Posted on March 24, 2015 at 6:00 am
I love to travel. Being in a foreign country awakens me. I am challenged to examine my assumptions, pushed out of my comfort zone, and able to truly live in the moment, which is so hard to do when faced with the demands of everyday life. Don’t get me wrong, there is both comfort and beauty in everyday life and after traveling for a while, I always long to get home and unpack what I’ve learned and take some time to soak in the mundane. But for me, I thrive when I’m immersing myself in a different culture and learning about, and from, the lifestyles and histories of other countries. I have been fortunate to visit many different countries, and these travels make up a large portion of my life’s “highlight reel.”
However, in recent years, my travels to foreign lands have been replaced by a new kind of travel—motherhood. Like many countries, it is both an intimidating and exhilarating place to be. Of course, there is no return trip, but each stage and age is kind of like traveling to a different country with a whole new language to learn. I wouldn’t trade motherhood for anything, but at times I do feel a bit of wanderlust. Since overseas travels aren’t in my near future, I’ve found myself drawn to books set in other countries. It’s kind of nice to take a trip without the obsessive packing, the horrible passport picture, and the inevitable jet lag. In regular life, and in my literary life, I’m a bit of a Europhile. So if you feel so inclined, I’d like to take you on a literary (and for the most part, historical) tour of Europe via some of my favorite books.
Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Ever since I had the opportunity to take classes in Seville during college, I’ve loved reading books set in Spain. This is one of my favorites. I’m sure the fact that I love books, and that this story begins in the “cemetery of lost books,” is not a coincidence. Daniel is a boy when the story begins, and his father allows him to choose one “lost” book from the shelf. Daniel soon discovers it may be the only copy in existence and its author has disappeared. Daniel sets out on a mission to discover more about the author and the book he has in his possession. In the process, Daniel’s life is literally changed by a book. This story is dark, mysterious, and atmospheric, much like Barcelona at night, where most of the novel takes place.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
I’ve always been drawn to World War II fiction. I’m not exactly sure why, since it can be deeply depressing. I think part of it may be the juxtapositions found in human nature. On one hand, these stories speak to how courageous and indomitable humankind can be, and at the same time we see human nature at its most abhorrent. This novel is no different, but much of its richness is found when the book explores the shades of gray in-between the two extremes. This is the story of Marie-Laure, a girl who goes blind at the age of six, and of her father, who strives to keep both her and a precious jewel safe during war time. It is also the story of Werner, an orphan growing up in Germany whose talent with radios lands him in a brutal academy for Hitler Youth. Flashing between characters and time periods, this book will keep you up at night. If you enjoy this book, consider dipping your toes into the Young Adult and Children’s sections of the library and take a look at these marvelous World War II titles: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
When my friend recommended this book to me, I was hesitant. Part historical-fiction with a touch of romance and time-travel thrown in for good measure, this one defies genres. Despite that, or maybe because of it, Gabaldon’s series holds wide appeal. In 1945, Claire returns from war and reunites with her husband, Frank. However, while on a second honeymoon, Claire walks through a cleft stone in an ancient stone circle and is transported back in time to 1743 Scotland where she is a Sassenach (outlander) among battling Scottish clans. It is here that she meets James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, one of my favorite characters of all time. Gabaldon’s writing and attention to historical detail added Scotland to my long “to visit” list
The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
Welcome to the Netherlands, specifically the Delft household of Johannes Vermeer during the 1600s. Not a lot is known about Johannes Vermeer beyond his incredible art. Chevalier begins with one of his famous paintings, and creates a story about its inspiration. 16-year-old Griet is hired to work in the Vermeer household, and over time draws the attentions of the artistic master, eventually becoming his muse. Exploration of social class and religion paint a vivid picture of the time period surrounding the great art of the Dutch Golden Age. If you like this book, also try Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland. Choosing between these two titles was almost impossible for me, but Chevalier is alphabetized before Vreeland, and I am a librarian after all.
Meet Me at the Cupcake Café by Jenny Colgan
When traveling to other countries I often have a list of famous cathedrals, renowned museums and other tourist sites I want to see. I have learned over time, however, that it’s valuable to leave some days unplanned. Many of my fondest travel memories happened on the days I chose to simply wander and see where I ended up, or over long meals where I braved starting a conversation with the local sitting next to me. Meet Me at the Cupcake Café is not the British Museum of books. It is a light-hearted day spent wandering among the shops and the locals. This story begins when Issy manages to lose both her job and her boyfriend (also her boss) all in one day. Determined to make a bitter situation sweet, she takes her severance pay and opens a bakery. While chasing her dream of turning a passion for baking into a profession sounds perfect, real life is never quite that simple. Fast-paced, with a quirky character that is as sweet as her cakes, this book is like a fun, frivolous day spent in London (when the sun is actually shining).
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
This mystery is not for the faint of heart. Mikael Blomkvist’s career as a financial journalist goes down in flames after he’s accused of libel. However, soon after the accusations, he’s offered a job looking into the murder of a young girl who disappeared in 1966. Eventually, Blomkvist reaches out to skilled hacker, Lisbeth Salander for help with his investigation. With twists and turns, including one of the most horrifying scenes I’ve ever read, this book starts a little slow but then never lets up. As the title hints, Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, is a character you won’t soon forget. I’m assuming Sweden isn’t always this dark and corrupt, but if it is, maybe this is one country to take off my list. Or maybe I should go and discover it for myself; I could even follow the Stieg Larsson Millennium Tour.
While I love Europe and limited my reviews here to European destinations, I’ve also enjoyed many literary trips outside of “The Continent.” Here are a few of my favorite non-European travels:
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (China)
The Red Tent by Anita Diamont (Israel)
The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton (Australia)
Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende (Chile)
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alverez (Dominican Republic)
Of course, “armchair travel” is nothing new. Many before me have used books to transport themselves to other places. Here are a few interesting blogs I found detailing their authors’ “world travels”:
If you want to plan your own “world” adventure, the website Books Set In is a wonderful resource! You can enter search terms, or use their Google Maps interface, to find books set in the countries you’ve got your sights set on.
Another source for searching books by setting is the library’s NoveList digital resource. Start by searching for the country as a general keyword search. Then click on a title that is set in that country. Scroll to the bottom, where you can check a box to search for more books set in that location.
Needless to say, when my kids get older (much older!), I look forward to taking them with me on trips to other countries. Until then, I’m excited to wet their appetite with some literary travels aimed at kids. Here are some great resources if you are looking for kid’s books set in other countries:
I hope this post provided some inspiration for your next literary adventures. I’m always looking forward to my next trip, so if you have some recommendations I’d love to hear them. Until then, Buon Viaggio! ¡Buen Viaje! Bon Voyage!