A well-organized and up-to-date travel guide is a handy thing to have when you venture abroad into a foreign realm to be sure, but the smart traveler does a different kind of reading in advance of the trip. Books that get us pleasantly steeped in the culture, customs, geography and history of countries we are about to visit can do a lot to enhance our understanding and enjoyment of what we are about to encounter firsthand—and they might even be worthy of packing into the carry-on along with the Fodor’s, the Zagat or the Lonely Planet.

In its eighth printing, “A Geek in Japan” has been updated and revised. (Courtesy Tuttle Publishing)

A case in point, taken from my own experience, is Hector Garcia’s “A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony.” Originally written in 2010 by a savvy young Spanish IT worker who had been living in Tokyo for six years, it has been revised and updated and is now in its eighth edition, while its author is continuing to produce the blog that first inspired it. An oversize softcover of 160 pages, it has 12 main chapters jam-packed with color photos and short, lively essays that lay out just about everything, both good and not-so-good, that makes Japan unique. Here are a few of the mini-topics the clear-eyed author explores, with both empathy and humor: “Meet the Real Geisha,” “The Martial Arts,” “The Virtue of Humility,” “Japan’s Train Culture,” “Life of a Salary Man,” “The Delights of Japanese Cuisine,” “J-Pop,” “Japanese Cinema,” “Cultural Walking Tours” and (we dare you not to read it) “Why Do Japanese Women Cover Their Mouths When They Laugh?”

One observation Garcia makes in his “Safety in Japan” section initially had me in serious doubt: “In Japan, I don’t have to worry if I leave my phone or wallet on the table in a coffee shop when I go to the bathroom, because I know nobody will touch them.” It was tested, however, and its accuracy confirmed on my own trip. The author further notes that the theft rate in “The Land of the Rising Sun” is 1.3 per 100,000 inhabitants and then compares it to ours: 233 per 100,000!

Meanwhile, an upcoming trip to Croatia has me currently absorbed in Robert D. Kaplan’s seminal work of nonfiction, “Balkan Ghosts,” first published in 1993 and reissued twice, including the 2005 edition that reprints a half dozen opinion pieces the author wrote following the violent upheavals in the region in the 1990s. Recommended by my travel agency, Kaplan’s book dives deep into the history of the political, ethnic and religious conflicts that have divided this troubled peninsula throughout history, and its first chapter is devoted to Croatia. It reminds me of another monumental work of nonfiction that has explored a war-torn country and is also often recommended to travelers—George Orwell’s 1938 classic “Homage to Catalonia,” culled from his experiences fighting against fascism in the Spanish Civil War and full of his observations about the political and social climate there.

A few other tomes that always make the top of the reading list for journeys abroad: Bruce Chatwin’s 1977 “In Patagonia,” still considered the essential preparation for visiting the bottom of the world; the incomparable Jan Morris’ “Venice,” from 1960 but still revered for her commentary on its traditions, architecture, history and the character of its inhabitants; and practically anything by the well-traveled (and hilarious) Brit Bill Bryson, but for Australia, his 2000 work “Down Under: Travels in a Sunburnt Country.”


A lit extravaganza: The Bay Area Book Festival, which takes over downtown Berkeley with multiple indoor and outdoor happenings for a spring weekend each year, has a welcome new wrinkle for its ninth outing: All the daytime events for the May 6-7 festival are free. Only the two headliner programs will require tickets, and they will come at an easy $15 charge. From 7:30 to 9 p.m. May 6 at Freight & Salvage, Joan Baez will be interviewed by Greg Sarris to talk about her new memoir-with-art “Am I Pretty When I Fly? An Album of Upside Down Drawings,” and she will stick around for an hour afterwards to sign copies that will be available for sale on site. And from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the same venue, fellow authors W. Kamau Bell and Kate Schatz will be on hand to discuss and encourage audience participation in their “Do the Work! An Antiracist Activity Book,” which is described as a hands-on manual for identifying and dismantling the architecture of prejudice—complete with jokes, games and conversation starters. Some 245 authors and speakers will be filling out the rest of the two-day schedule, including appearances by Cory Doctorow, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Dave Eggers and Dacher Keltner. Find the full schedule and links for the ticketed events at www.baybookfest.org.


Author alerts: A famous mother-daughter duo has a new memoir out, and one of them is coming to the Bay Area to talk about it. Actresses Diane Ladd and her daughter, Laura Dern, have just published “Honey, Baby, Mine” (Grand Central Publishing, $39, 256 pages), a collection of their shared memories as single mothers that includes photos and family recipes. Dern will appear at an event sponsored by Book Passage at Dominican University in San Rafael at 1 p.m. May 7, speaking with Mill Valley Film Festival program director Zoë Elton. The $40 tickets include a copy of the book; find them at www.bookpassage.com

City Arts & Lectures is also hosting an appearance by Dern, in conversation with “Wild” author Cheryl Strayed, at 7:30 p.m. that same evening in San Francisco’s Sydney Goldstein Theater. Find $65 tickets, which include a copy of the book, at www.city arts.net.

City Arts is also bringing physician, Stanford professor and novelist Abraham Verghese, author of the best-seller “Cutting for Stone” to its Goldstein Theater venue, at 7:30 p.m. May 11. Verghese will be speaking with Grey Matters podcaster Michael Krasny about “The Covenant of Water” (Grove Press, $32, 736 pages). The hefty new novel follows the fortunes of a single family in 20th-century India. The $49 tickets, which are limited, include a copy of the book; other tickets are available for $36 at www.cityarts.net.


Ann Patchett's new book has an August 2023 release date. (Courtesy Harper)

In the pipeline: Ann Patchett fans, take heed: A new novel from the National Humanities Medal award-winning author of “Bel Canto,” “Commonwealth,” “State of Wonder” and, most recently the Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Dutch House,” is coming out on Aug. 1. Patchett, who lives in Nashville and owns the Parnassus Books store there, has just finished “Tom Lake” (Harper, $30, 320 pages), a relationship-driven story about three sisters sheltering during the pandemic on the family cherry farm who try to get their mother to reveal the details of her long-ago affair with an actor who is now world famous. And more good news for readers who prefer to listen to audio books: The novel’s narrator is Meryl Streep.

Hooked on Books is a monthly column by Sue Gilmore on current literary buzz and can’t-miss upcoming book events. Look for it here every last Thursday of the month.