Almost Like Being There

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Almost Like Being There

Fiction with a Strong Sense of Place

Maybe you’ve been itching to take a trip but don’t have the time or the funds; maybe you have a trip on the horizon but need a break from the day-to-day; or maybe you prefer the comfort of your own home or hometown, but love reading about far off places. Sometimes there’s nothing like fiction to paint such a clear picture of a place that it’s almost as good as traveling there yourself.

International Destinations
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn (Jamaica)
Three women - mother Delores and daughters Margot and Thandi - work toward their dreams, big and small, in the resort town of Montego Bay. When plans for a new hotel threaten their village, the various worlds of the community collide: poor, wealthy, white and black. This book depicts the lush tropical beaches as well as the shadows of life in Jamaica.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (North and South Korea, Japan)
A sprawling epic about four generations of an immigrant Korean family struggling who eventually migrate to Japan. A Korean fishing village in the early 1900s, busy markets in Osaka, Pachinko parlors, Nagasaki in World War II and more are interwoven into a saga of family dynamics, racism, power and more.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (India)
Yes, it’s nearly a thousand pages, but the pages go by in a blur as the narrator, Lin, a convict escaped from an Australian maximum-security prison, disappears into the underworld of 1980s Bombay. With Prabaker, a joyful young tour guide as his friend and companion, Lin winds up in prison (again), works for a drug kingpin, finds love, and befriends locals and other exiles alike. This is an India that few tourists or outsiders get to see but it’s depicted passionately and with love, as it is, in part, based on Gregory David Roberts’ own experience.

The Dry by Jane Harper (Australia)
Federal agent Aaron Falk is summoned home for the funerals of his best friend, Luke, who is believed to have shot his wife and his son, and then himself. Falk’s hometown is in decline, suffering the worst drought in a century, and in this dry, hot air, the town looks at Falk with suspicion as he and his father had fled town 20 years earlier after the death of a young woman. Small town Australia can be a dark place despite the blistering sun.   

Domestic Destinations
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Mississippi)

​Told from three different perspectives, this story of three generations of an African American family is set in a small town on the Gulf Coast. Thirteen-year old Jojo lives with his grandparents, drug-addict mother, Leonie and baby sister, Kayla. When Jojo’s white father is set to be released from prison, Leonie packs up Jojo and Kayla to pick him up. What follows is a harrowing journey across a sometimes stark, sometimes lush, but always muggy and sticky Mississippi, a place that feels deeply the racism and violence of both its present and its past.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (New Mexico)
Frenchman  and priest, Jean Marie Latour, is sent by the Catholic Church to serve as the Apostolic Bishop to New Mexico following the Mexican War. With his friend, vicar Joseph Vaillant, Latour finds himself in a land that is American in name only, since it is peopled by Mexicans and American Indians and it is their culture and customs that rule. The southwestern desert, with its stark landscape of hills, arroyos, and sage, is almost a character unto itself, shaping Latour's journey as much as he tries to shape the faith of the people he encounters.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich (North Dakota)
Like many of Erdrich’s books, The Round House is set in North Dakota. In 1988 on an Ojibwe reservation, Geraldine Coutts, a tribal enrollment specialist, is brutally attacked and raped. She is traumatized and refuses to identify the attacker, and her family is shattered in the aftermath. Fourteen-year old son Joe, with help from his father, Judge Bazil Coutts, and his friends, attempts to piece together what happened. With rich details about reservation life on the North Dakota plains, it manages to find moments of humor with a rich cast of characters.

Galactic Destinations
The Martian by Andy Weir (Mars)
Mark Watney is stranded on Mars after a bad storm forces the rest of his team to abandon the mission. Watney, left alone and with all communication cut off, is the mission engineer, and uses his skills, ingenuity, determination and humor to get through it. It’s squarely in the science fiction genre, set somewhere in the future which allows for a bit of flexibility with technology, of course. However, there are many details that give a realistic feel, and since most of us will never travel here, this might be the closest we can get.

My Brilliant Friend and the other Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante (Naples, Italy)
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (China)
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (Morocco)
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (Labrador and Newfoundland, Canada)
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (Alaska)