A different way to get away
While our more extensive travel plans are most likely on hold, how can we still get away to those more exotic locations? Thankfully, the power of the written word can transport us to faraway places—even those that no longer exist.
Here are some of our favorite novels that make us feel immersed in a different culture, in a different land, and have helped keep our travel bug at bay—at least for the time being.
Dreaming in Cuban
Cristina García’s first novel and a finalist for the National Book Award, Dreaming in Cuban transports you between New York City and Cuba—both before and during Castro’s regime. Spanning three generations (1930s-1980s) of women in one family, this novel dives into Santería, split political allegiances within families, and the loss of connection felt by those living in diaspora.
My Brilliant Friend
Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend will take you to post-war Naples (~1950s). The novel goes straight to the heart of what it meant to be a young girl growing up in a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed. My Brilliant Friend explores universal themes of girlhood to womanhood (and all the pitfalls in between) through the young friendship of Elena and Lila whose lives set them on different paths. The book is set so particularly in Naples that you feel like you’re growing up there yourself. (There are even three more books in the series to keep your “trip” going.)
At the Existentialist Cafe
This is a nonfiction-based novel done properly. If the movie Midnight in Paris was an exhaustively researched, delightfully written tome, it would be Sarah Bakewell’s book. Immerse yourself in 1930s Paris and enjoy the wild ride that is the birth and history of existentialism. At the Existentialist Cafe is perfect reading for pandemic times because if we aren’t pondering the central tenets of existentialism right now, what are we doing?
The Master and Margarita
Journey through 1930s Soviet Russia with Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The novel’s depiction of 1930s Soviet life was so accurate that Bulgakov’s wife hid the manuscript until after the death of Stalin. Even then, only a heavily censored version of the work was released in 1966. This novel is satirized brilliantly through the mash-up of a re-telling of the stories of Pontius Pilate and Faust. Don’t try to figure out what’s going on during your first reading—just laugh out loud at the wit and audacity of it all. Only then do a deep dive to understand the incredible history around this one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime novel.
The House of the Spiritsn
Set in Chile, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits tells the story of three generations of the Trueba family. Magical realism abounds and Allende masterfully uses the generational family drama as a way to examine the political drama of 20th century Chile.
A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Tale of Two Cities will transport you right back to your high school English class—I mean the French revolution. The reign of terror of the late 1700s is brought to life in these pages in a way that a lot of us will likely appreciate more now as adults than we did at 15 stuck in a classroom.
The Sound of Things Falling
Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Sound of Things Falling is a wild, historical ride for anyone who doesn’t know much from the Colombian perspective about the drug wars of the 90s. This heartbreaking and beautifully written novel is set in Bogota and Medellin and confronts the troubled history of Colombia.
Absolutely stunning writing brings Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer to life. Post-Vietnam War, the novel weaves between 70s Saigon and post-war US. This gripping spy novel explores themes of American identity, immigration, extreme politics, and more.
The Bucolic Plague
Admit it: during these times, you’ve thought about running away from the city and buying an old house or farm. Maybe wait first and read former drag queen and ad agency executive Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s The Bucolic Plague. It’s not a novel, but we had to include this sometimes hilarious and sometimes tragic memoir and great read about doing just that in upstate New York with his partner.
Ready to get away? Pick up one of these novels at your local bookstore to help support small businesses during these trying times.