What I Read On The Road

by Brenna Holeman
best books to become a better writer

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I grew up surrounded by books; my mother is an author, and storytelling runs in our blood. My house was always filled with piles of words – books, yes, but also newspapers and magazines and manuscripts. I started reading at three years old, and haven’t really stopped since. My degree was even in literature.

And while a large part of my life (work, relationships, the ability to adequately style my hair) is put on hold when I travel, I never stop reading. What I read when I travel is fairly similar to what I read when I´m sitting at home in bed, but there are certain books and certain genres that seem to pertain more to the movement of travel; I crave action and adventure, a book that can get me through a long wait at the bus station or entertain me while I lounge on the beach. Here, then, are some of my favourite books I’ve read while on the road.
This book caught me from the very beginning. The premise is one I hadn’t been attracted to in the past: two gun-slinging brothers must track down a man during the peak of the gold rush in California. The story weaves in murder, greed, lust, and magic, and it is a hell of a ride all the way through. DeWitt made me love a genre (Western) that I had never really thought to embrace before in literature, and I even found myself empathising with one of the protagonists, Eli. What I have in common with a vicious assassin, I´m not sure, but I was sad to finish this book.
I read this book last year, holed away in a deliriously hot tent in the middle of the desert of Nevada. Any book that can entice me to read during the craziness of Burning Man must be a very, very good one. A friend had turned me on to this book, and it did not disappoint – Thompson’s wonderfully dry sense of humour and hilariously pessimistic attitude toward the four places he’s decided to never visit, but then visits anyway (the Congo, India, Mexico City, and Disneyland) made me want to read and read and read, despite the heat and the incessant techno blaring in the background. I subsequently read his other travel  book, Smile While You´re Lying, and it was also a page-turner. His books are some of my very favourites on travel, and, in my opinion, some of the most realistic.
I was travelling with an American girl for a few days through Thailand last year, and she had a copy of this book. I only discovered this 24 hours before we parted, but I was determined to finish the novel while I sat on the beaches of Koh Phi Phi, and finish it I did. The book is beautiful and unique, the story of two people who meet and keep in touch over the years, the book checking in on them on every July 15th. Even if I hadn’t had the 24-hour deadline, I surely would have kept turning the pages anyway, as it was clever and romantic, hilarious and sad. I remember re-reading the last pages over and over again, and, thinking about their words, I still get shivers. Ah, Dexter and Emma…
I have been a fan of comics and graphic novels for a long time now, at least ten years. I was introduced into this world in university, and I eagerly read dozens of great books by Charles Burns, David B., Bryan Lee O’Malley, Craig Thompson, Brian K. Vaughan, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Frank Miller, and Marjane Satrapi. Sometimes, though, there is no topping Alan Moore and his genius. I love reading graphic novels when I travel, especially on airplanes; they seem to be the perfect length, and keep you entertained perfectly through those long dull hours.
In the past five or six years I have gotten into reading a lot of non-fiction; I now try to mix it up and read one for every four or five fictional books. I really loved reading all of Malcolm Gladwell’s works when I was in Japan and travelling around the Philippines, as they are quick but extremely entertaining and educational. Even though I read all of them two years ago, I find myself still bringing them up with other travellers and building on some of his theories. It’s always nice to learn a bit when you travel, whether it’s from your surroundings or from a very good book.
I read this particular book when I was in Guatemala this year, and it was fantastic. Keeping in a strange and twisted pattern of reading all about family conflicts and confusing love, this year I also read The Outcast by Sadie Jones, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, which I can all highly recommend. There’s something about being a bit lonely on a rainy night in a new country and just hunkering down with a great, sad book, the kinds that take your breath away. There’s always room for fantastic literature, even (or especially) on the road.
I first read Sarah Waters in university, and I’ve loved her dark and sinister stories ever since. I devoured Fingersmith and The Night Watch years ago, and just recently read Affinity when I was in Honduras, but it was The Little Stranger that really affected me. I’m a sucker for a good, spine-tingling ghost story, and I remember reading this book throughout Southeast Asia last year and being unable to shake the spooky, eerie feeling I had upon finishing it for days afterwards. I swear on my life that the power even went out during one of the creepiest passages (though, in Southeast Asia, that’s not too rare a feat). Sleep with the lights on with this one, if you get any sleep at all.
I have a confession to make. I have been a bit of a book snob in the past, eschewing bestsellers by authors like Crichton, Stephen King, and John Grisham in favour of more “literary” books (whatever that means). And then, in travelling a lot, I discovered that often you are limited to very few choices in book exchanges and in bookstores that even have an English section. I soon started picking up a few of these books – A Time to Kill, Cujo, and Jurassic Park all spring to mind – and, well, I’ll be damned if they aren’t bestsellers for a reason. They’re good. They’re entertaining, fast-paced, clever, and full of characters you instantly warm to. I don’t know why I was so hesitant to read these kinds of “beach reads” in the past, but I’ll definitely be reading more in the future.
I sort of missed the whole Harry Potter boat the first time around, even though I’ve long been a huge fan of children’s literature (I worked for a major children’s publisher in Canada and have often cited Roald Dahl as my favourite author of all time). I started teaching university-style literature classes in Japan in 2009, however, and one of the novels I had to teach was the first Harry Potter book. I obviously had to read it multiple times before the class started, and by then I was already falling in love with the characters and Rowling’s playful yet extremely intelligent way with words. Before long, I had read all seven books in a month. They are perfect travel books, as they are fun and imaginative but also gripping and all-consuming; did you ever meet someone who was just kind of so-so about Harry Potter? Similarly, I also devoured the Hunger Games series earlier this year. Emo vampires will never, ever interest me, but reading about amazing heroines like Katniss and Hermione will always keep me coming back for more.
You can call this a shameless plug if you want, but the truth of the matter is that I really, really love my mum’s books. All of her adult novels are a beautiful blend of history and adventure, and, take it from me, she knows how to tell a great story. This book, her newest, is set during the serf emancipation of Russia, and it is filled with facts about the era down to the minute detail; I was with her in Siberia while she researched and planned this book, and it is evident that she puts her heart and soul into every single page. As with all of her novels, you just want to keep reading and reading, delving deeper into the web of wanderlust and personal conflict she creates in each of her stories. I eagerly await her next novel, as a daughter, yes, but also as an avid reader and a lover of great literature.
There you have it – just a few of my favourite books to read while I travel. They are not necessarily my favourite books ever but it is a pretty accurate list of novels I look forward to when I’m on a plane, in a hostel dorm, or just sitting in some outdoor cafe in a new city.
What about you? What do you like to read when you travel? Any suggestions?
For what I listen to on the road, click here.
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Katie @ Domestiphobia.net September 3, 2012 - 12:23 am

