The Best of NPR’s Summer Reading List: 13 Books About Travel

NPR just released their travel-themed summer reading list, and it is a beaut. The problem, though, is it contains a TON of books. No need to worry your pretty little Google finger; we’ve done all the heavy lifting and whittled their mammoth of a list (sectioned by forms of travel) down to 13 gems. Ladies and gentlemen, start your Kindles!


The Great Railway Bazaar

by Paul Theroux • Paperback, 342 pages

In this 1975 classic, Paul Theroux brings us by train from London’s Victoria Station to Tokyo Central, returning on the Trans-Siberian. “I sought trains; I found passengers,” he writes. His train ride is filled with pungent scenes and “strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.” Still fresh, he boards the once-glamorous Orient Express: “Lady Chatterley took it; so did Hercule Poirot and James Bond.” Now there is no dining car; he disembarks to buy lunchboxes. From there, it’s on to Istanbul’s Covered Bazaar, to Tehran and then to the weekly Khyber Pass Local, which takes tribal people to the bazaar in Peshawar. Approaching Moscow, 6,000 miles into the trip, Theroux is road-weary: “I resented Russia’s size; I wanted to be home.” But readers will still be ready for more from this intrepid chronicler, who remains sharp-eyed even as he downs vodka with the club car bartender and ponders the darkening skies. — Jane Ciabattari, book critic


Lost Horizon

by James Hilton • Paperback, 272

This novel follows a small group of Brits and one American, led by diplomat Hugh Conway, as they are evacuated from a war-torn country. When their plane is hijacked and crashes in the Himalayas, they make their way to Shangri-La, a utopian community hidden in a remote valley. They find refuge in a monastery there and discover that the people who live in Shangri-La seem to be eternally youthful. Conway finds new meaning in the quiet, contemplative life of the monastery and wants to remain there, but circumstances draw him back into the world. As the story ends, he is searching for a way to return to this place where he was once truly at peace. This story first captured my imagination as a young girl. I fell in love with the idea of an idyllic, lost world, and the romance of it still pulls at me. Who wouldn’t want Shangri-La to be the final destination of a plane trip gone wrong? — Lynn Neary, correspondent, Arts Desk


Reservation Blues

by Sherman Alexie • Paperback, 306 pages

It’s 1992 and Robert Johnson, on the run from the devil, has turned up on the Spokane Indian Reservation of Wellpinit with the guitar he sold his soul to play. There he meets Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the town’s unpopular storyteller, who takes the guitar off Johnson’s blistered hands; moved by its whispers, Thomas decides to start an all-Indian band called Coyote Springs. Composed of Thomas, local bullies Victor and Junior, and two Flathead sisters named Chess and Checkers, Coyote Springs tours the Midwest in Thomas’ old blue van, going from gig to uncertain gig, running on Indian time and a prayer. When a New York label called Cavalry Records offers to sign them, however, things take a turn for the complicated. A beautiful, heartbreaking tangle of personal histories, reservation life, difficult relationships, song lyrics, magic and myth, Reservation Blues is luminous, playful and dead serious all at once. — Amal El-Mohtar, book critic and author of The Honey Month


Into Thick Air

Biking To The Bellybutton Of Six Continents

by Jim Malusa • Paperback, 321 pages

In Into Thick Air, botanist Jim Malusa describes riding his trusty bicycle to the lowest spots of all six continents — Lake Eyre (Australia), the Dead Sea (Asia), the Caspian Sea (Europe), Salina Grande (South America), Lake Assal (Africa) and Death Valley, near his home in Arizona. He overcomes everything from extreme weather and extreme insects to the very real threat of land mines if he strays off the road in Africa. Although these were solo trips, Malusa would make a great travel companion, as he has an enviable knack for meeting interesting people, hearing fascinating tales and seeing unusual sights. (For example, there’s an old state cafeteria in Volgograd, he tells us, “featuring perhaps the world’s only aluminum bas-relief of dumplings.”) Malusa’s philosophy of travel is nicely summed up in one sentence: “Travel without surprises was merely an agenda.” — Nancy Pearl, librarian and book critic


Wild Seed

by Octavia E. Butler • Paperback, 279 pages

If you don’t yet know iconic science-fiction author Octavia Butler, it’s always a good time to get started. Wild Seed is the fourth book published in her vast Patternist series, but it’s the earliest in the chronology, making it a perfect entry to this saga of immortality, gender, culture and politics. Ageless healer and shape-shifter Anyanwu is caught in a codependent relationship with the powerful Doro that sometimes offers kinship but more often trades in coercion — perhaps most crucially when he demands she leave her home with him. Their sea journey proves revelatory in ways interpersonal and geographical, as their time on the ship is both political limbo and romantic time bomb — and that’s before Anyanwu shape-shifts into a dolphin. Her travels will continue, and each one is a reaction and a counterpoint to the stasis of immortality. In Wild Seed, travel is a ritual of identity as much as a physical crossing. — Genevieve Valentine, author, most recently of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club



by Cesar Aira • Paperback, 89 pages

Novelist and translator César Aira is a prolific master of the novella, cranking out one short gem after another in a stream-of-consciousness style — a “flight forward” technique that keeps his stories moving despite the corners he writes himself into. Varamo, which is centered on a low-level government employee of the same name, sees Aira at the height of his genius. After collecting his monthly wages, Varamo realizes the bills are counterfeit. Confused and angry, he takes to the street, meeting a host of eccentric characters along the way. From these seemingly meaningless run-ins, he gathers the strange material for what will become a “celebrated masterpiece of modern Central American poetry.” With “The Song of the Virgin Child,” Varamo surprises everyone, including himself. Why? Because before this piece of writing, he’d never written a thing, not even “one sole verse.” With all its humor, intelligence and idiosyncrasy, Varamo is also a reminder that long walks — and what happens on said walks — often make for the most memorable experiences. — Juan Vidal, book critic



