who together forged our epic age. (See also his  “How the Scots Invented the Modern World.”)

“The Age of Wonder,” Richard Holmes, Pantheon, 2008.  Subtitled “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science,” this superbly written, diligently researched work preserves what I call “horizontal history.”  Did you know that poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was fascinated by the work of chemist Humphrey Davy, who invented the lamp that brought safety to miners,  or that Shelley was into geology?  Twain worlds (and more) did meet. This is a buoyant adventure into enlightened minds.

“Pictures at an Exhibition,” Sara Houghteling, Knopf, 2009.  In the pallid Paris of World War II,  many cultured families lost their artistic masterpieces to the nasty Nazis.  This dramatic novel immerses us in that corrupt world, still an incompletely known story. (For a factual account, look for the fascinating “The Rape of Europe,” Lynn H. Nicholas, Borzoi-Knopf, 1994.)

“All the Shah’s Men,” Stephen Kinzer, John Wiley & Sons, 2003, updated 2008).  JFK once whined (a quote from memory): “We [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][meaning the U.S.] will do anything for South America except learn about it.” Right, and that goes double for Afghanistan, Iran, and all those Stan places. This book tells us what we didn’t know about Iran and the shadowy U.S./British ploys of the 1950s and what price that ignorance has cost us.

“The Discovery of France,” Graham Robb, W.W. Norton, 2007.  Measure the Hexigon in a new manner: not by miles or kilometers but by time.  Consider this, on the eve of the Revolution: “…France was three weeks long (Dunkirk to Perpignan) and three weeks wide (Strasbourg to Brest). Journey times had barely changed since the days of the Romans… .” La belle France, we hardly knew vous.

“Unsuitable for Ladies,” Jane Robinson, Oxford University Press, 1994. Some of my favorite travelers of all time were the (largely) 19th-century wayward women who ventured forth from “this blessed realm, this England” in bonnets, veils, sun-dresses, sensible skirts, all the finery of bonny Britain: Isabella Bird (who chirped even as blizzards and bedbugs bit at her limbs),  Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Gertrude Bell, Mary Kingsley, Freya Stark, et alia. Meet some of them here; follow them forever.

“The American Future,” Simon Schama, HarperCollins, 2008.  One of my favorite historians (of “Landscape and Memory” and other masterworks) looks at a United States divided as it hasn’t been since the Civil War and sees it in the mirror of time; a poignant portrait.

“The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt,” T.J. Stiles, Knopf, 2009.  This “whacking” biography (as the N.Y. Times dubbed it)  won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2009 and, in this year of 2010, a Pulitzer Prize for Biography. And to think he lives in the Presidio near Baker Beach! And to think further that he appeared on stage at Book Passage on Aug. 2. I haven’t read the book yet but will have before the Conference.


(More or less in reverse order of my awareness of them)

“Word Catcher,” Phil Cousineau, Viva, Cleis Press, 2010.  Anybody who knows the word “kerfuffle” deserves attention. But “floccinaucinihilipilification?”  Surely he jests! Nope.  “The act of regarding something as absolutely worthless or useless,” claims Cousineau. The Irish “cushlamocree” he calls “A lullaby of a word, a sweet nothing with a brogue.” Cruise began as a term for pirate attacks. (Everything that goes around comes around, non?)

“Red Herrings & White Elephants” and “Black Sheep and Lame Ducks,” both by Albert Jack; the first, HarperCollins, 2004; the second, Perigee (the Penguin Group), 2007. They explain the origins of phrases we hear and use daily; they are as irresistible as potato chips. For instance, to “read between the lines” is to find the true message hidden in a situation that is not obvious. It was an early method of coded writing in which the real message and the fake one were placed on alternate lines. Thus, a simple story could be read but the true meaning could be discerned only by skipping every other line. It doesn’t sound too clever.

“ ’Isms & ’Ologies,” Arthur Goldwag, Madison Park Press, 2007. Subtitled “The 453 Basic Tenets You’ve Only Pretended to Understand,” this encourages us not to throw words around until we know what they mean; refreshing habit, that.  Take “atonalism:” “…music that is composed without reference to the major and minor scales.” Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss compared such music to “A sailless ship… .”

“Word Court,” Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes Against Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done,” Barbara Wallraff, Harvest, Harcourt, Inc., 2000.  For more than two decades, Wallraff has had us turning first to the last page of The Atlantic, to discover the meaning, and occasional madness, of words in her court.  This book as well as her “Word Fugitives” (2006)  is scholarly on the subjects of grammar and punctuation, and always  refreshingly witty.  Where, oh where is Wallraff writing now?

