My Favourite Travel Books

I have been asked a couple of times recently what my favourite travel books are, so I thought I would put it all in a blog entry.
Below is my own selection, naturally idiosyncratic and with a slight bent towards Vietnam, owing to my interests and attachments:


A Dragon Apparent by Norman Lewis - Lewis is seen by now as the great master of travel writing, and all of his books are highy accomplished, filled with attention to fascinating and small detail. Readable, entertaining and quite sensitive and intelligent, A Dragon Apparent was written in the early 1950s and captures a Vietnam and Cambodia that are just on the verge of collapse. I also like his book on Burma, Golden Earth.  




Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux - The grand old curmudgeon of travel writing, I think Theroux is a great writer, almost because of his personal idiosyncrasies and apparent grumpiness. This is an account of his journey through Africa, where he rants about missionaries and NGOs and foreign aid workers. Wonderful stuff. I also love his The Happy Isles of Oceania and his odd fictionalised memoir My Other Life.



From a Chinese City by Gontran de Poncins - A French Count goes to live in Saigon's Chinatown in the early 1950s. This book is how I wish I could spend my life. He's largely forgotten now, but de Poncins was a beautiful writer. Check out as well his fascinating (and compelling) account of life among the Inuit, Kabloona.


Hindoo Holiday by J. R. Ackerley - Ackerley is these days a cult figure, though largely unknown outside the queer lit community.He writes elegantly in this early memoir of his time in India.




Catfish & Mandala by Andrew X Pham - Pham is a Vietnamese American who travels back to his homeland and discovers that he doesn't really fit in anywhere. This is such an amazing book, insightful, heartfelt and brutally honest.

Red Chapels of Banteay Srey by Sacheverell Sitwell - Of course, everything written by every member of the Sitwell family is lots of fun and always worth reading. In this one Sachie Sitwell visits Cambodia, and goes about being a tourist in the most elegant way imaginable.




The Spiritual Tourist by Mick Brown - An interesting re-invention of the travel book, Brown travels Britain and the world pursuing spiritual enlightenment and meets an amazing cast of characters while doing so.



The Global Soul by Pico Iyer - Iyer has always been an exceptional and totally uique travel writer, but I think  this is his best book, an examination of the metaphysical impications of tourism, transnationalism and belonging.




Twilight of Love by Robert Dessaix - Dessaix is perhaps Australia's best living writer, though vastly undervalued here. In this book he travels Russia in search of the novelist Turgenev.




A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor - Fermor, who died last year, was a great pal to many literary figures, and his own literary ability has been overshadowed somewhat by his famous acquaintances. His spare and stylishly written little books are all worth reading, but perhaps my favourite is A Time To Keep Silence, in which he writes an account of his time as a young man wandering through the monasteries of Europe.

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Next week I am teaching my Travel Writing with Spirit workshop with Laneway Learning Sydney, and there are just a couple of places left.  If you are interested in learning about how to record your journeys and travel more meaningfully, why not book a spot? 
Details: 

Travel Writing with Spirit
Only $14!!
Wednesday, August 5th 2015
7:00pm to 8:15pm
Waverley Library


 

In conversation with memoirist James Fry




Next week I'm at Balmain Library chatting to writer James Fry about his fascinating book That Fry Boy.

James' story is a compelling one about addiction and betrayal, and is a thoroughly honest and thought-provoking memoir. I very much look forward to talking to him about it, and I would love to see you there.

This is a totally free event, but it would be great if you could let the library know you were coming.

I hopr to see you there!

Details:

That Fry Boy with James Fry @ Balmain Library




When:

06 Aug 2015

What time:

6:30 PM  - 8:00 PM 

Where:

Balmain Library
Balmain Town Hall, 370 Darling St
Balmain, NSW, Australia 

Event Details:

That Fry Boy serves as both a cautionary and educative tale of the impact that bullying can have on a young developing mind. 

Free event. Bookings - online or call 9367 9211.
 
More information:

James Fry is a Sydney-based author and commentator.

James works as a youth justice conference convenor; a role that has him tasked with bringing juvenile offenders and their victims together in a restorative justice process on behalf of the NSW Department of the Attorney General and Justice.


Free event - All welcome - Refreshments served
Bookings - online or call 9367 9211

The launch of Cecile Yazbek's new book Voices on the Wind

This afternoon I headed over to Willoughby for the launch of Cecile Yazbek's first novel Voices on the Wind.

