With summer coming, a friend and I think about travel, both real and book-wise
A few weeks ago, a good friend emailed me to say that she had been reading my blog and that it might be fun to do a back-and-forth to post like columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens sometimes do in the New York Times. Anne and I have now known each other almost twenty years—What!—having gone to journalism school together. This is the most journalism-like thing either of us have done in years. I hope it is as fun to read as it was to write.
Alex: I’ve always associated summer with travel. My parents separated before I even started school, so once I did, my time off from it was always devoted to visiting my dad. The moment school was out—in truth, it was usually the very next day—I was on a plane in his direction. (He has never lived fewer than two plane rides away and sometimes as many as four.) Now that my kids have re-centered my calendar around the school year once again, when June hits, I feel that itch: “Am I going somewhere?” Last year, the answer was a decided, depressing no, but this year, there’s a shred of hope. We’re not going far, but we’re making plans, which feels nice. I know you are also a traveler. What are you feeling as we get to the summer?
Anne: We’ve lost so much this past year, and outside of the more serious threats to health and general livelihood, the loss of travel was a big one for me. And not just the actual act of going somewhere. Thinking, planning and reflecting on travel is enormously gratifying, and I’ve certainly missed looking at the calendar and considering the possibilities of where we can go and when. But I’d agree that things seem more hopeful this summer!
Alex: I completely agree about thinking, planning and reflecting about travel. I love reading about places I want to go to—both travel guides, and history and fiction books about a place. Travel writing is one of those things that everyone thinks is a “dream job” but is actually difficult to do well. This is true, especially, of travel writing that is not just about the place, but about the act of travel. One of my favorite such books is Monkey Dancing, a memoir by a journalist who took his kids on a trip around the world after his wife left them. I’m sure I have recommended it to you before because I recommend it to everyone.
Anne: There is so much bad travel writing out there. The genre seems to be dominated by first-person narratives of a washed up somebody finding themselves by a remarkable experience in a faraway land. That’s exactly the type of book I want to throw across the room. The best travel books evoke a sense of place and time and the traveler is not the star of the story. I think that Paul Theroux generally does a pretty good job of this, and whenever I read one of his books, he makes me want to travel like him and to the places he writes about. But the concept of evoking a sense of place isn’t limited to travelogues, as I’ve been inspired to travel by just as many novels. I recently read A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. The story is about a young girl in Tokyo who documents her life in a journal which is later found by a novelist when it washes ashore on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest. Setting the story aside (which was great, I highly recommend it), the gorgeous description of the coastal rainforest and beaches in British Columbia, not to mention the self-sufficiency of the people who live there was captivating. Before I had even finished, I was zooming in on maps of Cortes Island and trying to figure out how many ferries you had to take to get there. I love escaping to and learning about a place through reading. Have you ever planned a trip based on or because of something you’ve read?
Alex: Definitely! The first book that came to mind in thinking about this question was State of Wonder, about a medical researcher who travels to the Amazon in search of a disappeared colleague. This is not a trip I have taken, and to be honest, I may not ever do so, at least not how it happens in the book. Still, the level of detail about traversing through the jungle—walking through thick forests, rafting through the maze of rivers—and the feelings and atmosphere that the journey evokes made me want to go into these wild, untamed areas of South America in a way I had never been interested in doing before. For me, longing to be somewhere I’m reading about has also happened with books about places I have already been. I didn’t love the book Next Year in Havana, but I didn’t hate it because the one area where the book succeeded was in describing Cuba and what it was like to go to a beautiful place that for many people can only exist in memory and imagination. Honestly, if we couldn’t have escaped different places through books, this past year would have been even more depressing. So bringing it back around to our emergence from this quarantine cocoon, is there a place you are looking forward to reading about this summer and possibly going to (or going back to) some day?
Anne: Nice choices. As far as where I might be reading about soon . . . do you mean in addition to the stack of guidebooks stacked next to my nightstand? Lonely Planet Portugal. National Geographic’s Journeys of a Lifetime. Secrets of the National Parks. I am a total sucker for travel guidebooks, always checking out at least one to two on each visit to the library as I love paging through them for ideas. More tangibly, I am reading Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard right now. It’s quite an immersive account of a journey into the Himalaya, a place I have always longed to visit. I’m really enjoying that. But in terms of where I really want to go right now? Somewhere beautiful and warm where I can hike and swim and afterwards sit outside at a café and eat fabulous food that I didn’t prepare myself while listening to people speak in a language I don’t understand. Seemingly, I am looking for a good book set in, say, Corsica. Any recommendations?
