Sex and drugs, love and Elvis

Staying at home this summer? Belinda Jackson nominates 10 great reads for the armchair traveller.

What's your definition of a travel book? Is it one that tells you where the nearest bank is, lists dates of conquests or goes into the intimate world of people? We've gone for 10 great contemporary reads that might not tell you where to find a laundromat but are signposts for the country's soul.

India

CITY OF DJINNS, WILLIAM DALRYMPLE (1993)

Let's face it: the very name Salman Rushdie scares the pants off many casual readers, even though his dense mystical realism epic, Satanic Verses, is an absolute oil painting on life in India. From an outsider's point of view, Dalrymple knows and loves India and wrote the book in Delhi, where he lived with his wife. His ear for dialogue is gorgeous: after Dalrymple's driver crashes (into a Mango Frooty Drink truck), he tells the young Scotsman: "Mr William, in my life six times I have crashed. And on not one occasion have I ever been killed."

Kenya

THE CONSTANT GARDENER, JOHN LE CARRE (2001)

Travel classicists will be horrified at Karen Blixen's classic, Out of Africa, being bounced for a spy novel but Le Carre's racy tale of murder and Third-World exploitation paints a picture of modern Nairobi as well as the social structure of Kenya. The corruption of the country's flourishing expat and foreign aid worker scene and its ramifications on Nairobi's gigantic, poverty-stricken Kibera slums is more a portrait of the people than of the landscape. Balance it with Blixen's non-judgemental, beautiful memoirs of Kenya as it evolved in the 1930s.

Turkey

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IN TURKEY I AM BEAUTIFUL, BRENDAN SHANAHAN (2008)

Shanahan, a Sydney writer, adores Istanbul but that doesn't stop his tart tongue dissecting its idiosyncrasies, such as the mixed lineage of those who call themselves Turks. "Try as I might, I could never spot a Turk with confidence. Their biology was too unkempt ... Istanbul looked like a daycare centre at a border-town brothel." His trek to desolate eastern Turkey is layered with pathos and even tenderness for the raw military towns.

Egypt

THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING, ALAA EL-ASWANY (2002)

The characters in this book are not fiction, they walk the streets of Cairo every day: the old-money aristocrats in their huge downtown apartments filled with faux gilded Louis furniture, the shabby old doormen in gellibayas sitting on the street gossiping, the polyester-clad unmarried shop girls. El-Aswany's Cairo is tragic in its crumbling decline from 1960s elegance but raw and feisty in its modern energy. Supplement with journalist Khaled Al Khamissi's unmissable Taxi, a year of conversations with Cairo taxi drivers.

Britain

NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND, BILL BRYSON (1995)

Some people find Bryson a bit cheesy but he shines when describing his adopted country. In Notes, he takes a wander down the country's B-roads, delighting in Brits' penchant for Marmite, teacake and weird town names, and adds a few of his own suggestions: Great Shagging, Little Puking, Ramsdropping Bypass. Bryson's an unashamed Anglophile, so his needling is gentle. For an insider's view of London life, add Monica Ali's super-sassy Brick Lane to your inflight bag.

China

FRONTIERS OF HEAVEN: JOURNEY BEYOND THE GREAT WALL, STANLEY STEWART (1996)

Sex in travelogues seems to fall into one of two categories: it's either raw and on the top bunk in an overflowing backpackers', or non-existent, as monkish men trek studiously through the landscape. British author Stewart is an exception. He writes with exquisite gentleness about Fu Wen, who he falls in love with in Xian, on his journey across China from Shanghai in the east to Tashkurgan in the far west. He unearths the romantic memories of a 100-year-old man as surely as he observes an almost-decapitated cow hanging from a bicycle ("it left a trail of blood in our wake which I later used to find my way back to the main street").

Australia

STRANGE COUNTRY: TRAVELS IN A VERY DIFFERENT AUSTRALIA, MARK DAPIN (2009)

Sydney journalist Dapin's description of the Parkes Elvis Festival is a priceless piece of writing. What's amazing about Dapin is that he meets such characters as the Feral Ute King at the Caboolture Urban Muster and cockroach racers but he might - just - like them. A kinder picture of our country than that of Paul Theroux's, author of The Happy Isles of Oceania, who wrote "the Australian Book of Etiquette is a very slim volume", or his friend Bruce Chatwin's largely fabricated, though unutterably beautiful, The Songlines.

US

AMERICAN JOURNEYS, DON WATSON (2008)

In travel lit, the US inspires road trips: think Jack Kerouac's On the Road, On the Campaign Trail by Hunter S. Thompson and similar journeys by Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. A recent addition to the genre is American Journeys, written by former Keating speechwriter (among other tags) Watson, who criss-crosses the US by train and car. He openly confesses to eavesdropping on his fellow travellers, covering his scribbling as avid postcard writing, when in fact he's observing the US's relationship with its religious soul, racial roots and cultural heart.

Colombia

MY COLOMBIAN DEATH, MATTHEW THOMPSON (2008)

If you don't feel up to hanging out with death lords, paramilitaries and whimpering drug addicts crawling through their own vomit, read Thompson instead: he's done it all. Critics dismiss it as sensationalist and stereotypical and the book probably won't have you all rushing to Colombia to blow your annual leave. But while one half of us hates Thompson for leaving his eight-months-pregnant wife for the adventure, the other half admires his masochistic urge to annihilate himself on yage, a drug that turns him into one of those bodies crawling through their own detritus.

France

ALMOST FRENCH, SARAH TURNBULL (2002)

Nothing cheers up a clumsy traveller like reading about someone else's faux pas. And this book has plenty, as Turnbull, an Australian, hitches up with a Frenchman and learns the hard way about who holds the wine bottle at parties, cheese skills and the importance of dog coiffeurs. You could read this on a superficial level - Sydney girl morphs into Paris chic - but the lessons are obviously hard-learned and valuable. Team with Edmund White's The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris if you need to exercise the grey matter further.

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