Cecile Yazbek and Walter Mason


Cecile has previously written a memoir of her life growing up as a Lebanese girl in South Africa, Olive Trees Around My Table, and an extremely popular and acclaimed vegetarian cookbook, Mezze to Milk Tart.

Voices on the Wind is her first foray into fiction, and it looks fascinating. Based on the story of her grandmother, it tells the story of a Lebanese family and their legal struggles in South Africa. Cecile has gone indie for this book, and she funded it through the sale of some beloved diamond earrings.



I am sure it has been a worthy investment, and I shall follow her new publishing journey with interest. As Cecile is an accomplished chef there was, naturally, a very impressive vegetarian Lebanese feast, and I tucked in while I was there. Good food makes a good launch I always say.

Voices on the Wind was launched by Sydney historian Dr. Shirley Fitzgerald, and author Rosie Scott was in the room, fresh from her own recent publishing victory (along with Anita Heiss) with the anthology on The Intervention, a book which features a contribution from my pal P. M. Newton.

If you'd like to hear Cecile talk about her new book, she is speaking at Turramurra Library at 10.30am on Thursday the 30th of July - details here.

Here is an interview with Cecile. And why not buy a copy of Voices on the Wind?

Walter Mason illustrated lecture on Sumner Locke Elliott's classic Australian novel Careful, He Might Hear You




I have been obsessed with Sumner Locke Elliott since I was 14 years old, and most people don't know that I wrote my honours thesis on him.

So I am quite proud to announce that on Saturday the 27th of June 2015 I am giving a lecture on him at Ashfield Library.

Even better, it's totally free, and all you have to do is show up.

Come along and hear about this elegant and utterly fascinating author who is almost forgotten now.

Full details:

 

Ashfield Library

Saturday June 27 11am-12pm Local Studies Room 

Level 2 Civic Centre

Walter Mason is giving an illustrated lecture on Sumner Locke Elliott's classic Australian novel Careful, He Might Hear You

Daily life at the family business - Salon Kien Nguyen, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City



Recently I've been in Vietnam, and have returned refreshed and renewed, as I always am.

The first 17 days I was leading a tour of Australians from Hanoi all the way down to steamy Chau Doc, and we all had a fabulous time.

Then I stayed on in Vietnam for some R and R at my second home, the family business on Bui Thi Xuan St in Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City.

Looking out onto the street from inside the salon


Now, this is not any spectacular area of the city, though our street does these days feature a temple which has become reasonably famous. I am proud to say that what makes this little corner, right near Pham Van Hai market, notable is the family business we have built up over the years.

I say "we," but I really mean my nephew, Kien Nguyen, the maestro whose name graces the salon. These days Kien is an internationally trained hairdresser, having done courses in Italy, America, France and Korea. The man has travelled more than I have!

Salon maestro Kien Nguyen at work


And Salon Kien Nguyen has developed from a rather humble little one-roomed operation we opened on a shoestring budget 10 years ago to a glamorous, big beauty salon that employs a dozen or so people. I am so proud of what Kien has done, and every time I go back to Vietnam the salon looks more and more beautiful.

Naturally I can’t help but hang out at such a busy and social place, though with my bald dome I am hardly a waling advertisement for the place. Nonetheless, whenever I am around I build a little local interest as the strange fat foreigner somehow attached to the salon, and people really do come in out of curiosity.





Most of the business is done at night, so daytime there is lots of cleaning, chatting and even the occasional arm wrestle. I encourage such foolishness, and we are all reprimanded when Kien comes down and catches us.



I love knowing that at any time in my life I can throw it all in and go to Vietnam and shampoo heads for the rest of my days.

But for the time being Kien trains young people from all over Vietnam to become accomplished hair stylists, and many of them have gone on over the years to establish their own successful businesses. We now have a lineage.

Senior stylist Binh


I do get melancholy sometimes because I know that these lovely people I get to know will have moved in in a couple of years. Back to Dak Nong or Bac Lieu or whatever province they came from to open their own place. Or even sometimes just a few streets away with their own eponymous salons, and I am too shy to drop in and say "Hi."


With latest recruit, Son


Anyway, if you want a fabulous 'do while you are on holiday, I would urge you to drop by the grooviest salon in the North-western suburbs.

Details:

Salon Kien Nguyen
152c, Bui Thi Xuan, P3, Quan Tan Binh, Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh


(It's about a 20 minute taxi ride from downtown Saigon, and about 5 minutes from the airport)

Australian indie author Justin Sheedy on memoir, motivation and creative productivity

We never know where our life's journey might take us, and I never expected that I might be thrown back into the orbit of someone I knew in my days of youthful folly.