“Foyle’s Philavery, A treasury of unusual wordsand “Foyle’s Further Philavery,” both by Christopher Foyle, Chambers Harrup, 2007, 2008. The chairman of celebrated Foyles bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road admits one won’t find “philavery” in any dictionary. His mother-in-law invented it while in a Scrabble struggle. It’s born of Greek  “phileein” (to love) and Latin “verbum” (a word).  Make your conversation sparkle with “ammophilous” (sand-loving), as in “My children are only four and five but already they’re ammophilous,” or if you don’t want to admit your wife is a female professional whistler, just call her a “siffleuse.” Maybe nobody will inquire further.

“A History of Reading,” Alberto Manguel, Viking Penguin, 1996.  In AD 383, in Milan, a scholar named Augustine from Hippo in Roman North Africa (in today’s Algeria) witnessed the city’s bishop, Ambrose, reading silently! A marvel! At the time, normal reading was done out loud and Augustine was so impressed he recorded it in his “Confessions.” It was not for some 600 years that reading to oneself became usual in the West. (Both men were later canonized, as we know.) I was ignorant of this fascinating fact before meeting Manguel’s book. Almost equally intriguing are “The Dictionary of Imaginary Places,” “The Library at Night,” “A Reading Diary,” “Reading Pictures,” “The Iliad and The Odyssey” (a biography of Homer). Of his 30-some other works, I am tempted by  “Lost Words,” Bride of  Frankenstein” (film criticism), and “The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories.”

“Reading Like a Writer,” Francine Prose, HarperCollins, 2006.  To the old question “Can creative writing be taught,” Prose (what a great name for a writer!) predictably replies “No.” However, she gives strategies for improving one’s work.

“Writers on Writing,” Times Books, Henry Holt, 2001.  These are essays that will appeal especially to published writers. I suggest nobody could resist a column entitled “She Was Blond. She Was in Trouble. And She Paid 3 Cents a Word.”


(Some of these are seriously worthwhile; others are romps.)

“Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling,” David Wolman, HarperCollins,  2008. Whose fault is the “h” in ghost? Why doesn’t “good” rhyme with “food”? Why did a German traveler wind up in Sidney (Montana) instead of Sydney (Australia)? Read on.

“Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” Lynne Truss; Gotham Books, 2004. Remember she’s British. She generally points out the differences between English and American useage. Besides a book about punctuation that makes you laugh out loud must be read.)

“The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way,” Bill Bryson, Morrow, 1990.  Despite the recent books on our language, this remains choice, which won’t surprise anyone familiar with the author’s quirky approach to everything from Shakespeare to small-town America (as in “The Lost Continent”). It begins this way: “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”

“The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language,” David Crystal,  Cambridge University Press, 1995.  Of the six “parts” here there are 24 “usages,” from Modelling English to New Ways of Studying English, which includes the effects of technological change. There is a lot to laugh at (and with) in this heavy, 489-page book with its hundreds of illustrations, graphics, graphs and boxes. Thirty 30 expressions for being fired from one’s job are given under Jargon, from  “career change opportunity” to “work force imbalance correction,” not omitting the curious “outplacement.” Take this book on a one-month cruise.

On the tedious omnipresence of clichés, a lover writes his beloved thus, in part. “At the end of the day, the point of the exercise is to tell it like it is, lay it on the line, put it on the table – drop a bombshell, get down to the nitty-gritty, the bottom line. That’s it. Take it or leave it.  On your own head be it. I must love you and leave you. I kid you not. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. And I don’t mean maybe.” Lord Byron never wrote love letters like that.

“Made in America; an Informal History of the English Language in the United States,” Bill Bryson, Morrow, 1994. Despite the title, Bryson takes us beyond language to manifest destiny, the melting pot and the movies. Zounds!

“A Is for American,” Jill Lepore, Knopf, 2002.  How America used language to create a national identity is Lepore’s thesis. She establishes it with the aid of seven characters: Noah Webster, Tortola-born William Thornton (who designed the rotunda of the new Capitol in Washington, D.C.), minister Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Alexander Graham Bell, the Cherokee silversmith Sequoyah (who invented an 85-character syllabary for his tribal tongue and gave his name to giant trees), aging slave Abd-al-Rahman, and Samuel F. B. Morse.

“Empires of the Word – A Language History of the World,” Nicholas Ostler, HarperCollins, 2005. We all know the importance of Greek and Latin and we may be familiar with Western European tongues: Spanish, French, German, anyone? Chinese and Arabic are surging to the fore. But what about Akkadian, Persian, Aramaic, Swahili, Sanskrit, Hittite, Hebrew, Hindi, Tibetan? Do you care? If so, you need this book.

