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Travel By The Book: Our Favorite Stories About Journeys And Places

John Allen
The competition in 1418 to design the dome atop the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, in Florence, is the subject of "Brunelleschi's Dome," one of KPLU travel expert Matthew Brumley's favorite books.

Usually, when we check in with our travel expert Matthew Brumley, he’s talking to us about some far-off destination that we need to reach by plane or boat or train. But this week on “Going Places,” he’s traveling by the book.


Below, find our favorite books that are either about travel, or make us want to travel. And add yours to the list, in the comments section at the end.

Matthew’s List

"West with the Night," by Beryl Markham: A memoir on Markham’s life growing up in Kenya in the early 20th century, and her life as a bush pilot there. “I’ve had [this book] for 20 years, and just brought it on my summer vacation up to B.C.,” Brumley said. “She inspires me and reminds me that if you don’t let the fear of life grab you, and you just say yes and set out on an adventure, so many wonderful things can happen.”

"South: The Endurance Expedition," by Ernest Shackleton: The ill-fated expedition to Antarctica aboard the ship Endurance is one of global exploration’s most infamous tales. Shackleton’s own words make for an extremely compelling narrative.

"Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before," by Tony Horwitz: The story of James Cook’s journeys around the world, and his legacy. The author works aboard a replica of Cook’s ship, while exploring Cook’s controversial impacts on the places he visited. “He was another person who set out to discover, not knowing what he was going to discover, and there’s something really exciting about that,” Brumley said.

"Brunelleschi’s Dome," by Ross King: The most recognizable outline in the skyline in Florence, Italy, is the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral at the center of town. It came from a design contest held in 1418, and won by Filippo Brunelleschi, a 41-year-old goldsmith and clockmaker. Brumley read it in Florence. “It’s a beautiful story,” Brumley said. “It transports you through time and space to be able to stand in the very place where these great people lived and worked and loved.”

"Roman Blood," by Steven Saylor: Set in the Rome of 80 B.C.E., a detective investigates a murder. Historical fiction that brings the ancient city to life – and a particularly fun read if you’re going to, have been, or are in Italy’s capital.

"City of Thieves," by David Benioff: The Nazis are in Leningrad. Two men in prison will be spared execution if they can track down a dozen eggs for a Soviet colonel. (He needs them for his daughter’s wedding cake.) 

Ed’s List

"Unfamiliar Fishes," by Sarah Vowell: All of Vowell’s history books are good reads. A particular passage in "Assassination Vacation" once led to inappropriately loud laughter aboard a cross country flight. In "Unfamiliar Fishes," Vowell takes us to Hawaii, and explores the colonization of the islands – still a topic of serious controversy today, especially there. She brings historical figures to life, and explores the human motivations in a tone that’s engaging and entertaining. But best of all, she makes you think.

"McCarthy’s Bar," by Pete McCarthy: Never pass a bar with your name on it. That’s one of McCarthy’s rules of travel. In this journey through Ireland, we visit pubs and restaurants bearing the name McCarthy and, in doing so, hear stories of a nation undergoing massive change. Enjoy over a pint. Bonus points if the bar has your name on it.

"No News at Throat Lake," by Lawrence Donegan: Another book set in Ireland. Journalist Donegan leaves his big city newspaper job for the romantic life of farming in the Irish countryside. He quickly discovers that it is, in fact, grueling and gory. He ends up at a small-town newspaper, chronicling unpredictable life in the village. For example: Newt Gingrich has a cameo. 

But You Missed So Much!

We know, we know. For example, the celebrated author Bill Bryson is missing from the list. In Ed's case, it's because he hasn't read Bryson's travel books yet -- and considers himself the poorer for it. Tell us what we missed and what you love, in the comments below.


"Going Places" is KPLU's weekly exploration of travel topics. Matthew Brumley is the co-founder of Earthbound Expeditions on Bainbridge Island, which provides small-group travel to clients including KPLU.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.