Alex: I don’t know about Corsica, but for something on the Mediterrenean, perhaps Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, which is partly set at a small inn on the Italian coast. I think you know some Italian, so that doesn’t quite meet the foreign language requirement. I do not speak Italian and have never been to Italy. Once while in London, though, my sister and I went into an Italian bakery where nobody spoke English and the staff were convinced that our Spanish was actually Italian. It was loud and joyful, even though we truly did not understand what they were saying. The pizza was delicious. A random travel story to end on—or let’s just call it a pause. I’ll bring Aperol spritzers in a thermos next time we meet up, and we can keep the conversation going.
A street book seller in Havana, Cuba. I was lucky to travel there in 2004.
Quick note: If you are interested in buying any of the books mentioned above, some of the links will take you to Flyleaf Books, an independent book store in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where Anne and I went to J school.
Speaking of going to the Mediterranean, The Guardian published this list of books that use it as a backdrop back in 2014. A surprising amount of murder.
Speaking of murder, in looking up the author of Monkey Dancing, I stumbled upon a fascinating piece he wrote in 2011 about an American man whose death in Australia in the late 1980s was initially ruled a suicide but turned out not to be.
Speaking of Daniel Glick, when Monkey Dancing came out in 2003, he did an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, which I mention primarily to point out that Fresh Air has an online archive and it is a goldmine that includes the button “Just play me something.”
If you still have Mother’s Day on the brain . . .
The Secret Women by Sheila Williams - This was an impulse read that I wanted to love more than I ultimately did. I saw the description (three women meet and bond over the fact they are mourning their mothers) and ordered it from the library immediately, but the book didn't quite match my initial excitement over it. The story is exactly as the above description says, but in its shifting perspectives, the narrative never feels cohesive. The focus jumps around not just among the three women we meet first, but going into the lives of their mothers as well. The author dwells on some perspectives at length and in detail, and glosses over other so swiftly and neatly, I had to pause and remember what exactly the conflict was. Williams' style is approachable and compelling at times, but this book—although it is a sweet, quick read if you want a story about mothers and daughters—feels just a tiny bit under-baked.
Since this post is largely about travel, I’ll point out that Germany is probably at the top of my list of countries in Europe that I have never been to but long to visit.
Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet - I wasn't sure how I would feel about this book right up until the end, when—crying—I decided that I loved it. That's the best end to any reading journey and the reason I give this book five stars. This moving story about an American boy whose parents whisk him away to East Germany in 1989, changing his name and age in the process, is a kind of spy novel/historical fiction thriller for kids. It's also a story of friendship that beautifully captures what it is like to see your small world change while the larger one is too and living through history knowing something big is happening but not quite understanding what it is. There are pauses at the end of each chapter where the author breaks the fourth wall and offers a bit of historical context, and I first I didn't like them, fearing that they would continually take me out of the story. But as the novel moves along we learn that this fragmentation is how Noah himself organizes information in his intriguing mind. People my age, who were the same age as the kids in the book during the fall of the Iron Curtain, might find it extra poignant now that we're parents. In fact, I questioned Noah's parents' choices throughout—which tells you how well Nesbet pulls us into the mind of Noah (aka Wallfish) who only begins to accept his new life when he meets Claudia (aka Cloud), who is living through her own trauma. This is a great book for anyone interested in this era of history or who needs the reminder that war also happens to children.
And as mentioned above . . .
Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton - This book was, honestly, a disappointment. The writing is just not very good, full of overwrought and clunky expository dialogue and leading men that don’t quite manage to be more than archetypes. It does manage to hit some poignant notes about home and longing that is particular to the Cuban experience, but they just manage to make the book OK, not nearly as good as it might have been. I am not Cuban, but I’ve been there and spent time with people who existed under Castro, so I was somewhat frustrated by the writer’s inability to take herself out of the exile perspective that continues to lay the blame for everything under the sun at Castro’s feet and soft-foots Batista, the Americans who propped him up and, later, one of the worst international policy failures of all time (the embargo). Then again, I am not Cuban. There are much better books out there about women in revolutionary times, like In The Time of the Butterflies from the Dominican Republic and The House of the Spirits from Chile. Cuba deserves a timeless classic, but it isn’t this one.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter - This book is made up not so much of intersecting stories as intersecting novels, every single one about the chasm between what life is and what it could have been or still could be. Each character (even the one we know well) seems, when we meet them, like a thousand pages waiting to be read: the would-be actress, the young Italian dreamer, the cynical Hollywood gofer, the OTHER cynical Hollywood gofer, the novel writer ready to fail before he's begun, the movie writer ready to fail before he's begun, THE Richard Burton, and the one who stepped out of a Nick Hornby novel and is the reason they are all here. They come together in a series of small, tantalizing, at times incongruent vignettes that circle around each other for long enough that by the end, what we want to know is not what happens, exactly, but that everything is going to be OK. At least that's how reading this book felt for me. I was surprised at my own tears as I reached the end and surprised that, after decades passed, the twists and turns and the missing pieces, the little life that is left, can still be enough.