“The Alphabetic Labyrinth,” Johanna Drucker, Thames and Hudson, 1995. The letters of the alphabet were born almost 4,000 years ago; symbols that stand for sounds, in olden days representing quasi-mystical, quasi-religious powers. It’s poetic, it’s eccentric: The “Book of Kells” meets Adobe.

“The Language Instinct; How the Mind Creates Language,” Steven Pinker, Morrow, 1994.  One can watch thinkers such as Pinker on YouTube these days, but still wordwork belongs to reading. Do you wonder how it happens that children learn language as spiders learn to spin a web? Is grammar in our genes? Pinker seeks answers from as far back as the Big Bang.

“The Stuff of Thought; Language as a Window Into Human Nature,” Steven Pinker; Viking, Penguin, 2004.  Pinker returns in this sally into language as human nature as well as brain power. If you enjoy the mysteries of mind, you will be excited by this book.


NEWEST ON MY SHELF: Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors,” Bill Bryson, Broadway Books, 2008 (most recent edition).  “It’s the writing, stupid!” Nobody does a better job of explaining that, from A to Z; viz: “As a verb, affect means to influence (`Smoking may affect your health’)  or to adopt a pose or manner (`He affected ignorance’). Effect as a verb means to accomplish (`The prisoners effected an escape’).  As a noun, the word needed is almost always effect (as in `personal effects’ or `the damaging effects of war’). Affect as a noun has a narrow psychological meaning to do with emotional states (by way of which it is related to affection). And did you think for a moment that flotsam and jetsam are the same thing? Banish that thought!

NEW: Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary,” Marc McCutcheon,  Catchmark Books, Infobase Publishing, 2010.  This is a book of 711 pages and is designed for those who know what they’re looking for but not what it’s called; a near-daily dilemma for many writers. Imagine the pleasure of learning what “A-copy” is: “New reporting term for trite or `lazy’ copy lifted directly from a public relations press release.” (Alas, we’re not told where the “A” comes from; maybe “alas”?)  Do you wish to know what the leeward side of a mountain may be? It’s “rain shadow,” which is quite pretty. But under what listing is “mountains”? Try E for environment.  Once you’ve found what the 23 categories are, from Animals to Weapons, you’ll discover such dandy subheads as Clothing of Ancient Greece (under Clothing and Fashion); Mafia/Organized Crime Terms (under Language), and Publishing and Journalism (under Occupations).  A “drake” is a dragon-like ogre that hunts and travels on horseback; it lives in a place and eats humans. Handy info; I wish I knew where the place it lives is.

Dictionaries (Here are some favorites.)

Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary with CD-Rom

The Oxford English Dictionary

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

Oxford Essential Dictionary of Foreign Terms in English

Travelers’ dictionaries for French-English, German-English, Italian-English, Spanish-English, Russian-English (There are several of these; my favorites are by Larousse when available)

Dictionary of Problem Words & Expressions; McGraw-Hill

Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend; Thames and Hudson

A Dictionary of Symbolism; Hans Biedermann

A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquialisms; Dutton

Almanacs, Books of Facts

The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2010

Webster’s New World Book of Facts

National Geographic Almanac of World History

Chambers Book of Facts

The New York Public Library Desk Reference

Quotations, Chronologies

Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations: A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature

The Big Book of Dates: A Chronology of the Most Important People, Events, and Achievements of All Time

Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations

The New York Times Public Library Book of Chronologies

Encyclopedias, Atlases

The Encyclopedia Britannica (in full, 32 volumes, or concise form) . (Happily, this entire wonder is available on-line in various forms.)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Columbia University Press (full or concise)

The New Lincoln Library Encyclopedia (This great two-volume set has been around for 86 years, originally entitled Lincoln Library of Essential Information.)

The Oxford Atlas of the World (This is a good choice, largely because its maps don’t run into the gutters; good ones also available from National Geographic, Rand-McNally, Hammond, DK, etc.)

The Penguin Atlas of World History (two volumes, from the origins of civilization to 1990)

The Atlas of Early Man (Jacquetta Hawkes, St. Martin’s Press)

A Walk on the Wilde Side

“The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate,” Eugene Ehrlich; HarperCollins

“The Highly Selective Thesaurus for the Extraordinarily Literate,” Eugene Ehrlich; HarperCollins

“Whatever Happened to Tanganyika? The Place Names That History Left Behind,” Harry Campbell; Anova Book Company, Ltd.

— Georgia Hesse



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