Around the World in Ten Books
If you’ve spent time on the Mall recently, you know: The summer tourist season has begun. Hopefully, your summer reading has, too.
The season of adventure is upon us! Some of you may be finalizing hotel reservations and international layover plans, and some of you may be only dreaming of international layovers while putting Anthony Bourdain or Eat, Pray, Love on hold at your local branch of DC Public Library.
Whether you want to prepare for Paris by memorizing the cafés Hemingway frequented or simply want to read your way through Mexico City, below is a list of books that combine (for the most part) the gustatory, revelatory, and comic highs and lows of traveling with the personal yet universal humanism of the memoir.
Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr
Anthony Doerr is a famous Pulitzer prize-winning author now, but not too long ago, he was relatively unknown, teaching and publishing here and there, enjoying the modest but diligent writer’s life in Boise, Idaho. Then he and his wife had twins.
The day they took their newborns home, he found out he had won the prestigious Rome Prize, which came with an apartment and writing studio in Rome. So naturally, he and his wife packed up their bags, the strollers, and moved to Rome for a year. Four Seasons in Rome is the chronicle of their year there, from the travails of caring for newborn twins in a foreign country to the joys and difficulty of writing with expectations.
Like All The Light We Cannot See, it displays Doerr’s uncanny attention to the physical and emotional details of a life, with an ear for the wisdom and humor of writers and philosophers before him.
The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle by Francisco Goldman
The death of Francisco Goldman’s wife came close to destroying him, and Mexico City almost finished the job. Documenting the depths of his grief, as well as his long climb out, The Interior Circuit mixes his efforts at mourning with his love for Mexico City.
Part of the book is the story of him re-learning to drive on the notoriously congested, confusing streets of one of the largest megalopolises in the world, and this glimpse of the city through its streets (well over 100,000) allows Goldman a fun storytelling challenge of conveying the overwhelming size and chaos of the city -- along with its infinite, individual charms.
The rest of the book is devoted to a variety of Chilango (Mexico City residents) portraits, from the former mayor to mega-rich bus partiers to the collateral victims of the narcos. It’s a revealing book in the best way, both of Goldman himself and the endlessly fascinating Ciudad de México.
If Goldman’s descriptions of the tranquil Parque México, the ancient Aztec ruins in the center of the city, and the infamously eclectic Tepito neighborhood leave you itching for more, check out First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century by longtime ex-pat David Lida and Down and Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century by Mexican-American journalist Daniel Hernandez, both of which enticingly explore the history and contemporary life of a world city bursting with stories.
American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light: A Fiction of Memory by Iain Sinclair
Iain Sinclair, famous for his psychogeographic chronicles of his native city of London, takes his occult sleuthing skills across the pond to the U.S. Here, he follows the sometimes faint, sometimes documented, sometimes fictitious trails of famous mid-century American authors. From conveying the mystically melancholy atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest and matching it to Malcolm Lowry’s infamously up-in-flames shack in British Columbia to experiencing for himself the unexplainable, space-time-flexible nature of Lawrence, Kan., and the home of legendary Beat writer William S. Burroughs, American Smoke doesn’t exactly unfold like a normal road trip chronicle. But if you’re looking for a guidebook for America’s literary past as it remains today, and you’re curious what “psychogeography” might look like in prose, look no further. This is a wildly fun “travelogue.”
Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer
Fleeing from a bad situation at home, and looking to jump-start his nascent writing ambitions, Jeremy Mercer ends up broke and forlorn in a very lucky place: the famous Shakespeare & Co. bookstore in Paris, where he’s offered a place to sleep and work upstairs in exchange for some light bookselling duties.
Time Was Soft There is the story of Mercer’s time in Paris, his months living with fellow travelers, down-and-out writers, and legendary bookstore proprietor George Whitman, whose generous hospitality was only matched by his eccentric personality. While Mercer explores the delights of the Fifth Arrondissement -- where the store is located across the Seine from the Cathédrale Notre Dame -- his romantic ideals are gradually colored by the realities of impoverished living. But the romance of Paris and its literary residents never truly dims.
Paris also served as the muse of Ernest Hemingway, and his recollections of the cafés and restaurants and racing tracks of the city, some of which are still there, can be found in A Moveable Feast, which offers a glimpse into 20-something Hemingway as he embarks on his writing career.
Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli
translated from the Spanish by Christine MacSweeney
In this collection of essays, author Valeria Luiselli takes readers from the graveyards of Venice and the abandoned lots, or relingos, of Mexico City to the streets of Morningside Heights in New York City. The essays are brief ruminations, almost meditations, and the locales in which they take place quietly inform the atmospherics of her focus, which often concern the ungraspable ghosts of modern life.
33 Artists in 3 Acts by Sarah Thornton
33 Artists in 3 Acts isn’t necessarily a travel book. Thornton seeks to solidify what it means to be an artist, interviewing 33 of them in semi-casual conversations while informing the reader of relevant contexts, for those unfamiliar, for example, with Cindy Sherman’s bizarrely costumed portraits or Damien Hirst’s interest in placing and altering animal bodies in formaldehyde tanks.
But Thornton does travel across the globe, from Mexico City to Venice to New York and beyond, and while the locations aren’t the stars here, they do serve as an important backdrop to an incredible collection of artists with very diverse views on art. So in a way, reading about these astounding art pieces and hearing from the actual artists who made them feels like traveling.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Much of this list celebrates urban traveling, so Wild offers readers a decidedly different experience. With her heartbreaking divorce finalized, the devastating sudden loss of her mother still smarting, and her life in general disarray, Cheryl Strayed embarks on a solo mission to hike a portion of the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail and reclaim her life.
The mishaps are plentiful.
Sometimes they offer comic relief, and at other times they underscore the seriousness of both the environments she finds herself in and the issues she’s attempting to work through, like her unending grief for her mother and her long-buried feelings surrounding her abusive father. But the focus never strays too far from the trail, and her descriptions of the natural world she passes through as well as the sparse human contributions to that world offer a thoroughly evocative experience of the Pacific West and of humanity itself.