Ultimate Travel Library

Listed thus  far: Colorado, USA, Egypt, Finland, France, Haiti, Japan, Mexico, New Mexico, USA, Turkey, Vietnam

For me, reading and travelling go hand-in-hand. Not only do I have more time to enjoy a book when I’m on the road but my experience of place is profoundly deepened by my knowledge of that place, how it ticks and why it ticks in that manner.

A work forever in progress, The Ultimate Travel Library is a resource for the traveller who seeks as much information as they can about a place.

This list will build out over time and will appear in alphabetical order by country – encompassing every country on the planet and all 50 US States by the end of 2012. From there we will consider some expansions.

This library is built with the generous help of our readers. If you have suggestions for the library, please email me at huajatollas@hotmail.com.


Colorado, USA

Roadside Geology of Colorado (Roadside Geology Series)

Amazon says: “The rocks and landforms have not changed much since the publication of the first edition of the Roadside Geology of Colorado in 1980, but our understanding of them has. With expanded coverage, updated maps, new photographs, and the latest geologic interpretations, this nontechnical guide introduces you to the tumultuous geological history of Colorado s mountains, plateaus, and plains. The second edition includes tours of Black Canyon in Gunnison National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Great Sand Dunes National Monument and Preserve, Mesa Verde National Park, and Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.”

Utes: The Mountain People by Jan Pettit

Ouray: Chief of the Utes by P. David Smith

It takes at least these two books to understand the original inhabitants of Colorado and the genocide that befell them at the hands of the Euro-Americans. The Mountain People reaches far back laying a rich history of the Ute people dating from the distant past to modern Ute culture. The book is chock full of rare and photographs and information on tepee culture, art, oral tradition, music and songs, dances, hunting, religion and more. Ouray tells the sad tale of the last leader of the free Utes. A brilliant man trying to navigate the brutal tides of history.


Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. by Ahdaf Soueif

An Egyptian writer’s fascinating account of the 2011 revolution as it occurred in Cairo.


A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940 by William Trotter

It is hard to spend much time in Finland without hearing this or that about the Winter War of 1939-1940, when this little country, a new and somewhat troubled democracy fought off the monster that was Stalin’s Soviet Union with little or no foreign help. Although the Soviet Union (and Russia itself) has faded as an issue of Finland’s national security, it is hard to truly understand Finland from since World War II without knowing the near mythical fight against the USSR. Trotter’s work is outstanding.

Notes for the Aurora Society by Jim O’Donnell

I’m going to go full-on self promotion here and categorically state that my 2009 book about the Finnish relationship to the natural environment is key in understanding how this country clicks. For five months I walked 1500 miles across Finland exploring that relationship both from a historical perspective as well as a modern understanding.

Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland by Glenda Dawn Goss

This is a fabulous read! Not only does Goss deliver a powerful biography of a brilliant musician but, setting the book against the backdrop of the rise of Finnish nationalism, the reader gains a great insight into the making of modern Finland.


I lived in France for two years. I speak French reasonably well and I visit fairly often. Yet, despite the surface similarities with other Western nations, I can never get over the feeling that France is absolutely one of the most foreign places I know. The author of this first book apparently agrees.

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography by Graham Robb

Publisher’s Weekly: “France is often regarded as the center of elegant civilization, so it’s surprising to find that as late as 1890, most of the population was far from civilized—outside the confines of sophisticated Paris, as noted biographer Robb explains in his riveting exploration of France’s historical geography, great swathes of countryside were terra incognita: dark places inhabited by illiterate tribes professing pre-Christian beliefs and lethally hostile to outsiders. They spoke not French but regional dialects; much of the country had not been accurately mapped; and many in the rural areas lacked surnames. The author himself embarked on a 14,000-mile bicycle tour of the France passed over in tourist guides. The result is a curious, engrossing mix of personal observation, scholarly diligence and historical narrative as Robb discusses the formation of both the French character and the French state.”

Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne

And France IS NOT Paris. Although I’ve spent some time in the City of Lights (and it is a wonderful place), I much prefer the areas beyond that monstrously large city. That said, the history of Paris is a fascinating one and vitally important for the understanding of the modern world. This is a fabulous history of the ups and downs of the city from its earliest days to the most recent times.


