In a Different Place
As the weather finally begins to cool in D.C. and the rhythm of the school year finally settles in, it can be a great time to think back (or forward) about the summer. If I can't be on the road myself, reading books of journeys both real and imagined help me evoke those feelings of adventure once more.
Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
Simultaneously the prototypical American travelogue and almost universally believed to be largely fictionalized, I still turn to this book every couple years when I need to remind myself of an American dream I can believe in. Those are the two reasons why I have both a deep love and a deep frustration with this book, which is a retelling of Steinbeck's road trip across America in his camper-truck Rocinante with his poodle Charley. For me, no author captures the romance of travel like Steinbeck. I don't read Steinbeck for his dialogue; it's like the dialogue in an Aaron Sorkin drama in that real people don't really talk the way those two men write. I read this book for terse yet poetic prose that transforms an everyday interaction into a glowing testament to the goodness of America. I always find something to be inspired by in this book.
Carsick by John Waters
For a completely different take on the American road trip, there's Carsick by John Waters. In this book, the cult film director of Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, and Polyester details three journeys across the United States from Baltimore to San Francisco as a hitchhiker: two fictional journeys and an actual account of this trip. The fictional versions of these journeys, "The Best that Could Happen" and "The Worse that Could Happen" are exactly what one would expect from the self-proclaimed king of filth. They're gross, shocking and truly bizarre. However, Waters's generosity of spirit and creativity shines throughout the book. I devoured this book on a weekend trip. It's a true delight.
Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr
What do you do when you're working on a future Pulitzer Prize winning novel? This book answers that precise question, at least in the case of Anthony Doerr's development of All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr presents this book in a series of vignettes, glimpses into his life while living in Rome on a fellowship with his wife and infant twins. There's a lot of writing about being a confused American in a confusing foreign culture. I spent years studying Italian language and culture in graduate school -- important when you're studying opera conducting at a music conservatory -- and still was taken aback by the rhythms of Italian life when I took my first trip to the country. However, the beauty of Doerr's prose is what's on showcase in this book. Doerr describes a postcard-perfect picture of Rome that resonated so deeply with this Italophile.
Super Sushi Ramen Express by Michael Booth
No book has ever made me want to drop everything and leave for a foreign country like this book. A series of essays about different aspects of Japanese food culture, Michael Booth's Super Sushi Ramen Express gave me a new fascination and admiration for Japanese cooking. In short, travelling to Japan and eating everything jumped right to the top of my bucket list. Like Anthony Doerr, Michael Booth spent a year in Japan with his young family so there's a lot about feeling lost in a foreign culture. At the same time, this book is a truly satisfying exploration of the complexities of Japanese cooking, teaching me a lot about the philosophies and techniques of a Japanese kitchen that I had never considered. Don't let the title of the book scare you away; this is a thoughtful, respectful look into a revered food culture.
Midnight in Siberia by David Greene
David Greene, a familiar voice on NPR's Morning Edition, details his 6000 mile journey across Russia along the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok, a Russian port city on the Pacific in this fascinating book. With the political machinations of Russia figuring so prominently in American news over the past few years, it's hard to remember that a country is so much more than its political leaders. This book changed that idea of Russia for me. Greene describes this journey through the people he meets and the conversations he has. The book is a vivid reminder of the humanity of a country, as it sheds light on both its complicated relationship with democracy and its slowly healing wounds of communism.