A couple of years ago I re-connected with Justin Sheedy, purely by chance, and we intstantly reminisced about our days of glamorous excess. Justin went one step further and wrote a whole book about them!

Even more to the point, Justin has established himself as one of the most energetic, productive and successful indie writers in Australia, and is the very model of a modern author. With the launch of his new memoir, I asked Justin to talk about how he went from aspiring author to publishing dynamo:




It’s exactly the same for any aspiring writer as it is for an author of world renown:  Being creatively productive is a condition they crave.  Utterly.  So it’s bloody lucky that being creatively productive is also something they cannot help.  They’re never not:  Even when they’re stuck on a page or stuck for an idea (absolutely freakingly, hopelessly STUCK), they remain creatively productive by getting up from the page, up from the desk and going for a good, long bracing, solitary walk until that point at just about 30 minutes into it every time when that literary light bulb goes ON, the idea comes, the problem is solved, and the marvellous page goes on.  At least, they bloody-well hope it’s marvellous…  Marvellous times 240 if it’s a 240-page book…  Marvellous or not will be revealed when people say “I think your last book was marvellous.”  Or not.  

I recently launched my 4th book.  It’s called Memoirs of a Go-Go Dancer.  It’s 240 pages. 
Before the release of every book I am what is known in the literary world as shit-scared.  Yet being shit-scared apparently works for me.  Apparently…  Each of my first three books received a handful of readers assuring me that they will read the book more than once.  (And, yes, this could have been because the readers in question couldn’t understand my books and so need to read them again.)  In any case, after three well-reader-reviewed books I joked to my Facebook community that now at long last I might have qualified for a “Certificate of being Not Crap as an Author”.  In due course someone designed and sent me one.

Memoirs of a Go-Go Dancer is the sequel to my first book, Goodbye Crackernight from 2009, my portrait of childhood in 1970s Australia when a child’s proudest possession was not a smart phone but a second-hand bike.  Go-Go Dancer is my portrait of 1980s teenage years under the threat of nuclear annihilation, before I ever kissed a girl let alone lose my virginity. We had The Grim Reaper. Other horrors featured include 1980s fashion, 'Perfect Match', 'Miami Vice' and the music of Kenny Loggins.  The book also features the iconic events of the decade such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and Bob Hawke’s ‘any boss who sacks anyone for not coming in to work today is a BUM’ moment.




It took me nine months to write, re-write and polish, and at the end of almost every page I said to myself: “I am buggered if I know where the next page is coming from.”  But each and every time I said this to myself I forced myself to answer, “Now Justin. This is your fourth book.  And at the end of every key bit of your last three you had no idea where the next bit was coming from but it always did, didn’t it? It will again now, so start having some bloody faith in yourself.  Experience at long last shows that you should.  Doesn’t it?”

And it did:  I remained creatively productive every day for nine months despite every second day thinking that I wouldn’t.

So what was my motivation to press on through all the “buggered if I know what to do next” moments?  My motivation?  Well it certainly wasn’t THE MONEY.  As a self-published author, even if this next book of mine is a raging success I’ll basically cover my costs.  My reward is something different.  My reward is when complete strangers say, “Your book made me laugh and cry and on public transport.  You’re a bastard, Sheedy.”  (You heard it here first:  My reward for writing and reason for writing is to make people I don’t know laugh and cry on public transport.)  But seriously, folks, my reward is what keeps me motivated.  And my reward is to be sharing Australian stories with Australian and international reading audiences.  Because that’s what my books have been so far:  Goodbye Crackernight and now its sequel, Memoirs of a Go-Go Dancer, are celebrations of Australian social history.  I’ve also written two World War II historical fictions, Nor the Years Condemn and its sequel, Ghosts of the Empire.  These are remembrances of the stunning true (and untold) Australian story of how the best and brightest of a generation of young Australians flew against the forces of Nazi tyranny and won, albeit at staggering cost.  My books embody my passion: to share with others what I’ve seen, what I know, what I can imagine, and what I think MUST be told.  Nah, I just love making people embarrass themselves on public transport.  Motivation indeed.  To remain creatively productive.




If you’re an aspiring author (and even ‘great’ authors are still ‘aspiring’ authors) you will already know deep within you that writing isn’t just something you want to do; it’s something you have to do; something you cannot help.  You strive for the end-product bliss of getting something special between your ears down onto the page which, because it’s written with effective economy of language, is then read by a complete stranger who is, as a result, transported somewhere they have never before been.  This you will achieve, if you become any kind of decent author, as you’ll have caused your reader to have clean missed their normal bus stop: the noble result of your sustained creative productivity.

