I love to travel and I love to read.
I read some great books on my most recent trip to Nepal, which led me to list some other memorable reading recommendations from some other recent-ish travels.
Massacre at the Palace – I was surprised to see that the paperback version of this book isn’t available on Amazon given that it seems to be in every bookstore in Kathmandu. Regardless, this is a compelling account of the 2001 massacre of Nepal’s royal family. It’s packed full of history but reads like a thriller. Interestingly, a big chunk of the Nepalese population doesn’t seem to buy that Crown Prince Dipendra murdered his family and then committed suicide – one reason the book gets mediocre reviews on Amazon. If you visit Narayanhiti Palace in Kathmandu, you’ll also notice no mention of Dipendra’s role in the massacre or his suicide.
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster – Compulsory reading for trekkers in Nepal I guess. I read this book and then dreamed of Everest for the next week (not in a good way). Make sure to read the end bit in which Jon Krakauer deals with a rival account of the 1996 Everest Disaster by Anatoli Boukreev.
From Goddess to Mortal: The True Life Story of Kumari – This is the photo you’ll see on every travel brochure for Nepal – the Kumari is a young girl believed to be the physical manifestation of the Goddess Taleju. There are at least three in the Kathmandu Valley and this is an account written by a former Royal Kumari of Kathmandu in the early 1980s. Perhaps the most interesting thing in this is getting first-person perspective of her life (including her thoughts on tourists!) and her opinion on the role of Kumari in Nepalese society. While some have criticised it as a form of child labour, this ex-Kumari believes the position can help unite religions since the tradition sees girls from a Buddhist Newari caste become the embodiment of a Hindu goddess. If you don’t want to read, this documentary on the Bhaktapur kumari is also excellent, free to watch, and occurs against the backdrop of Nepal’s Civil War.
Pakistan, India and the Middle East
The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan’s Pleasure District – Sociologist Louise Brown spent a long time living with and shadowing a family of dancing girls in Heera Mandi, the Lahore’s ancient red-light district. There’s obviously a firm-focus on sex work in this but Brown’s account also contains much detail about the daily life of the poor in Pakistan, including food, religion, cleanliness and the stubbornness of the caste system.
The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan – Journalist Kim Barker gives her account of war reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia – Seems to be standard recommended reading on Saudi Arabia.
City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism – A highly-readable one-stop shop account of Dubai (and to some extent, the entire UAE’s) transformation from desert outpost to modern metropolis. The first section is history, followed by some contemporary issues divided by topic – including labour rights, environmental degradation and social problems caused by a huge influx of immigrants. Worth reading as more and more Gulf states attempt to wean themselves off oil.
The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East – Neil MacFarquhar is a well-traveled reporter who gives a great cultural and political tour of the Middle East, organised by country. This is the book that taught me about ‘Bebsi‘ and Fairuz.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity – A true-life account of a family living in a Mumbai slum that reads like a Charles Dickens novel. The human impact of India’s convoluted courts system is one thing that really struck me from this Pulitzer Prize-winning book.
Guatemala, Mozambique, Various
The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? – There’s a tendency to write off traditional societies as primitive or old-fashioned but Jared Diamond makes the case that many of their customs and practices persist for a reason. This book has stuck with me for a long time – and the lesson he learns about “constructive paranoia” in the aftermath of a boat accident somewhere off the coast of New Guinea is one I tend to bear in mind whenever I travel.
China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa – One of the things that surprised me in Mozambique was the pervasive presence of the Chinese. From Maputo to Maxixe, Beijing’s influence is behind everything from football stadiums to newly-constructed roads and the trucks and cars on them. Howard French’s book tackles this issue and includes some memorable anecdotes – including a Chinese immigrant attempting to repopulate the continent in his image.
The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? – Riveting and informative tale of Bishop Juan Gerardi’s 1998 death in Guatemala City. A good introduction to some of the horrific history of Guatemala’s long civil war as well as its continued troubles with gangs and general political corruption.
Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World – I never thought I’d enjoy reading a book about the history of a fruit (although, that said, I did read this book exploring every ingredient contained in Twinkies and it was pretty great) but I picked this up before heading to Guatemala in an effort to get a grip on the United Fruit Company and its role in the country. What I got was much more – including, eventually, an Odd Lots podcast with the author Dan Koeppel.
Previous Convictions: Assignments from Here and There – A travelogue by the late, great AA Gill.