8 Travel books to read during lockdown

Jade Hammond

Travel may not be on the cards for a while, but there's no reason not to let your mind wander abroad...

Travelling from Lagos to Nigeria’s eastern mountains, Noo Saro-Wiwa reckons with the pain of her father’s murder. When alpinist Junko Tabei pulls herself onto the summit of Mount Everest, she’s the first woman to take in the view from the world’s ceiling. Laura Elkin redefines the masculine concept of flâneuring one urban stroll at a time, while Elena Ferrante blends fiction and non-fiction in her tale of female friendship in post-war Naples. These eight books offer a form of respite, or perhaps a flicker of adventure, to those craving an escape from the reality of the present.  

 

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, Kapka Kassabova 

Kassabova grew up holidaying on the Black Sea coast, near the juncture of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, at a time when it was rumoured to be an easier crossing point to the West than the Berlin Wall. In Border she returns to the once heavily militarised region to meet the people living in its villages—the psychic healers and entrepreneurs, refugees and smugglers, security guards and botanists—and examine the borders that exist between people, countries, and cultures. 

 

Flâneuse, Laura Elkin 

Walking is mapping with your feet, a way to piece together a city and connect neighbourhoods that might otherwise have remained strangers. It’s also a historically masculine privilege. Flâneuse is Laura Elkin’s answer to the flâneur, a male figure with the freedom to wander aimlessly through a city uninhibited by street harassment and the general conspicuousness of being a woman. From London to Tokyo, Elkin weaves memoir, travelogue and literary criticism as she strolls the city streets “side by side with the living and the dead.”  

 

Looking for Transwonderland, Noo Saro-Wiwa 

Growing up in “leafy Surrey”, Saro-Wiwa’s only experiences of Nigeria were on annual family trips to her “unglamorous, godforsaken motherland with its penchant for noise and disorder,” until she spent time there for the book. Looking for Transwonderland is her travelogue and an attempt at “re-engaging” with the country that lauded her father for his 1980s TV comedy series, and then executed him less than a decade later for his politics. She travels from the chaotic centre of Lagos to the calm beauty of the Eastern mountains, reckoning with the country’s eccentricities and her own difficult memories along the way.  

 

Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson 

Reading Notes from a Small Island is like linking arms with Bryson and having him usher you through the closing doors of a train bound for no-one’s quite sure where. In 1995, before moving back to the US after 20 years in Yorkshire, he travelled from region to region to take stock of Britain and its people. These are his meanderings, a collection of wry and hilarious anecdotes that give a page-turning quality to the banalities of everyday life.  

 

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, Kushanava Choudhury 

“Breathing in Calcutta was like smoking a packet of cigarettes a day,” writes Choudhury, and yet The Epic City is his love letter to its brilliance. He invites readers into the West Bengali metropolis and its urban rhythms: its shopkeepers sell books the way dealers sell crack, meals brim with platefuls of rice, daal, fritters and greens, and asking directions results in half a dozen men appearing out of nowhere, “determined to direct you somewhere.”  

 

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante 

The first in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, My Brilliant Friend explores the territory between fiction and nonfiction through the observations of Elena Greco, as she recalls her childhood in post-war Naples. Studious Elena meets her feral friend Lina at school, and they remain inextricably linked as life repeatedly tries to pull them apart. Ferrante captures the frivolities and soap opera-esque chaos of working-class family life against a backdrop of violence shaped by communists, fascists, and the mafia. Naples is a prominent character, too, and most of the novel’s cultural reference points are very much real and visitable. 

 

Departures, Anna Hart 

Travel journalist Anna Hart’s memoir-turned-essay-collection is the kind of escapist writing that makes you want to pick a point on a map, hire a campervan, and head out to try on a different life for size. Each chronological essay is a story of growing up via city breaks, road trips and far-flung adventures, and she dispenses advice with a conversational wit that’s likely to encourage even the most armchair-happy traveller to expand their reach.  

 

Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei, Junko Tabei 

In 1975, Japanese alpinist Junko Tabei became the first woman to pull herself onto the summit of Mount Everest and take in the views from the world’s ceiling. This essay collection draws from Tabei’s memoirs, detailing her experiences balancing family life with a love for the “unforgiving terrain” of high altitude.  

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