Until last spring, when the unpronounceable volcano (Eyjafjallajökull) exploded in Iceland, it seemed like we'd almost forgotten that we are a world on the move. But with airspace over parts of Europe shut down for nearly a month, we were reminded of just how much travel has become a part of modern life, how much we depend on planes, trains and automobiles to get us from one place to another. Similarly, some writers still remind us there is magic in travel. Here are some of the books from 2010 that do that best.
Several in this year's literary travel highlights were road books. Peter Hessler's "Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory" (Harper, $27.99) is a brilliant evocation of modern China and its conundrum, as Hessler drives far into the now-emptied empire. A bit to the north, humorist Ian Frazier takes us along on several forays into the Russian hinterlands in "Travels in Siberia" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30), a masterpiece of humor and exploration, with Frazier serving as the best possible companion. Carl Hoffman's fate-tempting title, "The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World Via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes" (Broadway, $24.99) is not the "Jackass" knockoff it sounds like, but rather a thoughtful look at the lengths average people go to simply to get around.
Travel writers, like the rest of the world, are also becoming more aware of what they put in their mouth, and several of this year's best offerings reflect that. In "Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits" (Ten Speed Press, $22.99), Jason Wilson searches the world for the secrets behind old, regal liquors, lambasts the "vodkatini," champions Chartreuse, and provides recipes for his favorite cocktails. Meanwhile, in the non-Hemingway category, the venerable travel editor and writer Don George has collected tales of food and travel in his new anthology, "A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Adventures Around the World" (Lonely Planet, $14.99). The collection features everyone from celebrity writers like Pico Iyer and Tim Cahill to Minneapolis-based scribes like Doug Mack and Andrew Zimmern.
But perhaps the most interesting food-travel book is neither of those, exactly. Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio's "What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets" (Material World, $40) is a brilliant look at what and how the world eats. The two traveled to about 30 countries, photographed 80 people and had them lay out all the food they eat in a typical day: pickled cabbage in China, cornmeal porridge in Kenya, seal meat in Greenland. Besides the centerpiece shots of the people and their meals, there are lush daily-life photos, as well as essays by Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan and others throughout the book.
A few other good gift books for the traveler -- armchair or otherwise -- are the Lonely Planet's bigger and better edition of "The Travel Book" (Lonely Planet, $50), a giant slab of wanderlust-inducing photos that takes you through every country in the world by way of a two-page spread and a bullet-pointed list of things there to see, books to read, when to go, etc.
Also in the vein, and probably one of the most fascinating and important of such books, is Julian Spalding's "The Best Art You've Never Seen" (Rough Guides $22.99), which lists works of genius such as the Jean-Baptiste Pigalle sculpture "Voltaire Naked," the John Singer Sargent painting "Gassed," or the Chinese "Mogao Caves," and other "hidden gems" that few people venture off the trail to see.
Meanwhile, in the fish-out-of-water department, Jennifer Steil's "The Woman Who Fell From the Sky: An American Journalist in Yemen" (Broadway, $26) is an entertaining and insightful look at her year spent working at the Yemen Observer amid the Danish cartoon scandal, which her paper published. For the more science-minded traveler, Susan Casey's "The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean" (Doubleday, $27.95) takes readers on a high-octane trip in search of the world's giant waves, while also unpacking the fascinating mysteries behind them.
But if these aren't enough, this year even the Nation's librarian, Nancy Pearl, has gotten the travel bug, and come out with a book just for traveling readers: "Book Lust to Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers" (Sasquatch Books, $16.95), which has recommendations for travel books to read for just about every place on Earth, so no matter where you go, you'll have pages of travel before you.
Frank Bures is a writer in Minneapolis.