The UN states that there are 193 countries in the world. I am on a quest to travel to every country in the world. You can see where I have been so far. An important part of travel for me is reading. I try to read one book (sometimes two if I am lucky) pertaining to each country I visit. Reading a book can provide so much more context to your travels. During my first visit to Russia, I read Peter The Great, a fantastic biography of this historical leader. When I visited St. Petersburg, the city came alive as I continually referenced his biography.
My Brother’s Road: An American’s Fateful Journey to Armenia. Monte Melkonian grew up playing baseball in California, but died in the battlefields in a distant war of freedom in Nagorno Karabakh. NK was formally an enclave within Azerbaijan but has historically always been part of Armenia. This book shares Monte’s fight for his historical homeland.
The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird. This is another true story that reads better than any novel. Sharon Matola, an American woman, ends up settling in Belize. She starts a zoo, caring for orphaned animals. Big business comes to Belize in the form of building a dam that would flood the last nesting ground of the brilliant scarlet macaws of Belize. This begins a multi-year, international fight, where Sharon and her allies, battle government forces and corporate giants who are intent on focusing on profits and not this precious natural resource.
Travels on the Road of Death and Other Adventures of a Yankee in Bolivia. The title sums up the book quite aptly. An American spends time traveling through Bolivia learning and encountering the peculiarities and culture of Bolivia. The author eats at Nazi Klaus Barbie’s favorite restaurant, spends time exploring dark and dank mines, learns about the 19th century war with Chile, partakes in Carnival and of course much more. A very readable travelogue of his adventures in landlocked Bolivia.
Two Seasons In The Bubble: Living and Coaching Basketball in Bulgaria This falls squarely in the genre of “fish out of water”. A Midwestern American travels to Sofia for his first time to coach and teach at the American high school. The author shares his trials and tribulations as he attempts to understand the unique psyche of the average Bulgarian. The book is filled with humor, sadness, and hope. I caught myself laughing out loud numerous time as the author tries to navigate and understand the high school players on his basketball team. The author also weaves in the history of this country on the edge of Europe. This book is a must read for anyone visiting Bulgaria.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers This is a first person account of a young girl’s experience growing up under the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge vicious regime in Cambodia. At the age of five she is cleaved from her family and begins her horrific existence under this genocidal regime. This non-fiction account is a testament to the immense courage in the face of horrific brutality. This genocide touched every single family in Cambodia and will engender greater respect and understanding during your visit.
Does It Yurt? Travels in Central Asia or How I Came to Love the Stans. The author provides a humorous and illuminating account of his travels in Central Asia. He shares with us amusing and frustrating accounts one comes to expect when exploring in Central Asia. This is a great first hand account and introduction to the Stans.
Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia. Things changed dramatically as five new countries were born after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan gained their independence in 1991. And over time Russia, China, and the USA began a dance of influence and power over these five states. This book provides an over view of the last two decades of a very complicated and nuanced geopolitical struggle.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China A three generation account of 20th century life in China proves once again that true life is grander than fiction. The author begins with her grandmother whose feet were bound as a child, and who was sold as a concubine to a warlord. Her mother lived through Mao’s revolution and was later denounced during the Cultural Revolution. This book traces the jarring vicissitudes of China during the last century prior to launching their economic rocket ship. Reading this book prior to your trip, you will appreciate the magnitude of changes through the eyes of the author.
Riding The Iron Rooster: By Train Through China Travel writing legend, Paul Theroux, takes the reader through the four corners of China via train. The books take place during 1988 between the threshold of communist Mao and burgeoning capitalism under Deng Xiaoping. For those visiting megalopolises such as Beijing and Shanghai, you will be shocked at the dichotomy depicted between present day China and that of China depicted in the book. Theroux’s unique voice and sense of humor will propel the reader on the iron rooster.
Frozen In Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II. Greenland is part of Denmark and is not an officially recognized country by the UN, hence the categorization under Denmark. The author share with us a true account of an air force plane that crashes in icy, formidable Greenland. This is an epic tale of survival, and an intense display of courage by the rescuers.
I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation. There is not a vast choice of books in regard to Eritrea, but this book provides a highly readable account of Eritrea. Eritrea rests on the Red Sea next to Ethiopia and just gained its independence in the early 1990s. The book recounts a long and brutal history of wars, colonization, civil wars, and now a one-party dictatorship. Its nickname today is the “North Korea of Africa”.
Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya. This is an incredible account of two adventurers with a passion for exploration. Rumors of ancient ruins had been circulating in the western world. The two set off from NYC in 1839 to discover the lost Mayan civilizations throughout Central America. These two encountered unbelievable challenges from debilitating sickness, inclement weather, and avoiding the violence of war. Despite these obstacles, Stephens and Catherwood made amazing discoveries on behalf of all mankind.
Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts What are the odds that a third string professional hockey player and part time Transylvanian pelt smuggler would become one of the most wanted criminals in all of Europe? Get lost as you watch anti-hero, Attila, transition from the hardest working goalie to gentlemen bank robber. Your visit to Budapest will not be the same after you read this book. It is near impossible to believe that this is a true story.
Shantaram This book will either unnerve you from any future travels to India or inspire you to board the next plane to the subcontinent to absorb the incredible mosaics and layers of this country. This mostly fiction but somewhat based on the author’s life takes place in Bombay in the 1980s. This nearly 1000 page tomb will consume you whole. The book will have you craving for the long promised sequel.
The Mountain Shadow Is the incredibly long anticipated sequel to the above Shantaram which has finally been published. Author, Gregory David Roberts, continues to chronicle protagonist, Lin, in the multi-layered city of Bombay. As you read The Mountain Shadow, you yearn to sip a beer with Lin and his friends in their favorite watering hole, Leopolds. You are beguiled by the introduction of new characters and enthralled to see former friends from Shantaram. The stories grasp and absorb you. It is difficult to put this book down, and I am already hoping for a trilogy.
Playing The Moldovans At Tennis There is not a lot of literature on this anonymous-like Eastern European country. But this book is an excellent and humorous introduction to Moldova. British comedian, Tony Hawks, makes a wager in a pub that is both improbable and incredibly creative. Watch as the author jumps into the deep end of the pool, attempting to win the bet at all cost. He needs to play and beat all of the players of the national Moldovan football team at tennis.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World Genghis Khan is known worldwide as a savage warrior who ruled an empire that ranged from Hungary to Siberia, more land than the Romans managed to capture over 400 years. But his genius lay beyond his superlative war skills, his real acumen was to be witnessed as a statesman. Khan melded disparate lands and cultures. Khan instituted the rule of law, established public schools, encouraged religious freedom, and established free trade. These trade routes also allowed for the free flow of ideas ranging from technology to the first international paper currency to a postal system. visiting Mongolia, you can follow his footsteps in the glorious, green steppes.
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. There is no smoking gun or explosive reveal in this true account of a reporter who goes undercover to teach at an elite school in Pyongyang. Yet, the book showcases the paranoia, deception, and confusion that permeates life in North Korea.
Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. This is the unbelievable account of a North Korean man who is born into captivity. When imprisoned in North Korea, one person’s crimes will result in three generations being imprisoned in the prison camps. The prisoner in this true account grew up believing the world was flat and that every person in the world either lived in prison or was a guard a prison. He knew nothing else. This book is a horrific account of life within the Hermit Kingdom.
Papua New Guinea
Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II. A US military plane crashes into the jungle of New Guinea in World War II. Despite the crash site being only dozens of miles from the US base where the plane departed, it takes months for the military to devise a rescue plan to help the survivors. The survivors interact with the indigenous tribes while they wait for their rescue. These tribes are seeing non-natives for their first time in their lives and are living in the same manner as their ancestors did for countless centuries.
Last Days of the Incas An improbable non-fiction account that reads like a novel. The author details how Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his 167 men defeated the Incas in 1532. In an epic battle where the Spaniards were outnumbered 200 to 1, horses and steel proved to be a decisive factor. A real life Guns Germs and Steel. Soon after the conquistadors seized Cuzco and present day Peru became a Spanish colony. This rag tag force became wealthy beyond their wildest dreams in the process. Today, you can stroll the streets of the historic city of Cuzco.
Peter the Great: His Life and World Read as Peter the Great propels medieval Russia into the modern world. Transport yourself back to the late 17th and early 18th century and watch as Peter the Great wills the new capital of Russia, the captivating St. Petersburg. The book details the equally fascinating Charles XII of Sweden as he battles Russia in a multi-year war. Dozens and dozens of landmarks still exist today in St. Petersburg and will complement any walking tour.
Young Stalin Before he was one of history’s biggest mass murderers and prolific butcher of Nazis, he was known as Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in Georgia, a mesmerizing country in the Caucasus. His early youth is varied, as he spends time as a bank robber, seminary student, and statutory rapist. He eventually rises to become a member of the inner circle during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Visiting the country you can spend time meandering down Stalin Avenue in Gori, Stalin’s birthplace.
Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice is a riveting non-fiction account of an American investment banker who enters Russia as the tip of the spear as it transitions to capitalism. It is the wild west., where fortunes are made and lost. This too could to be true account traces his story as he creates the largest foreign fund investing in Russia. But Russia, the bear, rears its head in the form of superlative corruption that results in the banker’s lawyer. Then follow him as he extracts his pound of flesh from Russia in a fight for justice. Could not put the book down.
Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia is an account of years of reporting by Russian speaking author, Anne Garrels. Russians often say there are two Russias. Moscow and the rest of the country. Garrels realizing this spends over two decades visiting Chelyabinsk. Chelyabinsk is in the hear of Russia, a former closed off military city. She traces its recent history as its transitions from communism, democracy/capitalism, and then Putin’s corrupt kleptocracy. She converses with ex-con taxi drivers, a mafia strong man, professors, and entrepreneur funeral directors to gain insights of life in this rust-belt city. The optimism and hope of the early 1990s transitions to fear and indifference as Putin increases his stranglehold over everyone’s daily life.
Tea Time with Terrorists: A Motorcycle Journey into the Heart of Sri Lanka’s Civil War. The author gets a bike and decides to understand Sri Lanka’s civil war by driving through the heart of it. Throwing caution to the wind, he spends time with terrorists, drug dealers, criminals, and ordinary people who are all part of this 30 year civil war.
Jasmine Fever Thailand has it all; dream-like islands, mountains dotted with hill tribes, and a bustling cosmopolitan capital, Bangkok. Many visitors are enthralled with their stays in this kingdom. And many opt to stay for the long haul. But brush past the surface of your ten day trip and scratch at the unique culture and people of Thailand. The author, American Frank Visakay, is a long term resident of Thailand who shares with the reader a series of highly entertaining vignettes, many detailing the intersection of farangs and Thai bar girls. This book is not winning any Pultizers but it is an interesting, light read.
City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism A near incredulous transformation of a village without electricity and legal slavery in the 1960s to an innovative city state. Today, Dubai is an amalgamation of superlatives and unique one-offs. Under the stewardship of the Maktoum family, Dubai is propelled into the 21st century. As a visitor you will be astonished at the transformation of present day Dubai from its recent historical roots.
When Heaven and Earth Changed Places If you wish to begin to understand the horrors that befell the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, you need to check out this memoir. Through the eyes of the author, you will witness the war as the pre-teen suffers through starvation, torture, rape, imprisonment, and death of her loved ones. You will be moved by the authors fortitude and courage and give you a new appreciation of this country’s people.
Chasing 193 There are many clubs to choose from around the world, and they range from the pedestrian to the exclusive. One of these elite fraternities is the 536 people from 38 countries who have traveled to space as defined by the FAI. Another club with only a handful of members are the individuals who have traveled to every country on earth. The UN recognizes 193 countries. According to the authors of this book, Chasing 193, the club numbers less than 100 participants. So imagine that, more people have traveled to outer space than have traveled to this list of 193 countries.
The authors, Ryan Trapp and Henrik Jeppesen, spent time interviewing 20 members of this club. You will witness their motivations and the risks they taken to achieve this goal. Adventures have ranged from being jailed in countries you did not know existed, being felled by an unbearable case of food sickness, or being stranded on a remote Pacific Island. Some members have accomplished this goal while working full time with a modest salary and limited holidays. Others have been more fortunate with greater funds and ample free time. Whether you have never left your living room or you are on a similar quest, there are many lessons to learn from these dauntless explorers.
WAR: The Afterparty. The author takes a global tour of countries who have at one time or another have been to subject to the largesse of military action in the name of freedom and democracy. He spends time in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Balkans and Central America. He spends time with the locals and networking learning about the effects of US military action and after the party, what are the effects. Enjoy the interactions with the locals and the telling anecdotes.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind. Simply put, this is an incredible read. The author takes the complexity of our world, and explains the history of man in a logical yet elegant manner. Questions such as why did Europe rule the world instead of the Chinese or the Arab world are rationally explained. He explains how the cognitive revolution helped sapiens dominate their peers over one hundred thousand years ago. A must-read.
While this list states 13 incredible books, over time additional books will be added as I discover them.
Disclaimer: I receive a miniscule revenue share from Amazon if you purchase one of these books.