Books

The Wednesday Five

Yesterday, Sara Wheeler, chair of this year’s Dolman Travel Book of the Year award, wrote an article in The Guardian asking, “Where have all the female travel writers gone?” She shared that only a quarter of the titles submitted to this year’s Dolman Travel Book award were women, despite the fact that women make excellent travelers.” Indeed they do. In this week’s Wednesday Five, we share some of the best travel memoirs written by women that excellently illustrate the beauty of the genre.

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In the depth of winter, Helen Lloyd spent three months cycling solo across one of the most remote, coldest inhabited regions of the planet – Siberia. In temperatures down to -50°C, she battled against the cold, overcoming her fear of wolves and falling through the ice of a frozen lake. Alone in a hibernating land with little to stimulate the senses, the biggest challenges were with her mind as she struggled with the solitude. With flashes of humour and riveting, graphic descriptions that will have you living each moment with her, Helen Lloyd describes the fear, uncertainty and joy of riding through a frozen, icy world. Yet, A Siberian Winter’s Tale is a touching story full of warm-hearted moments that are gifted to Helen by strangers along the Road of Bones.

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In her short life Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904) came to be known as the ultimate enigma and representative of everything that seemed dangerous in nineteenth century society. Born the illegitimate daughter of an aristocratic Russian emigree she was a cross-dresser and sensualist, an experienced drug-taker and a transgressor of boundaries: a European reborn in the desert as an Arab and Muslim, a woman who reinvented herself as a man, wandering the Sahara on horseback. A profoundly lonely individual for all her numerous sexual adventures, she roused controversy and was loved and hated in equal measure. A mysterious attempt was made on her life and even her eventual death was ambiguous: she drowned in the desert at the age of twenty-seven.

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Written as a series of autobiographical essays, A Field Guide to Getting Lost draws on emblematic moments and relationships in Rebecca Solnit’s life to explore issues of uncertainty, trust, loss, memory, desire, and place. Solnit is interested in the stories we use to navigate our way through the world, and the places we traverse, from wilderness to cities, in finding ourselves, or losing ourselves. While deeply personal, her own stories link up to larger stories, from captivity narratives of early Americans to the use of the color blue in Renaissance painting, not to mention encounters with tortoises, monks, punk rockers, mountains, deserts, and the movie Vertigo. The result is a distinctive, stimulating voyage of discovery.

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A decade in the making, Emily Raboteau’s Searching for Zion takes readers around the world on an unexpected adventure of faith. Both one woman’s quest for a place to call “home” and an investigation into a people’s search for the Promised Land, this landmark work of creative nonfiction is a trenchant inquiry into contemporary and historical ethnic displacement. At the age of twenty-three, award-winning writer Emily Raboteau traveled to Israel to visit her childhood best friend. While her friend appeared to have found a place to belong, Raboteau could not yet say the same for herself. As a biracial woman from a country still divided along racial lines, she’d never felt at home in America. But as a reggae fan and the daughter of a historian of African-American religion, Raboteau knew of “Zion” as a place black people yearned to be.  On her ten-year journey back in time and around the globe, through the Bush years and into the age of Obama, Raboteau wanders to Jamaica, Ethiopia, Ghana, and the American South to explore the complex and contradictory perspectives of Black Zionists.

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In 1962 the poet, musician, and performer Maya Angelou claimed another piece of her identity by moving to Ghana, joining a community of “Revolutionist Returnees” inspired by the promise of pan-Africanism. All God’s Children Need Walking Shoes is her lyrical and acutely perceptive exploration of what it means to be an African American on the mother continent, where color no longer matters but where American-ness keeps asserting itself in ways both puzzling and heartbreaking. As it builds on the personal narrative of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Gather Together in My Name, this book confirms Maya Angelou’s stature as one of the most gifted autobiographers of our time.

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