“Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are…”Mason Cooley
Travel narratives aren’t the only way to immerse yourself in place—novels make great options, too. For me, the most engrossing books are those where the writer has chosen to make place as important as any character and just as important as the plotline. Some writers hop, skip, and jump across the globe, providing little attention to the setting other than to indicate where in the world their characters are, but not these authors. Each of the following books is very redolent of place.
Grab a cup of tea or a mug of coffee and come along for the opportunity to escape to: Japan & Paris for a hero’s journey; Provence for a truffle-induced magical realist trip; Venice for the mystery of an evocative and mysterious sculpture; Ecuador for a story of man against beast; and Egypt for a dizzying spin through Cairo at the tail end of Ramadan.
The Mask Carver’s Son by Alyson Richman
With one foot in a past guided by tradition, country, and filial loyalty and the other in the modernist movements dominating the art world in the west, Alyson Richman’s protagonist, Kiyoki, is a conflicted man who embodies the push for change, for evolution. Steeped in the poetry of Japanese image, The Mask Carver’s Son leads you through the age-old landscape of Noh, the art of classical Japanese dance-drama, where mortals channel the voices of the dead through the mystery of the masks they wear. Kiyoki, possessed of the same preternatural artistic gifts as his mask-carving father, leaves behind all that he has known for an unknown future in turn-of-the-century Paris. Inspired by the real life stories of four Meiji Period artists, Richman tenderly portrays both the freedoms of and difficulties associated with being an expatriate—of never quite fitting in: “My journey prevented me from being Japanese; my face prevented me from being French. I am an artist who cannot belong to the tapestry of either country…” Don’t miss the opportunity to experience this transcontinental tale woven of the heartbreak and personal reward of answering one’s hero call.
The Fly-Truffler by Gustaf Sobin
Gustaf Sobin’s The Fly-Truffler is an ode to Provence—a region once rife with primeval oak forests, clear, rushing waterfalls, orchards, hay bales, beehives—and truffles, pungent, elusive, and seductive. Sobin’s main character, Phillip Cabassac, a linguistics professor, lives like a character in a fairy tale amidst almond orchards in a family farmhouse infused with the scents of generations past. Provencal, the professor’s specialty, is the specific language once spoken across southern France and it is this now obscure and dying dialect that leads this perennial bachelor his ladylove, Julieta. Possessed of hair as deep and glittery a black as obsidian, she is distant and mercurial and flits into his life like a wood nymph. With her rich ‘sylvan’ scent, she comes to possess him mind, body, and soul and he settles into a blissful matrimonial state. But all is not bliss in Cabbasac’s world and when she is suddenly taken from him, his grief is all consuming. Then, he discovers the transportive powers of the black truffle and becomes like a man possessed in search of flies or more specifically claus d’aur—golden keys, as he calls them. The flies, like cupid’s arrow, direct him to the elusive truffles hiding just below ground. Capable of transporting Cabbasac into a dream life with his beloved, his waking hours are dedicated to truffles, his dreamtime to Julieta. Before long, reality begins to collapse around him as saw-toothed buckets begin to claw at the edges of his world, consuming his orchards, his dovecot, his rabbit hutch, his chicken coop, his mind. A lyrical tribute to a way of life nearly plowed under, The Fly-Truffler is as irresistible as it is haunting and it lingers in the heart and mind long after you have read the last line.
Stone Virgin by Barry Unsworth
Talk about texture of place, Stone Virgin by Booker Prize-winning author Barry Unsworth has it in spades. Whenever I hear of anyone traveling to Venice, I recommend this haunting and erotic book. Art, history, intrigue—it’s all here for the taking. The plot centers on restoration work being conducted at a Venetian church and a beguiling and mysterious statue pitted by acid rain and salt air found there. Tasked with restoring her, Simon Raikes falls for the statue’s erotic charms. Inert, yet possessed of immense power, he senses her beseeching him to discover her story. Utilizing the restorer’s research as a plot vehicle, Unsworth’s mesmerizing, non-linear novel skips back and forth across several centuries. We learn the il Supplicanti commissioned the Madonna Annunziata during the Renaissance and that her story is entwined with that of the Fornarini—a very powerful Venetian family. Like the restorer and the Madonna, I doubt you will be able to resist Unsworth’s compelling prose. His amazing skill at capturing place makes this one of those books you cannot put down. Whether you read it to escape, eat up travel time, or to set the tone for a trip to Venice, Stone Virgin will not disappoint. I was so taken with this book, I went on to read several of Unsworth’s other books, namely Pascali’s Island set in Greece, Rage of the Vulture set in Turkey, and Morality Play set in Medieval England, and was equally transported. Like the author, I enjoy books that are redolent of the past and I yearn, as he did, to “live a contemporary life in the setting of the past.”
