In Places That Verb Your World- Around the World in Books, I’m going to create a series of posts about novels and nonfiction books that take you traveling. Armchair traveling is one of my favorite ways to travel around the world. I’m not much good on an airliner these days, unless in First Class, and so I do a lot of my traveling via books. I have my longtime favorites and my new favorites, which I’ll list in this series of posts.
Travel Books I Love – Durell’s Books
Lawrence Durrell’s two classic memoirs, Bitter Lemons and Reflectionls on a Marine Venus are nothing less than exquisite love letters to places. They contain some of the most beautiful descriptions of places I’ve ever read, gorgeous prose that made me want to be a write when I read them in my early twenties.
The opening to Bitter Lemons takes me to what was to become one of my favorite places on earth: “Venice wobbling in a thousand fresh-water reflections cool as a jelly. It was as if some great master, stricken by dementia, had burst his whole colorbox against the sky to deafen the inner eye of the world … Fragments of history touched with the colors of wine, tar, ochre, blood, fire-opal, and ripening grain.” And years later, I got to see that for myself, and it was exactly as Durrell had described it. So of course I had to set the final scenes in my novel there.
While I now find Durrell’s characters in The Alexandrai Quartet ridiculous and unbelievable, that series of books set in Alexandria, Egypt enthralled me in my youth. It was more for the setting than the people. When he introduced this ancient Egyptian capitol in the first novel’s opening pages, I was spellbound: “A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes … I have escaped to this island with a few books and the child.” He went on to tell a story that was pure soap opera, but set in a place that reeks of exoticism and the mysteries of the desert: “Notes for landscape tones … Light filtered through the essence of lemons. An air full of brick-dust … Light damp clouds earth-bound, yet seldom bringing rain.” Even his excesses of language are superb, when addressed to the landscape. About people he seems to have been rather a dimwit.
As I continue around the world in books, I have to include Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World wove that same kind of poetic spell, but with better characters. The author of the acclaimed All the Light We Cannot See (which unfortunately turned out to be all the story I couldn’t get through) seems to me at his best in creative nonfiction. His Rome, which by the time I read this I had visited, sparked to life in passages such as this one: “I stand on a chair on the terrace and try to find the Tiber river in the maze of distant buildings but see no boats, no bridges. A guidebook at the Boise Public Library said Trastevere was charming, crammed with pre-Renaissance churches, medieval lanes, nightclubs. All I see is haze: rooftops, treetops. I hear the murmur of traffic. A palm tree out the window traps the sunset. The kitchen faucet drips.” I think it’s time to read this lovely book again!
Novels That Take You Traveling
Elizabeth von Arnim’s classic The Enchanted April inspired my novel, just released, The Renaissance Club. It also inspired my next book, The Romantics (stay tuned for news of that one — or sign up for my newsletter). Italy is an enchanted place, whether in April, May, December or January. These are stories of the enchantment of love cast by these magical places in that tiny but extraordinary country. Von Arnim’s spell of enchantment is woven from first to last page with wonderful details of place: “She could see the quiet water of the little harbour through the pine trunks, and the lights coming out in the houses on the other side, and all round her the green dusk was splashed by the rose-pink of the gladioluses in the grass and the white of the crowding daisies. Ah, this was so lovely, so still. Nothing moving — not a leaf, not a stalk. The only sound was a dog barking somewhere farway up on the hills, or when the door of the little restaurant on the piazza below was opened and there was a burst of voices, silenced again immediately by the swinging to of the door.”
A hilarious comic novel of contemporary Georgia (the one next to Russia) Waiting for the Electricity, by Christina Nichol, made me not want so much to travel to this exotic, impoverished former Soviet state as to marvel that the author could have lived and taught there. Clearly, it was on a divine mission to write one of the funnier books set in another country that America has had the privilege of publishing. Her opening description of the seaside Georgia is priceless. “A tidal wave of women, huge and busty, draped in long black dresses, lumbered heavily, trundling toward the sea. Watch out! Get out of their way. This horde of buxom women was hiking down the hillsides like an invasion. On the minibuses they cracked sunflower seeds between their teeth, staring straight ahead, inveseted onlyh in sunlight, in the promise of the sea. On the beach all these women would sunbathe. Some stood, holding a pirozhok in one hand and a beer in the other, thigh-deep in the water, yelling to little Shako not to swim too far. Those from the villages still bathed in their dresses, which clung to the folds on their bodies.”
I’d be delighted to get suggestions of books set elsewhere than the U.S., whether fiction or nonfiction, so I can continue my imaginative travels around the world in books.
And of course, I travel all the time in my own novel, the recently released The Renaissance Club, set in Northern Italy in the 21st and 17th centuries, with a few folds in time bridging between. And my next book, The Romantics, will be also set in Italy.