A Bookful of Quests

Inspired Journeys: Travel Writers in Search of the Muse, Edited by Brian Bouldrey

Destinations: Many

When publishers inquire whether I want to review a book of travel essays, I generally have said “No, thanks. My readers prefer a place-specific book.”  Inspired Journeys breaks that rule.  Fortunately, the publisher, University of Wisconsin Press, sent it without asking in advance.

It sat on my shelf for a while, because I didn’t think I would like it much.  Essay collections are generally so uneven that I hate wading through the chaff to get at the fruit.  (to mix an agricultural metaphor).  Plus which, the title was off-putting–all a bit to woo-woo for me.

But one day I picked it up and started reading. I am glad I did.  The seventeen essays, so different from each other in subject and style, have in common outstanding writing. No, of course, I did not love them all equally, but I can honestly say there were none that I thought was a total waste of time.   I am not sure how Brian Bouldrey was able to pull off getting so many excellent writers in one book, but I appreciate his effort.

As for that woo-woo title–the book does have a strong theme, but the theme is hard to explain (as is evident in the divergence between title and subtitle.)  Each writer, in essence, is on a pilgrimage, or a quest.  Some are trying to connect with a favorite writer. “Little Log Houses for You and Me” by Kimberly Meyer relates a trip through Laura Ingalls Wilder country. “The Way of the White Clouds” compares writerTrebor Healey’s life to Jack Keroac–some actual travel, but lots of travel through life. We even go on a trip to visit the history of the world’s worst poet in “The Terriblest Poet” by Brian Bouldrey, the editor of the volume.

The more traditional pilgrimage of Camino de Santiago in Spain gets a look in “Buen Camino” by Sherman Apt Russel.  A particularly beautiful and well-structured piece by Russell Scott Valentino, called “An Accidental Pilgrimage,” visits family history in the Azores. He quotes a Russian writer friend as saying, “travel for its own sake is always a search for God.”  The quote is just one of things that makes this piece memorable.

Many philosophical questions arise from the imperious comment of a border guard in “What means Go?”  by Lucy Jane Bledsoe. One thought, common to everyone of us who call ourselves travel writers–“I never know if I’m a writer so that I can travel or if I’m a traveler so that I can write.”

“The Chevra” by Goldie Goldbloom taught me about a Jewish ritual I was unaware of. I found the piece to be particularly moving because of the author’s spare, matter of fact style in describing very emotional subjects.

But I really must stop, even though I have not mentioned every excellent piece of writing in this little gem of a book.  I hope you will give it a look.


The very first post at A Traveler’s Library popped up in January, 2009–eight years ago. Last year I only published twice.  You may be forgiven if you assumed that I have disappeared into the atmosphere.  However, I’m still reading. Not traveling as much as I once did.  But every once in a while I see something that I want to share with the wonderful readers of A Traveler’s Library.  I recently read three books that I would like to share, so there will be a stir of activity here before A Traveler’s Library goes back to sleep for a while.

And if you are an inveterate reader who enjoys reading classics as well as contemporary works, you might enjoy the lively conversations going on at a Facebook group I started called “Good Old Books Club.”  There are no specific reading requirements. Lurkers welcome, but we hope you’ll share your thoughts about books aged 50+ that are worth reading or re-reading.

The book illustration at the top contains a link to Amazon for your convenience. It is an affiliate link, which means that if you shop Amazon through that link, I will get a couple of cents to pay mainenance costs of A Travler’s Library. Thank you.

My Personal List of Ten Most Influential Books

There is a “thing” on Facebook of listing the ten books that most influenced you.  Not the greatest books, or the most literary, but those that actually made an impact on your life.

When I entered college, as part of orientation, we were asked to list the three books that had most influenced our lives. Not wanting to list the novels I snuck of my Mother’s shelf so I could read the sex scenes, or Mad Magazine, I said, The Bible, Shakespeare and something else–who knows?  Liar, liar, pants on fire.

When I sat down to list the ten books that honestly influenced me, I found that there was a pattern.  Very little fiction. I’ve always read more non fiction.  I read hundreds of books while I was writing three times a week at A Traveler’s Library, and most of them fiction.  I relish a beautiful turn of phrase and a clever turn of plot. I love characters that come to life.  But there’s something pragmatic in my soul that drives me back to non fiction over and over again. The books that demanded a place on this list influenced my several interests: theater, politics, writing, cooking, family.






So here they are–with a note on each indicating how they influenced me.

