Doing Some Literary Travel with All the Light We Cannot See and 12 Other Great Books
I love the idea of travelling but so far my life has provided little opportunity to do it much. There was a ten-day trip to England, a whirlwind trip to the Bahamas, and various road trips to parts of the United States. I would have liked to travel more but travelling is expensive and whenever I managed to save a little money there were always a pushy crowd of priorities lined up with their hands out. Travel always has such weak claims on the available funds – self-indulgent pleasure and life enrichment versus medical needs, housing, and education – so it always got shoved to the back of the line.
So for the most part I have relied on books to provide my virtual travelling experiences. One book that really pulls you into its time and place is this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in literature: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Three cities play major roles in this World War II story: Paris and Saint-Malo in France and the industrial city of Essen Germany. If I were to travel to Europe I can’t think of a more fun and interesting way to organize my trip than to let a great piece of literature be my guide. Recently I came across an excellent travel plan that is based on the places in All the Light We Cannot See. Even if you can’t do the actual tour, the article is full of fascinating information that sheds new light on this incredible novel. This splendid piece of literary travel writing is on the Auto Europe website and is written by Alison Busch.
I’ve always had the idea that one of these days I’d like to go to England and do a Jane Austen tour: visit Steventon, where she grew up, and the village of Chawton where she wrote three of her novels, and Bath and all the other places she frequented that influenced her novels about provincial life. The thing I’ve always found especially appealing about the world of Jane Austen is how the people would routinely walk five or ten miles from one town to the next. The characters in her novels are always walking to and fro from house to house and town to town. I think of the girls of Pride and Prejudice walking from Longbourne to Meryton or in Persuasion, Anne Elliot and her companions hiking around Bath.
In my world you can’t walk very far without running into an interstate or highway and there is always traffic noise. Even when walking within my suburban neighborhood I have to dodge cars and there is jarring scream of the power tools. It would be so nice to once visit a world where it was a natural as breathing to walk where you wanted to go and all you heard were human voices, breezes, bird song, and crunch of your own feet.
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Here are a dozen books, three memoirs and nine novels, that evoked a strong sense of place for me. Some are classics, some are future classics, and some are just good books. I’d love to visit some of these places; others I am content to leave between the pages.
A highly paid gunsmith for underworld assassins hides out somewhere in the mountains of Northern Italy. He has worked and hidden out all over the world for many years, but finds the Italian village and its surrounding so charming and peaceful he wants to stay there. The luscious descriptions of the beauty of this place struck a special chord for me because my recent ancestors came from a Northern Italian mountain village.
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.
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This memoir of his life in Paris in the 1920s was Hemingway’s last book and the first of his books that I read. I loved his descriptions of the café and arts scene in Paris and his seemingly casual hobnobbing with the greatest writers of that time. A young writer who had not yet completed his first novel, Hemingway seems to have just happened to become close friends with Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. He seems to have been sincerely happy in his first marriage to Hadley, innocent that happiness could ever end, and looking forward to a future of boundless success. Paris played a big part in the whole scenario, and if I ever get to Paris, I will have this book in my bag and reading it along the way will make the visit all the more special.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.
This book presents a very different Paris from the Paris of A Moveable Feast. Instead of cafes we have cathedrals. Instead of happy and angst-ridden writers we have tormented souls caught in the superstitions and cruelties of the middle ages. But it’s still Paris and when I visit the Cathedral of Notre Dame the historical depth of the city will come to life because of having read this book.
Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art by Christopher Moore.
This colorful novel written in 2012 takes place in the time of the great impressionist painters. Renoir, Whistler, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Seurat, and Gauguin all make appearances. A young painter named Lucien Lessard teams up with a flamboyant Henri Toulouse-Lautrec to solve the mystery surrounding the death of Vincent Van Gogh. The great value of this book to me was that I learned a lot about the Impressionists, essential knowledge for my trip to Paris.
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The United States of America
And here are a few others that will heighten my interest when I do some more travelling around the U.S.A.:
.The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
I can’t think of a better book to give you a firm grip on the historical roots of New England and send shivers up your spine. Years ago I actually went to the house the book was based on but it was a long time ago, before I read the novel. How much more I will get out of my next trip to Massachusetts now that I’ve read the book.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
On that same trip 20-some years ago I walked around the pond too, but believe it or not, I had not read the book at that time. Now I have. Next time I will have the book in my pocket and read passages as I walk..
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This wonderful 2005 novel takes place in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town during the 1950s. The characters are the children of Polish and Italian immigrants. I loved this book because my parents lived in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town during the 1950s and were the grandchildren of Polish and Italian immigrants. I have been to anthracite coal country many times and always enjoy the unique atmosphere and sense of place in those Pennsylvania towns.
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New York City
The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.
This novel is about a clever young woman’s life in 1930s Manhattan as she attempts to raise her social and financial prospects in life through hard work and a little romance. Love New York City and love the 1930s. From boarding houses to jazz clubs to lawn parties this novel evokes an exciting tangible atmosphere of the city at that time.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, the Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction for 2014.
After a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art kills his beloved mother, Theo struggles with grief and making a life as a motherless kid. In the panic of the rubble he picks up a small painting and throws it into his backpack. It is Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. This event leads to young Theo coming into the contact with some unusual mentors, friends, and possible enemies and eventually draw him into the art underworld. The novel starts in New York but Theo ends up spending part of the novel in Las Vegas with his alcoholic abusive father and his ditzy girlfriend Xandra. I liked the New York part better..
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Some Luck by Jane Smiley.
While city folks have been working in offices and going to parties and eating in restaurants there have been people all over the Midwest throughout the centuries who have actually been growing the food and living the kind of lives that farming involves. This excellent book tells the story of the Langdon family from around 1920 until just after World War II. It is the first of a planned trilogy. I also liked another Jane Smiley novel called A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer for fiction back in 1992 and was adapted as a film in 1997. In this one time an Iowa farm is the setting for a modern version of King Lear.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
This novel also takes place in Iowa, beginning in 1957 and looking backward. John Ames, an aging Congregationalist minister, looks back at his life and the lives of his father and grandfather, a fiery abolitionist. John Ames doesn’t have long to live and the book is a letter to his seven-year-old son. This book won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and also the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Honestly I do not seek out Pulitzer prize winners when I choose my reading. The fact that I have happened to read so many of them is either coincidental or fate. Usually I do not even realize they are nominees or winners until I am finished reading them. Books about mid-west farming life may be quieter and less glamorous than books about the big cities, but as is definitely the case with Gilead, can be very deep and real. They give you something to think about when driving by those long stretches of farmland. There is where the real lives that sustain us all are happening.
How about you? What books have you read that either make you feel like you are really there or make you want to pack your su