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West on Books: The 5 Best Travel Books of 2010

By Richard West

‘Tis the season of inflatable Santas, Christmas lights, and those creepy electric-twig reindeer in yards with endlessly grazing heads. And drum roll, please end-of-the-year lists!  Including our modest contribution, the Top Five Travel Books of 2010.

For a while it seemed an hexceedingly hexed year of mediocrities that brought to mind Ambrose Bierce’s classic one-sentence review, “The covers of this book are too far apart,” but  prose began to show promise in late spring and the year finished in a dazzling flourish with the appearance of our number one and two selections. The applaudience is restless, the envelope, please:
Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier (FSG, 529 pgs., $30). The year’s best, a magnificent trip through three-fourths of Russia, one-twelfth of the earth’s land, wandering the world’s coldest cities where Frazier, during five separate trips, found misery  and beauty unique in the world. Interspersed with traveling, chapters on sable, exiles, Mongol hordes, previous explorers and travelers, all in gem-like, first-person, often poignant prose.

Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, by Simon Winchester (HarperCollins,  495 pgs., $27.99).  Write a biography of an ocean? Indeed he does, from the first people who settled seaside in South Africa 164,000 years ago near the ninth tee of the Pinnacle Point resort, to later explorers, literary and artistic oceanic  works, pirates, galleons, and battleships, trading packets  and undersea communication cables, to present-day overfishing, pollution, and effects of global warming.  Also, the year’s best footnotes.

Swiss Watching: Inside Europe’s Landlocked Island, by Diccon Bewes (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 310 pgs., $19.95). Why are watches in Swiss shops always set at 10:10? So the brand name won’t be covered, of course. These and a hundred or so other Swiss fascinating facts, along with history, the best cheeses and chocolates, the latest in the Swiss Army Knife,  11 boxed Swiss Watching Tips, and where the last outdoor voting referendum  is still held all revealed in Swiss orderly fashion.

Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity, by Sam Miller (St. Martin’s Press, 290 pgs., $25.99). Delhite Miller begins at the famous city-centered Connaught Place and begins walking and exploring, following the form of a spiral, around  his native city of 17 million, the world’s most populous.  No one who’s previously traveled in India will be surprised at the incredible beauty, horror, mind-bogglingly astonishments Miller literally stumbles upon.  An added bonus: Miller’s droll humor.

Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern, by Simon Winder (Picador, 466 pgs., $27). A Germany-loving Brit, Winder wanders the country soaking up its history, architecture, food (schnapps! duck! The oxymoronic tasty turnip!), museums (the mind-numbing Audi Museum in Ingolstadt), beautifully cute towns (Marburg, Freiberg, Hildesheim), “the real disaster, Lubeck marzipan,”, often written in tongue-in-cheekiness with dollops of seriousness on the side. The best introduction to Germany written in many years.

Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.

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