In any case, for any author, being creatively productive is the easy part.  Then you have to take your finished first draft, re-read and re-do it ten times, maybe twenty times, until it ends up the piece of writing it deserves to be.  But that’s your next stage in the writing process. 

Happy Writing,

Justin Sheedy

Ryan Holiday on blogging tactics, idea implementation and getting started on a limited budget

For some time now I have found that podcasts are my most important guide to book buying. Where once I relied on the Saturday newspapers for literary advice, I now keep an ear out for interviews, discussions and recommendations on the couple of dozen podcasts I listen to regularly. And I have found this a much more reliable guide.

This change could be bad news for authors who aren’t very good at chatting. I have certainly been put off a book I was previously interested in because of a pedestrian, grumpy or precious performance in a podcast interview. I have also been tricked. I won’t name names, but on a couple of occasions I have bought books by well-known marketing experts only to find that everything I needed to know about those books had been contained in the interviews that had so impressed me.



Fortunately, Ryan Holiday’s new little book Growth Hacker Marketing does not belong in that category. Holiday is a fascinating figure, and has become something of a cult leader in the field of online marketing. His work with American Apparel and Tucker Max and his fascinating book Trust Me I'm Lying have all lent him a certain amount of glamour and hipster cachet. But this book takes the reader a significant step further and is all about the doing, and not about the pointless speaking. It is packed to the gills with useful, actionable information and there is not a page wasted. It’s probably one of the best-value books I have purchased in a long time.



For those, like me, who may not be down with the latest terminology, “growth hackers” are those people – usually tech-savvy youngsters – who seek to grow their products and make a name for themselves using new technologies and very little money. They are finding new ways to get the word out and to get their customers and users to do the advertising and marketing work for them. Some examples he uses in the book are Instagram, Evernote and the venerable Hotmail (which I still proudly use).

Holiday’s background is in mainstream marketing, where big, expensive campaigns are launched to sell new products in time-honoured ways which are as much about tradition, superstition and ritual than any properly-measured results. He points out that that’s all changing now. As industries have less and less money to spend on those old excesses (and I’m in the book industry, which is suffering hardest of all) we are all looking for new ways to be successful, create popular products and services and let people know how to spend their money on them.

Enter the growth hacker. This book aims to turn us all into growth hackers, and as an author it helps that the principal examples he uses are in the launching of new books. I think that this is a book that every author (and, please God, publisher) needs to read right now.

Here are 5 great tips I got from the book – remember, there are many, many more, so get the whole book:

1.    Blog extensively before you publish – if you are putting together a non-fiction book start blogging on your subject now! Take notice of what blog posts get great responses and shares, and make sure those are a bigger part of your book. It’s about being responsive to your readership and giving them more of what they want.

2.    Question every assumption – just because you think it’s a good idea, doesn’t mean it is. For too long now we have just soldiered on blindly, hoping like hell people will like what we’ve decided to offer them. How about dealing with humility beforehand and actually asking people what they want? And then asking for honest feedback on what we produce and actually be willing to change it. Ask yourself: why would anyone want to read this? Who is this for? What value am I offering? REALLY ask yourself those questions, write down the answers and keep them in front of you.

3.    Create fun videos – videos that talk about your book, videos that instruct people, videos that show some of your personality. He quotes a number of online growth hacking successes that hinged on video content. It’s an area that’s going to grow, so get on the bandwagon now, and don’t worry about elaborate production values

4.    Seek out influential advisors and mentors – ask for their advice and guidance and follow it! Stop trying to be a one-man show. Take a risk and ask someone you respect for feedback. If they like what they see they might just become advocates for you and your work.

5.    Think viral referrals instead of costly marketing and promotion – give away your product to people who matter and who might influence the opinion of others. He talks about how Uber built its profile by giving out free ride vouchers at tech conferences. This is dirt-cheap promotion, and yet I see so many companies and providers balk at it. Instead of spending thousands on an ad that might reach no-one important, why not drop a couple of hundred on getting to a more targeted audience and building some buzz about you and your product.


My copy of the book is heavily underscored with multiple pages turned down – I simply want to put everything into action and I have made copious notes as well. It is rare I am so excited about a book, especially one with such a potentially dull subject matter. But please believe me when I say this is essential reading that will inspire all kinds of ideas. 

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