  1. A children’s picture book that showed children from many countries  in their native costumes.  Read at six or seven, it made me yearn to see the rest of the world.
  2. A youth book about a young girl who grew up to become an actress, which pushed me toward theater as a college major and ambition to act. No idea what the title was. I went through books so rapidly as a young girl that I did not remember most of them.
  3. The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne, which I STILL think is a great read.  It shows how artful simplicity can be.
  4. Anything by James Thurber.  The Ohio humorist’s books filled a shelf in my family home. My father and mother loved him. We lived in a house in Columbus near the one where he grew up. In college I played a part in the play The Thurber Carnival. His humorous view of the human condition may be a bit sour–and definitely arch (he wrote for the New Yorker, after all) but he still cracks me up.
  5. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care.  When I had three children in three years and lived across the country from female relatives who might have given me advice, Dr. Spock was my comfort.  Although we might disagree with many of his theories today, I am not sure how I could have survived those years without him.
  6. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.  This book appears on many “Best of” lists, but my reason for including it is different.  Reading Atlas Shrugged persuaded me that Ayn Rand was nuts and whatever her political beliefs were, mine were the opposite!
  7. Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky.  I can’t think of this book without the setting in which I first read it–leaning against a tree on the Mall at Ohio State University.  I was awed. We were still in the cold war, and it was a revelation to learn that Russians were humans with universal motivations.  It is the only book I have re-read in later life more than once that continues to give me the joy of mental exertion, and admiration for writerly skill.
  8. Bleak House by Charles Dickens.  I’m not sure why this book had such an influence on me.  I have read other things by Charles Dickens, but this one just dragged me into its bleak world and Dickens technique of piling on the details stuck with me as a guide to good writing.
  9. Joy of Cooking.  My love of cooking  came from several sources, but Joy of Cooking has been influential in teaching me techniques, expanding my repertoire and truly giving me joy. I have worn out three  editions of Joy–and still have two–taped together and sad looking specimens on my kitchen shelf.
  10. The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich.  This book was the text for an art appreciation course I took in college.  While many of the liberal arts classes stuck with me, and I carried practical knowledge about theater into my theater work, this class and this book provided me with lifelong enjoyment of art.  It stuck with me as I traveled in other countries and wandered through museums. It helped me as I co-authored a biography of a Navajo artist. (Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist)
  11. I know the list is supposed to be ten, but this addition is not a book. As a teen I was deeply influenced by Mad Magazine–my escape from what I felt were stodgy surroundings of small town Midwest. And if you think my humor is a bit weird at times–blame Mad Magazine.

Now it is your turn. Would you care to share ten books that influenced you–not read to impress people or to have conversations at parties–but books that actually nudged you to life decisions?

How to Keep Travel Reading Alive

Travel ‘n Write, the blog featuring stories and photographs by Jackie and Joel Smith always entertains with their far-flung wanderings and their extended stays in Greece in their “house on the hill”.

Greek house
This picture of Jackie and Joel’s “House on the Hill became the cover for a book set in Greece.

This week, the traveling duo really caught my attention. They talked about BOOKS. Although they label their conversation “armchair travel reading”, I think in reality it fits the broader criteria of A Traveler’s Library. The books they read are chosen because they inform and enhance their travels, and Jackie and Joel share those books with others to inspire them to travel also. They kindly permitted me to excerpt their post, and if you clcik over to Travel n Write, you can see “the rest of the story.”

I also enjoyed a bit of nostalgia about the places featured in the books that Jackie shared, (see notes ) plus a definite itch to run right out and get copies of every one of those books!!

A Challenge: Keep Reading About Travel

An entire year has gone by since I last shared a book recommendation here. I thank you for sticking around while I was occupied elsewhere. Here is your chance to keep the spirit of A Traveler’s Library alive and well. I hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from Jackie Smith’s suggestions for travel reading about Jerusalem, the Middle East, Egypt and Greece. If you do, please write to Jackie (information at the bottom of the excerpt) and ask her please to continue suggesting good travel reading.  Let’s keep reading and traveling together.

Excerpt from Travel ‘n Write

The morning sunrise seems softer and the green leaves are showing hints of red and gold – both sure signs that August is leading us into an early autumn in our corner of the Pacific Northwest. It is the time of lazy afternoons on the deck soaking up the last of summer  ~ a time of travel to novel, and not-so-novel, destinations without leaving the chaise lounge.

Armchair, or deck chair, travelers, this post is for you. No packing or security pre-check required. Sit back as we are off to. . .

Jerusalem. . .

“Jerusalem is the universal city, the capital of two peoples, the shrine of three faiths; it is the prize of empires, the site of Judgment Day and the battlefield of today’s clash of civilizations. From King David to the 21st century, from the birth of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to the Israel-Palestine conflict, this is the epic history of three thousand years of faith, slaughter, fanaticism, and coexistence.” – opening line of Amazon’s description of this book

We visited Jerusalem on one of those one-day-see-everything-you-can cruise ship tours last year.

The glimpse we had – though hasty – of its historical places left us wanting to know more about it: the conflicts that make up its history, how that ‘real’ history meshes with the Biblical version. . .we needed to fill in some blanks and answer some questions.

And one of the best books we’ve found to do that, is the book titled Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

At 704-pages it is not a light read in any sense of the phrase. But it is an easy read and a fascinating journey.

[NOTE: Three older books captured Jerusalem for us at A Traveler’s Library: The Bible, Exodus, and From Beirut to Jerusalem.]

Middle East. . .

