The 20 best travel books of 2016


An entry to the Travel Photographer of the Year competition CREDIT: TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR (TPOTY)

 

 

From Australia to America, and Bulgaria to Burma, Michael Kerr draws on the year’s travel books to find the ideal Christmas gifts.

 

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot 

 

Canongate, $22.95

 

I was delighted to see this win the 2016 Wainwright Prize. It’s a wonderful book though hardly conventional, whether you consider it as nature writing or travel, two genres the prize aims to promote. It’s powerfully evocative of Orkney, “where land is often just a thin division between sky and water”. It’s also a memoir of addiction and recovery, and of the role played in the latter by the natural world and the writing of the book itself.

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney CREDIT: JOHNBRAID - FOTOLIA

 

Island Home: A Landscape Memoir by Tim Winton 

 

Picador, $19.95

 

Winton celebrates Australia’s wild places and makes an impassioned argument for their preservation. He details his own relationship with the natural world and how it has shaped him and his work. Almost incidentally, his book is a masterclass in how place can be brought to book – shy of 200 pages and yet airy with the space of the great southern land.

 

Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz 

 

John Murray, $34.95

 

An America journalist, charged with explaining the Chinese economy, talks to the people along his road in Shanghai who help to make it tick. Among them are young entrepreneurs, prospering under the new economic freedoms, and pensioners who, not so long ago, were sent to labour camps for being “capitalist lackeys”. The result is educational and entertaining, engaged and dispassionate, all at the same time.

 

Shanghai
Shanghai CREDIT: AKE1150 - FOTOLIA

 

On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor 

 

Aurum Press, $28.95

 

This marvellous debut is the fruit of miles of walking and years of research. Moor began it after tackling the Appalachian Trail between Georgia and Maine. He considers the trails made by insects, animals and man and the purposes to which they have been put, from finding food to building empires. He hikes everywhere from Canada to Morocco, considering the trail as everything from a means of recreation to a metaphor for life.

The Art of Flight by Fredrik Sjöberg 

Particular Books, $21.95

This year marked the centenary of the founding of America’s National Parks Service. Sjöberg’s book tells how two of his fellow Swedes had a hand in that great project designed to ensure that “virgin reserves should be placed here and there throughout the country”. It’s digressive, discursive and delightful.

Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park

Far & Away: How Travel Can Change the World by Andrew Solomon

Chatto & Windus, $39.95

The strongest piece in this essay collection, written over 25 years in which Solomon has visited 83 countries, is the introduction, where he argues that being a citizen of the world is not just possible but essential: “At a moment when many politicians are stoking anxiety, telling people that it’s too perilous even to leave the house, there is new urgency to the arguments for going out and recognising that we are all in the game together.”

The Encounter: Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu 

Pushkin Press, $15.95

Loren McIntyre, an American explorer who discovered the true source of the Amazon, had a weird encounter with a lost tribe whose leader, he felt, was “beaming” messages into his brain. Did the Mayoruna – and McIntyre – really communicate with telepathy? Do the tribespeople have a conception of time that should make us challenge our own? You can shake your head at both questions and still find The Encounter compelling.

A book about the Amazon? You read my mind
A book about the Amazon? You read my mind CREDIT: 2010/EUGENE FEYGIN

How to Travel Without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America by Andrés Neuman 

Restless Books, $22.95

This is Latin America in a rush, as it was seen by one of the Hispanic world’s brightest literary talents during a promotional tour of 19 countries. The result is not so much a travel book as a travelling one: instant, impressionistic, written from a need “to trap small realities on the go and interpret them in real time”.

Explorers’ Sketchbooks by Huw Lewis-Jones & Kari Herbert 

Thames & Hudson, $39.95

Imagine leaning over the shoulder of Captain James Cook as he charts the Pacific, or that of Meriwether Lewis as he and William Clark establish the true extent of the new nation of the United States. That’s the sensation you get as you leaf through this book, with its drawings and paintings, its scribbles and its copperplate, all registering first impressions of the world’s wonders – not just by explorers but by writers and travellers. 

White Sands: by Geoff Dyer 

Canongate, $32.95

Dyer refuses to be bound by supposed frontiers between fact and fiction. This collection of pieces is a bit of both, and ranges geographically from the South Seas to the frozen north. He writes so well about not seeing the Northern Lights that you’re glad he was deprived of the experience – though you do feel a bit sorry for his wife, who shared in “a lifetime of disappointment compressed into less than a week”.