Rainy Season: Haiti-Then and Now by Amy Wilenz

Why is Haiti like it is? One of the most incredible travel writers around tackles just that questions in this highly acclaimed and vivid portrait of Haiti in the years before the earthquake. Tough, violent, touching, inspiring and depressing. A must read for understanding Haiti.

The Uses of Haiti by Paul Farmer

You want the truth about Haiti? Its not a comfortable thing to hear – particularly for Americans.

Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

I guess there is little out there about Haiti that is not heartbreaking. Here are nine short stories, all beautifully told, that touch on the realities that real Haitians – real human beings – face on a daily basis.

The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat

About a prison guard during the brutal dictatorship of voodoo physician Francois ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.

Amazon says: “We meet him late in life: a quiet man, a good father and husband, a fixture in his Brooklyn neighborhood, a landlord and barber with a terrifying scar across his face. As the book unfolds, moving seamlessly between Haiti in the 1960s and New York City today, we enter the lives of those around him, and learn that he has also kept a vital, dangerous secret.”

Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti by Maya Deren

Although written in the 1950s, this work is useful for it’s look at where and how the religion most closely associated with Haiti came to be. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the book. Its more of a metaphysical, religious, philosophical & anthropological study of Voodoun than a “how to” guide. This is an artists take on the religion not an anthropologists – and that may make it even more valuable.


A Traveller’s History of Japan by Richard Tames

This is the only book I’ve ever read about Japan. Japan is one of those places that has slowly but steadily risen on my bucket list. This is the kind of book that will make you want to go. Although a little hard to connect with at first (pre-history is never easy to write about in an engaging manner) this history is scholarly enough and yet still engaging and gives the traveler a good idea about how Japan came to be. One thing that drove me nuts however is that, while mentioning historical landmarks, the author does not tell you how to get there. For most people reading this sort of book, visiting the site with ease would be nice.

Lost Japan 

From Goodreads: “Originally written in Japanese, this passionate, vividly personal book draws on the author’s experiences in Japan over thirty years. Alex Kerr takes us on a backstage tour, as he explores the ritualized world of Kabuki, retraces his initiation into Tokyo’s boardrooms during the heady Bubble Years, tells how he stumbled on a hidden valley that became his home…and exposes the environmental and cultural destruction that is the other face of contemporary Japan.  Winner of Japan’s 1994 Shincho Gakugei Literature Prize”.

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture

This one is heavy lifting. An anthropology of Japanese cultural, economic and political life from the 7th to the 20th Centuries – including a narrative of family life, this book was highly suggested by two Americans who lived in Japan for an extended period of time.


The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz

You want to get at the Mexican psyche? In my opinion, this is the place to begin. This Nobel-Prize winning author explores what it means to be Mexican by diving into the troubled waters of political power in post-Conquest Mexico. This book pissed off the elite and earned Paz alot of trouble.For me, this is proof of its power.

Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans by Alan Riding

Mexico is one of those places I have visited again and again over the past twenty years. Living in the Southwestern USA, I was never far from the border and the rippling effects of its troubles. And yet Mexico is a mystery in so many ways. Most Americans have little to know understanding of Mexico beyond tacos, tourist resorts and immigration difficulties. This book, albeit twenty years old, is a good place to start understanding.

New Mexico, USA

Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range by William DeBuys

A fabulously rich and complete natural and cultural history account of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico – my home and a region utterly unique in its tremendous ecological and cultural diversity.

The Orphaned Land: New Mexico’s Environment Since the Manhattan Project by VB Price

An exploration of the impacts of the of the poisoning of New Mexico’s environment and the terrible consequences that has had for much of our state. Price, one of my professors from the University of New Mexico covers everything from contaminated dust from Los Alamos National Laboratory to Superfund sites in Albuquerque’s Hispanic communities to the legacy of uranium mining and processing in “Indian Country” to the current impacts of oil and gas development on the environment and communities of eastern New Mexico.

