It may still be quite warm outside, but summer has almost come and gone. Like many people, my "vacation" consisted primarily of weekends on the couch with long ER marathons. Thrilling, I know, but I still need a fix of exotic adventure that takes me a bit farther than an urban Chicago hospital. So before breaking out your Frommer's guide to plan your next trip, check out these three tales of travel, adventure and the people who make places more than just topography.
Australia has a landmass comparable to that of the United States, and about 80 percent of the plants and animals that live there exist nowhere else in the world, including the "famous and fearsome taipan" snake. Bryson explores much of the massive continent — from the bustling metropolis of Sydney to the town of White Cliffs (population: 80), where the majority of homes are built into the sides of cliffs in order to escape the searing heat of the Outback. Bryson's Australia is defined by the characters who cross his path. He also details the vocabulary and wildly understated tone people use to describe the dangerous wildlife that resides in Australia. The sting from a jellyfish? "Uncomfortable." The advice if faced with a snake in the Outback? "Stop dead and let it slide over your shoes." Noted.
If you haven't picked up John Steinbeck since high school, Travels with Charley deserves another read. Steinbeck heads off from his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., with his French poodle, Charley, in a souped-up truck he designed himself. He starts north to Maine and then heads west. He drives through Ohio, crosses the Mississippi, visits Yellowstone and stares in awe at the great redwoods. Charley both takes you across the country and takes you back in time. Steinbeck sees violent racism in the newly integrated schools in New Orleans and, decades before the advent of cellphones, feels isolated from friends and family. Despite recent questions about the accuracy of his account, his prose remains beautifully descriptive: You taste his bland dinners, feel his lumpy bed, you sense his disillusionment, and you see the purple mountains in all their majesty. And at just over 200 pages, it won't take you six months to get from coast to coast.
Troost's hilarious first book opens after he has finished a graduate degree in international relations and has bumbled through a few unsatisfying jobs. He is desperate to escape his life in Washington, D.C., so when his girlfriend gets a job with an aid organization in the island nation of Kiribati (pronounced kir-ee-bas), he joins her. Naively expecting a comfortable island paradise, Troost instead finds himself in an unfamiliar world with an underemployment rate of 70 percent, no farmable land on any of its 30 or so islands, and the kind of heat that makes the devil cringe. Despite battling raging seas, suffering "the Great Beer Crisis" and never being able to escape La Macarena, Troost grows to love Kiribati. His adventures (and he sure is braver than I) are not for the faint of heart.
As Steinbeck put it, "we do not take a trip; a trip takes us." Every adventure is different, and no amount of planning will result in a smooth ride. Grab one of these books and start your journey.
Molly Hart works at NPR in Washington, D.C. Except when she's on vacation.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.