Not seeing the Northern Lights can also be riveting
Not seeing the Northern Lights can also be riveting CREDIT: ALAMY

The Un-Discovered Islands by Malachy Tallack

Polygon, $24.95

In 2012, a research vessel in New Caledonia went right through the middle of an island that existed on the map but not in reality. Tallack has gathered here two dozen islands that have similarly appeared and disappeared over the ages. He explains the myth-making and establishes the facts without erasing the romance of these places that never were. His words are perfectly complemented by Katie Scott’s gorgeous illustrations.

Landskipping by Anna Pavord

Bloomsbury, $35.00

Pavord’s survey of the way artists, farmers and tourists have responded to the land through the ages is both scholarly and sprightly. If William Gilpin, the 18th-century authority on “the picturesque”, was a straitjacket, making his followers feel constrained and inferior, Pavord is a Barbour waistcoat, warming you up nicely in advance of the prospect while leaving you free to wave your arms in wonder.

Travel Photographer of the Year: Journey Eight

TPOTY $14.95

A travel photograph can be portrait or landscape, colour or black-and-white, reportage or fine art – but whatever it is it has to be exceptional to impress the judges of the annual British-based competition, which began in 2003. This collection maintains their high standards, with a particularly strong portfolio from Lesotho by a photographer who had only just turned 18, Chase Guttman of the United States.

The Travel Photographer of the Year contest has been running for 13 years
The Travel Photographer of the Year contest has been running for 13 years CREDIT: TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR (TPOTY)

Steve McCurry: On Reading by Steve McCurry 

Phaidon, $49.95

In 40 years as a photographer, McCurry, whose “Afghan Girl” is one of the best-known images of the past century, has travelled the world. In this collection he photographs people – everywhere from the sidewalks of New York to the schoolrooms of Ethiopia – being transported by turning pages. As Paul Theroux puts it in his introduction, “there is always something luminous in the face of a person in the act of reading”.

Steve McCurry is responsible for some of the world's most striking travel photography
Steve McCurry is responsible for some of the world's most striking travel photography

The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold by Tim Moore  

Yellow Jersey Press, $22.95

Few people have heard of the EV (Euro Velo) 13, a cycle trail that starts in Kirkenes, Norway, and finishes 6,250 miles later at Tsarevo, Bulgaria. Fewer still – let’s be honest: only one man – would think that, as it parallels the old Iron Curtain, it ought to be ridden on a two-geared East German shopping bike. That man was Tim Moore. If it was sometimes hellish in the saddle, it’s a hoot on the page.

Spring; Summer; Autumn; Winter Edited by Melissa Harrison  

Elliott & Thompson, $16.95 each or $59.95 for a boxed set

This quartet, which has appeared over the past year, is published in support of The Wildlife Trusts, which look after some 2,300 special places in the United Kingdom. Combining work from established and up-and-coming writers with the observations of supporters of the trusts, it is both a celebration of the natural world and an encouragement to get out and enjoy it – whatever the weather. Engaged and dispassionate, all at the same time.

Burma: An Enchanted Spirit by David Heath 

Heath studios, $175.95 inc p&p through heathstudios.com

Coaches may be raising dust around the principal tourist sites of Burma, but much of the country, as David Heath’s pictures show, remains a place set apart from the 21st century (though not from controversy over its treatment of its Muslim minority). “I hope that my respect for the environment and the culture of the Burmese people is revealed,” he says, “and that this book will contribute to their preservation.”

Bagan, Myanmar
Bagan, Myanmar CREDIT: © MICHELE FALZONE / AWL IMAGES

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Portfolio 26 

Natural History Museum, $42.95

The pictures in this book – 100 images selected from nearly 50,000 entries from 95 countries – are a dazzling celebration of wild creatures and wild places across the globe. The captions are often a reminder of human pressures on both: a species of crab eaten almost to extinction; a habitat that since the picture was taken has been poisoned by pesticides.

This Is London by Ben Judah 

Picador, $14.95

However well you think you know the city, you’ll see it afresh after reading this immersive account by Judah, who meets Polish tramps bedding down in tunnels and Filipina maids enslaved in mansions and teases out their stories of immigrant life, which are by turns heartbreaking and heartening, and sometimes both in the space of a page. It’s a fizzing, buzzing, choral account of the 21st-century capital.

Acknowledgements: Michael Kerr, Travel Writer

 

 
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