The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition by Chris Wilson

The City of Santa Fe, New Mexico is a world class destination. Why? Most visitors would say it is the authentic culture to be found in the “city different”. But how authentic is that culture? In fact there is a widly fascinating story behind the romantic adobe facades and mass marketing Hispanic and Indian stereotypes. The city’s image was consciously manufactured by Anglo-American businessmen in the years prior to World War II.

Great River: the Rio Grande in North American History: Indians and Spain; Mexico and the United States (2 Volumes) by Paul Horgan

Although some of the language and stereotypes in this tome will seem dated to the modern reader, the essential story of this great work – the life and times of the Rio Grande and its peoples – remains true. The scholarly work and accessible, literary writing style make this one of the great historical works of all time.

Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West by Hampton Sides

An extraordinary look at the history of the American conquest of the West via the life of New Mexico-based Kit Carson – the legendary trapper, scout, and soldier, hero and villain. A man who embodies all the contradictions of the -Euro-American invasion, conquest and experience of what we know as the American West.


Easy to use and fun to read! This is the perfect book to take on a road trip in this widly diverse state. Complete with photographs and diagrams and history from the Precambrian to the Quarternary, you can dive deep into the geology of the area you’re visiting or just check out what type of rock is in your hand.

The Place Names of New Mexico by Robert Julvan

Simple, fun read. There is so much to learn when you ask…why did it get this name?


Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk

Istanbul is one of the greatest cities I’ve been lucky enough to visit. It holds a special place in my heart and I can’t wait for a chance to return. This is an lovely and intimate portrait of a melancholic life in a 4000-year old city of fading glory – the ancient meeting place of East and West. Prepare for a little sorrow.

Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds

Although a bit dated at 11 years old, this is a good introduction to modern Turkey and the issues it faces. The author clearly loves Turkey and that is a great value to the read. At the same time that makes some of his apologist parts a bit frustrating.  He sees how insanely messed up Turkey is he deftly puts the insanity into perspective, helping the outsider to make sense of many of the seemingly mysterious events that happen in Turkey. The author spends a great amount of time sensibly outlining what Turkey must to do to become a successful modern country – and then the tells us that its not likely to happen because….well, Turkey is anything but simple!


Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam by Walter Mason

Amazon: “From the crazy heat and color of Saigon to the quieter splendor of Hanoi, this is a rare, joyous, and at times hilarious insight into 21st century Vietnam. Seduced by the beauty and charm of its people and the sensuousness of its culture we can almost taste the little coconut cakes cooked over a fire in a smoky Can Tho kitchen, or smell the endless supplies of fresh baguettes and croissants just out of city ovens. As colorful city cafes and bars make way for visits to out-of-the-way shrines and temples, we take an impromptu visit to forbidden fortune tellers, and glimpse a little of the Cao Dai religion, made famous in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Traveling off the beaten track to far-flung villages and lesser-known towns, we cruise along the Mekong, board hopelessly overcrowded local buses, or perch perilously on the back of motorbikes. Behind-the-scenes visits to Buddhist monasteries reveal a quieter and more transcendent world beyond the busy day trips of tourists, and in the process, we begin to see the country through the eyes of its people.”

The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family by Duong Va Mai Elliot

Amazon: “Based on family papers, dozens of interviews, and a wealth of other research, this is not only a memorable family saga, but a record of how the Vietnamese themselves have experienced their times. At times haunting, at times heartbreaking–it is always mesmerizing–The Sacred Willow will forever change how we view the history of Vietnam and our own role in it.”

Highways to a War by Christopher J. Koch

Amazon: “Australian war photographer Mike Langford has just disappeared inside Cambodia as this intriguing novel opens in 1976. That country has been closed to all foreigners since the Khmer Rouge takeover, however, so when Langford doesn’t emerge the general presumption is that he has been killed or taken prisoner. When the narrator, a boyhood friend, receives Langford’s diary-on-tape, spanning 1965-1975, it sets off a series of reminiscences that offer indelible insights into the mind and heart of a remarkable individual who would dare infiltrate Communist Kampuchea against all odds.”

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

This has long been one of my favorite books. Although fiction, it is based solidly in the reality of the imperialistic meddling of the United States. Greene deftly demonstrates how the best of intentions can lead to utter disaster when it comes to foreign intervention.


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