The Old Man Who Read Love Stories by Luis Sepulveda
The Old Man Who Read Love Stories is a nail-biting tale of man against beast, man against ignorance, man against encroachment. Set deep in the Ecuadorian jungle on the banks of Rio Nangaritza, the man at the center of this cautionary tale has grown old trying to scratch a living out of the barely arable land along the riverbank. As you can imagine, living on a rain-soaked river in an Ecuadorian jungle can be harsh and it took the best he had to offer—his wife and his productivity. His only form of solace is the schmaltzy love stories the dentist brings him on his twice-yearly visits to the sleepy town. This powerful novella opens with one of those visits and the appearance of a boat carrying the body of a man and bag containing the skins of three bullet-torn ocelot cubs. Having once lived with and been taught how to read the jungle and creatures in it by the indigenous Shuar people, the old man immediately smells the intense odor of ocelot urine and realizes the lifeless man has been mauled to death and marked by the mother of those cubs. He recognizes the danger immediately of a mother wronged and out for revenge. He knows she will kill any human she encounters in her mad grief to avenge her cubs’ death and warns everyone to be careful. Recognizing the danger and aware of the old man’s tracking and hunting knowledge, the town’s mayor beseeches him to take up the cause of finding the mother ocelot and doing away with her. What follows is indeed a nail-biting tale of reluctant man against beast. Luis Sepulveda’s prose is so taut with tension—the hairs of the back of your neck bristle. You can practically feel the breath of the desperate mother as she corners her prey. For an authentic journey into the wilds of Amazonia minus the heat, the humidity, the insects, the beasts, and the travel time, make a point to find this book.
I Know Many Songs But I Cannot Sing by Brian Kiteley
A big fan of Brian Kiteley’s book, Still Life with Insects, I picked up this book as soon as I saw it. I Know Many Songs But I Cannot Sing is an intoxicating masterpiece of short fiction for the poet in all of us. As the novella opens, the air over Cairo is thick with dust, pollution, and the scent of body odor, donkey dung, mint tea, shisha smoke, and exhaust fumes and it swirls above the city like a murmuration of starlings, further disorienting the grief-stricken American main character, Ib. He has just returned to the city following the funeral of his beloved stepfather, arriving at the tail end of Ramadan when everyone waits in numb hunger for the bang of the cannon announcing the end of the day’s fast, and begins to wander the city in search of his acquaintances. An Armenian named Gamal-Leon joins him on his peregrinations and together they encounter an ever-changing cast of flawed foreigners. And each, like Ib and Gamal-Leon, who has made Cairo his or her home, is more alienated than the last. Their seeming alienation pervades every corner of the city and appears all the more obvious set against the already disconcerting day becomes night and night day nature of Ramadan. In this slender book, Kiteley manages to capture the immensity and kaleidoscopic nature of this teeming, ancient, multi-layered city, where even native Cairenes fall prey to feelings of alienation on occasion. Prepare to be pushed off center by his dizzying day-in-the-life snapshot.
I found it very hard to narrow down my favorite travel-by-novel favorites to just five, so the following are few on my shortlist:
The Eight by Katharine Neville
First published in 1988, The Eight is Katharine Neville’s thrilling romp across centuries and continents. Centered on the tremendously powerful Montglane Chess Service once presented to Charlemagne by the Moors, Neville deftly weaves the esoteric arts, mathematics, the need for power, and some of the most famous characters in history into this engaging tale set in New York, Algeria, France, & Russia. An international bestseller in more than 40 languages, the screen rights for The Eight and its sequel, The Fire, were purportedly sold in 2016, but no movie thus far. I don’t know what they’re waiting for. Pick it up. Though the chess service at the center of the novel is entirely fictional (sigh)—a creation of Neville’s incredible mind, you’ll soon discover how hard it is to put this continent-hopping page turner down.
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler
Told against the backdrop of 14th century Portugal, Richard Zimler’s The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is a gripping literary mystery in the same vein as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. From the author’s note where he explains how the novel was inspired by a cache of leather-bound, hand-written books decorated with silver filigree and enamel peacocks found secreted in a sealed lair beneath a dusty and moldering house in Istanbul, I was hooked. The found books were penned on vellum in Jewish-Portuguese and medieval Hebrew by a man named Berekiah Zarko and contained treatises on various aspects of Kabbalism—the estoteric form of Jewish philosophy founded in the early Middle Ages. The rest documented the 1506 massacre of Lisbon’s Jews and Zarko’s family’s experiences during that dark time in history. They also relate his attempt to solve the murder of his beloved uncle, a renowned kabbalist. While The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is basically Zimler’s retelling of the material found while he was a resident in that Istanbul home (talk about right person at the right place), his retelling is not dusty or dry. It is significant and fast-paced, steeped in beautiful imagery and Jewish mysticism, and does not attempt to gloss over the cruelties and horrors of intolerance we best not forget. It is as enthralling as it is informing.
The Island of the Mapmaker’s Wife and Other Tales by Marilyn Sides
The Island of the Mapmaker’s Wife and Other Tales begins with Marilyn Sides’ title tale, which was inspired by a rebuff of the idea that mapmakers included nonexistent islands on maps at the behest of their wives in Jonathan Swift’s work A Tale of a Tub. First appearing in the literary journal Yellow Silk, Sides’ “The Island of the Mapmaker’s Wife” also had the distinction of being included in an O. Henry Prize Stories collection. Encouraged by the work’s reception, Sides went on to pen the rest of the seductive tales gathered here. Transportive by nature, her stories serve as a travelogue of sorts through the passions her characters possess—each demonstrating how owning a particular map, bead, or kite or perfecting a process can become an obsession that oftentimes entwines with erotic love. From a young woman who travels to Amsterdam in search of a pair of illuminated maps to a grieving woman who while traveling in Guatemala becomes obsessed with the work of a Mayan painter, each story explores what it’s like to fall in love, be in love, lose love, and find it again.
Join Tammy this fall as she partners with American cookbook author Pamela Sheldon Johns of Italian Food Artisans to present: La Dolce Vita: Flowers & Food in Tuscany. Curious? Follow the link to learn more – we’d love to share our combined passions for flowers and food with you!