As the days get shorter and the number of COVID cases rises, a lot of us are really tired of staying in our homes and walking the same neighborhood streets. Unfortunately, health experts agree that traveling is a really bad idea right now.
However, libraries offer a way to travel that’s undeniably safer and cheaper than any plane, train or car. You are where are your mind is, so books can take you anywhere. Below are some titles that can take you to far-off locations in the pre-pandemic world. Add one to your SPL Adult Winter Reading Challenge list!
Since the weather’s getting colder, why not head south? Specifically to Savannah, Georgia, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Your guide for this lengthy visit is writer and magazine editor John Berendt, who decided to leave New York for someplace warmer and less hectic. In his account of his Savannah years, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, you’ll meet characters such as Minerva, a civic-minded seer and witch who participates in local politics by throwing dirt from local graves at people’s windows, and Mandy, a local diva who’s learned to drive with her knees so she can do her nails in the car. But looming over all Savannah eccentrics is Jim Williams, a wealthy antiques dealer infamous for (among other things) his collection of Nazi memorabilia. But when Jim Williams is charged with murdering his boyfriend, Midnight becomes a much darker book—yet one that can still make you laugh. When you finish Midnight, you’ll probably be disturbed—and you’ll definitely have been entertained.
When Charley, the 12-year-old son of Booker Prize-winning novelist Peter Carey becomes fascinated by anime and manga, Carey is delighted that his usually sullen child is actually enthusiastic about something, and suggests they go on a trip to Japan. Wrong about Japan: A Father’s Journey with His Son, is a compulsively readable glance of Japanese history and culture: Peter and Charley visit the workshop of a master Japanese swordsmith, spend a day with executives at Sunrise Studios, one of Japan’s largest animation companies, and talk to a survivor of the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo. It’s also an amusing account of a middle-aged Westerner’s baffled efforts to understand Japan—to the mortification of his son, who bitterly resists his father’s every effort to make their trip educational.
Paris is a perennial favorite of American travelers, but this next book won’t take you to the normal tourist destinations. Muriel Barberry’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog takes the reader on a hyperlocal trip—specifically 7 rue de Grenelle, a luxury apartment in a fashionable arrondissement whose residents tend toward the self-important and gossipy. But the reader sees life at 7 rue de Grenelle not through their eyes but through those of Rénee, the 54 year-old concierge, and 12 year-old Paloma, the irreverent, whip-smart daughter of a senator. Rénee never had the privilege of a formal education, but she’s taken advantage of her quiet job and local libraries to educate herself: she loves Tolstoy, Japanese cinema, and Mahler, to name a few of her interests. But she always presents herself to the building’s residents as a simple working-class woman—while learning far more them than they could ever know about her. Paloma, who records her bitterly funny thoughts about life and her neighbors in her Journal of the Movement of the World, plans to celebrate her 13th birthday by setting fire to the building and killing herself. Do yourself a favor and read this witty, wise book: Rénee and Paloma are enjoyable company—and you’ll be in Paris.
And finally, we visit Moscow in 1913—the setting of Penelope Fitzgerald’s surprising comedy of manners The Beginning of Spring. English expatriate Frank Reid seems to have a settled, comfortable life running a printing company and going home every night to his wife and three children. But one night he comes home and his wife isn’t there. Neither is her luggage. She may have gone back to England, he thinks. But he doesn’t know. What he does know is that he has to find someone to take care of his children. One possibility after another turns about to be unfeasible until Frank meets a young provincial girl named Lisa Ivanova, who seems perfect for the job. But who is she really? Then a university student breaks into Frank’s printing company one night, supposedly to print a manifesto on universal pity. The characters in this novel are like Russian nesting dolls: they’re almost never who they seem to be. The Beginning of Spring was shortlisted for the 1988 Booker Prize.