The Print Remix

by Geoff Ryman • Paperback, 364 pages

In 1996, with the interwebs becoming all the rage, Geoff Ryman decided to publish his new novel online first — a novelty at the time. I remained stubbornly old school and read 253 in its analog form, but I was delighted to find its website still available. The book follows a group of people on a 7 1/2-minute London Tube ride — 252 passengers and the driver. Ryman devotes one chapter to each of their stories, each told with 253 words divided into three sections: “Outward appearance,” “Inside information” and “What he is doing or thinking.” That may sound short, but the characters are deftly presented with economical grace and a real sense of zeitgeist. Online, the narrative uses hyperlinks to bring characters together in an interwoven fashion. (The printed version does this with an index.) Gimmicky? Perhaps. Funny, sharp and sad? Yes. Entertaining? Definitely. — Mary Glendinning, NPR Library staff


A Week to Be Wicked

by Tessa Dare • Paperback, 375 pages

Spinster Minerva Highwood is convinced that if she can just get to the Royal Geological Society’s meeting in Scotland and introduce her amazing geological find, her miserable life will get better. So she persuades the most notorious rake in Spindle Cove to take her there, promising him the proceeds when she wins the 500-guinea prize for best presentation. Claustrophobic and broke, Colin Sandhurst knows a days-long carriage ride is a bad idea but somehow can’t persuade himself to deny the aggravating bluestocking. If she’s willing to ruin herself pursuing a boring scientific prize and give him a small fortune in the process, why stand in her way? Of course, a current of mutual but unacknowledged attraction as well as a string of zany, shared experiences might just bring these two together forever. Or, to put it another way, consider this a quirky Regency romance version of The Sure Thing. — Bobbi Dumas, book critic


The Ice Balloon

S.A. Andree And The Heroic Age Of Arctic Exploration

by Alec Wilkinson • Paperback, 239 pages

This is the book that made me realize why I don’t particularly need literary fiction. Which seems like an odd recommendation, until you delve into Alec Wilkinson’s spare, gorgeous, horrifying account of the 19th century polar exploration craze and realize he has as much to say about human nature as any guy from Brooklyn. The story centers on Swedish explorer S.A. Andrée, who got it into his head that a balloon (in this case hydrogen, rather than hot air) would be the ideal way to survey the North Pole in speed and late-Victorian comfort. Andrée appears to have been a man who never let circumstances change his opinions, and “nothing that interested him was beyond his ability to have an opinion about it.” Needless to say, things don’t end well for Andrée and his crew; but Wilkinson situates their doomed quest beautifully in an era of explorers who sought the sublime, the sacred and the terrifying in the icy, dark-starred Arctic wastes. — Petra Mayer, editor, NPR Books

Rocket Ship:

The Sirens of Titan

by Kurt Vonnegut • Paperback, 326 pages

Malachi Constant, the wealthiest man in America, is on a journey through space, time, and the purpose of man. From Earth to Mars, Mercury, and back again to Earth, our fearless protagonist’s mission proves to be quite enlightening — and Vonnegut’s humor and intelligence make for an addicting read on many levels. Through Constant’s life and travels, Vonnegut makes bold statements about man’s relationship to religion, destiny, and the meaning of life; this is the book that gave us the famous quote, “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” It’s a ride packed with bold declarations and equally hilarious lines: “His response was to fight it with the only weapons at hand — passive resistance and open displays of contempt.” One of Vonnegut’s most beloved and unconventional novels, Sirens is a testament not only to one of literature’s brightest and most inventive minds, but also to the unending possibilities of fiction. — Juan Vidal, book critic

Time Machine:


by Octavia E. Butler • Paperback, 287 pages

This shattering, first-person slave narrative is the story of Dana, a young African-American woman who finds herself mysteriously yanked back in time from 1976 to antebellum Maryland. She soon discovers she’s been summoned by a distant ancestor, Rufus, the white son of a slaveholding plantation owner: Every time Rufus’ life is in danger (which is often), he calls unconsciously across the centuries to Dana, who arrives to turn aside the peril, and in doing so preserve her own future. But once she has saved Rufus from fire, or drowning, or drinking himself to death, she must confront the realities of life on the plantation and the compromises that become necessary to survive. “I never realized,” she says, “how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.” At the same time, Butler turns traditional stereotypes inside out and gives us heroic, complicated, enduring women. This — fair warning — should not be the last book you read in bed at night. But it should be a book you read. — Petra Mayer, editor, NPR Books.


The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

by Tom Wolfe • Paperback, 416 pages

Kheeew … kheeew … kheeew … the pale marshmallow faces go streaming and bouncing past neon martini signs down the hills of San Francisco and we’re off to the races in Tom Wolfe’s classic of New Journalism (jesuschrist, Tom) along with the Intrepid Traveler, Ken Kesey, and his band of Merry Pranksters — streaming and bouncing along the American interstates in a psychedelic school bus with perpetually speed-fueled Neal Cassady at the wheel, hammer-flipping monologuing Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty in On the Road, and — the feeling! — enough acid to french-fry the brains of every head in the Haight. Timothy Leary would have been horrified, and in fact, he was — ignoring the Pranksters completely when their bus pulled up at his leafy rural enclave in a cloud of green smoke bombs and blaring rock ‘n’ roll. You’re either on the bus or off the bus, my friends. Get on the bus. — Petra Mayer, editor, NPR Books

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