1. Thanks for the tips! I am currently at various points in 5 different books right now (it’s really hard for me to just read one at a time, UNLESS I’m traveling), but I definitely will be adding some of these to my “wait list.”

2. I’ve been reading a ton of nonfiction lately as well — a book on buddhism, another on wine, and next up (as soon as I finish one of these others – ha!) is “Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark,” a famous solo female traveler. It’s hilarious because I’ve actually had “The Tipping Point” on my shelf for quite some time. However, it was “assigned” reading from a chauvinistic ex-boss and I could never bring myself to stomach reading one of his recommendations. But now, maybe with your endorsement, I’ll give it a shot!

3. I felt the same way about Steven King once, until I “accidentally” picked up one of his novels at the trade bookshelf at a campground. It was called “The Long Walk,” written under his pen name Richard Bachman. After that, I was HOOKED. Harry Potter is marvelous, though I can’t say I felt as strong about Hunger Games, and definitely not about Twilight. I still read ’em, though. 😉

4. How INCREDIBLE is it that your mom is a published author??!!? I will definitely be adding one of hers to my list.

5. Currently, I’m actually into the Game of Thrones series. I never thought I’d like something like that, but my book club got me started and it recently got me through a couple of rather long flights to/from California, so I think I’ll keep at them. I’ve also gotten a bit into poetry lately and I’m perusing a small book of “selected poems” by E.E. Cummings. I also just ordered one of my favorite books I’ve ever read (once lent to me by a co-worker), called “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” by Garth Stein. If you are a pet lover (and I think you are), forget how silly the premise sounds and just read it. You won’t be disappointed.

(Wow, sorry for the crazy long comment. Love me some good books!)

Katie @ Domestiphobia.net September 3, 2012 - 12:39 am

Okay. “The Moonlit Cage” has officially been added to my Amazon wishlist. I love reading about Afghan culture — especially with my husband currently “living” there (and no, I don’t agree that the U.S. military should be there) and telling me about the Afghan men with whom he works. So far I’ve sent them English books and they’re sending me shoes. 🙂

Have you read “Kite Runner” or “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini? Beautiful, beautiful novels.

(Okay I’m done now, I promise.)

This Battered Suitcase September 3, 2012 - 2:22 am

Katie – Thank you for the comments!

1. I often have many books on the go, too!

2. The book about Stark sounds interesting! And yes, give Gladwell a chance. 🙂

3. I definitely have to read more of King’s work! Great for long bus rides…

4. Thank you! I recommend The Linnet Bird to read first.

5. I really want to read Game of Thrones! I’ve heard amazing things…

And to answer your second comment…The Moonlit Cage is wonderful, but I do suggest reading The Linnet Bird first as the books are connected slightly. I think you’ll enjoy both of them! And yes, I’ve read both of Hosseini’s books, they are incredible…I considered adding The Kite Runner to this list!

Andi of My Beautiful Adventures September 3, 2012 - 2:40 pm

I stopped bringing books when I travel. They always took up so much space and I never once found the time to read because of all of the exploration. I guess if I was traveling longterm then I would have more time, but my trips are always so short. I love that your Mom is an author.

Christine loves to Travel September 4, 2012 - 1:01 am

One day is a great book. I love the movie too!

This Battered Suitcase September 5, 2012 - 1:13 am

Andi – I just made the switch to a Kindle this year because I was tired of the weight. I find I go through phases of reading when I travel but lately I’ve been reading a lot!

Christine – Yes, isn’t it beautiful? I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie, but I think it was a difficult concept to put to film…

Valerie September 8, 2012 - 2:22 am

Great list, I love book recs! I made the switch to a kindle last year too & love it! My carry on is finally a manageable weight because it is no longer loaded down with books when I travel haha.

Recently I read Looking for Alaska by John Green and State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Really enjoyed them both.

Jenny Williams September 8, 2012 - 11:20 pm

I didn’t know your Mom was an author! I’m going to order her books right now!

Jenny Williams September 8, 2012 - 11:21 pm

I didn’t know your Mom was an author! I’m definitely going to start reading her books

This Battered Suitcase September 9, 2012 - 2:41 pm

Valerie – Yes, a Kindle certainly makes things lighter! I do miss tangible books, though…and I almost put State of Wonder on this list! I loved that book!

Jenny – Aw, thank you! She’s a really great writer!!

The Best Travel Books - This Battered Suitcase May 21, 2014 - 9:33 pm

[…] non-fiction narrative and George Saunders’ bizarrely wonderful Civilwarland in Bad Decline. I read a lot of wildly different things, but I think that’s both valuable and […]


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