Travel memoirs are one of my favorite types of nonfiction. There’s one on this list for every mood. Some of these are literally laugh-out-loud funny; others may start you bawling before the end, or will at least bring a tear to your eye.
The list is in alphabetical order, of course.
Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2007)
Before Anthony Doerr became famous for the novel All the Light We Cannot See, he had to write the book. He writes about working on it (and about not working on it) in Four Seasons in Rome, a memoir about the author’s year in Rome with a studio to write in and an apartment to live in, covered by a stipend.
Literary and lyrical except for a few episodes of parenting panic and moments when he wonders “what was I thinking when I accepted the Rome Prize with newborn twins?”, this book about reading, writing, and the terrifying and wonderful experience of being a new parent and living for a year in the heart of Rome when you don’t speak much Italian will appeal to readers of literary memoirs.
Incontinent on the Continent: My Mother, Her Walker, and Our Grand Tour of Italy (Audio) by Jane Christmas, read by Eileen Barrett (PostHypnotic Press, 2009)
Incontinent on the Continent is a serio-comic travelogue about a six-week trip through Italy that the author, an adult (in her 50s) takes with her aging mother in an attempt to repair their fragile relationship before it’s too late. The dream trip turns into somewhat of a nightmare as the author’s expectations and what her mother wants to do (and is physically capable of doing) don’t coincide; the weather won’t cooperate; and the hoped-for mother/daughter bonding doesn’t come easy. The book is funny, but cringe-worthy in a lot of places.
The audiobook narration is great and, since the author learned conversational Italian in preparation for the trip, the book includes frequent snippets in Italian.
Read AudioFile review of Incontinent on the Continent
An Innocent, a Broad by Ann Leary (William Morrow, 2004)
Back in 1990, when her husband Dennis Leary was an unknown comedian, he was hoping for his big break on a weekend jaunt to London. He got his big break, but his pregnant wife’s waters break while she’s walking down a London street. Only 26 weeks along, Ann Leary is put on bed rest, and due to the premature birth of their son, the Learys don’t return home to the U.S. for five months.
If you’ve read either of the author’s novels (The Good House, Outtakes from a Marriage) you know Ann Leary has a caustic sense of humor that manages to be essentially kind, and she writes about her experience figuring out the English people, the National Health Service, and first-time parenthood with a graceful wit.
Taking the Kids to Italy by Roland Merullo (PFP Publishing, 2013)
Originally published in serial form, Taking the Kids to Italy is the author’s account of a disastrous family vacation with his wife, two very young daughters, and his mother (who has the patience of a saint, and is a tremendously good sport). The humor that the adults can see in retrospect doesn’t always manage to cover the despair that seeps into the narrative, but I found myself laughing despite myself. The author has also written a memoir about a wonderful family trip abroad – The Italian Summer: Golf, Food, and Family at Lake Como (Simon & Schuster, 2009) – which would probably make a good companion read.
Three Weeks with My Brother by Nicholas Sparks and Micah Sparks (Grand Central, 2006)
It’s been years since I read this with a book club, but I do remember being surprised at how much I liked it. The bestselling author of tear-jerker novels such as The Notebook, Nicholas Sparks has actually experienced more than his share of tragedy in real life, and this book is a result of realizing your world can change in an instant. In Three Weeks with My Brother, he and his brother – both in their mid-thirties and the only surviving members of their family – share their experience of traveling around the world, hitting major global landmarks like Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal, and musing on fate and faith. (The Christian or spiritual aspect of the book is very low-key, if I remember correctly.)
Traveling While Married: How to Take a Trip with Your Spouse and Come Back Together by Mary-Lou Weisman (Workman, 2003)
This is a collection of humorous essays, illustrated with drawings by Edward Koren, that are laugh-out-loud funny. (Or maybe you have to be married?, I don’t know!) From the publisher: “This is the real skinny on what happens when Mars and Venus hit the road. With a sly wink, a comic nod, and just the right amount of optimism, Weisman shows us that despite the shortcomings of one’s beloved, harmonious travel is possible.”
Written by a wife, but her own foibles and failings are just as funny as her husband’s.
Until I Say Good-Bye: My Year of Living With Joy by Susan Spencer-Wendel (HarperCollins, 2013)
When the author, a journalist, is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), she has been in denial for some time, so her physical decline is steep and sharp after the diagnosis. If you choose to read this memoir, which she laboriously typed out first on an iPad and then on a phone, which was all she had the physical ability to manage, you will probably cry your way through it as I did, but you will marvel at the emotional strength she holds onto for the sake of her husband and three children. She decides to fill the year she has left with trips with family members – going with each child to a place of his/her choosing, and taking trips with her sister, her best friend, her husband.
While every page may not be beautifully written, the language she uses to tell the story of her final months spent making joyful memories for those she’ll be leaving behind is never sugarcoated and is very moving.
This post is linked up to Nonfiction Friday at Doing Dewey