One of the best ways to prepare for a trip abroad is to read.  Read, read and read some more.  But, branch out from the Lonely Planet and other guide books, there’s plenty of time to read those when on location.  Reading non-fiction and fiction alike can give great insight into a place and make experiences while traveling all the richer.  The following are recommendations for a variety of books (fiction and non-fiction) focused on travel, Asia and more.

Featured Book Reviews

A Fine Balance

by Rohinton Mistry

If you can only read one book for the rest of your life, it should be this one.  Seriously.  A Fine Balance is enthralling, spectacular and one of the most well-written, finely crafted books I’ve ever read.  Set in India (mostly in Mumbai), the story encompasses multiple characters and story lines that intertwine in unlikely and surprising ways.  Dina Dalal is a widowed tailor who is struggling to keep her head above water with a tailoring business; Omprakash and Ishvar Darji are untouchables from a small village, working in the big city; and Manesh is a college student who misses his home in Northern India.

Mistry’s writing is vivid and ethereal: when he describes the slums, you can almost feel the muggy heat bearing down.  When he writes of untouchable tanners, you can feel the cow hide on your fingers.  The books deals with extreme poverty in India, caste and class, love, hate and politics.  A Fine Balance, shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, is a spectacular read and story that will be branded in your mind forever.  This should be required reading for all and is especially great preparation for a trip to India.

Read before a trip to: India, South Asia

Video Night in Kathmandu

by Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer is a master wordsmith.  Iyer has written numerous books, journalistic articles and essays, many centering on the travel narrative.  Iyer often finds himself a stranger in a strange land and captures the essence of wonderment and wanderlust perfectly.  He has the ability capture the ironies, humor, beauty, ugliness and sadness about one single place, a place he is most often looking into as an outsider.

Video Night in Kathmandu is a collection of separate travel narratives and essays about different countries in Asia, including Nepal, Japan, India and China.  The stories are packed with tales of how Western pop culture and globalization affect locations that we often think of as the “exotic far East.”  His observations, all of which have the “East Meets West” overtones, offer brave and thought provoking perspective to Asian countries and cultures.

This book is a must-read for those interested in globalization’s reach.  Westerners’ mental framework regarding globalization is often: How do WE affect THEM?  Iyer turns this logic on its head and analyzes the question from both sides, formulating a kind of give-take idea about cultural clashes.

Even if Asia isn’t your thing, Video Night in Kathmandu is packed full of amazing writing and narrative structure, a great handbook for all budding travel writers.

Read before a trip to: anywhere in Asia

Thunder  From the East

by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Kristof and WuDunn, both journalists for the New York Times, authored this book about the rise, fall and rise again of East Asia.  This book is almost ten years old now, so it’s a bit dated, but remains an great resource of information about Asia as a world mega-power.  Kristof, true to his writing style, includes many anecdotes and narratives from his own travels in Asia.  Both Kristof and WuDunn have traveled far and wide in the region and, although they acknowledge that Asia can never be fully understood as an outsider, offer some spectacular insight into Asia cultures and practice.  For example, they aim to uncover what has held Asia back economically in the past few centuries (political issues, extreme poverty, failure to utilize women as a resource, etc…).

Thunder From the East is a great starting ground for those interested in exactly how, when and where the Asian economic crisis of 1992 started.  The husband-wife team literally trace the collapse to a specific date in Thailand in 1992.  From Thailand, the money devaluation, uncertainty and chaos began to spread like wildfire around Asia, reaching places like Indonesia and Japan.

Thunder From the East is a good read for a general overview on recent history, culturally and economically, of East Asia with a focus on Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and China.  This book is a good springboard into further readings on the 1992 Asian economic crisis, as well as Asia’s position as a global power.

Read before a trip to: Japan, China, Indonesia, Thailand

Looking for country specific book reviews?  Click on the country of your choice, to find books pertinent to that country:

+General Asia book reviews                  +Thailand book reviews

+India book reviews                                +Burma book reviews

+Cambodia book reviews                        +Nepal book reviews

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