She has been called the female Lawrence of Arabia, which, while not inaccurate, fails to give Gertrude Bell her due. She was at one time the most powerful woman in the British Empire: a nation builder, the driving force behind the creation of modern-day Iraq. – Amazon books

Our fascination with the Middle East continues, even now, months after our introduction to it on that Magic Carpet Ride of a cruise last year.

While images of Lawrence of Arabia came to mind while we traveled there, it wasn’t until this year that we read about Gertrude Bell. I have to admit that it was not until I was channel surfing for movies aboard a transatlantic flight a few months ago, and landed on one called,“Queen of the Desert” starring Robert Pattison and Nicole Kidman, released in 2015, had I ever heard of Gertrude Bell and her mark on history.

After reading the book, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations,  I don’t think the movie does  justice to this woman’s amazing adventures and contributions! Too bad they didn’t have ‘blogs’ back then – hers would have had millions of followers.

NOTE: At A Traveler’s Library, we ran a series on the Middle East during the Arab Spring. My favorite book remains Dining with Al Quaeda,  but if you want to read about Syria, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Libya, Lebanon or Jordan, click the down arrow on “categories” to the left, and search destinations.]


Egypt Books
Books purchased in Egypt by the Smiths.

I know many of you swear by your Kindles and electronic books, but for us there is nothing better than discovering a bookstore in a new city and spending a good deal of time there looking at covers, flipping through pages.  That was the case with Diwa Bookstore in the Zamelik district of Cairo.  We couldn’t resist buying three of the oh, so many, titles that tempted. . .many by writers of whom we’d never heard of before but whom we’ve since found on Amazon (so you don’t need to go to Cairo to find the book).

This sweeping novel depicts the intertwined lives of an assortment of Egyptians–Muslims and Copts, northerners and southerners, men and women–as they begin to settle in Egypt’s great second city, and explores how the Second World War, starting in supposedly faraway Europe, comes crashing down on them, affecting their lives in fateful ways.

Central to the novel is the story of a striking friendship between Sheikh Magd al-Din, a devout Muslim with peasant roots in northern Egypt, and Dimyan, a Copt with roots in southern Egypt, in their journey of survival and self-discovery.  – Amazon books

No One Sleeps in Alexandria may have been one of the best ‘reads’ we’ve had this year.  The other two books, not novels, pictured above, were also excellent.  On the left, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Cairo to the New World  (2008) is written by Lucette Lagnado about her family’s relocation to the United States from Cairo. An amazing tale.

Six Days: How the 1967 War Shaped the Middle East is an almost hour-by-hour look at the six day war that took place way back when we were too young to understand war or how it would shape the Middle East. Written by Jeremy Bowen, who from 1995 – 2000 was the BBC’s Middle East Correspondent, the book is a must for anyone trying to understand what has led to today’s conflicts there. It doesn’t provide all the answers, but it certainly puts them in perspective.

NOTE: Several books about Egypt got our attention here at A Traveler’s Library. I’m partial to one about movies, written by my brother. He called it Don’t Pay the Camel Driver Until You Get to the Pyramid.]

Greece. . .

Sofia’s love life has ended in disaster. Having lost her London home, she now lives with and cares for her Greek grandmother, matriarch of the family, astute business woman, and widow of an English man. Sofia hears stories from the past, of her grandparents’ meeting and life in the remote coastal village of Galini on the Greek island of Tritinos. When her grandmother dies, she bequeaths to Sofia the family house in Galini, with one condition attached.   Amazon Books

Long-time readers of Travelnwrite will remember the English writer and his editor wife, Bill and Val Kitson, who we met by chance several years ago on Crete’s southern coast in a tiny village called Loutro. We’ve stayed in touch and since the initial meeting have rendezvoused in that village to celebrate Greek Easter a short time ago.

Late last year we were honored to have Bill  select a photo of mine of our Stone House on the Hill to be the cover photo of his Greek novel, Sofia’s House.

If you just need a bit of romance on a Greek island — with a plot twist or two thrown in — this is the book for you!

[NOTE: Jackie and Joel and Ken and I share a deep fascination with Greece. A Traveler’s Library may have posted more reviews of books set in Greece than in any other individual country. To find them, type in Greece where you see the magnifying glass at the top of the page.]

[NOTE: Go directly to Travel ‘n Write for he rest of this post, and spend some time looking at their fascinating wanderings.]


Jackie concludes by saying:

That’s a bit of our ‘summer arm chair travels’. How about you?  Any good novel – or not-so-novel – destinations to recommend to others?  Send us an email (travelnwrite@msn.com) with the name of the book, the author (where and how to buy it) and why you recommend it. If I get enough responses, I’ll do another post featuring your recommendations for arm chair travels.

Since I don’t intend to regularly update A Traveler’s Library, if you want to continue to have good suggestions for travel reading, please tell Jackie to keep up the good work.

Disclaimer: Jackie also added a note explaining that she was not using links to Amazon. I, however,  AM linking to Amazon, and you need to know that since I’m an Amazon associate, I’ll get a few pennies if you buy anything after following those links to the Amazon store.