Lost in Place
If travel isn't a vacation option, try letting a book take you away
I didn't go on a real, grown-up vacation until I was well into my 30s. Not saying that I never went anywhere growing up, but the entire family (and sometimes two dogs) piling into the 1974 Chevrolet Malibu Classic station wagon at 6 a.m. to head directly to Dallas from Bowling Green, Ky., (a 726-mile drive) or Kansas City, Mo. (551 miles)--and then, often enough to dread it, gathering some relatives to head to some family function in Port Isabel, Tex. (556 miles), Monterrey, Mexico (579 miles), or Los Angeles (1,437 miles) certainly didn't feel like a vacation. Neither did those trips I'd take in my 20s, cheap car drives or bus trips to see friends with unoccupied couches. No, I'm talking about a genuine vacation, where you and your significant other choose a place you want to go and spend entirely too much money having a good time in a different--and, ideally, foreign--place eating new foods, imbibing new drinks in new bars, seeing new things, talking to new people, and, generally, enjoying a few sanity-maintaining days away from work.
You know, one of those things that I fear I won't be able to afford to do this year. And I suspect I'm not the only one. According to an AP-Gfk Poll published May 10, 56 percent of Americans report that they are not planning a summer vacation this year, with 52 percent of those reporting that they weren't because of financial concerns.
I'm not coping well with the cruel personal finances fact of this matter one bit. And as the 2009 travel plans get adjusted from a week in Montivideo or Malta and become more along the lines of long timeshare weekend in the Poconos, I try not to think of the absolute worse: taking vacation days and staying at home. I hear that the "staycation" can be a fine, relaxing time, but it sounds only slightly less depressing than losing vacation days entirely. I just imagine a week at home being a neurotic seven days of fretting over chores that aren't going to do themselves and a dog that isn't going to walk himself--or make me frozen blender drinks and whip up a tasty assortment of amuse-bouche, for that matter.
Just before I started considering a cruise, though, I recalled those not too long ago days of twentysomething lack of disposable income and my lower middle-class youth and remembered that I was able, in a way, to see new places and new things without ever leaving my room. Martin Amis offered me gustatory, sub-cultural, and class-obsessed tours of London in Other People, London Fields, and The Information. Saul Bellow and Nelson Algren brought me into their Chicago before I ever set foot there. Albertine Sarrazin plunged me into a dark world of French women's prisons in L'Astragale and La Cavale. Iceberg Slim took me into American bars, clubs, and neighborhoods I could never gain entry to by myself. And William T. Vollmann took me deep into Huron and Iroquois country with French Jesuit missionaries in the phenomenal Fathers and Crows. Obviously, I can still go places, but only in my head.
Hence a summer reading list cherry-picked with stories set in places much more exotic than a Northeast Baltimore rowhouse. I don't foresee this list satisfying everybody's taste, but hopefully it can be a motivational boost to your own summer reading plans to fight the lack of vacation doldrums.
I've never been to Egypt, and it's a destination that is always included in future travel plans. And while I'm not going to get there this year, I can get some sense of its sights, smells, streets, and history through novels. I'll start with the obvious--Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet, a tetralogy the British novelist penned between 1957-60. These four books--Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea--offer character-driven accounts of life in Alexandria on the eve of World War II. Durrell ended up in Egypt in 1941, fleeing the spread of fighting across the continent, and he worked as a press agent for the British consulate. During those WWII years, Egypt's 1988 Nobel winner Naguib Mahfouz was still a young writer establishing himself, penning Egyptian historical novels. During the 1950s, though, he finished three monumental books that became his career's touchstone and one of the more imposing pieces of modern Arabic literature. His Cairo Trilogy--1956's Palace Walk, 1957's Palace of Desire, and 1957's Sugar Street--chronicles three generations of a Cairene merchant family, headed by Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, from 1917-'44.
Those classics should provide a nice foundation, but I know I'm going to want more, ideally books from writers less well known in Western circles. So perhaps I'll track down an English translation of politically minded author Sonallah Ibrahim's 1966 Tilk al-Ra'eha (The Smell of It), inspired by his own prison experiences from 1959-'64, when he was incarcerated for being a member of the Communist Party. I'd also like to check out a more contemporary Egyptian writer, such as Muhammad Aladdin, whose critically heralded 2006 The Gospel According to Adam is but a single 60-something page stream-of-consciousness paragraph. And hopefully I can come across a few slightly obscure authors, such as the late Alifa Rifaat, a true rarity--a Muslim female writer who wrote short stories about being just that (see: Distant View of a Minaret)--or Abdel-Hakim Kassem, considered a hugely important 20th-century Egyptian Muslim writer, whose The Seven Days of Man, the only novel of his I know to be translated into English, I've yet to locate.
I don't, however, plan on spending my summer simply feeding my travel envy. I read crime fiction as religiously as healthy people work out, and this summer I look forward to putting down American and British stories of murder, mayhem, and existential dread for stories of murder, mayhem, and existential dread in . . . Laos? A crime blog I like has pimped Colin Cotterill's series featuring Laotian coroner Dr. Sri Paiboun for some time, and I think I'm going to start with 2007's Anarchy and Old Dogs, if only because the title is nothing but win. I also hope to get through Matt Beynon Rees' The Collaborator of Bethlehem, in which fiftysomething Palestinian school-teacher Omar Yussef becomes an accidental detective; popular Bolivian writer Juan De Recacoechea's Andean Express that Akashic Books put out last month; and, with any luck, finally get around to exploring Belgian great Georges Simenon's Gabon-set Tropic Moon. That's the plan, but I'm more than open to suggestions. Anybody know any Basque crime authors? If so, please share.
That same AP-Gfk Poll cited above revealed some totally unsurprising info: It's really only middle-class people who are adjusting their travel plans. Not only do more than two-thirds of people earning more than $100,000 per year plan to travel this summer, but "18 percent of those earning more than $100,000 said they would take more elaborate trips than usual because of lower prices."
Now, I'm not trying to sow class-hatred here, but for those people who get to travel even better than usual this summer, I'd like to suggest five titles to take along for those long flights to Phuket, layovers in Dubai, and afternoon downtime on the Plage de Pampelonne:
1) Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers: A Novel: A street's-eye view of life among Jewish immigrants in New York's Lower East Side in the 1920s from a woman author who deserves to be more frequently read and known.
2) Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time: This 1976, fourth novel from an always socially engaged female author combines speculative time travel and mental illness into an excoriating portrayal of modern urban mores.
3) John Sayles, Union Dues: Consider this 1977 novel the independent filmmaker's training ground for Matewan, following an Appalachian runaway's adventures in late 1960s Boston among increasingly radicalized students and young people.
4) Dambudzo Marechera, The House of Hunger: Zimbabwean author blessed with Kafka's suspicion of institutions, Beckett's internal dialog, and a modernist's verbal pyrotechnics, and cursed with being born in a colonial country (Rhodesia) during its most turbulent years.
5) Ann Pancake, Strange as This Weather Has Been: This overlooked 2007 gem, penned by local musician/filmmaker Catherine Pancake's sister, documents life inside a West Virginia hollow, and in the character Bant, a young woman figuring out what matters to her, a genuinely unforgettable character.
For the rest of us, might I suggest Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley books. Over these five novels Highsmith's indelible creation, an American with a taste for the exquisite in life--luxurious traveling in Europe, a French estate, etc.--displays the con-artist skills and utter amorality that can be required to achieve such things. Sure, it does involve feeding off--and killing--the wealthy. But we all need vicarious thrills and a fictional sense of justice during these trying economic times, no?
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